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Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Thoughts on Afghanistan

     “There is no military solution to the problems of Afghanistan. Only a political solution will give good results.”

That is what I have been hearing for some time now.

What have our few remaining troops been doing in Afghanistan these past few months? We have been continuing to facilitate violence. We have been using all of our famed technological skill in helping Afghan soldiers kill and destroy the Taliban. Why should we continue to do this?

The Afghan military, trained and supported for these many years by our courageous military, just “melted away.” Were they cowards?

I don’t think so. I think they used the departure of U.S. forces as the occasion to make their own low-level political solutions to their country’s problems.

The Afghan government fighters probably joined their military for the same reasons that our young people join our military: it seemed like the most promising way for them to make their way forward in a world that did not offer them many other alternatives. They took orders from leaders who had only their own welfare in mind. The war was a place to make lots of money. Billions of dollars were sloshing around. Those leaders had every incentive to keep the war going. More billions would come. Once the U.S. pulled out, they could flee the country with their billions.

It is true that our presence in the country opened up opportunities for many people, especially women. Hopefully those gains will not be totally lost. But the gains were being propped up by fruitless violence.

If anyone outside the Taliban knows what is going on in Taliban circles, it has to be Afghan people. Are the Taliban a totally foreign invasion, spawned in Pakistan for Pakistani political purposes? Or are they partly Afghan citizens disillusioned with their government’s unwillingness to promote a truly political solution to the country’s problems? We can hope they are the latter.

If the Taliban turn out to be just another organization grounded in violence, the Afghan people face a grim future. But if the Taliban have some grounding in the Afghan population, the removal of U.S. support of violence might open the way for more nonviolence.

One policy mistake that the U.S. is likely to make is the same mistake that we have made for the last hundred-plus years in Haiti: make sure the country’s new government gets no outside support. If we do that, we will contribute to the creation of another failed state. Or we will create another Cuba. China and Russia will move in with support that is not likely to promote the kind of society we wish for everyone.

Surely one of these days we will learn that the technology of killing and destroying is not the cure-all that our STEM-focused culture finds so tempting. There is much profit to be made in inventing and producing new forms of violence. It takes just two things to keep the system going: a military-industrial complex geared to inventing and producing more clever ways to kill people or to defend our people against being killed by other people. This trend keeps going in spite of evidence that our technology can be frustrated by the simplest of technologies (e.g. improvised explosive devices). It also requires a public that accepts, without question, the principle that anything that threatens our country’s existence requires unlimited financial support. Anything in the budget is negotiable except defense.

And then there are our nuclear weapons. We are still spending billions to “upgrade” our nuclear weaponry, with the knowledge that coming generations will have to spend billions more to get rid of what we create. In the meantime, one error and humankind could be destroyed.

Monday, June 7, 2021

God as a mathematical construct


My fellow friars have taken to calling attention to my habit of providing definitions of things.

Two definitions of which I am particularly proud are my definitions of “love” and “value.”

The love definition I stole from John Joe Lakers, who used it hundreds of times in his writings (though he preferred the term “intimacy”): love is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement. Since I believe in the Marriage Encounter statement, “love is a decision,” which means that love is a behavior which you can choose or not choose, I have removed the term “passionate,” even though John Joe moved it from second to first place in his formulation. Passion is not under our control. Respect, vulnerability, and faithfulness are under our control. They are behaviors. But we don’t control emotion. Unless there is passion, you don’t have love—but you can’t manufacture passion on demand.

After decades of recalling my grad school teachers define a “value” as “a conception of the desirable,” I developed one that I like better: a value is a statement that one thing is better than its alternative. The word “statement” in that definition is empirically observable.

So recently I faced the issue of answering Pilate’s famous question, “what is truth?” Here is my answer: truth is the story as God would tell it. I could just as well have said “truth is the story as the gods would tell it.” In that statement, God (the gods) is functioning like a mathematical construct.

From high school geometry I recall a definition of a line as something that has no diameter, but extends into infinity. A plane has width and height but no depth. There are no such things in reality, but the concepts are useful.

You don’t have to believe in God to use God (the gods) as a construct in thinking about things.

We are learning, in these days of “fake news,” that the same event can generate conflicting stories. Was the January 6 event a mob action inspired by a U.S. president, or was it a mob action infiltrated by leftist agitators to make that U.S. president look bad? Who can tell?

The Congress has rejected forming a commission to try to get some consensus on the true story, but even if they had formed a commission, it would still have been possible to cling to the opposite of what the commission would conclude.

This is nothing new. What is a courtroom other than a way to try to determine which of two conflicting stories is true? And we know that just because a jury of twelve peers can be wrong, there is no human institution that can with metaphysical certainty state that one story is true and its opposite is not true. Only God (the gods) can do that, God (the gods) as a mathematical construct.

Truth is out there somewhere—the story of what actually happened is out there—but only God knows what it is. And yet it is worth pursuing, even unto death.


The Postmodern Critique

I listen, occasionally, to commentators like Rush Limbaugh or Mark Levine. I don’t listen to them enough to be sure I hear them accurately. But I hear them criticizing the academic world for destroying morality and truth itself.

It is true that university professors can gain popularity by making shocking statements. Messrs. Limbaugh and Levin are playing that game themselves. But condemning the entire profession because of the foolishness of some of its practitioners throws the baby out with the bathwater. I suspect that what Limbaugh and Levin see is some version of what academics have come to call “postmodernism.”

Postmodernism is the train of thought that began shortly after World War II with what sociologists call “Critical Theory,” led by German academics such as Herbert Marcuse and Theodore Adorno. I state their position this way: any time you hear someone claiming to speak the truth, watch out, because they are angling to get power over someone else.  

That could be heard as a statement that there is no such thing as truth, which is of course absurd. “All statements are false, including this one.” An alternative is to say, no one can know the truth because truth-speakers are always angling for power.

That is what John Joe used to label “a hollow voice of protest.” The post-modernists are protesting the misuse of truth-language, but they offer nothing beyond their protest. We can’t get along in this world without truth. We can’t do journalism without truth. Journalists are giving their lives for it. Dictators do everything in their power to control their stories and outlaw competing stories.

To say “truth is the story that God would tell” keeps alive the hope that some stories are closer to the truth than others, even though no story can capture it absolutely, just as no geometric plane in the real world is without depth.

Courtrooms and judges and juries are good enough to get by on while we try to live together, provided of course that they are not manipulated by one side. So are peer-reviewed scientific research papers and the thousands of journals that meta-analyze them.

All my life I have lived by a statement of John Duns Scotus, one of the great figures in the Franciscan intellectual tradition: “In the course of human history, the knowledge of truth always advances.”

Yes, I say. God knows that.


An aside on evangelization

I have been reading three of Pope Francis’s encyclicals: Evangelii Gaudium (2013), Laudato Si (2015), and Fratelli Tutti (2020). The first of these is a call to share our faith courageously.

It has always been difficult for me to initiate conversations about faith issues. The grandchildren in a family I have been close to for years reach college age, and I say nothing to these young people. What is wrong with me?

Recently I found myself very tentatively beginning a conversation—toe in the water—with one of them. “Is there a Newman Club on your campus?” Maybe, I hoped, that would  lead us to talk about more important things.

Then I asked myself, why not just ask “What does God want you to be doing?” We don’t have to share a particular orthodox definition of God. I’ll just let the term “God” function the way it does in my definition of truth.

Can’t wait to try it.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021


    “People need certitude.”

    Certitude is a mirage. Maybe it started with Descartes. He thought the only thing he could be certain about was that he was able to think. “I think, therefore I am.” But ever since, some people have gone off on the crusade to acquire certitude. Some of those people call themselves “scientists.” But there are other kinds too, who call themselves “religious people.”

    Science is based on observation. We use one of our five senses to observe something closely. What we look for are correlations.

    A correlation is a situation where when one thing happens, another thing tends to happen. We would like to say that when one thing happens, another thing always happens. When one thing happens and another thing always happens, we say that the first thing causes the second thing.

    But we can never say “always.” We can observe something 10,000 times, but the 10,001st time the correlation can fail. Because we can never say “always,” every scientific statement is a fiction, a story that we make up. The story is probably true but could be false. To claim that one thing causes another is creative writing.

    We keep on observing. We keep trying to find causes, even though we know we can never be sure our stories are true. We string together statements about causes and make the string into a theory, which is just a higher level fiction. We have to do this because otherwise all we have is a basket of correlations, and correlations without a theory are useless.

    Science is story-telling qualified by observation. Careful observation, like what we can do with a microscope, leads us to modify older stories we have told. They used to say that cholera was caused by bad air. When they could observe water with a microscope, the story changed: cholera is caused by microscopic bugs in the water. The effect of the changed story was miraculous—cholera disappeared. The miracle led people to look for certitude through science.

    Religious people look for certitude too. Some religious people look for certitude in a text, like the Bible or the Q’uran. Catholics look for it in Scripture and Tradition. Tradition is when the community always says something.

    How do we know that the community always says something? We don’t. The community may have said something 10,000 times, but the 10,001st time it may say something different. The history of Catholic doctrine is a history of the story changing as people observe things more closely.

    I was taught in my courses in theology that when an ecumenical council says something, we can be certain the saying is true. The First Vatican Council in 1870 said that when the Pope says something about “faith or morals,” we can know the statement is true.

    When the First Vatican Council made its declaration, there were people who thought the saying was a mistake, that the Council Fathers were trying to please an aging Pope Pius IX. Since Vatican I, popes have been locked into the statements of their predecessors. The locks have become increasingly strained. Pope Paul VI said in 1968 that the use of “artificial” means of birth control is immoral. He had appointed a group of people—all presumably faithful Catholics—to look into the question. The majority of the group did not think contraception is always immoral. But Paul VI apparently thought he did not dare go against what Pope Pius XI had said back in 1931, so he decreed that contraception is always immoral. Every pope since then has declined to say anything different, but the birth rate among Catholics in the United States has dropped dramatically since the 1950s.

    Conservative U.S. Catholics point to a correlation: when Catholics considered contraception immoral, the churches were full. Since they quit seeing it as immoral, the churches have emptied. The conservatives say that the cause of the decline in religious observance is the abandonment of the doctrine on contraception. The word “cause” is just as much a fiction here as it is in science. The conservatives are using a scientific argument to defend a religious statement.

    Catholics also look to “natural law” as a source of certitude. Scientists regard statements about “nature” as suspect. How do we know something is “natural”? Because people have always said it is? Because it seems self-evident? The authorities in Saudi Arabia apparently thought it was self-evident that women should not drive cars.

    Both science and religion operate on “faith,” which is to know things without being certain about them. That seems impossible—how can I know something without being certain about it? But we do it all the time.

    I know someone loves me. But I cannot be certain that the person really does love me. Yet without the “knowledge” that someone loves me, love is impossible. Love is based on faith.

    Science is based on faith. Scientists know that organisms have evolved from non-organic structures. But their knowledge could be wrong, because no scientific statement is invulnerable. The observation that falsifies the entire theory of evolution could be out there, waiting for someone to find it. What is more likely is that someone will frame the story in a new way, the way Einstein re-framed Newton’s story of how matter and energy operate.

    Both science and religion have people who know that we cannot have certitude. Such people acknowledge that even if they cannot have certitude, they believe that what they are doing can be good for people. They both operate with the assumption that faith can live side by side with questioning.

    For the last couple of hundred years, ever since people began applying scientific observation to the Bible, it has seemed that science corrodes faith. Seminaries turned out sceptics, who went about destroying religious faith and emptying the churches. The skeptical clergy made two mistakes: they thought that science can give us certitude, and they thought that religion should give us certitude. By making certitude a pre-requisite for the good life, they distorted science and destroyed religion.

    We are all human beings who live by the worlds that the people around us create. We live by the stories that our tribes believe. Scientists cannot work without a community of fellow scientists—we call them “peer reviewers,” and their very existence tells us that the truth of what we publish has to be verified by the community. Religious people cannot operate without a community of fellow religionists. Religion without community is magic.

    The fragility of knowledge does not lead to chaos. There is no way for coaches to develop foolproof ways to win games, yet we continue to play games. Games are rewarding. When they cease to be rewarding for players or fans, we modify the rules.

    The experience of “reward” in games is a good analogy for what Jesus called “life” when he said “I came that they might have life.” Games are rewarding when the players treat each other with respect—disrespect can get you thrown out of the game. They are rewarding when the players can lose—the players are vulnerable. When one side always wins, we change the rules. Games are rewarding when people continue to play even after they lose—they are faithful to the game and its players. Respect, vulnerability and faithfulness are the components of love.

    Games do not offer certitude. Science does not offer certitude. Religion does not offer certitude. Yet all three are worth doing. All three can help us love.

Friday, February 19, 2021

What we need in order to do religion


The most financially successful Catholic enterprise in the U.S. is EWTN, the Eternal Word Television Network, which has hundreds of radio stations, dozens of TV stations, the National Catholic Register, and who knows how many other media outlets. EWTN has money. The official U.S. Catholic hierarchy, the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), is below the poverty line compared to EWTN.

Some young priests are wearing cassocks and Roman collars. There are not many of them, but there are more of them than there are of young priests who live the kind of Catholicism that the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) proposed. Our local bishop of Springfield as much as admits that Vatican II was a mistake. He presides at Mass with his back to the people once a week. Bishop Paprocki is on the advisory board of the NAPA Institute, a conservative Catholic think tank.

Since 2016 here in Quincy we have an official Latin-Mass church, St. Rose. Every day Mass is offered in Latin, the old way, just like before Vatican II. The 2018 and 2019 diocesan October Counts, annual tabulations of people attending Mass throughout the Diocese on one Sunday in October, gave the following figures for church attendance at Quincy parishes (I omitted 2020 because the pandemic distorted the counts):

                                       2018            2019

Blessed Sacrament           517             554

St. Francis Solanus       1,341           1,617

St. Joseph                        110              102

St. Peter                         1,497           1,456

St. Rose                            184              169

The combined 2019 total count minus St. Rose was 3,729. St. Rose accounted for 4% of the Catholics attending Mass in October 2019. St. Rose has never had a count more than 190 since 2016 when the Latin parish began.

3,729 people in Quincy attended a post-Vatican II Mass on a typical October Sunday in 2019. Why? Why were they there? 

What people need in religion

We human beings need three things in order to do religion: we need to be involved with other humans, we need to be involved with God, and our involvement with God has to include involvement with other people. The third involvement is what we call “religion.”

Pope Francis has been producing “encyclical” letters every few years with one theme that keeps recurring: too many people are not involved with other people. Too many of us are hyper-individualistic—we are loners. Hand-held devices do not substitute for face-to-face involvement with other humans.

The Pope has also been emphasizing another theme: our shared involvement with God, our religious practice, should grow out of our own culture. Since there is a wide variety of cultures in the world, there should be a wide variety of ways to express our common involvement with God. 

 Involvement means spending time

I use the term “spending” deliberately. In white middle-class American culture, money plays a central role, and we spend money. We get into the habit of treating time like we treat money—we spend it. When we combine time frugality with our individualism, we end up not spending time involved with other people, and even less time being involved with God. We spend time with things: with information, with entertainment, with work.

 There is a psychological theory labeled “cognitive dissonance.” The theory says that when we sacrifice for something, we come to value it. The sacrifice comes before the value, not after it. We have to spend time with other people and with God or we will never value involvement with others or with God. The reason so many people do not take God seriously is because they do not spend time with God.

This is not a new problem. Why was so much Old Testament history a story of estrangement from God, with prophets challenging people to take God more seriously? Why did Jesus talk about seed falling on paths, rocky ground, and among thorns?

 I like to believe that God gets after most of us, and maybe even all of us, before we die, so that we snatch just a tiny bit of involvement with God on our way out of this life. But that is up to God, and we are human beings trying to develop a loving relationship with God in this life, over time, through years We are trying to do religion. That takes leadership. 


Leaders are people who motivate other people to do things. We need people who can lead us into the behaviors that will deepen our involvement with each other and with God. In Catholic middle class U.S. culture leadership lives in the parish. 

 The parish is a group of people, usually located in a shared geography, who are called together physically on a regular basis and motivated to do things that strengthen their involvement with God. One slogan describing what a parish leader does is a series of three phrases: “Gather the people, share the stories, break the bread.” 

You first have to gather the people. People are like sheep--they like to wander. You have to trick them, just like university professors have to trick students into experiencing new wonders such as art or literature. Food helps. It is no accident that the third phrase is “break the bread.” Even the tiny Eucharistic host satisfies. People like to get something physical. People who are not even Catholic line up to get ashes on Ash Wednesday.

 “Tell the stories.” We need stories, and we have stories, tons of them. The whole bible is full of them. It doesn’t take much—all you need is a bible and somebody to read it aloud. When a bunch of us share a story, we become a people. We share all the stories beginning with Adam and Eve, down through Abraham and Moses and David and Jesus and Paul and Augustine and Francis and Pope John XXIII and Pope Francis. And as we share these stories, our involvement with God grows, slowly, imperceptibly, like a fungus. 

The parish is where we Americans gather, hear the stories, and break the bread. The parish is not the only place where this can happen. I live in a Franciscan community that does the same thing. The Catholic Worker houses have their own style of doing the Catholic religion. Black Catholics in my country gather, listen, and break the bread a little differently from white Catholics.

 The parish is more than just a priest and a church building. The parishes in Quincy also involve some form of schooling. When the school is a physical building, just financing and running the school draws people into involvement. Parish picnics, celebrating feast days, creating weddings and funerals and baptisms all draw people into involvements. The buildings to be maintained, the parish staff—a typical parish in my world can have several employees besides the priest, or even employees without a priest—all these require time and money. Sharing time and money leads to involvement.

And all the while, as these processes go along, sometimes poorly, sometimes with great success, the gathering and the story-telling and the bread-breaking keep feeding the participants toward involvement with a loving God.

 The Church in the United States is suffering from some disabilities stemming from the wider Church’s inability to adapt to changing cultures. The primary disability is our U.S. Church’s inability to motivate its own young people to lead it. An increasing proportion of parish clergy in my country is from other countries—Nigeria, India, Poland. That is a fine thing for leading us to appreciate the oneness of the human family, but it is not helping us do religion in our own culture. This is not the place to discuss what might be done to remedy the situation. I will just say that Church leaders in Rome who hinder us from developing leadership from within our own culture are following the example of the Judaizers in the Acts of the Apostles. They think we need to follow the Old Law before we can be true to Jesus. 

Paul and Barnabas accepted conflict as the cost of freedom from the Law. Conflict simply means one party taking a stand and another party opposing the stand. We have learned that communication and negotiation can work through conflicts. Even in a conflict we practice respect, vulnerability, and faithfulness—we practice love.


Monday, February 8, 2021

Abba, Father

Father Bill Burton, one of our professional scripture scholars with a real gift for making scripture intelligible to people, used to get indignant: “’Abba’ does not mean ‘Daddy!’”

He didn’t say what it meant, but it clearly means someone Personal. And that is the crux of the issue.

The world can be divided into two classes of people: those who see the Source of All Being as personal, and those who don’t. The second class includes all those thoughtless folks around us who just don’t get around to thinking about God.

St. Paul says we cannot say “Abba, Father” unless we are helped by the Spirit. Being able to see God as Personal is not something that can be engineered by creative catechesis. Being able to see God as Personal is a gift, a gift of the Spirit.

This week the bishop of our diocese, Thomas John Paprocki, wrote in his diocesan magazine that the Second Vatican Council has destroyed the Church. He cites all the statistics: numbers of Catholics in church on Sunday, numbers of priests and nuns—all down, drastically. He has an engineering solution: go back to the way things were before Vatican II. He now presides at the Eucharist in his cathedral at least once every Sunday with his back to the people (“ad orientem”). Recently he forbade Eucharistic ministers, whether ordained or not, to bless children and non-Catholics at Communion. They are not even to touch the people, even after Covid is gone. There is only one blessing at Mass, and the priest is the one who gives it, and he gives it at the end of Mass and nowhere else. People who are not authorized to receive Communion should not even be in the Communion procession—they should stay in their pews. Mothers of small children raised so much objection to this that he backed down. They can bring their children with them, but the children are not to be blessed.

I am reminded of a joke I heard years ago. “What is the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.”

But Bishop Paprocki is not so different from the way most of us have thought about the Church. I too have crowed about how Catholics outstrip other groups in church attendance. We Catholics are the best in everything. We have the best athletes (Notre Dame of course), the best entertainers, and now even the president and six of the Supreme Court justices, though the president’s credentials are suspect to the Republican half of the faithful.

Into the mix is another recent episcopal decree: Confirmation is to be celebrated along with First Communion. Confirmation is not a rite of passage to Catholic adulthood, which is how much of our catechesis has presented it.

Religious ed teachers use Confirmation preparation as a valiant effort to get young people to see their faith in a more adult way. Every year classes of such young folks come to our friary to get an informal lecture on what a friary and its inhabitants look like. I admire the effort, but I wonder how much impact that has on the faith of these young faithful.

Because adult faith, which I think means seeing God as Personal, and as Personal in a way that really impacts one’s life, cannot be engineered. We need to admit that, and accept the fact that the majority of people baptized and growing up Catholic, even if they attend Catholic schools, are likely to be indifferent saints. In this view I am not so different from Pope Benedict when he observes that the Church is likely to be smaller, more like a faithful remnant in a hostile world, than a world religion calling the shots to secular politicians.  

We need to quit wringing our hands at numbers. What is important is when each individual, young or old, opens his or her heart to the Lord. That is going to happen at all kinds of moments in our life cycles, maybe at the birth of a child, maybe at the loss of a child, maybe only when we are in hospice. All we can do as religious grocery clerks is to keep the shelves stocked, the doors open, and someone at the checkout counter to speak in person when we are approached. And then ask the Lord to send the Spirit to help each of the people we meet to be able to say “Abba, Father.”

Monday, January 11, 2021

A Baptism homily

Let us think today, on this feast of the Baptism of Jesus, about water.

Water is life-giving. I am sitting here looking out at the bare winter trees south of this house. The sky is overcast. I know that the sun is up there behind these clouds, and I think of Reinhold Link.

Reinhold was a diocesan priest who joined us friars. He was a “naturalist”—the story was that he was the state naturalist for Illinois and helped to lay out the state parks back in the 1920s and 30s. I have a snapshot of him with a sparrow sitting on his finger. Somewhere I heard him quoted: “Autumn—the season of mists and fertility.” Whenever the day is gloomy I think of him and of those words.

“The season of mists and fertility.” Water means life.

But water can also be deadly. Water is powerful.  I think of Psalm 29:

The voice of the LORD is over the waters;

the God of glory thunders,

the LORD, over the mighty waters.

The voice of the LORD is power;

the voice of the LORD is splendor.

Victory Heights, the Province’s summer camp in northern Wisconsin, gave me a chance to work with boats first hand. When you tie a boat to the dock, you had better have a strong chain and a solid ring in the wood of the dock. The waves can pick a heavy boat up and jerk it around, back and forth, 24/7. And of course water can kill.

Head under water.

I don’t think I ever had my head under water until I tried to take swimming lessons at the Decatur YMCA when I was in sixth grade. The experience was traumatic for me. They told us to jump off the edge of the pool into about four feet of water. I did that, went under, and I must have tried to breathe under water, because when I came up I was so upset that I got out of the pool and left. I felt totally disgraced—I can still feel myself walking alone away from the other swimmers back to the dressing room. It didn’t help that they wouldn’t let us wear swimming trunks.

I suspect that John the Baptist’s ritual involved pushing the penitent’s head under water, and possibly even holding it there for a period of time. Now remember that Palestine was a pretty dry land—there would not have been a lot of swimming pools around. Most of John’s penitents had probably never experienced having their heads under water. So the experience would have been traumatic enough to dramatize the repentance that John was calling for. It really could have been a near-death experience.

When Paul wrote about baptism meaning that we die with Christ, he may have been thinking about that kind of head-under-water experience.

And then there was getting in line with all the other sinners.

In 1968 I was in grad school. I became convinced that the Vietnam war was unjustified. I kept thinking of Ezekiel’s warning to the watchman: If you are the watchman and see danger coming and you don’t warn the people, you will be guilty of the death of the people.

I sent my draft registration card to Lyndon Johnson and shortly thereafter I got a letter from the Decatur Illinois Selective Service office classifying me as 1-A delinquent and ordering me to report for a physical.

The physical was a little like my swimming pool experience, and once again it involved nakedness. All the recruits were lined up, naked. I got put with a couple of doctors, and we were allowed to keep our shorts on. My feeling was “What am I doing here?”

Did Jesus feel that way when he got in line with the sinners: “What am I doing here?” Did Jesus see himself as sinless? Surely he wasn’t faking sinfulness. He must have thought he could use some repentance.

So Jesus gets to the head of the line and gets dunked just like all the other penitents. When you come up out of water, you cannot feel dignified. Water is streaming down over your face, along with your hair. You have not only had a near-death experience, but you feel disgraced. And it is at that precise moment, the moment of maximum disgrace and discomfort, that the heavens open and the voice says “This is my  beloved Son.”

What does that say about God? What does that say about Jesus?

That says that God is getting down here in the mud with us, the mud that can kill and that is also necessary for life. God is mixing with the molecules of water and plants and animals and humans. God is involved with us, wants to be with us in the worst moments of our lives. And of course that involvement went much farther. This time it involved water. The next time it involved blood. Maybe that is what the letter of John was referring to when he said “there are three things, the Spirit, the water, and the blood.”

What more can we say? What did Jesus feel walking away from the baptism? Did he feel anything? Was the voice from heaven a literary creation of the Gospel writer?

Even if it was, I think the deeper truth remains. The Creator of all the living world around us, and the creator of the human world around us, is with us, even in the worst moments of our lives.

Friday, December 25, 2020

A Christmas homily

[This homily comes from “functionalist” sociology. Question: what are the functions of religion? What purposes do religions serve for people? Answer: Religions provide meaning and belonging.]

    Jesus saves. That is the meaning of his name. Savior. What does Jesus save us from?

    There are two evils that every human being faces, and from which every human being needs to be saved. The two evils are 1) lack of meaning, and 2) lack of belonging.

    We all need meaning in our lives. We need to perceive every event as meaningful. Meaning is the story that surrounds an event or object.

    I have a pen with a small rubber tip on the upper end of the pen. What is the meaning of that rubber tip? Answer: it is intended to be used as a stylus for typing letters and numbers into a cellphone. When I see the pen, I think of the story of how it is used.

    We all need to see our lives a part of a story that is shared by others. The birth of Jesus begins a story that all of us are invited to become a part of. Actually, the story did not begin with Jesus, but goes back all the way to Adam and Eve.

    I like to think of how I first learned the story of Jesus. I am sure my parents, and maybe especially my mother, told me some of the story of Jesus. But I really learned his story when we went to church together and heard the Gospels and sermons about the Gospels. Then I went to St. James School in Decatur for eight years and heard more and more of the story of Jesus.

    I became a participant in the story because I was part of a group of people who were involved with each other and especially with me. When those people shared the story of Jesus with me, I became involved with those people, and sharing the story told me who I was and where I belonged. So I had both meaning and belonging.

    I think of children growing up in today’s world who have no coherent life story given to them by others. Their story gives them no sense of direction for their lives.

    And along with that deprivation, many children suffer from a lack of belonging, a lack of involvement with some other person or persons that is life-giving. They do not experience involvement that is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, and faithful. Perhaps one parent has abandoned the family, and the other parent is so stressed out by work and other pressures that she does not have time to foster a life-giving involvement with her children. Or perhaps she does not know how to foster such an involvement.

    Pope Francis, in his encyclical letter Evangelii Gaudium, says that there are structures in the Church that promote involvement with other Christians and with God. The parish is an important one, one that should be strengthened.  

    Quincy University is one of those other structures that the Pope refers to. Just by continuing to call itself a Franciscan Catholic institution, it is a standing invitation for people to become part of the story of Jesus and the community that is centered in Jesus.

    One of the most important things about the story of Jesus is the way the story images God, or, to use less religious terms, reality. What is my place in the universe? Does anyone or anything care? The story of Jesus says that God cares, that each of us matters in the eyes of God, and that God even loves each of us. That is a powerful story.

    That story invites us to be involved with other human beings who are equally loved by God. If they are loved, they must be lovable, no matter what they look like right now.

    So I think this Christmas calls us to be marketers of meaning and belonging.


    Let me start this over.

    I sit in my room and look out the window. Even though at night I cannot see the stars, I know that science tells me about how many billions of stars there are in our galaxy, and how many billions of galaxies there are in the universe that we can observe. Then science tells me that this whole universe began 13.8 billion years ago from a mass millions of times smaller than  a pinhead, which exploded and continued to expand till now and is still expanding.

    And I say to myself: something or someone caused this. That seems obvious to anyone who takes science seriously. The next question is: what is that something or someone like?

    Somehow, on this tiny planet which has spun around the sun for the last several billion years, life emerged and eventually human life. With human life came love. This says to me that whatever or whoever started this universe must be loving. We call that someone God.

    The stories we have about how God dealt with us humans developed over several hundred years. Then came Jesus of Nazareth, whose birth we celebrate today. We Christians say that this person Jesus was God become human. That statement is the first statement in a story that has exploded out into human history the way the Big Bang exploded to become our universe. My story is part of the story of Jesus, and so is yours and the stories of all the people who have ever lived.

    We all feel pretty helpless in the face of things that are going on in the world these days. St. Francis tried to dramatize the helplessness of God by presenting the story of Jesus’ birth in an outdoor peasant setting. He was demonstrating how God works.

    So God is working in our world today, which is just as messy and primitive as the place in Greccio where Francis put on his demonstration. We humans are in the process of turning the world into the lifeless place that it once was, by destroying species after species, and making our environment less livable. Yet God built up the world once, and Jesus showed us how God’s love can change history. We hope that God’s love can change the future of our planet in coming years, even though we will not see how that will work out.

    What we are called to do is to help people see their life stories as part of the story of how God loves all of creation, and to see how that love calls us to belong to one another.

    Redemption for human beings is experiencing meaning and belonging.