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Sunday, July 3, 2022

Abortion is tearing our country apart

 

Abortion is tearing our country apart.

Few people see abortion as a positive good. That includes many of the women who choose to have an abortion. Yet our politics have forced us into two camps. Both sides of the issue are to blame.

Those of us who are Catholic Democrats do not see abortion as a good thing. The issue is not whether abortion is wrong, but whether it is a good thing for the state to make it illegal.  It is possible to argue that some behaviors are evil but that getting the state to punish them creates more problems than we wish to accept.

There are countries that make prostitution legal. There are countries that make use of any kind of drug legal. There are excellent arguments on both sides of those issues, but countries have made the decision that the lesser evil is on the side of permissiveness.

Our own country experimented with making alcohol use illegal. Few people saw alcohol addiction as good, but eventually the country decided that the lesser evil was to permit alcohol use. We have gradually developed ways of dealing with alcoholism better than making alcohol use illegal.

There are better ways of dealing with problem pregnancies than making abortion illegal. We can support women, and men, who find themselves pregnant. We can support them socially and financially. Many  groups such as Birthright have been doing heroic work in support of such people. But when a problem is so massive that private initiative cannot effectively deal with it, we use government support, no matter what it costs. We do that with floods and fires and hurricanes, and now with Ukraine. We need to do it with our own people who are pregnant. Whether the pregnancy is their own fault or not is not the issue. They and their unborn children are ours, and we take care of our own.

We are not heartless people who care only for fetuses but not about women after their children are born. We are not heartless people who see fetuses as a form of maternal disease. We are people who have gotten ourselves into polarized camps by leaders who are too willing to fight rather than to talk. We need to talk, and talk some more, and recognize that our opponents are human just like us, moral people just like us, and not as cocksure about their rightness as our leaders are trying to make us believe.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Lattices

 

Lattices

    A lattice is a structure around which climbing plants can grow. The image suggests an inanimate thing, the lattice, providing a means for a living thing, a plant, to flourish.

    Churches are lattices.

    A church provides a structure within which people can experience God. The life is in the people and their experience, not in the structure.

    Take the Catholic Church. It provides places where people can gather, and gathering is essential for experiencing God. It provides a script for behavior when the people gather (liturgy). It provides resources that can enrich the experience (Scripture and theology). It structures experience around life events: baptism, Eucharist, burial.

    Within the structure, all kinds of different experiences occur. Some people experience God through mysticism, some through concrete acts of service to others, some through a regular routine of prayer. Many withdraw from the lattice but continue to find God through faint memories of the stories of God.

    People who have never had the experience of the structure never benefit from what the structure can provide. They are like athletes who grow up without coaching, and whose abilities may or may not ever fully develop, or like musicians who have not had people around them who will nurture their musical abilities. Some such people will overcome their disabilities and develop a relationship with God in their own way. Many, perhaps most, will not.

    That is the cause for regret on the part of us religious people. We are like people who love music and regret that some people never get to experience the goodness of musical experience.

    The regret is the motive for what we call evangelization. We do not evangelize for the sake of numbers—statistics about church membership and ritual attendance are misleading. We who manage the structures are managing wood and nails, not living things. God is moving in our structures, we hope, and sharing abundant life. Our role is to let plants grow.

    We of the structure are human beings, which means that we are sinful. We develop pathologies of structuring. We fall in love with controlling other people, or with pride in creating beautiful buildings and objects. We love creating rules, because rules are one way for us to gain power over other people. Rule breakers get ruled out of conversations. We get into fights with other religious people, sometimes even to the point of using violence. This is especially true when we merge our lattices with political lattices, whose function is to keep us at peace with one another. Church and state merge, and the structures smother life instead of promoting it.

    For some reason we church people got the idea that we have to control the world in order for people to come to God. No. We just have to provide the lattice and get out of the way.

 

A poem

 

Weeds

 

have sympathy for weeds

            flowers out of place

true, not so pretty

            don’t look like flowers

            have to look close

but persistent

            even in sidewalks

 

God works that way

            life out of place

often not so pretty

            have to look close

we church people are sidewalks

            weeds are life



Monday, February 14, 2022

Our Stories

Notice I titled this “OUR” stories.

MY story is important. It is who I am. But OUR story is also important.

The problem is that our society, and most “modern” societies are so individualistic that people no longer have stories that give them a sense of belonging. People grow up being told that they can do and be anything they like, without reference to other people. They are not given stories that locate them in a larger context.

Two events are grounding this reflection of mine. One is the blockade created by truckers on the Canadian border of the U.S. There is fear that the idea will be picked up and replicated all over the country. Truckers are the ideal carriers of such a vision. They occupy a special place in popular imagination. They pilot huge rigs, symbols of American power, and they are loners, on the road alone day after day—the American dream.

But if they have no group story that can locate them, that can give them a sense of belonging, something like this protest will provide that. It is a cause beyond themselves. The Canadian truckers are crusading against an oppressive Canadian government forcing people to accept vaccination. They now have a story, a cause. Finally, life has meaning.

The other event grounding my reflection is a book I have just begun to read. It is by two Mennonite people struggling with the stories of their peoples. The story of one of them begins in Ukraine, when the Russian government, in the early days of the Communist revolution, forced their Mennonite ancestors to flee the country. They “settled” in western Canada. The word “settle” is important in their narrative, because their settling displaced other peoples who occupied the land before them. Their story is a combination of personal history and place—Ukraine and Canada—and the “songs” that have given meaning to the journey of all the peoples. Their book is a plea for taking seriously physical places, the physical surroundings from which one has grown, as well as the stories of other peoples who occupied those same physical spaces.

Places are important. Much of the energy behind Trumpism is resentment against an economy that destroys the places that give people roots. Rural America is being hollowed out, and with it, the family stories that tell people who they are. People left behind see Donald Trump as leading a protest against the system.

The authors of the book use three tag-terms to keep all this together: “landlines,” the physical places that have grounded their stories and the stories of their ancestors; “bloodlines,” the physical and cultural histories of their peoples; and “songlines,” which they describe as “liberative traditions that inspire practices of justice and compassion.”

What intrigues me about this book, which I have just begun to read, is its grounding in the experience of indigeneous peoples. The recent “Amazon Synod” which Pope Francis convened, made us think about the importance of people all over the world who have been thrown away as useless relics of the past, including the indigenous peoples of the Amazon rain forest. But those peoples have not gone away.

The book is Healing Haunted Histories: A Settler Discipleship of Decolonization, by Elaine Enns and Ched Myers. I got it on Kindle.

Back to the truckers.

Too many of our fellow Americans are spiritual truckers, driving all over the landscape without a story to tell them who they are.

This morning I was praying Psalm 105. The psalm is the story of a people who began with an enslaved person, Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, and continued through Moses, who led the people from Egyptian slavery into freedom in the promised land, where they, sadly from our Christian perspective, benefitted from appropriating the places and properties of the people who were living in those places before. The story of the conquest of the chosen land by the chosen people is a story of genocide.

But it is our story. Our own American story is a story of genocide, and our American forebears carried it out with the same ideological fervor that must have inspired the biblical actors, or at least the bibical authors who told their story. “God willed it” they would have said, and even if they did not have God in mind, as most of them probably did not, the term “God” functioned just as successfully for them as for any pious believer. Our truckers probably also would say “God wills our action,” even if they do not have God in mind.

In this context, it is useful to think about the term “God,” and to reflect on the merits of having a more disciplined story about God than the wild and unbridled gods that inspire truckers and so many others in our country, such as predatory investors who crush local cultures all over the country. Surely those investors too will say that the gods want them to do it.

We as a people need to take seriously the physical places where we live and have lived, and the stories of the people who have made us who we are. Then we need “songs” that will inspire us to create greater justice in the midst of the chaos that we have created.

Not a new situation. That is why generations of our ancestors kept telling the stories to their children. We need to take up that custom again. Our people wander in a wilderness of loneliness and hunger for meaning.

Our churches are a place that should be telling these stories. Evidently our churches have gotten away from doing that. The stories are not being communicated. No wonder church membership numbers are down. We are not reminding our people who we are.


Monday, November 15, 2021

Catching up

         It has been a while since I have posted anything on this blog. People may wonder if I have died.

But I haven’t.

I now view my last entry, on Afghanistan, as another example of my tendency to be over-optimistic. The Taliban seem to be just as backward-looking as they were thirty years ago, and just as unwilling to re-assess their view of history. Surely all the Afghanistan women who are now educated will make a dent in their behavior, but I always under-estimate the power of violence to restrain efforts to change things.

The main reason for my delay in posting, though, is that two other projects have intruded on my time. One is my desire to wrap up my history of my Franciscan province. The other is my becoming a member of a small writing group. The other members are professional English teachers. They do poetry, and poetry has not been my favorite form of writing. But I have been trying it.

Here is my last contribution to our weekly meetings. Editorial notes: The piece is a take-off from Francis Thompson’s poem, “The Hound of Heaven.” “Eleanor” is Eleanor Roosevelt.

 

The Pursuit

 Francis Thompson,

old Catholic hero

God as bloodhound

striking metaphor—

caused Eleanor to say

“best dog story ever”

 

my experience:

I’m the hound

chasing God

always just out of reach

sneak here,

          just missed

leap there,

          too late

  

psalms?

          thousands of years

          millions of users

years of

          chant, recite

words, words, words

God in there somewhere?

                    think so

                    never sure

 

maybe someday

          pursuit will pay

till then

          best I can do.

  

JZ

2021-11-09

 


 

 

 

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

Certitude

    “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.