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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Foxholes

"There are no atheists in foxholes."

I used to hear that saying as I was growing up in World War II and Korean War days. I learned another version of the saying from reading the sociology of the military: soldiers in combat do not think about patriotism, or defending the flag, or defeating Communism. A soldier in combat focuses on comrades, the men or women sharing danger and the possibility of death.

I was meditating on my faith in God. When I do that, I feel the way those soldiers in combat are said to feel. I am not so sure about God. I am afraid that my thoughts about God come more from my own inner needs than from "reality." What I do know is that there are people around me who are focused on God at important moments in their lives: the birth of a child, committing oneself in marriage, facing death. And it is important to me to be with those people. It is important that my story be part of their story.

We people of faith are soldiers in foxholes. We are not sure about God, or about Jesus, or about the Holy Spirit. But we are with other people. Those people will stay involved with us no matter what. We are all part of the story of Jesus, and of God. Of course, some people in the story do evil things. But evil is part of the Christian story, even the story of Jesus. Evil can be redeemed.

My story is woven into the stories of Christian people down through the centuries, and Jewish people before them. Every story I read, in the Old Testament, or the New Testament, or in Christian history, is a spot-weld attaching me to the great story of Jesus Christ.

Writers like Sigmund Freud argue that being an adult requires you to admit that there is no meaningful story about human life. We are just thrown into a meaningless universe, the product of chance evolution. But that theory, that each of our stories is meaningless, does not draw us closer to other people. That story isolates people. Every human being ought to experience love, over and over again. 

Love is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement. Involvement requires someone besides myself.

Science says that we can never prove a statement true. We can only prove statements false. Scientists operate on faith. They accept theories--and a theory is jsut a story based on observations--which are only provisionally true. That truism about science suggests that it is not infantile to believe that every human being ought to be able to love.

Once you admit that everybody ought to experience love, the next question is, why?

Because God made us to love. That's the larger story.

I have been thinking about death lately. Being 82 years old does that to you. A few weeks ago I was preaching, and out of my mouth came a phrase, prepared for me by Allstate, that sums up my faith: "You're in good hands."

That's how I look at death. I don't know more than anyone else. But I know that when I die I will be in good hands.

I got that story from my people, Jews and Christians, and sometimes even from Muslims and people of other faiths.

We are not alone.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Galileo's troubles continue


Four hundred years ago, the Church condemned Galileo for insisting that the earth goes around the sun. That condemnation contributed to a gap between religion and science in the Christian world, and resulted in centuries of educated people disassociating themselves from the Catholic community. Then, in the 1980s, Pope Saint John Paul II reversed the condemnation, admitting that the Church was wrong to condemn the man.

We are in the process of repeating the seventeenth century mistake of the Church. The Church in our country, through the leadership of its bishops, is condemning the Galileos of our time. In the process we are escalating conflict in our society and reducing the possibilities for peaceful resolution of those conflicts.

This mistake is occurring in the areas of sexuality and reproduction.

Official Church doctrine, repeated by Popes John Paul II and Benedict, is that human life begins at the moment of conception. This doctrine then leads to official disapproval of almost all forms of contraception, and then to opposition to any agencies that promote those forms of contraception. The issue is off limits to discussion. And here is where the resemblance to the issue of Galileo is most powerful--the refusal to permit discussion.

On what grounds does the Church insist that human life begins at conception? The argument: it has always been held. But has it? One reputable article questions the assumption. The article was published in one of the foremost theological journals of this country, Theological Studies, back in 1990. The authors were Allan Wolter, OFM and Thomas A. Shannon, a former friar then teaching at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Wolter, a member of my Franciscan province, had been president of the American Catholic Philosophical Association back in the 1950s, and had spent his entire career relating scholastic works, especially the writings of the Franciscan John Duns Scotus, to present-day physics and cosmology. Shannon was a nationally-known ethicist. The article was titled "Reflections on the Moral Status of the Pre-embryo."

To delve into the question of "has the Church always held that human life begins at conception?" is to risk condemnation, which has economic consequences if one is working at a Catholic institution. Wolter was retired and Shannon was working at a secular institution.

The issue is made politically explosive by linking it to the issue of abortion. Abortion opponents too easily equate contraception with abortion and abortion with murder. The term "murder" is highly charged emotionally, which leads to intransigence in politics. The intransigency has driven pro-life politicians from the Democratic party, and led to the hardening of that party into adopting an anti-life platform.

What we need to do is to go back to the original issue: how can we talk about when human life begins, and all the associated questions, in a way that is amenable to scientific evidence? The Church now is operating in a science-less environment, which is why I liken the situation to that of Galileo.


How did we get here?

The official Church has arrived at this juncture because of three historical events. The first was the declaration by the First Vatican Council in 1870 that the Pope is infallible. The actual declaration could be interpreted as limited to only two instances: the declaration in 1854 that Mary was conceived immaculate, and the definition in 1950 that Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven. But infallibility has a tendency to creep into "anything that a pope has said."

Then there was the declaration by Pope Leo XIII in 1879 that the teaching of Thomas Aquinas is the official philosophical and theological basis for Catholic thought.

The third is the unfortunate effect of Sigmund Freud's antipathy to religion.

As a member of the Franciscan Order, I am supported by the refusal of my Franciscan mentors to accept Pope Leo's declaration as binding. We Franciscans have our own philosophical and theological tradition, going back to Scotus, and we see both Aquinas and Scotus as scholars seeking for truth within the limits of their time and intellectual environments. Neither man can be looked at as an infallible guide to how we should approach issues in our day.

One of my Franciscan colleagues used to say that every time Bishop Fulton Sheen went on TV he set psychiatry back five years. Bishop Sheen portrayed psychiatry, with its origins in the writings of Freud, as useless, because mentally distressed Catholics just needed to go to confession. The rejection of Freud has led to a suspicion of all social science, and thereby to the kind of attitudes that gave us Galileo.

An aside: Much of the disastrous reaction of our Church leaders to the abuse of children was based on their rejection of psychiatry and the belief of those leaders that abuse of children is a moral issue that could be healed by repentance. If pedophilia is a moral failing, a repentant abuser could be considered assignable to a different ministry site--transfer was considered an adequate punishment for a repentant priest or religious.

In defense of my Catholic social-science-denying fellow-believers, we are not alone. Much of secular society shares the same denial of social scientific evidence.

But an official denial of scientific evidence by an organization as powerful as the Catholic Church leads to a rejection by scientists of that organization. The refusal of Church authorities to discuss issues of sexuality is the cause of much of the loss of Catholic Church membership in the last decade or so. How could I prove that statement? I could prove it by social-science surveys, but my social-science-denying fellow believers will reject my use of social science methods. We are in the realm of anti-intellectualism not so different from that of our Muslim brothers and sisters.


Science and Peace-making

It has always been the hope of scientists that their work would contribute to the well-being of society, and especially to the resolution of conflicts. That hope has been frustrated by the reality that politics always trumps science. No matter what science says, if a politician finds a scientific finding politically damaging, the politician will find reasons to reject the science. Think global warming.

The abortion issue and its related conflicts are on the way to legitimating a new civil war, tearing apart our society. When we reject discussion based on science, we contribute to the likelihood that deadly conflict will occur.

The Church since Galileo has maintained the official position that religion and science are not in conflict. What the Church needs to do is to act on that position, and allow scientific evidence to shape the moral injunctions that flow from the findings of science, including social science. The Church needs to enter into moral discussions of reproductive issues with the attitude of genuine seeking of truth, not of claiming that official Church positions have been held by everyone from all time without evidence that such consensus actually existed.







Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Good Liturgy

One of the sad features of being poor in this country is that the poor are too often cut off from the "social capital" of relatives and friends who could serve to support them in many ways. Conversely, economically poor immigrant communities often do well because in spite of their lack of resources, the social capital of the community enables people to live decently and advance economically.

One example: child care. A single parent with nearby relatives and friends can get help caring for children when an unforeseen demand calls the parent away from the children. Since one feature of being poor is being at the mercy of impersonal bureaucracies which make unpredictable demands at inconvenient times, this is an important benefit, and can make the difference between a stable home for children and a chaotic and even dangerous environment for them. The chaos then contributes to future instability and psychological disabilities.

Once in a class I asked a student who had described herself as having been poor what it was like to be poor. She replied, "You move a lot." Moving a lot cuts social ties.

The economically poor are one of the most unchurched populations in our society. This is probably the result both of the "moving a lot" and of the social stigma of poverty that makes people reluctant to associate with judgmental religious people who they think will blame them for their poverty.

A church is a group of people who are involved with each other on the basis of religious beliefs and practices. If the church is based on the Christian Gospel, the involvement of the members will be loving--it will be characterized by passion, respect, vulnerability, and faithfulness. Such involvement models love for children as they grow up, which is probably why many new parents gravitate to churches when they are beginning to raise their own children. As they become involved in a faith community, they strengthen the social ties that provide them with social capital. The involvement has economic consequences.

But religious belief and moral custom need to be reinforced by physical realities. We are physical creatures, who enflesh our beliefs and customs in actions that are physically observable. In other words, we go to church, and we do things when we are in church.

What we do in church is greatly helped by a tradition that has people before us doing those things. When our parents have gone to church and sat and stood and knelt and sang and walked forward to receive Communion, it is easier for us to follow the same scripts. As we follow those scripts, hopefully we experience the same emotions that our parents experienced, and this shared experience cements our ties to the community.

But this cement has to be reinforced by social ties outside the church building. Here is where the U.S. Catholic community discovered that a parochial school can create social capital. The parents of children in a parochial school have to become involved with each other because they have to raise money to support the school. The bishops who mandated, back in 1884, that each parish should have a school, thought they were preserving their children from the Protestant culture of public schools, but what they did had the serendipitous result of making the entire parish community more involved with each other.

I don't want to minimize the down side of a strong religious culture. Too often parochial schools have served to amplify racial segregation and ethnic tensions. But all human institutions are sinful, and need redemption. We must always be critical of the institutions we create, and be open to correcting their deficiencies.

Liturgy

What we do in church can help or hinder loving involvement in a church community. What we do in church buildings we call "liturgy."

When I think of good liturgy, I think of a saying of a famous psychologist of an earlier generation, Erik Erikson. He was describing the behavior of a mother with her child, but his words fit a church community perfectly. What we do in church should be familiar enough not to be frightening, and innovative enough not to be boring. Liturgy should be familiar enough not to be frightening, and innovative enough not to be boring.

In a Catholic context, this means that liturgy should be based in authentic communal beliefs and customs--it should be familiar, but it should allow for modifications pleasing to the community--it should be innovative. If the community is African American, the community should find comfort in symbols that are familiar in that community. Thus parishes portray Jesus as Black, and feature the colors of Black liberation in their decorations. The music is based in Black cultural tradition--Gospel music as an example. A priest friend of mine pastoring in a Native American community described the "use of the drum" as a liturgical instrument because that instrument was important and traditional in his community. This same pastor demonstrated for us the burning of "sweet grass" as part of a parish ritual.

As I help out in parishes on weekends, I find some communities that are vital and thriving, the Masses filled with parents and children. Some of these parishes are pastored by priests from other countries such as India or Nigeria, but the communities continue to thrive. People in such churches strike me as comfortable in church. The church is not an alien place. It is home, their home. They own it.

One such parish had a pastor from India. A group of parishioners even visited his home in India with him. Church members in India made a set of vestments for use in his church here, complete with hangings for the altar and tabernacle pedestal.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The original original sin


Three threats to the future of our society seem more and more real to me.

          1. The proliferation of nuclear material around the world makes it more and more likely that at some point someone will use that material to destroy a city such as Washington, D.C., or some other essential nerve center of our society.

          2. The invention of “crispr,” a tool for genetically modifying almost anything, makes it more and more likely that someone will meddle with genetics enough to create an organism that will create a pandemic (an epidemic that would kill millions of people similar to the way the Black Death devastated Europe in the middle 1300s.). The most recent issue of Time magazine warns about the danger of a naturally occurring pandemic.

          3. Global warming is likely to create political instability in places where millions of people will lose their homes, so that more huge waves of refugees will overwhelm countries. Our country will not be immune to the effects of such disruptions.

When Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they were not committing a sin of disobedience. The story is about how humans have a drive to try new things, and that some new things can have bad consequences, such as driving people out of paradise. God was not testing Adam and Eve, God was preparing us for God’s entry into the human race as a human being, because God is a God of love, not a God of capricious testing.

Evolution is a violent process, with a timespan of billions of years. If we believe that a personal God is behind creation of the universe, we Christians also believe that the God of Creation is also a God of redemption, a God who brings life and love out of violence and disruption. Love is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement. God is involved with us passionately, respectfully, vulnerably, and faithfully. Love is stronger than death.

The history of Christian theology has been based too much on reading Scriptures as accounts of historical events. But Scripture is first of all literature, artistic statements of the experiences of its authors. I can accept that God inspired its authors without assuming that what they wrote was intended as historical description. As I read Augustine’s City of God, I am struck by how much he takes Scripture passages as literal descriptions of historical events. I have the same reaction when I read Thomas Aquinas or Duns Scotus, medieval theologians with the same assumption.

Philosophy in our day has moved toward analyzing language, the way human beings use that most amazing facility. As I have reflected in earlier statements on this blog, when Jesus says that if your eye causes you to sin, you should pluck it out, we take the statement as metaphorical. Why do we take literally the statement that the King in Matthew 25 condemns the goats on his left to eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels? I cannot reconcile the belief that God is a God of love with the belief that such a God would condemn a person to eternal punishment for a non-eternal action. “Hell” is a metaphor for Jesus’ telling us that love is serious business, and that the failure to love can have long-lasting consequences. How long-lasting? Jesus uses the word “eternal,” but why is that word not a metaphor?

The Christian (and Muslim) teaching about hell is one of the most serious obstacles to a wider acceptance of faith by people in our world.

The Christian teaching about original sin is a similar obstacle. It makes God seem capricious and punitive. We have a better God than that.

Terrible things may be in store for the human race as a result of the three developments that I described at the beginning of this essay. If such events occur, they will not be because Adam and Eve disobeyed a command of God. They will occur because God created humans to push limits, and knew that sometimes when they push limits, they get hurt, and sometimes the hurt extends down to those humans’ descendants. The story does not end there because God also became incarnate among us, and is with us even in catastrophe and death, and is always bringing new life out of the violence and destruction of creation.








Friday, April 28, 2017

The Benedict Option

April 15, 2017

A couple of days ago I happened to read an article in America magazine, the monthly magazine published by the Jesuits. The article was a review of a book by a man named Rod Dreher, with the title of The Benedict Option.

At first I thought the reference was to Pope Benedict, but it is not. The book is about the first Benedict, the St. Benedict who founded the Benedictine order back in the 400s. The America reviewer disagreed with many of the ideas in the book, but said that nevertheless it is a must-read. So I bought it for my Kindle.

The thesis of the book is that the Church and the world today have become so hostile to the message of Jesus that the only option is to create, as Benedict did, islands of faith and devotion apart from that world. The author is just about as hard on the “conservative” politics of our day as on the “liberal” side. Liberals have sold out to a secularist, pagan, sex-obsessed world view that is very similar to the world-view dominant in the late Roman Empire, the period when Benedict lived. But conservatives have sold out equally to an individualist, market-driven philosophy that is just as destructive of Christian life because it causes people to withdraw from Christian community into their own private, self-interested, worlds.

Only by withdrawing into an environment where Christians can live in community with one another can we survive.

I thought of those ideas as I was preparing homilies for Holy Week, and as I prayed the psalms of the Liturgy of the Hours for that week. And not just the psalms, but the antiphons before and after the psalms.

The antiphons are short, one-line excerpts from Scripture prayed before and after each psalm that put the psalm into the context of the liturgical year. For example, the antiphon for one of the evening prayer psalms for Holy Saturday reads: “Just as the Son of Man was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” I sing those words and once again recall both the story of Jonah and the story of Jesus.

It struck me that praying psalms surrounded by such a context, with antiphons that make special the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter, cause one to rethink the story of Jesus, over and over again. And that is what we need.

Because in order to be Christian, we have to live the story of Jesus and make it our story. Hearing and thinking about the story of Jesus year after year puts us again and again into that story, until we become natural inhabitants of the world of Jesus. And that makes us Christians.

I don’t think we have to withdraw from the world on order to do that. I live in a world where email and Facebook and text messages are present, but are under control. I am of an age where I don’t have to be present at every ceremonial event in town, or express an opinion on every topic that people are discussing. Of course, it helps that I am retired. But us retired folks can enrich our world as much as younger folks.

I would think that anyone can build a life around the Liturgy of the Hours, get more and more into the story of Jesus, and still live in a busy world, with enough discipline to keep life from destroying “the spirit of prayer and devotion,” the phrase that St. Francis used in his Rule.

It doesn’t have to be the Liturgy of the Hours. I have read that the Dominican rosary, with fifteen decades, was intended as a substitute for the 150 psalms. But my problem with the Dominican rosary is that its fifteen mysteries completely leave out the public life of Jesus. I fixed that by creating five “public mysteries.” I beat John Paul II’s “luminous mysteries” by a few years.

I have this feeling: I know who I am. We know who we are. We are people living the story of Jesus, and living all the stories that lead up to Jesus, such as the story of Abraham and David and Isaiah and Jeremiah. We are bathed in those stories. They are what make us Christian.

That’s what we need. I don’t agree with Mr. Dreher that we have to withdraw from the world. I don’t agree that same-sex marriage is a sign of the end of Christianity. Maybe it’s because Francis of Assisi rejected Benedict’s approach. Francis decided that his followers were to get out into the world and deal with it, not withdraw from it.




Sunday, April 23, 2017

On the value of Scripture

April 5, 2017

News these days is depressing. Just this morning the U.S. Attorney General is announcing that the Justice Department will no longer push city police departments regarding discrimination issues. Russia says that the chemical attack in Syria is the work of rebels, not of their Syrian ally. The Senate is about to take one step further into polarization and deadlock by requiring only a simple majority vote to confirm Mr. Gorsuch as a Supreme Court judge. The people with money are more and more successful in steering both legislatures and courts in their favor.

I have the feeling that I am swimming in a sea where moral sensitivity has given way to power as the all-determining factor.

I shouldn't be so shook up. Most of the human race is living under conditions similar to what I am complaining about. And it always has.

Which brings me back to the psalms, and to the Scriptures in general.

I grant that the writings of what we Christians call the Old and New Testaments are the products of human authors, writing under the constraints of their times and cultures. Yet my Church maintains that overall those writings are guided by God's Holy Spirit.

Suppose that more people would live in worlds shaped by those Scriptures. They would know the stories and they would pray the prayers that have come down to us. True, those stories and prayers can be interpreted in many ways, some of them very destructive. But my experience has been that the world shaped by the Scriptures is a gentle world, sensitive to the needs of others, and conducive to lives characterized by passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvements of people with each other--in other words, characterized by love.

The psalms in particular remind me that their origins were in a world where the powerful took advantage of the powerless, and where people routinely betrayed one another. In other words, they lived in a world where sin existed. We don't live in a world where sin exists. We make mistakes, but we never sin.

We live in a world where the god that is commonly worshipped is the god of Profit, Income, Investments. This god is relentless and heartless. It demands sacrifices similar to what the ancient Aztec people demanded when they had to sacrifice a certain number of prisoners every day to appease their gods. Our world's god creates poverty, explains it as a temporary deviation from a process that will never end, and turns away when lives are destroyed by poverty. That god deadens its people by electronics, the opium of the people.

The Christian scriptures and their Jewish antecedents show us a different God. Their God is probably more like the God that a devout Muslim worships than like the god of Profit, Income, and Investments. They call God Allah. I rather like that name. God can handle more than one name.

Some of our Christian neighbors give the Scriptures a bad reputation when they equate the Scriptures with God incarnate, and then proceed to dictate what those Scriptures require. But we Catholics are guilty of the same mistake when we make the Pope God incarnate. Papal infallibility is a pernicious doctrine. It has locked Catholic orthodoxy into political demands that are destructive, such as the opposition to contraception that keeps poorer nations from receiving aid. In our country it has contributed to the poisoning of our political discourse about the abortion issue. When we decide that people who don't agree with us are evil, our worst instincts are fired up and we go to war.

So we too are sinful, just like the people that have prayed the psalms down through the years. I wish more of us could live in the world that the Scriptures create for us.




Monday, April 3, 2017

In praise of messiness

This all started with my thinking about how and when God became incarnate--became a human being.

God did it in such a messy way. Why do it several million years after the human race evolved? Why do it in an out-of-the-way corner of the Roman Empire?

And then there is the healing. Why didn't Jesus get the job done? He cured people; why couldn't he have cured everybody once and for all?

I was reading a psalm. The translation is such a mess. Somewhere along the line somebody copied something wrong and now the words make no sense. Furthermore, we have the language problem. It is always messy when you translate one language into another. You had the original Hebrew words, then the Greek that seventy scholars translated 200 years before Christ, then the Latin that Jerome translated 400 years after Christ, then the King James translation that a bunch of Anglican scholars translated in the 1600s, and finally the exploding number of translations being made today, for all kinds of people and all kinds of purposes. Why couldn't God have gotten this straightened out so we could all read God's word clearly in our own languages?

Those are religious questions. Then we have the scientific discoveries.

We have learned that children growing up in too-perfect environments end up without the antibodies that could protect them from diseases and allergies. It seems better for us if we grow up in messiness.

We developed antibiotics to kill off the bugs that make us sick, and now we realize that there are trillions of bacteria inside our intestines that keep us healthy and even allow us to digest our food. When we soak our intestines with antibiotics, we get even sicker. We are so hell-bent on improving our world that we are destroying huge numbers of species, especially huge numbers of species of bacteria, without even knowing it.

In fact, when we are too successful at making our world look perfect and orderly according to our vision, we make things worse. For centuries the monks drained "swamps." Today we call those swamps "wetlands," because we have learned that they do important things for our environment. Seventy-five years ago engineers straightened out the Mississippi River near New Orleans so ships could go directly into the Gulf of Mexico. We realize now that the straightening contributed to the destruction of marshes and now Louisiana is losing thousands of acres of land every year to the Gulf.

Then there is death. Death is messy. It shouldn't be part of our plan. Yet it is.

The fact is, God comes to us in messiness. I always thought that our calling was to straighten out the evils of the world and make things better for everybody (the engineering impulse). Maybe I've missed the point that God comes to us right where we are. That doesn't mean that we should quit trying to help others. But it is the love behind our helping others that counts, not the improvement in others' lives. The improvement may or may not come; the love sticks.

The poor. Poverty is messy. Poor neighborhoods are ugly. God loves beauty. We should be turning ugliness into beauty, right? Right, but the messiness of poverty is where God is. God wants love in the midst of messiness. That's the main point.

In fact, it's the main point of the universe. All these billions of years of incredible smashing and burning and random evolution have allowed a tiny piece of the whole universe to be alive and to be able to love and therefore to be able to love its Creator in return. It doesn't seem very efficient. It's messy.

I look out my window and see all kinds of trees and bushes and weeds and birds and insects and cars driving on paved streets with potholes. We have planted the trees in some kind of order, and we "trim" them so they look nice to us, but we know that they have done fine in the woods for millions of years without us.

We live and die in the midst of messiness. God is with us in the midst of messiness. We love in the midst of messiness. God loves us in the midst of messiness. That's the story of God. That's our story.