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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Piggy-backing on God's memory

For about ten years, from 1955, when I entered our novitiate, to around 1965, when we quit using the Latin breviary, I prayed the psalms in Latin.

In those days we went through the entire psalter every week. If you multiply ten years by 52 weeks, you get 520 times I prayed through the entire psalter. For the first eight years or so of that time, we prayed them out loud, either chanting them (on the tone of "F") or reciting them together in community without chant. So the words of those psalms have become burned into my memory.

Enter the ICEL psalter.

The ICEL psalter (the acronym stands for "International Commission on English in the Liturgy") was first accepted by the U.S. bishops when it came out in the mid 1990s, and then, in one of the most foolish moves in the modern history of the Church, was banned for communal use by the same bishops because some bureaucrat in Rome decided that its language was part of a feminist revolution endangering the Church.

The ICEL translation removed sexist references in the text. Not only did it remove texts that spoke of "man" or "him," ("horizontal inclusivity"), but it removed them in reference to God ("vertical inclusivity"). These changes did indeed change the original wording of the text, but the ICEL version was meant for praying, not for study, and since half of the people (women) presumably use the psalms for prayer, and some of those women find sexist language offensive, texts meant for prayer should be changed to adapt to their sensitivities.

Of course not all women find such language offensive. However, many men, myself included, do find it offensive. I like to quote St. Paul, who was writing to early Christians who accused him of hypocrisy because he continued to observe Jewish dietary laws even though he argued that Christians were not bound to such laws. "If my eating pork causes my brother (or sister) to lose their faith in God, then I will never again eat pork" (even though I know that objectively my eating pork would not offend God). If my using sexist language causes some of my fellow Catholics to quit praying the psalms, then I will quit using sexist language. I think it is more important for people to be able to benefit from the riches of the psalms than for scholars to be comforted by my continuing to pray with a literal translation of the original text.

Example: Psalm 96, verses 1-3:

New American Bible translation (the official Catholic translation): "Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; announce his salvation day after day. Tell God's glory among the nations; among all peoples, God's marvelous deeds."

ICEL translation: "A new song for the Lord! Sing it and bless God's name, everyone, everywhere! Tell the whole world God's triumph day to day, God's glory, God's wonder."

The two "his's" in verse 2 are removed.

Over the last three or four years I have been engaged in a massive project. (I keep asking myself if this is a massive waste of time.) First I began using the ICEL psalter for my private morning and evening prayer. But the way we use new "breviary," now called the "Liturgy of the Hours," we do not use all the psalms. We pray morning and evening prayer, but there are psalms assigned for midday and night prayer, and for the "office of readings," and we never pray them. I made the decision to pray those psalms too. That meant getting the text of those psalms into some readable form.

Over the course of two or three years I ended up typing the text of the entire ICEL psalter into my computer. Then I arranged the psalms into the Liturgy of the Hours, and added the antiphons for each season of the liturgical year. This was beginning to use a lot of paper, but then came the Kindle. I uploaded my version into the Kindle, where length causes no problems.

The satisfied me for a couple of years, but then I began to reflect on the Latin version of the psalms.

Bottom line: I uploaded the Latin text from a website and copied it into my ICEL version, so that I can reflect on the Latin words as I pray the English ones. (It helps that I have been teaching Latin for the last few years.)

I keep imagining how many men and women down through the centuries have used these Latin words. Monks and nuns in the middle ages used them. Men who lived in the ruins of monasteries that I saw in Ireland used them. Those words. Those very same words.

Then I began to think of God's part in all this.

I believe that God stores every act we do in God's memory, and will return that memory to each of us when we get to the resurrection. (Aside: I got to this conclusion by reflecting on the phrase in the Apostle's Creed: "I believe in the resurrection of the body.") So God is remembering each time those monks and nuns prayed these words. That really makes me feel close to those people ("the communion of saints"). It makes it easier for me to feel close to my friends and relatives who have died. Most of them did not pray the psalms much, but most of them prayed, and much of our prayer in general is based on the psalms.

So every time I pray one of these psalms, I am piggy-backing on God's memory. I am joining all the people who have prayed them before me, and all the men and women praying them in the world today, right now, as I pray. Orthodox monks and nuns in Russia, refugees in camps in Syria--we are all praying these words in one language or another. God is recording all these prayers. We are really one in the Lord when we do that.

And I am joining my own present to my own past, knitting my life into a whole that I hope is giving glory to God.

So, as I go about uploading more of the psalms into my Kindle (the project is only about half done), I keep asking myself if I am using my time foolishly. Maybe I am, but the actual work of doing this seems to draw me closer to God and to the communion of saints. And I enjoy doing it.

I'm 79 years old, and I'm entitled to some enjoyment, right?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Praying with the Big Bang

Knee replacement surgery plus some other commitments in June have kept me off line for months. 

They tell us that the ancients, people before we knew about the solar system, thought of the earth as surrounded by spheres. The first sphere contained the clouds, with the rain behind it. Then came a sphere with the sun and moon, and beyond that was a sphere with the stars. God was outside all of the spheres, but still not terribly far away. After all, we could see the last sphere, and God was just on the other side of that.

If I am going to relate in a personal way to God, I have to have some kind of image of God and of where God is. The sphere system gives me such an image. For centuries it made it easy for people to pray to God.

Medieval theologians, and probably Greek philosophers before them, believed that God is a spirit, so God has no visible features, but that didn't bother believers. Believers know that God is spiritual; they just need a crutch to lean on when they want to pray.

Now we have the Big Bang.

The term "Big Bang" is a label for a scientific theory of how our universe began. I cannot stress enough that this theory is accepted by the vast majority of scientists who work with astronomy and physics. Here is how the theory goes.

About 13 billion years ago, our entire universe was compressed into a space the size of a pinhead. The pinhead exploded, and its parts kept expanding outward. Eventually the parts coalesced into stars and galaxies, and into solar systems like our own, including our earth. The expansion is still going on, so that the universe looks something like an expanding balloon. All its parts are getting farther and farther apart, and farther and farther from the place where it all started.

Now visualize this: our earth is pretty big, so big that it was centuries before human beings realized how big it is. The solar system where our earth exists is much bigger. Our sun is 93 million miles from the earth. But our sun is only one among about 300 billion suns in our galaxy.

Our galaxy is a disk-shaped collection of stars circling around each other (all the while still racing away from the center of the universe). 300 billion suns is a lot of suns.

But that is not all of it. Scientists say that there are several hundred billion galaxies out there, just like our own galaxy. Try to imagine how much "stuff" is included in several hundred billion galaxies, all of it coming from a pinhead.

Scientists really believe that. They really do.

I used to have trouble believing that God could be personally involved with each of the seven billion people in the world today. I believe that God is behind the pinhead. If the universe comes from a pinhead--and remember, science really believes that--believing that God is involved individually with seven billion human beings is a piece of cake.

So I have a new picture of the universe. It is that big balloon, constantly expanding. God is just on the other side of that balloon, just like God was on the other side of the spheres that the ancients believed in.

Now I can start to apply some of the things that the Bible, sacred Scripture, tells us about God. We Christians believe that God is triune, "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." We believe this because of things that Jesus did and said. Theologians speculate that God is triune because God is love, and love is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, involvement of one person with another. So God is an infinite involvement of love.

Then, say the theologians, that kind of love cannot just stay within itself. It has to explode outside itself. The fifth-century philosopher called "Pseudo-Dionesius" claimed that "goodness pours itself out" (in Latin, bonum est diffusivum sui). Medieval theologians applied this idea to God. God created because God just had to share God's internal involvement with someone outside God's self. So God created human beings.

Paul's letter to the Colossians says that Christ was before all that is. John's Gospel says that anything that came to be came to be because of the Word.

This is a Franciscan line of thought. It is different from the more common line of thought that says that God became human in Jesus Christ because Adam sinned, and only a divine savior could remedy that sin. That line of thought, which I think was emphasized by Martin Luther, and since him by most Protestant theologians, makes sin central to the story of human history.

The Luther theory seems to me to make the Father something of an ogre. If Jesus Christ does not save us, the Father will condemn us to hell. Jesus becomes, in a way, more important than the Father or the Holy Spirit.

There are passages in Scripture that can be used to back up that theory, but I prefer the Franciscan theory, because it makes God's love the most important thing, and makes Jesus the first-born of all creation because Jesus is the climax of God's love for human beings.

In the Franciscan theory, the entire Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit, is involved with me. God created me, God shares my humanity, and God's Spirit bathes me and the world in love. This is a God I can believe in.

So now I have a God who is infinitely involved internally in love, and who is infinitely involved outside God's self in creation, including me, and who is involved with me as Father, as Word, and as Holy Spirit. I'm in pretty good shape with all of that.

I can mess up. Sin exists, and I am sinful. Even hell exists, though I think some Christian spiritualities make hell far too central to their understanding of God. That is the topic of another essay I wrote several years ago, which I will attach to this piece.

Back to my praying

For years I have been suspicious of spiritualities that make God so personal that all mystery seems to disappear. I know how easy it is for us to "project" our beliefs into our vision of reality. For that reason I have fallen back on prayers that have been around for thousands of years, the psalms. I don't trust my own words. I will piggy-back on someone else's words. Centuries of people have piggy-backed on the psalms. I think of all the thousands of monks, for example, who prayed them daily down through the Middle Ages.

The psalms have their problems. Some of them are beyond understanding--they have been so corrupted in transmission down through the centuries that we no longer can be sure of what they mean. But the overall tone of the psalms is what captivates me. Even though some of the psalms are vengeful, the more dominant tone is one of gentleness and trust in a loving God (think of the beloved Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd . . ."). Jesus prayed these psalms. I believe that the psalms helped to shape Jesus's human understanding of God.

So I pray the psalms, all 150 of them in the course of four weeks. As I pray I think of that expanding universe, with the mysterious, triune God just beyond it, personally involved in my life. I look at the beauty around me--trees, birds, infants, parents, young people, old people--and remember that all of this came from that pinhead. It was a loving God who guided evolution to produce such beauty. There is such a massive wealth of beauty (look at any issue of National Geographic) that I cannot but think that beauty is the most important product of God's creation. So God must be beautiful. (Think of St. Augustine's prayer: "O beauty, ever old and ever new . . .")

God wants us to be beautiful and to create beauty around us. Even sin and death can become beautiful when they are surrounded with love. That is the story of Jesus's death, and resurrection.

Science doesn't threaten my belief in God. It makes it far richer. It makes it far easier to pray.

On Hell

When I think of hell, I think of three famous literary descriptions of it. The first is Dante’s Inferno. The second is the sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” by the famous New England Congregationalist, Jonathan Edwards. The third is James Joyce’s description of an Irish Catholic retreatmaster’s sermon in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

What is my description?

The first problem I face in trying to describe hell in my own way is the mismatch between the image of God preached by Jesus and the idea of unending torture inflicted on his creatures by that same God. My problem is not new. Already in the 200’s the theologian Origen had suggested that God ultimately redeems everyone. The Church rejected his suggestion. A watered-down version of the same idea is one that I have held for many years: “I have to believe in the existence of hell, but I don’t have to believe that there is anyone actually present in it.” Is my solution too easy?


“Eternal fire.”

These two words are metaphors for hell. Jesus himself used them in his description of the last judgment in Matthew 25. I want to examine them one by one.


Many writers, including Dante, see the term “fire” as a metaphor for other kinds of punishment. Part of Dante’s hell is a frozen wasteland.

But what about Jesus’ use of the term? Doesn’t he use the term “fire”?

Yes, he does. But Jesus often used metaphors in his preaching. He told his followers that if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. I know of only one person in Christian history who took that statement literally. St. Anthony of Padua is supposed to have restored the foot of a man who cut off his own foot because he had kicked his father. Instead of praising the man, Church tradition praises Anthony for reversing the action.

However, once the Church had made peace with using judgment and power as legitimate ways to further Jesus’ kingdom, fire became a useful metaphor for social control. Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, who burned heretics and witches, no doubt justified their behavior by saying that such punishment is trivial compared to the fires of hell. The fire metaphor has served to justify many practices that we today consider inhuman.

We no longer burn heretics. Most thoughtful Christians today probably see fire as a metaphor for “a really bad experience,” and quit trying to spell out the details.

But we have more trouble with the other metaphor, “eternal.” I can see how some people deserve really bad punishment for the evils they have done. But eternal punishment? The punishment is disproportionate.

The term “eternal” immediately suggests the human experience of time. Some theologians reject the relevance of that experience for life after death. They describe heaven as a sort of an instantaneous “now,” with no relationship to time. There is something to be said for this. But I have two problems with the explanation.

The first problem is that, when I hear the word “eternal,” my human way of thinking seems naturally to go to my experience of time. The second is our belief in the resurrection of the body. For me, “body” means “physical,” and “physical” means “time.”

I recognize that Einstein shook up our human conceptions of time. Perhaps an Einsteinian theologian could come up with an eternal “now” that would be compatible with what we understand as physical. But the solution seems far-fetched. We humans know what we experience as time, and it is not compatible with an instantaneous “now.”

Why could we not see the term “eternal” as metaphorical in the same way that we see the term “fire” as metaphorical? Maybe what Jesus means was just “a really long time,” just as he meant “a really bad experience” when he used the term “fire.”

I would like to think that the resurrection of the body means that heaven, and hell, will continue our experience of time. More specifically, heaven and hell will continue the most significant aspects of our experience, our interaction and involvement with others and with God. If love is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, and faithful involvement, the experience of such involvement will be the essence of heaven.

But what about hell? Theologians agree that hell will be the absence of love. Presumably a man or woman whose life here on earth was characterized by an absence of love will continue that experience in eternity.

I like to think that purgatory will be my having to face each person I have harmed, and work through the painful process of reconciliation with that person. My lack of love in this life will be healed by the fire of a reconciling involvement in eternity.

I have wondered if God’s redeeming love is so powerful that there is no person who will not be able to experience that kind of healing. But suppose that the lack of loving involvement will continue indefinitely. Suppose that hell means that I will continue to reject all attempts by others and by God to involve me in love. Here is where the mystery of our experience of eternity joins up with the mystery of our experience of freedom.

Surely heaven will not mean the end of my experience of freedom. I will continue to love freely. But if I can continue to love freely, perhaps I can continue to reject love freely.

Our Christian belief in hell seems to imply the possibility that I could go on indefinitely in a free rejection of love, on and on and on in a self-perpetuating cycle from which I will never escape. As the theologians say, it is not God who puts me into this state. I do it to myself, freely.

Will it never end?

Our faith forbids us to answer that question. We are like Job, addressed by God after all his friends have tried to explain his suffering rationally. “Be still. I am God. That is all you need to know.”

Scary thinking. Jesus may have been using metaphor when he spoke of “fire” and “eternal.” But he did not take away the mystery that surrounds our existence as creatures who experience time, freedom, and love.


Thursday, May 8, 2014

Credibility and Incredibility

"Credibility" is a fancy word for "believable." We can accept certain statements as believable, and others as "incredible," not believable.

Religion has always had a problem with credibility. Some of the statements that religious groups make seem incredible to people who are used to working with scientific evidence. How could the dead rise again?

A few weeks ago I heard a discussion on National Public Radio. It dealt with a recent discovery by some scientists working, if I recall correctly, at the South Pole. They claim to have found traces of an event that occurred one trillionth of one trillionth of one trillionth of a second after the Big Bang.

The Big Bang, of course, is the theory, now widely accepted, that our entire universe was at one time compressed into a space the size of an atom. That means that not only the earth I live on, but the entire solar system, and the 300 or so billion suns in our galaxy, and the thousand or so galaxies in our universe was in that space.

Of course, no scientific theory is provable, because scientists are always revising earlier theories in the light of new observations. Maybe there are better theories about how our universe started, but for the time being, the Big Bang seems to be the accepted theory.

Now, if you can accept the idea that all these galaxies, including our own, were in that tiny space, you should be able to accept almost anything. At the very least, you have to admit that some stories about what goes on in our environment seem incredible at first glance, but may have credibility anyway.

Here are some more scientific statements that seem incredible. My body in inhabited by trillions of bacteria, and each bacterium has a genome more complicated than the human genome. We used to think that all bacteria are harmful to our health, but now we are beginning to theorize that there are many kinds of good bacteria, and if we kill off the good bacteria, we cause problems.

I think back to the days of the "watchmaker God." God made the world like we make a watch. God made it, wound it up, and stepped aside and let it go from there. We understood how watches work--there are moving parts that we can see, and we theorized that our universe is just like that.

Now we know that the watch is not a good metaphor for the universe, and not even for such a small part of the universe as a human body. We are more like a zoo, with all kinds of living things on us and in us that contribute to our life.

What am I?

They used to say that the human body is made up of about $0.95 worth of chemicals. Our chemicals may be worth more than that today, but nobody will deny that our bodies are made up of atoms and molecules that are constantly coming and going--constantly entering and leaving our bodies. As a result, maybe 95% of my body today is made up of atoms and molecules that were not in my body a year ago. If I go back several years, the percentage gets higher.

If I am made up of atoms and molecules that are always coming and going, what am I?

I am the history of the comings and goings of those atoms and molecules, and of what those elements did while they were part of me. In other words, I am the history of me. I am a story.

Yesterday my pack of molecules went to the store and bought some grocery items (molecules that will soon be part of me). While I was there I met and greeted a friend. That friend and I have a shared story. All of us humans have a shared story. We are living together in the 21st century, and we are interacting, loving, hating, helping and hurting one another.

For that matter, every rock on the earth has a story. A geologist digs into the earth and finds a type of rock. The story of that rock is that its molecules were on the bottom of an ocean several hundred million years ago.

But the story of human beings is infinitely more complex than the story of the rock. We human beings are, we think, unique in that we are the only beings able to create and share stories.

Who gets to tell my story?

Am I am the only person authorized to tell my story? It is possible that I am unable to see certain aspects of my story, and that other people could do a better job than I in telling my story. (We say people often do not know themselves.) In a way, every person who interacts with me can tell my story. Of course, if our interaction is limited to 30 seconds at the grocery counter, the other person's story will be very limited. My own parents could tell my story in a much more developed way. But their version of my story ends with their deaths. After I die, other people will continue to tell my story, but I will not be around to correct them if they tell my story in a way that I think is not authorized.

Does God tell my story?

Here we are in the realm of incredibility. Is it possible that God can tell the story of each of us in a way that is even more accurate than the story that we tell about ourselves? Why not? Isn't that what we think God can do? Is it any harder to believe in a God who can do that than it is to believe in the Big Bang?

"In the beginning was the Word." When the Big Bang first occurred, God alone could tell stories. It took billions of years before creatures could evolve to the point that they could tell their own stories. And then, we Christians believe, God became one of us, Word made flesh. God merged God's own story with the story of each human being.

Jesus, we say, is God's story. If we want to know the story of God, look at Jesus. What is Jesus's story? It is the story of love. God is love, says the First Letter of John. What does that mean?

I use a rather mundane definition of love (mundane in the sense of being observable). Love is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement. God is passionately, respectfully, vulnerably, and faithfully involved with the human race and with each of its members. The reason that God created (the reason for the Big Bang) is that God, who is love, wanted to share that love. God wanted to love and be loved. When God became human in Jesus, God modeled the kind of life that God wanted each of us to live. God wanted our stories to be like the story of Jesus, to be part of the story of Jesus.

When Jesus tells my story, he tells it in the most loving way possible. He tells it in a way more loving than I do myself. He knows every element of my story, the things that molded me and the things that warped me and wounded me. I am often tempted to tell my story in a despairing way. Jesus does not tell my story that way. Jesus, God, wants each story to evolve into a story of loving involvement. I say "evolve." Each of us is evolving just like the whole universe evolved. There was a lot of crushing and burning in the universe's evolution, and there is a lot of crushing and burning in my own evolution. But the end result of my life should be a full sharing in the life of Jesus, and of God.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Stories and Facts

[I wrote this over a month ago, but decided that it is worth putting onto the blog.]

The First Sunday of Lent, Cycle A, contains two very significant stories in Christian life. The first reading describes Eve and Adam’s eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the basis for the doctrine of original sin. The Gospel describes Jesus’ temptations. These two stories led to my reflections on the nature of stories and metaphors in Christian life.

Most people take stories as descriptions of actual physical events. It is only in recent decades that we have become more aware of how symbols and metaphors function in human understanding. In some ways there is no statement that cannot be described as based on symbol and metaphor.

Take, for example, our description of the ultimate particles that make up the atoms of our universe. Scientists describe these “particles” as either waves or packets. The very term “particles” is metaphorical. It makes us imagine something like a bread crumb or a grain of sand. A “wave” makes us think of bodies of water whose surfaces are moved by the wind. A “packet” suggests a self-enclosed object, something that you would put into the mail.

In fact, scientists cannot reconcile the fact that this elementary particle sometimes behaves like a wave and sometimes like a packet, so they use both metaphors. They cannot avoid using metaphors to speak about what they are studying. Every scientific description is based on metaphors, and every scientific explanation is a story, a “fictional” description of what we think is happening. 

Example: “Cholera” is a disease that used to devastate cities (for example, Memphis in 1878). It reappears in conditions where sanitation is not provided, as in refugee camps. What causes the disease of cholera?

Scientists will talk about a “microbe,” which is a tiny living organism. All of those words, “tiny,” “living,” and “organism” are metaphors, based on experiences from our everyday lives.

Then scientists tell a story. The microbes live in mosquitoes. When a mosquito bites a person, the microbe is transferred to the blood stream of the person, and the result is cholera.

This is a fictional construction, a story. The actual event is far more complex. The microbe can be described in far greater detail, nowadays down to the level of its genetic composition. So can human blood be described in far greater detail, and how microbes “behave” in human blood.

Back to Adam and Eve

The Church accepts the theory (story) that the authors of the books of Scripture were human beings who were writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They were not providing scientific descriptions of events, or perhaps more accurately, they were not providing descriptions any more detailed than the everyday “scientific” theories of their time.

The traditional story developed from that original story is enshrined in later Scripture, for example, in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Adam and Eve “sinned” (a metaphor). They “disobeyed” God (another metaphor). This use of metaphor results in a story where God is like a human parent who gives orders to a child. When the child “disobeys,” the parent punishes the child. “Satan” tempted Eve.

Here is another way to read the story. God (the term is metaphorical, so metaphorical that Jewish custom forbade even pronouncing the Name) created humans and knew that they would be tempted to push the boundaries of any situation. The “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” is a metaphor for human thinking and theorizing.

Applying this to our present human condition, I use two examples.

Nuclear fission. We have learned that by “splitting” the atom we can release immense amounts of energy. That knowledge (of good and evil) can free us from the problem of providing energy, or it can destroy our world.

Genetic engineering. We have learned that we can manipulate the genetic “code” that underlies all living cells. That knowledge of good and evil can provide cures for terrible diseases as well as genetic disaster for the whole human race.

God knew when God created us that we would not be able to resist pushing the boundaries. What happens when we push the boundaries?

We get hurt. Adam and Eve got hurt. They had to leave paradise (a metaphor). The inventor of dynamite thought that he was providing something that would end wars. The exact opposite happened.

God did not “punish” Adam and Eve. God created unfinished creatures, who would push the boundaries, get hurt, and have the possibility of living more fully as a result.

Admittedly this interpretation of the story is not compatible with Paul’s interpretation of it in Romans. But we can live with competing stories, just as scientists live with the competing stories about particles as waves and as packets. We can read the Adam and Eve story the way Paul read it, or we can read it as I just re-told it. My way of re-telling it seems more compatible with the kind of God that Jesus described as “the Father,” a God passionately “in love” with each human being.

Aside: the Adam and Eve story makes no mention of “Satan” or “the devil.” It is the “serpent” who tempts them. It is only later writers, like Paul, who identify the serpent with Satan.

Our problem is that, down through the ages, we humans have been too ready to translate our stories into descriptions of actual physical facts, “scientific” facts. We have not appreciated how stories function in  human behavior. I am struck, reading a medieval philosopher like Duns Scotus, how he accepted “angels” as beings every bit as real as the ground we walk on, and made what are in effect scientific statements about the world based on that acceptance.

Second Example: Jesus’ Temptations

The Gospel tells how Jesus was tempted by the “devil.”

I read this story as a description, by an author writing thirty or more years after Jesus’ death, of what his spiritual experience might have been like. I seriously doubt that Jesus actually described the three temptations to his followers as they are presented in Matthew and Luke. Matthew or Luke used “the devil” in somewhat the same way as Satan is presented in the book of Job. In that book, Satan seems to be free to hold conversation with God, almost as an equal. The devil in the Gospels is a more sinister character, but he plays the same role.

Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread, to jump off the temple “parapet,” and to rule the world. There are various ways to interpret these stories. I like the interpretation given by John Shea.

Stones into bread. The devil is saying, “You are the Son of God. You shouldn’t be hungry. Go ahead, fix this situation.” (Application: none of us should experience hunger or other suffering if we are really God’s children.) Jesus’ reply: “I am hungry and I am still God’s Son.” Which means, we can experience hunger and other suffering and know that we are still loved.

Jump off the temple parapet. The devil is saying, “You can wow the crowds by dramatic performances. Go ahead, jump off that parapet and people will flock to you as a wonder-worker.” Jesus replies that he does not need either dramatic performances or the worship of crowds. His calling is to live among ordinary human beings, as an ordinary human being (“like us in all things but sin”). He will not overpower the crowds by performances, but will end up sharing the suffering and death that ordinary human beings suffer. He will thereby show how much God really loves us and is with us.

High mountain and ruler of the world. Here is obviously a metaphor. There is no high mountain from which anyone could see “all the kingdoms of the earth.” This is a temptation to power, the temptation to do good by using threats of punishment (which is what all good governments have to do). Jesus says, “No, I do not need power to do what I am called to do. I will approach people as one who is as powerless as they, so powerless that I will experience execution as a criminal.”


Much of the abandonment of religion in our times is due to the way that religious people have used traditional metaphors as descriptions of actual scientific “facts.” (I cannot resist calling attention to the word “fact.” Its origin is the Latin word “facere,” from which we get the word “fiction.”) A “fact” is really a “fiction.” It is a metaphor for something that we regard as unchangeable. But we know that no scientific theory is unchangeable. They thought that Newton had the last word on physics until Einstein came along.

This manner of reading Scripture goes back more recently to the theorists who call themselves “postmodern.” But sociologists had reached similar conclusions years before the postmodern literary theorists jumped on them. In the 1960s Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann wrote a book titled The Social Construction of Reality. The title says it all. “Reality” is a fiction created as we tell stories about our experiences.

The conflict between religion and science is largely based on a too literal religious reading of texts. Both religion and science rely on metaphor and story. They are just two different ways of describing human experience.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Vision for the Nation

A Vision for the Nation

What vision are students at most colleges, including Catholic colleges, receiving these days?


The goal of a college education is to equip the student to make money.

Students will graduate, get a job, marry, and raise children. The children will go to college, and the parents will help finance their children’s education. The parents will get old and they will need money to live well in their retirement years.

There was a time when young people went to college because they wanted to expand their minds for the benefit of the community. They would become scholars or teachers or healers. It is much harder to do that now. College has become so expensive that students are forced to concentrate on money. A student who majors in liberal arts looks forward to a low-income future. True, the liberal arts equip some people for outstanding careers. But students majoring in them cannot count on being in that group.

It is not surprising that colleges and universities should be drifting in search of a credible mission. We as a nation have lost sight of any vision of where the nation should be going. In the absence of such a vision, we cannot blame students for deciding that making money is the way to live their lives. What else is there?

Past Visions

Back in the 1800s the nation believed in “manifest destiny.” The U.S. was destined to lead the world in democracy, technology, and overall quality of life. This vision inspired our subjugating of native peoples and our enthusiastic embrace of the industrial revolution.

Woodrow Wilson gave the nation a vision for World War I: make the world safe for democracy.

The “Greatest Generation,” the generation whose young men fought World War II, had a vision: get rid of Adolph Hitler and his Japanese counterpart.

Millions of young men came home from World War II and found a country freed from the Depression, ready for the Good Life.  They had a vision: make a home and raise a family. The “Baby Boomers,” their children, did not have the same experience of hardship and suffering as the background for a vision. In Vietnam they saw the World War II vision (“get rid of the bad guys”) crash and burn. Then during the 70s and 80s they saw the middle class dream of home and family slowly weaken as the nation became more and more unequal and more and more families dissolved in divorce.

The generations that have come after the Boomers, those born in the 70s and 80s, need a vision too. Even more than the Boomers, they face constantly greater inequality and increasing marital breakdown. Iraq and Afghanistan gave the nation a temporary glimpse of the old “make the world safe for democracy” vision, but, like the Vietnam generation, they have seen that vision fail.

What vision will children born after 2000 live for? What vision inspires their predecessors, the huge population of Boomers?

If the television commercials I watch are any evidence, the vision of seniors today is to be able to go fishing with your grandchild.  It is to live fantasies about things you could never do before because you were too busy making money. Since old age increases health problems, your focus has to include health. In order to go fishing with your grandchild, you must deal with arthritis, diabetes, and COPD.

Not an inspiring vision, especially if you do not care for fishing and you do not have grandchildren.

A Vision of Love

Here is a vision that I propose. It is based on one kind of Christian tradition, a Franciscan tradition. The vision I propose is this: the behavior of every person and every group (e.g. corporation) in our society, will be based on love.

This statement seems trite and self-evident. Haven’t we been doing that all along? Jesus said “love one another as I have loved you,” and we all claim to follow Jesus.

Our problem is that we have not had a working definition of love. “Love” can mean everything from chocolates to sex. Here is my working definition: love is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement of one person with another. We will treat every person in the world with passionate respect, vulnerability, and faithfulness.

We will replace the great symbol of our present vision, the dollar sign, with the great symbol of love, a heart.

Some examples.

I start a business. My business is successful, and forty or fifty men and women are making a living working for me. I grow older and decide I do not want to manage my business any longer. I sell my business to a larger business, which closes my business and moves its operations somewhere else, leaving most of my employees high and dry.

This, we say, is progress. This is pain that we endure for the sake of a greater good down the line. But how are we treating those forty or fifty people? Are we treating them with passionate respect, vulnerability, and faithfulness? No. We do not respect the lives they have built in a specific place, with specific people. We say, if they want to work let them move to where there is work. Or we close our eyes and say that they will find other work. “Small businesses,” we say, “will create new jobs.” What good is it for small businesses to create new jobs when the small business gets swallowed up by the large business as soon as the small business becomes successful?

The 2010 Supreme Court decision, “Citizens United,” declared that a corporation is a real person, and has a right to expression just like an ordinary human being. Therefore we cannot limit what the corporation does with its money, because the first amendment protects the right of “persons” to free speech. Fine. If every corporation is a person, then every corporation should treat people with passionate respect, vulnerability, and faithfulness, not only its employees but its customers and its suppliers and those who supply its suppliers.

But, you say, a corporation cannot do that and stay in business. What that statement really means is that a business cannot treat people with respect and vulnerability and faithfulness and still make obscene profits. Executives and board members use profits as chips in fun games against their peers. This is worship of the dollar sign. It is idolatry. If you don’t worship the dollar, you blaspheme. The penalty for blasphemy is death. 

No, I say. The corporation must examine the effects of its policies on every person affected by those policies. It cannot, for example, go into Nicaragua, force thousands of people off the land that they have lived on for centuries, and use the land to raise cattle for fast food restaurants. It would have to take into account the well-being of each one of those people.

But that would slow down progress.

Yes it would. It would also slow down the damage to our environment, damage which threatens to make every business, large and small, extinct. We are creating the hell that is the punishment for idolatry.

Suppose that more of those small businesses could continue to operate as small businesses and not be swallowed up. Keeping things on a small scale will change the rules of the game, so people will have to be creative. How can we do fast food without hurting people? There is a question worth researching. But in order to take the question seriously we will need people who put love before money.

That is a bottom-up tactic. No actions of business or government will give us a vision. We will have to build a new society within the shell of the old.

We will resolve to treat every human being we deal with, both individually and as directors of corporations, with passionate respect, vulnerability, and faithfulness. We will work to make love the central value in our society. We will move as slowly as such a policy requires. We will not kill ourselves trying to invent the next thing that will save us from the problems that the last invention causes. We will test the effects of our inventions before we replicate the inventions on a massive scale. We will use our ingenuity to create, but our creations will be on a smaller scale, focused on the well-being of real human beings.

It is logically impossible for everyone in the world to continue to produce more and more with less and less for ever and ever--the standard definition of “productivity.” That model is a runaway train heading for the cliff of environmental disaster.

We will have a vision that does not presume unending economic growth, but that focuses on health and well-being from day to day, not just for ourselves, but for everyone in the world. The Boomers will lead us, because they are being forced to get out of the older game, and the dollar sign no longer has as much meaning for them. They need something else to live for. Here is what they will live for: love of every human being that God sends into their lives.

Sometimes when you act out of love, you lose, or get hurt, maybe even die. Christians call this “the paschal mystery.” The paschal mystery says that God will not let us lose in the long run. In the long run, if we live out of love, the God who loved us into existence will love us back into existence if we lose our life. That, we say, is what the story of Jesus teaches.

You don’t have to be Christian to live the paschal mystery. There are plenty of examples of people all over the world who are not Christian but are giving their lives for others. Being Christian gives us a powerful story to make our sacrifices meaningful.

Can we sell this vision? Can we make it the mission of at least some of our colleges and universities? Catholic universities? Franciscan universities?