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Tuesday, December 15, 2015


The Church has lost control. The churches have lost control.

I grew up with the idea that it was the job of the Church to control people so they would not get hurt. The worst hurt, of course, was hell.

We of the Roman Catholic Church have lost control. We cannot keep our young people from straying off into what used to be forbidden pastures. Or from straying off into no pastures at all. The so-called "mainline" Protestant denominations are in the same situation. Some "evangelical" churches are growing, but their spirituality is not for me.

Why not for me?

The most fundamental thing we should be doing in religion is coaching people about God. Coaching ourselves and, as God calls us, other people.

I have thought a lot about coaching, ever since I reflected that I never had good coaching in the field of athletics. I didn't have it in several other areas of life either, but the term "coach" gets used mostly about athletic sports.

Now that I've seen good coaching, I have learned that coaching skill requires the coach to approach the "coachee" with empathy and encouragement. The coach's job is not to weed out the inferior players. It is to help the inferior players to get better, at least better enough to enjoy the game.

Now the first thing about God is that God is pretty mysterious, so mysterious that no human being has a lock on how to deal with God. At least, no human being besides Jesus Christ. I mention him because I am a Christian, and I believe that Jesus gave us our best approaches to God.

But there are people who do not see Jesus the way I do. Yet I believe they are trying to live out what they think is their best approach to God. Can I learn from them?

We Catholics are in a tradition that sees bishops and priests, and especially the pope, as being in control of how people should approach God. There was a time in my youth (the 1950s, for example) that it looked as though we were doing a pretty good job of it. Then we lost control.

Losing control was the best thing that ever happened to us.

It takes some boldness to suggest that almost two thousand years of Christian tradition were somewhat off track, but that is what I think has happened. Somewhere in those early centuries of Church tradition--some people blame Augustine--we took control of things. That has caused us all kinds of trouble.

The first troubles had to do with Church people trying to tell secular leaders what to do. That peaked somewhere around the year 1300, but then we gave up on it, mostly because we had no choice. The secular leaders quit paying attention to our orders.

The Second Vatican Council, whose ending 50 years ago we are celebrating these days, put the Church on record as saying that the Church does not have to control how people approach God. Having said that, they gave away the store.

Which was good, because we should not have had the store in the first place.

This line of thought came to me as I was reading someone describing Catholic religion in Latin America. Latin or "Hispanic" Catholics do not approach God quite the same way I do. My first reaction is to figure out a way to get them to do it right--my way. I must present my beliefs in such an attractive way that they will see the light.

Then I reflected. I am, at least for the time being, at peace with my ways of approaching God. I have two approaches. One is to sit in my rocking chair, look out the window, and pray a psalm aloud. As I do that I reflect on why people used the words in the psalm to approach God. I end every psalm with the prayer that begins "Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit," which makes me remember the basic belief of my Christianity. My second way to approach God is to listen to the prophets God sends into my life, beginning with one very close friend.

Now I know that to try to get other people to pray psalms is a doomed enterprise. For one thing, I was once forced to endure six years of Latin and four years of Greek, which allows me to pray the psalms in Latin and Greek. There is no way that most people are going to endure that kind of language preparation before they can deal with God in their own way. My way is my way.

We can all use my second way of approaching God: listen to the prophets God sends us. But your prophets are not my prophets.

Therefore I need to appreciate your ways more. What I need to do is to learn from you how you approach God, really, every day, in good times and in bad. What do you do, physically? How do you use language, if you use language? Do you use music, or dance? Do you bow down toward Mecca with your face on the ground? How does praying the Qur'an help you approach God?

The first requirement for me to begin such a conversation with you is to get rid of any hope, or expectation, or dream, or long-term goal, of controlling how you approach God. I'm listening to you to learn, pure and simple.

Pope Francis has used two images that stick with me. One is that the Church is a field hospital for people wounded in battle. Field hospitals do not control much--they try to do good in the immediate present and let the long-term outcome up to someone else. The other image is that we shepherds should smell like our sheep. Both images, field hospital and smelling like sheep, do not go with controlling the situation.

So I reach the conclusion that our future as a Church lies in letting go of our tradition of trying to control people and spend our time listening to them and talking with them, and in the meantime, try to find out some good ways that we ourselves can approach God. But not with the goal of getting other people to do it the same way.

That idea causes me to breathe a great big sigh of relief. Somehow I think this is the way Jesus wants me to do it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015


ISIS is the cover story and a good part of the content of the latest Time magazine. What should we do? What should I do?

There seems to be something of a consensus that military responses will not defeat a movement like ISIS. I think of Tertullian's saying: "The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians." The blood of people killed because they are members of ISIS just recruits more people to the cause, especially young people.

Young people are especially vulnerable. I recall the days when I was ready to sacrifice my own life to defeat Communism. I liked the saying "If you are not willing to die for something, your life is not worth living." I don't hear people around me talking like that any more.

That kind of mentality was fostered in young people of my generation by the experience of growing up in World War II. I liked a book titled They Were Expendable. When you are at war, you risk everything.

The young people of ISIS are living their equivalent of World War II. It is hard for us, living in the West, to see that. We have stable political institutions and most of us have a good enough life economically. Their world is politically chaotic and an economic disaster. They cannot hope for a "normal" family life. What have they got to lose?

Their protest is phrased in religious language, but it has a powerful grounding in politics and economics. We need to look at the situation from all three angles: religion, politics, economics.

The term Shariah law keeps coming up. That term is a political and economic term. It implies a utopian political and economic society, governed by a set of religious values. It is a protest against a Western world where religious values do not seem to exist, and where existing political and economic structures result in oppression of much of the world, especially the Islamic world.

Some people argue that U.S. capitalist society has a grounding in Christian values. Popular journalism long ago abandoned that line of thought. Evangelical writers try to baptize capitalism, but the popular culture could care less.

Pope Francis is challenging the Western world to wake up to the deficiencies of our ways of living. We are doing two things wrong. We are destroying our environment, and we are making people poorer than they were. The Pope has laid a foundation for a religious, Christian, response to the situation.

I go back to Francis of Assisi. Francis, raised in middle-class comfort, gave it up. His main motive seems to have been that he believed that Jesus Christ, God made human, chose to take on the poverty of human nature, and even to take on the poverty of the culture into which he was born.

The logic is simple. God chose to be poor. We should choose to be poor too. Being poor means, among other things, that we do not control the world. We do not control the world enough to cause permanent damage to creation as God made it. We do not control the world enough to take away from other people the means they have been using to live their lives decently. In fact, we do what we can to help every one of the rest of the human race to live lives a little more fully than they now live them.

Francis took up a conversation with a Muslim Sultan in Egypt named Malik al Kamil. Pope Francis recently went to a mosque in the Central African Republic and prayed there. That's how our response to ISIS should begin. We should be going to the young people of ISIS and asking them to join us in prayer. Perhaps God may inspire each of us to put aside violence and work to understand each other's experience of God.

After that we can begin a conversation about politics and economics. There are many ways to do those two parts of life. We in the West do not have the perfect political institutions, and the economic theory we follow is seriously deficient. We can learn from others, both about how to do politics, and about how to create an economy that respects human life.

Monday, November 9, 2015


The latest issue of Astronomy magazine is labeled “Special Issue: The Immensity of the Cosmos.”

The Greek word “kosmos” means “order,” “good order.” When applied to people it can mean “decorated” (think “cosmetics”). When applied to astronomy, it means “the biggest space we know about.”

In September 2014, the issue says, astronomers defined the “Laniakea Supercluster.” (“Laniakea” is the Hawaiian word for “immense heaven.”) The Milky Way is our own galaxy, 400 billion stars, among which our sun is one. The Laniakea Supercluster has 100,000 galaxies and is 520 million light years across.

I’m thinking about this as I pray morning prayer today. I am using words that people have used for over two thousand years to express their relation to “God.” I am a religious person.

My religion tells me that God made the universe, and that this God is triune, three Persons, whom we call Father, Son, and Spirit, or, feminists would say, “Creator, the Christ, and Spirit (Sophia).” It tells me that this triune God is personally involved with me, and that I can speak to this God and be heard.

A close friend of mine has rejected religion because he says it has done nothing but cause suffering around the world. Think ISIS. Closer to home, he is thinking of the Religious Right, which he blames for leading politicians to reject concern for the poor, in the name of the Invisible Hand.

We have two world views, science and religion. For the past couple of hundred years, intellectuals have seen the two in conflict, struggle to the death. They predict that religion will lose and will die. They point to the increasing number of people who say they have no religion. I think of the increasing number of young Catholics who drift away from the Church. Some of them drift into other denominations, but many of them drift into the “None” category. When the survey asks “Which of the following options describes your religion?” they answer “None.”

During my years of studying philosophy in the seminary, we had a course with the title “Cosmology.” Therefore I found it striking that astronomers are using that word these days. How can they take this fine religious word and use it for scientific purposes?

Stories about the Cosmos

The Laniakea Supercluster is a story about the cosmos. The story says that the cosmos came into being 13.82 billion light years ago, from the Big Bang, an explosion from an infinitesimally small source.

My faith’s story about the cosmos does not deny the Big Bang. But it says that a spiritual source was behind the Big Bang, and continues to guide its evolution. That source, which we call God, focused on one point of time and space and became human in the person of Jesus Christ.

Two stories. Both are collections of words, language used to describe things that no one has ever actually seen. The astonomer is basing the Big Bang on observing tiny spots of light or other radiation through a telescope or microscope, trying to explain why those spots of light behave the way they do. My story is based on a tradition of words passed on in many languages down through several centuries, and shaped into writings which we call the Bible.

Both stories are based in communities, the community of scientists and the community of Christians or members of other religions. Both communities need faith to tell their stories to others. They believe that the story they tell is true, that it reflects reality the way it really is. Neither community can ultimately prove that its story is true. Scientists know that the story they tell today may not be the story that they will tell a hundred years from now. Religious people know that the story they tell today has been shaped by many human factors, and that parts of the story may have to be revised in the light of what we learn as we make this journey through history.

But both communities believe that their stories are important and valuable, valuable enough for people to devote their lives to studying the stories and passing them on to others.

But what about ISIS and the Religious Right? Don’t religious stories cause more harm than good?

I have to admit that religion can cause a great deal of harm. Karl Marx claimed that religion was an opium that deadened people to their oppression so that they would not do anything to make things better. Sigmund Freud claimed that religion is a human response to a desire to go back to the womb, a comfortable place where there is no challenge. ISIS is clearly a bad thing. One can argue that it is really more of a political movement than a religious one, but it seems to appeal to young people who have the same hopes and dreams that young religious people have.

I am not equating the Religious Right with ISIS in the level of physical evil it causes, but the Religious Right is destroying our political system by creating an atmosphere of intolerance and rejection of compromise. The “Founding Fathers” were hoping to avoid that kind of intolerance in this land, because they had experienced enough of it in Europe. Intolerance freezes the political process into inaction and will ultimately bring it down. It could lead to civil war, which is what happens when two irreconcilable political forces collide. It is certainly leading to environmental disaster.


Science too can cause a great deal of harm. Alfred Nobel, who gave us the Nobel prizes, invented dynamite, thinking that its invention would bring wars to an end. What dynamite has done is make possible destruction on a scale unimaginable in earlier times. Atomic science raised that destruction level to such a height that we face the real danger that we could make our planet uninhabitable. Our science, allying itself with the Invisible Hand, allows people to pursue their individual interests to the point of destroying the environment, another way of making the planet uninhabitable.

Both religion and science can result in great harm, but on balance I think science can do the greater harm. Does that mean we should stop doing science?


It means that science and religion both have to be used in life-giving ways.

There are plenty of people both in science and in religion that already spend their lives hoping to give life to others. We need to encourage such people, and quit rewarding only the ones who make the most money.

All human activity has to be motivated by passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement of human beings with each other. Of course it won’t be, because we are not perfect. But we can work to bring about that kind of involvement on the individual level, where we all live our individual lives, and on the political level, where we need to write our rules so that such behavior is rewarded.

Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Laudato Si, is one example of the kind of approach that we will need if we are to pass on a livable world to coming generations. But there are many other people, with many other writings, who are working toward the same goal.

I believe in the statement: “I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful.” Optimism predicts good things. Hope says that God is good for us.

Predictions of the future of our planet do not look good.

But I believe that God is good, and that God is good for us.

Monday, October 26, 2015


I recently subscribed to the magazine Astronomy. The first issue I got has a picture, taken by the Hubble telescope (the one on a satellite), of a region of the universe never before observed. In the picture are hundreds of galaxies floating out there, some angled up, some down, some at right angles to us. In other words, the farther out we look, the more things we see. 

The universe—the place we live in—is huge.

I accept the theory that we human beings evolved from earlier life forms, which in turn evolved from a mass of atoms that gave birth to the Big Bang

The obvious question, one that no scientist I know has answered, is “where did that original mass of atoms come from?”

Some of the ancients thought that the earth was at the center of a set of spheres—one sphere held the sun, another held the moon, and still others held the planets and stars. Just beyond that set of spheres was God. The term “God” in this context is a metaphor referring to “some kind of force that created the spheres.”

Today the term “God” refers to “some kind of force that created the original mass of atoms and set the process of evolution in motion.”

I don’t see where today’s metaphor is any more or any less satisfactory than the one the ancients used. Our metaphor just pushes the boundaries further out.

The term “God,” as a metaphor, is based on two human experiences. One is that when something happens, we look for a cause. The other is that when something extraordinary happens, we look for an intelligent agent behind the event. When archaeologists find a piece of rock that gives evidence of “intelligent” work, they conclude that the piece of rock is a “tool,” and the maker of the tool had to be intelligent. The creation of a set of galaxies structured so as to allow the emergence of intelligent life (on our planet) is surely something extraordinary.

It is possible that the emergence of life is the result of random occurrences over billions of years. But if I conclude that the shape of a piece of rock gives evidence of an intelligent cause, surely the emergence of intelligence itself should be worth something as evidence. Does randomness explain the complex structure of our universe, from the largest galaxies down to the subatomic level? The theory of randomness, they say, could explain a monkey typing randomly and eventually producing all the plays of Shakespeare. Is fourteen billion years (the accepted age of our universe) long enough for either of those events (the evolution of our universe, including intelligent life, or the monkey's typing)? Many scientists think so. To me, to say that those things occurred randomly requires an act of faith. But maybe I just don't understand how long fourteen billion years really is. 

One variant of the Big Bang theory, one that I am not able to refute, is that our Big Bang is only one among a huge number of Big Bangs—perhaps an infinite number of Big Bangs—and the whole business has taken place without any intelligent force. That just seems to me to push the issue one step further back.

Could there be an infinite number of Big Bangs? There is a philosophical principle that an infinite number of actually existing objects is impossible. No matter how many there are, there can always be one more, ad infinitum. There must be a stop somewhere.

That leaves us right back where we started. Our beliefs in causality and in the idea that intelligent objects require an intelligent maker are untouched.

I used the term “beliefs.” These are truly beliefs. We cannot prove that events need causes, nor that intelligent events need intelligent causes. Both the term “cause” and the term “intelligence” are metaphors for experiences we get from everyday life. I can say that events need causes, and you can say that they don’t, and no one can prove either of us right.

This is what “faith” is all about.

I sit in my room and look out the window at the sky. If it were night, I could see out to the edges of our universe, granted that I would need a telescope to see objects very far out. I choose to affirm the principles that events need causes, and that intelligent events need intelligent causes. So, somewhere out there, is the cause, and indeed the intelligent cause, of my universe.

This is a modest affirmation. I am not claiming to understand all the principles of nuclear physics. But I recall that Einstein derived even the principles of relativity from a rather simple metaphor of two trains moving along a track. Is my belief that something intelligent made this stuff any more simplistic? 

So, next question. What is that intelligent cause like?

Ah, now we get to the real issue. This is the issue that generations of human cultures have struggled over, even to the point of violence and death.

I am a Christian. That means that I see myself as part of a story of several million people going back a couple of thousand years, to the event of the person Jesus Christ.

Now why should I accept the belief that the intelligent cause of my universe chose to become human in one single human being at one specific place and time?
Well, I accept that belief because of those several million people before me. Specifically, because of the relatively few human beings who gave birth to me and taught me stuff while I was growing up.

Of course, every single Muslim or Hindu or Sikh can say the same thing. Each of them accepts a set of beliefs about “God” (or “Allah” or perhaps other metaphorical terms) because each of them is part of the story of their millions of ancestors, and specifically, because of the relatively few human beings who gave birth to them and taught them stuff while they were growing up.

I accept my belief about Jesus Christ because I choose to do so. That is what faith means. I can’t prove that my belief is any better than my Muslim neighbor’s. I don’t even want to try to prove that. I have better things to do, as surely he or she also has better things to do.

Maybe at some time in the future, either of us will have re-configured our story of faith in a way that is compatible with the other person’s story of faith. That’s not my business right now.

My business right now is to answer the question: If indeed the creator of my universe chose to become human in the person of Jesus Christ, my immediate concern is two-fold. 1) How should I behave in the presence of “God,” and of this person Jesus? 2) How should I behave in relation to my fellow human beings? The first question is liturgical; the second is ethical.

My religious community, Christians—more specifically, Catholics—gives me answers to both questions. I am presented with a set of rituals and a set of moral precepts.

Now both sets, rituals and moral principles, are subject to revision. We human beings seem to get better over time at understanding our situation. In the Catholic Church, at the Second Vatican Council, we changed the way we did the “Mass,” and we are even now struggling over how we should behave in the presence of our fellow Catholics who have divorced and remarried, or who are gay.

It took us several centuries, but we Catholics seem to be pretty much in consensus that it is not good to try to use violence to make other people believe as we do and behave as we do. I can hope that other faith communities will come to a similar conclusion. Do I think they will?

The history of humanity is not promising in that regard. A hundred years ago we in the “western” world were pretty excited about the idea of “progress” or “evolution.” Things would get better and better as we learned to use our intelligence to decide what is good to do. Then came the First World War and Hitler and Vietnam and ISIS, and we have pretty much scrapped that na├»ve hope.

Yet I can still hope. My main reason for hope is the Grand Metaphor of Christianity, the belief that God brings life out of the worst human disaster. This person that we believe was God made human was condemned and executed as a criminal. We believe that he was restored to life. So even if we humans were to destroy our entire species—a possibility not entirely remote, given the number of nuclear weapons floating around and the damage that we continue to inflict on the very environment that makes our life possible—even if we were to destroy our species, God would somehow bring life out of that disaster.

But I don’t want to dwell on that apocalyptic possibility. I want to know how I should do things right here and right now.

One principle that seems to be wired into us humans is the principle that we need other human beings in order to thrive. The sad thing is that our gadgets (smart phones, etc.) keep isolating us from one another. We will not be able to keep isolating ourselves without serious effects. (This is a belief, an item of faith, on my part, but I suspect it is a belief that most social scientists share.)

To me it is comforting to realize that my story—the story of my life—is part of a larger story that involves people all around the world today, and in all the centuries back through history, back to Jesus Christ, and before him, to Abraham. I can sit in my room and pray one of the Hebrew psalms and realize that there are men and women all around the world who are praying these same words today (granted that the words are in various translations). Furthermore, as I pray that psalm in Latin (one of the gifts of having been subjected to six years of Latin study in my seminary days), I can think about all the people down through the centuries who have prayed these exact words. What did those words mean to those people in the past? What do they mean to my fellow believers today?

As I pray those words, I think of all the stories in the Hebrew scriptures that give color to my story, and of all the stories in my Christian history that give color, both light and dark, to my story. It is sad that so many of my fellow Catholics do not know these stories. I could construct an entire curriculum for religious study, from kindergarden through graduate school, based on these stories. As we get older, we accept more adult nourishment. I can accept that popes had mistresses and children. I can even accept the statement of Garry Wills that the great sin of the modern papacy is lack of truthfulness, a serious charge given that we stated, in 1870, that the pope is infallible.

Mature stories can be controversial and can have serious political effects. Garry Wills, a layman, can make the charge that the great sin of the modern papacy is lack of truthfulness, but were I to make it, I would be out of the priesthood faster than you can, as they used to say, shake a fist.

Intellectual freedom does not exist in the Catholic Church for priests, and even less for bishops. Power is the ability to punish, and the Church hierarchy uses power very effectively.

But, as they say, I digress. My point in this piece of writing is to describe how I deal with some of the important scientific findings of our day. We used to call such an enterprise “apologetics,” but that word has the connotation of defeating one’s opponents intellectually. My purpose is not to defeat anyone. I want to show, as St. Paul says, the reason for my faith, so that other people do not think I am hopelessly out of touch with reason.

My Franciscan tradition says that the most important function of rational discourse is to “edify,” to “build up”—to build up the ability of my neighbors to relate to God and to one another with love. As Jesus agreed (when a questioner put the issue in those words), there is no greater commandment than those two.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Guardian angels

Have you ever used the expression: “I don’t know what got into me!”?

We say that when we do something that surprises even ourselves.

That expression describes perfectly where the idea of angels and demons came from. We humans find ourselves doing things that we did not plan to do, we did not expect to do, we could not even imagine ourselves doing.

I would put the experience in different words: we human beings find ourselves following an unexpected script.

All of our behavior follows familiar patterns. We could call each pattern a script. We get a script in our head and we play the role. This is so common that in sociology the concept of role is one of the most central concepts. The term “role” is a term taken from drama, from the stage. One of the most famous sociologists in the not too distant past, Erving Goffman, made his reputation by exploring the extent to which our behavior is like the behavior of actors on a stage.

We get our scripts from daily experience, beginning from our earliest childhood. We also learn scripts from hearing stories about other people. Some of the scripts are good, such as the stories of lives of the saints, and some are bad, such as stories of robbery and murder.

For some reason, we occasionally find ourselves playing scripts or one kind or the other without consciously choosing to play that script. It is as though some outside force has “gotten into us” and caused us to do things we never expected to do. The script could be good or it could be bad. We describe the experience by saying that an angel touched us, or that a demon touched us.

Christians and Jews have insisted that God is the source of good scripts in our lives. In the Old Testament, passages often talk about an angel in one verse and God in the next verse, so that you cannot distinguish God from an angel. The authors wanted to describe how closely God was involved in a situation, but then they were afraid of making God too human-like, so they switched over to the language of angels.

The language of guardian angels is another way of expressing our belief that God is involved with us in loving ways, guiding us from day to day. God is involved with each one of us in a loving way.

In some passages of scripture, each nation has a guardian angel. Nations do follow scripts. Some of the scripts are good and some are bad.

For example, what is happening in Syria these days can only be described as some demon taking control of the whole country. Syria’s leadership has been following an evil script, with the result that millions of people have been driven from their homes, thousands have been killed, and no one can see a way out of the situation.

We Americans believe that an angel must have been operating in the beginning years of our country, when the colonial leaders somehow came up with a political system that has resulted in immense good. Those men and women somehow followed a script that no one could have predicted, because no one in history had ever experienced such a script before.

So today, as we celebrate a feast entitled “Guardian Angels,” we are celebrating the closeness that God has to each human being. God’s love surrounds us, envelops us, sometimes keeps us from falling into dangers that also surround us.

My earliest experiences of prayer took place by my bedside, where there was a picture of a child crossing a wooden plank with a crack in it, so that the child was about to step into the crack. But an angel was behind the child, watching over the situation, guarding the child from that danger. That is how close God’s love is to us.

We know of course that we do not escape all dangers. We do fall through cracks and we do get hurt or even killed. Evil is a reality. The story of Jesus—the script of Jesus’ life and death that we Christians follow—has a loving ending even when the early parts of the script include suffering and defeat and death.

In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus said that he could have had thousands of angels coming to his rescue. But only one came, carrying a cup, which Jesus freely took and drank. That script is our script too. 

God loves us, each of us. We each have a guardian angel.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Spiritual but not religious

Surveys tell us that more and more people in the U.S. describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious." What does that mean?

Sociologists have observed for a long time that we are a very individualistic people. Being spiritual but not religious fits that characteristic perfectly. Being spiritual means that my story is just my own. I am not part of a larger sacred story. Being religious means that my story is part of the story of a larger community. The word "religion" comes from a Latin root meaning "tied together."

Being spiritual but not religious means that I am floating free of a story that ties me to others.

That seems fine when you are young, and when you are putting distance between yourself and the people who have "raised" you. But as we get older, I think we appreciate more the importance of being tied in to larger stories.

I join a small group of people every weekday for Mass. That ritual ties us together as a group. Most of those people are of retirement age, as I am. The ritual also ties us very much to the story of Jesus. We use bread and wine the way Jesus used it at the Last Supper, so that the bread and wine are the physical presence of the story of Jesus, just as Jesus' physical body was the presence of his story when he was among his disciples. (This is how I like to interpret the theological term "transsubstantiation.")

So the ritual of the Mass very much ties me to a whole range of stories. I know who I am, and I feel very comfortable knowing that.

As the spiritual but not religious people continue through their lives, I predict that they will begin to look for connections to some larger story that will tie them to other people and to God. I would think it would be a fearful thing to be in the presence of a living God all alone. If you think it is just fine, maybe you don't know God very well.

You will say, Jesus taught us that God is like a loving parent. But good parents set boundaries for children. A parent who sets no boundaries ends up with a child running all over the place not knowing who he or she is or what he or she might do well or do poorly. And a good parent reacts in a life-giving way when the child violates the boundaries, as we all do, as children and as adults. The most important boundary that this loving God sets for us is that we approach God with others, as people who love others and are involved with others, especially as those others are involved with God.

I like the psalms because they remind me of all the people who have made those words part of their stories relating them to that living God. They remind me that I am part of a community that contains people who have done bad things and are still doing bad things. They remind me that I can do bad things and yet I can be forgiven.

It is good to come into God's presence with others. Being religious helps me do that. Being spiritual just doesn't cut it.


I know some people who might use the language "spiritual but not religious" as a cover for their anger at God. These people live lives of real love for others, real involvement with others in ways that we religious people might envy. There is an integrity in such people. I trust very much that God will not let them get lost.

As Psalm 103 says, God knows of what we are made. God knows that sometimes people react to evil done to them in ways that appear blasphemous. I think of Job telling God that the day of his birth should be a day of mourning, that he would have been better off if he had never been born. But at the end of the book, God defends Job as having a more true idea of God than his three friends, who kept trying to wrap Job's whole situation up in a neat philosophical framework. Job's anger did not bother God.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Who am I?

Who am I?

When I was in graduate school, back in the 1960s, there was great interest in what the psychologist Erik Erikson called "identity." Who am I? The term "identity crisis" was common--young people drifting around not knowing who they were.

My theory: my identity is my story. Or, more accurately, the stories of the groups of people who have influenced my life.

Catholics have been the center of my story, starting with the parish of St. James in Decatur, Illinois in the 1940s. The story of that group of people has been more important to me than, for example, the story of the residents of Decatur. Decatur was mostly Protestant. Decatur was not my story.

My race has not been part of my story. Being white has been to me like the water to the fish. There is no story involved. If I had been born black in this country, my black community, as black, would have been very important in my story. If I had been born into a black church family, that church family would have been important too. It might have been more important than the racial group; my Catholicism story was the story of a minority amid a majority Protestant city. Maybe a black child's church community would have been more important in that child's life than being black, because the church story would have shaped the experience of being black in a majority white society.

If I had been born to a single mother with few ties to a larger kinship group, my story would have been that mother's story. The story would have included the events that led to the mother's being isolated--perhaps she had gotten pregnant and been rejected by her family. Perhaps she was a nonconformist and was rejected for the same reason. Perhaps she herself had been raised by a single parent who did not have the time or experience or resources to groom her for entry into a school. So her story would have been a story of being left alone a lot, without relatives, going to a school where she was not doing well and where perhaps most of the other children were in the same situation she was in. Gradually their stories would have become her story.

A story gives you "scripts," plans for little scenes in life that you can follow. For example, how to relate to a teacher in school, or to a policeman. How to deal with a parent who is living with a partner who is not your biological parent. How to react to abuse by a parent-figure.

Examples of the scripts in my story: how to answer the sister who was teaching me in school. How to serve Mass in the parish church.

After eighth grade I entered the Franciscan seminary. The Franciscan community became part of my story. It eventually became the most significant part, even after I was ordained a priest.

The Catholic and Franciscan communities each had their own stories, and as I studied history, I became part of the stories of the Christian and Catholic community, and of the followers of Francis of Assisi.

I was also an American, and the stories of the founders of our country were important to me. The Second World War was in progress as I began grade school, so I lived the story of the heroes who gave their all to defeat evil enemies like the Germans and the Japanese. There was a book titled They Were Expendable, which I found inspiring. It told the stories of men who offered themselves to be chewed up by the enemy because the larger cause required that sacrifice.

If I had been born to a Native American family, what would my story have been? I would likely have been taken from my parents when I began school. The official policy was intended to prevent me from learning the story of my parents and their stories. I would have been story-less. Perhaps the teachers could have tried to help me relate to the stories of Christian saints, but when you do not know the stories of your own parents, I would think it would be hard to own another story.

As I sit here reflecting on all the people who have become part of my story, down through the centuries, a feeling of comfort comes over me. I know who I am. The people who shared those stories with me have given me a great gift.

Pope Francis talks a lot about "evangelization." The word has taken on a negative connotation in my society, as meaning "trying to get others to join your church." Perhaps it should simply mean "sharing stories of your church community with people who might be helped by those stories."

Being bathed in stories is being bathed in membership in communities that extend far beyond my immediate time and place. It means we know who we are. Being bathed in stories is a great gift.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Religion as fun, religion as narcotic, religion as stimulant

Way back in my graduate school days I thought of religion as fun. Why do people do religion, I asked? Beause it is fun. It is enjoyable. It enriches one's day. Without it life is dull and drab and colorless.

I still think that is true. It is fun to sing with other people (if we have good singing leadership). It is fun to work with others to make the world better in some way. It is fun to hear the stories of "saints"--people who lived heroic lives.

Fun comforts me.

Does it comfort me too much?

Karl Marx attacked religion because it comforted people too much. "Pie in the sky when you die" he said. Religion masks the pain of life in the name of some illusory future bliss. Forget religion. Be a man. (Perhaps Marx was not a male chauvinist, but I bet he was.) Get up and do something about oppression. Fight it. Don't wait for redemption. Make it happen.

Then there was Sigmund Freud, with a similar criticism. Religion makes you go back to the womb. It infantalizes you. Face reality. It's a cold and heartless life. Be a man. Quit drugging yourself with thoughts of bliss.

These days the criticism is in the opposite direction. Religion fires people up too much. It motivates ISIS fanatics to go around beheading people. It gives motivation to sociopaths who kill in the name of God. It tells people that being gay is a curse of God, and for a society to acknowledge that gayness is destructive. The world would be much better off if religion were wiped off the face of the earth.

I must admit that I am tempted to think this way when I reflect on how politicians in our country have to pay attention to religious fundamentalists. It used to be godless Communism that was the enemy; now it is godless liberalism or Muslim fanaticism. The real man stands up and fights for virtue and holiness.

I keep using the term "man." Maybe the real problem lies in some deep-rooted human tendencies, like male chauvinism and the easy resort to violence to solve any problem.

That brings me to forgiveness. Why was the idea of forgiveness so central to the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus? Why is the "forgiveness of sins" listed as part of the Apostles Creed? Why do we pray "Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world"? Why do the words of consecration in the Mass, traditionally the most sacred part of the Mass, mention forgiveness? "This is the chalice of my blood, . . . which was poured out . . . for the forgiveness of sins."

Forget about original sin. That term sets us off on a line of thought that too easily gets co-opted by the politics of religious sectarianism. There is plenty of sin to go around without worrying about where it came from, and about membership in what group will take care of it. We are bathed in sin. Male chauvinism, our tendency toward violence, our limitless desire for possessions and for the symbols of possession (like stock options). The old list gave us seven "deadly sins."

Let's look at that list.

Pride. I have questions about this one. Psychology has taught us that many people suffer from a lack of self-confidence, which could be interpreted as a lack of pride. The term calls to mind obedience, which has functioned as a tool of oppression in too much of our Christian history. So I find it questionable to refer to pride as a deadly sin.

Covetousness or avarice. Now here we are onto something. The great myth of the Invisible Hand has freed us from the vice of avarice. It makes avarice into a virtue. That leads to the games that impoverish much of the human race. I can go into the Philippines and drive people off the land so that I can dig there for copper, leaving the place an environmental disaster. But as long as my actions benefit my bottom line, all is well. I am virtuous.

Lust. The internet has not helped us. We can look for sexual pleasure at any hour of the day or night, and in the process lower our productivity (lust competing with avarice) and poison the sexual dimension of our family lives.

Anger. Now it is true that the emotion of anger is not evil in itself. What is evil is the behavior that the emotion can lead to. Too many of us have problems with "anger control." Once we let anger control us, we can mess up the rest of our lives, for example by landing us in prison.

Gluttony. Need I say more?

Envy. This is the gasoline that drives avarice and anger. We see what our neighbor has and we cannot live with the situation.

Sloth. Maybe this isn't our problem. But maybe we drive ourselves so relentlessly because we secretly fear that we will relapse into eternal rest if we let up for just one minute. We certainly project our own insecurities about our laziness onto the "less fortunate" in our midst. Those people are just lazy. They don't want to work. We understand that line of thinking all too well. So we kill our ability to enjoy life in order that we not be like those other sinners.


Religion does comfort us but it also challenges us. It is fun, but it also tempers our fun with the awareness that we can and do mess up, and therefore we are in constant need of forgiveness. For some reason God has created us as unfinished creatures. We stumble and blunder as we learn to grow in love.

But God does call us to grow in love. God does call us to to be involved with each other passionately, respectfully, vulnerably, and faithfully.

I think that call allows us to enjoy life without lapsing into either passivity or fanaticism.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

To the Herald-Whig

The Quincy Herald-Whig published this letter last Monday, April 6, 2015. I wrote it after an emotional discussion arising from the killing of a twelve-year old child on Quincy's northwest side.

To the Herald-Whig:

You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Who is my neighbor?

A man who fell among robbers.

In our town, Quincy, there are people who have fallen among robbers. We are told that food pantries are in greater demand than in times past. People who had jobs have lost those jobs. We are told that successful politicians will provide jobs, while at the same time we are told that politicians should not provide jobs, private enterprise should.

Young people who want to "contribute to society" find that society does not make contributing easy. They are told that they should do well in school. But it is hard to do well in school when you do not eat breakfast. It is hard to eat breakfast when one of your parents is in prison and the other one is working three jobs and is at work when you should eat breakfast. It's hard not to be in prison when the color of your skin makes people suspect you of bad intentions when you walk down the street. If people treat you like a criminal, why not just be a criminal and prove them right?

The man who fell among robbers should have been more careful. He should not have been traveling alone. It was his own fault that he got robbed.

When people are poor, it's their own fault. They don't work hard enough.

Any support you might have had from me is qorban (Mark 7:11). Any support you might have had from me will be taken care of by the invisible hand. But it takes patience. The invisible hand is slow.

The invisible hand might move faster if the government would give it a boost, but that would mean raising taxes. The Third Great Commandment is: do not raise taxes. Under no conditions should you raise taxes. Everyone needs every penny they earn, no matter how many pennies they earn. Don't touch my pennies.

We love our neighbors as ourselves. We contribute to the Good News of Christmas. That should be enough. We pass by on the other side because we work hard, and that poor man should have been more careful. We are in a hurry. If we don't hurry, the invisible hand will punish us.

We love our neighbors as ourselves.

 Joe Zimmerman, OFM  (the newspaper editors added "Rev." to my name)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, -- this is not from you; it is the gift of God.”
             Words taken from the second reading today, the Letter to the Ephesians

People sometimes ask me: “What is going to happen to the Church? So many people seem to leave the Church, especially young people, especially our young people. Children who went through years of Catholic schooling leave the Catholic Church for another church, or for no church.”

What are we doing wrong?

I have thought about that question for years. There is a theory that values come from actions. We do not do things because we value them. We value things because we do them. That’s perfectly good psychology. The reason people no longer value the Faith is that they have quit doing the things that strengthen faith. They have quit taking time for praying to God, for thinking about God, for reading about God. Going to church once a week is at least an action that reinforces the value of a relationship with God in our lives. When we quit taking time to do things that express our relationship to God, things like going to church or taking time to pray during the day—that relationship no longer has value for us.

I think that story of why people leave a religion makes sense. But it is a story that a good Pharisee would have told. A good Pharisee would say “you need to be circumcised and obey all the kosher laws about what you eat, and observe the sabbath by not doing any physical exertion on that day. If you don’t do those things, you will drift away from God.”

That way of looking at religion has it backward. It makes us the cause of our faith. If we can just get people to do the external actions that strengthen faith, their faith will return.

Paul was a good Pharisee. He was an up and coming star in the Pharisee world. And then Jesus met him. In fact, you could say that Jesus attacked him. Jesus knocked him to the ground and blinded him temporarily. Paul came away from that experience with the conviction that we do not love God because we do things to make that love happen. We love God because God comes at us first. In the words of the letter to the Ephesians that I quoted at the beginning of this homily, “For by grace you have been saved through faith—this is not from you; it is the gift of God.”

Gift. It is gift that is the key. We do not love God because we pray. We pray because God first loved us. Our faith is a gift.

We have said that for years—faith is a gift—but maybe we have not understood what we were saying. When we use the word “gift,” we imply that there is a giver. Someone has done something for us that we did not earn, we did not pay for. That makes us dependent. We are not in control of the relationship.

Compare this to a marriage. When two people are married, they have to do things that will keep the value of the marriage alive. They have to be courteous to each other, to do little actions that show the love. If they do not do anything physical to show love, the love will die.

But the physical actions are not the most important thing. The most important thing is that the love of the other partner is a gift. We do not earn people’s love. We do not pay for love. We receive love as a gift. That makes us dependent. We are not in control of the relationship. Without that sense of dependence, no amount of loving behavior will work.

We grow out of love because we lose the realization that the other person is a gift. We take the relationship for granted. We come to think that we deserve love. We pay for love by doing the things that love requires. If we pay for something, we expect that something to happen.

We make the mistake of the Pharisees. We forget that love is a gift, and every gift implies a giver. The person we are wanting to love does not have to love us. That person freely gives us love, freely does things to show us love.

Our relationship with God is the same way. When we forget that God is a giver, that God does not have to give us anything, then we forget that God loves us. And when we forget that, our faith is gone.

We live in a country where we are used to controlling things. If something bad happens to us, we blame somebody who didn’t do what should have been done. We sue somebody. We pay to make sure that nothing but good things happen to us, and that should take care of any situation.

We turn everything into a market transaction. We pay for what we get. If we do not pay, we do not get. If you do not have what you need, it is because you have not paid for it. You are lazy or have made stupid decisions.

We even turn gift-giving into a business. Christmas is a huge marketing season. We give gifts so that we stay in control of a relationship, and we receive gifts because other people owe us. We don’t count the exact dollars and cents in a gift, but we make sure that the balance is fairly even—we get back what we give.

The result is that we cannot love.

The reason that so many of us, especially our young people, leave our churches is because all of us, young and old, have forgotten what it means when we say that God loves us.

To say that God loves us is to say that we do not earn that love, we do not deserve that love. It works in reverse. God does not deserve our love. If we love God, that love is a free gift on our part. We do not earn God’s love by going to Mass every Sunday. We go to Mass every Sunday because we want to give freely of our time to God.

“Stewardship” seems to be a big word in church circles these days. “Time, talent, and treasure.” Those are things we can give to God. But we have to give those things. We do not use those things to pay for God’s love.

Paying versus gift. That was the big issue for Paul in his move away from the Pharisees. They wanted to earn God’s good will by doing all 613 precepts of the Law. Paul learned that observing precepts will not do the trick unless we realize that God first loves us, and we do the precepts because we want to love, freely, in return.

As Paul says, by grace you have been saved through faith—this is not from you; it is the gift of God.