Thursday, June 22, 2017

Settling for Pacifiers

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I recently met my beautiful, new great, great niece (Yes, I’m that old.). It was close to feeding time during a recent visit and her mother – like most mothers who don’t have feeding schedules down to the minute - gave the baby a pacifier.

And like most babies, she was “pacified,” until she realized the pacifier wasn’t the real thing.  

As I was watching her, it occurred to me how we humans are so often satisfied with pacifiers, how often we fall for what the Jesuit, Richard Leonard, calls “the narcotics of modern living.” He includes among them drugs, alcohol, sex, work, gambling, technology, and shopping. I would add the preoccupation with technology, sports, exercise and the cult of the body, the fascination with “stuff,” and the idolization of food.

These allures, which can be substitutes for religion, “never take away the pain of living but temporarily mask its effects,” Leonard writes, and many of us eventually – sometimes late in life – realize that they can’t replace God.

They are what the author of the psalms was writing about when he wrote that “the idols of the nations are silver and gold…. They have mouths, but they speak not, they have eyes, but they see not, they have ears, but they hear not, nor is there any breath in their mouths.”

Missing in Action?
But the problem with the God of the psalmist is summed up in the title of Leonard’s book, “Where the Hell is God?” He/she appears to be missing in action. Many people no longer find God in church and can’t connect with him/her in prayer because they feel they’re talking to themselves.

And they don’t see the need for religion. Its precepts make no sense to them. They may also feel that belief in God is dishonest and adherence to religion a sham.

Still, many people who feel God’s absence continue to search for him/her. I believe it’s because of the truth of St. Augustine’s famous prayer, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Obviously, God doesn’t force him/herself on us. We are free to ignore or reject him/her. But we may ask ourselves whether it’s wise to do so, and ask what is needed in a search for this God who appears to be AWOL?

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To start, I would say an open mind, one that is not totally plugged into the current culture. That would include trying to banish our biases about religion, and we may have plenty of them. Among them is the idea that religion is “old-fashioned,” as if it had anything to do with time; that it appeals only to old people and that it promotes conservative causes. This may result from a failure to recognize the difference between what a religion teaches and how some of its adherents behave and think.

Another bias about religion is that it is anti-science, including the notion that it denies evolution. Religion and science depend on two different ways of knowing, both of them useful and valid. Related to this is the idea that if you can’t see it, touch it or feel it, it doesn’t exist. Science itself has debunked this idea.

Apart from biases, a sense of history helps. It puts things into perspective, helping us realize that a “trend” that lasts 15-20 years is insignificant in the history of humankind, let alone in the history of life on our planet or in the universe. Innumerable trends have come and gone but religion remains in various forms.

Another important factor in the search for God is a “sense of the holy.” This, it seems to me, develops as we become more “spiritual,” and the closer we come to God, the more of this sense we have – the sense of the awesomeness of God and a willingness to acknowledge it, even publicly. Contrarily, the more we become estranged from God, the less likely we are to understand the holy. 

God's Search for Us
As I’ve written previously, we talk about “the search for God” but we could just as easily talk about “God’s search for us.” That’s because, I believe, God tries to communicate with us through other people, nature (including the findings of science), the church, the Bible and through our own experience, thoughts and desires. We usually fail to recognize God in these sources or other sources, however.

The Bible, I believe, is a uniquely useful way to find God. Problem is, many today are turned off even by its mention. They may think of people who use the Bible to justify their actions or condemn others.

Growing up Catholic, I thought of the Bible as a Protestant book. It wasn’t until I began studying theology that I came to appreciate its wisdom and insights into God and humans. But much like reading Shakespeare, it’s not always easy to read, and we may need help. Finding a good commentary is useful.

Finally, the search for God is rarely a matter of suddenly waking up to him/her. It usually takes effort, persistence and a willingness to accept uncertainty. And you have to be in it for the long haul.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

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The newspaper I read allows readers to submit anonymous comments without having to take ownership of what they write. They write about everything from politics to trends to crime news.

“I believe in ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’” wrote one recent contributor. “The family that abused and tortured their (sic) foster child should receive the same treatment!”

The writer is referring to a recent case in which foster parents are accused of abusing and neglecting a teen aged girl, resulting in her death. He didn’t bother to explain the “eye for an eye” passage from the Hebrew Bible or add the rest of what Jesus said.

Meant to Restrict Retaliation
In the Hebrew Bible, "an eye for an eye" was meant to restrict retaliation to no more than that, according to some Scripture scholars. And Jesus used the passage to teach that his followers should not seek retaliation but should, in scriptural hyperbole, “turn the other cheek.” 

I know nothing about the writer in the newspaper, but is it possible that he/she is another avowed Christian who fails to take seriously Jesus’ teachings? There’s no hint of a readiness to forgo retaliation, forgive, be a peacemaker or Good Samaritan or to love neighbor and give generously of oneself and ones’ goods.

Fact is, many of us who profess Christianity and other Judeo-Christian beliefs appear to be less than serious about our faith. We refuse to recognize that it is counter-cultural. We believe we can simply adopt our culture’s popular beliefs and still call ourselves Christians or Jews.

Consequently, our beliefs become platitudes, our values unlikely to make any difference.

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Jesus turned on their head the cultural values of his day, and those of our day. Although he emphasized God’s extravagant willingness to forgive, he made clear that his followers can’t love money, power, stuff, violence or irresponsible sex and still legitimately call themselves his followers.

I wrote previously about Pope Francis’ The Joy of Love, an exhortation on family life published last year. It has a lot to say about love – perhaps the most important word in the Christian and Hebrew Bibles – and it’s not just for families.

 “Christ proposed as the distinctive sign of his disciples the law of love and the gift of self for others,” the Pope says, and love “… bears fruit in mercy and forgiveness. We see this in a particular way in the scene of the woman caught in adultery; in front of the Temple, the woman is surrounded by her accusers, but later, alone with Jesus, she meets not condemnation but the admonition to lead a more worthy life.”

Francis acknowledges something about which we’re all aware, that “individuals, in personal and family life … receive less and less support from social structures than in the past.” If you want to search for God in today’s world, for instance, you can’t expect support from the media, the popular culture, government or even family and friends.

Desires Considered Absolute?
And today’s rampant individualism makes it difficult to buy into a communal religion like Christianity. It leads in some cases, the Pope says, “to the idea that one’s personality is shaped by his or her desires, which are considered absolute. The tensions created by an overly individualistic culture, caught up with possessions and pleasures, leads to intolerance and hostility ….”

The Pope, however, tries to see things as they are. There is no sense, he says, “in simply decrying present-day evils, as if this could change things. Nor it is helpful to try to impose rules by sheer authority. What we need is a more responsible and generous effort to present the reasons and motivations” of our faith.

People searching for God may be tempted to ask – using the words of the song made famous by Tina Turner - “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” The answer: everything. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Can You Believe in Miracles?

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A news article a while back noted that “in an effort to ensure transparency as well as historical and scientific accuracy,” Pope Francis approved revised norms on healings alleged to be miracles.

The norms have to do with the composition and procedures of panels of medical and other experts the Vatican uses to try to determine whether an alleged healing has a “natural or scientific explanation.”

I’m sure many cynics had a field day with this announcement. “Miracles?” they may ask! “No contemporary, informed person could believe in them.”

There’s reason for skepticism, if not cynicism. People easily see the face of Christ or the image of Mary on gnarled trees, sides of cliffs, in the clouds and on deformed carrots. They say that the survival of their cousin with cancer is “a miracle.” They declare that their remaining alive after that horrible auto accident is a miracle.

Sometimes, these phrases are simply figures of speech, meant to say that the incidents are highly unusual or extraordinary. Some people who use them mean to convey no sense of the spiritual or religious.

Continued Intervention
But many believers use the term in a literal sense, and as unlikely as alleged miracles may seem to non-believers, the attitude of many Christians and Jews toward miracles is understandable. The history of the relationship between God and creation as related in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles is one of continued intervention by God in the affairs of humans.

In the Hebrew Bible, God kills people, such as the events portrayed in the Passover; he parts the sea down to its floor; and he maintains a continual dialogue with prophets, kings and patriarchs. In the Christian Bible, Jesus walks on water, turns water into wine and raises a friend from the dead.

For many of us today – when scientific explanations are at least sought and expected for virtually everything – belief in miracles presents a problem that makes it hard for non-believers, and many believers, to embrace religious claims.

In my view, it’s difficult to believe in the God of Christians and Jews if you don’t accept the possibility of miracles, that God CAN intervene in the lives of humans and has done so. If God is all-powerful and the author of life, what would keep him/her from it?

Andrew Briggs
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But doesn’t God’s intervention in some cases and not others impugn the idea that God loves and cares for all of humanity? Why does he/she cure one person’s cancer but not another’s?

These kinds of questions are nothing new. They have been asked by believers and non-believers for thousands of years. The authors of the Book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible – written around 600 years before Christ – attempted an answer, placed in the mouth of God:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Fact is, we can only speculate about the apparent dilemmas resulting from the traditional Christian and Jewish views on the nature of God. As God is unknowable, so are his/her “ways.” 

Personally, I’m a skeptic when it comes to miracles, believing that God wants us to make our own way in the world. Like a good parent, he/she accompanies us but rarely, if ever, intervenes.

Belief in miracles is related to belief in the efficacy of prayer, which is pivotal for believers in the God of Christians and Jews, and I believe that in this regard, we need some humility. I used to disparage people who prayed for rain, for the recovery of their loved ones, for a victory in a sports competition, but no longer. Who am I to say whose prayer makes sense and whose doesn’t?

Not Necessary
An article in LiveScience, a science news web site, quotes Andrew Briggs, a nanomaterials scientist at the University of Oxford who is Christian, as saying that “… it’s not necessary to understand every aspect of something to believe in its truth or importance.

“For instance, physicists don’t agree about what really happens when they take a measurement of tiny particles in quantum systems. But at the same time, quantum mechanics, which governs the behavior of the very small, has shown itself to be a robust theory that works again and again, even if scientists don’t understand all of it.

“There are aspects of what happens when I pray to which I don’t really have a satisfactory account,” Briggs told LiveScience. But, he added, evidence for the value of prayer make it worth doing.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

How Can God Allow It?

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Tracey, a young, healthy nurse working among the disadvantaged, is driving from one town to another when the engine of her car dies. Passersby offer to tow her car, and as that is happening, she drives over the tow rope, which flips her car over and into a ditch.

“I cannot move a muscle and feel as if the entire roof of the car is pressing down on my head,” she recalls in her book about the accident and its consequences. “Many hours later… all I can feel is the most excruciating pain in my neck…and my brain knows that I can’t feel anything below my shoulders….” Soon she feels “a stabbing pain at the back of my head.” This turns out to be caused by a sharp twig encased there.

Tracey would never walk again or regain the use of her arms or hands. She had to resign herself to being a quadriplegic for life.

Bitter Questions
Richard Leonard tells this story about his sister in his own book, saying that after he and his mother went to see Tracey in the hospital after the accident and got her prognosis, they went to a visitors’ waiting room where his mother had a series of bitter questions.

“How could God do this to Tracey?” she asked. “How could God do this to us? What more does God want from me in this life? Where the hell is God?”

Leonard, an Australian Jesuit priest, made that last question the title of his book, in which he writes that he told his Mom that if anyone could prove that God was the cause of Tracey’s accident, he would leave “the priesthood, the Jesuits and the church.”

“I don’t know that God,” he told his mother. “I don’t want to serve that God, and I don’t want to be that God’s representative in the world.”

Richard Leonard, S.J.
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The questions Leonard’s Mom asks are undoubtedly among the most common asked by believers and non-believers when tragedy strikes. And the tragedy doesn’t have to involve severe bodily damage as in Tracey’s case. It could be chronic pain over a long period; ongoing depression; a string of bad luck or even perceived bad luck.

The questions are also among the many we ask about a God who is said to be all-powerful and all-knowing and at the same time loving and merciful. They are among the primary reasons for rejection of the God of Christians and Jews, in fact.

I’ve written before about why bad things happen to good people, quoting from the famous book by Rabbi Harold Kushner. I think the subject deserves more attention because it goes to the heart of our ideas about God and his/her relationship with us.

Leonard’s sister told him that since her accident, she had heard “every religious cliché in the book regarding suffering and God’s plan.”

Indeed, we religious people have our self-justifying platitudes, such as the one that insists that HIV/AIDS is punishment for homosexuality, or that God sends hardship and catastrophe to help us grow in faith or that “except for God’s grace, I could have been seriously injured in that accident.”

Failing to take into account the culture of the times and the authors’ goals, many people adopt the literal image of the God of the Hebrew Bible who is swift to punish wrongdoing, or simply punish people he doesn’t like. This God is arbitrary and spiteful. Or they see God as an uncaring observer of human activity, a God who can’t be all-powerful because he/she made an imperfect world.

Accept Things As They Are
Leonard wants us to simply accept things as they are. “Given that God wanted to give us the gift of free will, even to the point where we can reject God … maybe this world is as good as it gets,” he writes.

God does not send evil. He/she doesn’t play us like pieces on a chess board. Leaving aside such questions as the existence of hell, God doesn’t punish us in this world. Jesus’ God, according to Mathew’s gospel, “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”  

God is not a controlling and suffocating parent, either, but a loving, caring one. So, how should that affect our search for God? It should assure us of its practicality and that the search will be worth the effort.

 “Nothing is more practical than finding God;” writes Leonard, “that is, falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”


Thursday, May 25, 2017

Who Is Oscar Romero and Why Should We Care?  

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I recall my surprise when I first went to El Salvador and at community or church events saw huge photos of Che Guevara next to ones of similar size of Oscar Romero.

Guevara was an Argentinian doctor who joined the Cuban revolution. He later tried to start a revolution of his own in Bolivia and was killed in 1967 by the Bolivian military. He became a symbol of armed revolution in Latin America and much of the world, his face appearing on the front of millions of t-shirts.

Romero was the Archbishop of San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. He was a champion of the Salvadoran poor and defender of human rights against a brutal government, not an advocate of violence. Nonetheless, he was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating Mass by elements of the Salvadoran military.

The shock was seeing those two, a militaristic revolutionary and a Catholic member of the hierarchy, side-by-side. The Catholic hierarchy is not known for being revolutionary. To many minds, in fact, it is considered among the most conservative of institutions. Yet here were images of the two side-by-side.

Still a Hero
I was in El Salvador recently and 37 years after his death, Romero is still a national and religious hero to much of the population. Each year on the anniversary of his death, a Catholic mass is held at the small hospital chapel where he was shot followed by a march to the city’s center.

What do Romero and Guevara have in common? They both gave their lives for a cause, the liberation of an oppressed people. Guevara believed the best way to liberation is in armed revolt. Romero believed in the power of persuasion and the power of God to influence world events.

Oscar Romer
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In fact, Romero – as could be expected of a religious leader - was more interested in the spiritual than in the poor’s physical hardships, although he believed the two were intertwined.

Interestingly, the military and oligarchs who ruled El Salvador when Romero was appointed archbishop were happy with the choice, seeing in him a defender of the status quo. That changed a few weeks after Romero’s appointment when Salvadoran security forces shot and killed Father Rotilio Grande, one of the new archbishop’s best friends.

Romero was deeply affected and receiving no satisfactory explanations from the government for Grande’s murder, took up Grande’s causes of defense of the El Salvador’s poor against continual arbitrary and illegal persecution by the government.

The background to all this was the fact that everything in the country was stacked in favor of the oligarchy and the military that supported them. Grande and Romero saw this not only as a political problem but a religious one. Those persecuting the poor were mostly Catholics who were ignoring Christ’s message and it was Grande’s and Romero’s duty to defend the poor, speak out against their persecution and seek the conversion of their persecutors.

They were influenced by the documents of a conference of Catholic bishops held in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968.

“The uniqueness of the Christian message,” says one of its documents, “does not so much consist in the affirmation of the necessity for structural change, as it does in an insistence on the conversion of men and women which will in turn bring about this change.”

The oligarchy and military didn’t buy this message and in the 12-year civil war that raged between 1980 and 1992 over 60,000 Salvadorans would die. Like Romero and Grande, many of them were Christians – lay people, priests and nuns – whose only crime was working with the poor.

Like most human beings, people searching for God need models – others who have made personal sacrifices to continue their search and help others along the way. No better models could be found than Romero, Grande and the thousands of martyrs of El Salvador, courageous seekers of peace.

"Peace,” wrote Romero, “is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity. It is right and it is duty."

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Comeback for Religion?

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Every once in a while, you hear or read something completely unexpected.

That was the case recently when I read in America Magazine a story about a resident of Paris saying that much to his surprise, Catholic churches in France – among the most secular societies on earth – are filling up again.

At first, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry thought it was a phenomenon at the parish he attended, where if he was less than five minutes early for Mass he often found himself having to “step over people sitting on the floor” on his way to an overflow room.

But, he writes, Mass “is packed in most parishes in Paris. This is also true in Lyon, the second biggest city in the country.” This is “in a nation where 53 percent of citizens (according to past polls) identify as Catholic but only five percent regularly attend Mass.”

Of course, his "packed-church observation is anecdotal. Gobry cites no studies and couples this perception with the increase in the number of religious people, specifically Catholics, who are taking a renewed interest in French politics – trying to create a society that is more in line with traditional Christian teachings.

Some of them are aligning with right-wing politicians, who among other things, want to discriminate against and bar immigrants – hardly a Christian teaching. Others, however, say that “care for the environment, care for the poor and care for the unborn go together.”

Throwaway Culture
“Pope Francis’ warnings about a ‘throwaway culture’ that leads both to abortions and to quasi-slaves in third world factories making disposable consumer items of questionable worth are tailor-made for them,” Gobry says.

Before going any further, just what are “traditional Christian teachings” when it comes to how people searching for God should act? There’s no better summary than in the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Galatians in which the author writes about “the fruits of the Spirit.”

They are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” It appears the author of Galatians is saying that not only should we strive to practice these “fruits of the Spirit,” but that we can test ourselves about our sincerity by examining whether we practice them.

Of course, people can practice these “fruits” without filling up churches, just as people can stay in shape without filling up gyms. But most humans need the community, support and solidarity with other believers that church provides.

A recent article on the National Public Radio home page, called “Why Religion is More Durable Than We Thought….” is, I believe, a bit patronizing to believers, but it provides an interesting insight into why human beings need religion.

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Sociologists, says the article, have a theory called the “secularization thesis,” which holds that “as societies become more modern, religion loses its grip.” At the outset, I can see a problem here regarding the word, “modern.”

The term is relative. A 1967 musical, “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” was set in the 1910s and 20s when people thought they were at the height of “modernism.”

Anyway, as people become more “modern,” the article suggests, they don’t accept the explanations for the natural world they read in the Bible. I would say that for the most part, these explanations result from our misunderstanding of the Bible’s purpose, which is not to explain the natural world.

Although church attendance has declined and the number who list “none” on surveys asking about religious affiliation has increased, more than 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian. And religious people put their money where the faith is. In 2012, the most charitable deductions on US income-tax returns, $102 billion, went to religious groups.

And what may be surprising for some, religious practice doesn’t necessarily decrease with more education.

Just as Religious
"Highly educated [Christian] adherents are just as religious, in some cases more religious, than their fellow members who have might have less education," the article says. “…Regardless of their educational attainment, these Christians find meaning in their church experience.”

So what does religion do for people searching for God?

"It provides community,” says the article. “It provides them with friends. It provides them with psychological support and economic support. It provides a lot more than simply an understanding of where they are in the world in relation to the afterlife."

It is, in my view, the obvious – though not exclusive – way to find God.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Most Important Question

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It was an erratic journey for Francis Collins, the famous geneticist who heads the National Institutes of Health, noted for his discoveries of disease genes and leadership of the Human Genome Project.

Growing up in a family indifferent to God and religion, he proclaimed himself an agnostic, then an atheist. Unlike other scientists, however, his research brought him closer to belief in God.

“I was astounded by the elegance of the human DNA code,” he wrote in his book, ‘The Language of God,’ “and the multiple consequences of those rare careless moments of its copying mechanism.”

He was compelled to ask himself, “Could there be a more important question in all of human existence than ‘Is there a God?’”

Constructs of a School Boy
He eventually answered that question in the affirmative, deciding that “all of my constructs against the possibility of faith were those of a schoolboy.”

One of the constant themes of this blog is that there is no inherent conflict between faith and science, even though many believers and scientists, for their own purposes, say there is.

I believe this is important because people searching for God are thrown off course by the view that skepticism and critical thinking are incompatible with faith. So it’s refreshing to read someone like Nancy Ellen Abrams, co-author, with cosmologist Joel Primack, of “The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos.” 

Nancy Ellen Abrams
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First, some of us may think that scientists know virtually everything about the universe. But Abrams points out that “everything astronomers can see — including all the stars, planets and glowing gas clouds in our galaxy, and all the distant galaxies — is less than half of 1 percent of the contents of the universe.”

They make inferences about what they can’t see, much the same, I believe, as theologians do about God.

Anyway, Abrams says in an article called, “A God That Could Be Real,” recently featured on the web page of National Public Radio, that “what we need is a coherent big picture that is completely consistent with — and even inspired by — science, yet provides an empowering way of rethinking God that provides the human and social benefits without the fantasy.”

To be clear, Abrams does not embrace the God of Christians and Jews, unlike Collins. She would probably classify that God as “fantasy.” And to be honest, some of what people believe about God is fantasy. Part of the task of theology is to distinguish between unfounded speculation and beliefs based on rational inferences.

Possible to Discover God?
In any case, Abrams is basically saying that humans need both science and faith and that together, it may be possible to discover God.

“Our species needs every advantage we can possibly muster, and peace between science and God, peace between reason and spirit, would certainly be advantageous. For millions of thoughtful rational people to have no way to draw on their spiritual power is a tragedy.”

She writes from personal experience.

“The idea of an emerging God triggers as many taboos for atheists as for believers, but if you dare to try it out by moving in with all your furniture, the way scientists are willing to live inside a theory as if it's true — sometimes for many years in order to test it and discover its implications — I don't think it's an exaggeration to say it will transform your life. It has mine.”