Thursday, December 7, 2017

There Should Be Some Grinch in all Believers

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Around this time of year, I grumble about the lights and decorations at the malls and in neighborhoods, about the Christmas music that will have to be endured for more than a month, about the incessant sales that urge us to buy stuff we and the recipients of our gifts don’t need.

If I were Pope, I would get together with other Christian leaders and try to change the date of the Christian Christmas, conceding Dec. 25 to the Walmarts, Amazons and Macys. They could proceed with their sales and promotions and we could quietly celebrate the birth of Jesus at another time.

Am I the “Grinch who Stole Christmas?” I don’t think so. I dislike this time of the year not because I’m against the joy of Christmas expressed in gift-giving and reunions of family and friends or because I dislike the happiness brought to some of our children. I would like Christmas trees and the decorations if they all went up a few days before Christmas and if they were truly meaningful. To me, it’s not the Grinch but commercialism and consumerism that stole Christmas.

Each year the holiday seems to slip further and further away from its meaning. It is a thoroughly secular and commercial holiday pretending to be religious, presided over by a fictitious, fat man with a beard who is said to bring piles of unneeded stuff to kids who believe that’s what Christmas is about.

Christians Are Complicit
The irony is that we Christians are complicit in this mockery. We enthusiastically join in. Jews, Muslims and non-Christians may feel envious about all the attention on Christmas. They may not see that the feast of Jesus’ birth has been so thoroughly sabotaged that its true celebration must seek refuge in churches along with the immigrants we’re so eager to be rid of. 

Is it because our perception is that it’s one of those issues, like nuclear war and global warming, over which we have no control? Or is it that our ties to societal norms are much stronger than our religious ties? Or, maybe it’s a more fundamental problem.

After all, the “true meaning of Christmas” is among the most unbelievable of our beliefs, perceived by many as absolutely absurd. Yet the most awe it produces from many believers is a good yawn.

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Christmas is about the author of life, the creator, the God who is said to be in us, around us and “stretching” to beyond the ends of the universe, becoming one of us and doing so in the most astonishing way.

Maybe the way the event is described in the Bible is a problem for modern people. Most scripture scholars – including Catholics and other Christians – agree that the “infancy narratives,” as they describe the Bible’s stories of Jesus’ birth and early childhood, are mostly mythical. The gospel authors weren’t witness to the events.

So the authors used stories, some of which were also part of other cultures and religions of the time, to describe events surrounding Jesus’ birth. In other words, they used folk traditions, the only means available to them, to teach that Jesus’ birth was an event of cosmic proportions.

The authors of the four gospels aren’t “on the same page” in this regard, either. Mark and John ignore Jesus’ infancy, beginning his story when he is an adult. Before his infancy narrative, Mathew starts with a stylized genealogy to show Jesus’ ancestral connections before moving on to Jesus’ birth. Luke has the longest of infancy narratives and is the most detailed.

Not Disturbing
The fact that much of the infancy narratives are mythical or that the authors of the gospels don’t agree on the details of Jesus’ birth and childhood should not disturb us. The authors weren’t trying to fool anybody. They were passing along what they heard from their sources, much like we do with family stories.

The authors couldn’t use the Internet to check their sources’ accuracy either, but no harm because, like in those family stories, the details don’t matter. Through the genealogy, the story of the virgin birth and the beautiful story about the manger amid the shepherds, they were trying to express the awesomeness of what happened, something that seems lost on many of us.

Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit” because he is Emmanuel, “God with Us.” To me, that is what’s hard to grasp, that God would do such a thing, that because of Jesus’s birth, we can call God “Father.” That is, indeed, incredible and well worth celebrating.

And that’s what should upset us about Christmas. “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” just don’t cut it.       

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Is Faith Childish?

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At a recent visit to the house of my son and daughter-in-law near Chicago, my 3-year-old grandson pointed to the bald spot on the back of my head and asked, “Papa, what happened?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“What happened to your hair?” he asked.

“It fell out,” I said.

“Where is it?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I responded.

“Maybe it’s at your house,” he suggested, trying to be helpful.

We may see this as “cute,” but it’s a perfectly logical question given his knowledge of the situation. No one would accuse him of being stupid or even ignorant. A 3-year-old, after all, can’t be expected to understand the vagaries of aging. Even we who are experiencing it don’t understand them.

Exaggerating the Differences
It has often occurred to me how much we exaggerate the differences between us and children. We see the differences as huge. But are they really?

We may think of children as naïve and uninformed. Does that mean we’re sophisticated and brilliant? We also focus on what we see as the huge difference in experience and number of years of life. But the fact is, my grandchildren, my children, my parents and grandparents are my contemporaries.

Of all the generations of human beings, we are, or have been, alive at the same time. The amount of knowledge I have compared to my grandchildren is puny when you consider how much there is to know.

The perception of these differences become more accurate as we age, perhaps. Consider how we perceive the differences between an eighth grader, who is about 14 years old, and a first grader, who is about 7, a difference of 7 years. It’s considered a huge difference, but not when the older person is 60 and the younger one 53.

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All this brings me to the perception that many people have about God and religion – that it’s for children, something you grow out of, leaving behind childhood’s naiveté and ignorance. Fact is, faith takes an extraordinary amount of thoughtfulness and independence; not the kind my generation celebrated at Woodstock – basically doing whatever you want - but the kind that doesn’t put great stock in what society as a whole thinks is important.

Sometime as we grow up, usually on the cusp of adulthood, we begin to learn things that seem to be divorced from, or directly contradict, what we learned in religious education classes. And many of us fail to reconcile the perceived differences. Instead, we begin to consider what we learned from religion as childish. And we confuse “childish” with “child-like.”

Do we give up on God and religion because we study the matter intensively, poring over biblical and theological texts, trying to find answers, trying to reconcile our new knowledge with religious knowledge? I doubt it. Many of us probably give more time and attention to buying a car than we do to understanding faith.

And, of course, church and synagogue are perceived as boring and none of our contemporaries seem interested.

Major Reasons for Rejecting God and Religion
Here are some major reasons young people put God and religion behind them, according to one study.

·       Superficial reading of the Bible: Questioning the literal interpretations of passages as if they were the Bible’s messages.

·       Setting up false contradictions, such as between religion and science, “straw men” to knock down.

·       Objections to doctrinal and moral teachings (especially about sexuality) and making decisions about them based on one’s “gut feelings,” which are almost always based on what “society” believes about them.

·       An insistence on certainty before commitment, as if we experience much certainty about anything in life.

In writing all this, I don’t mean to minimize valid reasons for doubt. There are plenty of them. But doubt isn’t disbelief and people searching for God shouldn’t disqualify themselves as searchers because of it.

What’s important, in my opinion, is to continue the search with open-mindedness, persistence, patience (with yourself and others) and a determination to pray and study to overcome obstacles.

That’s not childish. That’s the most adult thing possible.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Transient Power of a Tear

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A public-service TV “commercial” back in the 1970s shows an obviously Native American canoeing a river. Smokestacks shoot particles into the air, forming smog. Garbage floats by. A close-up shows a single tear rolling down the man’s cheek. The announcer says, “People start pollution. People can stop it.”

Turns out that the actor, who had played a Native American in numerous movies and TV shows, was actually a second-generation Italian. But that didn’t alter the power of the message. Millions of Americans who saw it thought twice about throwing trash from their car windows or abandoning messy campsites.

It was the kind of message needed to move Americans from indifference and apathy to concern about the environment. But it wasn’t nearly enough, and the kind of pollution the commercial targeted isn’t that important in the tragedy-waiting-to-happen that is global warming. The major villains are industrial emissions and exhaust fumes.

Before going any further, I must again address the issue of relevance. “What does global warming have to do with the search for God?” you may ask. Many say it’s purely a political issue and has no place in a “discussion of faith, belief and religion,” as promised on this blog’s main page.

But the search for God isn’t just about trying to figure out why we believe or don’t believe. We find God, too, by becoming more God-like, by helping bring about what is prayed for in the “Our Father” when “Thy Kingdom Come” is recited. But more about this later.

This blog was motivated by a recent media report whose headline on the National Public Radio website screamed, “Massive Government Report Says Climate Is Warming and Humans Are the Cause.”

“It is ‘extremely likely’ that human activities are the ‘dominant cause’ of global warming, according to the most comprehensive study ever of climate science by U.S. government researchers. The climate report, obtained by NPR, notes that the past 115 years are ‘the warmest in the history of modern civilization.’

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“The global average temperature has increased by about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit over that period. Greenhouse gases from industry and agriculture are by far the biggest contributor to warming.”

Many politicians insist that the jury is still out on this issue, but that doesn’t jive with overwhelming scientific evidence. The authors of this report include experts from leading scientific agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and the Department of Energy, as well as academic scientists.

“The report states that the global climate will continue to warm. How much, it says, ‘will depend primarily on the amount of greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide) emitted globally.’ Without major reductions in emissions, it says, the increase in annual average global temperature could reach 9 degrees Fahrenheit relative to pre-industrial times. Efforts to reduce emissions, it says, would slow the rate of warming.”

This information isn’t really new. Still, many Americans – including Christians and other believers - care little about global warming, according to polls. People searching for God, however, should do all they can to care for the earth, including vote for people, regardless of political party, who want to curb global warming.

Back to the question of why this issue is relevant. In 2015, Pope Francis issued his encyclical, Laudato Si, “On Care for our Common Home.”

“Saint Francis of Assisi (from whom Pope Francis took his name) reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us,” the pope writes.

Lords and Masters
“This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.”

Many believe that religion has to do with “the next life,” not this one. But doesn’t indifference about the fate of our world show ingratitude? That’s why other popes, and leaders of many religions, have urged believers and non-believers to show their love and care for our common home. Belief, after all, can’t just be stored in our “belief drawer,” to be opened on Sundays or when we’re in a belief mood. And any belief worth having helps us to be more human.

St. Francis, writes the pope, “shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace. (Saint) Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human.”

Thursday, November 16, 2017

“Mystery:” Subterfuge for the Unbelievable?

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Growing up Catholic, I heard a lot about “mystery.” No, not the novel or movie that may be a “mystery,” but beliefs that are mysteries.

I never particularly liked the term. I always saw it as a subterfuge for a belief that was so obscure it couldn’t be explained, or one that is utterly unbelievable.

But as I age, I’m beginning to see that it’s probably the only word you can legitimately use to describe the indescribable. How can you adequately describe God, whose existence is said to be outside time and space, who is in and around everyone and everything, and who stretches from here to beyond the ends of the universe? Those are descriptions that we humans can’t fathom.

What’s more, how can you adequately describe faith? It’s said to be a “gift,” but if so, why does God give it to some and not to others? And if it’s a gift, shouldn’t that mean we don’t have to do anything to acquire it or retain it? 

Rational but Not Entirely of the Intellect
Scripture and church tradition may provide good reasons for such descriptions of God and for saying that faith is a gift, but they’re not provable. And that brings us to another observation about faith: It’s rational, but not entirely a matter of the intellect.

“Moses’ burning bush was not an intellectual exercise,” writes theologian Richard Rohr in his online Daily Meditation, “nor did Teresa of Ávila’s ecstasies happen in a classroom. We rightly speak of faith as a “gift” as opposed to any reasoned conclusion. You fall into it more than reason toward it.”

Maybe this is what Jesus was trying to say with his analogies to seeds. In the gospel of Mathew, he told the story of the sower “who went out to sow” and the seeds he threw out had different fates, depending on the varying environments into which they fell.

Richard Rohr
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“…Other seeds fell on rocky ground,” says the parable, “where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away.”

His point was that God can provide the seed, or gift of faith, but what happens to it depends on what the recipients do with it. If no effort is made to deepen our faith, it can easily wither.

Another “seed” story is in the gospel of John. Jesus says that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” He may be talking directly about his own death, but I’ve also interpreted this to mean that unless each of us “dies” – to self and to “the world” – we can’t “bear fruit,” that is, have a meaningful relationship to God and others.

Jesus, who grew up in a rural area where most people depended on the land for sustenance, knew that a seed doesn’t “die” when it goes into the ground. He used the image because the seed, like the dead, is “buried.”

Returning to the subject of mystery, it’s interesting that the first definitions of the word in Webster’s dictionary - at least the edition I have – are religious, starting with “a religious truth that one can know only by revelation and cannot fully understand.”

Innumerable Questions
Aren’t so many of our beliefs in this category? Many of us have innumerable questions about them, perhaps continually asking ourselves if they’re believable. Many are anchored in our confidence that the Bible is the word of God in the words of humans. Others in faith in our church.

We can gain valuable insight into our beliefs through study and prayer, but many of them are ultimately – like much of life, mysteries.   

“We’re standing in the middle of an awesome and major mystery,” writes Rohr, “life itself, and the only appropriate response to this is humility.

“If we’re resolved that this is where we want to go — into the mystery, not trying to hold God and reality but to let God and reality hold us — then I think religion is finally in its proper and appropriate place. Anyone who has undergone God is humble; in fact, (he/she is) the most humble of all.”

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Embracing the New and the Old

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After the newspaper I worked for went from being a family-operated business to belonging to a corporate giant, the new company sent in a series of corporate employee relations people to bring employees around to the thinking of their new bosses.

Predictably, there was some resistance. Change is seldom easy, especially when you have no input in the change or when reasons for the change – discussed and agreed upon behind closed corporate doors – are inadequately explained.

I recall a meeting the new head of ER had with employees, then over 500 strong. “The train is leaving the station,” he said. “You’d better be on it.”

The threat was hard to miss. But the question I was left with was about the value of change. Yes, change is inevitable, but not every change. And not all change is beneficial. Should people embrace just any proposed change? Well, yes, the ER head implied, if you want to keep your job!

Resist, No Matter What
There is no doubt, however, that many of us resist change, no matter what. Is that more the case with religious people? Maybe. After all, Christians and Jews, at least, base their faith on God’s revelation in the Bible, and Christians on the promise that Jesus would always be guiding his church. That implies immutability.

But it fails to allow for growth. It never fails to amaze me how my fellow Catholics cling to old ways of believing and thinking no matter what, as if God had stopped guiding us. In many parishes, for instance, there’s no evidence that the Second Vatican Council occurred or that Francis – who is trying to help the church grow – is now the pope.

I’m not talking here about “change for changes’ sake,” about changing fundamental beliefs. The church’s mission, after all, is to “proclaim the good news of the gospel.” But the way that is done should conform to the needs of each age. We should be willing to examine our beliefs, separating the essential from the non-essential, and we shouldn’t be apathetic about the millions of people, especially young people, who are turned off by religion.

Eugene Kennedy
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Some would say, “Well, if they disavow the church, good riddance.” But that doesn’t compute with the message of Jesus, the shepherd who would leave 99 sheep to go in search of one who wanders off.

In his book, “Believing,” Eugene Kennedy, psychologist and writer, speculates that part of the resistance to change is due to fear.

“People are reluctant to examine their belief system too closely,” he writes, “for fear that they will find too many inconsistencies or that they may find that they no longer really believe the things they were taught, and then what would they do?”

And that brings us to the fact that many people have the same set of beliefs, and the same amount of knowledge about their faith, as they had in the eighth grade. Many have graduated from high school, college and even graduate school, knowing a lot about history, sociology, the sciences and math but next to nothing about their religion – its teachings, its history, its expectations, its failings.

“…We cannot believe just because someone else tells us to,” writes Kennedy, “and we cannot let somebody else, even if he is the pope, believe for us.”

Learning more, examining our beliefs, makes us, and our beliefs, stronger. But you can’t cram for faith. It’s a lifelong process, and it’s hard to do alone.

Kennedy relates his conversation with the famous psychologist, Carl Rogers, who told him that he “had come to believe that he was wiser than his intellect, that he knew more than he seemed to know.” Maybe that’s because most of us know much more than we are able to express in language or other ways of expression. And as we age, we forget so much of what we have learned.

Hardly Aware
Kennedy says the church is like that. “…The church … has learned so much of which it is hardly aware during its long life with humankind. It is wiser than it knows; it has depths of understanding and a consciousness that has absorbed the symbols and myths of a hundred cultures.”

It has, he says, “the capacity to bring forth new things and old from its treasure of human religious experience.”  

People searching for God, in my opinion, must be willing to do what it takes to learn the language of faith and seek the help of others, and the church, in gaining insight into faith. Such insight will make it easier to be open to change while rejecting the kind of change urged on employees by a new head of ER.



Thursday, November 2, 2017

Will the Violent Inherit the Earth?  

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One of the blockbuster movies of the summer was “War for the Planet of the Apes,” among dozens of violent movies that appear with alarming regularity at multiplexes around the country.

I didn’t see the movie, but I read a review by an Associated Press writer. The movie apparently has some touching moments and the writer praises the fact that the film “manages to surprise and captivate.” Predictably, however, it starts “with a gripping opening battle.” The film is one in a seemingly endless string of “apes” movies. This one probably won’t be the last.

While watching a football game recently, I saw commercials for other movies and video games that were even more violent. They dripped with murder, destruction, righteousness and vengeance, promising to plunge the viewer into an orgy of blood and guts. (Any relation between the violence of football and the kind of commercials shown?)

Let’s face it, as a nation we’re saturated with violence, in movies, TV, video games, in what is written and said in social media, in film studios, among family members in our homes, and on our streets. People are sexually abusing others. Gun sales are booming. Martial arts establishments are raking in the customers.

Then there’s the non-physical violence: meanness, name-calling, bullying, lack of forgiveness, arrogance, revenge, disrespect.

We love violence. We can’t get enough of it.

Religion a Friend of Violence?
Some may say that religion has been a friend of violence. The Hebrew Bible has plenty of it, including commands placed in God’s mouth to wipe out enemies. Through the years, Christians have been perpetrators of untold violence, ignoring Jesus’ words about “turning the other cheek.”

But God, it seems, not only created through evolution but used evolution in revealing him/herself to us. Humans were not to be changed overnight. God urges us forward, as is evident in other parts of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and in the church’s later centuries.

So what should be the attitude toward violence of people searching for God? How can we search for the God of Love if we immerse ourselves in violence, if we fail to pursue, and advocate for, love?
de Chardin
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A word about the violence in the Hebrew Bible and Christians’ participation in violence, now and in the past. Pierre Teilard de Chardin, the famous French philosopher, Jesuit priest and paleontologist who took part in the discovery of Peking Man, theorized in his book, The Divine Milieu, that the goal for the evolutionary journey of humans is to become more and more truly human, becoming more spiritual until becoming one with God.

Billions of years of evolution preceded the writing of the Hebrew Bible, and its God revelation was a tremendous leap in our evolutionary journey. But its writers were immersed in the culture of the time and fluctuated between advocating violence and reminding us that God rejects it. The Christian Bible went further, with Jesus urging us to reject “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But most Christians have yet to embrace the idea.

Recognizing that violence and the search for God are incompatible is a step forward in the evolutionary journey to the spiritual. As I’ve mentioned before in these blogs, you can’t limit the search for God to intellectual pursuits. In my opinion, you also have to strive to be more God-like, and in that effort, we have the church and Bible to guide us.

“The Lord tests the just and wicked,” says Psalm 10: “the lover of violence he hates.” And the author of 1 John in the Christian Bible counsels: “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.”

"Continuous Spiritual Transformation"
People searching for God must become more God-like by rejecting violence and advocating for its end. Despite living through two horrendous world wars, de Chardin saw the peoples of the earth engaged in “continuous spiritual transformation.” But God won’t zap increasing spirituality into existence. That’s our job.

Instead of being people of violence, people searching for God should never pass up the opportunity to advocate for peace, acceptance, understanding, kindness and love.

This is the kind of faith that matters, and according to de Chardin, “it means the practical conviction that the universe, between the hands of the Creator, still continues to be the clay in which he shapes innumerable possibilities.”



Thursday, October 26, 2017

Not Always Knowing Where We’re Going

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At my age, it’s hard to remember being a parent of young children. A recent visit by my son, his spouse and two children, one and three years old, was a reminder. If you’re good at it, as my son and his wife are, you are constantly sacrificing your own time and space for the children, dropping whatever you are doing to tend to their needs.

For me, it is close to the kind of love prescribed for all of us in Jewish and Christian traditions, the kind of love I believe is needed for people searching for God.

This love isn’t extraordinary, however, because it’s the love that normally exists between parents and children. Indeed, this kind of love is evident among many species of animals. What is extraordinary is this kind of love for people other than family members.

So is this going to be one of those syrupy pieces about love, the kind that turns many people off? I hope not. I acknowledge that for many of us, the two “greatest commandments” of the Jewish and Christian Bibles - love of God and neighbor - are enigmas. How can you really love God, whom you can’t see or feel or touch, whom theologians and religious people acknowledge is unknowable? And am I really expected to love everybody?

Far From Syrupy
Questions that many of us have asked. But, yes, the prescription for love in the Jewish Bible and repeated by Jesus in the Christian Bible would apply this familial love to God and to everybody. When you consider the difficulty of following this formula – to love God and neighbor - you realize it’s far from the syrupy descriptions of love in romance novels, popular songs or especially, in religious books and videos. And you understand why so few are willing to embrace it.

Those of us struggling to believe may tend to overemphasize the value of intellectual faith and underestimate the value of love. Tomas Halik, the Czech theologian and philosopher, writes that “God doesn’t particularly care whether we believe in him or not. …Or more precisely, he doesn’t care about our faith in the sense that the term is often used, namely that to believe in God is to be convinced of God’s existence.”

Tomas Halik
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What really matters to God, writes Halik, is “whether we love him,” whether we have a faith “that is fundamentally associated with love.” 

“Faith without love is hollow,” Halik writes; “indeed, it is often no more than a projection of our wishes and fears, and in that respect many atheist critics of religion are right.”

All this is in Halik’s new book, “I Want You to Be,” subtitled “On the God of Love.” He acknowledges that the term “love of God” sounds “just as absurd to many of those around us as the words “love of one’s enemy.”

He defines love as “self-transcendence,” and asks, “What is more radical than to abandon self-absorption – which is especially pronounced nowadays – in favor of an ‘absolute mystery (i.e., God)?”

This kind of love, he maintains, supersedes mere belief.

“Committed Christians” may criticize others who have doubt, who struggle with unbelief, as if the essence of faith were simply a matter of believing. But Halik points out that faith in the original biblical sense is “not a matter of adopting specific opinions and ‘certainties’ but the courage to enter the domain of mystery.”

The story of Abraham, the “father of faith” of Christians and Jews, is a good example. “He set out, not knowing where he was going.” For some who haven’t been able to commit to faith, this may seem absurd. But it’s often the case in human love as well. Aren’t most marriages of that kind? When we set out, we don’t really know where we’re going.

A Risky Endeavor
Says Halik of faith associated with love: “It is a risky endeavor whose outcome is never certain, a path on which we travel without knowing for sure where it will lead.”

This kind of love, and this kind of faith, rings true to many of us who at some moments are convinced of our faith and other moments not so sure. But we have this in common with many unbelievers, who undoubtedly aren’t always so sure of their unbelief. In one sense, we’re all believers and unbelievers at the same time.

The Christian and Jewish idea of love, and therefore of faith, challenges us to become more than we are, continuing the search for God, not always knowing where we are going.

Andrew Lenoir, a journalist and historian, writing in a recent issue of America Magazine about the famous mystic, Thomas Merton, says Merton “calls on us to sacrifice the world we have constructed for ourselves: our comfort zone, our complacency, our self-righteousness and our preferred facts. It might not be easy, but it is our small cross to bear if we would ask ourselves new questions and hear the voice of God in others here and now.”