Thursday, July 21, 2016

Three Teens on an Irish Pier

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At age 19, I made my first of many trips to Ireland where my mind recorded a simple but unforgettable scene.

A friend and I had driven to the far west end of the Dingle Peninsula, said to be the closest spot to the U.S. Before tourists discovered it, it was also one of the most isolated parts of Ireland where many people still spoke Irish.

It was a cool day. The green of the place was stereotypically Ireland. Lumps of land called the Blasket Islands could be seen in the distance protruding from a wild sea. Three teens about my age, two boys and a girl, were alone on an old pier that jutted a few dozen feet into the Atlantic doing what they could to entertain themselves. One of the boys was playing a concertina, sort of a primitive accordion, the other a “penny whistle,” a kind of Irish flute. The girl was singing.  

I don’t know if they noticed our presence and I didn’t know the tune, but with the sun casting its glittering hue over the ocean, the scene was stunning and the music haunting.

Rather Been Elsewhere?
But it was a lonely place and a bit sad. I imagined that being teens, they would rather have been elsewhere, somewhere more exciting, more glamorous than a sleepy, rural part of Ireland where at that time most people resigned themselves to being poor.

The term “terrible beauty” has been applied to the Ireland of that era and before, and though I haven’t seen any “official” definitions, I’ve always interpreted it to refer to the dilemma of people contemplating immigration: to leave a beautiful land, filled with wonderful family and friends, for a strange, foreign destination, or to stay and tolerate the lifelong poverty that awaited them.

I may have simply been projecting my own feelings on the scene in Kerry, but there’s a good chance one or the other of those teens emigrated to the U.K., the U.S. or some other destination. They would now be in the twilight of their lives, and if they were to look back on that same scene, I wonder if they would still feel the need to leave, to search for something more exciting, more glamorous and more prosperous than that peaceful, beautiful place.

The perspective of distance and time is transformative. What we at one time think is important isn’t so much later in life. What we think is inconsequential becomes fundamental.

Abraham Heschel
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This idea occurs to me when thinking about the “nones,” the growing number of Americans who do not identify with any religion, who answer “none” on surveys asking their religion. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated, says the Pew Research Center, the highest percentages ever in Pew polling.

Would the perspective of time make a difference in the nones’ perception of God and religion?

Back in 1976, Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote a book called “God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism.” Even 40 years ago, it seems, the handwriting was on the wall about a lack of enthusiasm for religion.

“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society,” he wrote. “It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.”

It’s true that like all human endeavors, religion can become all of those. The question is, is it the religion itself – its principles, beliefs and practices – that is the problem or the people who lead or practice it? Do the doping scandals in sports mean that sports are bad, or that some people who play sports may be?

Many people, I believe, cling to caricatures of religion to justify attacking or ignoring it.

Human and Divine
Many religions, including my own Catholic faith, believe that the church is human but also divine because God had a hand it its birth and maintenance. Religion’s purpose is to help us in the search for God, and to the extent that we find him/her, help us in our subsequent relationship to God and each other. I believe Catholicism, and most religions, fulfill that function and more.

“God is always present to us,” Heschel writes. But because we are not always, or perhaps even usually present to God, God must “reach out to us (from around us and from within us) to elicit our presence, our responsiveness.”

Age is irrelevant in the search for God. We need God and religion as much or more when we’re young as when we’re old, whether we’re teenagers like those on the Irish pier, American millennials whose lives are whirlwinds of busyness, or people so old they won’t buy green bananas.


Thursday, July 14, 2016

How Could God Allow Dallas, Baton Rouge, St. Paul?

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I once had a heated conversation with a police officer on the subject of evil, specifically, whether some people are simply evil, as he contended, or whether as I maintained, people “go bad” because of life circumstances or factors we don’t yet understand.

Several weeks later, the officer’s wife was jogging on a trail in Minnesota when she was brutally attacked by a man who did all he could to kill her. He strangled her, beat her and used a stick to gouge her eye. She fought him and survived but she lost the eye and was badly injured.

As I recall, the attacker was taken into custody, and presumably prosecuted, but no cogent motive was ever provided. When I read about it in the newspaper, I recalled the conversation with the officer and reconsidered my theory about evil.

An Agnostic on the Subject
I didn’t come around to the officer’s view but became an agnostic on the subject, having to acknowledge that I just don’t know. I want to believe that humans are basically good. I’m also uncomfortable with labeling people as “evil” because it justifies the use of violence to destroy the evil.

The “problem of evil” has always been one of the principal stumbling blocks for people who want to believe in God. Since the beginning of Judeo-Christianity, people have asked how a good God could allow awful things to happen. Undoubtedly after the recent shootings involving the police in Dallas, Baton Rouge and St. Paul and the terrorist attacks in Orlando, Istanbul and Baghdad that left 300 people dead, many people are asking that question.

My preferred argument is to consider the alternative to God allowing evil: a determinism that doesn’t align with the image of God as parent. How could we have the freedom to reject God if he/she prohibited bad people and evil acts?

Elie Wiesel
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This problem was much on the mind of Elie Wiesel, the author and Nobel Peace Prize winner who died recently at age 87. A prolific writer and peace advocate, he had good reason to focus on the problem of evil having survived one of the most cruel, inhumane and horrific systems imaginable, the Nazi concentration camps.

An online paper by Robert E. Douglas Jr. on Ellie Wiesel’s Jewish faith quotes from Wiesel’s novel about Auschwitz, The Gates of the Forest:

The executioner killed for nothing, the victim died for nothing. No God ordered the one to prepare the stake, nor the other to mount it. During the middle ages, the Jews, when they chose death, were convinced that by their sacrifice they were glorifying and sanctifying God's name. At Auschwitz, the sacrifices were without point, without faith, without divine inspiration. If the suffering of one human being has any meaning, that of six million has none.”

One can only imagine what effect such suffering, and witnessing such horrors, would have on one’s faith. Wiesel spent his life helping us to imagine it, we who have much less reason to question God’s part in the evil we see around us.

To say that Wiesel had a problem with a God who allows massive evil is an understatement. But that doesn’t mean he gave up on God or his faith. He cleared that up in a 2006 interview with Krista Tippet on American Public Media radio.

Divorced God?
“Some people who read my first book, Night, they were convinced that I broke with the faith and broke with God. Not at all. I never divorced God. It is because I believed in God that I was angry at God, and still am. But my faith is tested, wounded, but it's here.

“So whatever I say, it's always from inside faith, even when I speak the way occasionally I do about the problems I had, questions I had. Within my traditions, you know, it is permitted to question God, even to take Him to task.

“I never doubted God's existence. I have problems with God's apparent absence, you know, the old questions of theology. And they are topical even today.”

What sustained him, and should sustain us who are searching for God?

“I went on praying,” he told Tippet. “So I have said these terrible words, and I stand by every word I said. But afterwards, I went on praying.”



Thursday, July 7, 2016

Slip Slidin’ Away: The Fear of Falling Behind

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My parents’ scare tactic for encouraging their five children to study was that if we didn’t, we could wind up being “ditch diggers.”

That occupation was relatively rare even in my childhood when mechanized digging was being introduced but my parents undoubtedly heard that advice from their parents when such jobs were common. The equivalent today may be “slinging burgers at McDonald’s.”

No matter how you express it, few things worry humans more than the fear of “not keeping up,” of falling behind others in the economic and social rankings we keep in our heads. Much of contemporary advertising is based on this idea. Successful people drive nice cars, take great vacations and choose food and medicines that make them active, healthy and happy. Buy our product and you can be among them.

A woman interviewed after the recent Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, in which voters decided to leave the European Union, said many believed the union was keeping them from economic success.  “It shows that there are people that are definitely not coming up with others,” she said, “people that feel like they are being left behind.” 

This fear of falling behind brings to mind a song written and recorded by Paul Simon in 1977 called Slip Sliding Away. It appears to be about the inability of people to meet goals in their family lives, love lives, economic lives and lives in general. It can also be interpreted to refer to the rapidity with which we approach death. The chorus is,

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“Slip slidin' away
Slip slidin' away
You know the nearer your destination
The more you're slip slidin' away.”

And Simon throws in a bit of theology.

“God only knows
God makes his plan
The information’s unavailable
To the mortal man.”

Ok, I didn’t say it was good theology. The image here is a God who is arbitrary and manipulative. It’s true that God was sometimes portrayed that way in the Hebrew Bible, but revelation, too, is evolutionary, and subsequent revelation revealed a much different God, one who is above all loving and compassionate.

As hard as we might try to project human values onto God, the ultimate message of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles is a jolting one: the idea that God made us in his image and likeness is qualified by our freedom to mess up.

In the first book of Samuel in the Hebrew Bible, God chooses David as king of Israel against all odds, rejecting the human choice.

“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on the appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord sees not as a man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

Union Members Appalled?
One of the hardest stories in the Christian Bible for modern people to appreciate is Jesus’ story about the workmen in the vineyard who are paid the same regardless of the hour that they start work. I’m sure union members are appalled each time they hear it or read it.

The vineyard owner agrees with a group of workers on a day’s wages and pays what he promises. But he hires other workers who start much later – even an hour before quitting time - and pays them the same. Not surprisingly, the first to be hired complain and in Jesus’ story, the employer responds.

“…Do you begrudge my generosity?” Then Jesus delivers the punch line: “So the last will be first, and the first last,” generally interpreted to mean that those who are most important, most powerful, most fortunate and wealthiest in this world will not be so in the next. 

The fear of falling behind is “normal,” I suppose, for humans who measure their value by comparison to others. But that can’t be the measure for people of faith or people searching for God. For us, “success” is incomparable because it depends on God’s judgment, not that of other human beings.












Thursday, June 30, 2016

Where Did We Get the Idea of “God?”

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People searching for God have probably asked themselves this question at one time or another.

And the short answer is, it depends on whose god you’re talking about.

Worship of a god or gods is shrouded in the cloud of history, or rather, pre-history. The concept of God as most modern people envision him/her results from any of three abstract ideas or their combination, according to Wikipedia, and of course, the Bible, the Koran and similar sacred books.

The abstractions range from God as “…the deification of an esoteric, mystical or philosophical entity or category” to God as the “Ultimate,” the “greatest good,” the “absolute infinite” the “Transcendent," to God as “the ground of being.”

Many may not be familiar with these concepts because they originate in the philosophical world of Greek philosophers like Aristotle, who lived in the fourth century before Christ (BC). At some point – definitively with the ideas of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century after Christ (AD) – these notions became mixed with the biblical idea of a God who is human-like.

In His Image
“So God made man in his own image,” says the Book of Genesis.

Some skeptics say it should read, “Man made God in his own image.” And there is truth in that because we project onto God all kinds of human traits, good and bad. But more on that later.

Surprisingly, though Genesis is the first book in the Hebrew Bible, it’s not the earliest. The books of Psalms, Amos, 1st Isaiah, Hosea and Micah are believed to be the earliest, written between 745 and 586 BC. Genesis is among the books written in the period 583-330 BC.

All pre-date Aristotle and the Greek philosophers, however, and the Bible is believed to contain many stories and myths from other religions that may be even more ancient.

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For Christians and Jews, the Hebrew Bible is the original source for our belief in God. It promotes the vision of a personal God who gets angry, repents of his anger, is jealous and petty but also compassionate, loving and merciful, someone who can be seen “walking in the garden in the cool of the day,” as Genesis describes him.

This idea of a “human” God took a giant leap for Christians when God became a human being as Jesus of Nazareth. My friend, Ted Wolgamot, a psychologist who writes a blog at “Dr. Ted’s Web,” ( wrote recently of the scene in Luke’s gospel about Jesus coming upon a funeral procession in which a widow, accompanied by a group of her friends and neighbors, was on her way to bury her only son.

Jesus, says the gospel, was “moved with pity” for the woman, and he did something unheard of by raising him from the dead.

“Notice in the story,” writes Ted, “that Jesus never asks the woman about how faithfully she has fulfilled all the commandments. Jesus never asks her how impeccably she has obeyed all the rules and all the traditions and all the laws. Jesus never asks her anything. He sees her tears. And the tears tell him all he needs to know.”

But the most amazing thing about the Judeo-Christian idea of God isn’t that he/she exists or is the author of life but that God would care about us. Together with ancient people, we ask “Why?” 

“What is man that you think of him,” asks Psalm 8, “the son of man that you care for him?”

The traditional answer would be, “It’s a mystery.” For me, a better answer is that we simply don’t know.

The Hairs of Our Heads
That God should care for humans in general is one thing, but that God should care about me in particular and each of the billions of others on earth is another. Yet, says Jesus in Mathew’s gospel, “even the hairs of your head are all numbered.”

Another question regarding the origin of the idea of God pertains to humans’ receptivity to him/her.

“…The belief in a supernatural agent who operates in the world is universal to all cultures because it is hard-wired in the brain,” according to research on the subject in an article in the Wall Street Journal.

The article provides several explanatory theories, based on belief’s evolutionary benefits, but doesn’t mention the possibility that God is ultimately responsible for that human trait.

Leave it to us contemporary humans to ignore the obvious.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

When “Common Wisdom” Fails Us

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“Cleanliness,” my mother used to say, “is next to godliness.”

My mother grew up in a poor family. Her father abandoned his wife and six children so my grandmother had to make a living by doing other people’s laundry. I'm sure it was hard to keep the children clean and my mother probably heard my grandmother use that adage often to encourage her children to wash regularly.
Though often repeated and considered part of the “common wisdom,” however, that saying is among many that simply don’t ring true. Think of the millions of people living in the world’s slums, the millions of kids living on the streets. They have little opportunity to keep clean and are too busy trying to survive to worry about hygiene.

Are they not next to godliness? I would say they are closer simply by virtue of being poor.

Another such saying is, “You can be anything you want to be.” That is among the greatest of fraudulent maxims. Sure, if you’re a middle or upper class white American, the possibilities are many. But if you’re African American, Hispanic or other minority, your chances of “being what you want to be” are statistically dismal.

There are some economically successful minorities – and I wouldn’t encourage minorities to use the “victim” excuse for not trying – but the successful ones are exceptions. The facts speak for themselves.

According to an article in an online publication of the American Psychological Association,
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  • African American children are three times more likely to live in poverty than Caucasian children. American Indian/Alaska Native, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian families are more likely than Caucasian and Asian families to live in poverty (Costello, Keeler, & Angold, 2001; National Center for Education Statistics, 2007).
  • Unemployment rates for African Americans are typically double those of Caucasian Americans. African American men working full time earn 72 percent of the average earnings of comparable Caucasian men and 85 percent of the earnings of Caucasian women (Rodgers, 2008).
  • Despite dramatic changes, large gaps remain when minority education attainment is compared to that of Caucasian Americans (American Council on Education, 2006).
  • Minority children in high-poverty areas are more likely to be exposed to alcohol and tobacco advertisements (Wallace, 1999) and drug distribution (Wallace, 1999); they are also more likely to use drugs and exhibit antisocial behaviors (Dubow, Edwards, & Ippolito, 1997).
And by the way, to be “anything you want to be,” it helps a lot to be male.

What does all this have to do with the search for God? Just that if you’re searching for the God in which Christians and Jews believe, you won’t find him/her if you ignore the structural injustices that keep people from the opportunities that allow them to thrive.

“Inequality is the root of social ills,” writes Pope Francis in The Joy of the Gospel, and tolerance of social ills – such as poverty, lack of education and lack of access to health care – is really what's far from "godliness.”

Promoting greater economic and social equality isn’t promoting “class warfare,” pitting the poor against the rich. It’s a matter of one of the two great commandments of Hebrew and Christian teaching, that of “love of neighbor.”

People searching for God can’t be indifferent about these issues because indifference gives the lie to a genuine search. Granted, you can’t solve all the world’s problems, but you can help in any small or big way. Organizations that work to solve them always need help from volunteers and donors.

And people genuinely searching for God will keep these issues in mind when voting.   

Thursday, June 16, 2016

When Church Doesn’t Feel Like a Spiritual Place

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“As a child,” writes Annika Freese in a recent issue of America magazine, “I could never find God in his house.

“Sitting in Mass I felt like a machine that could not manage to function properly. I had all the right parts and pieces, but together they would not produce the desired outcome. Looking around, it seemed as if everyone else was automatically filled with God’s grace as soon as they walked in the church doors.

“Church did not feel like a spiritual place to me,” Annika continues.  “I felt judged within its walls and like I did not belong, because I could not feel what everyone else around me appeared to be feeling.”

First, Annika – a high school senior who lives in Amman, Jordan, and appears to be wise beyond her years – is certainly not alone. Millions of people feel disconnected when attending church services. In my experience, the liturgy that attracts, inspires and confirms you in faith is the exception not the rule.

Undoubtedly Clouded
Secondly, Annika’s observation of others attending church is undoubtedly clouded by the kind of assumptions that many have in adolescence: that others are feeling and doing what they’re supposed to do, and doing it better, while we’re not.

Personally, as a child I was usually OK – and sometimes even moved – by attending Mass, even though it was in Latin and the priest had his back to the people. It was sometimes boring, but I found the music beautiful, mysterious and stirring and the prayers mostly meaningful.

Little by little, I began investing more of myself in Mass and now I’m getting the payoff: a weekly experience that is meaningful and prayerful – and sometimes moving – and that provides bonding with fellow parishioners. I eventually realized that, just like most things, you have to put something into it to get something out of it.   

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Not everyone finds God in church, of course, but sometimes the various paths to God lead back to the kind of communal worship that is so important to faiths like Christianity. That’s what happened in Annika’s case.

She stopped going to church and stopped praying. But as a older teen she had the privilege of traveling to places many of us would consider exotic and tells of being on a boat crossing the Bosporus in Turkey when she had a wake-up moment.

“The wind was blowing and the golden sun was shining on my face,” she writes. “An intense feeling of safety and comfort washed over me. I saw before me birds flying low over the water. I saw trees blowing in the wind, moving with the flow of the universe. The sky was cloudless and the kind of ideal blue one sees only in paintings.

“…And even as I looked out at the water and took in this completely new vision, a certain familiarity overtook me. I had felt this before; I had felt this happiness and excitement for life before. I believe that God was calling me back through nature at that moment.”

Not many of us have such moments. And we may be tempted to dismiss Annika’s because of her youth. But isn’t it possible that they seldom happen because we’re so caught up in our busyness that we don’t take time to “smell the roses.” May God be trying to reach us and we’re tuned out?

Helen Ackermann writes on the subject on the St. Anthony Spirituality Center web site.

Surrounded by Mystery
“I have come to the conclusion that experiencing God in nature is not only about awe, beauty and wonder …. It is more than that. Is it possible that people feel the presence of God when they are surrounded by mystery? Isn’t it a relief to not be in control, to not have to understand everything?

“In our culture it seems that the opposite is true.  The kind of control we need to exercise and the immense knowledge we should possess can lead to enormous stress. It is much better to accept the mystery of God in nature and to allow ourselves to simply stand in awe.”

Skeptics who are open to the many experiences and people God uses to bring us to him are rewarded.

Nature isn’t everybody’s “thing,” but fortunately, God can be found in teaching a Kindergarten class or making a sale; in solving mathematics problems or doing research on the DNA molecule; in helping a neighbor move or praying with a sick loved one. We just have to be open.

“Finding God is a very personal experience,” writes Annika. “No one can be sure of when or where this discovery will take place. But if we listen closely, we will find that God is always calling his children home. There is nowhere I can go that God’s love cannot find me. And now, when I walk into his house, I seek God there, too.”


Thursday, June 9, 2016

Obstacles in the Search for God

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I try to be positive in these blogs. No one wants to read downers, especially in a blog whose aim is to help people who may have given up on God and religion. Faith, if nothing else, is a relationship with God and each other that brings peace and joy.

However, anyone who has goals – such as finding God – should acknowledge the obstacles. And as in times past, there are plenty of them.

One difference from “back in the day” is that social structures and the popular culture generally supported faith and religion. Today, evangelicals and other faith forms may capture a certain amount of public attention – in the area of politics, for instance – but contemporary Western culture does not support faith, especially for the young. 

The obstacles about which I’m writing are borrowed from Pope Francis’ “The Joy of Love,” a papal message about marriage and family released in March. The document followed meetings of Catholic bishops in 2014 and 2015 on the same subjects.

Living One's Faith
I've written about this exceptional document before and will do so again. I focus on these obstacles because they apply not only to marriage and family but generally to the attempt to live one’s faith in today’s world.

(I don’t subscribe to the idea that modern life is “going to hell in a hand basket,” by the way. In many ways, conditions and people are better than ever!)

Near the top of any such list is our society’s extreme individualism, making it hard to consider the “common good” over our own interests, needs and desires. Individualism leads to the question, “What’s in it for me or my group?” It makes compromise difficult – something that is more and more evident in the political arena – and increases stress, intolerance and hostility.

Religions, particularly the Christian faith, are communal. They promote a sense of belonging, of a common purpose. Spirituality without religion may have an appeal but is hard to actually pull off. Just as most people need the motivation and sense of belonging in physical exercise, they also need it in our communal relationship with God.

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“Where two or three are gathered in my name,” says Jesus in the Mathew’s gospel, “there I am in their midst.”

A related obstacle is a perverted idea of freedom of choice.

“Freedom of choice makes it possible to plan our lives and to make the most of ourselves,” says Francis’ document. “Yet if this freedom lacks noble goals or personal discipline, it degenerates into an inability to give oneself generously to others.”

Obviously, people of faith and people searching for God can’t define freedom as “doing what I want.”
Modern life is also, in my opinion, marked by a failure to find “personal fulfillment,” a generally useful term to describe our need to make our lives meaningful. This failure often results in disillusionment among people who don’t meet their own and others’ expectations, making it harder to relate to God and others.
A recent report on National Public Radio said a large percentage of college graduates, for instance, feel no “passion” about any career or personal goal. The young people interviewed on the subject felt sad and stressed because they believed something important was missing from their lives.
It brings to mind the famous saying attributed to St. Augustine, that great latecomer to religion and searcher for God: “You have made us for yourself,” Lord, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” 
Question Everything?
Last on my list of contemporary obstacles to faith is widespread uncertainty and ambiguity. I like the slogan, sometimes seen on auto bumpers, “Question Everything.” For me, it means that humans must be curious, look for evidence and use our God-given intelligence and logic to better understand the world. But it doesn’t mean that truth and knowledge are found in cynicism or solely in scientific pursuit.

This uncertainty and ambiguity is expressed even in the way we speak. We hedge our bets on many of our statements, peppering them with “sort of” and “like.”

And many people today refuse to accept that anything is stable or even that truth exists. It’s “your truth” and “my truth,” as if truth could be thus divided. To me, “seeking truth” is the equivalent of “seeking God.” If you don’t believe in truth, how can you believe in its author?

The good news in all this is that obstacles can be overcome. And, I believe, God is always there for those who seek him.