Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Benefit of Companions on the Journey

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I had a newspaper colleague who liked to refer to me as “the defrocked priest.”

She thought it was funny, and I sort of did, too, and was never offended by it. Truth is, though, I seldom wore a “frock,” and I wasn’t de-anything’d. I freely sought a dispensation from my promises as a priest and was granted it.

Although through the years I’ve had serious doubts about my faith, my leaving the priesthood was not a rebellion against the church. I was never treated with anything but respect by church members, including the dozens of priests and nuns with whom I studied and worked. And as I’ve mentioned before in this blog, once I accepted that the only way to determine the existence of a personal God is by faith, most of the rest of what the church teaches was a walk in the park. I simply couldn’t live a life of celibacy.

Some ex-priests have left the church or become its enemy, and I’ve had my differences with how the church operates. But I could no more leave the church than I could my family. And I can’t see how leaving the church can do anything to change the things about the church I don’t like. You can’t bail out and expect others to promote the changes you want.

Of course, the key is caring. You can’t change anything unless you care about it, and I understand that many people simply don’t care about the church, if not God or religion. That includes many Catholics and, presumably, some people who read this blog regularly.

A problem for Americans in the Catholic Church is that it’s not democratic. However, I believe that in its slow, deliberative way, it is becoming more so and will continue to do so. It is filled with consultative bodies, on the parish, diocesan, national and world levels. And in an unprecedented move, the Vatican recently issued a worldwide survey on family life that includes questions about people’s views on birth control, cohabitation before marriage and gay marriage. A meeting of bishops is set to discuss the survey’s results next October.  

(I again ask the indulgence of non-Catholics. I know I tend to write a lot about Catholicism, which is what I know best. Much of this can be applied to other faiths, however.)

I suspect a lot of people leave the church after much soul-searching and even agonizing analysis. Others, I suspect, leave as a reaction to a cliché, not the church I know and love. To me, the church is at once complex and simple. It’s not primarily the pope, the Vatican curia or bishops and priests, although there is a sense in which the church is an “organization.” It’s a community of people on a communal search for God, having found important clues that encourages the trek.

It includes solidarity with believers in my family and others far back into history, to the time of Christ himself. I have a hard time understanding the modern cult of the celebrity who excels in sports, popular music or the cinema, but has doubtful ethics. After all, it’s easy to be a “bad boy,” hard to consistently do what’s right.  My heroes are the “saints,” canonized or not, who, though considered naïve or unrealistic, heroically follow Jesus’ teachings.

In a time when trends last only months or years, when society rushes from one “new thing” to another, having a sense of solidarity with those believers is important.

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Recognizing that all analogies fall short, the church is sort of like those pioneers who crossed the western U.S. during the 1800s. They were all on a journey together for many different reasons but pulling for each other and defending each other to the hilt. Some left to take a different route, but that was OK, as long as they were trying to reach the same goal.

I often feel this sense of community when celebrating Mass with fellow believers, feeling that we’re on a pilgrimage together. And I often have a sense of loss when perceiving that many others who were formerly there seem to have abandoned the journey. Only God knows whether that’s actually the case, of course.

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, some might say the sense of peace and joy that comes from belief is what Karl Marx was talking about when he called religion the “opium of the people,” that believers are simply involved in massive self-deceit. But that’s a superficial look at faith and the solidarity with other believers that is part of the deal.

Returning to the analogy of the pilgrims crossing the American west, there were certainly “no-goods” among them, at least according to the Westerns that I watched incessantly as a kid. There were people who faked having the common vision of the pioneers, people who just went along for the ride and people who took advantage of others and whose deeds embarrassed those whose vision was sincere.

That hasn’t changed. It’s obvious that all of us pilgrims are scarred. Some in our number do horrible things in the name of religion. The incidents of child abuse by the clergy are only the latest examples. Some are hypocritical to the hilt. Others are simply clueless and mindlessly follow the rituals and dogmas. I believe, however, that the vast majority of Christians are sincere and recognize the benefits of searching for God as members of the church.

Among those benefits are shared hope, and the trust in God and others that results from that hope. Even a “defrocked priest” can recognize these benefits, and profit by them.  

 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Tired Stereotypes about Religion

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Using stereotypes that reflect common “wisdom,” rock musician Tom Petty recently used his fame to slam religion, particularly Catholicism.

I wouldn’t normally use this blog to take on such an icon of American rock music. I try to be positive because Christianity’s message is nothing if not positive, even joyful. But his words, originally published in Billboard Magazine, were displayed prominently in a recent issue of USA Today and other media and will influence millions. They shouldn’t go unchallenged.

I give Petty credit for being against violence and war and for opposing pedophilia. Whether he agrees or not, that exhibits genuine Christian values. But in commenting on his new song, Playing Dumb, it doesn’t appear that knowledge of religion is his strong suite. Here’s what he had to say.

“Catholics, don’t write me. I’m fine with whatever religion you want to have, but it can’t tell anybody it’s OK to kill people, and it can’t abuse children systematically for God knows how many years… If I was in a club, and I found out that there had been generations of people abusing children, and then that club was covering that up, I would quit the club."

So would I. But the church is not a club. Back to that later.

“Religion,” he goes on to say, “seems to me to be at the base of all wars… I’ve nothing against defending yourself, but I don’t think, spiritually speaking, that there’s any conception of God that should be telling you to be violent. It seems to me that no one’s got Christ more wrong than the Christians.”

The idea that religion is “at the base of all wars” is commonly held but patently false. For decades, Catholic and other churches have been doing the opposite of telling people “it’s OK to kill people.”


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As long as I can remember, the Vatican has been preaching - mostly to deaf ears - about world peace. All of the recent popes have written against war. Pope John Paul II in 1991 expressed his opposition to the Gulf War and publicly appealed to President George Bush not to wage it. In 2003, he once again opposed the Iraq war and appealed to the second President Bush to refrain.

Pope Francis, in an address in St. Peter’s Square last September, said, “May the noise of weapons cease! War always marks the failure of peace, it is always a defeat for humanity. Let the words of Pope Paul VI resound again: 'No more one against the other, no more, never ... never again, never again war!'”

How could you be more emphatic?

Globally, and in the U.S., church leaders have for years spoken out against the death penalty, too. (Do an Internet search on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, then search for “capital punishment.”) And no one has done more to publicize the injustice of the death penalty than Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun. Her book, Dead Man Walking, and the movie based on it, has changed hearts.

In fact, the worst violence in history, and in recent memory, was perpetrated by people who were atheist and/or anti-religion. At least five million people were killed in Nazi camps, to say nothing of the world war that Hitler started. Other millions were murdered by Russian dictator Josef Stalin, and still other millions slaughtered in the "Rape of Nanking" and in Cambodia. Violence by believers, or motivated by religion, pales by comparison.

Many people cite the Inquisition as an example of religion's savagery. But it was an on-again, off-again Catholic campaign against Muslims, Jews and Protestants that was perpetrated by officials of the state as much as of religious origin. Best estimates on deaths are 32,000 people between 1480 and 1808, a period of 328 years. On the murder and mayhem scale, that just doesn't cut it by modern standards – even when you consider that the population of cities and countries was substantially smaller then.

And as for Catholics and the idea that “it’s OK to kill people,” surely Petty knows about the church’s stance on abortion, which – despite euphemisms to the contrary – is killing people or potential people.

Now about the child abuse committed by clergy that Petty references. According to an exhaustive study by John Jay College of Criminal Justice – part of the City University of New York – it was committed by about 4 percent of priests and was “systematic” only in the sense that it was geographically widespread. The vast majority of Christians, including Catholics and Catholic leaders, abhor such behavior by people who take advantage of their privileged positions. And it appears the church is doing all it can to find and punish offenders, prevent further abuse and help victims, even though some critics of the church may not think so.

Finally, comparing the church to a club is like comparing a Mercedes Benz to a wheel barrow. They both have wheels, but that’s just about it. Yes, the church is an institution with defined roles for various tasks, but it is principally the “people of God,” the “Body of Christ,” “a pilgrim people.” These are not just clichés but are crucial to Christians’ self-image. Being a Christian is a relationship, to God and to others, not a club.

Unfortunately, Petty is far from alone in expressing these ideas. Even people who have spent years in religious schools are amazingly ignorant about their own faith, let alone others’. With courtesy and respect, believers should never be afraid to set the record straight. And those searching for God should seek objective facts from reliable sources. 
 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Cells in a Living Organism?

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There’s an old joke about an assistant going to the pope and saying, “I have good news and bad news.”

“What’s the good news?” asks the pope.

“God’s on the phone and he wants to talk with you.”

“Ah, that’s very good news,” says the pope. “What bad news could match it?”

“He’s calling from Salt Lake City.”

It’s just a joke, but it brings to mind a couple of truths about our relationship to God. The first is that from all we know from the Bible and tradition, God is always a surprise – at least this scenario would be a surprise for Catholics. The second is that we know God only by analogy, by anthropomorphism.

Both the Hebrew and Christian bibles are filled with scenes in which God is very much like a human being, and humans are said to have been created in God’s “image and likeness.” But the similarity is extremely limited. God doesn’t show himself/herself in normal human ways, except, of course, in Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that I have to use “himself/herself” – because God could not have a gender – is an example of that.

There are many biblical stories and characterizations that are meant to help us picture God. God as “father,” which Jesus used constantly, urges us to see God as parent. God is also portrayed in Jesus’ stories as king, judge, landowner, householder, even slave owner. All are meant to portray some quality of God, but none of them individually or together can paint an accurate picture.

So we are left to our imaginations. This is sometimes an obstacle when we pray. To whom or what are we praying? What, if anything, lies beyond? What is God’s “world” like? How do we fit in? Many philosophers and theologians have speculated about these and similar questions, but we always have to see them for what they are, speculation.

Still, searchers for God should always be open to new perspectives about God, always remembering that they’re very limited. One of my heroes from my seminary days, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, offers modern humans one of the most interesting visions of God and his/her relationship to us.

De Chardin, a French Jesuit priest, philosopher, geologist and paleontologist, died in 1955. His insights, due to training and practice as a scientist as well as a philosopher, were at one point not welcomed by the Vatican, but he seems to have been “rehabilitated.” I mentioned that I was a fan of de Chardin in the seminary, reading his books, Phenomenon of Man and Divine Milieu, but both were too complex for me and they probably would be today. However, a recent article in the National Catholic Reporter by Louis Savary, the author of several books about de Chardin, helps.


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According to Savary, De Chardin saw humans as cells in a living organism, a universe saturated by God. He called it the Divine Milieu. Cells are not aware they’re part of a whole, but he believed that not only is the biological world still evolving, evolution is occurring on all human levels, the personal, social, emotional, mental and spiritual. Through increasing complexity and interconnectedness, it’s all leading toward greater and greater consciousness. The cells are becoming aware that they’re part of the Milieu, part of God.

It’s close to what the apostle Paul wrote in the Acts of the Apostles, that “God is not far from each one of us, for ‘in him we live and move and have our being.’”


Many scientists and others say there is no need for a divine designer of the universe, that particles floating around in space provided the matter for the Big Bang that started the evolutionary ball rolling. But that doesn’t make the Big Bang the beginning, does it? Where did the particles come from? And for that matter, what accounts for space? De Chardin speculated that before matter, there was spirit and that this spirit, whom we call God, made the Big Bang happen.

You may think this is wishful thinking, more along the lines of science fiction than science, but de Chardin saw nothing wrong with synthesizing what he learned from science, philosophy and theology – along with years of reflection – to answer questions about the nature of the universe, of humans and of God.

I mentioned above that in trying to answer questions about God we are mostly left to our imaginations, and even with the help of science, our imaginations fail us. Going out and gazing into the night sky, as I do on most nights, you can see the splendor of the “heavens” but you can’t imagine the vastness, let alone what caused it and what underlies it.

It’s true that religion is not a method by which we answer questions about how the universe works. We have science for that, and it’s getter better at answering those questions. But science isn’t good at answering the “why” questions, to speculate about the meaning of it all, and people who search for God are looking for meaning. For that, you need religion and religious people like de Chardin, who aren’t afraid to offer theories that use what we know from science, but also from the experience of a believer. And, of course, you still need the anthropomorphisms.

“Hello, Pope. God speaking. Pardon me if I don’t call you ‘Holy Father.’ Yes, I’m calling from Salt Lake City, but I’m also right there in Rome, as well as in Tel Aviv, Cairo, Managua, Pretoria, Buenos Aires, Moscow, Beijing and What Cheer, Iowa (I love that name!) And I’m on the moon, Mercury, Venus and Mars. (Yes, it’s very hot, and very cold!) I’m also over here on Epsilon Eridani b and c, not far from your solar system, and I’m way out here in the Ultra Deep Field (though it really isn’t that deep from my perspective).

“Would you and the seven billion other humans there care to join me? Oh, right. You already have.”           

 

 

 

 

 

    

 

 

 

 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Gay Marriage and the Search for God

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I’ve come to believe that the gay-marriage issue is a critical factor in alienating many people from religion, if not from God, and I think many believers underestimate its importance.

Many people feel about gay marriage as some of us felt about the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s. In the eyes of many young people, especially, it’s a matter of justice, of recognizing people’s rights, of acknowledging that love comes in various forms.

Many religious people counter that gay marriage is against the natural law, a traditional concept for Catholics and some other Christians. They also believe gay marriage is bad public policy that undermines the traditional family.

A federal judge recently struck down Wisconsin’s ban on gay marriage, one of many states where the law has changed due to the courts or the ballot. The unmistakable trend everywhere is toward allowing gay marriage, and it doesn’t appear that opponents can muster enough energy and clout to reverse the trend.

Some people lament what’s happening while others rejoice. The views of the two sides will continue to be the subject of bitter public debate, especially in the social media. The invective is part of the culture wars that are raging in this country and in many other parts of the world – wars that keep us from approaching the issue rationally and with mutual respect.

Truth is, many of us are conflicted. We know and love gay people, many of whom are family members, and we don’t want them hurt. We don’t want them to feel isolated, discriminated against or treated unfairly. We want them to feel part of society’s mainstream, to be accepted and respected like everyone else.

On the other hand, some of us feel uncomfortable about making such an important change to the meaning of marriage without more thought, more analysis about what it means for individuals and society. After all, the implication in the involvement of the courts and the law is that society has a stake in marriage. It’s not just between the people getting married. It affects the common good.

Some will say that religious people are conditioned – by tradition, their leaders and conservative politicians – to feel that way. But that’s a partisan assumption, part of the culture war’s polemic. I assume supporters of gay marriage are sincere; they should assume no less about those who are conflicted.   

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Many are cynical about the Catholic Church’s stance of “hating the sin and loving the sinner,” but when church doctrine clashes with popular cultural norms, that’s probably the best a church can do – except to go out of its way to make sure that the “loving the sinner” part comes through loud and clear.

Here’s what our bishop, Richard Pates of the Diocese of Des Moines, wrote on the subject in a recent edition of The Des Moines Register.

“…Many of us can agree on this: God loves everyone, gay or straight. No one is excluded, and sexual identity is only one component of who we are. Gay people are welcome in the Catholic Church. Many of them are hurting from hateful attitudes, and as Pope Francis has said, Christians should see themselves less as enforcers of rules than as doctors in a field hospital.”

He then went on to restate the church’s position, saying marriage between a man and woman “is the best way to nurture and protect children,” adding that this position “is based on the solid teaching of Scripture and our own tradition about its meaning.”

Many church leaders appear to go out of their way to avoid talking about homosexuality, pretending gay people don’t exist. But Raul Vera, bishop of Saltillo in northeast Mexico, doesn’t appear to among them. Here’s what he said in a recent interview in El Pais, the Madrid, Spain, daily newspaper.

“I have a friend who was a priest and is homosexual. He says that not acknowledging homosexuals is like using rugby’s rules to play football, then complaining that a player isn’t playing by the rules. The Church has to draw near to homosexuals not with condemnations but with dialogue. We can’t deny the richness of a person simply because of his sexual preference. That’s sick; it’s having no heart; it lacks common sense.”

Theology, the study of God and humans’ relationship to God, evolves, albeit slowly. And if Catholic and other Christian theology evolves regarding gay marriage, it will probably be because of discoveries about homosexuality itself, about which, despite all the grandstanding on both sides, we know very little.

What does any of this have to do with the purpose of this blog, which is “a discussion of faith, belief and religion for people who have given up on God and/or religion?” I believe such controversies, and this one in particular, can be obstacles in the search for God. We can hold the view that seems most rational to us, trying to keep an open mind (and if we’re at that stage, praying for guidance), but searchers for God must place the controversy in brackets.

We can’t pretend the controversy doesn’t exist, or try to “wish it away.” But what matters in the search for God is sincerity, single- and open-mindedness and persistence. We can’t let anything get in the way, even a controversy as important as gay marriage.w that faith and skepticism are not mutually exclusive.

 

   

 

 

 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Tribalism and Religion

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The marching season in Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland recently ended. For those of you unfamiliar with this phenomenon, it’s a time when “Orangemen” – and they are almost all men and decidedly gray haired – march to “commemorate the Battle of the Boyne.”

“Hmmm. I don’t know about that battle,” you might say, “and I’m pretty much up on news and recent history.”

That’s because it occurred on or about July 12, 1690, between two claimants to the English (and Irish) throne, the Catholic King James and the Protestant, William of Orange. William won. The Boyne is a river north of Dublin. William was from the “House of Orange,” a royal line in Holland, and Protestant groups in Ireland and Scotland long ago formed “Orange” lodges in his honor.

Their members are called “Orangemen,” and every year they march through cities in Northern Ireland and Scotland to stick it to Catholics. Before, after and during these parades, they pound exuberantly on drums, carry signs and banners that provoke Catholics along their route and, in general, exacerbate the ill feeling between Catholics and Protestants. It would be sort of like holding an annual march in Atlanta to commemorate the North’s civil-war victory over the South.

Anyway, the Irish and Scottish marchers seem to have missed the part about loving your neighbor, a central tenet of Christianity, Catholic and Protestant.

It’s no wonder that in Northern Ireland, especially, it has taken centuries to overcome this animosity, which is often cited as evidence that religion is no more than a cause of strife in the world. But if you think this is about religion, you might also think tailgating is about football, charity balls are about charity or the Irish Republican Army - the group associated with Catholicism that has killed and maimed people in Ireland - is about Catholicism.

I doubt if the majority of marchers have stepped foot in a church in years and if they have, they weren’t paying attention. Most Protestants in Northern Ireland belong either to the Presbyterian Church or Church of Ireland, both of which believe in and promote the gospel values of love, tolerance and solidarity. And the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland and Scotland reject the marchers’ values.

A recent statement from the head of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland, Dr. Michael Barry, reminded people that “we cannot serve others if we are attacking them. We are to treat all people with respect and dignity because they have been created in the image of God.”

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I could say these marches are pure tribalism, but that would be giving tribalism a bad name. They’re about “them versus us,” about desperately trying to feel superior, not about the lessons of the gospel or any other important part of the Christian message. They call to mind scenes in the Sopranos TV series in which Tony and his pals faithfully attend masses, baptisms and funerals before and after slaughtering their enemies or cheating on their spouses. 

It also calls to mind Jesus’ words about people of his own time: “These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.”  

Many people are turned off by religion because they don’t like the religion’s teachings, but many others reject religion because they see people who profess a faith they fail to express in their lives.

The first obstacle should be more difficult to overcome than the second because assuming some interest, a religion’s teachings require study, prayer and thoughtfulness. But I believe overcoming the distaste for failure to “practice what one preaches” is harder because the degree of commitment to a faith varies widely and because it requires an honest look at human nature.

Humans have ideals, but we don’t always measure up.  We want to follow our beliefs, but get distracted by money, self-promotion, and sometimes bad relationships. Which of us consistently and uniformly follows what we say we believe in?

This in no way justifies the marches, but to avoid being judgmental, and to be faithful in our search for God, we have to acknowledge what we are while striving to be who we say we are.

As for tribalism, loyalty to one’s “tribe” is not in itself a bad thing. We feel loyalty to our family, friends, state, country, and decreasingly for many, our employers, so why not our religion? The problem is canonizing loyalty, elevating it to supremacy over the gospel values of faith, hope and love.

That brings me to a point about the diversity of religions, which I’ve written about before. Some people believe they’re all the same, and that choosing one disparages all the others. First, the idea that “they’re all the same” flies in the face of history, culture and the ability to distinguish among many good choices. They simply aren’t all the same, just as not all cars, cuts of meat and ways of living are the same.

And how is adherence to one religion an insult to the others? That’s not how choices work. How is buying a Ford an insult to Chevrolet buyers?  

It’s true that the Jesus of the Gospels, as well as the writings of Paul, urge unity among Jesus’ followers and many Christians promote, and pray for, such unity. But Jesus is also quoted as saying, “Whoever is not against us is for us,” “In my Father’s house there are many rooms,” and “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.”

Genuine God seekers, acknowledging the ambiguities in their own quest, respect all beliefs and all honest religions, giving their adherents the benefit of the doubt about their sincerity and their faith’s value. After that comes openness and thoughtfulness about which, if any, religion could help in the search. Apart from lessons in what not to do, I see nothing useful or helpful about the Orange marches.  

 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Taking Your Sunglasses Off

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As a reporter doing a story on why Mexican immigrants come to the U.S., I once drove in the front seat of a pickup truck to central Mexico with a Des Moines packing house worker – we’ll call him Hector – his girlfriend and the girlfriend’s 8-year-old daughter. It was a very crowded ride. The back of the pickup was filled with building materials with which Hector intended to remodel his parents’ house.

After a day or two at his home, near the town of Fresnillo in the state of Zacatecas, we visited families who had all worked in Iowa and returned to Mexico with enough money to continue their lives on a little higher economic level. While driving to the ranchos, we drove across a pasture and came to an opening between two barbed-wire fences, an opening large enough to allow a vehicle to go through. Standing to one side was a man who approached Hector. The man held out a palm and Hector placed a few pesos in it.

Grinning, the man returned to the fence and went through the motions of opening an invisible gate. He walked the “gate” from one side of the opening to the other, at which point we passed through. Hector explained that the gatekeeper, Tomás, had been bitten by a rattlesnake as a child, went untreated and wasn’t “right in the head.” To make a living, the community allowed him to collect tolls at the invisible gate.

I was moved by that scene. The community recognized that Tomás, though lacking in the mental resources with which most people were blessed, was a valuable human being who deserved to make a living. They saw him with the eyes of compassion, reminding me about the Gospel passage in which it is reported to John the Baptist that because of Jesus, “the blind see.”    

I’m still reading the book, Night of the Confessor: Christian Faith in an Age of Uncertainty, by Tomas Halik, the Czeck psychotherapist, priest and professor of philosophy and sociology. The book is a treasury of wisdom and insight, and I highly recommend it.

Halik writes about a former student of the university where Halik teaches who comes to him to discuss his spiritual life. The young man had some years before converted from Christianity to Buddhism and had been in a monastery somewhere in the Far East but had decided to return to Christianity. After much silence and some limited dialogue, Halik decides to give him two pieces of advice: Retain what is good in your Buddhist experience, and “learn to see Christianity with new eyes.”

That last phrase is what this blog is about.

Maybe because “familiarity breeds contempt,” our ideas about God and religion are often clichés.
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The act of abandoning his faith and searching elsewhere allowed the young man to see Christianity in a new light, probably similar to how the first Christians saw it. Only with humility, sincerity, and letting go of the clichés can we arrive a little closer to seeing things as they are; in other words, making progress in our search for God.

Halik recalls his own visits to Buddhist and Catholic monasteries, and writes that a Buddhist monk told him that enlightenment isn’t a sudden understanding in which “the heavens part,” but is more like “realizing you’ve forgotten you’re wearing sunglasses and you take them off.”

I believe that’s what is needed in the search for God, to take the sunglasses off, to see faith in a new light. That implies single-mindedness, placing to one side all the obstacles to the search, including the “sunglasses” of society’s common wisdom, the biases of our contemporaries, the social and political controversies in which we get hung up. The most important question for people whose search is sincere is, what can help me find God?

Merely asking that question may not seem like making much progress, but I believe many people never make the question central to their lives and are forever distracted by what counts less. This single-mindedness apples to all of us, by the way, no matter how much, or little, progress we have made, because, Halik reminds us, “Truth is a book that none of us has read to the end.”

If our lives are hectic and full of noise, it won’t occur to us to take the sunglasses off. The search requires thoughtfulness and a certain amount of calm.
 
In watching the recent Wimbledon tennis matches, I was struck by how Bulgarian player Grigor Dimitrov goes to the side of the court between sets and puts a towel over his head, trying to find calm. With the noise of hundreds of spectators, the referees and officials hovering and the pressure to win, I can’t imagine how hard that must be. Apart from tennis matches, a commentator said, Dimitrov often goes alone to parks and isolated places to find peace.

Thoughtfulness is a rare commodity in many people’s lives, but when the sunglasses finally come off, we may think or even say to ourselves, “Oh, yeah. How could I have not noticed?” Once they’re off, we find it more difficult to see someone like Tomás, the imaginary gatekeeper, as a “throwaway,” and we ask, “What if we really are all children of God? What if we really are brothers and sisters? What if we really are stewards of creation?”

The sincere search for God itself is enough to help us see things as they really are. 

 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Whom Do You Trust?

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My brother Dick, a priest in Kansas City who died a few years ago, told the story of a priest colleague who said he sometimes woke up in the morning, looked at himself in the mirror and imagined a big “S” on his forehead. The “S” stood for “sucker.”

These were undoubtedly moments of self-awareness and self-doubt for the priest, a healthy thing in my estimation. It was an opportunity to remind himself what he was about. He presumably wondered whether he was a fool for becoming a priest, for sacrificing married life, the possibility of children, the chance to succeed at a “secular” career, for something as bizarre as Christianity.

Yes, bizarre. And we Christians – especially Catholics – who don’t think what we believe is bizarre are bizarre ourselves. God exists though he/she hardly, if ever reveals him/herself? This God became a human being and was born of a virgin? He rose from the dead? He’s still present in the world today? He is particularly present in the bread and wine in the Eucharist? What could be more bizarre?

For many Christians, however, all these bizarre beliefs are ho-hum. We’ve always believed this stuff, and so did our parents, grandparents and family members as far back as we know. What’s the big deal?

Could this be one of the reasons people are turned off by faith and religion? Not so much because what we believe appears to be bizarre but because we Christians appear to be so clueless and apathetic about it? Because if all this stuff is true, Christians should be the most upbeat, deliriously happy people in the world.

An article I saved from America Magazine last year quotes The God Delusion, the famous book by atheist Richard Dawkins. Mocking people of faith, Dawkins wrote: “Faith (belief without evidence) is a virtue. The more your beliefs defy the evidence, the more virtuous you are. Virtuoso believers who can manage to believe something really weird, unsupported and insupportable, in the teeth of evidence and reason, are especially rewarded.”

Dawkins delights in baiting believers, but his taunts should make us think about what we believe, why we believe it and how weird it may be to “the world.” One thing we should recall is the nature of faith itself. The author of the America article, Stephen Bullivant, a lecturer in theology at St. Mary’s University College in London, reminds us that faith’s primary meaning is “trust.”

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We are creatures of limited understanding of ourselves, others and the world around us. To survive as human beings, we need to trust – first, our parents and family members, then other people, then God. We have good reason to trust God, though perhaps not the kind of reason that will satisfy the Dawkinses of this world.

We trust the likes of Moses, Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Buber, Oscar Cullman, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Pope Francis, our parents and grandparents and ancestors who were believers. And above all, we Christians trust Jesus of Nazareth. And though we believe in evolution, we trust there is more behind what we see of this remarkable, unimaginable universe than sheer randomness. While we may not be able to scientifically prove God’s existence (and if we did, say some theologians, it wouldn’t really be God), there’s no proof God doesn’t exist.    

So why should we not be blasé about our beliefs? Because we continually need fresh perspectives, and because nothing kills faith like comfort and apathy. In this regard, while we may not agree with Dawkins and other critics of belief, we look for anything of truth they may say that can help us be who we say we are.

 We may be tempted to be saddened by critics, and may get discouraged by the people giving up on God and/or religion. But besides the renewal of trust, we have to see the criticism for what it is. Many people just don’t “get it” when it comes to religion. Many of them, I believe, are good people who are struggling to find God even if they don’t know it.

As for the data about people abandoning God/religion, you have to place it in historical perspective. I’m reading a book called, The Irish Americans, by Jay P. Dolan, which reminds us that immigrants in the face of the uncertainties and risks of their adopted countries often cling to their religion in a way they wouldn’t in their home countries. And in the case of Irish immigrants, they were greatly influenced by the “devotional revolution” that occurred in Ireland during the mid to late 1800s, at the time of the greatest rush of immigrants to the U.S.

The late 1800s and first part of the 20th century was a boon time for U.S. Catholicism and for many other churches. Churches sprang up like weeds and were quickly filled; priests flocked from Ireland to care for their immigrant co-religionists; seminaries began to burst at the seams. Irish Catholics’ lives revolved around their priests and parishes and their faith was supported by their social networks. Scandinavian immigrants built and filled Lutheran churches just as people in their home countries were beginning to abandon religion.   

Obviously, it’s a different age. With prosperity and acceptance, the immigrant faith changed. The social and cultural props are gone. Now, if you want to be a believer, you have to have an independent streak, do some hard thinking and make some hard decisions.

Although I mentioned that we should take whatever is of value from comments of our critics, I think it’s important to also read and watch material that supports our beliefs and provides us with new insights. Besides openness to criticism and avoidance of cynicism, we need support from others – our pastors, our fellow believers, authors, public figures who share our beliefs. And for Christians and Jews, nothing compares to the Bible for supporting our spiritual lives.

In the gospel of John, in a scene where some disciples abandon Jesus because of their inability to understand his message, Jesus asks his apostles, “Will you also go away?” Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”