Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why Spirituality and Not Religion? Part II

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A recent article in America magazine dealt with the affinity between Pope Francis and Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a biophysicist and author who died in 1972. The Pope and Heschel never met, but Heschel had a great influence on Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Francis’ good friend in his native Argentina.

Back in 1976, Heschel wrote a book called “God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism.” Even 38 years ago, it seems, the handwriting was on the wall about future generations’ lack of enthusiasm for religion, and Heschel’s book still speaks volumes.

“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.

“When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.”

Like all human endeavors, religion can become irrelevant, oppressive, insipid and meaningless. The questions is, is it the religion itself – its principles, beliefs and practices – that is the problem or the people at any given time who lead or influence it? They’re not the same. Do the doping scandals in major league baseball mean that the sport is bad, or that some people who play it are bad? I believe many people adopt the caricatures of religion to be able to easily knock them down.

Many religions, including my own Catholic faith, believe that the church is human but also divine because God had a hand it its birth. 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. I believe Catholicism, and most religions, fulfill that function and more.

But how do you, really, search for a being who is invisible and unknowable? And an even harder question, how does he/she search for you? Many people have found the way through religion and religious leaders like Rabbi Heschel.

The title of his book, says the America article, “expresses what is perhaps Rabbi Heschel’s most distinctive or signature idea: It is not so much we who seek God, but God who seeks us.”

For Heschel, “God is always present to us. But because we are not always, or perhaps even usually present to God, Rabbi Heschel suggests that God must ‘reach out’ to us (from around us and from within us) to elicit our presence, our responsiveness. We dwell within the sphere of God’s presence, yet God must strive to get us to appreciate that presence. God dwells within us, yet God must awaken us to the divine indwelling.”

Pope Frances and Rabbi Skorka
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Abraham Skorka, the Argentinian rabbi, also wrote a book. His co-author was his friend, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis. Written in 2010, it is called “On Heaven and Earth,” and is a transcription of the conversations about faith, life and the future of religion the two had over an extended period. Bergoglio has suggestions about where to start in the search for God.

“What every person must be told is to look inside himself,” Bergoglio wrote. “Distraction is an interior fracture. It will never lead the person to encounter himself for it impedes him from looking into the mirror of his heart. Collecting oneself is the beginning.

“…I would tell the people of today to seek the experience of entering into the intimacy of their hearts, to know the experience, the face of God.”

To me, this means that people need to be thoughtful, which I believe may be more difficult than at any time in human history. When have there been more distractions? When have people had “less time” to think? When has there been less support for thoughtfulness?

Returning to the theme of the problem with religion, Rabbi Skorka bemoans the smugness involved in the habit of some religious people who apply dogma to practically any human problem. This is nothing new. To illustrate, he uses the story of Job from the Hebrew Bible.

Job, “a just, upright man, wanted to know why he had lost everything, even his health. His friends told him that God had punished him for his sins.” Job is comforted when he has a conversation with God; in other words, when he prays. God doesn’t answer Job’s many questions, the rabbi says, but “the touch of God’s presence stays with him.”

Stories from the Bible may seem unlikely to move us. Like all things “religious,” the Bible has for many become throwbacks to childhood and childishness. So commonplace, it may have become trite and stereotypical. What could it possibly have to say to us today?

Looking inside oneself, as suggested by the future Pope, is just the beginning. Eventually, the searcher for God must look seriously at what the Bible has to say, and consider other timeless sources, including the experience of generations of religious people and their institutions. To ignore them is to invite aimlessness and continual detours on the path to God.

Like reading a book that has an inviting title and cover but vacuous content, it’s hard to be spiritual without religion.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Patience: The Difference Between Faith and Atheism?

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A staple of this blog is that many people, believers and non-believers, struggle with faith.

Like non-believers, many believers have doubts and questions. Some have spent lifetimes of struggle with questions about God. For various reasons, believers have come down on the side of faith. Many of us, like the psalmist says, simply “cling to him/her in love.”

Today’s believers can’t bank on the artificial props of the past, however. They can’t depend on God as an answer to questions about the natural world, or assume that most people (including family members) are like-minded or attend church regularly. And modern society, with all its advantages in prosperity (in many parts of the world) and advances in technology, has brought an unprecedented amount of anxiety, stress and “busyness,” all obstacles in the search for God.

Many believers also share with atheists and agnostics the desire to be truthful, to see things as they really are. But it’s easy to confuse your own thoughts with those of the popular culture. Though it may be well below the surface, today’s apparent indifference about God beckons us to unbelief. It leans toward the idea that human life is meaningless and ends in nothingness. So, distract yourself today, the day after, and the day after that. That’s the best you can do; the most you can hope for.   

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I’ve often quoted Tomas Halik, a Czech priest, philosopher and sociologist who this year won the Templeton Prize. I’ve just started reading a second book by him called Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing in Us. Zacchaeus – the famous tax collector from Luke’s gospel who happened across Jesus – stood on the sideline, “curious but non-committal,” says the book’s promo.

Being “vertically challenged,” Zacchaeus climbed a tree to get a better look, and probably would have stayed there for some time had Jesus not called to him and, risking association with a “known sinner,” asked to stay in his house.

The world is full of Zacchaeuses, says Halik – people who may be curious about faith, feel some attraction to it but haven’t been able to commit. One of their most frequent questions (with which this blog has dealt frequently) is, “Where is this God of yours?”

“Hardly anything points toward God and calls as urgently for God as the experience of his absence,” says Halik. His prescription for such God searchers: Patience.  

Tomas Halik
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“Yes, patience is what I consider to be the main difference between faith and atheism,” he writes. “What atheism, religious fundamentalism, and the enthusiasm of a too-facile faith have in common is how quickly they can ride roughshod over the mystery we call God – and that is why I find all three approaches equally unacceptable.

“One must never consider mystery “over and done with.” Mystery, unlike a mere dilemma, cannot be overcome; one must wait patiently at its threshold and persevere in it – must carry it in one’s heart  … and allow it to mature there and lead one in turn to maturity.

“If the signs of God’s presence lay within easy reach on the surface of the world as some religious zealots like to think,” he adds, “there would be no need for real faith.

“But I’m convinced that maturing in one’s faith also entails accepting enduring moments – and sometimes even lengthy periods – when God seems remote or remains concealed. What is obvious and demonstrable doesn’t require faith. We don’t need faith when confronted with unshakable certainties accessible to our powers of reason, imagination, or sensory experience. We need faith precisely at those twilight moments when our lives and the world are full of uncertainty, during the cold night of God’s silence. And its function is not to allay our thirst for certainty and safety, but to teach us to live with mystery. Faith and hope are expressions of our patience at just such moments – and so is love.”

Unlike the prescriptions handed out by self-help gurus, Halik focuses on factors that are at least vaguely familiar to all of us: faith, hope and love, traditionally called the “theological virtues” – “(from Greek theos for “God”) because they come from, and are directed to, God. (Months ago, I started on a post about “hope,” sometimes seemingly a better way to describe my own faith. But I haven’t yet been able to finish it.)

Although faith, hope and love may have become little more than clichés, Halik insists they are the only route to God, offering a distinctly different path from either atheism or ‘facile belief.’

A question I’ve asked before in this blog: Why does God require faith? If he/she exists, why not plainly show him/herself? And as I’ve written before in answer to my own question, the only honest answer is that we don’t know.

We can speculate, however, that if he/she were “on the surface” of the world, we would have zip for freedom. How would we be free to reject him/her? And like any good parent, God evidently doesn’t consider coercion a good basis for a relationship.

So, how to live with uncertainty? Patience, friend, patience!



Thursday, November 6, 2014

Are We Really “Special?”

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I heard an anecdote years ago about an elementary teacher who repeatedly stamped each pupil’s paper with, “You’re special!”

Ok, so it could mean, “You’re one of a kind,” or “You’re special to me,” but the irony of stamping everyone’s paper with that phrase was evidently lost on the teacher, and on many of the students if Tim Urban, a blogger for the Huffington Post, is to be believed. Thinking they’re special is one reason people in Generation Y, the generation born between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s, are unhappy, Urban wrote in a post last year.

Lucy, his fictional character from Gen Y, is also part of a yuppie culture that comprises a large portion of Gen Y.

“I have a term for yuppies in the Gen Y age group – I call them Gen Y Protagonists & Special Yuppies, or GYPSYs. A GYPSY is a unique brand of yuppie,” he writes, who think they are “the main characters of a very special story.”

Urban has a formula: Happiness = Reality – Expectations. For him, it’s simple. If people’s lives turn out better than expected, they’re happy. If they turn out worse, they’re unhappy.

Maybe a little too simple. But I believe the idea may have value and Urban provides interesting arguments, starting with the GYPSYs’ grandparents and parents. The grandparents were “desperate for economic security,” he wrote, and urged their children, the baby boomers, to seek secure careers. The baby boomers would have to put in years of hard work to get it done, however.

The baby-boomer parents of Gen Y, then, had great aspirations for prosperity, most of which – because of their personal  resources and a period of national prosperity – were fulfilled. Their success exceeded their expectations. Naturally, they wanted the same or more for their GYPSY children and told them they could be “anything they wanted.”

GYPSYs emerged with tremendously exaggerated ambitions, leading to Urban’s “facts” about them, starting with, “GYPSYs are wildly ambitious.” They want to “follow their passions” to careers that are “fulfilling” and successful.

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Urban’s second “fact” comes from the “You’re special” idea: “GYPSYs are delusional.” Like the children of Lake Wobegon on the Prairie Home Companion Radio Show, all of them are “above average.”

So GYPSYs believe they are special and that consequently, their careers will take off in a very short time. “Even right now,” writes Urban, “the GYPSYs reading this are thinking, ‘Good point... but I actually am one of the few special ones.’

“Unfortunately, the funny thing about the world is that it turns out to not be that easy of a place, and the weird thing about careers is that they're actually quite hard. Great careers take years of blood, sweat and tears to build … and even the most successful people are rarely doing anything that great in their early or mid-20s.”

So, Urban writes, “since the real world has the nerve to consider merit a factor,” Lucy finds herself a few years out of college, frustrated and unhappy.

Adding to the problem, says Urban, Lucy is “taunted” by her friends on Facebook, the perfect platform with which to continually compare yourself to others.

Urban urges GYPSYs to remain “wildly ambitious,” but stop thinking they’re special and understand they may have to work hard for a long time to attain their goals. Finally, they should ignore others. To paraphrase a cliché, their grass is seldom greener.

All this is simplistic and full of generalizations, but there may be some truth to it. I suspect GYPSY traits spill over into the age groups before and after them, and may have affected all of us. Unrealistic expectation is undoubtedly a universal problem.

In a blog last year, I wrote about Tony D'Souza, a psychologist and Jesuit priest from India who has co-authored a book on awareness. In a homily I heard in Denver, he said, "When we let go of our expectations, everything becomes a gift." As a boy in India he used to visit a 95-year-old woman who told him, "I go to bed every night not expecting to wake up. When I do, I feel so grateful."

Believers may not define “success” the same as non-believers. Believers try – though not often successfully – to “see things as God sees them.” So someone could be a homeless person, a prison lifer or a bottom-of-the-barrel junkie and be a “success” in God’s eyes. That explains why Jesus, who saw into people’s hearts, was a friend of prostitutes and tax collectors.    
I know I often quote Pope Francis, but it’s because I admire him and believe he has a lot to say to today’s world. Here are his suggestions, provided in an interview earlier this year, on how to be happy. The interview brought criticism from some Christians because he didn’t mention God.
1.       Let everyone be him/herself.
2.       Give yourself tirelessly to others.
3.       Walk softly (that is, with kindness, calmness and humility).
4.       Be available to your kids and family.
5.       Spend Sundays (or a day of rest) with your family.
6.       Work toward empowering young people.
7.       Care for the environment.
8.       Move on (from negative experiences. This often involves forgiveness.)
9.       Respect others’ opinions.
10.     Actively strive for peace.
I think the Pope didn’t mention God because he knows doing these things will bring people close to God, and even more happiness. Maybe only in God’s eyes are we all “special.”










Thursday, October 30, 2014

Yes, Bridget, Education is a Wonderful Thing

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There’s an old joke about an Irish immigrant woman who found a job as a housekeeper for an affluent American family during the early part of the last century. The lady of the house became upset with the woman’s work and said, “Bridget, the dust is so thick on that sideboard I can write my name on it!”
“Ah,” replied Bridget, “isn’t education a wonderful thing?”
I read this joke in a book about Irish American history. The author used it to describe the difficulty Irish immigrants had in being accepted into American society. Many Americans didn’t understand the Irish – not their “English,” nor their religion nor their self-deprecating humor. With comments like Bridget’s, many Americans didn’t know whether the Irish were sincere, were putting them on or making fun of them.
(My brother, Jack, who died in 2010 and whom I greatly miss, loved to tell the story about the time he and other family members were in County Waterford, Ireland. He struck up a conversation with a man on the street and asked him, “I notice two white lines painted here on the street, one straight and one squiggly. What do they mean? After some thought, the man answered, “The straight line means ‘No parking’ and the squiggly one means, ‘No parking at‘all.’” The guy may have been putting Jack on, but it’s still a good story.)
My point in telling the Bridget joke is this: Mexicans, Hondurans and Salvadorans are the new Irish. They are domestic servants, packing-house workers, roofers, restaurant busboys (and girls) and construction gofers. They do the kinds of jobs many of our ancestors did when they arrived in the U.S.
Unless you’re a Native American – and even then, your ancestors were immigrants, probably from Asia during the Ice Age – you are the child, grandchild, great grandchild or other descendant of immigrants. But how easily we forget. We tend to look down on the immigrants of today, much the same as many Americans looked down on our ancestors when they arrived from Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, Italy and other poor areas of Europe. Most of them, like the Latin American immigrants of today, were searching for a better life.   

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The 2004 movie, A Day Without a Mexican, was sort of a science-fiction comedy set in Los Angeles in which all the city’s Mexicans suddenly disappeared. Without them, hardly anything got done. People were astonished about the extent to which they had become dependent on the cheap, ever-available labor of immigrants.
I write about this because believers must care about immigrants and their plight. Faith, after all, isn’t just a matter of believing. It’s about living your faith.
Mathew’s gospel has the story of John the Baptist who was obviously ticked off that members of the Pharisees and Sadducees, two politico-religious parties of his time, started showing up to listen to him preach but felt righteous because they were “children of Abraham.”
“…Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father;’” he said, “for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” What counts is how you live your life, he told them – the same message Jesus would deliver years later.
Of course, believing is important (even though many non-believers, as Pope Francis, has pointed out, live out Jesus’ message in their daily lives without knowing it), but it’s just a first step. Accepting God’s invitation to believe in him/her has consequences. It doesn’t come cheap. When you find God, his/her influence will show in every aspect of your life.
And that brings us back to immigration. To me, it’s not principally a political issue. Helping the immigrant is a traditional Judeo-Christian value.    
"You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you,” says the Book of Leviticus in the Hebrew bible; “have the same love for him as for yourself, for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt."
Jesus took up the theme. In the famous Sermon on the Mount in the Christian Bible, he includes among reasons people will find the Kingdom of God: “…I was a stranger and you welcomed me….”
Just and humane treatment of immigrants has for decades been a constant teaching of the Catholic Church and mainline Protestant churches. Back in 1891, the papal letter Rerum Novarum listed the first principle that should guide a discussion of immigration: “People have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families.” Pope Francis has lamented the “global indifference” to the plight of immigrants and has urged a “reawakening of consciences.”
And in their pastoral letter, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, the U.S. Catholic bishops argue for “a series of reforms to the broken U.S. immigration system, including: 1) policies to address the root causes of migration, such as global poverty; 2) reform of our legal system, including an earned legalization program, a temporary worker program with appropriate worker protections, and reductions in waiting times in family-based immigration categories; and 3) restoration of due process for immigrants.”
People who are searching for God should, at the least, educate themselves about immigration reform. As Bridget said, “Education is a wonderful thing.”







Thursday, October 23, 2014

Will the Truth Really Set You Free?

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This just in.

After deliberating for several hours in U.S. District Court in Marshall, Texas, a jury found that Trinity Industries lied to federal regulators when it changed the design of highway guardrails in 2005, making them unsafe.

At least a dozen related accidents – some fatal – have been reported. Vehicles run off the road and collide with Trinity-made guardrail end caps that, instead of cushioning the impact, malfunction and spear the vehicle, according to lawsuits that have been filed against Trinity. Trinity has denied wrongdoing.  

Appalling, but most of us aren’t surprised when an individual or a company lies. As a society, we’re awash in lies, including many that are far from “little” or “white.” Most people know instinctively that lying is wrong, so instead of outright lies, we often engage in half-truths, withholding of the truth and bald exaggeration. The bottom line, however, is deception, an offense against the truth.

This is particularly evident now during an election season, when politicians strain our credibility with charges against opponents, insincere promises and various jugglery to interest us in “the sizzle instead of the steak.”

Here in Iowa, this is obvious in television advertising on behalf of two candidates for the U.S. senate. Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics at Drake University, wrote insightfully about the campaigns in a recent issue of the Des Moines Register.

Solutions to society’s problems are seldom mentioned, he wrote. Instead, one candidate’s principal message is that he is a “nice guy” while the other favors “sunshine, butterflies and honey.” Basically, the TV ads ask voters to choose one candidate because he is not the other candidate. Instead of disclosing their positions on the issues, the candidates’ purpose is to manipulate voters rather than inform them.  

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Why should God seekers care about this? Because as I mentioned in a recent blog, seeking the truth and seeking God are – from a believer’s viewpoint – indistinguishable. To be successful in their search, God seekers must cherish the truth, rejecting the contempt for truth so often evident in society.

Tempted to be cynical, we – like Pontius Pilate at Jesus’ trial – might ask, “What’s truth?” He asks Jesus this question, according to the Gospel of John, after Jesus tells him that his purpose in life is “to bear witness to the truth.” There’s no record of Jesus responding to Pilate’s question because Jesus seems to have answered it earlier when in a dialogue with Pilate he said that he was a “king” whose kingdom “was not of this world.”

The specific truth Jesus seems to have been talking about is that in life, there is much more than meets the eye, that there is a domain, or “kingdom,” that requires faith to perceive, even if faintly.

This idea harmonizes with another famous quote of Jesus about the truth, namely, that it will “set you free.” Just how will it do that?

I believe it starts in the astonishing idea that other people are children of God, making them brothers and sisters. I know, this sounds sappy, but I believe it’s hard to seek God without understanding that we come to him/her through others. We are freed from self-absorption.
Mahatma Gandhi, the famous father of Indian independence, understood this. He proclaimed the truth through love and nonviolence. Jesus did the same but also invited people to know God, his Father (or if you prefer, his Parent or Mother).

In the passage of John’s gospel where he says that faith leads to freedom, Jesus couches his words in the biblical language that his listeners would understand. He tells his smug listeners, who took pride in being “descendants of Abraham,” that he’s talking about freedom from “sin,” a word that is foreign and even taboo in today’s society.

He wasn’t just talking about individual bad acts, however. In much of the bible, “sin” refers to a general condition of estrangement from God, of being so buried in one’s own concerns and in the world one can see, God is effectively excluded. It isn’t about coercion or about believing because someone else wants you to, but about opening one’s mind to a reality that requires faith. That’s another way the truth brings freedom. You’re no longer bound solely to the world you can see.

There is no believers' truth or unbelievers' truth. There is just truth. And that’s what we seek in order to find God.    













Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Big, Black Spider in an Irish Sink

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Referring to some animal unknown to her, a person close to me (who will remain nameless) has several times asked, “What is it good for?”

For believers, that question should be easy to answer, especially if you mean, “What use is any animal or plant to humans?” with the implication that an animal’s only worth is in its service to us. That idea contradicts the message about the value of God’s creation. Though many Christians may be unaware of, or ignore, it, the traditional Christian view is that all creation is sacred precisely because it is, through the evolutionary process, God’s work.

I must admit I haven’t always seen it this way. Like many Christians who should know better from Scripture and tradition, I was, at best, indifferent about the natural world. I think what got me to think more about it was an experience I had years ago in Ireland.

Gerald Waris, my lifelong friend, and I were staying in the house of an acquaintance in County Kerry. Dan (known locally as “the Derd”) O’Shea, a sixty-something who kept a watch on the place for his absentee cousin, was showing us around. We entered the bathroom and in the sink was a huge, black spider. I found a magazine and was about to dispatch the spider to spider heaven when Dan grabbed my arm. He gently lifted the insect and took it to the door where he released it to the magnificent Kerry countryside.

I was stunned. Dan, a Mass-attending Catholic bachelor who raised cows and occasionally other livestock, understood better than me – a priest at the time with a graduate degree in religion – that something as lowly and seemingly useless as a spider has intrinsic value. It helped me think more about the sanctity of creation, and now I kill roaches and other household insects only when I can’t turn them loose outside. More importantly, I’ve become aware of environmental issues and am eager to protect the natural world.

I’m thinking about this currently because I’ve begun reading “Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love” by Elizabeth Johnson. For those of you unfamiliar with her, Johnson is a Catholic nun and professor of theology at Fordham University in New York City. She has been head of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the American Theological Society, but has been criticized for being a “feminist theologian.” A committee of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops has criticized her for not conforming sufficiently to Catholic teaching in one of her books.

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We have the image of the earth as “our home,” Johnson points out, but humans are in the minority by an overwhelming margin. According to the FactMaster web site, there are between  two million and 50 million species of plants and animals.

Johnson’s book sets out to answer this principal question: “…What is the theological meaning of the natural world?

“This world evolved in all its splendor without human help,’’ she writes. “It was the context in which the human species itself evolved, and daily provides irreplaceable nourishment for human bodies and spirits. In our day, its future is in jeopardy due to human action and inaction, destructive behavior shot through with a disastrous failure of our vaunted intelligence and virtue.

“…Far from being made only for human use,” she writes, “these living species have an intrinsic value in their own right. Once one understands that the evolving community of life on earth is God’s beloved creation and its ruination an unspeakable sin, then deep affection shown in action on behalf of ecojustice becomes an indivisible part of one’s life.”

Presumably, that applies even to big, black spiders. You’ll be hearing more about Johnson’s book in future blogs.

My fellow believers and I could be partially excused for our blindness in seeing value in the natural world, perhaps, because we have heard precious little about it from our religious leaders. But that’s changing, as evidenced by many recent statements of Pope Francis.

In a message to the Vatican diplomatic corps in May, he said: “Creation is not a property, which we can rule over at will; or, even less, is it the property of only a few. Creation is a gift, it is a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude.”

He condemned “…the greedy exploitation of environmental resources. Even if ‘nature is at our disposition,’ all too often we do not respect it or consider it a gracious gift which we must care for and set at the service of our brothers and sisters, including future generations.”

Concern about the natural world is not on the periphery of faith but is at its core, a rational deduction from belief in God as the author of all life.

“We are losing the attitude of wonder, contemplation, listening to creation,” Pope Francis said in an address on World Environment Day last year. “The implications of living in a horizontal manner [is that] we have moved away from God; we no longer read His signs.”

Searchers for God should know that efforts to preserve and protect the natural world are an essential part of faith. When and if they become believers, they should be involved in the public forum on the environment, including those about climate change. You can argue about which group of scientists knows best, but in my view, you can’t argue against preserving and protecting creation.  

The “person close to me” mentioned at the beginning of this blog, by the way, is a prime example of someone who consistently lives her faith. Despite her question, her respect and love for God’s creation is a model for anyone searching for God.  

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Is Reason the Enemy of Faith?

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I’ve recently finished a fascinating book called Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. A best-selling classic in thirty languages with more than 10 million copies sold around the world, it describes in remarkable detail the lives of three generations of Chang’s family in twentieth-century China.

Starting with her grandmother, who was a war lord’s concubine, Chang takes the reader through the transition from feudalism to communism and the bizarre succession of communist regimes that governed mostly by whim. This includes, of course, the long reign of Mao Zedong and his “cultural revolution,” which interrupted the lives of millions of students and workers to eradicate, among other things, grass, which was considered “bourgeois,” and melt pots, pans, machinery and everything metal to contribute to the nation’s need for steel.

During much of this period, ideology and the personal cult of the Great Leader always trumped human reason. The consequences were predictable. Humans discouraged from reasoning were reduced to little more than domesticated hominoids living in a confused state of uncertainty and insecurity. The book reminds you how important the use of reason is to making us, and keeping us, human.

That’s why it’s unfortunate that many contemporary people see reason as the enemy of faith. Our daily lives are a mixture of random experiences, successes and disappointments, chores and projects, continual decisions, and incessant attempts to make sense of things. Indeed, the human brain is continually searching for meaning. Though we may not express it this way, it is perhaps just another way of describing the search for God.

And the search for meaning, which is at the heart of faith, is as rational as the search for the composition of dark matter.

That’s not how many see it, of course.

Adam Hincks, a Jesuit priest and astrophysicist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, writes in a recent issue of America magazine that many people see faith as “unscientific, subjective and private,” and knowledge as “scientific, objective and part of a common fund.” But is the human brain really this disjoined?

The common view that the brain has two hemispheres that determine our proclivities and aptitudes seems to support the disjoined view. In this scheme, the left hemisphere is responsible for logic, language, details, patterns in things and looking at “parts” as opposed to “wholes.” The right side is responsible for emotions, meanings, music, art and synthesizing into a whole.

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According to recent studies, however, this is mostly myth.

“There is a misconception that everything to do with being analytical is confined to one side of the brain, and everything to do with being creative is confined to the opposite side,” says Dr. Jeff Anderson, director of the fMRI Neurosurgical Mapping Service at the University of Utah as quoted on the Web site, livescience. “In fact, it is the connections among all brain regions that enable humans to engage in both creativity and analytical thinking.”

This seems to support the view of Hincks, the Jesuit astrophysicist, that there’s a fine line between reason and belief, pointing out that belief is at least as much a part of everyday learning and observation as reason and that “we accept, at least implicitly, that belief is rational.”

“I did not personally verify the vast majority of scientific theories that I learned while earning my degrees,” he writes. No, he took them “on faith.” He adds that “no one…sees such instances of scientific belief as fundamentally irrational.”

We believe if we trust the source, and we test the insights gained from beliefs against other data until we’re satisfied that they are trustworthy. A child believes his/her parents, for instance, because of his/her experience of the parents’ trustworthiness.  

Hincks argues that authentic religion involves both knowledge and belief (Some would say that belief is one way of obtaining knowledge.) and “…our belief in God is complemented by the immanent knowledge of God we acquire through prayer and spiritual exercises.”

And that brings us to the view that besides complementing reason, faith as a gift from God goes far beyond belief.

“Faith is thus primarily a grace that draws us beyond the sort of believing and knowing that we can achieve through human reason,” Hincks writes.

The bottom line is that God is both the creator of reason and the giver of faith. They complement each other and human beings have trouble when relying solely on one or the other. Faith is not reason’s enemy, nor is reason the enemy of faith. People who promote the view that the two are incompatible do a disservice to both.

The lack of either, as shown in the lives of the millions of Chinese who lived during Mao’s regime (and North Koreans in our time), cripples our humanity. And it’s only as fully functioning, healthy, rational and faithful humans that we can successfully seek God.