Thursday, April 16, 2015

Fleetwood Mac a “religious experience?”

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Believe it or not, I recently attended my first “rock” concert. Even though the Fleetwood Mac performers are nearly as old as me, culturally the experience was like a visit to a foreign country. Twenty thousand people, from Millennials to Gen X to Baby Boomers, mouthed the words to Mac’s famous songs, many with their eyes closed as if praying.

Colored strobe lights were continually swinging around the inside of the giant Pepsi Center arena in Denver. For many, there was no need to pay for a seat since they were on their feet for the whole concert. Many were dancing and swaying. What was obvious was that the performers had the audience’s undivided attention for the couple of hours they were onstage.

The whole thing appeared to me to be a sort of religious experience, and I couldn’t help comparing it to “church.” Some of the contemporary mega churches may attempt to mimic concert-like experiences, but most church-goers would see little comparison to what they experience at church and the kind of emotional absorption and sheer joy I witnessed at the concert.   

The reality is, of course, that the experiences are, and should be, very different. What people seek in such a concert isn’t what they seek from going to church. In a blog last year, I quoted Rachel Held Evans, a young evangelical Christian who writes a popular blog on faith and gives presentations around the country. In a blog for CNN entitled, “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church,” she wrote:

“Invariably, after I’ve finished my presentation and opened the floor to questions, a pastor raises his hand and says, ‘So what you’re saying is we need hipper worship bands ….’

“Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.”

That isn’t what Millennials have in mind, she wrote.

“…We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers. You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”

Rachel Held Evans
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This desire isn’t limited to Millennials. “Religion” means to connect, and all searchers for God are looking for a connection to God and, acknowledged or not, to each other.

I’ve written several blogs about the popular notion of “spirituality without religion,” an idea that, given the image of religion today, may be understandable.

To many, religion is the aggregate for a group of institutions, all of which appear to offer “salvation.” In many people’s eyes, however, these institutions are more interested in self-preservation and self-aggrandizement than in actual people with actual lives. Part of the rub is that, like any business or secular organization, they have rules, organizational charts and chains of command, and for some reason, religions aren’t supposed to be so organized.

Some refer to religion as “Pablum.” For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s a kind of baby cereal - something like oatmeal – which Wikipedia says implies something that is “bland, mushy, unappetizing, or infantile.” What’s more, the theology and practices of some religions fly in the face of contemporary notions of fairness and equality. Some appear to offer nothing “original,” or appear to have nothing to offer at all.

Although I understand these observations, I really think part of the problem is – for lack of a better term – cultural. Most of the world’s great religions are ancient, and we’re caught up in the present and “the next big thing.” We can’t get beyond the confines of time and space and we have to contend with so many distractions plus our own lethargy. And the great controversies of our time seem much more important than the historic questions about the existence and nature of the transcendent.

Spirituality may be a good idea, but for many, it remains a vague yearning. We may pursue it in spurts, but a sustained pursuit of a spiritual life on one’s own eludes most people. Without religion, it often becomes more about “me.”

That brings us back to relationships, something humans know a lot about. If you don’t believe in its importance, talk to prisoners who have suffered long periods of solitary confinement. All theist religions boil down to relationships. The charge in the Hebrew Bible, repeated by Jesus in the Christian Bible, to “love God and neighbor,” is not only a universal commandment but a universal human longing.

William O’Malley, a Jesuit priest who teaches religion at Fordham Preparatory School in New York City, wrote in an article in America magazine in which he tried to shed light on what he believes is true spirituality, which depends on religion just as religion depends on it.

“Spirituality is, as Viktor Frankl put it, ‘man’s search for meaning.’ We are the only species whose choices are not branded into the fibers of our natures. We must choose to be who we are. But first we must discern what human beings are for. And we have only two backgrounds against which to measure our worth. Our lives are either speckles of light against infinite darkness or smudges of gray within infinite Light. We are here to discover our shining (see Gospel of Mathew 5:14).

“Liturgies” he goes on, “that make the community as important as its Host miss a crucial truth … we are connected into an Inexhaustible Energy whose infusion ought to make us recognizably more alive the rest of the week than those who ignore Him/Her/Them.”

The Fleetwood Mac audience were wildly enthusiastic, but afterward many piled into their cars, Ubers and taxis to return to lives of self-imposed isolation from God and each other. Spirituality, within the context of religion, makes and preserves the connections that are vital to human beings.     

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Belief: The Least Interesting Part of Faith?

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Although I’m not fond of describing faith as a “mystery,” I must acknowledge that it is, like “love,” a nebulous word whose meaning is difficult to nail down. It means different things to different people and is profoundly personal.

Still, there is an objective aspect to faith, something about it that we can share. 
Thomas Aquinas, the famous 13th century philosopher and theologian, is said to have written: "To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible." 
That’s not quite true, of course, because others' insights into faith may be necessary for our own faith to grow. It is true, however, that people who don't have faith in their lives are left scratching their heads.
This blog has covered mostly faith as a way of knowing, focusing on questions of belief vs. non-belief. Although that sense of the word may be fundamental, it may not be the most important or interesting aspect of faith, at least for a Christian.

Talking about her book, “Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion,” Sara Miles, founder and director of The Food Pantry and director of ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, said in an interview in Christian Century: "Belief is the least interesting part of faith. I can believe all kinds of stuff, whatever I choose - but what I believe isn't the point. The point is to live in a relationship with God that's not controlled by my own ideas.

Sara Miles
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“Faith is about putting my heart and my trust – my whole life – in God. Christianity is at heart about relationship – and the nature of my faith rests in relationship rather than belief."

This brings us to the great debate of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. It involved a focus on “works” by Catholics and on “faith” by Protestants. Few people, including theologians on both sides, pay much attention to the debate anymore because it turned out to be a false dichotomy.

The debate arose because of Martin Luther’s intense study of the letters of St. Paul in which Paul wrote that humans are “justified” or “attain salvation” by faith alone. The background to Luther’s insights is a time when the Catholic Church, in which Luther was an Augustinian monk, was trying to raise money for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The church was granting “indulgences” – the guarantee of a reduced sentence in post-death punishment for sin – in exchange for contributions.

Luther rightly condemned the practice, not so much because of the money involved but because he believed it absurd that people could think they could “earn” their way into heaven. He focused, instead, on the saving grace of Jesus. To counter Luther’s arguments, Catholics focused on the Letter of James in the Christian Bible, subsequently not recognized as a true book of the Bible by Protestants. In it, the author of “James” writes:

“What good is it, my brothers if you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother is naked and lacks daily food. If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill', and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Years of meetings between Catholic and Lutheran leaders have worked out a common understanding of the apparent dilemma, resulting in an agreement that basically says both are important: faith as the foundation and works as a manifestation of the foundation.

Although many modern people may see this debate as a complete waste of time, there are lessons to be learned. One is that those who have found some success in the search for God shouldn’t pat themselves on the back. Believers must recognize that faith is a gift.

The second is that faith can’t be separated from everyday life, placing it in your “church” drawer, or your “spirituality” drawer. Your faith must guide all aspects of your life: politics, the environment, sports, sex, business, everything.

The daily prayer book, Give Us This Day (which I recommend for people searching for God), recently had a page on Karl Rahner, the German Jesuit theologian who died in 1984. It says Rahner’s “chief aim was to make Christian faith intelligible to people living in a world marked by doubt, pluralism, science, and historical consciousness.”

I shy away from using the word “mystery” when talking about God because I see it as a way to throw up your hands and stop thinking, but Rahner, and many contemporary theologians, used the term when contemplating an utterly unknowable God.

So, ignoring my self-imposed prohibition against the use of “churchy” words in this blog, I provide the following quote because it has something significant to say about the search for God.

“Rahner believed that all human existence is rooted in the holy and infinite mystery of God,” the author writes. “Therefore religious experience was not so much a separate category of existence as it was the potential for a certain quality or depth available in everyday life. By nature, human beings are created with an openness to God. To the extent that we accept this gift – that is the way of salvation.”



Thursday, April 2, 2015

Religion without God?

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The search for God, to say nothing of belonging to a religion, has its costs. It requires sincerity, perseverance and patience, with oneself and with God. And it requires a determination to go your own way, to ignore the common wisdom and to pray for God’s help – even when you doubt prayer’s efficacy.

“Faith is the possibility of re-interpreting what seemed so cut and dried from ‘the world’s’ point of view,” writes Tomas Halik, the Czech scholar I quote often in these blogs.

But if faith makes demands on us, atheism and agnosticism have their own burdens. Drew Christiansen recently wrote an article in America magazine entitled, “The Unbelievers, An Overview of ‘Religious Atheism.’”

“Religious atheism?” That’s a contradiction in terms, you might say. But it signifies the discontent some atheists and agnostics feel about the dry, cold reality of a godless world and their efforts to adopt the comforting trappings of religion.

Some atheists and agnostics, it seems, long for the art, architecture, community and festivity they see in religion but resist the “transcendent” impulse. They seek an alternate way to find meaning. Christiansen quotes a Canadian philosopher who has written that “Happiness is about the ability to reflect on one’s life and find it worthwhile.”

For some, says Christiansen, poetry has become “a surrogate for religion.” And then, of course, there’s civil religion, touting things like loyalty, patriotism and militarism, providing “the social cohesion religion had previously given.” And for some, sports and entertainment have become religions.

As for the idea of valuing the trappings of religion without religion itself – without God, in other words – many religious people are just as “guilty” as atheists and agnostics. In Catholicism, I think of some clergy, especially some priests and bishops, who appear to worship the liturgical and non-liturgical garments that distinguish them from others, the praise and admiration they see as their due and their sense of righteousness. Some of them, apparently, have never internalized the theology they spent years studying.

Some TV Christian evangelists are other examples, and Judaism, Islam and Buddhism are not immune from stressing appearance over “substance,” by which I mean a sincere faith that shows in how you live.

But just as only a few scientists err by drawing unwarranted conclusions, superficial religious people are, I believe, in the minority. It’s hard to be shallow about something that has to do with your life, not just your career.

Still, a genuine obstacle to accepting religion for many in today’s world is the perceived lack of freedom joining a religion represents. I think that has been a particular problem for my faith, Catholicism.

Drew Christiansen
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“We must acknowledge that a deficit of freedom in Catholic culture is an obstacle to modern men and women hearing the gospel,” writes Christiansen. It also results in “avoidance, resentment and cognitive dissonance” in individuals and in harmful divisions within the church. “Our capacities to live the Gospel fully and proclaim it boldly are stunted by insufficient respect for mature religious freedom within the church,” he writes.

Though I share this vague feeling of coercion about membership in organized religion, I wonder if it is real or whether it is merely a widely accepted stereotype into which I’ve been drawn. I recall that after I left the priesthood and became a journalist – and afterward in my brief career as a public health bureaucrat – I was surprised by the authoritarianism of my “superiors.” The bishops and pastors under whom I served were much less authoritarian, and I believe that’s even more the case today.

Do we modern people accept a “lack of freedom” in business, sports, and other organizations but not in religion? Religions are, after all, human organizations apart from any claims made to be divine as well. As with any human organization, there are rules, guides, principles and people on an organizational chart. If we choose to accept the organization, acceptance of all that is implied.

I could never be a monk, “confined” to a monastery and under the authority of an abbot or other “superior,” partly because of the perceived lack of freedom. But I recall once discussing this with a monk, who said he joined a monastery to focus on God. He was happy to leave the organization of the monastery, and even details more directly relating to his life, to the abbot.

And if we mean by lack of freedom the necessity to accept doctrine, is that a real obstacle? As I’ve written in these blogs before, you have to allow time for some doctrines to “grow on you.” And if they don’t, they will simply be irrelevant for you. A church is a community of faith that, among other things, professes similar beliefs, but there is no test. Though there is no need to deny them – recognizing their importance to other members of the faith community – some Catholic doctrines are simply irrelevant to many of us.

Some would call this being a “cafeteria Catholic,” embracing only the doctrines with which you agree. But practically, all Catholics – including the most conservative – do this, and with reason.

Many of the atheist or agnostic authors quoted in Christiansen’s article acknowledge the incompleteness of a life without religion. Quoting philosopher Jurgen Habermas, Christiansen writes that religion provides “an awareness of what is lacking or absent in our lives.” And some among these philosophers acknowledge there’s no substitute for the real thing.

One of my favorite gospel stories is less known because of the popularity of the other famous father-and-sons story, that of the prodigal son. But the story I have in mind is the one about the father who asked each of two sons to go to work in his vineyard. The first said he wouldn’t go, but later went. The second said he would, but didn’t.

Which, asked Jesus of his listeners, did what his father asked? The answer is obvious.

Many, including “religious” people more interested in religion’s trappings than loving God and neighbor, are like the second son. People sincerely searching for God, on the other hand, may take time – sometimes a lifetime – to say “yes.” Jesus explains to his listeners that these “resisters” are represented by the “prostitutes and tax collectors” who enter the kingdom of God before all those who say “yes” but don’t mean it.         



Thursday, March 26, 2015

The “Cities” Within

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One of many widely propagated myths is that there is a basic conflict between science and faith. It is promoted on both sides, even though the tenets of neither support such a view.

Science is about evidence. It confirms realities for which evidence can be found. If there is no evidence, it doesn’t mean the reality doesn’t exist. It means there is no testable evidence to support it. That’s why science is not competent to determine whether there is a God, even though many scientists believe it’s their duty as scientists to debunk the notion of God.

On the other side, many religious people shun science because they think its anti-God, even though if they followed their own principle, by which God is creator of everything – including science – they would draw another conclusion. Indeed, science helps us know God by knowing his creation. And it gives us insights into reality by surprising us with its discoveries.

Since I read “Life On Man,” the 1969 book by bacteriologist Theodor Rosebury about the microbes that inhabit us, I’ve been fascinated by the subject. Recently, I heard microbiologist Rob Knight in a TED talk that renewed my fascination and caused me to reflect on the hidden worlds that are as foreign to us as any science fiction character you could imagine.

It turns out that humans, as well as other animals, have within them huge communities of microbes – what I like to think of as “cities” – that perform various functions according to their location.

 “…Microbes in the gut determine whether painkillers are toxic to your liver, or if a certain type of medication will work for heart disease. Our microbes help us digest food, they shape our immune system, and some evidence suggests that they might even affect our behavior,” says Knight.

There is, said Knight, the oral microbial community – the main subject of Rosebury’s book – the skin community, the vaginal community, and the fecal community. “The different regions of the body have very different microbes. Microbes from one person’s gut and mouth can be as different as what you find in the coral reef and the desert prairie.”

And proportionally, they may be farther apart than L.A. and New York. “A few feet in your human body makes more difference than hundreds of miles on earth.”

“Human beings share 99.9 percent of DNA in common,” he says. “But two people might only have about 10 percent overlap in their microbes.” The human body has 10 trillion human cells and 100 trillion microbial cells; 20,000 human genes and 2-20 million microbial genes.

Makes Shanghai and Karachi, to say nothing of New York, seem like hamlets.

“The three pounds of microbes that you carry around with you might be more important than every single gene you carry around in your genome,” he says. Microbes have been linked to heart disease, colon cancer and obesity in human beings and, in mice, to multiple sclerosis, depression and autism.

Elizabeth Johnson
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All this brings to mind Elizabeth Johnson’s book, “Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love,” in which she describes the 19th century opposition to Darwin’s discoveries and theory of evolution. Although there was opposition from religious leaders at the time of the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859, it paled compared to the opposition from scientists.

What Darwin proposed and demonstrated was inconceivable to most scientists of the day, who were convinced that species were created individually. It just shows you that religious leaders have no monopoly on dogmatism. Now evolution – at least for many of us – is a given. But it doesn’t diminish the wonder we may feel about discoveries such as the microbe communities within us. Which of us could be aware that we’re walking around like “countries,” with many “cities” within?

Science amazes us with its discoveries, each seemingly more fantastic than could be imagined. The size and dimensions of the universe and the discovery and theories related to quantum mechanics are other examples. They show us that a whole other dimension in life, including the spiritual, is possible.

For many of us, it’s hard to believe that there is a God. He/she is unseen, it is said, but is in and around us. For many, it’s even more incredible that such a God would care anything about us. “Highly implausible,” we might say.

But is it any more implausible than the notion that our bodies contain these immense microbial cities, each of which have such an important role to play in our well-being? Is it any more implausible than what quantum physics says, that it’s theoretically possible for an object to be in two places at once? Is it any more implausible than the fact that each of us – physically and in relation to the universe – is less significant than a grain of sand on the beach?

The fact that we live our daily lives unaware of these weird discoveries doesn’t debunk their existence nor diminish their significance, just as God’s presence in the world, despite being hidden from view, shouldn’t lead us to debunk God’s existence nor minimize its importance.

None of this reduces the need to accept uncertainty as a part of faith, of course. Because science isn't competent to measure the unmeasurable, God’s existence isn't a scientific fact, but a fact based on faith.

So it’s a package deal. Faith is rational, but doubt is part of faith. Science is also rational, but its purview doesn’t extend to all of reality.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Where To Find Goodness and Kindness

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Kevin Berthia, now 32, lived in the San Francisco Bay area 10 years ago. He had an infant daughter who was born premature and the medical costs for her care climbed to nearly $250,000. He couldn't see a way out of debt, or a reason to keep living.

He fell into a deep depression and headed to the Golden Gate Bridge to end it all.

“I was overwhelmed with everything," he said on a recent National Public Radio (NPR) radio broadcast. "It's like everything that I ever was bothered by, everything that I was ever dealing with came up on one day. And I just felt like a failure. All I gotta do is lean back and everything is done. I'm free of all this pain."

But California Highway Patrol Officer Kevin Briggs was there that day, too, and his patience and compassion saved the day. Now retired, he and Berthia recently hooked up to talk about that painful time, and NPR’s Story Corps was there.

"I was just mad at myself for being in that situation and I was embarrassed," Berthia told Briggs. "But somehow the compassion in your voice is what allowed me to kinda let my guard down enough for us to have a conversation. We talked for 92 minutes about everything that I was dealing with. My daughter, her first birthday was the next month. And you made me see that if nothing else, I need to live for her.”

"…You know, I don't trust a lot of people," added Berthia. "So for you to never judge me and just to have that trust, that's what keeps us afloat and different from any other friendship."

Undoubtedly, Briggs would see nothing extraordinary in what he did that day. After all, he was a police officer, sworn to protect and serve. But he could easily have called the paramedics and been done with it. Instead, he recognized that another human being was suffering and desperately needed his help, and that was something more fundamental than his oath as a police officer.

The broadcast didn’t say whether Briggs or Berthia were “believers,” but the human qualities we see in people in everyday life are the same whether in believers or non-believers and confirms the fact that all of us, Christians, Jews, Muslims or people of no faith, are equally children of God, blessed with God-like attributes. God is not exclusive, and neither should we be.

To be clear, despite long-time doubts, I’m a believer – in God and in the expression of my particular faith, which is Catholicism. But all of us “religious” people have to recognize that we have no monopoly on goodness and kindness, and that being a member of a church does not mean God loves us more than those without religion or who profess no faith in God.

In my view, having companions in the search for God, such as other believers, is invaluable for your spiritual life. In my case, the Catholic Eucharist – or Mass – is particularly valuable. But you have to acknowledge that for some for whom it is merely a heritage, religion can get in the way of genuine faith. And allowing those basic human qualities to shine through helps determine whether we’re on the road to God.

Eugene Cullen Kennedy
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Eugene Cullen Kennedy, professor emeritus of psychology at Chicago’s Loyola University, former priest and Catholic dissident, wrote in the National Catholic Reporter about the reactions of victims and survivors of the tragedy of 9/11. 

“9/11 revealed that those about to die do not seem afraid or plead for forgiveness for their sins, if they think about them at all,” he writes. “They all have one thing in mind – those they love – and they all do the same thing: They call them up – spouses, family or friends – to tell them they love them.

“This is so obviously the first thing in their lives that they do not think at all about the last things – death, judgment, heaven or hell – ballyhooed by generations of preachers as subjects we will be quizzed on in the SATs we must pass before the Last Judgment.

“9/11 allowed us to witness the ordinary face of goodness in the love that those about to die brought with them to work that day.”

Of course, neither Kennedy nor any of us know what was on the minds of those about to die that day, but Kennedy makes a good point and it is shared by Pope Francis. The pope speaks of religion not as a matter of dogma but as a "love story.” He had this to say in a homily in 2013 about a portion of the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus’ disciples were trying to exclude people from Jesus’ circle. 

The disciples, Pope Francis explains, “were a little intolerant,” closed off by the idea of ​​possessing the truth, convinced that those who do not have the truth, cannot do good,” adding that the root of this possibility of doing good – that we all have – is in creation.

"The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and … all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us.”

“‘But, Father,’ you might say, ‘this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can... "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!"… We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

Exclusivity is highly valued in our society. Many people, especially celebrities and the rich, want what no one else can have, want to be with people with whom only they can associate and disparage those they believe are beneath them. That can’t be part of Christianity, nor the attitude of anyone searching for God.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

When Good People Do Bad Things

Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad
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Each week the insurgent group known as ISIS or ISIL seems intent on outdoing the cruelty and brutality of the previous week by some new videotaped outrage. The group has beheaded dozens of people and recently placed a man in a cage and burned him alive.

Political, sociological and religious arguments fail to shed much light. For most of us, such behavior is simply incomprehensible and begs the question, “How can good people – following the theory that we all start out as good people – do such evil things?” How can we be seduced to cross the line between civilized behavior and barbarity?

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo says evil is about the attraction and exercise of power. That’s what is illustrated in the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Adam and Eve, like millions of humans since, wanted God-like power, even though according to the story, they had experienced God first-hand. 

Zimbardo, after being an expert witness during the Abu Ghraib trials, wrote The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. A past president of the American Psychological Association and a professor emeritus at Stanford University, Zimbardo retired in 2008

His thesis is that any of us, men or women, as shown at Abu Ghraib, can be heroes or Lucifers, depending on the circumstances. For most, it happens gradually, moving from reluctant acceptance to an immersion in “the pornography of power.”

Philip Zimbardo
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As a professor at Stanford, Zimbardo conducted a study into the psychology of prison life in which 24 people were randomly assigned to be prisoners or guards in a mock dungeon in the basement of the psychology building. The planned two-week study ended after only six days due to the emotional trauma of participants. The "guards" became sadistic and "prisoners" showed extreme passivity and depression, according to a description in Wikipedia.

As for Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo says, the keys to what happened there include lack of oversight and placing subjects in new, unfamiliar circumstances in which the participants decided that normal ethical standards didn’t apply. He quotes Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet-era novelist and historian who became a stinging critic of Soviet brutality: “The line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

So, does faith make a difference in how people react to the lure of power?

It didn’t in the case of Abu Ghraib, according to an issue of Christian Century magazine after the reports of the prison abuse there in 2004. The American soldier who was the ringleader of the abuse told investigators, “The Christian in me says it's wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, ‘I love to make a grown man piss himself.’” A classic case of separating “church” from life?

A Pew Research Center study conducted in 2009, the latest year for which such data are available, examined, by religion, Americans’ justification of torture to gain information from suspected terrorists. The response categories were “often," “sometimes,” “rarely,” and “never.” This is what they found for the first two categories, by percentages:

                                                   Often             Sometimes                                   
White, evangelical Protestants:        18                    44
White, non-Hispanic Catholics:         18                    32
White, mainline Protestants:            15                    31
Unaffiliated:                                    15                    25

Who could imagine that someone who follows Jesus would condone torture? Did Jesus teach that the end justifies the means?

The Nazi era in Europe is among the most bold and brutal example of how human beings can turn on one another. There are many examples of heroism and selflessness among Jews and Christians who were Nazi victims. But the majority of Christian believers, at least, appear to have been little influenced by their beliefs, collaborating with the Nazis for advantages or to save their own skins. Many joined the barbarity.

What lessons are to be learned from these disturbing facts?

For me, the first is that faith can be dangerous without humility, without renouncing power for its own sake and acknowledging that we’re thoroughly human and possess all humanity’s inherited weaknesses. I believe brutality is like a cold or flu – an exaggerated “immune” response to the evolutionary need to dominate and survive. This does not, of course, excuse brutality or cooperation with it by individuals. Humans, in my view, also have a God-given spirit that, if heeded, helps to overcome the temptation to violence.

The second lesson, for me, is the need to prepare for the worst. If I neglect the spirit that promotes goodness and kindness, what can I expect when put to the test? (This point reaffirms the points made in a recent post entitled, “The Care and Feeding of Your Soul.”) Faith may be a gift, but sustaining it and growing it requires attention. Conditions, including bizarre, new political realities, can change suddenly, as history has clearly shown.

The third is that people of faith have to rely on God, trusting him/her over fellow humans to show the way – especially in times of crises.

The ISIS brutality is not an isolated phenomenon in human history. Lots of people have justified horrible things by appealing to religion, though not nearly as many as those who profess no belief in God (the Nazi leaders and the communist regimes in Europe and Asia are examples). We know that when it comes to religion, it’s not so much about what you profess as what’s in your heart and how your actions reflect it.       

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Where is Your God?

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Believe it or not, this is a line from Psalm 42 of the Hebrew Bible. It’s a question the author of the Psalm says people ask him “every day.”

The clause is one of the reasons I believe modern readers, removed some 2,300-3,000 years from the time the Psalms are said to have been written, can still relate to them. The Psalms, many of which are poems meant to be sung, express the most universal and timeless yearnings of the human heart.

This quote also shows that atheism and agnosticism, which many of us think of as relatively modern, are nothing new. As long as people have believed in God, people have also doubted. Many of us, including believers, ask the psalm’s question because our God is invisible. Unless you “see” with the eyes of faith – which many of us find difficult – there is, indeed, no God.

But if God exists, how are we to imagine him/her? Many picture an old white guy sitting on a throne amid puffy clouds. Michelangelo, the famous 16th century painter, depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel a stern, white-bearded man-creature, upheld by a bevy of plump child-angels, pointing a rigid finger at Adam, the Book of Genesis’ first human being. The outstretched finger of Adam, representing humans, is limp.

An episode of Lillehammer, a Netflix comedy series on which I’m hooked, has a scene showing St. Peter behind a reception desk like that in a clinic waiting room. People are sitting in chairs, reading magazines, presumably waiting to be ushered into God’s presence – like patients brought into the presence of their family doc (suggesting that doctors have “God complexes?”)

Artists have struggled to depict God, and theologians have described him/her in such nebulous terms that he/she is even harder to imagine. Besides being invisible, they say, God is outside time and space, dimensions in which human beings are so immersed that we can’t imagine any other milieu.  

Still, I find the theologians’ idea more likely, and even appealing. Spiritual writers have often said that when you pray you should “place yourself in God’s presence.” I do that with the start-off prayer, “I believe you are here with me, Lord, in and around me and in and around the billions of people on earth, and that you stretch from here to the limits of the universe and beyond.”

It helps me place myself, and my prayer, in perspective.

Still, I have to acknowledge that ultimately, I know little about God and if I am to be a believer, I have to accept uncertainty, what many spiritual writers call God’s “mystery.” (I’ve never liked that term. It seems like a copout, that you shouldn’t try to figure it out because it’s “all a mystery.” I believe God gave us brains to try to figure out everything we can. God himself/herself, however, may be one of the “things” we simply can’t.)

Tomas Halik, in the book, “Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continues in Us,” which I’ve quoted several times in these blogs, writes that Thomas Aquinas, the great 13th century philosopher and theologian, wrote that “while it is possible for us to be convinced intellectually of God’s existence, we are obliged to add that we do not know who God is (what he is “in himself”) and how he is, and what the verb “is” means when referring to God.”

Tomas Halik
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If God were “ordinary and ‘readily available,’ Halik adds, “there would be no point in passionate faith, no courage of human hope to say ‘yes’ in the face of the unfathomable, to say ‘yes’ in the face of everything that urges us to say a ‘no’ of resignation, or at best a skeptical ‘maybe.’”

“Take care not to think for even a moment that you have gained sufficient insight into his mystery,” Halik writes; “the most you can hope for is to touch him lightly from behind, like the hemorrhaging woman touched the hem of Jesus’ cloak.” (Gospel of Mark, Chapter 5, verse 25)

And that brings us to a clear benefit of Christianity when trying to conceptualize God: the belief that God became a human being in the person of Jesus.

I suspect more has been written about Jesus than about any other person in history, and the topic hasn’t lost its interest among contemporaries. Many books today are about “the historical Jesus.” An example is “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Iranian-American author Reza Aslan. A New York Times bestseller, its thesis is that Jesus was a political figure, a nationalist among many like him whose main concern was overthrowing the occupation of the Romans.

Aslan starts out with this idea and tries to prove it throughout the book, but in my estimation, he falls far short. As often happens when such an approach is used, he is selective in picking only parts of the Christian Bible that proves his point, ignoring the overwhelming evidence that disprove it. People who really want to know the historical Jesus should read a real scholar like Raymond Brown and his “Introduction to the New Testament.”

In any case, Jesus provides a remarkable insight into “who” God is, if not “how” he/she is. For starters, he consistently refers to God as “Father,” a hint about how we should think of God – as a loving parent, father or mother. That confirms the “human” aspect of God that we know from the Hebrew Bible, placing a whole new twist on the hazy, indefinite God of the philosophers and theologians.

And knowing Jesus, even from the distance of 2,000 years, helps us “know the Father,” as Jesus himself says in the gospels. Jesus is compassionate, just, and merciful. He rejects the false religion of self-righteousness, superficiality and hypocrisy. He embraces tax collectors and prostitutes, the sick and the lame, those on society’s fringes. He is not bound by normal physical limitations. He urges people to faith and trust.

So, philosophy and theology tell us that the “where” question doesn’t apply to God because he/she doesn’t live in time and space. And the Bible, especially the New Testament for Christians, shows us the “human” side of God by showing Jesus, who lived among us, immersed like us  in time and space.