Thursday, July 17, 2014

Tribalism and Religion

Google Image
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.”

Google Image
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

Google Image
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.
Google Image
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?

Google Image
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.”

Google Image
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.”

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Does Everything Happen for a Reason?

Google Image
I recently read a review in America Magazine of the new book, My Beloved World, by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. I haven’t read the book itself, though it looks interesting. It’s about Justice Sotomayor’s childhood and the influences in her life.

What I liked in the review was the line, “What distinguishes this book is that Sotomayor does not claim to be self-made.” Unlike many others who have found “success,” she recognizes that many people had a hand in making her the woman she is today. Although she obviously put in a lot of hard work and was persistent, she peddles none of this “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps” stuff.

She had plenty of “failure” on the road to success, too. She contended with her own early diabetes, a drinking father and aloof mother who nonetheless provided her with lots of human resources, and a childhood in Bronx public housing. With this meager stake, she won a scholarship to Princeton, graduated with highest honors and attended Yale Law School. The rest, as they say, is history. She goes on to be the country's first Hispanic and only the third female justice.

This blog, however, is not about persistence or overcoming life’s obstacles. My question is whether everything leading up to Justice Sotomayor’s success, or all that happens in our lives, occurs for a reason. It’s a common view among believers, and maybe some unbelievers. After all, we humans want everything to be orderly and rational. We can’t accept that events may happen randomly and that results are unpredictable.

Let’s face it, for every Sotomayor there may be hundreds or thousands of people who have worked as hard, been as persistent, intelligent and resourceful as Sotomayor and are in ordinary jobs or even living on the street.

So, to be a believer, is it necessary to hold that everything happens for a reason, specifically, that every detail in life is planned in advance by God? Not in my view.

I’m not sure about the origin of this idea, but I suspect that one source is the Bible, including the Christian Bible, in which Jesus says things like, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.”

Over the centuries, many Christians have seen God’s hand in everything that happens. The topic was covered in the Catholic Church’s First Vatican Council (1869-1870) in reference to “Divine Providence,” defining it as God's plan for the universe and execution of the plan by his/her governance.

I see a couple of problems with this view. First, regarding Jesus’ words, the “Father’s care” is one thing, his control over details of our lives is another. God evidently chose to create through evolution, an unfathomably slow process that is random and that includes many “false starts” littered with species that didn’t make it. For me, that’s a clue to how God operates. 

Another problem with the “everything-happens-for-a-purpose“ view is the implication for human freedom. If God has his/her hand in everything I do, how am I free to choose or reject him/her? And that freedom, in my view, is at the heart of the human-divine relationship.

So what about miracles, whose variations range from Jesus turning water into wine; whatever did or didn’t happen at places like Lourdes and Fatima; and the everyday “miracles” you read about in the paper or see on the news – such as a blind person who climbs Mount Kilimanjaro? I believe skepticism is called for in all three variations. Some biblical miracles or those at the famous shrines may have happened; some may not have. The point of the stories is God’s love and care for us. The mountain climbing is a “miracle” only in the sense that something unexpected, and perhaps heroic, occurred.

Personally, I believe miracles – God’s intervention in human activities – can happen, but seldom do. To say they couldn’t happen is limiting what I’ve come to believe is a God who, in human terms, is unlimited. But to ascribe all our actions and events to God’s intervention is a contradiction to the God of evolution and the God who allows us to utterly reject him/her.

One thing to keep in mind in all of this, of course, is that we simply don’t know how God operates, let alone what God is really like.

Tomas Halik, whom I’ve quoted before, in his book, Night of the Confessor: Christian Faith in an Age of Uncertainty, reminds us that “all attempts to speak about God rely on images and metaphors.”

OMG, you might say, if everything about God is that nebulous, why waste time searching for him/her? Because his/hers is the only game in town; because the alternative is a view of human life that is intolerable, the view that no one is in charge, that “random” is all there is. And because there are good reasons to believe that such a search is warranted, that this God has revealed him/herself enough to encourage the search but allow us our freedom.

So did God align the events and people in Justice Sotomayor’s life in such a way that resulted in her historic appointment to the Supreme Court? We simply don’t know. Either way, Sotomayor’s life – and that of all humans whose lives are inspiring – can move us toward God.


Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Hole in our Souls

Google Image
Bastille, a British rock band, was formed only in 2010, but by the beginning of this year, it had sold over 2.07 million records in the UK alone. Maybe it’s because of lyrics like these in its hit song, Flaws, which religious people could nominate as a theme song for “original sin.”

The song is presumably addressed to a girl/boyfriend, but it might easily be about the primordial yearning felt by people who search for God.

All of your flaws and all of my flaws
They lie there, hand in hand
Ones we've inherited, ones that we learned
They pass from man to man

There's a hole in my soul
I can't fill it, I can't fill it
There's a hole in my soul
Can you fill it? Can you fill it?

Many of us are walking around with holes in our souls because if God isn’t in our lives, the obvious question is, “Is this all there is?” That’s true even if our lives are good, filled with family, friends and happiness. We should be grateful for these, of course, but the prayer of that famous fifth century philosopher and theologian, St. Augustine, is applicable: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."

As a reporter, I once did a story about a guy who worked for the state who said he was making too much money. What a marvel! It was a true “dog bites man” story, the kind the media can’t resist. That’s because most of us just can’t get enough – of money, stuff, prestige, attention, respect. We’re like Bill Murray in the 1991 movie, “What About Bob,” who pathetically pleads with Richard Dreyfuss, his therapist, “Gimme, gimme. I need, I need.”

Oddly, once we get what we crave, the thrill often fades and we want something – or someone – new. Fact is, except for people who are piteously superficial, no thing (and let’s admit it) no person can adequately fill that hole in our soul.    

“Soul,” by the way, is another of those words that is no longer just “churchy.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church says “…every spiritual soul is created immediately by God… (and is) immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death….” The traditional view is that body and soul were put together at conception and are separated at death, providing one of the principal reasons Christians have opposed abortion, assisted suicide, and arguably, war. God gives life; we don’t have the right to take it from ourselves or others.

Google Image
“Soul” now has come to be a sort of poetic reservoir of our deepest feelings. Its meaning has converged with that of “heart,” said to be mentioned over 1,000 times in the Bible. “The ancients were unaware of the circulation of blood and the physiological functions of the heart,” writes John L. McKenzie in his Dictionary of the Bible; “but its emotional reaction is easily recognized, and the heart is the chief bodily focus of emotional activity.”

Ok, so there are holes in our souls that only God can fill. Problem is, God appears to be missing in action. If God exists, I didn’t get the memo. But is it possible that our culture and our miserable attention span don’t allow us to see the obvious?

A few weeks ago, I quoted remarks recently made at a funeral by my friend, Jim Hardy, with whom I worked in Bolivia. His discourse provides insight on the search for God.

“If all that lives is holy: herbs, flowers, animals and every person of every race, then we are indeed surrounded by the sacred. The divine is commonplace. Searching for the presence of God? No need to book a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; take the 27th Street bus across town.

“I do not wish to sound flippant in making such an observation because the search for the divine is for many, maybe most, far more difficult than a bus trip. It is a desperate mission. Good people, even after a long life, will confess that God remains for the most part hidden and at important moments, inaccessible.”

Many of us, at one time or another, may have asked for a sign. “If only I could, like Moses, see the burning bush and hear its voice, the unmistakable voice of God,” Jim writes, “I would never again waver; I would be a rock of allegiance and a pillar of faith.”

“On an ordinary day,” he says, “there are 400 billion suns in our Milky Way galaxy alone that burn and explode in cataclysmic fashion, with a ferocity beyond the limits of even a healthy imagination. The very effort to get one’s mind around that phenomenon can cause one’s knees to buckle. This is an ordinary day. That is an extraordinary fire; albeit in a remote outpost of God’s kingdom. Does it rival Moses’ bush? Is that heavenly flame more accessible?”

Not moved by the splendor of the universe? How about the goodness and kindness of ordinary people – our family members, people who wait on us in restaurants, bars and stores, perfect strangers on the street? Can we not find God there?

Maybe we could fill the hole in our souls by not allowing our culture, or our chronic distraction by people and things, to deter us from finding God in the obvious.


Thursday, June 12, 2014

That Annoying Inner Voice

Google Image
Hellooo! Anybody there?

That may be what we feel like saying, or may actually say, while praying. Many of us repeatedly return to the question, “Is anybody listening? Is there a God and if so, does he/she care about me and hear me?”

Though non-believers may not be keen on prayer, I think both believers and non-believers ask those questions. I believe neither group likes them, however. Many believers would never acknowledge their doubt, believing that such an acknowledgement might weaken their own or someone else’s faith. Many non-believers may avoid such questions because they like to think they’re beyond them.

I don’t think they are. I think doubt is the companion of most humans – doubt about their abilities, about their own value, the loyalty of others, even doubts about their doubts. I think non-believers have doubts about their agnosticism or atheism. And I think believers must acknowledge their doubts, understanding that if God exists, he/she obviously expects us to live by faith, which doesn’t come with the certitude we may want.

Believers and non-believers, then, have something in common and in one sense may not be as far apart as is portrayed. What they have in common is the search for truth, though some in each group may be a bit cynical about the other side’s sincerity. And if they care about the truth, they will acknowledge other things they have in common, such as the shared need to facilitate the evolution toward being more human.

Being more human may seem like heresy to some Christians. It has become associated with atheism and agnosticism, but I believe that among other things, Jesus was all about being more human. He taught that God is a parent who loves his/her children and who urges the children to love each other. He talked about such things as forgiveness, understanding, hope, honesty, and truth – the “things” that make us most human.

Non-believers have pretty much appropriated the term “humanist,” however. The American Humanist Association describes humanism as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” Except for the “theism” clause, that description is profoundly Christian.

Some of the heroes of Christianity described themselves as humanists, in fact. They include Erasmus, the Dutch Renaissance priest, social critic, teacher and theologian, and Thomas More, the chancellor of England of the same period who was executed by King Henry VIII. More’s character is featured prominently in the HBO series, The Tudors.

An example of the felt need to separate Christianity from humanism can be found at the on-line site, History Guide. Calling humanism “the predominant social philosophy and intellectual and literary current of the period from 1400 to 1650,” it says the “…the humanist mentality stood at a point midway between medieval supernaturalism and the modern scientific and critical attitude.”

Thomas More
Google Image
Today’s scholars like to see Renaissance humanism as the beginning of “modernism,” which includes rejection of the supernatural and religious influences. They draw distinctions between “conservative” humanists, like Erasmus and More, and the later, presumably “real” humanists like Bacon and Rabelais.

It ties in nicely with the view, promoted by some scientists and some religious people, that there is a basic conflict between faith and science. It’s good to remind ourselves that faith and science are simply different ways of knowing. Science seeks the reality that is observable and measurable. But “not all that counts can be counted.” Faith seeks reality that isn’t observable but still believable.

Ron Rolheiser, a priest who teaches theology in San Antonio, recently wrote about C.S. Lewis, who some of you may remember from high school or college literature classes. Lewis, who died in 1963, was an English novelist and poet whom I would describe as a modern-day humanist. Rolheiser recounts Lewis’ conversion at the age of 32 to the Christian faith of his childhood.

“In explaining why he finally became, in his words, ‘the most reluctant convert in the history of Christendom,’ Rolheiser writes that, for years, (Lewis) was able to effectively ignore a voice inside him precisely because it was almost non-existent, almost unfelt, and largely unnoticed. On the other hand, in retrospect, he realized it had always been there, a gentle, incessant nudge, beckoning him to draw from it, something he eventually recognized as a gentle, but unyielding, imperative, a “compulsion” which, if obeyed, leads to liberation,” a byword of Renaissance and modern humanists.

“Why doesn’t God show himself to us more directly and more powerfully so as to make faith easier?” Rolheiser asks. “That’s a fair question for which, partly, there is no fully satisfying answer. But the answer we do have lies in understanding the manner in which God manifests himself in our lives and in our world.

“Unlike most everything else that’s trying to get our attention, God never tries to overwhelm us. God, more than anyone else, respects our freedom. For this reason, God lies everywhere, inside us and around us, almost unfelt, largely unnoticed, and easily ignored, a quiet, gentle nudge; but, if drawn upon, the ultimate stream of love and energy.”


Thursday, June 5, 2014

Orange the New Religious Illiteracy?

Google Image
I’ve finished watching the first season of “Orange is the New Black,” the hit Netflix series. It’s well-acted and insightful, and I’m looking forward to seeing more.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, the series follows an upper middle-class, well-educated young woman named Piper Chapman who gets caught up in a drug deal and is sentenced to 15 months in prison. There she has to deal with all manner of people, many of whom are poor and uneducated.

Toward the end of the first season, the plot is more and more focused on the ongoing tension between Chapman and a prisoner named Pennsatucky, who, some would say, is a fanatical Christian. At one point, to avoid hostility from Pennsatucky and her friends, Chapman agrees to be baptized, then backs out with a speech in which she proclaims,

“I believe in science; I believe in evolution. I cannot get behind a supreme being who weighs in on the Tony Awards while a million people get whacked with machetes. I don’t believe a billion Indians are going to hell. I don’t believe we get cancer to learn life’s lessons; I don’t believe people die young because God needs another angel.”

All I can say to that is, “Me, too, and me, neither.”

At worst, the speech represents the religious illiteracy that is common among many seemingly educated people today. At best, it’s a model for the term, “straw man.” Wikipedia defines that as “a common type of argument…based on the misrepresentation of the original topic of argument. To be successful, a straw man argument requires that the audience be ignorant or uninformed of the original argument.”

The origin of the term “straw man” is apparently unclear but I would guess it is related to warriors who practiced their skills on “men” they made of straw, stabbed with their swords and swiped with their spears, and easily knocked down. Chapman’s speech lists fallacious and easily refuted views of “Christianity” based on various perverted popular beliefs, making them easy to refute and disavow.

She can’t believe in God because she believes in science and evolution? Since when are they mutually exclusive? Doesn’t she know those topics are taught in thousands of religiously-affiliated schools and colleges; that Charles Darwin, credited with establishing the theory of evolution, was himself a believer, as are many famous scientists and evolutionists, including Francis Collins, who directed the Genome Project and is director of the National Institutes of Health? Doesn’t she know that many theologians acknowledge that religion itself appears to have evolved?

Google Image
Chapman then lists what she doesn’t believe in, which I can only describe as non-sequiturs – things that follow only from the kind of faith proclaimed by people on the fringes of belief. It appears that, like many of her contemporaries, Chapman hasn’t looked into religion since she was in Sunday school – if she was ever in Sunday school – and knows little about what constitutes faith.

Unfortunately, she’s not alone. People move from elementary school into high school, college and often graduate school, improving their knowledge about all manner of subjects. For many, however, knowledge about their own and others’ religions remains at the elementary-school level.

Chapman’s rejection of faith, however, may actually have more to do with who she is and who Pennsatucky is, as well as the target audience for the show, than with rational arguments about faith and belief.

Author B.D. McClay says Orange Is the New Black seems aimed at an audience of Piper Chapmans, who are “upper-middle-class, very educated, largely secular.”

“They aren’t friends with Pennsatucky; they don’t know anybody like her. Pennsatucky might be their waitress, or sell them some snacks at a gas station. But that’s about as close as their world and hers will ever come to touching. So it doesn’t matter, really, that none of these things about Pennsatucky make sense. They aren’t meant to make sense. They’re meant to be frightening.”

If there is such a thing as homophobia, and I believe there is, maybe there’s such a thing as “Christophobia,” the fear of, or reluctance to, associate with or be involved with Christians. And I suspect you will find it mostly among middle and upper-middle class, otherwise educated people, for many of whom the subject of faith and religion is taboo.

There are reasoned, informed reasons for rejecting belief in God, but Chapman appears to be blissfully unaware of them.  

Still, the show has redeeming qualities. It does a good job of showing the evident purposelessness, randomness and irrationality of prison life and portrays many prisoners as brave and thoughtful women who show us how to have hope in the face of powerlessness and apparent hopelessness.