Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving in a Throw-away Culture

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I recently attended a presentation on Francis of Assisi's influence on Pope Francis and his environmental encyclical by a theologian who tossed out an astonishing figure that should give us pause on Thanksgiving: 40 percent of the food in American refrigerators is thrown away.

Curious, I checked on it and that isn’t exactly the case. According to a 2012 report from the National Resources Defense Council, 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. is never eaten. “The report points out waste in all areas of the U.S. food supply chain, from field to plate, from farms to warehouses, from buffets to school cafeterias,” says CNN News.

But most of the waste does occur in the home. “American families throw out approximately 25 percent of the food and beverages they buy. (The report) cites several reasons, including (the notion) that food has been so cheap and plentiful in the United States that Americans don't value it properly.”

Our Daily Bread
I often think about that when I pray, in the Our Father, “Give us this day our daily bread.” We so take our daily bread for granted. After so many decades of relative prosperity for so many Americans, we assume there’s always going to be enough food to go around.

Food waste is only one example of what Pope Francis refers to as our “throw-away culture.” Let’s face it, besides food, we throw away, or devalue, born and unborn children, the elderly, the disabled and the poor. And caring for creation is a blind spot in our ethical and moral vision.

Since the search for God isn’t just an intellectual quest but also a matter of reflecting that search in the way we live, we should give thoughtful attention to an issue that affects all human beings. 

Some people may wonder why a theologian – or the Pope, for that matter – is talking about the environment. Don’t theologians study and teach theology, the study of the nature of God and religious belief? What does the environment have to do with that, and how does it relate to people who have given up on God and/or religion?

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The theologian, Fr. Bud Grant, who teaches at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, IA, said that for Francis of Assisi, care for creation isn’t so much a “doctrine” as a relationship. St. Francis, he said, taught that humans are part of creation and other creatures our brothers and sisters.

That may seem a bit naïve or Pollyannaish in today’s world, where so many of us consider creation an unlimited resource intended solely for our exploitation, but it’s a venerable –though often ignored – Christian way of looking at creation.

Furthermore, said Grant, our relationship to creation is really about our relationship to God. 

“Redeeming a healthy relationship with our home, the earth, is an urgent moral and spiritual imperative” which deepens our relationship with God, he wrote in his handout.

This, it seems to me, is something we share with our Buddhist brothers and sisters, even though Christians don’t talk or write about it much: the oneness of all things.

“The Buddhist principle of the oneness of self and environment means that life (sho) and its environment (e) are inseparable (funi),” says the web site for Soka Gakkai International. “Funi means ‘‘two but not two.’ This means that although we perceive things around us as separate from us, there is a dimension of our lives that is one with the universe. At the most fundamental level of life itself, there is no separation between ourselves and the environment.”

Science confirms unity
In at least one way, science confirms this unity. We may have heard that 99 percent of our genes is shared with mice, but the relationship is much broader.

A human and a grain of rice may not, at first glance, look like cousins,” says a National Geographic article, “and yet we share a quarter of our genes with that fine plant. The genes we share with rice – or rhinos or reef coral – are among the most striking signs of our common heritage. All animals, plants, and fungi share an ancestor that lived about 1.6 billion years ago. Every lineage that descended from that progenitor retains parts of its original genome….”

People searching for God can’t ignore this unity, nor its practical implications. We should do all we can to care for creation. We owe it to the human family as well as to God, and it’s hard to be thankful without cherishing what we’ve been given.











Thursday, November 19, 2015

Paris: How Faith Helps You Cope

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Readers who don’t know me can tell by my picture at, as well as by what I write, that I’m no spring chicken. Although I’m blessed with good health and few family or other worries, like all people my age I’m coping with aging.

Sometimes I can’t help but laugh when I look in the mirror. Is that really me? Why do I have almost as much hair in my nose as I do on my head? Why do I have so much trouble opening jars and packages? Why is it that so often the thing I’m trying to remember lies just beyond my mental reach?

But are my aging problems any more onerous than what young people have to deal with? More than the awkwardness of being a teenager, the insecurity of being a young adult, the incertitude of being a young parent or parent of teenagers? Having been all those, I don’t think so.

And my life has been a walk in the park compared to that of millions of people around the world. In La Paz, Bolivia, I watched kids and adults poke through a garbage pile for something to eat. In Mexico City, I walked through the miserable shacks of squatters in the middle of the city’s enormous dump. In El Salvador, I held the hand of an elderly blind woman in a sweltering hut.

I know that wherever you live or whatever your circumstances, learning to cope with life, and death, is a lifelong challenge.

The Suffering in Paris
The carnage inflicted on the people of Paris naturally results in such reflection. We hear the numbers of killed and wounded but can only imagine the suffering of their families and friends, the hardship that those deaths and injuries have brought into their lives, and the challenge of coping.

But Paris is are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to victims of violence worldwide, much of it, unfortunately, done in the name of religion.

On the same day that Paris was attacked, according to an essay on National Public Radio by Michel Martin, a bomb during midday prayers at a mosque in Yemen killed several worshipers and injured others. Also on that day, ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide attack at a funeral in Baghdad that killed at least 18 people and wounded more than 40.

On the day before, ISIS also took responsibility for a double attack in Beirut that killed at least 45 people and wounded 200 others. A bicycle loaded with explosives blew up on a busy street, and when people rushed to help, a second suicide bomber's explosives went off, killing and wounding yet more people. And on the day before that, a terrorist attack killed nine people in Egypt's Sinai. Most of the victims were members of a single family, including two children under three years old.

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Closer to home several days ago, the decapitated body of a man thought to be involved in the drug wars along our border with Mexico was found floating near South Padre Island, among the tens of thousands of people killed drug-related violence in Mexico in the past seven years.

Nearly 2,600 people have died in gun violence this year in Chicago. And “quiet” Des Moines close to where I live recently recorded its 14th homicide of the year. Three of them occurred on one recent weekend.

Obviously, all of those lives matter.

“They matter,” writes Martin, “because when we draw the line between those near and far, and those who look like us and those who don't, those whose names we can easily pronounce and those which we cannot, we participate in the same kind of dehumanizing that allows people to do such awful things to each other in the first place.”

Such life-and-death issues may bring questions about larger ones: the existence of God and life after death, and the search for meaning.

For many people, rejecting belief may be a matter of being true to oneself. But belief can be the same. The God in whom I believe expects me to ask the question, “Am I deluding myself in believing in God and religion?” Faith may be a gift from God but gifts aren’t mere handouts, and I believe God expects me to search for the answer.

So here’s my take. Are there scientific reasons for believing in God? No. But is the scientific method the only way to know? Also no. We know through art, music, literature, and faith. Are these ways of knowing irrational because they’re not scientific? Another no.

Good Reasons for Believing
There are good reasons for believing, even though people may not be able to adequately express them. For me, the reasons include the witness of generations before me, the steady belief of people stretching into antiquity; the Bible, which I believe to be the Word of God in the words of humans; the faith-filled heroism of so many believers; the occasional, inexplicable “feedback” I receive in prayer; the view that life should make sense and it doesn’t without God.

Finally, I have a “gut feeling” about it. I believe because I want to, and have decided to do so.    

In weighing belief versus non-belief, you also need to consider the possible rewards. The first reward may be that “peace which passes all understanding” that you get from faith. Holding up against cynicism, it assures you that everything’s OK because life as we know it isn’t the ultimate reality. Beyond happiness, it brings a joy that comes from the hope that God has the last word.

I understand that these reasons are unconvincing for many people and that the world’s violence may appear to be ample proof that the universe is simply a random, meaningless place where we can be crushed like unsuspecting bugs.

Faith and the hope that results negates that view, and makes bearable the unending series of violence and mayhem that is a part of modern life – and the frustration and helplessness that are part of it.





Thursday, November 12, 2015

What Good is Faith That Doesn’t Challenge Us?

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The Catholic Church, to which I belong, has just finished a meeting of church leaders in Rome called the Synod on the Family. It started on Oct. 4 and finished on Oct. 25.

It was the second such session, following up on one held last year. Together, the meetings were held to discuss the church’s doctrine and practice regarding marriage and the family, and make a recommendation to the pope. Topics included the church’s prohibition against reception of communion by divorced and remarried people, and “pre-marital unions.”

Why should skeptics searching for God know about this? Because it touches on the subjects of religion and relevance, and illustrates again that the subjects with which religion grapples are not simple, black-and-white issues that can be solved by appeals to liberalism or conservatism, let alone our individual prejudices and preferences.

A Taboo Subject?
I’ve written several blogs about “God and sex,” which may make people uncomfortable. I continue to write about it because I believe it’s a taboo subject that shouldn’t be taboo. I’ve also written about the practice of “hooking up” on college campuses, but we all know that pre-marital sex is not limited to that group or that time in life.

If you watch TV sitcoms, you would conclude that the practice is not only universal but desirable in a free, modern society. And that idea, seems to me, prevails, making it extremely difficult for the church or any other institution to discuss credible alternatives that may be better for individuals and society.

But what good is a church or religion that automatically approves of the whims of contemporary culture? Is it saying anything that society isn’t already saying to itself? Shouldn’t religion make you think critically about everything in life and judge it by the standards of your faith? Should a religion change its beliefs and practice with every generation? How credible would that faith be?

On the other hand, the church, as the famous Protestant theologian Karl Barth said, paraphrasing St. Augustine, should be “reformed but always reforming.”    

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Regarding the synod in Rome, Bill McGarvey writes in a recent issue of America Magazine that “… Pope Francis and the bishops are facing a … lack of connection between rhetoric and reality.”

A Vatican questionnaire – distributed to Catholic dioceses throughout the world to prepare for the synod – reveals “a wide chasm between the church’s sexual teachings and the lived experience of the faithful.”

The article quotes a report prepared for the synod by the German bishops which says, “‘Pre-marital unions’ are not only a relevant pastoral reality, but one which is almost universal. …Between 90 percent and 100 percent of the couples who want to marry in church have already been living together, in many cases for several years.”

“How do we address this pastoral reality?” the German bishops ask. “Do we continue to resign ourselves to perpetual cognitive dissonance? Indeed, is this what it has come to?”

No question, the church is in a bind when it comes to the subject of extra-marital sex. The Christian Bible appears to prohibit it and Christian tradition teaches that it is preserved for marriage between a man and woman. Yet the prohibition is so widely ignored – and sex outside marriage so heavily promoted in the media as the norm – that talking about it from a Christian perspective seems impossible.

I would like the church to do two things: study the issue, which appears to be what it is doing, and be compassionate. Somehow, the church leaders have to figure out how to faithfully teach what Jesus taught while making allowances for the human condition, just as Jesus did.

In his presentation closing the synod, Pope Francis commented on the gospel story of the blind man who sat at the side of the road near Jericho. The man heard a commotion and learning that Jesus was passing, he cried out to him. Those close to Jesus told him to shut up, but he shouted all the louder. Jesus stopped and restored the man’s sight.

Based on that story, the Pope warned against two temptations to which Jesus’ followers are susceptible: a “spirituality of illusion,” and a “scheduled faith.”

Not Being Bothered
The first has us avoiding being bothered with the problems of others. “We can walk through the deserts of humanity without seeing what is really there,” he said. “Instead, we see what we want to see. We are capable of developing views of the world, but we do not accept what the Lord places before our eyes.”

The second temptation has us following our own agenda for the journey, expecting others to “respect our rhythm….”

This temptation makes us like the “many” in the Gospel who “lose patience and rebuke the blind man with the mindset, ‘Whoever bothers us or is not of our stature is excluded.’ Jesus, on the other hand, wants to include, above all those kept on the fringes who are crying out to him.”

Is religion up to the task? I hope so, because that, it seems to me, is its job, its reason for being: making eternal truths applicable to each generation. It’s a challenge, both for religious leaders and for people searching for God. But what good is faith without challenges, to faith and to us?



Thursday, November 5, 2015

Lessons from a Baseball Team

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Many of you may not be sports fans, but this post is not about sports. It’s not even about my favorite baseball team, the Kansas City Royals, who – even as you non-baseball fans might know – won the 2015 World Series.

Though I’ve been a Royals fan since the team’s inception in 1969, I wasn’t so much impressed by their recent World Series victory as I was by the way they won: Exhibiting qualities that I seek and that I believe are sorely needed by skeptics searching for God.

Some would describe me as a pessimist. I think of myself as a realist. Had I been a member of the Royals team in the deciding game of the World Series against the New York Mets on Nov. 1 – having been shut out for eight innings by the Mets’ excellent pitching and losing 2-0 – I would have said, “Time to go home, boys. Games over. We have two more opportunities to win the series in Kansas City.”

That’s not how the Royals think. It's a cliché, but they really never give up. And with a combination of errors by the opposing team and solid hitting on their part, they won the game, 7-2, in 12 innings.
It wasn’t a fluke. It was their eighth comeback in post-season play and the sixth time they had overcome a deficit of at least two runs. This post-season, they scored 51 runs in the eighth inning or later.

How unusual is that? No other team in major league history has come close. The closest were the 2002 Los Angeles Angels with 36, according to ESPN.
This is the spot in a sports story where a writer inserts a quote from a player or manager, but as I wrote at the outset, this is not a sports story. This is about life, skeptics’ search for God and what we can learn from a baseball team.

The first is perseverance, which, according to the dictionary, means persisting in an enterprise or undertaking “in spite of counterinfluences, opposition, or discouragement.” Those three apparent obstacles are not lacking in today’s world. Perhaps they never were.
We skeptics are especially vulnerable to succumbing to them because we question everything and everybody, including ourselves. Questioning is what humans do to one extent or another, and our search for God will never be successful without a dogged determination to continue searching with openness and patience despite not having all the answers. 

Another lesson from the Royals is the sense of community and solidarity with others. I can only imagine the rivalry and jealousy that can occur on a major-league baseball team. Egos, salaries and fame are enormous. How easily can those egos be bruised and hostilities emerge?
Undoubtedly, the Royals were not dispensed from such problems, but the commentators and players have consistently remarked on the team’s sense of community, on their solidarity. This extended to the Royals’ fans, with whom the team appears to have a passionate love affair.

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The search for God requires thoughtfulness and self-examination, but not isolation. We are in this search together, and the more we can relate to others and help each other, the more successful it will be.
Confidence is another obvious trait of the Royals and everybody who wants to succeed at anything. It's not a lack of humility. I’ve written before about Christian humility, promoting the idea that for Christians, humility is not wimpiness but another form of honesty. It’s a matter of assessing yourself accurately, neither exaggerating nor minimizing your talent or qualities, and knowing what you’re capable of.

In a skeptic’s search for God, confidence is related to trust in God, which is hard to develop. True, it may be a goal of the search for God but it also must accompany it, even if incrementally.
Finally, I believe the search for God must be joyful. One of the characteristics of the Royals that is so noticeable is the unquenchable fun with which they play. Catcher Salvador Perez, named the World Series’ most valuable player, epitomizes it. After every winning game, Perez never failed to dump a barrel of water on the heads of players being interviewed by the media.

It’s a reminder that despite the fact that many players are being paid the equivalent of the salary of the CEO of a medium-sized company, it’s still a game, played by grown kids. The baseball season is long. The players go through periods of victory and defeat. They get tired, injured and banged around, no one more so than catchers like Perez. But I believe most are in it for the fun.
Considering the payoff, people searching for God should be equally joyful. I can’t help thinking about Pope Francis, whose first official document as pope wasn’t about sin or repentance but about the “Joy of the Gospel.”

Timothy Eagan, a contributor to the New York Times op-ed pages, earlier this year wrote this about the pope:
Last year, he was asked about his secret to happiness. He said, slow down. Take time off. Live and let live. Don’t proselytize. Work for peace. Work at a job that offers basic human dignity. Don’t hold on to negative feelings. Move calmly through life. Enjoy art, books and playfulness.”

If he knew more about baseball, the pope would be a Royals fan.  


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Cramming Religion Down Your Throat

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Back in 1983, Joseph Girzone, a Carmelite priest, wrote his first book. It was self-published and his advertising was by word-of-mouth, but the book became wildly popular and was eventually a national best-seller.

Called Joshua, A Parable for Today, it was about a strange man who moved into a small cabin in the outskirts of a little town. A carpenter and furniture maker, he made beautiful stuff, but he attracted attention, and suspicion, from townspeople because of the simple and loving way he lived. The book, as simply written as Joshua’s life, is relevant today and I recommend it.

Joshua, of course, is one of the Hebrew names for Jesus, and the fact that the Joshua of the novel is a carpenter is among what makes the comparison obvious. Like Jesus 2,000 years earlier, Joshua is distrusted by the religious establishment of the late 20th century. His simple message of love contrasted with the dogma-laced religion known by many people then and now.

Here’s what a reader on the Amazon web site had to say about the book.

“Joseph Girzone has done an excellent job of telling the story about a man trying to live in our modern society and yet be true to his beliefs about God and Jesus' teachings. And he does it without cramming religious beliefs down your throat.”

Those religious beliefs are called dogma, or doctrine, and skeptics searching for God need to understand its role, even though doctrine may be one of the reasons many people are turned off by religion. Religion, many believe, should be about loving God and others, not about adhering to man-made beliefs, many of which were formulated centuries ago and have little relevancy to contemporary life.

Colored by Popular Culture?
But like many of our views on religion, isn’t it possible that current thinking about doctrine is so colored by popular culture that we can’t see it for what it is?

So what is it, exactly?

“Doctrine invites people into friendship with God by proclaiming what the church knows about God,” writes Peter Folan, a doctrinal student in theology, paraphrasing the famous German theologian Karl Rahner in an article in America Magazine. To be useful, doctrine must “reach across cultures and epochs.”
And that brings us to the matter of language, and how doctrine is affected by language and vice versa. Obviously, each generation and culture has its own language, making it difficult to adequately and accurately express the faith. That’s why it’s important to keep trying to find new, simpler ways to help people understand the concepts expressed in Scripture and the church’s teaching.

Joseph Girzone
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Is the “churchy” language that has been used to explain God useful today? Could we find new terms for words such as “salvation,” “redemption,” and even “sin?” I know, many people say that “liberals” are trying to pretend that sin doesn’t exist. Of course, the concept and the reality do, but is “sin” the best word for it? Isn’t the concept, and its comprehension more important than the language?    

Doctrines, writes Folan, often grow out of a “preceding theological debate,” which may not have much relevance for us. As an example, he uses the terminology which resulted from the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 which calls the Son “consubstantial with the Father,” an awkward term we’re now stuck with in reciting the Nicene Creed at the Catholic Mass.

This, of course, is not how the apostles encountered Jesus. To them, he wasn’t “consubstantial” to anyone. “He said and did things that first made them reorient their whole lives; only later did they rethink them.”

Doctrine, it seems to me, is an attempt to verbalize what we believe, what we hold in common as truth about God and how we should live our lives. It’s always just taking a stab at truth, of course. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, that means trying to figure out what the Scriptures - and how they were interpreted by people closer to the time it was written and subsequent believers - mean for us today.

It gets messy because in the case of Christians, it’s often hard enough to figure out what Jesus meant – in the cases in which the writers of the gospels recorded accurately what he said – let alone determine how it should be applied today. What he said must be placed in context, helped by knowing the literary forms used by biblical writers of each text.

One of the most radical things Jesus says in the gospels, for instance, is his instruction on temptation: “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” Fundamentalists may have a field day with this quote, but it must be understood in the context of the literary device called hyperbole, used often in the Bible. It basically means exaggerating an idea for effect.

This is also an example of how important the scientific study of the Bible has become in understanding what was going on at the time it was written and how that affects understanding.

Some people believe this is only a way of watering down the Bible’s message. To me, it’s just the opposite. It helps make sense of the Bible and makes its messages more believable and relevant.

But back to the idea of doctrine. It is, to me the equivalent of the church sitting down and asking itself, “What do we believe?” just as we might do individually. And that’s something that has to be done repeatedly, not because of any need to be or be perceived as “current,” but because it’s the only way to make sure we remain open to God and deliver his/her message.

It shouldn’t be surprising, let alone scandalous, that people of differing religions have different reflections on the Bible and its understanding. Like moving closer to the hub from concentric circles, coming closer to God will bring us closer to each other.










Thursday, October 22, 2015

What It’s Like to be Us

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I grew up in a loving family but we never said we loved each other and rarely showed it physically.

That all changed for our family, and I believe for many families, in the 80s or 90s. I can’t recall exactly when but we became much more willing to express our love verbally and physically. Among my siblings, it became common – even among the men – to hug on arrival or departure from a family gathering and to end telephone conversations with, “Love you,” something that would have been unheard of even 10 years earlier.
I don’t know what brought about the change. We may have become more aware of our bonds and their fragility. And maybe we began to think that we would later regret not taking the opportunity to tell and show people we loved them when we had the chance.

One reason for our previous timidity, I think, was an aversion to sentimentality, an embarrassing human trait. We thought words and physical expression were unnecessary, and, of course, they are. But human love is so much poorer without them.
And that brings me to our idea of God. The Hebrew Bible depicts a God who loves and feels compassion, gets angry, is jealous and who wants people to fear him. But those are human projections. We know God only through metaphors, so our idea of God is actually abstract, and it’s hard to have a relationship with an abstraction. If abstractions are all we’re left with, there’s not much reward in searching for God.

An impersonal, higher force

That may partially explain the difficulty people in the western world have with belief. An article in America Magazine in March cited statistics among Catholics in the Netherlands – a traditionally Catholic country that has had a steep decline in church attendance – showing that God is understood “to be an impersonal, higher force. According to the latest numbers in the research project ‘God in Nederland (1966-present),’ 55 percent of Catholics fall into this category.”
You always have to be skeptical about such surveys, of course. Couldn’t the same people who say that God is “an abstraction” also believe that they have a relationship with him/her?  
But as our family learned, we humans need more than an idea as the object of our love, which is a principal mandate of many religions, especially Christianity. The gospels as well as the writings of Paul and those who wrote in his name make clear the mandate to love, just as the current political, social and cultural climate make it more difficult.

In much of our common public lives, you’re led to believe that what’s most important is what you, or your group, want - the antithesis to a loving spirit. Indeed, we are most concerned about self-fulfillment, personal freedom and our rights as individuals, and that is promoted by much of what we read and see.

“Get rid of the pain and live the life you deserve,” urges a TV ad for an arthritis medicine. “Play more, be happy,” prompts an ad for a casino. Don’t have “the fear of missing out on the home of your dreams,” entreats another for a real estate company.
Loving God and neighbor – priorities for the Judeo-Christian tradition – sounds poetic and is sometimes even enticing, but to many they are empty words, no match for our wants. An overriding sense of entitlement often keeps us from breaking out of ourselves to serve others, and that’s combined with the view of a God who can’t really relate to us, who doesn’t know what it’s like to have unfulfilled needs and wants.  

William O'Malley
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Christians, however, have a God who knows what it’s like to be us – knowing the need for, and the barriers to love. That’s the gist of a recent article by William O’Malley in the National Catholic Reporter in which O’Malley cites a passage from the gospel of Mark about Jesus and a leper. O’Malley, by the way, is a professor of theology at Seattle University but is best known for his portrayal of Fr. Dyer in The Exorcist.
“A leper came to him and begged him on his knees, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with compassion, Jesus touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’”

Because Christians believe that Jesus is God, they believe that God feels compassion and can physically touch. Before Jesus, O’Malley writes, “God could not feel. Even if God knew everything, being non-material, he couldn’t feel anything. Since he had no bodily organs, God couldn’t actually experience that tightening of the gut, that helpless ache in the chest, that bewilderment no other species but humans can feel.”
Ironically, we humans, who do have those experiences, often resist them. Expressing our love may be more common among family members today, but breaking out of our routines and touching others – especially those on the margins of society – is still hard for us.

Understanding that God knows what it’s like to be us should make a big difference. We can show how we’re made in God’s image and likeness by reaching out to others in word and touch just as our God did 2,000 years ago and as he/she does today through others.  





Thursday, October 15, 2015

God as Magician

I traveled to Europe as a young seminary student and had my first encounters with non-believers. They awakened a sense of the fragility of my faith with which I have been dealing all my life.

Having grown up in a Catholic family and attended Catholic elementary and high schools, I was pretty sure of myself and had given little thought to people who struggled with faith or were not believers. Three encounters changed all that.
One was with a physics professor from a university in Texas who happened to be seated with a group of us at a dining table on the ship from Montreal to Le Havre. He described himself as an atheist, the first I had ever met, and during the six-day crossing, at which we sat in the same assigned places at the table, he argued against belief in God.

I really wasn’t impressed with his arguments – one being that “love” is a function of the liver – but was impressed that he had the courage to reject faith and say so.
A second encounter was at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park in London. A man was standing on a box railing against religion, specifically Catholicism. He made all kinds of accusations, including some that were downright ridiculous, but he was wildly supported by the 20 or so people in his audience. In my naiveté, I challenged him, but before I got a half dozen words out of my mouth, I was shouted down and retreated to the nearest park exit.

A third was on a train in Ireland. After learning I was in a seminary, an Englishman whom I met described himself as an agnostic. He said he wanted to believe in the worst way, but honesty wouldn’t allow it. I found myself relating to this stranger who was kind and intelligent.
No answers
The young man with whom I was traveling was several years ahead of me in the seminary and studying theology. I was shocked and disappointed that he had absolutely no answers for the Englishman, nor did my traveling companion seem interested.

Those and other experiences on this trip set off a lifelong struggle with doubt. I still struggle, but I’ve made progress, especially in one area: not looking for scientific proof for the existence of God. That doesn’t mean I’ve given up on the rational. My faith is rational, though not provable by scientific means. It means leaving behind “God the Magician.”
A recent piece on National Public Radio discussed this point, quoting Pope Francis speaking to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that people shouldn’t view God “as a magician, complete with an all-powerful magic wand.” Instead, the Pope suggested, God “created beings and let them develop according to the internal laws with which he endowed each one, that they might develop, and reach their fullness.”

George Coyne
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The NPR piece, written by Adam Frank, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester and self-described “evangelist of science,” quotes George Coyne, a Jesuit priest, astronomer and assistant director of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory.
“The religious believer is tempted by science to make a God ‘explanation,’’ said Coyne. “We bring God in to try to explain things that we cannot otherwise explain. ‘How did the universe begin?’ ‘How did we come to be?’ and all such questions. We sort of latch onto God, especially if we do not feel that we have a good and reasonable scientific explanation. He is brought in as the Great God of the Gaps.

“One gets the impression from certain religious believers,” says Coyne, “that they fondly hope for the durability of certain gaps in our scientific knowledge of evolution, so they can fill them with God. This is the exact opposite of what human intelligence is all about.”
I often hear prayers in church or elsewhere that appeal to this magician God. We ask God to do things God may expect us to do ourselves – like reducing poverty, putting an end to war and taking care of the environment. Most bad things happen, ultimately, because WE allow them.

Some believers seem to think that using our intelligence is anti-spiritual or anti-religious rather than seeing it as a gift from a generous creator. I believe God expects us to use it, acknowledging that there are “kinds” of intelligence and that knowledge comes through non-scientific as well as scientific means.
Coyne says he thinks no one comes to belief in God by proving God’s existence “through anything like a scientific process.” Like knowledge gained through art, literature and music, it’s at least as much a matter of the heart as of the mind.

Provides a Challenge
Still, says Coyne, “for those who believe, modern science does say something to us about God. It provides a challenge, an enriching challenge, to traditional beliefs about God….”
And for me, evolution – the manner in which God created the universe – makes creation all the more awesome. The beauty of creation and the intricacies of the micro and macro worlds are awe-inspiring.

How much more reason do we, living when we do, have to see the universe’s elegance than the people who lived at the time of the author of Psalm 8?
“When I see the heavens, the work of your hands,
The moon and the stars which you arranged,
What is man that you should keep him in mind,
Mortal man that you care for him?”

As painful as it was to encounter unbelief on my long-ago trip to Europe, I’m now grateful that it forced me to examine my faith and my idea of God more closely, to accept uncertainty, be grateful for whatever “amount” of faith I have and to have patience with myself and God.