Thursday, August 27, 2015

Are We Practical Atheists?

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I recall reading that during the Cold War, at a time when the Soviet Union was officially atheist and religious practice was forbidden, Russians – even Communist party members - continued to use references to God in their daily conversations. They would say things like, “God protect us!” and “I swear to God.”

After nearly 70 years of living in a God-forbidden state, the Soviets still had these vestiges of religious belief in their vocabulary, unable or unwilling to get rid of them.

Interesting that Julie Drizin, a journalism teacher at the University of Maryland and professed atheist, describes a similar experience in an online article entitled, “I’m raising my kids atheist in a God-obsessed culture: How I learned to parent godless children.”

She finds herself using such terms as “God bless you!” “For God’s sake!” and “God forbid!” They’re part of her vernacular, she writes, even though “…God is not exactly welcome in our home.”

Most Americans, according to the polls, are not atheists but in practice, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between believers and non-believers. Drizin sees society awash in religion, and I suppose a non-believer, or those who don’t want to be reminded of God, may see it that way.

As Deep as a Miller Lite Commercial

But to my mind, much of the religion we see around us is as deep as the latest Miller Lite commercial. Many of us are culturally religious, and easily mix patriotism, consumerism and political ideology with faith, but we live as if God did not exist. We’re practical atheists.

And that may be a reason why many people wonder whether faith makes any difference.

Like Drizin and the Soviets, those of us searching for God may throw around “God” words and phrases, but God may not be exactly welcome in our lives either. We may forget that God is a surprise, unpredictable and no defender of the status quo. We may be looking for him/her in all the wrong places, or ignoring the obvious.

We may be unwilling to accept uncertainty, and use doubt as an excuse not to pray. We may be a little too quick to adopt a cynical attitude about others, finding excuses for not loving and helping them.

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Tomas Halik
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We may make political decisions based on political affiliations or simple bias, not on our faith or search for God. But most important for Christians, we may fail to recognize that God is present in everybody, including the Julie Drizins and Soviets of this world.

This is not an invitation for believers, or people searching for God, to beat up on themselves. We just need to ask occasionally whether we’re humble and honest about who we are and what we believe, trying to see ourselves and others as God may see us.  

At the end of his book, “Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing in Us,” theologian and psychologist Tomas Halik – whom I’ve quoted often in these blogs – presents a fictitious dialogue between Jesus and Zacchaeus. In case you've forgotten, Zacchaeus is the height-challenged tax collector in the gospel of Luke who climbs a sycamore tree to get a better look at Jesus, the passing itinerant preacher.

To his surprise, Jesus asks him to come down from the tree, saying he wanted to stay the night in Zacchaeus’ house. The “groupies” following Jesus were apparently shocked at this development, seeing that Jesus would associate with such a known sinner. So probably for their sakes, Jesus speaks on Zacchaeus’ behalf, saying, that the “Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

On the Fringes of Religion and Society

Zacchaeus was not a follower of Jesus and was on the fringes of religion and society because of his shameful occupation, and Halik uses him as a model for people who are confused and uncertain about faith and religion. He imagines a voice that arises “from Zacchaeus’ heart” many years after Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus.

“My words, my legacy, and my name,” Jesus tells Zacchaeus, “are entrusted to the lips of people who are never completely pure, to hearts in which love for me is always mixed with love for the self and for the things of this world.

“I gave myself to the faith of my church, which is made up of sinners, not angels, and I (am) also in those who are still far from its visible gates, those who are grimy and sweaty from their seeking and wandering along paths full of questions and doubts.

“And there’s another thing. Faith – if it’s a living faith – has to breathe; it has its days and its nights. God speaks not only through his words but also through his silence. He speaks to people not only through his closeness, but also through his remoteness.”

 

  

 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Me or Us?

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Recently, I attended a reception for the new pastor of our little parish in Granger, IA. I was sitting at a table with fellow parishioners when the priest, who is from Ghana in West Africa and recently received a graduate degree in psychology from a Minnesota university, joined us.

Someone asked him whether he liked it in the U.S. As expected, he said he did, and to the relief of the people at the table, he said he felt welcomed and at home in his new parish.

“What I don’t like,” he added, “is American individualism. Many people have told me they don’t even know their neighbors. In Ghana, we are all very friendly with our neighbors and depend on them.”
Most of us haven’t given much thought to this “ism.” We may be concerned about consumerism, and some are concerned about socialism and even communism, but individualism? Many don’t even know what it means.

Oppose interference
“Individualism is the moral stance, political philosophy, or social outlook that emphasizes the moral worth of the individual,” according to Wikipedia. “Individualists … value independence and self-reliance and advocate interests of the individual … over the state or a social group, while opposing external interference upon one's own interests by society or institutions such as the government.”

Unlike people in Ghana, most Americans are not keen on the idea of “depending on our neighbors.” People like me who grew up watching cowboy and World War II movies have no trouble understanding that.
The taming of the West required independent thinking and a willingness to take matters into one’s own hands. The war movies emphasized individual courage and initiative, even among soldiers who were bound by a chain of command.
From its beginning, America has been deeply uncomfortable with autocratic government and its intrusion into the private lives of citizens. An emphasis on individual rights has distinguished us from the oppressive and socialistic governments of other parts of the world.

But individualism is a problem for people searching for God, to say nothing of people who take seriously the Christian and Hebrew bibles. Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, reminds people that we are “our brother’s keeper.”

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In the Christian Bible, Jesus told stories about the Good Samaritan and said that the criterion for entering his kingdom has nothing to do with how much we protect our individual rights but whether we feed the hungry, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and those in prison.

In my view, individualism has gotten way out of balance to our obligations to each other and to the common good. One politician has said that when you hear people talking about the common good, “reach for your pocketbook.” In other words, someone – likely the government - is going to ask you to be responsible for the well-being of someone else, and that’s “un-American” or “socialistic.”
Many of these politicians, and their followers, by the way, call themselves Christians. They obviously see no contradiction between their faith and their political philosophy, often justifying it by denying the role of the government – another way of saying “us” – in helping the poor.

That, in my mind, is a good example of exaggerated individualism and is incompatible with Christianity, Judaism and the search for God. We are, after all, not only individuals but members of society, including the broader society of humanity.
If you haven’t heard much about individualism, you’ll hear plenty about it when Pope Francis makes his appearance in the U.S. next month. I predict there will be a lot of squirming in Congress, as well as at the U.N.

What We Don’t Want to Hear
Like a Hebrew Bible prophet whose job it was to tell people what they didn’t want to hear, Pope Francis has courageously criticized the exaggerated individualism that results in the “idolatry of money,” and “an economy of exclusion.”

Regarding climate change, he has reminded us of our obligation to “our common home,” and has zeroed in on growing income inequality and how climate change has a disproportionate impact on the poor.
A recent America magazine article describes the pope’s message as lamenting “the poverty of the spirit in the rising sea of affluence” and the “globalization of indifference.”

None of this has won him friends, and greater pushback is surely in store. Indeed, a July Gallup poll found that the pope’s favorability rating among Americans has fallen from 76 percent to 59 percent since early last year.
No surprise there, judging by the growing popularity of politicians who preach the opposite. I don’t believe the pope is interested in popularity, though I’m sure he’s interested in being heard and in getting people to think.

People searching for God who place their political or social ideologies first, and cling to individualism, will have a harder time finding him/her because he/she is found, first of all, in others.
The new priest had a valuable insight. Perhaps a good, brief description of exaggerated individualism is, “It’s all about me, not us.”


 

 

 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

God and Sex, Part III

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Among my earlier blogs were two I posted in the summer of 2013 about “God and sex.” I feel the need to write about it again because I believe it can be a major help or obstacle in the search for God and because it is pretty much a taboo subject in any treatment of faith.

Some may ask what sex has to do with the search for God, and the short answer is that everything does. Nothing human, including sex, is outside the context of faith and the search for God because faith is about our collective and individual relationship with God.

First, a few ideas from those earlier blogs.

I’m obviously no expert in sex, and at my age, I know little about contemporary sexual mores except for what I see and hear in the media and from reading. But who is an expert? People who have sex most often? That would make a typist an expert writer. Are they the physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers? They may know about the mechanics and psychology of sex but I doubt they’re experts in its spiritual aspects.    

So sex has a spiritual aspect? Absolutely. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Royally Screwed Up?
The final thought from previous blogs is that many believe that Christianity – particularly the Catholic Church to which I belong – is royally “screwed up” when it comes to sex. There may be truth to that, but I maintain that the church is not nearly as screwed up as society.

The media blasts us with continual sexual images and expectations and when people stray from arbitrary societal norms, they’re criticized and punished unmercifully and offered little help.

Pornography exploits women and men like no other industry, yet very little is heard or read about its exploitative nature. Society, perhaps because opposing porn may appear prudish, tolerates this massive exploitation. We also allow, and presumably respond to, the pervasive use of sex in advertising, even though it also exploits women and promotes gender stereotypes.

What’s more, many young people are caught up in the hook-up culture, where intimacy and the idea of falling in love are shunned in favor of sheer gratification. And complicating everything, sex is at the center of society’s culture wars.

But besides being a powerful biological drive, for any believer or seeker of God, sex is a generous gift from God, and that constitutes its “spiritual” side. It permits an intimacy with another human being – which can result in intimacy with God - that would otherwise be impossible. And it can result in the co-creation of other human beings who provide familial intimacy.

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A loving sexual relationship can overcome glaring cultural and lifestyle differences, help heal discord and renew loving bonds.

Recalling that sex is a gift, and adopting an attitude of gratitude, can be an antidote for the way sex is commonly viewed – as a conflict-and-guilt prone characteristic at the center of bitter disputes surrounding culture, religion, politics and family life.

Religion, and by extension, the search for God, is implicated in the perceived distortion of sex, accused of perpetuating judgmental and prudish views. Yet, most religions teach that humans should control sex, instead of it controlling us. For their trouble, they are often accused of being “out of touch,” and dismissed as old-fashioned as if dealing with our sexual nature was something new.

Despite the passion of people on every side of the issues surrounding sex, very little actual dialogue occurs. Even the clergy appear to be intimidated. Homilists avoid the subject.         

Dialogue, thoughtfulness and research – scientific and theological – is desperately needed, in my view. Personally, I don’t want church doctrine to change because of which way the wind is blowing. What value does theology have if it’s based on what’s popular?

But I want theologians, and ultimately, my church to re-examine carefully what Scripture and tradition have to say about issues surrounding sex. The church of today must address many moral issues that were not included in the Christian Bible’s account of Jesus and his teaching.

So, to use a popular – and among some, trite – expression, it may come down to a more sophisticated version of “What would Jesus do?”

Is It Right?
It’s also not a question of whether a doctrine should “evolve with the times,” or whether it “feels right,” but whether or not it’s the right doctrine. Otherwise, sexuality is so powerful, it would always simply be doing what we want, and we know how that works out for humans.

In short, people searching for God should be grateful for the gift of sex, remain calm in the midst of storms surrounding the subject, and never allow it – or the confusion and guilt that often accompanies it – from getting in the way of the search for God. And we shouldn’t allow failure in this area to make us adopt the idea that we might as well give up and give in because “the horse is already out of the barn.”

As for the societal changes surrounding sex, we should take the advice of a recent editorial in America magazine, prompted by the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage.

“Now, as always, we must heed the word of the Lord: ‘Be Not Afraid.’ The world is not ending; it is changing. … We are at our best when we encounter any change with the certain hope that everything has within it the power to call forth from us a deeper response to God.”         





Thursday, August 6, 2015

A God of Extraterrestrial Life?

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NASA recently said its Kepler spacecraft spotted "earth's bigger, older cousin," the first nearly earth-size planet to be found in the habitable zone of a star similar to our own.
The agency can't say for sure whether the planet, which is 1,400 light years from earth and 60 percent bigger, has water and air, but it's the closest match yet found.
"That's substantial opportunity for life to arise,” a NASA spokesman said.
 
These kinds of discoveries always make me think about what finding life on other planets would mean to belief in God and the practice of religion. I understand that it may make some people question their faith, but I don’t see a problem and others don’t, either.
 
Opens the Heart and Mind
"Astronomy has a profound human value,” said Jose Gabriel Funes, an Argentinian astronomer and director of the Vatican Observatory. “It is a science that opens the heart and the mind. It helps us to put our lives, our hopes, our problems in the right perspective. In this regard, and here I speak as a priest and a Jesuit, it … can bring us closer to God.

“Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures over the earth, so there could be other beings, even intelligent (beings), created by God,” he said. “This is not in contradiction with our faith because we cannot establish limits to God's creative freedom. To say it with St. Francis, if we can consider some earthly creatures as 'brothers' or 'sisters', why could we not speak of a 'brother alien'? He would also belong to the creation."
 
The idea that believers must reject science and its theories is prevalent. A Gallup Poll about a year ago showed that more than four in 10 Americans, taking the creation scenes in the Book of Genesis literally, believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago….”
I don’t know whether the rejection of evolution results from a faulty understanding of faith and the Bible or a faulty understanding of science or both. What I know is that there is no contradiction between belief and science. And I believe the perceived contradiction is a stumbling block for many people searching for God.

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Faith and science, after all, are both ways of knowing. Writes theologian Elizabeth Johnson: “…The book of nature and the book of scripture…have the same author.”
But if we disagree with the views of those 40 percent of Americans who reject evolution, we shouldn’t take our cue from some scientists who are equally guilty of seeing reality solely from their own discipline’s perspective.

“A scientist cannot properly introduce God to account for a phenomenon that is not yet understood,” writes Johnson. “In that sense, scientific method is properly atheistic. Scientists who apply that ‘atheism’ to the question of God, however, are not basing their view on science because that question is not answered by science.
 
“There is no scientific evidence for God, it’s true, but neither is there scientific evidence that there is no God. No, these scientists have adopted a philosophy, often called ‘materialism or evolutionary naturalism,’ the belief that ‘matter’ is the ultimate origin and destiny of all that is.”
 
In “The Language of God, A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief,” Francis S. Collins, head of the Human Genome Project and director of the National Institutes of Health, quotes astrophysicist Robert Jastrow about the blindness of some scientists in their search for the truth and how it all might end.
 
Sitting There for Centuries
“At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

As I’ve written often, people searching for God (another way of saying “the truth”) must be open to all ways of knowing. By definition, God can’t be limited to our puny categories and restraints.
 
So how can we believe that he/she couldn’t have caused the existence of creatures on other planets?
 
By the way, people who search for God do find him/her, though in this life the “find” is never complete. A man who describes himself in a recent letter to America magazine as “a very old professional scientist,” comments on the fact that both faith and science are about “discovery.”
 
“My entire career has been about just this,” he writes, “and as it continues I am ever aware of how little I know. I, a tiny and very limited creature, am loved by an eternal Creator in an infinite universe. It is a concept beyond my grasp, but the journey of discovery has been rich and beautiful beyond belief, and at age 85, I am ready and, thankfully, eager for the ‘rest of the journey.’” 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Why Do People Still Go to Church?

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A May 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center shows that 23 percent of Americans identified as "religiously unaffiliated," up from 16.1 percent seven years earlier. And a third of people under 30 answer “none” when asked about religious affiliation. They’ve become known as “the nones,” in fact.

So, is church-going, and belonging to a religion, a thing of the past? I don’t think so.  

According to a Gallup Poll published 18 months ago – the most recent such poll I could find - nearly four in 10 Americans report that they attended religious services in the previous seven days, close to where it was in 1940 and 1950. What’s more, an average of 56 percent of Americans said religion is "very important" in their lives, while another 22 percent said it is "fairly important" and 22 percent said it is "not very important."

The “nones,” the polls show, are mostly millennials, and characteristically, it may be taking them a bit longer to commit.

But why do people still go to church and affiliate with a religion? The reasons, for Catholics, at least, have never been expressed more clearly than in a recent column  in the National Catholic Reporter by Phyllis Zagano, a senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University.

(Apologies to my non-Catholic readers for presenting material that is most directly concerned with Catholicism, and to all my readers for such long quotations from another writer.)

Zagano is painfully aware of the clericalism of some clergy, the church’s failure to provide leadership opportunities for women, and the abuse of children by some clergy and cover-ups by some bishops. She is often asked, she writes, “…how can you stay in the dysfunctional, embarrassing, confusing Catholic church, with all its baggage?” She answers in an article entitled, “Why Stay?”
 
“… I do not belong to a church of good-old-boy camaraderie or to one that looks the other way,” she writes. “I know the criticisms of clergy, and I know not all can or should be criticized. The complaints are not all that different from those about any bureaucracy. The church has grown into a multinational corporation that can rival any other, and it has its own bureaucracy to manage its affairs.

“… But I do not belong to the church of the bureaucrats. I belong to the church that is the People of God who have seen and heard and believe the Gospel. I think the bishops and their priests believe the Gospel. But they are increasingly tangled in the bureaucratic web that complicates their every move and reminds them there's a lawyer around every bend.


Phyllis Zagano
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“… I know the church's hierarchy seems to have transcribed every single saying of Jesus into one law or another. But the church that I belong to is not one of law. No, the church I belong to is the church of the prophets. It is the church of Oscar Romero and of Dorothy Day. It is the church of soup kitchens and children's shelters. It is the church that finds that both women and men are made in the image and likeness of God, and that they can and really do image Christ.”

Granted, there are people who go to church and remain Catholic out of habit or a sense of obligation. But there are lots of people like Zagano, who have been Catholics for a long time and want to remain so. But what about people who, though searching for God, doubt that they need religion, especially one as structured as Catholicism?

Because despite wishing it otherwise, structure is indispensable for humans. Although Zagano doesn’t belong to “the church of the bureaucrats,” she acknowledges that the church is an organization, human and divine, and all organizations have structure, and a bureaucracy.  

The question is, “how much structure do you need?” The answer may depend on the individual, but I believe most of us think we need much less of it than we actually do.

Can you really be spiritual on your own, apart from the community of believers? Can you be spiritual while ignoring the historical religious figures who "invented" spirituality and the traditions they founded? Even if you’re able to stick to them, can you be sure that your spiritual practices are anything more than exercises in self-absorption?

The idea of spiritually "going it alone" may be culturally comfortable with American individualism but it does little to help avoid self-delusion and self-centeredness. Religion is a communal anchor. It tests our spirituality against time-honored criteria and invites us to be part of a community of like-minded seekers of the spirit. 

And though many of its practitioners ignore it, religion challenges us to “walk the walk,” and shows us how to do it. It’s one thing to be spiritual, another to live our spiritual lives in service to others. To me, these two are inseparable.

Like Zagano, I believe these are good reasons to stay, or to join.

 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Your Attention, Please

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If it’s hard to get people’s attention about God and religion, it may be even harder to get them to read about protecting the environment.

And protection is needed more than ever, according to news reports. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which for 25 years has been gathering data on climate trends from more than 400 scientists around the world, says on average, 2014 was the hottest year ever — in the ocean, as well as on land.

National Public Radio quotes Deke Arndt, a climate scientist with the agency and an author of the 2014 report, as saying it's the lower atmosphere that's warming, not the upper atmosphere….

No Coincidence

“That's not a coincidence,” he says. “The changes that we see in the lower part of the atmosphere are driven by a change in the composition of the atmosphere," Arndt says. "If an external forcing — such as the sun or some orbital phenomenon — would be driving the warming, we would see a warming across the board in most of the atmosphere. And we don't."

The conclusion: The cause is human activity.

Still, Americans place less importance on environmental issues than they did in 1971, a year after Earth Day was established, according to a poll by the Huffington Post. A recent Gallup Poll found similar results. The poll “… puts climate change, along with the quality of the environment, near the bottom of a list of 15 issues Americans rated in Gallup's March 6-9 survey.”

So, apart from an initial blast of publicity, I’m not optimistic that Pope Francis’ recent message “On Care for Our Common Home” is going to get much attention from most people. Maybe it’s at least partially because many people believe that, like nuclear disarmament and big money in politics, it’s just too big and intransigent a problem.

The pope recognizes that it’s an uphill battle, but he’s seeking a dialogue nonetheless, urging his readers to abandon the notion that the issues are unclear or that we’re powerless to change.

Manic Individualism

“At the heart of the document is an idea very dear to him,” writes Austen Ivereigh, a Pope Francis biographer, in the National Catholic Reporter. “It’s his own analysis of what has gone wrong with modernity….” That includes overreliance on technology, which suggests “we can manipulate reality; we can exploit the world. It’s a manic individualism which comes from having lost our connection with God, with each other and with the Earth.”

This may give the impression that the document is a “downer,” that it’s pessimistic and critical. That’s not the pope’s style. The document’s official title is Laudato Si, the first line in Italian of a canticle by St. Francis that joyfully praises God and all his creation.


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And the encyclical isn’t just addressed to Catholics, or even believers. In June, anticipating the encyclical’s release, the pope said it is addressed to all because all have “the responsibility toward the common home that God has entrusted to all.”

As should be expected, however, the Pope expressed it in religious terms.

“The ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion,” he writes. Some “…committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent.”

If we actually had this sort of conversion, what would be the practical results for Americans? Here are five possible results.

1.    We would hold politicians’ feet to the fire on the subject of the environment, insisting that they take the subject seriously. We would vote for and promote for office people who want to protect “our common home,” and make it known to family and friends that we favor protecting it.

2.    We would preserve and protect water, using tap water instead of bottled water whenever possible. We would not waste water on lawns, especially in times of water shortages. We wouldn’t pollute streams and watersheds with debris, pesticides or herbicides.

3.    We wouldn’t waste, especially food. We wouldn’t buy more than we need and we would learn to eat leftovers. And we would give our used “stuff” away, not throw it away.

4.    We would widen our temperature comfort zone to save on energy consumption. We would not turn on, or turn up, air conditioners and furnaces out of habit, but only out of need.

5.    We would cut down on the use of plastic, including cups and bags. We would make sure they didn’t fill our parks, streams and oceans, or our landfills. 

“We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible,” writes Pope Francis. “It is the conviction that ‘less is more.’ A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment.”

 

 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Messing with Political Agendas

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Pope Francis’ recent document on the environment, “On the Care of Our Common Home,” elicited interesting reactions from many American politicians, including some announced and presumed presidential candidates of his own faith.

Many of them don’t directly attack the logic or significance of the document, the substance of which I’ll write about in a future blog. Instead, they say the Pope, as a religious leader, has no business meddling in “scientific” or “political” issues like climate change.

“I don’t go to Mass for economic policy or for things in politics,” said one front-running candidate, a Catholic.

Another Catholic politician, not a candidate, said: “I think he got it all wrong. On matters of faith, I will certainly hear him. But these are not matters of faith.” 

Stick to "Religion"

The general message: The pope should stick to “religion” and leave science to the scientists and politics to the politicians.

This is an example of people compartmentalizing their lives, assigning their faith to their “religion” drawer. In my opinion, this common practice is one of the principle reasons many people are turned off by religion. Many people who go to church don’t apply their faith’s principles to their everyday lives so their faith makes no difference.

Faith is an all-or-nothing proposition. That doesn’t mean we should all be on the same page or progressing in our search for God at the same pace. It means that whatever faith we have, it applies to our whole life, not merely some aspect of it. Failing that, we preserve faith for church or “prayer time” or whatever and go about business as usual, allowing our behavior and attitudes to be formed by something other than God.

Aligning Political Agendas

Interesting that these politicians don’t have a problem with faith leaders applying their faith principles to abortion, same-sex marriage, assisted suicide or any issues with which their political agendas coincide. These issues, they say, are faith-based and subjects of robust political debate in our country. But not taking care of God's creation.

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It’s obvious that the Pope’s message interferes with their political agendas. They’re willing to accept the pope if he stays within the bounds they have set for “religious leaders,” but they are embarrassed by religious leaders who suggest that the politicians’ agendas are not supported by religious faith.

Ironically, by criticizing the pope’s message about the environment, politicians are making it a political message. And politicizing his message occurs on both sides of the political divide. A current TV ad asks viewers if they are with the “Pope or Kochs,” referring to the reported opposition of the Koch Brothers – reputed billionaires and energy moguls – to the pope’s environmental message. The pope would not be pleased to be used in such a manner.   

Of course, politicization – at least in the Christian context – is nothing new. It has been a thorn in the side of Christianity from the beginning. Jesus’ disciples, according to the Acts of the Apostles, asked - even after his death and resurrection - if he was then going to “restore the kingdom to Israel.” In other words, was he going to kick out the Roman occupiers and restore its governance to Israel? This turned out to be a gross misinterpretation of his message, which the disciples would only slowly come to understand.

Some modern authors who write about the “historical Jesus” have adopted that viewpoint, by the way, declaring - despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary – that Jesus was a political figure, a zealot whose main interest was political revolution.

Constantine

Many believe that the politicization that occurred after the conversion of the Roman emperor, Constantine, in the early fourth century, forever made Christianity as much political as religious. Indeed, from that time up to the current time, Christianity has been irrevocably involved in European and world politics.

And modern politicians – as evidenced by the pre-caucus campaigns in Iowa – exploit faith to the max, hoping to collect votes by appearing to be aligned with the religious views of their audiences. Oddly, some politicians also complain that the pope’s message on the environment is an intrusion into science, a way of knowing not favored by politicians who oppose the idea that human activity causes environmental damage.

The bottom line is that the pope isn’t a politician and his message isn’t political. He could care less if he’s loved or hated by Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives. It’s obvious that his document is motivated by the Hebrew and Christian traditions that recognize an obligation by all people searching for God to care for “our common home.”

That comes from a deep conviction that God is the author of life and creator of the universe and that humans must care for his/her precious gifts. Call that religious or political; it’s what flows from faith, and any genuine search for God.