Thursday, February 11, 2016

Why Don’t People Find God in Church?

Google Image
My friend and former classmate, Ted Wolgamot, writes compelling blog posts that are weekly reflections on the Bible readings used at weekend Catholic masses. His posts are found at

“I was reading about a young woman, a white Canadian Catholic, who grew up attending daily Mass,” he wrote recently. The woman became disillusioned with Catholicism and converted to Islam.

She had “abandoned religion altogether,” according to the story he read, “until she met some kindly Muslims who led her to a mosque where she felt close to God, as if for the first time in her life. She says she discovered that God was no longer in the church she grew up in, but was “everywhere: in nature, in art, and in the welcoming faces of other Muslims.

“What I found remarkable,” wrote Ted, “is that, for whatever faults Catholicism has been guilty of through the years, it has … always been a church community that employed every possible physical sign to remind us of God’s presence in the world around us.

Extremely sensuous
“Unlike other forms of Christianity which abandoned sensuous expressions of God’s presence in favor of the singular focus on the Word of God found only in the Bible, Catholicism has traditionally been characterized as extremely sensuous: art, statues, stained-glass windows, candles, incense, music, wine, bread – and the whole world around us, especially the sacredness of each person.”

Ted then reflects on that sacredness by commenting on a reading from St. Paul about how in the church we become connected to the many “parts of the body” that is Christ. “It’s in the community,” Ted writes, “that we learn from each other, are challenged by each other, are called to suffer with each other, and are able to share in each other’s joy. 

“…We go to church, then, to be challenged – challenged by the presence of others who are different from us and whom we are forced to rub shoulders with, whether we like it or not. In short, going to church helps keep us humble, makes us realize we are united with those in every corner of the world, from basilicas to barrios, from palaces to prisons.”

Google Image
Obviously, the woman who converted to Islam didn’t experience this, and neither do many others. I think this is why my wife and I so much like going to Mass at a church in Denver that is as diverse as they come but where you feel a solidarity with others that is absent from many churches.

I’ve written about this parish before. I would guess that it’s at least 60 percent African-American, Hispanic and Asian, but you can sense the spirit of unity. People share their faith, their cultures and their ways of being Christian in a non-self-conscious way.

Why do people fail to find God in church? Some may say it’s because you won’t find God anywhere, in a church or mosque or anywhere else because he/she doesn’t exist. I’ve written often on the subject of God’s perceived absence and will undoubtedly do so again, but this post is for skeptics who are open to God and religion.

I think people fail to find God in church partially because they’re not seeing “the forest for the trees.” We may simply be satisfied with fulfilling an obligation to God, to ourselves or to our families and fail to genuinely participate. And we may be focused on a God-and-me kind of communication.

God is everywhere
And somehow the message doesn’t get through that although God is found in the liturgy – assuming you are willing to make it the prayer it’s meant to be – he/she isn’t limited to that arena. According to traditional Judeo-Christian belief, God is everywhere, in everything and everyone. Perhaps the author of Psalm 138 (in Catholic bibles) says it best:

“Where can I go from your spirit, or where can I flee from your face?
If I climb the heavens, you are there. If I lie in the grave, you are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn and dwell at the sea’s furthest end,
Even there your hand would lead me, your right hand would hold me fast.”

But what about church? As important as it is to focus on the prayer that is the Catholic mass - or any religious service – participants are missing the point if they try to worship in isolation, if they fail to see God “in the welcoming faces” of other participants. And though he/she may be found in the mosque, God is found in Catholic and other churches if we know how to look for him/her.

“We go to church to reaffirm one basic truth,” writes Ted. “No one travels to God alone.”  


Thursday, February 4, 2016

Will We Always Have “Our Daily Bread?”

Google Image
Emily Triantaphyllis, a second daughter to my spouse and me since she became one of my daughter’s best childhood friends, has co-produced the award-winning documentary, Seeds of Time, which is available on Netflix. With beautiful photography and stimulating dialogue, it tells the story of world agriculture’s struggle to preserve seed diversity.

Why should I care about seed diversity? Because it's critical to the sustainability of life as we know it. And combined with the problem of global warming, the lack of diversity could become perilous sooner rather than later.

But this isn’t a film that adds to the long list of critical things to worry about. It lays out the problem but spends much of its time focusing on the work of Cary Fowler, an American agriculturalist who tells the film’s story and is among those desperately trying to amass a cache of the world’s seeds before they become extinct.

Between Us and Starvation?

“We tend to imagine apocalypse coming in the form of a bomb, an asteroid, or a tsunami,” writes John Seabrook in a New Yorker article about Fowler’s work, “but should a catastrophe strike one of the world’s major crops Fowler and his fellow seed bankers may be all that stand between us and widespread starvation.”

I’ve traveled in countries that have a considerable amount of hunger, but I myself have never been hungry. Yet I often think about the possibility of famine when praying “Give us this day our daily bread” in the “Our Father.”

Many of us who pray that prayer probably give the phrase little thought. Or we dismiss its literal meaning. “It’s not about food,” we may think, “but about “spiritual nourishment.” But do we cling to that meaning because we take food so for granted?

I would guess that most of us, in fact, seldom consider the possibility of famine. If you live in Iowa, like me, or many rural areas in America, you are accustomed to seeing, year after year, thousands of acres of bountiful corn and soybeans, which, with wheat are the mainstay of our food production. “How could that ever change?” we might ask. Among other things, the film shows how.   

Google Image
But what does this all have to do with the search for God?

As I’ve written, faith isn’t just a matter of believing but of how we think and act. And a skeptic’s search for God isn’t just a matter of the head but of the heart. Besides an intellectual search, it requires a change of heart, conversion – as gradual as it may be – from Godlessness to faith. And faith shows in how we live.

The letter of James in the Christian Bible, written for early Jewish converts to Christianity, is emphatic on the subject. “You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works,” writes the author, according to The Message translation. “Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.”   

At the risk of repetition, I can’t touch on the subject of “our daily bread” without referring to Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si. Meaning “Praise to you, Lord,” Laudato Si is from the canticle of St. Francis of Assisi, reminding us, says the pope, “that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.”

"No Expertise"

The pope has been criticized by many people, including many American politicians, for writing about climate change, a subject about which he has “no expertise. He should stick to religion,” they say.

But for the pope, and the millions of us who agree with him, caring for creation is fundamental to our understanding of our relationship to God as creator, to one another and to creation. In other words, it is fundamental to faith, so we should support efforts like those working to preserve seed diversity.

This isn’t just a Catholic thing, of course. Many religious leaders have expressed deep concern and have offered valuable reflections on these issues. The pope’s encyclical, in fact, refers to statements by Bartholomew, the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople.

“He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing,” says the pope before quoting Bartholomew, who promotes an asceticism that ‘entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion.’”


Thursday, January 28, 2016

Beating our Ploughshares into Swords

Google Image
Long enough have I been dwelling
With those who hate peace.
I am for peace, but when I speak,
They are for fighting.
(Psalm 119/120)

This verse has never been more relevant in light of current electoral politics. Presidential candidates are falling all over themselves trying to appear tough on potential enemies, one saying he would “carpet bomb ISIS,” the self-proclaimed Islamic state, “into oblivion.”

One of the many ironies of Christianity, now and historically, is that so many of us who proclaim Christianity ignore what Jesus, our church’s leader and founder, had to say about violence.

Taking his cue from the spirit of the psalm above, Jesus covers the subject in his famous Sermon on the Mount. According to Revised Standard Version of the gospel of Mathew, he tries to get his listeners to understand that the age-old sayings that they live by aren’t what God intends, that he expects much more of his followers than what is acceptable to the culture.

Turning the other cheek
“You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well.”

Perhaps this is an instance of the literary technique called hyperbole, the exaggeration-for-effect that is common in the Bible. Jesus often used it to get his point across. Other examples include the “plank in the eye” that he uses in an analogy about judging others and his suggestion that we “hate” our family members for the sake of his kingdom.

But we can’t use this as an excuse to ignore what he was trying to say about violence. At the minimum, it surely means that his followers shouldn’t initiate violence or retaliate, and in giving one’s “cloak as well” that we should be lavish in our generosity. Ok, but what about defending oneself or one’s family, or one’s country?

Google Image
Many defend violence by resorting to the Hebrew Bible, with its sometimes warlike language, or the Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible with its mysterious apocalyptic language. Jesus certainly used violent language against the religious establishment of his time and in the cleansing of the Temple, used physical violence. But overall, he preached non-violence and acquiesced in his own execution, the model of unjustified violence.

But as with many issues, the Bible isn’t entirely clear and most of us need help to know if and when violence is justified. We often have to depend on interpretations of his words and actions. And although many of my fellow Christians would not agree, I believe the “just war theory” is a reasonable way of interpreting what Jesus intended. If followed, I believe it would eliminate 99 percent of the violence in this world.

The famous 4th century bishop and theologian Augustine of Hippo was the first among Christian scholars to consider how violence can be justified. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century elaborated, providing the basis for the just-war doctrine taught by the Catholic Church, to which I belong.

It provides four basic conditions that could justify war:

1.     That damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations contemplating war must be lasting, grave, and certain;
2.     That all other means to end it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
3.     That a planned war must have serious prospects of success;
4.     That the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.

In our time, the prospect of nuclear war appears to make meeting the last criterion virtually impossible.

As people search for God, they need to be more God-like and not buy into warlike positions. A prophecy of Isaiah envisions God helping humans to “beat their swords into ploughshares.” How can we talk of beating our ploughshares into swords?








Thursday, January 21, 2016

Apathy on the Question of God

Google Image
A recent comment on a blog I wrote about violence and religion had this to say: “…Religion promotes the belief in something that is and has never been proven, i.e., an imaginary god or gods.” This assumes that if something can’t be proven scientifically, it doesn’t exist and isn’t worth pursuing.

First off, I’m not promoting the view that science and religion are incompatible.  I’m an admirer of science, scientists and the scientific method but don’t believe it comprises the whole of knowledge nor is the only way to acquire knowledge. We also observe, test and learn about reality from art, literature, music, and yes, religion.

As society becomes more secular, however, more people ignore the benefits and importance of religion. Unfortunately, the media – my career choice – deserves a lot of the blame. That’s because the media not only reflect society but help form it. If the media ignores religion, more of their audiences will, too. And except for big events like a papal visit, the media pretty much ignore it.

Reflecting Americans' Interests
That doesn’t reflect Americans’ interests. Seventy-four percent of Americans say they believe in God and, according to a Harris poll, half of Americans says they are “very” or “somewhat” religious. Yet, few newspapers, magazines or electronic media sources have sections or reporters dedicated to news about religion. That contrasts with the amount of news and dedicated staff dedicated to politics, in which only 36 percent of Americans are interested, according to a Gallup poll.

I recently watched the excellent documentary, “Expedition to the End of the World,” on Netflix about an expedition to a remote part of Greenland by a crew of scientists, artists and philosophers on a three-masted schooner.

Much of the dialogue was about varying points of view among the three professions. One of the scientists laments that it’s so hard for humanity to accept that there’s nothing beyond this life. He tries to put a brave face on this observation but isn’t convincing.

Google Image
The artists and philosophers provide various ways of accepting, or equivocating about that observation, but none suggests there may be a God or an afterlife. Ironically, one of the points of the expedition was to include diverse viewpoints and professional attitudes, but no one represented faith or theology.

It’s as if faith, held by the vast majority of the earth’s residents, isn’t worth considering, that people of faith are too ignorant or gullible to be included. The idea of the incompatibility of faith and science are so ingrained in both believers and scientists, and so easily accepted by society, that it’s very hard to shake.

That’s why “The Language of God, A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief” by Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project and director of the National Institutes of Health, is interesting. The book includes the story of Collins’ evolution from agnostic to atheist to believer.

Among the influences that led him to faith were his scientific observations, including “the elegance of the human DNA code.” And as he began seeing patients, he was struck by the resilience and courage of people of faith. “If faith was a psychological crutch,” he observed, “it must be a very powerful one.”

Faith was not a part of his early education, but he was blessed with “the priceless gift of the joy of learning,” and he eventually asked himself, “Could there be a more important question in all of human existence than ‘Is there a God?’”

Ideas About Faith Those of a Schoolboy
After reading “Mere Christianity” by the famous British author, C.S. Lewis, he concluded that “all of my own constructs against the plausibility of faith were those of a schoolboy.” And he began to see as God-given the idea of right and wrong – no matter how often ignored – that seems to be firmly implanted in human beings.

Eventually, he writes, “faith in God now seemed more rational than disbelief.” But, he concluded, “If God exists, then He must be outside the natural world, and therefore the tools of science are not the right ones to learn about Him.”

Thus began Collins’ search for God, a search that for most of us, lasts a lifetime. Today, Collins observes, the search for God has been crowded out “by our busy and overstimulated lives” And he sees a tendency by many people to throw up their hands about the question of God and decide not to decide.

“Disillusioned by the stridency of both perspectives,” he writes, “many choose to reject both the trustworthiness of scientific conclusions and the value of organized religion, slipping instead into various forms of antiscientific thinking, shallow spirituality, or simple apathy.”  



Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Bible: Boring and Unhistorical?

Google Image

If you were asked about the greatest scholarly advances of the last 100 years, you probably wouldn't say "biblical studies." Yet as much as any scholarly pursuit, these studies - though casting doubt on the historicity of some stories and facts - have made the Bible much more comprehensible, useful and persuasive.

True, you haven't heard about it in homilies. Is it because homilists worry they may plant seeds of doubt? Do they believe their listeners’ logic may be, “If Moses didn’t part the Red Sea, Jesus didn’t walk on water?” In other words, if they doubt the historical accuracy of any part of the Bible, will they doubt all of it?

If this is the case, I believe they are underestimating their audiences and depriving them of a treasury of insights. They also are failing to level with their listeners and help them with doubts about the Bible they may already have.

The studies are based on evidence from disciplines such as archeology, philology, history and ancient geography.

Providing Religious Lessons
Such studies have also confirmed the likelihood of the historicity of parts of the Bible. But more important, they have helped religious scholars understand that the Bible’s purpose is to provide religious lessons and truths, not history.

More like a library than a single book, the Bible is unbelievably complex. It is full of contradictions and undecipherable material and yes, much of it is hard to believe. It requires openness by people searching for God.
Google Image
People with open minds don’t make blanket judgments about the Bible’s historicity: some stories are historical, some are not and others appear to be a mixture - similar, perhaps to our own family stories. But like our family stories, historicity isn’t the point. Historical or not, the Bible's stories all have valuable messages about God and our relationship to him/her.

As for the Bible seeming to be boring, you can’t expect writings this ancient to immediately appeal to people in 2016. Few things worth doing are exciting at first glance, and the Bible is worth reading.

Christians believe that the Bible is “inspired” by God. That doesn’t mean that God dictated the words to the authors but that he/she influenced them, and the authors expressed that influence in their own words, using true and mythical stories. That’s why the Bible is sometimes called “the word of God in the words of men.”

This comes to mind at this time of the year because of the gospel stories about the birth of Jesus. Called the infancy narratives, we – along with biblical scholars – could ask how the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke could have known about the true circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus.
No less useful
Indeed, most scholars believe these are mythical accounts, containing some historical events, used by the authors to demonstrate, among other things, Jesus’ divinity. That doesn’t make them any less beautiful, inspiring and useful in trying to understand who Jesus is, who God is and who we are.

Unlike some people who see the gospels as public relations documents for the ancient Christian church, I see them as the church’s evangelization material, written to inform and inspire Christians and potential Christians, then and now. They certainly aren’t much good as public-relations copy.

First, the four gospels – though similar in some respects and obviously using some similar sources – are too inconsistent to be part of a public-relations campaign. Secondly, they don’t make the leaders of the ancient church look good. On the contrary, the disciples are painted as bumbling, sometimes power-grabbing people who betray Jesus.

In other words, they were like us. In this age when the Bible is seen by many as irrelevant, antiquated and boring, the Bible remains an indispensable source for people searching for God. As unlikely as it may seem, we can relate to people portrayed there, and we should read it regularly, with an open mind and the aid of writers who include the findings of modern biblical scholarship.  



Thursday, January 7, 2016

How We Envision God

Google Image
 The Catholic Church, to which I belong, is observing a Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2016.

Because “mercy” is one of those religious words that is otherwise seldom used in modern life, this may sound like a pious exercise that only the clergy or the devout should care about. But it goes to the heart of the question of who God is and who we are, questions which are essential for skeptics seeking God.

Most of us form an idea of God from our parents, grandparents and family members; our church, if we’ve been associated with one; and the traditions and beliefs represented by those people and institutions. Sometime during our lives, those ideas are tested against what we learn from science, art, literature and the maturing process.

Either we’re able to reconcile and harmonize what we learn from those sources or we’re not. But there’s an outlier in all this – a difficult-to-define-and-understand element we call faith, and in some form or another, it’s the game changer. It’s said to be a gift from God and it can come to people who have reconciled and harmonized, and to people who haven’t.

A Mystery?
So who gets this gift of faith? All we can say is that, like with so many other such questions, we don't know. I maintain, however, that – believer or not – it requires openness, patience, persistence, and a willingness to accept uncertainty.

But faith in whom or what? That brings us back to the Jubilee Year of Mercy. A little background.

The idea of a Jubilee year is a Hebrew thing, found in the Book of Leviticus. It occurred every 25th year when slaves and prisoners were freed, debts forgiven and God’s mercy particularly made manifest.

“In Christianity,” according to Wikipedia, “the tradition dates to 1300, when Pope Boniface VIII convoked a holy year, following which ordinary jubilees have generally been celebrated every 25 or 50 years.” Extraordinary jubilees have been held depending on need, and that’s what Pope Francis has declared for 2016.

I believe the pope accurately perceived the need in our time when so many people, including “believers,” want to strike out against others, ignore major problems such as care for creation and poverty and seek vengeance for real or imagined wrongs. 

Google Image
The idea of God held by most Christians and Jews dates to at least 1,000 years before Christ, and the Book of Leviticus, in which the Jubilee Year is mentioned, dates from 500 to 700 years before Jesus.  The God of the Hebrew Bible could be capricious, and even cruel – reflecting the projections of the ancient Hebrews and their neighbors – but the overwhelming image is one of mercy.

A few weeks ago I mentioned Psalm 135 (136 in non-Catholic Bibles) in which the author is giddy in his praise of God in a litany that repeated over and over “for his mercy endures forever.” Despite a feeling by many that God is uncaring and absent, for most people the overwhelming image is a God of love and mercy.

Just why he/she loves us has been the stuff of theology and poetry for ages, and would be the subject of another blog if I had any useful insights in the matter.

The Christian Bible, however, is no less insistent than the Hebrew Bible about God’s mercy and love. “This is how much God loved the world,” says The Message translation of John’s gospel: “He gave his Son, his one and only son.”

A Liar?
The letter of John makes the commandment to love God clearer. “If anyone boasts, ‘I love God,’ and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see?”

Mercy – another way of saying “love of God and neighbor” – is “the beating heart of the Gospel,” says Pope Francis.

“How much I desire that the year to come will be steeped in mercy,” he writes, “so that we can go out to every man and woman, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God. May the balm of mercy reach everyone, both believers and those far away, as a sign that the kingdom of God is already present in our midst.”





Thursday, December 31, 2015

Everything’s a Hot Pocket

Google Image
I’ve become a fan of stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan, one of whose best routines is about “Hotpockets,” the infamous turnover containing meat or cheese that you cook in a microwave. He’s merciless in his ridicule.

“I’ve never eaten a Hotpocket and said, ‘I’m glad I ate that,’” says Gaffigan. It comes with “a side of pepto,” he adds, noting that it’s especially yummy when “frozen in the middle.”

But in at least one version of his routine, he says, “Let’s face it, everything’s a hot pocket.”

I don’t know exactly what he meant, but one interpretation could be that we humans consistently get excited about stuff and after getting it realize it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Like addicts, we know better, but never seem to learn. We want stuff, are disappointed that it doesn’t satisfy us, and still want more.

The Best or Nothing?
This applies not only to “stuff,” but to money, recognition, sex, and yes, Hotpockets. Even “the best” doesn’t seem that great after a time, despite Mercedes Benz’s encouragement to choose “the best or nothing.”

This period after Christmas, when we may be reeling from excesses in eating and drinking, giving and receiving, is a good time to put “stuff” into perspective. Maybe Mathew’s gospel can help.

“Don’t be anxious about your life,” Jesus exhorts people on the side of a Galilean mountain, “what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

Jim Gaffigan
Google Image
“That’s nice,” we might say, “but that’s not the real world, where we have to be concerned about stuff.”  

The question is the extent to which we must be concerned. That’s Jesus’ point. Skeptics, especially, can’t allow stuff to get in the way of the important things in life, including their search for God.

Jesus’ teaching on the subject parallels what many people are saying about “consumerism,” which Wikipedia defines as “a social and economic order and ideology (that) encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts.”

Consumerism is fueled by advertising coupled with the human urge to “keep up with the Joneses,” an urge I believe is stronger than most of us are willing to admit. And consumerism is the bosom friend of waste.

We easily come to believe we need the latest car, the trendiest clothes and food, the fanciest house and the most prestigious job without giving a thought to the fate of our current car, clothes and food, house and job. We routinely throw away tons of food, believing it’s a limitless commodity.

Pope Francis, in his encyclical letter Laudato Si, is among world leaders to call attention to the problem.

“…A sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.”

The Extent of Consumption
The Pope’s warning has been backed up by numerous reports. One study, published in 2004 by the Worldwatch Institute, noted that in Asia, for instance, a shift to an increasingly car-focused culture as has drastically increased local pollution. Worldwatch found that in 2006 the world consumed 28 percent more goods and services than it did in 1996.

Skeptics searching for God should show they’re serious about the search by the way they live, with less consumption, less waste, less worry about material possessions and more generosity, more contentment and a commitment to care for God’s creation.

Along with Pope Francis, I pray that 2016 brings us a greater awareness of the need to care for creation. Here’s a portion of his prayer from Laudato Si:

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.