When Two Or Three Are Gathered… Some Reflections on Prayer

I began trying to write something about prayer more than a month ago. 

I’m continuing now having recently returned from a trip to Europe which included several days of retreat at Stift Goettweig, a Benedictine monastery (Stift) founded in the 11th Century on a mountain overlooking the Danube in Austria.  I assume its name is medieval dialect and means something like (the deliberately ambiguous?) “God’s Way”. 

And after the Jewish High Holy Days of Atonement and New Year, and at the end of Sukkot. Traditional forms of ritual prayer and celebration. 

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In what follows I give, without any special sequence or order, a number of personal reflections on prayer. In these reflections I’m going to allow myself the latitude to make asides about this and that; tell an anecdote or cite a passage.  And you, dear reader, must allow yourself the similar latitude of skipping around or just deleting.  At the end I indicate that this will be the first in a series of posts on prayer. 

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As always, I invite readers to respond with their thoughts and questions, doubts and beliefs, about prayer.

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As an opening teaser, I note that while usually connected, prayer and God are not necessarily connected.  I know, for instance, that at least some secular Jewish friends follow the High Holy Days and Passover, mostly at home.  Yet not because these rituals connect us with some G-d, but simply because they are healthy human practices, important communal and family traditions.  And, of course, Buddhist practices of meditation imply no connection with any god.  Only later in Buddhism did the gods arrive in some Buddhist traditions.

Yet I suspect that most Christians who practice Buddhist meditation do so within the horizon of Christian belief in God.  (See subsequently about my prayer to Quan Am, goddess of mercy.)

Then there is this from Pope Francis on 9/21 (from his daily prayer site “Journey With The Pope” — which I highly recommend):

“I would like to reiterate that if we want to preserve fraternity on Earth, we cannot lose sight of Heaven.… Yes, true religiosity consists in adoring God and loving one’s neighbor. And we believers cannot exempt ourselves from these essential religious choices: rather than demonstrating something, we are called to show the paternal presence of the God of heaven through our harmony on earth.”

I also believe that most of us continue in a variety to pray to the old pagan gods.  We as a nation make immense sacrifices at the altar of Mars.

And I hope at some point to reflect on the ways many atheists pray.  

Perhaps we all pray, with or without gods?

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I have prayed, or tried to, throughout my entire life – even before words came to me.

I’ve long been a student and professor of religious studies and have developed much appreciation for the prayer beliefs and practices of different religious traditions.    

Yet I am also a philosopher trained to habits of criticism as well as appreciation.  For there is much that is phony in religion, and much that is at times very dangerous.  For me that means especially the many forms fundamentalist belief and practice found throughout the world’s religions (though hardly limited to religions). They need to be criticized since they contribute in so many ways to polarizations and violence.

And though I continue to pray, I have my share of doubts and serious questions about prayer.  I suspect that Freud (and Marx, etc.) may have been right about much prayer – simply seeking illusory but much needed comfort or reassurance in tough times.   But then who am I to judge the character of anyone’s prayer?

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I’m still filled, two weeks after, with my days at Goettweig, so allow me to ramble a bit.  And perhaps go to their excellent website Benedictine Abbey Göttweig – place of encounter (stiftgoettweig.at) for photos that may provide images for fmy words.

I had no “retreat” program. It was just several days of quiet, with walks through the now large monastery’s shaded grounds and gardens.  The weather was clear early fall. I sat for what seemed hours at this or that valley overlook, and spent time reading and scribbling. I made occasional “visits” to one or the other of the monastery’s churches.   One evening I just happened to walk into a sung High Mass in the very large and very baroque cathedral church.  There were trumpets and drums and full choir accompanying the magnificent organ, and up front a good number of monks in choir stalls and at the altar.  I have no idea what the occasion was, but it filled my heart to experience this baroque brilliance with a full congregation of masked and local folk – farmer and business families from surrounding villages, many of whom work the monastery’s fields and forests. 

Did I mention that the food was great; that the monastery not only makes its own beer, but seven different kinds of wine, as well as specialty apricot liqueurs.  The monks, about 60 (with quite a few elderly) are pastors at many area parishes, minister at several prisons, and have an active ministry to youth.  So the beer and wine and other goodies – including the meals at the monastery restaurant – are these days the work of employees from the surrounding towns. 

And all of it – from the food to the quiet to the services and sights – was for me a form of prayer.  Which may have something to do with the constant stream of daytime visitors – mostly hikers and bikers, but many family cars and occasional tour busses.  It’s hilltop grandeur and historic significance make it a natural tourist stop.  Yet  I can’t help but think that some sort of sacred aura (whatever that might mean) nonetheless draws folks there.  Even the many couples and family groups who seem simply to come for the superb restaurant.  The place resonates hospitality.  As it’s website says, it’s a place of encounter.  Not accidentally with several churches, a museum of monastic art, and the cloistered apartments for the monks. An aura of prayer.

One other surprise.  One evening while I was dining on their beautiful terrace restaurant, I noticed noise and loudspeakers on another terrace above.  I wandered up and discovered an electric car show – new electric models from VW and BMW, Porsche and Peugeot, and several Asian carmakers.  One could sign up to drive any one of these on the roads circling the monastery.  And, lo and behold (or LOL), there was the Abbot in his black Benedictine robes wearing a bright red stole and holding a prayer book.  Next to him was someone carrying a holy water bucket and sprinkler.  The announcer was calling for quiet while the Abbot read a prayer of blessing and then walked with the sprinkler blessing both cars and crowd.  (The pervasive cameras were, I’m sure, for newspapers.)  After watching this ritual, I approached the Abbot and told him that Pope Francis would have loved this.  A Laudato Si’ event.  He agreed and also suggested that this was simply one part of the monastery’s ministry of hospitality and prayer.

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That’s it for now.  Hope to post more on prayer soon enough.  Vaya con Dios.

Purgatory, a Test

Not sure the title makes sense. I’m sending this short piece on purgatory as a test of my efforts to restore a mailing list among those of you who said you wanted to continue to receive my blog postings. (If you get this, but didn’t want to continue, please just let me know.)

And, of course, one way to understand purgatory is that it is a time of testing. Perhaps like a thesis defense, or like a final exam in a very challenging course. Saints get a free pass, but most of us need some final testing.

Belief in purgatory has been laughed off the stage of contemporary Christian consciousness for all sorts of reasons. That it’s medieval Catholic nonsense with no basis in scripture. That God’s grace or mercy saves everyone, no matter what their lives or final state when appearing at the pearly gates. You know, Peter as parking manager rather than passport examiner.

At any rate, I continue to think the idea of purgatory is a good one, even if a medieval invention. There are lots of good (and lots of bad) developments in Christian thought that have no basis in scripture. One is Luther’s sola scriptura, which remains a pretty bad, and at times a very dangerous, idea!

My dad (who by now is well out of purgatory) used to sit at his bedside every night praying the rosary for the “poor souls.” I’m sure he thought of and perhaps spoke to deceased members of his family and friends, perhaps even to enemies. I’m sure he thought he’d be joining them. I too believe that. I’m no saint. Lots of Catholic guilt, but much of it real. Time for a good cleansing after death before I get to the pearly gates. And to talk especially with enemies whom I expect to join there.

I don’t share Dante’s image of purgation by fire. When I try to imagine purgatory (which may not be a good idea), I imagine some process of sorrowful reflection and repentance for all the stupid and sinful stuff I’ve done – the vices and vanities, etc. And for reconciliation with enemies.

Of course, I know rationally that all this talk of afterlife “processes” is confused by our inability to understand what time might mean after we leave this time. But I’ll leave that as a teaser for the philosophically inclined.

For now that’s enough for my test.

The Feast of Mary’s Assumption

As I approach my 80th year, I am much aware of death. Many friends and colleagues have died recently, and I can feel “the sting of death” in my body’s decline. I do hope to live longer and to prosper. Yet most of my friends live with a growing awareness of death. St. Paul claims that, with Jesus’ resurrection, death has lost it’s sting. Wonder if he still thought that as he first felt the bite of the executioner’s axe.

At any rate today is the celebration of Mary’s “dormition” as the Orthodox put it. It concerns death and transformation, body and soul, into a new form of life — “in heaven” we typically say. I am again copying here (with minor edits) a reflection on this feastday which I first published in “Hark,” The Denver Post‘s then still extant religion blog .

On August 15, Catholics around the world celebrate “The Assumption of Mary” into heaven. More typically referred to simply as “The Assumption,” to distinguish it from Jesus’ resurrection and “ascension” into heaven, the holy day celebrates Catholic teaching that Jesus’s mother, after the course of her natural life, was taken body and soul into heavenly glory. There is no formal Catholic teaching about whether Mary, like her son Jesus, actually died. Though I assume that she, like all humanity, really did die.

This belief about Mary’s assumption is a stumbling block for most Protestant Christians. My wife, for instance, is a good Presbyterian. We met in a small and entirely Catholic town in Bavaria while studying the German language. The course ran through Aug. 15, a town holiday because it was a Catholic holy day, Maria Himmelfahrt. For my wife, and probably for most of our fellow students, it was simply a day off from school and occasion for a bit of a joke about the word “himmelfahrt.” We knew it meant “journey to heaven,” but the English resonance of the sound “fahrt” was unavoidable. Beyond that, it has remained for her a matter of indifference in our otherwise ecumenically active marriage.

So for her and many others, I offer (again) the following comments and reflections.

The Scripture readings for the feast begin with the description of the pregnant women in the heavens “clothed with the Sun,” from Revelations 12. They then move to Paul’s discussion of Christ “conquering death” by his resurrection and so becoming “the firstborn of many” (1 Corinthians 15). And finally to the Gospel narrative traditionally referred to as “the Visitation” (Luke 1:39) — the young and pregnant Mary’s visit to her older, about-to-give-birth cousin Elizabeth.

Elizabeth greets Mary as “full of grace” and then hears in Mary’s response the poetic canticle still widely referred to as “The Magnificat” (from the first word of the older Latin text). Mary proclaims that her soul glorifies God (“magnificat anima mea Dominum”), who has thrown down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the poor and lowly, has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.

As liturgical readings — as poetry and proclamation for the feast of the Assumption — these texts are rich in suggestion about the meaning of Catholic belief. I am struck above all by how physical, bodily and worldly is their content. Yes, they celebrate a move beyond the present world, beyond death; yet, they do so in remarkably earthly terms. A heavenly woman gives birth in pain, yet stands as sign of “a new heaven and a new earth.” Jesus really dies, but by his resurrection is proclaimed firstborn of a new creation (a “new world ‘a comin”). Above all, two pregnant women proclaim God’s presence and grace, active then and there, and His work of overturning the rich and powerful of this world and exalting the poor and hungry.

Mary’s story is not about escaping this world, however much Christian teaching and Marian devotion may have been understood in such “spiritualist” terms. Rather it’s about the transformation of the world. And if Jesus by his resurrection is “the firstborn” in this new world, then Mary’s bodily assumption makes her the second-born.

Mary’s Assumption is, in other words, one part of the larger Christian belief about a kingdom that will and does transform this real physical world — where women get pregnant, suffer childbirth, and are so often terribly treated; where the poor are still with us, suffering and oppressed; where the rich and powerful glory in their excess and use terrible brutality to defend their kingdom.

The Assumption is part of that larger, though too easily dismissed, Christian teaching about “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Now about belief in a new creation, a new kingdom coming, I must admit that I’m among the first to doubt — to find such ideas hard to accept, even at times fantastical.

As I write I have a friend who is dying. [True again in 2021, though a different friend.]  Most of us know death, often close up, and know its terrible finality. Just as we daily witness power and wealth increasing their death grip on our national dreams of equality and justice, to say nothing of the dreams of the vast majority of our world’s population. So I’m often not sure what to make of talk about defeating death and some new world ‘a comin’ — perhaps it is just opium.

What I do know, however, and am called to celebrate, is that Catholic teaching about Mary and Jesus — regardless of what some preachers and even some bishops and popes have made of it — is not about fantastical dreams of someplace else. It’s essentially incarnational — bodily, physical, worldly, human, political. It’s about this world and about the hope for its transformation, in God’s good time (which is both now and to come).

Perhaps hard to believe, but that’s what it’s about. And it challenges many, many of our assumptions.

So let me end with Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk and writer. He tells of a moment when, on a street corner in Louisville, where he’d gone for a doctor visit, he had this experience of seeing all the people on the street “shining like the sun.” He says that he wanted to shout to them, call to them to see how they really were “clothed with the sun.” Instead he gave his life to writing about how all of us, in our deeper and more real selves, are indeed “full of grace” and “clothed with the sun,” even in the midst of our daily busy-ness, our greeds and lusts and angers, our wars and crimes.

Pay attention to those moments, glimpses, when we notice ourselves or others “clothed with the sun.” Maybe if we did it more, paid greater attention to such deeper presence, we too would occasionally see a new world ‘a comin’ even now. It might even change some of our assumptions.

Gloom and Doom — Hope and Zoom

We hear much doom and gloom these days about real crises, about violence and distrust and polarization….  I suspect that most of us experience this G&D. It’s is a real and important experience pervasive in the cultural air we breathe daily.  We must pay serious attention to it.    Yet I write mainly to suggest that such G&D risks looming too large in our minds and  spirits.  I write to note that many good things, big and small, are also very real, and to urge that appreciation and admiration of such real goods needs to occupy a greater part of our attention. 

That’s it.  If the topic interests you, please read on, or just delete and think about hope and gloom in your own way. 

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I have used “zoom” in my title because much of what follows reflects on how zooming has become part of our way of living since the pandemic.  And I suspect there are many zoom groups which exemplify such attention to the good.  My own experience of many zoom sessions really helps to counterbalance my experiences of gloom by enlarging my sense of reality.

So, doom yes, but hope as well — whether via zooms or other forms of communication and community. My mentor Lynch says that hope is impossible without help.

I suspect there are hundreds of thousands of zoom groups operating in this country which primarily spread gloom and doom.  Same with twitter accounts, with gossip groups, and even church services (!) spreading fear and despair.

But I hope there are at least as many hundreds of thousands of zoom groups (and other media, including most church services) which spread hope and prudence and wisdom….

My numbers may be way off, but hope you get the point.

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About G&D

Not much for me to say here since I assume that we all have such experiences and hear such prognostications. 

I’m something of a cinema addict, these days mostly via the likes of Netflix.  Thus one example of G&D is the great popularity of apocalyptic cinema – about the great alien invasion or the total desertification of the earth or the whole genre of great heroes saving us from unbelievable monsters.  At times it seems that most of our cinema and literature, even much great poetry (think T. S.  Eliot), is accurately characterized by what Lynch calls “The Wasteland Sensibility.”  I rarely watch more than a few minutes of such films since they are boringly repetitive and predictable. Yet their popularity is cause for reflection.  I suspect that people watch apocalyptic fantasies because they confirm our deeper fears.  Yet they simultaneously assuage them – because, after all, it’s just fantasy and the good guys always win. 

Much more could be said about the spread of doom and gloom among us.  Perhaps it’s always been part of our evolutionary human sense of weakness and wariness. Only the fool has no fear.  Perhaps it’s something elevated again because of our industrial waste and genocidal wars and climate crises.

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About Zooming and Other Sources of Hope

Martin Buber famously said that “all real living is meeting.”  I have friends who believe that’s only really possible face to face.  While I understand, I nonetheless disagree.  Zoom groups have enabled me to meet with good friends during a time of lockdown and over great distances (with people in New York and Florida, Arizona and California, Germany and Switzerland).  I’ll happily continue to zoom even as I am happily returning to local, face-to-face meeting.

At the risk of being too personal, let me comment briefly on some of the zoom groups that have helped me deepen meaning and hope during this pandemic period.

Many are with elders like myself – mostly men. Many are with guys I was with during my early years in the Marianists (a Catholic religious order).  There’s also what I fondly think of as “The Regis Old Farts Group” – retired guys I worked with during my thirty years at Regis University.

We do talk about the G&D.  Indeed the next scheduled session of one of the ex-Marianist groups will focus on the climate crisis – how it’s affecting us spiritually, what we might do in response….  Yet for me at least, in this group and others, I always leave the conversation with a shared sense of hope.  Not the kind of fantasy hope which is fundamentally an escape from the hard facts.  But hope engendered by thoughtful exchange among friends.

Another “Common Bond” zoom group – that’s what we former Marianists call ourselves, bonded still by deeply shared experiences from the past.  Another CB zoom has for more than a year now been focused on the theological idea (following Teilhard de Chardin and others) of “the Cosmic Christ,” the idea that Christ is really present in the unfolding of the cosmos.  We’ve approached this idea from many angles, from the most abstract (Teilhard) to the very concrete (how Christ might be prophetically present in our neighborhoods and work amidst many evils. How Christ seeks to work through us for building a world of justice and peace? There is no avoidance of real crises in this discussion. No more than Jesus during his time with us avoided the pervasive crises of his time. Yet the overall achievement of the sessions is hope.

Then there are zooms with other groups – some faculty and administrators at Regis, and an international group of politically-involved folks.  And again, for me and (I think) the others involved, these groups deliberately take on the hard facts of our lives and our world, but in search of realistic hope and, in process of discussion, experiencing a renewal of hope.

There’s no magic here.  Just friends “daring to dream” together — to borrow from Pope Francis’ recent book Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future.

A Correction re. Joseph Campbell

A good friend, in responding to my last blogpost about Roman Catholicism, noted among many other helpful comments, that:

• I was surprised when you refer to him as “the soi-distant sage, profit-making popularizer, and right wing bigot”. That is a strong judgement and I wonder about the basis for it. I went again to my expert advisor – Wikipedia which reports:

• Campbell has also been accused of antisemitism by some authors. In a 1989 New York Review of Books article, Brendan Gill accused Campbell of both antisemitism and prejudice against blacks.[82] Gill’s article resulted in a series of letters to the editor, some supporting the charge of antisemitism or accusing Campbell of having various right-wing biases, others defending him. However, according to Robert S. Ellwood, Gill relied on “scraps of evidence, largely anecdotal” to support his charges.[83] In 1991, Masson also accused Campbell of “hidden anti-Semitism” and “fascination with conservative, semifascistic views”.[84] Contrarily, the “fascist undercurrents” in Campbell’s work and especially its influence on Star Wars have been called “a reminder of how easily totalitarianism can knock at any society’s door.”[85] The religious studies scholar Russell T. McCutcheon characterized the “following [of] the bliss of self-realization” in Campbell’s work as “spiritual and psychological legitimation” for Reaganomics.[86]

My friend then continues:

• I am skeptical of the strength and basis for the charge if this kind of source is the basis. If anti-semitism is hidden, how does one know? The indication is that the sources of most of these were more conversational that in carefully thought publications. If he or we are to be judged finally judged by what may be such utterances, I shudder to think where we end up. How much of a racist or anti-semite could I be judged to be and is that then a fair summary of my life and views?

My response: I do admit that my initial comments were sweeping and too broad. And I agree with my friend’s final sentences just above. Beyond that I refer the reader to Wikipedia and other sources.

John

On Being (Roman) Catholic

It’s been some time since I’ve posted on this site.  And I’m sad to report that one of my most careful readers and critics (who regularly posted responses on the blogsite) has died unexpectedly.  Rhett Segall, a former Marianist (as am I) was a teacher of Theology in Catholic High Schools for many years.  We university professors tend to look down our noses at “mere high school teachers.”  Yet Rhett knew and articulated more theological breadth and depth than many professors I know.  So to him I say, “Rest in Peace good Brother.  I will miss your feedback.”           

Now to the present writing…  Over the years I’ve often written about the Catholic Church. Of late, I’ve tried to draft an overview of what it means, for me at least, to be a Roman Catholic, yet I’ve never been satisfied with the results.  So here’s my final and still very inadequate attempt which, will much too lengthy, still leaves out too much.

A final introductory note: in what follows I make some sharp criticisms.  Yet these are criticisms of ideas and not of the persons who hold them.  I have good friends whose life has led them to embrace these ideas.  I am not criticizing them, and I welcome their critical responses to what I write.

I’m regularly asked why I remain Catholic even as I so often criticize the Church.  Those who ask me have criticisms which I share:  about patriarchy and abuse, boring homilies and uninspiring ritual, irrelevant rules and the absence of a strong sense of community in the parishes they know. Perhaps especially criticisms of Church teaching on sexuality and gender.

What follows is my response.  It’s a personal, not a scholarly or theological essay despite its length

It Begins With Jesus

1. There would be no Church without Jesus of Nazareth.  Many scholars argue (and I largely agree) that Jesus saw himself as Prophet trying to reform the religion of Israel and not seeking to establish a new church.  Many suggest that that Paul, with his mission to Gentiles, was the real founder of a new religion.  And that Paul’s ideas are reflected in the subsequent Gospels which give clear evidence of separation of the Christian movement from Judaism.  At times they also give indications of the beginnings of new rituals and new forms of leadership in the early Christian communities.

All who call themselves “Christian” — Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic; liberal and conservative — consider themselves disciples or followers of “the way” Jesus called us to live.  Most seek especially to follow Jesus’ mission to uplift the poor, to work for justice, to bring the Reign or Kingdom of God into the social realities of his times.  Yet many find “the Church” irrelevant to that mission, often an obstacle to it.  Jesus is, for them, a guide and model, their teacher or rabbi, for some even their “master.” (In trying to pray, I often address Jesus as “boss.”) They commonly refer to “the Jesus of the Gospels”, while doubting or rejecting the “Jesus Christ” of the New Testament and subsequent Creeds – often dismissing (though they would say understanding) such beliefs as “myths.”

I admire and agree with all those trying to follow the Jesus of the Gospels who challenged us to help “the least of our brothers [and sisters].”  The itinerant rabbi who summarized all of Jewish Law with just two commands – to “love God with your whole heart, mind, and soul” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Just as Pope Francis in his recent writings uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate what real discipleship means.

Yet I still find it a bit ironic that many such folks neither believe in God nor in any judgment or afterlife.  Ironic, too, that their sweeping references to “the Gospels” often ignores what those Gospels actually say.

2. Let’s be clear.  Jesus of Nazareth was, in both Gospel story and Church creeds, a fully human being.  Weeping, angry, tender, compassionate, courageous.  Born of woman, suffering a real death.  And even, as some today insist (on the basis of sketchy texts in the so-called “Gnostic Gospels”) a man who loved that (obviously beautiful) Mary Magdalene.  (As an aside: my own suspicion about such emphasis on Jesus’ sexuality has far less to do with these texts than with the modern exaltation of sex as the central criterion for full maturity or humanity.)

Yet it is also clear to me (again, from both the Gospels and the Creeds) that Jesus was/is God’s Word to us, Emmanuel (God with Us), our Christ (Messiah) and Savior.  And it is helpful for me to realize that Jesus himself, as a human being “growing in wisdom and grace,” only gradually came to a fuller awareness of his unique oneness with God. 

Jesus believed in the One God whom he called “Father.”  He was executed for preaching the revolutionary idea that God’s Kingdom should come to this world to transform or replace both Jewish and Roman power structures.

Yet what about the “myths” of Incarnation and Resurrection which reveal that  Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God?

I use the term “myth” because I am responding to those who insist on it, even though I find it is a very inadequate way of talking about religious beliefs.  The word “mystery” better catches the reality, though it too can be reduced to just something mysterious or “supernatural” in the modern TV sense of that word.  Christian use of “mystery” always refers to a particular event or belief which demands faith.  Yet today’s widespread use of the term “myth” generally lumps all such beliefs and events into a vague commonality.  Jesus and Buddha, Confucius and Mohammed, all become much alike as “mythic religious figures” thereby losing their unique particularity and, as a result, giving insult to believers of each particular religionThe title of a book by one of these myth pushers says it all.  I refer to Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With A Thousand Faces.”

One response is simply to observe that we would know nothing of Jesus without the New Testament writings which were written only because of those “myths.” Jesus would be but a small footnote in long forgotten Roman and Jewish histories without those mythologizing Gospels. Another blunt response would be to push a question about what is this “Gospel” that Jesus’ contemporary admirers talk about following?  Perhaps something like Thomas Jefferson’s own “expurgated” version of the New Testament which deleted every reference to anything “mythic.”

The modern attempt to discover the “historical Jesus” behind the mythic “Christ of Faith” has borne some significant results, but (and here are more fightin’ words) much of it – at least it’s supposedly scientific conclusions — is rubbish which leaps beyond evidence and has been spread by media ever-hungry for something “new.”

To be equally blunt and confrontational, most of the cotton-candy cant about myth, while perhaps derived from serious thinkers like Carl Jung, come from the soi-disant sage, profit-making popularizer, and right-wing bigot Campbell and his disciples. Again, there’s probably something to the myth idea, but it’s hardly a good basis for either serious historical scholarship, good theology, or serious faith. More like the slippery slope to watered-down Christianity and easy agnosticism.

5. I will not take up the truly difficult question about God’s existence other than to observe that there is no “problem of evil” if there is nothing like a Good God. Aquinas still makes good sense to me.  Even more does Jesus’ proclamation of God’s Kingdom.  As with evil, any notion of working for a kingdom of justice and peace on this earth is, as Thomas More famously said, utopian rubbish if God’s Spirit is not moving through our violent and unjust world “writing straight with crooked lines.”

6. As to the crucial claims about Resurrection and Jesus as Christ, in the end I believe those claims because of the creeds and traditions of the Church.  Chesterton said that tradition means “giving the ancestors a vote.”  That is, not allowing one’s beliefs to be shaped by the prevailing skepticism of our times.  Learn from that skepticism?  By all means.  Yet only with awareness of its own “myths” about reason, science, and freedom.  Yes, embrace reason and real science and freedom.  But be wary of scientism and individualism.  And above all bear in mind that our supposedly enlightened era is pervasively darkened by an “oblivion of eternity” which reduces reality to the savagery of history.

Then The Apostles

1.  It’s pretty clear to me that the notion of “the 12” is taken by New Testament writers to indicate representatives of the 12 tribes of the “New Israel.”  Jesus clearly chose and attracted many disciples.  Probably many more than twelve.  Including many women who played key roles, the beloved Mary perhaps first among them.  Yet such women are relegated to subsidiary roles by the NT writers  who were trying to address the patriarchal and misogynistic sensibilities of both Jews and Gentiles.

2. Also clear is that, as this new movement spread through the Gentile (Greco-Roman) world it adapted the structures of that world – by formalizing church leadership roles and ritual. 

It is likely that other movements, now termed “gnostic,” had from the beginning other ideas about Jesus and salvation, but these were condemned and buried by that same Roman power structure.  As is very clear from history, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and for the same political reasons banished all those variants.

3. So our Bishops (including the Bishop of Rome) and priests are not direct descendants by the imposition of hands from the Apostles.  They are a development within the Christian movement (by now the Church). They continued to develop through Christian history and thus can develop and change in our times.

Pope, Bishops, Priests, and The Church

As a prefatory note, I think most of my friends reduce the Church a few simplistic images about archaic structures and rules which are experienced as increasingly irrelevant and often as seriously unjust and evil.  It’s akin to the mistake made by many who reject God because they have reduced the reality of God to similarly simplistic images of patriarch and punisher or master planner and distant designer.  To some objectionable “being” rather than to Being Itself, as Aquinas would have it.  Or the Power/Ground of Being (Tillich, etc.).  Or the “Vortex of Love” as Pope Francis recently put it.

1. One of the reasons for the development of a hierarchical church is, quite simply, that it worked.  I’d even go so far as to say that, just as we’d know virtually nothing about Jesus without the Gospels, we’d know little of Christianity without the hierarchical structure of the Church. 

Said differently, without a Pope and Bishops, and without the different but similarly clerical movement of Monasticism, Christianity would not have survived the fall of the Roman Empire and the subsequent, so-called Dark Ages.  Yet it not only survived but thrived, eventually leading to Christendom, the new Holy Roman Empire of the Middle Ages.

2. I’d say much the same about the periods of Renaissance and Reformation which succeeded Christendom.  Some “protestants” quite consciously saw the need to continue the structures of hierarchy and sacred ritual, and thrived because of these structures.  Of course the corresponding Catholic Reformation (or counter Reformation) very deliberately emphasized these same structures while also seeking to reform them.  And even the more radical “left wing” of the Reformation, while rejecting both priesthood and sacramental ritual, ended up by filling the vacuum with new but implicit forms of priesthood and ritual.

I think that it is a general law of human organization, whether religious or secular, that when we get rid of the corrupt clerics we end up replacing them with new forms of clerical leadership.  It’s simply what human organization requires.

3. While I’m extremely critical of most Bishops, especially the John Paul II appointed majority in the US, I nonetheless affirm the need for the office of Bishop in the Catholic Church.  The present Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, is for me a great example of the importance of the office of Bishop, its significance for the Catholic Church, for other religious groups, and for our secular world.  He is, in my view, the most significant religious figure in the present world because of his work for the immigrant, the poor, and against our terribly unjust social and economic structures.

Of course Francis himself is working continually (may he live long and prosper!) for reform of both hierarchy and ritual within the Catholic Church.  He is doing this not by open and polarizing conflict with his opponents in the Vatican and in Bishops’ Conferences (above all in the US), but by slowly replacing them and by demanding a challenging process of “synodality” (gathering all God’s people to discern the path forward for God’s Church).

The Future of the Church

Predictions inevitably fail.  Yet we need, nonetheless, to try to imagine our future in hopefully realistic ways.  Here are transformations of Catholicism which I imagine:

1. Feminism, for all its too many stupid and ideological forms, is nonetheless one of the most important and humanizing movements sweeping the entire globe.  Changing, often with great struggle, the structures and rituals of politics, economics, religion, etc. 

Thus it seems to me inevitable that women will soon, though probably not in my lifetime, be priests and bishops in Catholicism as they already are in most forms of Protestantism.  Eventually, Pope Elizabeth or Jean or….

2. Pastors, parish priests and local bishops, will soon enough be elected/selected through some sort of back and forth – proposals and vetoes and more of the like – as they are today among Episcopalians and Presbyterians and other “protestant” groups.

3. There will be regular “synods” at all levels – in parishes, dioceses, individual nations, and (as at present) those called by the Pope for the entire Catholic world.  None of them will be perfect, but they will nonetheless involve the entire people of God in discerning the path forward.

4. Ecumenism will flourish, not necessarily by the joining of traditions within Christianity, but by real affirmation of the other and fruitful learning from each other. 

5. Interfaith dialogue and cooperation will grow, again by mutual affirmation and work for justice — as in Francis’ major push for dialogue and cooperation with Muslims in his latest writings.

6. Finally, the different religious faiths will join with humanists to affirm the legitimacy of the growing secularity of the world, while also criticizing the many dehumanizing aspects of the present process of secularization.  Criticizing, in other words, secularism but not authentic secularity which in its many forms simply means humanization.

As my mentor Lynch stressed, such affirmation and prophetic criticism of secularization is perhaps the most significant dimension of working for the coming of God’s Kingdom, on this earth as it is in heaven.

I close by repeating my constant request that readers who wish to send responses to what I’ve written might write them on this website (as my good brother Rhett always did) so that others might benefit from such further exchange of ideas.

Palms and Easter Bunnies

It seems to have been a low-key protest. Welcoming as king this popular rabbi riding on a donkey. All of them waving palm branches. Yet that crowd had disappeared by Friday when another false messiah was executed. Of course, we Christians believe that we did indeed get a new King the following Sunday. Just one we’re not so sure about — with his riding donkeys and overturning tables in a Temple.

So some of us wave palms on this special Sunday. Many will hunt eggs and candies with their kids on Easter. Yet I suspect that most who enjoy such festivity are either unaware of or just don’t want to think about that the meaning of that first parade and the kind of king we’re celebrating. (I’m the latter.)

It really was a moment of revolution, against both the Temple Establishment and Roman Rule. Why else would those powers collaborate in crucifying him? Pilate’s sign on the cross made it contemptuously clear: INRI (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews).

Of course, most of those original palm-wavers were hoping for some big miraculous event to change things. They were not insurrectionists.

And expectations of some such “apocalypse” lingered for years among both Jews and Christians. They still raise fear and hope in contemporary imaginations. Yet most of us have learned that real change for the better – for justice – comes slowly, with great difficulty and infrequent miracles.

Perhaps that’s why we’d rather enjoy chocolate Easter Bunnies.

Fortunately, the memory of that donkey and those over-turned tables has continued to provoke protest over millennia. And still today, if only implicitly, in our BLM and Me-2 protests, and in so many secular and religious movements for that “kingdom” Jesus was killed for preaching. And in the miraculous appearance among us of flawed saints like Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, and the ordinary saints we all know.

The Gun as Anti-Sacrament

With a Cane

I first posted this essay in 2013 on the Denver Post’s religion blogsite “Hark.”  I post it again (with minor corrections and additions) since we are again in a seemingly fruitless discussion about gun control.  Please make replies below (on this site) and feel free to share with others if you find it helpful.  John

First, a short version:

In trying to understand the passionate outrage of some folks at efforts to pass gun-control legislation, I have come to think of “the gun” as an “anti-sacrament” – not so much the actual gun one might possess or want to buy, but the symbolic gun that pervades thinking and provokes passions.  (Yet we should not underestimate the significance of holding the actual weapon, of its sense of weight and power for the owner and user.) For Christians, sacraments are ritual actions involving physical things like water, bread and wine – actions…

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Zooming Towards Justice

A Brief Comment on a “Making Good Trouble” Zoom at Regis

At the end of a recent zoom session at Regis we were asked by the facilitator to write one concrete action which, as a consequence of the hour-plus discussion, we might resolve to make. I decided to write this blogpost. I want to celebrate that student-led zoom and add some comments I’d not had time to express during the discussion.

I hope that what follows might be of interest to the general reader in terms of what’s going on at Regis and at many other (Jesuit as well as secular) universities in response to the many crises of justice we face: on race, polarization, inequality, climate change, and so on. I hope, too, that it might be a form of affirmation for those involved at Regis though what I write clearly represents the thoughts of only one participant in the meeting.

• This particular session was the first of a “Making Good Trouble” series for the Regis community organized by the University’s Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion, History Prof. Nicki Gonzales. Titled after an historic “word” from now-deceased Rep. John Lewis, the goal of the series is to bring together different persons on campus (I think there were some 40 in the first session, a speaking-panel of ten so students and retired faculty, and 30 or more students and staff in the audience) to discuss issues students and faculty must deal with and to discern about “making good trouble” in response. It was, to my thinking, an expression of her passion for the importance of history that led Prof. Gonzalez to decide to kick off the series with a panel of retired faculty discussing their own experience of “making good trouble” during the 60s and since. And it was also my sense that a passion for justice among some student leaders actually brought the series to life.

• The hour-and-a-half went quickly, with spirit-filled and serious exchanges between young and old. Which makes it hard for me to summarize a very good conversation. As always, the elders spoke too much, but student leaders on the panel gave balance to the conversation. I know that I personally was not only impressed with student voices articulating their justice-focused studies and activities. I was also very impressed with their (the students’) use of the zoom vehicle (and of the internet more broadly) for facilitating this conversation. I’m retired now almost 11 years and can’t help but envy the present campus for the widespread “digital literacy” which makes such “zooming towards justice” possible. (Prof. Gonzales mentioned that doing “something like this” has long been a dream of hers.)

• I remember that one of the questions raised by an elder concerned the prevalence of digital/social media among students. Might this leave many students locked into “their own” information silos and sources, made thereby into consumer relativists led into indifference about justice or just swept up in some craze of agitation and protest? I honestly forget the way responses to this question wove through the subsequent conversation, but I suspect (perhaps because it’s my own view of social media) that on the one hand such media are seen as very important sources of important information and conversation about justice, but on the other hand they can be and often are precisely what the questioner feared.

• In my memory, the preceding topic linked directly with another thread that wove through the discussion: how do we (young and older) learn to become and stay involved with action for justice? How do we get educated for long-term action for justice? One of the panelists who has been a life-long activist spoke of “learning from the streets” – from engagement in street level protest at best from one’s youth. The short-student assembled slide show of images at the beginning of the zoom also featured images of street marching and protesting and I suspect that most of the students on the panel and in the audience had been involved in “service learning” (aka “street learning”) in connection with one or several of their classes.

• For me this emphasis on “street learning” was both important and I don’t hesitate to say dangerously one-sided. I did not find a way to express this concern so let me explain it here. I would say that the primary vocation of all those at a university is to be students in search of both knowledge and wisdom. Learning by involvement in the wider community, especially to respond to those most in need, is a very important aspect of being a student (one who desires truth and wisdom), but so are all the other more “scholarly” aspects of one’s life. And this is as much true for students as for their teachers. One learns from literature and religion, from sociology to history and politics, and from the physical sciences and professional disciplines – one learns from all these sources of knowledge and wisdom how better, more humanly and fairly, with more patience and more passion, to work for justice. One learns that there are many forms of such work – from protests and organizing to writing and studying. That is a small note of suggestion and criticism which I’d make to such university people and to all of us.

• And finally, I’d also note there was not much laughter in the zoom session. I tried several times to make a joke to lighten the conversation and it always fell flat. It was a very serious discussion. At one point someone mentioned music as a form of protest, and I’d add that music is a form of joy to lighten and leaven our protests. Yes, I remember the songs of the 60s which accompanied anti-war and civil rights marches. I was not at Woodstock, but remember it’s importance as a celebration of causes and protest (even though over time the memory of Woodstock has been reduced to little more than a celebration of sensuality). I digress. The point here is that the action for justice must involve humor, directed especially at ourselves, and celebration and ritual of many sorts.

Such, then, my brief report on a “Make Good Trouble zoom at my beloved Regis University.

Palestine/Israel – A Change in Attitude and a Short Book Review

Almost two years ago, I wrote on this site what I thought would be my final post about the conflict in the not-so-holy land.  I had said what I’d wanted to say about this conflict, over and over again.  Thus I summarized as succinctly as I could the major arguments for my long-held criticisms of Israel as THE rogue state in the region and as the oppressive Goliath now strangling a Palestinian David.  And I gave my sources for this criticism which I am absolutely sure is not anti-Semitic, but very much anti-Israel or at least against the brutal reigning political consensus in Israel.

Nothing has changed those convictions, though today I’d add the Saudi tyranny as THE other rogue state in the region. Of course, Trump’s support for Israel has only made the situation worse, and I fear that Biden will not do much better since he has been typical of US politicians supporting Israel, just less outrageous than Trump.  Indeed, the news as I write tells of Netanyahu authorizing even more expansion of “settlements” on Palestinian land.  Thus more land robbery, resulting in more Israeli violence, and further expansion of its apartheid regime.  And little response from US pols who are presently preoccupied elsewhere, though they’d probably not condemn this expansion of apartheid in any case.

Yet several things have led me to again try to articulate my sense of the tragedies and modest hopes for that land.  To articulate a change in attitude and feeling.

Some time back, as I was reading morning Psalms, something finally clicked, even though I’d read and prayed these words so many times.  A constant refrain throughout the Psalms is praise for Jerusalem as the city of God’s peace, one of the most physical incarnations of God’s covenantal love for human beings.  And a similar refrain involving prayer for Jerusalem.  Prophets calling Jerusalem to repentance and rebirth.  Psalmists imploring God for mercy on Jerusalem.     

I had so long been angered at that city and nation, what one historian has accurately called a “nest of vipers” from ancient times to the present, that I had forgotten, probably never appreciated, this biblical sense shared by Jews and Christians (and I think by Muslims in their way), that Israel, Judah, Zion, Jerusalem…whatever the many names…was a precious place, meant to be a place of peace and praise, and also of the weeping and wailing which so often is the only way to peace.

So I started, with my morning Psalms, to pray for Jerusalem’s peace.  For the present Jerusalem, the present Israel, that it may re-find itself as a place for peace radiating around the globe. 

I don’t believe there are actually “holy” cities, or perhaps I think all cities and villages and towns can be “holy” simply by being wonderfully ordinary and human – made in the image of God, warts and wounds and all.   In other words, when I now pray for “peace upon Jerusalem,” for a restoration of what the Psalms and the Prophets hoped, I do mean the actual Jerusalem/Israel, but I pray for that blessing on all other cities as well.  I pray for every little “place” where the lion actually does or might lie down with the lamb, that such places will not be destroyed but will gradually spread their light through the world.

So that’s the first “thing” that happened to jolt me out of an angry fixation on the bad guys and gals in Israel and in Palestine who remain trapped by an illusory yet violent nationalism.

Next has been my growing conviction, articulated often in these pages, that the only way forward for all of us human beings is through difficult dialogue.  That conviction goes back to Martin Buber but has grown during my study of Pope Francis’ writings.  Indeed, I mention in a recent post on dialogue that one place where dialogue is much needed today is in the Middle East, especially in Palestine/Israel. 

Then, thirdly, I’m reading a new book by the Irish author, Colum McCann, several of whose previous novels I’d much appreciated.  The book is Apeirogon, A Novel (Random, 2020).  It is mainly about dialogue, growing out of a story of the lived dialog between two fathers who’d had innocent and very young daughters murdered by opposing terrorists. One is an Israeli, the other a Palestinian. Both are mature and intelligent men who have fought for their side of the conflict and then suffered this terrible loss.  It is about their meeting and and their gradually becoming missionaries of dialogue among similarly aggrieved parents throughout Israel and Palestine.  And beyond.

It is by far the most compelling book I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a good number) about the terrible reality of the Israeli “occupation” of Palestine.  About the fundamental necessity of ending that occupation (through a two-state solution or in some other way).  And most fundamentally about dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis and Christians as the only way forward to peace.

It is a long and strangely organized book, but it also has helped to move me away from my prior angers (though not from prior criticisms) and has opened for me at least some hope. I urge you to take the time to read this magnificent book and hopefully be moved as I was.

OK, that’s it. 

Unless you want some comments about the book’s almost magical style and range and integrity.  If so, read on.

I have not read many reviews, but this is the third of McCann’s book’s I’ve read.  The others were Let The Great World Spin (2009) and TransAtlantic (2013). I suspect some might call them post-modern novels.  They are novels because much is fictional or, better,  fictionalized versions of interviews and other printed records and video recordings.  Yet they represent a break from the traditional form of the novel.  They not only use the now common technique of flashback or jumping back and forward in the story’s time sequence. Sometimes jumping centuries back and forth.  But McCann’s novels, especially this new one, also jump back and forth from contemporary people and events to historical reports — about biological evolution, about man’s constant violence to other men and to nature, about the Holocaust, the Crusades, and Middle Eastern history – and to texts from the Quran and the Bible, from Sufi wisdom sayings and poetry and philosophical asides.

Such “jazzy” writing could be dismissed as mere intellectual sensationalism, but for McCann it isn’t that.  Rather, through such “jumping” the story gradually develops – there are no chapters, just numbered paragraphs, some just a line or two, some running for several pages, one or two simply left empty – adding up to exactly 1000 numbered paragraphs on 457 pages. His title, Apeirogon, he finally tells us after 80 pages and 180 paragraphs, means a shape with a countably infinite number of sides.  The word countably, he then insists, is utterly central to the meaning of the shape of an apeirogon (think “octagon” infinitely extended yet countable).  Go figure.  I’m guessin’ it means that the shape of the story is very, very complex and many sided.

Yet it is an ordered or integrated whole.  Each of the many different parts, the historical and religious and scientific “notes,” contribute to the more central and usually longer passages which focus on these two men’s lives and thoughts.  They contribute by enlarging the perspectives or lenses through which we see and begin to understand more deeply the contemporary reality of the lives of these men and their call for dialogue between enemies. 

My mentor Lynch has written an important book about the nature of any good, honest work of drama or fiction – and about the many ways that contemporary writing (and cinema and TV) regularly fail to live up to the standards for such good writing.  That still-in-print book is Christ and Apollo (1960).  It was preceded by a shorter and simpler work about The Image Industries (1959) which presents similar criticisms about popular cinema and television.

The relevant point here is that a good work of drama (again, literary or popular) grows “analogously”.  That’s one of those terribly academic words, but its quite right.  It means that a good work of dramatic art (or storytelling) is not built around a constant repetition of the same ideas and feelings in each scene or episode.  Rather each element of the composition stands on its own – is different from the other scenes and episodes – yet simultaneously contributes to the larger effect of the whole. 

And so it is with McCann’s writing, again especially in this new book.  All the elements – the historical and scientific and religious passages (even seemingly irrelevant sections on the migratory patterns of birds across the Middle East) – all provide background and an enlargement of meaning for the central story of these two fathers.

‘Nuff.  If you want more about Lynch’s ideas on literature read Chapter 4, “Apollo – The Dramatic Imagination,” of my book about Lynch.

Better still, read McCann’s new book.

And let us all pray (or hope in some way if you do not pray) and also work for “peace on Jerusalem.”