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Advent, the Environment, and Admiration

Our ecumenical service on the First Sunday of Advent was focused on the environment, both natural and human. With good words, good song, prayerful reflection, and real communion.

It brought again to mind something that regularly comes to me as I fret and try to act about our global crisis. It’s the thought that criticism will not be enough. Sure, we really do need to be critical, to educate, to spread awareness and concern about how bad things are and how much worse they are going to get. And to protest against the many villains. Yes. Yes. But something more fundamental is needed as we try to turn things around. And that is admiration — even if we use some other name for the attitude and sensibility, something more than respect, perhaps intimacy and even reverence.

For when we admire the most ordinary things, we open ourselves to their goodness and beauty, their individuality and truth. Admiration is one of the most basic forms of love. It nourishes that good taste of the world without which there is no good taste of ourselves.

I am very fortunate to be able to spend many mornings with my cup of coffee on the front porch of our mountain residence – something I do through the four seasons. I started the practice as a form of meditation involving  both “lectio divina” (reading a sacred text slowly and meditatively) and quiet breathing. Soon I realized that my natural environment was the major source of my prayer — the mountain air, the trees, crows and other birds, mountain grasses and flowers, fall frost and winter snow, the sounds of silence and the rising sun dispersing fog off the lake. There always is, even when the wind howls, an experience of real intimacy, real admiration.

And this happens as often in the city.  A few mornings ago, after breakfast with a friend, I emerged onto a street busy with folks walking to work. At the corner three workers in vests and hard-hats were replacing cement between loose bricks on the old sidewalk we still have here and there in downtown Denver. I watched them work, admired their precision with the mud and the levels. Said hello with a thumbs up. The older man responded and I told him that one of my grand uncles was a bricklayer back when in New York. He smiled back.

Or it may be when sitting with the dog outside Union Station almost any time of day. Admiring the beautiful, but even more admiring the variety of ethnicities and races, classes and genders. The muscled and the trim, the heavy and heavy laden, the lame as well as the quick.  All truly admirable, even those begging or limping or suffering in other ways. For only when we acknowledge and, yes, embrace with admiration our own personal lameness and pain, our limits and inadequacy, our own sufferings…only then can we open ourselves in real compassion to the poor…and to the ironic fact that limitation is essential to our humanity and worthy of compassion which is itself  a form of admiration.  Even if it only calls forth a wave, or a smile, or some loose change.

Admiration, you see, multiplies itself, becomes mutual, spreads and grows. It’s easy to see how this happens even in busy cities. The little light passes from face to face, heart to heart – perhaps among coworkers, in stores and pubs and schools, on busses or busy streets.

As for the natural world, I doubt that I’ve heard trees talk, or mountains speak, or rapids and rivers. Then again maybe I have, even if I too often rush by, not listening or failing to catch their different language.

I am not sure that admiration and intimacy and reverence are the same thing, but they seem related and overlapping. Perhaps admiration is what we first and most continually feel in the presence of the good and beautiful and true. Yet I suspect it is always grounded in a deep reverence, however we may name its source.

So that’s my pitch today. And Advent is a good time to make it.

We all admire much and often, even when unaware. Indeed a human life cannot be lived without a steady diet of admiration for the human and the rest of nature. We’re better at it than we think.  Still we can always enlarge the frequency and range of our admiration. And that means studied practices, during Advent and throughout the year – like mindfully smelling the flowers and hugging the kids, listening to the trees and watching the stars and greeting many more faces.

Without a foundation in admiration, all our necessary anger and fear, our actions and protests, risk simply spreading further division and greater alienation.

Let me close with a final example. I happened to catch a rerun of My Fair Lady the other night. One song lingers. The young man sings of admiration “On the Street Where You Live.” It is, of course, his infatuated admiration for Liza that breaks into song, but that admiration spreads along the street, to lilacs and larks and enchantments pouring from every door. Sure it’s terribly romantic. And good for that, so long as admiration spreads from the romantic to the ordinary, and even unto the tragic.

Some Thoughts for “Secular Humanist” and “Spiritual” Friends — In Honor of Karl Jaspers

 

This posting came to me out of the blue, though I have previously written about problems I have with “humanist” and “spiritual” distancing from religious faith. It may be of interest to the academically inclined, but may help others who hear much these days about folks who are “spiritual but not religious” and others called “secular humanists.”

What follows are notes from the German “existentialist” philosopher Karl Jaspers. I wrote my doctoral dissertation about him and, while I ended disagreeing, I learned much in the process. I still find him a very important 20th Century philosopher and humanist, even though he has been eclipsed in current US academic philosophy.

1. It will seem pretty clear to most that we are living through an era of religious disruption and crisis. The foundations of the great religious traditions have been shaken. Those Muslims and Christians and Jews, as well as Hindus and Buddhists and Confucians, who remain faithful and practicing in their religion are increasingly also modern people who simultaneously believe and doubt – who at very least are no longer so deeply rooted in their religious tradition as were their ancestors.

Of course, some traditional believers have moved in the opposite direction, reacting to modern challenges by emphasizing the absolute truth and stability of their religion. We typically hear such folks called (in praise or blame) “fundamentalists” or “strictly orthodox.” Others, of course, are the already noted “spirituals” who have moved from traditional faith to some broader (and for me vaguer) sense of spirit and faith. And then there are the “secular humanists” (agnostic or atheist) who clearly reject or claim unknowability about religious faith. Their spirituality is grounded in belief and hope in human goodness.

2. Karl Jaspers wrote extensively about this contemporary and increasingly global “crisis of faith.” Raised a fairly secular German Lutheran, but married to a Jew with whom he jointly survived the Nazis, he did not consider himself a Christian, but saw that the future of our humanity depended on the restoration and nurturing of faith among both the elites and the ordinary folk. Without a deep faith pervading both personal and public life, he was convinced (as are many) that our present crisis would lead inevitably to the continuing decline of human society into a “worldwide factory” of production and consumption, with days of labor and nights of superficial entertainment. What some call the nihilism that results from “the death of god,” and others describe simply as the rise of masses of people who may seem satisfied but often live (perhaps unknowingly) “lives of quiet desperation.”

3. There are, of course, many further ways to describes this contemporary religious crisis and to analyze its causes. Yet, to keep this brief, I will stop with the preceding paragraphs and simply suggest that most other discussions overlap and expand on such ideas.

4. Jaspers himself hoped to develop the idea of “existential” or “philosophical” faith as an alternative to traditional religious faith. Yet his thought about faith was not simple. The two dominant forms of faith in human experience are religious faith and philosophical (or humanist) faith. And they are mutually interdependent. He argued that without human faith in some kind of ultimate good, some “transcendent” reality or (to change the metaphor) some foundational ground of being, we are simply doomed or fated to sophisticated forms of barbarism (though most actual barbarians were people of faith).

Jaspers used many different terms to describe the object of faith or the ultimate in which faith is grounded. I especially like his use of the German word Ursprung (“original source”), perhaps simply because of its sound, but also because I too have difficulty with “big guy in the sky” ideas about faith and (can I now use the word?) God or gods.

5. So here are Jaspers challenges to my humanist and spiritual friends, challenges I share:

a. He first says that your positions are logically unsustainable and thus will not contribute to the long-term restoration of our humanity. Though they clearly and happily may continue to serve the good of your humanity. Without, in other words, an at least implicit affirmation of faith (whether philosophical/humanist or religious) – an affirmation of a “transcendence” or “ground of being” or “ultimate good” or “Ursprung” – neither secular humanism nor the new spiritualism can be sustained.

b. He goes further. He makes the historical and sociological claim that even his own philosophical faith in transcendence cannot be sustained without the restoration of religious faith on a major scale. For in human history and culture, among most humans, it has been the great religious traditions which have been bearers and sustainers of human faith. If they do not manage to survive and revive, then even more philosophical and humanist forms of faith cannot persist. (How that revival may happen is where Jaspers and I disagree.)

So there ‘tis. Watcha think?

With apologies for all the jargon and abstraction, and the length.

Pope Francis at Regis — Challenge and Hope

This is my first attempt at significantly shorter blog posts.  I hope it might make it easier for readers.  John

I’ve all been reading so much lately about crises and polarizations in our world (including the Catholic world). And about rising levels of both anger and depression. So it was good news that Regis University recently hosted a very well attended symposium on Pope Francis’ vision for a suffering world.

Speakers and panel addressed Francis’ writings on family life, on mercy, on poverty and immigration, on prayer. The entire freshman class heard former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter along with a theologian and an economist comment on Francis’ challenging words about our environmental crisis. Ritter said that the Pope’s Laudato Si’ is a letter to all of us and urged students to read it.

As a retired Regis faculty member (Religious Studies) and part of the three-day conference audience, I came away both very challenged and broadly hopeful.

Neither Francis in his writings and travels, nor the conference speakers, underestimate the crises and challenges which elsewhere provoke such angers and such depression. If anything, the speakers – mainly theologians (increasingly laity, women as much as men), but also two bishops and folks from other professions – unfolded the many dimensions of crisis which we face. And they did not ignore rising Catholic anger and deep dismay about the Church’s sexual abuse crisis.

Yet all returned in a variety of ways to Francis’ overarching call for mercy – not as passive sentiment but as active virtue. Mercy as a verb or “mercifying” as one speaker put it.  For mercy, as the Pope understands it (and as speakers emphasized), means going into the streets of our world, even if that means getting muddied by people’s suffering and by the mess of conflict and criticism and even violence. (Francis canonized the martyred Oscar Romero, quite symbolically for the symposium on its final day.)

For Francis, active mercy especially means solidarity with immigrants and refugees and the poor, but also reaching out to the angry and depressed, and to those deeply polarized by our various cultural and political wars. It also means speaking critical truth to power (as Francis did a few years ago before the deeply polarized US Congress) and crying out for justice. Yet always by seeking dialogue and reconciliation. And by suffering insult and the injury of false accusation (as Francis has recently).

As I’ve already said, I came away both deeply moved and very challenged, but with chastened and realistic hope, not just sentimental piety.

Clericalism is a Heresy; the Heresy is Gnosticism

This posting is too long, yet barely scratches the surface of the topic. Thinking about clericalism got me thinking again about Gnosticism. In what follows I try to explain that the still powerful heresy of Gnosticism is the root of today’s clericalism, and thus the root of the sexual abuse and cover-up crisis.

In what follows, especially in the examples I give from my experience in Denver, I make hard judgments and on occasion use harsh language. Yet I believe the present moment allows, perhaps demands, such judgments and rhetoric, even if they risk adding to present polarization. I hope that my language does sting, but that it may not wound.

Recent calls for reform in the Catholic church correctly focus on “clericalism” – on that aspect of clerical culture which for so long protected criminals, which still allows (I believe) too many in the hierarchy to hide behind veils of secrecy, and which more broadly continues to encourage some priests and bishops to assume pretentious and sanctimonious superiority – though thankfully this is not true for the vast majority of good priests or most bishops.

So why another comment about such “clericalism”? Because we need to get beyond “old boys club” descriptions if we are to oppose it. This essay, following Pope Francis’ suggestion, seeks to explain how a seemingly ancient heresy called “Gnosticism” is the root of today’s clericalism. For there will be no truly radical reform of clericalism if we do not discern the operation of that rotten root.

Let me, however, be clear from the first about the difference between clerics and clericalism. The latter is a corruption of the former. And the former – the existence of a class of professional “clerics” – is simply inevitable and necessary in human organizations. Said differently, whatever reforms are needed in the Catholic church, we will still need clerics – trained professionals subject to standards as well as scrutiny – whether they be married or celibate, female or male, given special licensing (ordination) or just in fact running things. The need for clerics, as I’ve said, is simply a fact about human organizational behavior. And not just in churches. It is as true for medicine and law, business and politics and education, as it is for religion – true even in the most egalitarian institutions. Yet such clerical groups have always been (and will remain) susceptible to the vice or corruption of clericalism.

What we Catholics, then, need to understand and oppose is the clericalism which corrupts the clerical structures of our church. And from my perspective no one has called for such discernment and reform more insistently than Francis.

For despite criticism from both right and left, he has been hard at work since day one trying to reform the culture as much as the structures of the Vatican and the hierarchy. Even more fundamentally, of course, since day one he has with constant urgency called all of us, whatever our “office” or situation in the church or in the wider world, to reform of our lives. That was the central message, for both priests and people, of his first major exhortation on “The Joy of the Gospel” in 2013.  It was even more explicitly the challenge of his recent 2018 exhortation “On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World.”

My remarks here about clericalism as a gnostic heresy draw primarily on that latter text. For there, after an opening chapter on the universal call to holiness, Francis writes what seems a fairly academic second chapter on the heresies of Gnosticism and Pelagianism. In subsequent chapters he discusses more traditional aspects of the call to holiness, such as the third chapter’s meditation on the Beatitudes and the final chapter’s discussion of discernment. (The entire document is very much worth reading and even prayerful re-reading.) Yet while Francis’ discussion of Gnosticism and Pelagianism will be abstract or academic for most readers, I believe it is very important. For these ancient heresies are perennial human tendencies, prevalent today as much as in the past. And we still need to discern their presence and oppose their power, both in ourselves and in the structures of our church, and in the wider world.

These days, though, we typically don’t know what to make of talk about heresies. For many the whole idea is an embarrassment – a reminder of inquisitorial pasts and witch-hunts. For others it’s just a kind of theological name-calling. So most don’t talk about it. Yet that, Francis clearly suggests, is a serious mistake. For heresies are powerful realities affecting the present, powerful ideas and tendencies which get embodied in personal vices and cultural corruptions.

Pelagianism, for instance, may well be the besetting vice of American life. For we Americans continue to embrace an imperative rooted in our Puritan and Enlightenment beginnings – an imperative to “action,” to enterprise, to constant making and doing – whether in business or politics or just in constant efforts to improve our individual lives. It is an imperative, a deep urge and urgency, to do and do and do…and then do some more. It is not just a matter of superficial slogans to “just do it.” It is, rather, a very strong and often a very destructive force that pervades our lives. And many of us, even if we would never use the term “Pelagianism,” are increasingly aware of how it burdens daily life and leaves us often exhausted. We may also know the difficulty of resisting its imperatives.

Fewer, I suspect, are aware of the Gnosticism which is a constant counterpart and the typical antecedent to such Pelagianism.

Yet Francis makes it clear that both these heresies are real and present dangers. He calls them “false forms of holiness” which present themselves as the real thing, as real holiness, as “orthodox” Christianity.

He describes Gnosticism as an intellectual and spiritual tendency to equate holiness (or being “on the right side”) with the inner light of special knowledge (gnosis) – knowledge possessed above all by insider elites. Pelagianism is the correlative tendency to think that we, especially “those in the know,” attain such righteousness by our own efforts, especially by following the rules and practices that identify us as the good guys.

I write to suggest that the forms of clericalism which distort the church are all rooted in the heretical Gnostic claim to special knowledge or doctrine – to a special knowledge which alone saves us from the outer darkness of “the world” and the mess of its streets, knowledge which also allows condemnation of others who seek more authentic forms of Catholicism. Gnosticism, in other words, is the ground of clericalism’s sanctimonious claims to superior righteousness.

Francis would seem to agree with my linkage of Gnosticism and clericalism since (at least as I read his text) the most obvious target of his second chapter are the self-proclaimed “orthodox,” especially in the Vatican and the hierarchy, who believe that they alone possess the truth and thus have the right and duty to rule, even to “excommunicate,” those who do not embrace their orthodoxy and submit to their rules.

Of course this suggestion may itself be pretty abstract and academic. So let me attempt to illustrate some of the ways I think that Gnosticism is at work in today’s clericalism.

My examples are not drawn from the present crisis, but involve far more common forms of clericalism which (I strongly believe) have made those terrible extremes possible. My examples are drawn from my experience in Denver, though I suspect the reader who is sympathetic to my argument will readily identify analogous examples from her or his experience. They begin with overall episcopal attitudes and arrogance, then move to clericalist control of the liturgy, and finally take up contemporary conflicts about sexuality and gender.

Of course, my judgments may well be quite wrong, more testimony to my liberal/academic Gnosticism than evidence of clerical Gnosticism. Yet even if, as I believe, my judgments are accurate, it remains very important to add that I cannot judge the personal motivations of the clerics involved, sorely tempted though I am to do so. As Pope Francis has famously said, only God can judge consciences. I assume that these men are sincere and not directly culpable for the heretical corruption I find in their attitudes and behavior.

As a first example, let me speak about the ways Gnosticism corrupts the hierarchy, particularly the office of Archbishop in my home diocese. I actually know little (and frankly care less) about the present Archbishop who seems little more than an episcopal place-holder. Yet I had some direct experience with his predecessor, Charles Chaput, now in Philadelphia. For we crossed swords a number of times in the Denver newspapers when he sought to pressure Catholic voters during two successive presidential election cycles. Many will remember the stories which got national attention. By letters read from the pulpit, editorials in the diocesan paper, and other forms of public statement, he effectively told Catholics that they could not vote for Democratic candidates because they were “pro-Abortion.” Chaput himself didn’t endorse the more extreme position of the guy in Colorado Springs about refusing communion to Catholics like John Kerry or Joe Biden, but neither did he reject it.

At the time, I wrote that Chaput and his cronies were abusing their legitimate ecclesial authority with a sleight of hand designed (I still believe) to confuse Catholics . For they extended their quite legitimate authority to teach that abortion is evil into an authority they did not have to judge the adequacy of public policy about abortion. In doing so they ignored and effectively opposed the more nuanced voter guidelines which came both from the Vatican and from the United States Bishops’ Conference.

Fortunately, many Catholics were not fooled, though few were as articulate as one 80+ grandmother who told me, “I’ll be dammed if I let that fool tell me how to vote.” Yet my own attempts to explain more authentic Catholic teaching (as expressed by the Vatican and the USCCB) in the local newspapers put me more firmly on the diocesan black list. And an effort to meet with Chaput – on his turf, with a promise of total confidentiality – simply to try to find some common ground, was rejected on the grounds that it could cause scandal to the faithful if it got out that their Archbishop was actually talking to this heretic.

As one further example of Chaput’s superior (and Gnostic) knowledge, I note that in a lengthy interview at that time in The New Yorker he made the explicit claim that most Catholics in the pews were really “Protestants who continued to go to communion.” How’s that for an exaggerated claim to knowledge? How’s that for pastoral outreach to the flock he is ordained to serve (and the folks paying his bills). And how’s that for fidelity to the ecumenical outreach mandated by the Second Vatican Council? But of course he knew better.

For me (and it shows in my rhetoric) all such pronouncements, from Chaput or other bishops, stink of Gnostic clericalism. Even as they are typical of many bishops appointed by the late and supposedly great John Paul II.  (Saints can be awful managers, and often are.)  Those who, one suspects, have long opposed Vatican II and of late have secretly signed on for the campaign against Francis. All, of course, because of their special insider knowledge.

I should add at this point in my rant that I support the episcopal structure of Catholicism – the fact that we have bishops (and a Pope) in key positions of governance. Like the general inevitability of clerical classes, the historical development of the office of bishop, with all its twists and turns, and even its frequent corruptions, strikes me as a good thing – perhaps especially now in this era of a global church. Yet I don’t believe there’s much evidence that Jesus himself established this structure or even made Peter the “first Pope.” And it seems clear to me that the future evolution of this episcopal form of governance will involve far greater local control in the selection of bishops, with women priests electable to the office, and so on and on.

Now a second and more specific example of such episcopal/clerical gnostic overreach — the ongoing effort by many bishops to micro-manage the way the baptized worship, always of course in the name of fidelity and good order. Episcopal control of priests and of the liturgy has, of course, a complicated history. And much of that history has involved needed reforms to wrest control from the corrupting influence of money and political authority – whether by medieval princes or Communist bureaucrats. It’s also clear that Vatican II called for further development in the relationship between clerics and laity, and between the local episcopates and the Vatican – something largely stalled by John Paul and only now again called for in very preliminary ways by Francis. Yet many episcopal-clerical Gnostics still believe (sincerely one suspects) that they alone are really “in the know” when it comes to liturgical forms and practices.

To my mind, the most obvious national example of such Gnostic over-reach remains the closed-door cabal some years back to “restore more authentic language” in the mass even though that meant opposing liturgical language agreed upon by all their predecessor bishops in the English-speaking world. I remain amazed that the people in the pews went along with this – probably because their pastors urged acceptance to avoid a public dispute with these “orthodox” hierarchs. (Which itself is a good example of the attitudes and collaborations of clericalism which have led to such scandal in the matter of sexual abuse.)

The most obvious international example of Gnostic over-reach (and yes, I am accusing him of heresy, however non-culpable) was John Paul’s fatuous (and totally ineffective) proclamation not only that women could never be priests but that all discussion of the matter must be banned. As if. But he clearly thought he knew.

But let me cite a recent local example of clericalist efforts to control people’s prayer at mass.  When I am in Denver, I typically go to Sunday mass at a church which for years, and with the pastor’s encouragement, has developed a strong tradition of congregational participation. Before the consecration, for example, the pastor would invite those who wished to come forward around the altar. Typically half the congregation would do so, the others happily remaining in the pews, mostly standing, most joining hands during the Our Father, and all returning to their seats for the Kiss of Peace and for orderly procession to receive Communion. This church’s practice was very reverent and communal and, as I said, a matter of long-standing practice or, dare I say it, of serious tradition.

Until, that is, the recent appointment of an absent pastor and of a Sunday presider whose heavily accented English is virtually unintelligible, and then the even more recent reception of a letter from the diocesan bureaucracy which has mandated that the congregation remain in their pews and kneel from the consecration through communion. Why? So that this parish follow canonical rules as a sign of the unity of the diocesan church. Duh? How about support for immigrants as a sign of unity among local parishes?

As far as I can tell, this recent mandate is all about control. It is, as I see it, a clear violation of the church’s teaching at Vatican II about lay participation in the Liturgy. But these Gnostics know best. They have never (in my opinion) taken the Council seriously and now see themselves as “chosen” to correct what their inner circle considers all forms of “post-conciliar excesses.”

But enough about liturgy, though there are many other examples of such gnostic overreach in this crucial arena of church life.

One such example – control of rules and rituals for marriage — leads me to a third arena of clericalist Gnosticism that may be the most important in terms of its destructive effects on church unity and authority and membership. I’m speaking about the hierarchy’s continual efforts to impose a narrow orthodoxy in matters of human sexuality. Chalk this one up as well to John Paul the Great since he clearly made such “narrow orthodoxy” the litmus test for the appointment of bishops during his long reign. Though Paul VI also deserves blame because of his resort to special insider knowledge about birth control.

Before going further, let me stress what I’ve long said and written. I believe the broad outlines and fundamental elements of Catholic teaching about sexuality are sane and especially needed as a critique of enlightened opinion and Hollywood persuasion about our sexual behavior. Here, though, I am arguing that clericalist Gnosticism has distorted such official Catholic teaching – made it little more than a “narrow orthodoxy” that is ignored by many (most?) Catholics and far less helpful than it could and should be to all of us living in this often sexually crazy culture.

I call the official Catholic teaching about sexuality narrow (and Gnostic) because it is proclaimed and where possible (as in rules governing marriage) imposed by folks who don’t walk the streets with their people and for the most part find it impossible to learn from people’s experience of discerning God’s presence in their struggles for sexual and marital sanity. They — and here I am talking about the guardians of orthodoxy, not the many, many good priests who as pastors have indeed walked the streets with their people — they have not tried to help their children move into sexual maturity and healthy marriages. They have not suffered with divorce among family and friends, nor rejoiced when the divorced find some healing and hope, often in a more mature relationship and marriage. They have not had to grow through the challenges of more equal relationship between the sexes, or the often hard won liberation of embracing alternative sexual identities. Thus it is all too easy for them to join Archbishop Chaput in seeing so many of their people as protestants who happen still to go to communion. And to allow the Catholic teaching on sex and marriage to become narrow and often arcane. And to effectively sideline all those seeking significant reform and development of such teaching.

Enough said, yet not nearly enough. Many undoubtedly agree with me about the need for development in Catholic teaching about sexuality and marriage. Many will continue to disagree, often ferociously. Thus our present culture wars about that teaching. Thus too the great need for dialogue and discernment among us – laity and clergy alike and together. (On such discernment, I again recommend the concluding chapter of Francis’ recent exhortation.)

Yet Gnosticism on all sides – among liberals as much as conservatives, laity as much as clergy – is the great obstacle to such discernment and dialogue. In this writing I have been especially concerned to criticize the heretical Gnosticism that is the root of today’s clericalism. Yet the corruptions of Gnosticism are far more widespread (and more dangerous) than the present crisis in our church. I hope in future writing to discuss the wider and more corrupting reach of such Gnosticism.

St. Paul often wrote to the early Christian communities about the deep disputes which divided them. And he regularly counselled against our temptation to know more and better than our opponents. Let me end with one such warning: “Brothers and sisters: knowledge [gnosis] inflates with pride but love builds up. If anyone supposes he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if one loves God, one is known by him.” (I Cor 8: 1-3)

A Modest Proposal

I have been reading so many comments and responses to the terrible latest evidence — in Pennsylvania dioceses — of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and cover-up by bishops.  As I suspect many of you have as well.

Some is just ranting, much is thoughtful criticism, all call for deep change in the Catholic world.

One article caught my attention and leads to this “modest proposal.”  It’s title: “Catholics consider withholding donations amid recent scandals.”  Of course withholding donations is far from the, for me, more serious consequence of simply leaving he church.  But for those, like myself, who choose to stay and fight for reform, there is another alternative.  It involves setting up trust funds in every parish and shifting donations to those funds.

I’ve written about this idea a number of times, in print and online, but never gotten much response.  Perhaps now the time is right.

I know little about the legal and financial mechanics of such a funds, but believe it’s easily done if the folks in the pews care enough.

Laity concerned with putting serious pressure for reform on dioceses could, like any group of citizens, establish a trust fund in their parish and urge fellow parishioners to make their weekly donations and yearly pledges to this fund.  The fund would be dedicated entirely to parish and diocesan needs, but its board would be elected by those choosing to donate to the fund rather than directly to the parish.  The pastor would have a non-voting voice on the fund’s board.  Monies collected would be spent on specific parish needs and opportunities — and similarly on diocesan needs and opportunities, as well as global needs and opportunities.  But always with (civic) legal protections to prevent such spending from being used otherwise by a pastor or bishop.

Again, I don’t know the legal and financial specifics for establishing and managing such a trust fund, but I suspect there are lawyers and bankers and the like who could and would (pro bono!) provide advice and assistance.

I do realize that such a fund in parishes could be divisive, but it would only bring into the open already existing divisions and could create the conditions for dialogue across those divisions — in the local parish and in the diocese.

I suspect such a fund, even if it redirected only a portion of Catholic donations, would quickly get attention from the hierarchy.

My fear is, that once again, too many of my fellow Catholics will take the easier paths — leaving the Church, or ending donations, or just ignoring things and continuing their present donation patterns.

My hope in again writing about this is that, as I said above, “the time is right.”  That enough Catholics will continue to care enough about their Church to take the slightly more difficult path of active work for reform.

 

 

 

 

 

The Feast of Mary’s Assumption

Some readers know that I am recovering from (thankfully successful) heart surgery.  Thus far I have too little energy for blog writing, though I hope that energy might return soon enough.  So I am copying below a text about the Assumption of Mary which I first published some years back (August 17, 2012) in “Hark,” The Denver Post‘s religion blog .  Like most of my blogging, it’s a bit preachy.  Yet I enjoyed reading it today, on the feast day six years later.  I hope you might find it of interest.

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.

Yet this Catholic teaching — that Mary of Nazareth was assumed bodily into heaven — is but one of a number of “stumbling blocks” that Catholic devotion to Mary creates for other Christians, other faiths and even some Catholics. Perhaps these days, even for many Catholics, it is simply a matter of indifference, for it runs contrary to so many of our assumptions about what is real — about life and death, politics and possibility, on earth and in heaven.

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 “heavenly journey,” 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 my wife and for many others, I offer these few 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 defeats death, and by being the firstborn of a new creation (a “new world ‘a comin,” not just some vague, vaporous heaven). Above all, two pregnant women proclaim God’s presence and grace, active then and there, and his good work of overturning the rich and powerful of this world and exalting the poor and hungry.

In different terms, Catholic belief about Mary is all about the proclamation of a new creation, a new world — from the idea that she herself was conceived (sexually) in Anna’s womb, but free of the curse of sin, to her physical, yet miraculous, pregnancy, and her very political experience of giving birth to a hunted new king. There is her embrace (the Pieta) of that king’s tortured and murdered body. And, yes, her life on earth ends with her bodily assumption.

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 fantastical.

As I write I have a friend who is dying. [True again in 2018, 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 that is terribly poor. 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 for believers?

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.

Israel Again…and Again…and Again…

With many of you, I’ve been following news from Gaza as Israeli snipers have killed and wounded many in the large weekly crowd of non-violent protesters seeking an end to their fenced-in border. I’ve always been skeptical of Israeli news releases about such events.  Now international reports and even some US reporting has moved me from skepticism to outrage. To the point where I recently added an opening line about “f…ing Israeli murders” to a form letter to Congress. Won’t do no good since our politicians have long been swayed by AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) money and lobbying.

I won’t trouble you here with such ranting. I’m just writing to ask you to join many other US Christians and Jews in protesting our governments unquestioning support for Israeli terrorism in Palestine – now exacerbated by Trump.

I recently went back through my writings about Israel and Palestine over  the past 20 some years. Many blogs posts and letters and op-ed pieces for the Denver Post, as well as commentary and reviews in a small magazine I used to edit.  

I began by writing carefully balanced pieces about “Israel and Palestine.” At some point I reversed the order, writing about “Palestine and Israel” and hoping to give more attention to realities in the occupied territories and Gaza, and to the legitimacy of the Palestinian quest for freedom.

I’ve never denied the reality of Palestinian terrorism and the terrible character of their internal politics. Even as I’ve tried to put a light on Israeli terrorism and the terrible character of their politics.

Now, though, while I remain aware of Palestinian problems and violence, I write mainly about Israel. For it remains one of the most dangerous states in the world. Yet its military continues to be underwritten by US tax dollars even as it’s become a sacred cow for our politicians and media. Because it’s been since the Cold War a paid foreign legion protecting our oil interests. And also because of the distorting influence of Jewish money on US politics and media.

To be sure, mention of Jewish money and media power risks resurrecting terrible anti-semitic stereotypes. I’ll take that risk because we Christians need to be willing to risk offending Jews by criticizing Israel. Indeed, we need to join many US Jews in alerting this country to the ways Israel continually undermines efforts for peace with Palestine and throughout the Middle East.  (When I speak of “we Christians” I exclude those US fundamentalists whose crazed faith has so contributed to building this golden calf.)

Here, then, is a highly condensed summary of how I have come to understand the situation of Israel and Palestine and the need for our response:

1) The state of Israel.  Despite the better dreams of early Zionism and because of colonial power politics after World War I and then the immense effect of the Holocaust on Zionism, Israel established itself after World War II by means terror and the expulsion of the native population. It has grown ever since in the exercise of such realpolitik by war, by massive military build up (grounded on nuclear weapons and supported by the US) and a world class (world- supplying) arms industry.  It’s propaganda regularly seeks a moral high ground with claims about being the only reliable democracy in the Middle East and by provoking Western and Christian guilt about the Holocaust.  So that we will always have some reason to give Israel a “good buddy pass” for its latest violent expansion towards the goal of a mythic Eretz Israel (the goal of taking over all of Palestine and reducing Palestinians to an “apartheid like” subservient labor force).  There are of course many Israelis seriously engaged in opposing that goal, yet it seems (though I hope I am wrong) that their numbers and influence have declined of late.

2) US Christians and Jews. Despite some legitimate (and many illegitimate) fears about militant Islam, religious folk in this country must awaken to similar threats from Israeli militarism and must work for peace in Palestine.  Of course many humanists are already providing leadership in this effort.  Yet it is this country’s broad religious mainstream  that especially needs to be challenged if there is to be any movement towards a different politics in this country.

3) US Christians. Precisely because we have acknowledged that centuries of Christian anti-Semitism culminated in the Holocaust, we Christians must challenge not just ourselves but the mainstream of US Judaism for its complicity (by active support or passive silence) in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the continuing militarization of the entire Middle East.  Public and private dialogue with our Jewish sisters and brothers will be very difficult.  Hopefully we will all learn much, and be much humbled, as we struggle in our different ways for peace in Palestine and Israel, and at home.

I end by appending a short list of resources for those interested in deepening their understanding of Israel and Palestine and US politics.
___

Reports on Events in Gaza:

The New York Times and the Washington Post,  while like most US media in following the foreign policy mainstream, nonetheless provide good on-the-ground reports from Gaza as well as from NGO’s and other international news sources.

England’s Guardian is an especially good resource, as in its recent publication of a letter from former Israeli snipers openly challenging what Israel is doing on the border.

A recent example of informed Christian comment, “Bodies Against Bullets at the Gaza Border,” comes from America Media, the national Jesuit resource.

Online Resources for news, commentary, and background:

  1. Foundation for Middle East Peace, an almost 40-year-old Washington based foundation “to promote a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”  Sends daily and weekly reports via email.
  2. Jewish Voice for Peace, a US Jewish activist/advocacy group geared mainly towards enlisting Jews in the struggle for real peace.  It’s report on the current situation in Gaza is perhaps the most succinct and accurate available.
  3. Wall Writings, the single best blog about Palestine and Israel written by former Christian Century editor James Wall.
  4. B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.  Their name says it all.
  5. Sabeel is an ecumenical Palestinian Christian group working for non-violent peace. See also Friends of Sabeel North America and local affiliates such Friends of Sabeel Colorado.

Among many good books, I especially recommend:

Steadfast Hope: The Palestinian Quest for Just Peace is a very good Presbyterian study guide geared to church folk.

Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2006) remains an important and readable history and policy analysis.

 

Holy Saturday — Between Death and Resurrection

I have many memories of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Of Thursday evening foot washing and images of Pope Francis washing the feet of prisoners. Of silent adoration in dark chapels through Thursday night. Of a child’s efforts to be quiet from 12:00 to 3:00 on Friday, and then of adolescent awe at mournful Latin chants as I knelt to kiss the crucifix. And of Easter baskets and egg hunts (as a child and with my children) preceded recently by the fire and candle lighting and the great “Exultet” of the Easter liturgy.

But I have no memories of Holy Saturday. Or perhaps just a vague childhood reminiscence of waiting for the Easter candy that will finally end Lent.

The absence of any special sense of Holy Saturday is perhaps what’s meant to be. Something like the sound of silence without the angst of Paul Simon’s song. Or like the emptiness of a subway station late at night when even the sound of wheels screeching up or down the tunnels has disappeared. (Maybe you need to have lived in New York.)

Yet I recently read a reflection about Holy Saturday which opened me to deeper sense of the day. (Unfortunately I can’t give a reference because I’ve misplaced the copy I brought home from church.) The writer, an Irish nun, focused on the sense of loss we need to allow ourselves to feel on Holy Saturday. Think of the disciples, having fled and then perhaps viewing Jesus’ crucifixion from a distance. Even more of Mary and the women who stayed with Him. And recall the haunting words and melody of the slave song “Were you there when they crucified my Lord”.  Imagine the pain of their terrible loss, their guilt and shame, their fear and confusion. Trembling as their dream ended in such trauma.

Ignatius Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, urges us to enter imaginatively into that loss and confusion, and to know that it remains ours. To let the death of Jesus expand to include, as it surely does, the death and violence of our world – the death of loved ones, the murder of innocents, the martyrdom of saints. (I recently joined others at my university to celebrate the life and murder of Oscar Romero, and the many other murders, known and unkown, which preceded and followed his in El Salvador during the 1980s.)  And the murder of innocents today in Aleppo and Bhagdad, the Congo and the Philippines. And in schools, churches, and cities throughout our country.

Think, too, not just of the high priests and pundits who continue to justify such murder and loss. But even more of the tyrants and militarists who cause them – the many, many Pontius Pilates of our era. Not only Hitler and Stalin and Mao, but so many “lesser” war criminals in Syria and Serbia, Moscow and Washington.

On Holy Saturday we are asked to open hearts and minds not only to the execution of one just man, but to all death — of those we know or know about – and to the guilt we often feel about not having done enough, of even contributing by our failures and indifference.  And, perhaps especially but not only for religious folk, to the confusion these realities cause for human faith and hope. About where God or goodness is in all this? We believers hope that God prevails even amidst such evil and suffering, and  Christians  believe that Jesus’ death reveals that even God suffers within all evil.

But how often does that answer help? How much more are we like those disciples on Friday night and throughout the following Saturday. Alone, afraid, confused, trembling, terrified. “Were you there…?”

Such, as I understood her, was the challenge of Holy Saturday described by this Irish nun.

And yet I still have this vague childhood memory of anticipating Easter candy throughout Holy Saturday. A memory now grown into the many dimensions of Easter hope.

A granddaughter was born to us this year exactly two weeks before Holy Saturday – early on the morning of St. Patrick’s Day. Her presence will highlight this year’s Easter as her “older” brother searches for eggs and gobbles candy, just as we and our children did.

Every birth nourishes our hope. Every celebration is rooted as much in hope as in memory. The resurrection of Christ is not a one-off. Rather it embraces and embodies all the joys and hopes humans have experienced throughout history. For many in the world the Easter story is a symbol or myth about the reality of rebirth and renewal. For Christians it is far more than symbol or myth, important as they may be. It is what some theologians call an “eschatological” event, something we believe really happened even  though it remains mysterious, but something that reveals the fullest depth and widest horizon of all time. For just as Jesus’ brutal death embraces all death and violence and injustice, so too does His resurrection announce and embody all joy and hope.

Of course, such assertions trip too easily off the tongues of church folk. Early on Paul proclaimed his resurrection faith by challenging Death itself: “Where now is thy sting?” (I Cor 15: 55). Yet he later, according to tradition, knew the sting of death by beheading, just as we too regularly experience the sting of the death of others and will inevitably experience our own death.

Yet (again) we nonetheless know the many joys symbolized by (or embodied in) the resurrection. In events and moments both big and small. In lovemaking and birth, baptisms and graduations, good jobs and good neighborhoods, even (if we pay attention) in much good business and good government – and of course in the poetry and song, the good food and drink, whereby we daily celebrate this world’s goodness – the goodness of God’s creation and of God’s saving  grace (“how sweet the sound”).

Here then (finally) is the point. Holy Saturday is not just the day when we’re challenged to remember together both terrible loss and tremendous hope. It is rather a reminder of everyday, of all times and seasons when we are challenged to live “between death and resurrection.”

“Between” is, I think, the important word here. It’s a matter of holding together in one fundamental form of experience both the bitter taste of death and the sweet taste of life. Not splitting them apart, fleeing the one and chasing after the other, as I typically do both in my imagination (here the bliss, there the bitter) and in my actual living. As our media typically does (good guys and bad) and as it shapes our imaginations to do.

Authentic or full human living is always about this “between” – this tension and intermixing. It requires a constantly challenging both-and rather than an easy either-or. It requires the inner and outer work of integration rather than the escape of separation and polarization.

How such integration “plays out” (what it’s story and drama may be) in your life will be different from the way it is in mine. Different across family and ethnic stories, and in the history of different nations and cultures. Yet the basic challenge is the same for all.

Holy Saturday is everyday – far more than Good Friday or Easter Sunday. Yes, of course, those great days enable us to know (whether in faith and fact or simply as symbol and myth) the realities of good and evil within which we live. Yet it is the experience of Holy Saturday – both the sting of death and the anticipation of candy – that most embodies the ever ambiguous and challenging character of our human life .  Between death and resurrection, in both terrible sorrow and great joy, both courageous realism and real hope.

The Yin and Yang of Aging

Years ago I team-taught a course on aging. We, profs as well as students, were all young and we studied issues about the elderly in contemporary society. Today I write not about “them” but about “us”. I write less from study than from experience, my own and that of friends and family.

I want to explore some of the “yins” and “yangs” of aging these days – of entering the third stage, becoming elders or senior citizens, or any of the other ways we talk about aging, even about approaching death, though we still don’t talk enough about that.

Clearly my experience of aging is not yours nor that of spouses and friends. For there is something inescapably unique about how each of us moves through the stages of our lives, even if there is significant similarity in the stages. Still, there are generalizations we may make about each of these stages and, more fundamentally, about the fact that human life takes time, is bounded by time, must move through time’s stages even when we may wish to leap ahead or retreat back, slow the pace or speed it up.

As I’m using the terms, “yin” refers to the receptive or passive or suffering dimensions of human consciousness and experience. (By “suffering” I mean both what we typically mean, but also the broader meaning of the Latin “passio” as both receiving and enduring.) Some explain yin as the “feminine” dimension, though that is problematic since women clearly embody and experience yang as much as yin. For yang refers to the more active or assertive, even aggressive, and the so-called “masculine” dimensions of life. Together they are, if you will, the tough and the tender or any similar set of words which seek to capture this fundamental tension of contraries. The terms are from ancient China and are central to Taoist philosophy. They have recently gained a certain currency in Western culture.

Classical Hindu thought describes “four stages of life” that are also helpful for thinking about aging. We first live early years of training and learning; then we live through the long period of being a “householder,” rearing children, working in the world, caring for family and society, and generally being responsible and busy; third is the stage of gradual retirement from those activities and increasing focus on the soul’s journey; and finally there is a stage of complete renunciation, going off into a forest hermitage or on a solitary trek like the Buddha’s.

Very few are called directly to that last stage, though some, like Prince Siddhartha, may experience its call while quite young, and all of us will eventually experience it as we slip into final frailty and death.

For most of us, then, retirement and aging are something like that third Hindu stage where we have left many of the immediate responsibilities of the householder yet are still involved to some degree in family and world — perhaps by continuing careers or by new responsibilities. The degree of such continuing engagement will vary, as too the degree of retreat from such engagement. The balance of yin with yang will shift with our situation and opportunities, our health and talents.

The most obvious forms of yin for the aging are physical diminishments – slowing down, aches and pains, sometimes serious illnesses, typically various forms of bone loss and memory loss. But there are also more enjoyable forms of yin – more time for reading and relaxation, time with friends and for travel, even if just for walks in the park. More broadly there is, as in the Hindu scheme, more time for care of the soul – for real leisure (not just entertainment) and various forms of contemplation, for poetry and song and perhaps prayer.

As for yang, in addition to continuing work and family responsibilities there is the responsibility that elders have for the human community – something sorely needed these days. We elders have all gained various forms (big but mostly small) of what should be called wisdom as we have moved through the stages of our lives. Nor do I mean something esoteric by that term. Grandmothers, to take but one widely acknowledged instance, continue to provide caring hearts and prudent advice to their children and grandchildren – as do grandfathers. Senior citizens are mainstays in voluntary organizations – from membership on boards to service in soup kitchens, from leadership in churches to work with schools and hospitals, and in many forms of social activism. Jimmy Carter is perhaps our most visible national icon of such senior wisdom and service. And thankfully there are millions like him in this country, giving back every day in ways both big and small.

Yet there is also a far less healthy and helpful form of yang that plagues the process of aging these days. For too many, as I see it – and as I see it portrayed in drug and travel advertisements or news features about some 70-year-old weightlifter – are pressured to feel that they must continue to be very active even if in a changed form: home office instead of workplace, or constant travel and a mandatory club and social round. Such continued and sometimes even expanded activity may, of course, be the fate of a particularly energetic biology or of an ongoing responsibility even when energy is lacking. This could be a good fortune, but it may also be a curse – as it would seem to be for so many of the world’s poor who can’t even dream of retiring.

Yet the fate or necessity of continuing full-time responsibilities is quite different from the more culturally driven compulsion to activity when it is no longer necessary.

Such compulsion is rooted largely in our culture’s fear of inactivity and passivity (of yin), with the corresponding rejection of real leisure — of simply being present, of listening, of wide-ranging admiration and deeper contemplative attention. The best thing I ever read about the foundational human good of leisure, and the best critique of our cultural compulsion to activity and so-called “productivity,” is Leisure, the Basis of Culture by the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper. It was written after World War II as a critique of the German cultural ideal of “total work” that came to its fullest and most damnable embodiment in the Nazi program for total war production. Yet, as the book details, this ideal of total work – interrupted only by the worker’s need for rest and entertainment – has far deeper roots both in Enlightenment (scientific/technical) rationalism and even earlier in “the Protestant Ethic” which Max Weber saw as foundational to “the Spirit of Capitalism.” Pieper’s book was published in English in the late 1940s and has been in print ever since. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I have friends and colleagues who refuse to retire or hope to delay the date as long as possible. I do not judge the uniqueness of their situation and spirit, but I nonetheless wonder whether cultural compulsions and fears are not strongly at work in such inclinations. Some say quite explicitly that they don’t know what they’d do without the harness of the workplace – though they rarely use a word like “harness.”

When asked why I retired eight years back I typically say that I wanted to “retire while I still had legs.” Still, in other words, had the strength for activities I’d long done and for new activities I’d wanted to take up. That response has been acceptable, to myself as much as others, since it gives expression to the shared cultural emphasis on yang. What I often failed to add, since it seemed too pious or romantic, was that I also wanted time for contemplation, for what Hindu wisdom calls attention to the soul – to both atman (soul) and to Atman-Brahman, the Great Soul which we call God. For I have long wanted, even hungered for a new or much renewed dimension of prayer in my life, even as I still find taking up the passive or attentive disciplines of prayer very challenging.  I suspect this  hunger goes back at least to my early years as a member of an “active” religious congregation of teachers that also prized a monastic style of community and stability.

As I see it, then, an ideal aging involves both yin and yang. BOTH the richness of continuing activity – especially those activities that bring joy and those that serve the needs of our world – AND the joys of contemplative leisure. Yet that balance is rarely easy. And it takes time. For the transition from householder to retired (as the earlier transition from school years into adult responsibilities) typically involves much discernment along with trial and error. Even when the transition is sudden – from full-time to free time, and perhaps especially when retirement has been forced – it will still take time for the new stage to find its shape and substance: time and experiment, action and suffering.

Our “retired” forms of yin are not simply nor even primarily matters of physical slowing. They are far more matters of spirit or soul. Thus they may well involve declining spiritual energy and even the lure of laziness and other seductions from the “noon-day devil.” Yet they can (and should) also involve the emergence, slow or sudden, of unsuspected spiritual energies and the attention needed for their development.

Some may appear to escape the diminishments of aging, may seem carried by energy and culture in a seamlessly smooth transition into life’s third stage. Yet I wonder about that. My guess is that even for such folks there is an inner drama which they hide even from themselves. Yet repression rarely works for long. The real challenge is to move on through time without illusion, especially without the illusions of great leaps forward or nostalgic retreats to past ways. For most of us the ongoing drama of this third stage — and it is ongoing, not static but further phases or transitions, often with real struggle, leading eventually to death – this third stage has its joys as well as its sufferings, its confusions as well as its wisdom. And the specific joys and sufferings experienced by each of us are themselves the signs or sacraments of our unique aging, the very real occasions for thought and prayer and often for service.

One immensely important resource that Western culture adds to Asian ideas about aging is Christianity’s deeply affirmative appreciation of time. Of course, as already suggested, the positive Christian evaluation of time has in the modern era too often been reduced to little more than an exaggerated emphasis on action, on yang, justified by various notions about progress, some quite silly but others very dangerous (think both Communism and savage capitalism, or the supposedly inevitable “developments” like nuclear weapons). Yet despite this widespread contemporary aberration, we Christians do believe in the fundamental goodness of time, and thus the goodness of all of life’s stages and phases, all of time’s yins and yangs. For God created time and “knew that it was good.” And God even more fully affirmed time by  entering completely into its reality in the  life of Jesus.

It is only through the stages of our lives that we come to realize time’s goodness. That is especially true in the stage of retirement where the quiet disciplines of a more contemplative form of life are more crucial than ever.

Yet such brief mention of Christian faith in time’s goodness can seem little more than a spiritual banality or even a mystification. It is neither. Any banality or mystification would be a result of our own failure to appreciate what is really good, our failure to live within and through the yins and the yangs of aging.

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” – Simone Weil

A Philosophical Forecast for 2018 or Not Moving Too Quickly From The Many to the One

Reader Alert: I probably shouldn’t post this writing. It’s too long, too abstract, too scattered. Yet it’s taken me so long to draft and redraft — and then I had a week of computer problems — so I  post it with a “caveat lector” warning: feel free to pass on reading or get ready for a slow, but hopefully interesting ride.

Here is my forecast for 2018. There will be much evil this coming year, and much good. I’d like to say “much more good,” but that’s a matter for faith, not philosophy.  I can be even more precise: there will be many evils and many goods. I can also, using ancient categories, also predict that many fates will be realized during 2018, and that will mean, for some fates, the experience of many furies. Finally I can also confess my faith that whatever happens in 2018, God will continue to “write straight with crooked lines.”

I need to keep such pretty obvious forecasts in mind through the coming months lest fancy distract me, as it so often does, from facts.

Yet the effort to understand these forecasts led me back to “the problem of the one and the many.” (Such is the strange fate of philosophy!)

I first heard about the “problem of the one and the many” in a college course on “metaphysics.” Even by the end of the course, I didn’t have a clue about what metaphysics meant. Yet the priest-professor was a wonderfully quirky elder. Short and bald, with granny classes over sharply-focused eyes and a weirdly quizzical smile. A mix of Yoda and Merlin. On the first day he announced that the “problem of the one and the many” remains the central problem of philosophy. Then he said that the first problem with this problem is that the problem itself is hard to understand,  Rather it just “has to hit you.” At which point (I said he was quirky) he slapped himself on the forehead and fell over backwards. It was, I now realize, a well-practiced routine.  We were shocked and then we laughed. Yet he laughed last, knowing that none of us really “got it.”  But he hoped his pedagogical comedy might help us when we finally began to “get it.”

Years later I remember the moment I began to get it. I was walking the dog after a morning of reading and writing. Perhaps under the influence of wine with lunch or a relaxing puff. Mid-walk, while the dog stopped for business next to a tree, I was suddenly stunned by a question as if from the heavens: why does “one” always seem more important than “two”? And only now, in telling this story, do I recognize a small symbol in that pee-tree with its one trunk, many branches and still more roots!

I know the question “why does one seem more important than two?” may sound very odd, but think about it. E pluribus Unum. One nation under God. And so One God. Perhaps even One Holy Catholic Church. Or for more modern tastes, “my identity” or “my one self” and then perhaps one “marriage of true minds.” And then (if you’re so inclined) think about the mathematical importance of “1,” or the philosophical centrality of “being,” or the (for some) religious importance of “resting in Thee.”

It would seem that the human heart (as well as our mind and spirit) is indeed restless until it finds forms of integration or unity or “oneness” – whether within (in soul/psyche), or in relationships (in marriage and other forms of com-unity). The “soul”, or these days the “self,” is simply one of our many ways of trying to talk about the unity or “oneness” of our personal existence. For who does not fear schizophrenia or other forms of personal disintegration. And who does not prefer some form of “com-unity” in our relationships to division and fragmentation.

Yet (and now “the many” returns) we’d have a pretty thin self and pretty empty community if our various unities did not include significant diversity. What would one’s self or one’s community be without a history of many experiences and relationships, without memories to hold that history together, and without hope for a plenty-full future?

At the time of my dog-walk moment, this newly-minted professor was swept along by strong cultural currents affirming all kinds of diversity. We wanted to break free from what seemed (and often were) the procrustean “unities” or the “conformity” imposed by “the system.” Thus the question came: why was “one” so important? What about two and three, or four and more? What about those many claims to diversity (racial and religious, ethnic and gendered) moving through the “60’s” and ever since? What about so many different people and places, causes and events; the many memories encompassing them and many hopes for their futures? We needed, we correctly felt and still feel, an awareness of significant diversity to break through forced and phony unities.

These days, in my dotage, I tend to worry more about recovering or finding real unity in the midst of so many divisions and so much fragmentation. Yet I also remain deeply concerned about superficial and phony “unities” — whether national nativism or the universalism of the global market; whether consumerism or racism or any other fundamentalism which rushes into the vacuum created by fragmentation.

Thus my mentor Lynch urges me, as I seek real forms of unity, “not to move too quickly from the many to the one.” Not to rush into “one place” of seeming security or clarity or rightness, whether that be a set of fixed ideas or some quick conclusion or absolute position. He urges me rather to move more care-fully and attentively through difference and diversity and change as the only realistic way, in any situation, of moving into a “one” or unity of understanding and conviction, of conclusion and position.

As an undergrad, even though I majored in Lit, I didn’t begin to understand the intertwining of “one and many” in good poetry and story, fiction and film. I did feel such unity as I enjoyed the writing, but did not understand how it was accomplished. Only years later, when I understood Lynch’s great book about literature, Christ and Apollo (1960), did I begin to see that good art – whether in poems or plays, fiction or film – always involves the intertwining of “one and many.” Such intertwining is what made the work humanly interesting and artistically significant. It involved the gradually growing relationship (line by line in a poem, scene by scene in script or story) between many words and images, many different characters and plot twists, and the one or unifying intuition which guided both the artist’s work and the reader/viewer’s imagination. Many parts contribute to the making of one significant whole. Yet both writer and reader only get to a realization of that whole by moving step by step, slowly and attentively, through those many parts. A plot summary or statement of “the” theme, even with details from some “CliffsNotes,” simply won’t work. Think of reading Dickens or Dostoevsky, Eliot or Frost, or viewing Romeo and Juliet or Shakespeare in Love, or any really good poem or story or drama. Tolstoy’s War and Peace remains for me the clearest example of a sweepingly diverse narrative (about politics and war, and also about different individuals and families) which achieves a rich unity of vision and sensibility as the many parts contribute, each in its own way, to one artistic whole.

By contrast, what we get in the trite and sensational stuff we often read or see or hear is just more of the same constantly repeated — more and more violence (essentially all the same, just growing in explosive intensity); more good guys being strong-good or sexy-pretty again and again and again (and ditto for the bad guys); more inane lyrics repeating the same banalities and beats ad nauseam.

I recently went to see the latest Star Wars release because several critics claimed it actually involved some significant development in the unending saga. I do suspect the devout were pleased by fresh faces, cute new animals, and new robots. Yet I found it depressingly long and essentially repetitious – just deja-vu over and over again (even though I too liked the new pretty faces). It was just another sequel setting up for the next sequel, great for money making but utterly lousy art. Lots of action and noise and graphics, but nothing of substance beyond the first film I saw more than 30 years ago.

Now let me return from these notes about “one and many” to my forecast for 2018.

We do sense, each in our own way, what seems destined for predominance in the big world during 2018. And we also have a sense of our hopes and fears for the smaller stage of our lives in home and workplace, neighborhood and city.

And so we know, again each in our own way, that there will be many evils and forms of evil in 2018. And many goods and many forms of good.

Let me dwell here on the evils, since we tend to be more aware of them.

We know there will be “big stage” evils. Here’s my list to compare with yours (or to skip if you disagree): There will be increasing inequality and political oppression, abroad and at home. And there will be much intolerance and violence because of racism and gender or religious or ethnic differences. There will be continuing sexual and environmental abuse along with increasing global militarization and wars of many kinds. And all these evils will be overshadowed by the dark fate of climate change and environmental despoliation.

And we also know about the “smaller” evils we will experience daily in our streets and buildings, with both friends and foes. And, as the Bible suggests, we’ll typically be far more aware of the evils we blame on others than of the personal evils we may discuss in therapy or confess in church or at a favorite bar.

Our traditions also remind us that the evils we’ll experience in 2018 – big and small – will come in different forms. Some will be “moral evils,” caused by the sins of individuals or groups. Some will be “natural evils,” consequences of our embodied natures – the evils of hunger and thirst, sickness and diminishment and death. And such natural evils will often be compounded by the moral evil of persons and systems which place power and profit over care for fragile human persons.

Finally, we also know about (and may accept) that some of our traditions of thought find the deepest source of evil to be human failure – sin or powerlust or whatever – while other traditions find that such sin is more deeply rooted in a force like Satan or Kali or another “Dark Lord”.

If you’re still with me, you’ll notice that I have quite deliberately tried to describe the many kinds and varieties of evils we will be affected by in 2018.

I could and should write the same kind of broad description of the many goods we will experience in 2018 – on both the big and small stages of our lives, in many different forms and from different sources. But this writing is already too long. So I urge my reader to pause a bit and begin to imagine the many goods s/he foresees for 2018.

Yet, in order to make my point about “one and many,” I will for the moment stay with the many forms of evil we can easily foresee for 2018. As we suffer and resist and combat various evils this coming year, we need to understand that we are dealing with many different evils. Fortunately, that is what most of us do as we respond to the evils we experience. For we know, from habit and intelligence, that we are dealing with specific and different evils. Illness is not the same as job loss or betrayal or war, and we’ve usually learned to respond differently to each. Yet precisely because there is so much complexity in the evil realities we face, and because of the hard suffering and fear which such evils cause, we often need to blame some “one” thing or some one class or group or SOMETHING we can hate and oppose…and to find some ONE SOLUTUION for all our problems. We want, in other words, to “move quickly from the many to the one.”

To repeat: there will be real evils, real dangers and concerns, which will and should occupy our attention and resistance in 2018. Yet the fundamental problem with such attention and with its accompanying anger and condemnation is that in the face of threats we humans all tend to “rush too quickly from the many to the one.” To see “it all” through one narrow set of lenses – whether of apocalyptic fear or escapist fantasy; whether of ideological purity and absolutized polarization (“they” are to blame; not “us”) or of dread and depression and perhaps despair.

Yet what we most need is the strength to go more patiently and care-fully into 2018. To see that there are many different evils with different causes. I personally find the root of many evils in capitalist economics and pseudo-scientific mechanism. Yet if I’m not simply to rage, I need constantly to remind myself that there are many economic systems, many different capitalisms and different socialisms, many different sciences and technologies and mechanics. And above all many different people, each with their own different virtues and vices.

And, of course, there are simultaneously so many and such different goods.

Most of us, unless we’re paralyzed by rage or the need to run, or seduced by some fantasy of a “final solution,” know this when it comes to action against evil and work for good. We can’t start everyplace, only someplace. We can’t join all movements, only this or that one, in this or that place (big or small) and moment.

I watch with admiration how the “Me 2” movement begins to spread from media and politics to store and factory, and undoubtedly to neighborhoods and schools and families. Just as I see environmental activists working in so many places and at so many levels: from farms and rivers through forests and seashores; in politics and personal habits; in schools and laboratories and churches. I am also immensely grateful for those who seek restorative justice for native populations and refuge for migrant populations.

A friend recently told me of his efforts, both academic and political, to counter the anti-aboriginal “nativism” again on the rise again in Australia. Especially his participation in the effort to work for a multi-national constitution for Australia – something beyond the competing ideologies of liberal democracy (we’re all just one) and of nativism (we whites are the only ones); something which can affirm both the different Aboriginal nations and the predominant European nation as essential parts of the one nation called Australia. This challenge of competing nationalisms is today a major and often violent problem not only in Australia and in the US and Western Europe, but throughout the post-colonial world in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (think Myanmar), and in post-Soviet Eastern Europe (think the Balkans or Ukraine).

I also note with admiration the many ways that artists – through photography and film, story and stage, poem and song – call attention to all such different people and movements, causes and concerns. And even more broadly how good art of all kinds helps us understand the many different evils we face and the many different goods that sustain us.

Because, again, good artists and serious activists do not move too quickly from the many to the one.  They move, even when motivated by legitimate outrage and condemnation, with the strengths of attention to detail and difference, of real  care and real courage. Not with simplistic rage and the pseudo-courage of some narrowly fixed idea.

May such strengths be with most of us in 2018.