Polarization and Our Better Angels (Lynch # 5)*

I’ve not “blogged much of late, but a recent conference has changed that. The purpose and spirit of that conference is captured by these introductory citations from speeches before the US Congress:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
– Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, 1861

But there is another temptation we must especially guard against: The simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide into these two camps.
– Pope Francis to Congress, Sept 24, 2015

During these days increasingly bitter days of Trump’s presidency and endless electioneering, with slogan shouting across so many divides, many are concerned not just about political and cultural polarization, but about the ways that a polarizing spirit has become the new normal, making it extremely difficult (if not almost impossible) for people to work together across real differences for resolutions to the challenges we all face.

A Denver-based group, the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, recently hosted a “Together in This” convocation — co-sponsored, I’m happy to say, by Regis University and a number of other academic and religious groups. It brought together national and local folks concerned to work against polarization by strategizing how “we” (especially religious folk) might nourish a broad public sense that we are all “together in this” and that all of us can and must work together for the common good — even with continuing and often very deep differences.

I have long admired this group from a distance since it had been my experience — as an invited panelist for one of their programs — that their very good work on immensely important common issues (“religious liberty, racial justice, and economic justice”) was nonetheless too controlled by a left-liberal ideology (think ACLU as well as most mainline Protestant and Jewish groups ) with whose orthodoxy (on abortion for instance) I at times respectfully disagreed.

Still, when they announced a local conference on working against polarizing orthodoxies and ideologies, I was very interested.

For the poisonous effects of a polarizing spirit was, already in “the 60s”, the constant concern of my mentor William Lynch, SJ. He continually worked for the development among us of an alternative integrating spirit – for a both-and rather than an either-or sensibility in both personal and public life. Thus I was immediately interested in this conference billed to take up precisely the challenge which occupied him – imagining realistic ways of nurturing collaboration across important divisions.

I admit to being far more than pleasantly surprised by the conference itself; indeed immensely grateful. Surprised because I went fearing more liberal orthodoxy. Grateful because the conference was, for me and many, a Kairos moment.

I hope that I might, in what follows, give a sense of the conference without being gracelessly long-winded.

The conference focused on the polarizations which characterize both our faith communities and our national situation. It was, as I’d expected, a gathering of the liberal/left choir. But “they” were deeply concerned with a coming together across our polarizations, reaching out from “our side” to “the others.” Put differently, this was a group of “liberals” concerned about how, with continuing commitment to “their” important causes, they might also work with the “others” to re-awaken a fundamental sense of civility or civic trust – what Lynch imagined as a “body of faith” and Lincoln called “our bonds of affection…sustained by mystic chords of memory.”

The opening evening panel was composed of local religious leaders – Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant. It began with a recognition of shared lament – recognition of the widespread sadness, anger, fatigue, and depression so many feel about polarization in families and communities, the wider culture and politics at every level.

The president of Denver Seminary (Evangelical) lamented the way in which his Evangelical tradition, historically strong (since anti-slavery times) in work for justice, has gradually been seduced and reduced by a narrow “conservative” ideology. The president of Iliff Seminary (mainline Protestant) lamented the recent split in his Methodist Church over sexual and gender issues. A Rabbi and a Catholic Sister each in turn lamented widespread polarization within their communities.

I was especially struck by this religious emphasis on lamentation, a rarely heard but very good term for what so many of us feel. Yet the panel then moved from lament to hope. Some even expressed the hope that increasingly bitter polarization might actually galvanize counter movements. Tthat was the topic of the next day’s workshop.

The day’s opening plenary described, with for me shocking statistical graphs, the increasing rates of polarization across so many dimensions of our society. Yet the speaker’s goal, given that big picture, was to argue that religious communities — despite the widespread cliché that religion is the cause of polarization — might again nourish a renewed “American Consensus” or “body of civic faith.” The speaker was Allen Hilton whose ideas are developed in his book A House United: How The Church Can Save The World (Fortress Press, 2018).

After his talk, Hilton led us into small group discussion about divisions in our religious communities and stories about healing those divisions. Indeed, for me the heart of the day’s program was successive break-out and small group sessions among the participants who were mainline Protestants, Jews, some Muslims, and at least one Sikh. (I was, I believe, the only Catholic.) They were clergy and church workers, seminary and grad students, many elders and (typically) far more women than men.

The morning break-out I attended was led by Doug Pagitt, executive director of Vote Common Good, a national movement trying to get religious voters to oppose Trump’s deliberately polarizing spirit. Pagitt was in Denver for a rally later that day as part of a national bus tour. I urge you to check out their excellent website.

The afternoon plenary involved wonderful motivational talks by two leaders of the Interfaith Alliance . Rev. Amanda Henderson is the Alliance’s founder and executive director. Her colleague, Iman Jodeh, is a first generation Palestinian American, spokesperson for the Colorado Muslim Society (a rare Muslim woman elected for such a position), and is currently running for the Colorado State Senate (where she hopefully will be the first Muslim to serve). Both told compelling personal stories about their reasons for being “together in this.”

The afternoon break-out I happily chose was led by a local volunteer for Better Angels, a national movement started after the 2016 election to bring together Trump and Clinton supporters. Again, I urge you to explore their great website. For they have developed  a variety of meeting formats which carefully bring together an equal number of “red” and “blue” participants (in churches, neighborhoods, and civic organizations) to meet as human beings and fellow citizens in response to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” For me their effort, which will continue well past the current election cycle, was a magnificent end to a great day.

* I recently append to my blogposts (this is the fifth such) notes about William Lynch’s writings which are relevant to the post’s topic.

In the preface to his 1965 book Images of Hope, Lynch wrote (here in an edited version): “As I see it we are always faced with programmatic alternatives: We can decide to build a human city in which all have citizenship, Greek, Jew, and Gentile, the black and the white, the maimed, the halt, and the blind, the mentally well and the mentally ill, [the red and the blue, women equally with men]…. Or we will decide to build various walled cities, from which pockets of humanity [the many  “others”] will be excluded.” He then added, realistically but ominously: “how many will be up to building this [inclusive] city remains to be seen” since walled-off enclaves “offer an extraordinary fascination for the souls of fearful people and we are fools if we underestimate how strong and seductive they can be.”

Lynch’s final book, Images of Faith (1973), argues that any truly human and inclusive city is best understood or imagined as “a body of faith.” Put differently, a good city (whether a village or a neighborhood or a major metropolis) is actually constituted by many interwoven relationships of trust and collaboration. Such a city, in other words, is not just made of streets and structures, traffic and business, legal rules and economic processes. For such structures and institutions will work only when they actually embody a fundamental sense of trust and faith in each other. The alternative is all the patterns of distrust, fear, opposition, and withdrawal into walled enclaves which we today so often experience.

Of course the actual city where each of us lives is a messy mix of both faith and fear, trust and distrust. And the real question remains: how many of us will be up to working to build such trust by overcoming fear and distrust?

A final personal pique. At one point early in the workshop John Lennon’s famous song “Imagine” was played while its words flashed on a screen. I love that song’s melody, but hate its lyrics. As if we actually should try to imagine no differences, no conflicts, all happy together in some la la land. These lyrics are romantic BS. The real task, as Lynch continually urges, is to develop a realistic imagination (not romantic-fantastic) which could guide us in work for the inclusion of differences amidst real conflicts. Just imagine that!  Despite the Lennon song, that’s what the conference actually (and for me successfully) tried to do.

All the News… (Lynch # 4)

This reflection grows from a recent discussion with friends for whom I am very grateful.

It seems these days that all the news fit to print or broadcast is pretty depressing.

Impeachment revelations about lies and lying liars. The making of fake news. The broad absence of decent leadership across the globe. Riots and police repression. All while the planet burns – from wars and terrorism, and above all from climate change. While the fossil fuel business grasps for the last bit of profit even as it assures us that it’s working for the future of our planet. Even while the prophets are silenced or ignored. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

(Pause a moment to conjure your list of depressing news.)

I have suffered from depression most of my life – manic public energy and mild private depression. Runs in my family and throughout my Irish ancestry. Yet depression isn’t limited to the Irish, and seems especially prevalent among men of a certain age.

I can’t imagine how depression affects those who work with mental illness since they know, more than most of us, how the cancer spreads throughout the people, and the terrible consequences to which it can lead.

William Lynch, SJ’s most widely read book, Images of Hope (1965 and still in print), is about “mental illness and hope.” And, as he notes, we are all somewhat ill, somewhat wanting in hope.

He writes to fight a prevalent fantasy about hope – that it is a great leap to escape the bad news, the wasteland. Real hope, he argues, is a much smaller and more ordinary reality.  It’s above all about help. About the many small ways in which we daily find help – from friends, or just from a breath of air; from the floor under our feet as we get out of bed or rise from a chair; from a smile or helping hand (received or given); from the many daily goods which persist amidst the clouds of gloom.

That was a major part of Tolkein’s message — the little guys and friendships amidst the great war.

A friend who counsels addicts tells them to get out of bed with the alarm, wash your face, make the bed, pour a cup of coffee….

Lynch repeats the story told by a Holocaust survivor: One inmate asked another why he bothered to wash his hands and face each day, amidst the dirt and degradation and certainty of imminent death. The answer? Because such small actions maintain our sense of human dignity within the larger hopelessness.

So it is with so much news that goes unreported. At ground level, daily. Acts of kindness and courage, intentional and random, mostly small. While walking the dog. Opening a door. Washing dishes.  Or the many movements for small service, for linking hands in solidarity against evil, for collecting donations, joining in prayer….

I venture to suggest that at ground level our lives are filled with good news – if we but have eyes to see and ears to hear. Yes, that’s true for THE good news preached by Jesus. But it’s also true for the daily good news the media does not print – in part because there’s more profit in bad news; but also (!!) because there’s far too much of it to cover.

So walk the dog and notice – all the beauty that remains in nature, and in the folks next door, the barista, those shopping in the grocery….

NOT to escape the bad news. NOT to avoid the prophets. NOT to cease to struggle against lying liars and climate destroyers, against violence and racism and terrorism of all kinds. But to nourish hope in the midst of such struggle.

For finally the Kingdom is God’s. We must work for it, in ways large and small. It is SHE who will provide. In ways for me both imaginable and unimaginable.

Meanwhile, consider the lilies, smell the flowers. Share a smile, even if it be but a comforting grimace. Accept even the depression as a small sign that we’re still alive and aware of the evil.

And may the people say “Amen” while waiting in joyful hope. For it’s always Advent.

Immigration and the Vietnamese Contribution to American Life (Lynch # 3)

This essay takes up our conflict about immigration, the polarizing nature of that conflict, and the ways it further erodes public or civic trust – the trust William Lynch, SJ, imagined as the basic “body of faith” which makes civic life possible. My question is whether immigration itself endangers our shared body of faith, or whether that body of faith is eroded primarily by political interests spreading fears, economic blaming, and false news about immigrants. My “case study” is not the present crisis at the southern border, but the post war immigration of Vietnamese refugees. I will begin with the Vietnamese in Denver and then turn to comments about immigration and our body of civic faith..

1. Bridging Hope and Denver’s Vietnamese American Community

For more than a decade, folks from metro-Denver gather each Fall for the non-profit Bridging Hope’s annual fundraiser. It’s a dinner appropriately described as an “art and Vietnamese cultural event.” This year– as always with much Vietnamese music and dance and artworks for auction — it was held in the spacious parish hall of Denver’s thriving Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church. With roughly 400 in attendance – an almost equal mix of Vietnamese and other Americans – along with the young Vietnamese providing entertainment and the servers and auction managers who volunteer annually from University of Colorado’s Vietnamese Student Association. And with special guests like several Catholic Sisters from Viet Nam.

Many of the Vietnamese women wore the traditional Ao Dai, others elegant western evening attire. The men mostly wore suit and tie, though some dressed Denver casual. The non-Vietnamese Americans, both women and men, dressed in the full range of Western casual.

Now if this is beginning to read like a typical “women’s section” socialite fundraiser report, that’s deliberate. For this annual event is clearly a celebration of recent immigrant success. It both on the beauties of Vietnamese culture and the present needs of poor women and children in Viet Nam. Everyone came prepared with checkbooks and credit cards ready for auction and donation.

A bit more description. The dances featured both young women in traditional peasant dances and young men in a noisy and winding dragon dance. (My grandchildren and many Vietnamese children were entranced by the latter.) Music was provided by a superb pianist accompanying the parish youth choir. And later by a specially invited San Francisco women’s quintet (piano and strings) named Phuong Cam. They played and sang both Vietnamese and modern (Western) favorites, the latter often with audience participation.

The silent auction during drinks involved both classical (embroidered) and modern works by Vietnamese artists, as well as wine baskets and the like. The live auction ended with a minor bidding war for signed Denver Broncos’ footballs (the Vietnamese share our city’s love for our Broncos) and then a more significant bidding war for a beautiful wood-carved Vietnamese (Koto) zither-harp.

I here insert photos of two examples of the classical Vietnamese embroidery done by artists at XQ Hand Embroidery in Vietnam. The large originals (framed, 3’ x 5’) look, from a distance, like beautiful paintings. Only close-up can one see the silk threadwork of the eagle’s feathers and the old man’s hands.

I’ve chosen these two artworks since for me the old man represents Vietnamese tradition and the soaring eagle the spirit of the Vietnamese people here and in Viet Nam.

2. Now some commentary:

Judged by their broad participation in Denver’s business and professional ranks, and by their great achievements at some of our best universities (Regis University, of course, but also the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Colorado in Boulder)…by their amazing fluency in English even as they preserve (in family life and religious community) their own language and traditions…and by their support for families “back home in Viet Nam” and for charities like Bridging Hope… By all such standards, the Vietnamese American immigrants are a remarkable immigration success story.

More than that, in these and many other ways they have made an equally remarkable contribution to civic life in cities like Denver and San Francisco and New Orleans. They have, in other words, contributed to the shared body of trust or civility which makes life in these cities workable and often very enjoyable.

Yet ‘twas not always so. Indeed, though I’d lived through those years I had forgotten the initial reluctance of many to re-settling these refugees onto our shores. And I had to be reminded that it was then President Gerald Ford who broke through that reluctance by opening our doors to the war refugees initially held in camps in places like the Philippines.

And I had to be told that to this day, despite their overall success, Vietnamese Americans in places like Denver still are regularly subjected to various forms of bigotry and discrimination.

Of course, none of this is new.  For despite the fact that all of us (with the obvious exception of the only truly “native” Americans) have immigrant ancestors, wave after wave of immigrants have been met with fear, distrust, and bigotry by our own forms of nativism or populism.

It didn’t start with Trump, though he now “capitalizes” on it (as he tries to capitalize on everything). His rhetoric of distrust for the stranger, the foreigner, the alien, whether African Americans or Muslims or the refugees imprisoned on our Southern Border, feeds on long-standing fears and prejudices.

Hispanic immigrants to this country have had, for longer and far more widely, the same kind of success story as I’ve described for Vietnamese immigrants. Indeed, here in Colorado (and in New Mexico and Texas and California) it is incorrect to speak about immigrants, since many Hispanics lived continuously here in the West well before we Anglos moved in with waves of conquest. I was recently reminded that Santa Fe (New Mexico) is the oldest continuous capital city in all of North America. Its full name remains the same as when founded in 1610: La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís (“The Royal Town of the Holy Faith of St Francis of Assisi”).

Yet, again, we still hear and way too many accept all the propaganda about rapists and murderers and unfair economic competition.

3. The Civic Body of Faith

What my mentor William Lynch called “the body of faith” without which civic life is impossible is not a body of shared religious faith, though religion has (in virtually every culture and nationality we know of) contributed significantly to that more fundamental faith.

Nor was Lynch in any way romantic about such civic faith and trust. For our national (or local) body of faith has always been and will always be shadowed and threatened by fear and distrust. Fears based on real differences and on serious conflicts, and too often on real instances of violence and counter-violence.

Nor do I wish to be romantic about immigrants and other “others” – whether African Americans or Vietnamese Americans or Hispanic Americans. There are thugs and gangs on all sides of our immigration debates, as we are reminded daily in news reports. (Though I honestly don’t know of such among the Vietnamese in Denver.)

Lynch loved (as do I) Leonard Bernstein’s magnificent West Side Story. About gang tribalism between Puerto Rican and Anglos on the west side of New York in the 1950s. And about the power of love and tragedy to finally overcome the tribalism and fear. Written and composed by a major New York Jewish artist who himself exemplified the great success of American Jewish immigration. Along with so many other Jewish American artists, merchants, and politicians, Bernstein in West Side Story and in other ways made a major contribution to the civic body of faith in New York and throughout our country. (I urge readers who’ve never seen the film version, or haven’t seen it recently, to find it on Netflix or elsewhere.)

Enough. Probably too much. But I hope the point is clear enough. We live with our body of faith torn and threatened on so many sides. Perhaps most notably these days by perceived and propagandized fears about immigrants and refugees. And, give the realities of global warming, we are only at the beginning of the greatest global migration in human history. We can continue to allow this reality to polarize us, to diminish our civic trust and increase the fear on our streets – or with Bernstein, with Lynch, with the folks at Bridging Hope, we can again and again take up the task of building the trust that makes the human city possible.

Isn’t It Ironic? The Agenda of the Catholic Right (Lynch # 2)

My most recent posting criticized conservative Catholic efforts to restrict the meaning of sacred rites and objects to church sacraments and sacramentals. In this posting I argue that this and other aspects of the Catholic right’s agenda face an ironic consequence. They are causing much the opposite of what they intend. Or so I believe.

Here is the gist of what follows: The agenda of the Catholic Right is to restore more traditional or “orthodox” forms of Catholic belief and practice, and to achieve this goal above all by restoring clerical and hierarchical forms of authority. I suggest that this agenda is ironic since it will actually result in quite the opposite – in a decentering of clerical authority and a realization of the central role of laity as envisioned by Vatican II. Yet (the crucial point of this writing) we all, whether of the Right or of the Left, will only achieve this happy result if we develop an ironic sensibility in the practice of our faith.

My writing remains complicated and lengthy. So feel free to skip or skip around. I hope that you may find important ideas and that some may respond on the website.

1. Several introductory notes:

I use terms like “conservative” and “liberal” or “right” and “left” as a shorthand. The realities both of people and of programs are far more complex.

Secondly, irony is a very complex topic. Yet my mentor Lynch says that irony is immensely important for faith, especially for Christian faith. I will just below give a brief introduction to what I mean by irony and, in an appendix, will explain Lynch’s idea that we all need to nurture an appropriately ironic sensibility.

2. Ironic reversals

I use the terms “irony” and “ironic” first to indicate a dramatic (real-world, actually-experienced) reversal of what is intended or expected. And then, secondly, to refer to stories (dramas) and sayings (jokes or proverbs) about such reversals of meaning. And finally, to refer a kind of sensibility (or way of seeing and responding).

Ironic reversals are called “tragic” when something begun with great expectations ends in failure. Shakespeare’s drama Macbeth and, in the real world, the “Great War” (WW I) to end all wars are both tragically ironic.

Comic irony is about a reversal which brings a truly happy or good result. Think Cervantes’ Don Quichote or the unexpected recent elevation of Francis, a poor man, to the Papacy. Or more generally the claim that the poor are blessed. Or, most significantly, belief that a donkey-riding and then derided and finally crucified “criminal” is really the Christ-Messiah. The Cross is then, for Christians, an ironic symbol of victory.

3. The Catholic Right’s Agenda

I want to suggest that the US Catholic Right’s agenda will in the long term be an example of comic irony. Short-term it may cause a tragic schism among Catholics. Indeed, it has already led to led to much de facto schism, and to many sad, at times even tragic, results – from good people losing jobs to so many leaving the church, and to so much deep distrust within the church. Yet long term, I believe it will result in the opposite of what it intends.

Let me be clear that I am not here writing about the abuse crisis, even though it continues to be a terribly ironic “event” in which the mighty are (slowly, with great suffering all around) being cast from their thrones – some literally cast down (defrocked, even imprisoned), others undergoing (one hopes) a transformative stripping from magnificence to service (after the example of Francis whom “they” ironically continue to castigate and blame). And an event in which the lowly victims, children and adults, are exalted by the vindication of their claims and the slow healing of their injuries.

For the broad agenda of the Catholic Right – led by many “John Paul II Bishops” and supported both by politically conservative money and by Catholics still disturbed by changes since Vatican II — is to restore clerical/hierarchical authority and thereby to reassert doctrinal orthodoxy and traditional morality.

It’s very important to immediately note that everything I say about the Catholic Right’s agenda is equally true for much of the Catholic Left. If attempts to restore things may lead to ironic results, so may attempts to reform things. Thus, we all need to look first to the log in our own eye lest we fixate on the splinter in others’. (Another of the gospel’s startlingly ironic proverbs.)

4. What’s so ironic about the conservative agenda?

As I see it, there are two great ironies in the Right’s agenda. First that, as already noted, it will eventually result in the opposite of what it intends. Second, that it will have this ironic consequence precisely because so many of the folks involved are so unironic about their agenda. (This latter irony is, again, equally true of so many on the Left.)

5. The Irony of Unintended consequences

It’s my belief that the long-term consequence of the reassertion of clerical power will be a comic (healthy, healing) development of a more lay-centered Catholic church. Yes, something like that intended by Pope Francis and opposed by the Catholic Right. It is the reversal proclaimed by Vatican II and gradually working it way throughout the church.

What would that comic consequence look like? I think we have long been seeing important developments in lay authority and ministry – from growing forms of lay ministry to a more fundamental appropriation of freedom (of conscience) as a crucial element of respect for authority.

We saw this recently in the huge outpouring of support in this country for Catholic Sisters when they were put under investigation by male/clerical authorities. Our Sisters are clearly not part of the hierarchical chain of command. Yet that outpouring was clear recognition of their very real authority in the history and current reality of the church, especially through long service in schools and hospitals, and increasingly as political voices and spiritual guides.

Such lay authority, as a second example, is also evident in the actual operation of so many parishes, even those still with resident pastors. The laity manage things as directors of liturgy, of religious education, and even at times (when Father isn’t home) of liturgies and preaching.

And who these days, as a third example, are those more sought out as spiritual teachers and guides, as writers and retreat leaders? It’s my sense that such leaders are increasingly women, many Sisters and single or married laywomen. Most of whom have advanced training in fields like theology or spiritual direction, often (my judgment) far better than that received these days in some seminaries.

More examples of such ironic consequences abound. As I suggested in my previous blog on sacraments: many now experience the sacred in nature and not in church. I do not celebrate this shift, rather I criticized it as an “either-or” approach to sacramentality. Yet I do hope that in the long run a renewal of the church’s sacramental understandings will lead to a richer “both-and” understanding of our experiences of the holy. That would be a truly comic result for the church.

Of even greater significance is the development of a broader understanding of “the apostolate of the laity” urged by Vatican II. Thus far it’s mainly meant the important but “second class” lay ministries in church service noted above. Yet the fuller meaning of the lay apostolate is the ministry or witness of lay women and men in and for the secular world – in the professions (medicine, law, and education, for instance) and in corporations and commerce as well as in politics and culture. Such development would really be an ironic de-centering of the meaning of “church” – from church buildings and rituals (both still crucially necessary) to the People of God working for the realization of  Kingdom in the messy and secular realities of our world.

I’m rambling, but hopefully the first point about the irony of the Right’s agenda is somewhat clear. And I’m sure the reader may add many other examples.

6. The Irony of an Absolutized Agenda

As I said above, the second major irony of Right’s agenda is that it will have this ironic consequence precisely because the folks involved are themselves so unironic.

Let me put this simply. And again, what I say about the Right applies equally to the Left.

If you have an absolute or ideological agenda – if you pursue your agenda with a bulldozer or with the constant charge of your brigades, with fixed and unwavering determination – you will inevitably fail and will likely produce the opposite of what you intend. For reality is always more complex than our fixed agendas. Reality will finally not submit to ideologies. A far more flexible approach to achieving goals is needed, as any good politician or planner knows — a flexibility that can respond to unintended consequences and incorporate other viewpoints.

It’s because of his fixed and fantastic inflexibility that Don Quichote is the greatest figure of comic irony in Western literature. He tilts at windmills and inevitably fails because reality will not submit to his fantasies. Yet Cervantes’ story is even more deeply comic and ironic since it is through the Don’s failures, and the commonplace sanity of his servant Sancho, that in the end the Don gradually becomes more realistically and humbly human. The “great knight” comes off his high horse and the servant rises to real esteem.

It is, then, especially ironic that recent retellings of the story of the “Man of Lamancha” are so much Romantic nonsense. Unlike Cervantes’ healing irony, these retellings urge us, with soul-stirring rhythm and song, to persist in the tragic American habit of dreaming impossible dreams.

Lets hope our Bishops might learn from the Don.  Let’s hope that all of our zealotry, on Right or Left, in church or society, might be tutored by a comic irony which laughs at itself and thereby humanizes its absolutized agendas.

Appendix: What Does William Lynch Contribute to Our Understanding of Irony?

And the answer is: he urges all of us to develop an appropriately ironic sensibility in the living of our faith – both in our religious faith and in our commitment to causes.

In his final book, Images of Faith (1973), Lynch argued that Christian faith should be deeply ironic. He grounds this recommendation in what he does not hesitate to call “the Irony of Christ.” Said another way, faith is not just a loving and hopeful way of seeing and experiencing the world, it also sees and experiences the world ironically. This probably sounds like nonsense for those of us habituated to associate irony with sarcasm, ridicule, contempt, and even hatred. Yet we Christians claim to follow Jesus of Nazareth, whose life and reality is deeply ironic. For again, he embodies as a limited human being the fullness of God. And he is Messiah (or Christ or Lord and Savior) precisely by being poor, by walking with the regular folk, even the outcasts and sinners, and finally by suffering and dying.

Lynch’s book makes difficult reading and demand much rereading. Yet it is very rewarding. Here I tease out but one thread from that  richly-woven text.

We need to nurture an ironic sensibility (a habitual framework for seeing and responding) if we are to live a life of faith, or any realistic life of hope and love. And that is true not only for Christians and other religious believers, but for all of us in maintaining bonds of faith or trust in our families and communities, and in our political and social lives.

But not just any ironic sensibility. For today the prevailing ironies learned from jokes and stories, from our news and talk shows, and from TV and cinema dramas, are largely contemptuous. They involve forms of irony which express contempt for some person or group – for the bad guys, the political or religious idiots, for certain types of macho men and silly women, and so on.

It’s important to stress that we are all better ironists than we think. Often the term “irony” simply refers to folk wisdom we’ve learned since childhood. And the nurturing of a sensibility tutored by such ironies is a deeply comic or humanizing goal. But too often we’ve learned to embody our culture’s prevailing and contemptuous ironies. For they are usually very enjoyable. Indeed most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, find it quite satisfying to regularly nurture our hatreds and resentments.

Lynch, on the contrary, urges us to develop those ironic habits of thinking and feeling which enable us to do two important things. First and foremost, to laugh at ourselves.  To be sure, we must stick with our convictions and causes, but we must do so with a sustaining sense of humor and flexibility. And second, we must learn to understand our opponents in an equally comic (and not contemptuous) way – to see them as fallible persons quite often held captive, like the Don (and like us), by  inflexible fantasies.

Faith isn’t only about doctrines or laws, but far more about habits and sensibilities, ways of seeing and feeling and acting. That being the case, Lynch urges us to reflect on our own ironic habits and to discern between those filled with contempt and those filled with real humanity. And then to nurture the forms of sensibility which embodies comic irony, the irony of faith.

Sacraments in both Church and World — Lynch # 1

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts exploring the contemporary significance of the thought of my mentor William F. Lynch, SJ (1908-87). They will be identified by their titles (Lynch # 1, # 2…) so those less interested can skip, but they will explore current topics and concerns just as my previous posts have.

Today’s topic, for instance, is about how we experience the sacred both in traditional Christian sacraments and in the wider secular world of places and objects and events. Towards the end I explain Lynch’s continual recommendation of such “Both-And” thinking as well as his other regular recommendation that we “enlarge” the scope of our imagining and thinking, since both ideas provide grounding for a “both-and” approach to sacraments.

These “Lynch postings” will have some links to further reading. They will also at points be explicitly philosophical since Lynch always sought to relate his discussion of contemporary concerns to the philosophical or deepest roots of such concerns. Yet I will make every effort to keep the discussion concrete and the philosophy clear.

The theme of today’s writing is straightforward: that we Christians experience God’s sacred presence and grace both in Church rituals or sacraments and in the wider secular world of nature and persons and events. It’s a both-and, not an either-or. Indeed, these two experiences of God’s grace need and reinforce each other: church sacraments make us more sensitive to the presence of God in the world, and the experience of God’s presence in the world helps us understand the fuller meaning of sacraments and rituals.

Yet exploring this theme is not so easy. As always, “it’s complicated.”

What I write below barely scratches the surface and focuses almost  entirely on Catholic ideas and experiences.  I believe it may be relevant to important developments in “sacramental” thought and practice among contemporary Protestants. And that it related to the role of sacramentality in other great religious traditions.

I recently went to morning Mass at a fairly conservative Catholic parish. I say “conservative” because these days the priests in such parishes are the new priests coming from the Catholic seminary in Denver. The small congregation that morning was almost entirely old folks, so I fit in. The ritual was wonderfully reverent and the sermon (given my prejudices) surprisingly good. After the Mass many stayed for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

I didn’t stay. Rather I went home and enjoyed a cup of coffee on my porch, surrounded by nature – birds and bees, trees and flowers, sun and wind. It was, I believe, an experience of the sacred present in the natural world (even in the coffee) at the same time that fellow Catholics at that church were experiencing God eucharistic presence in the Monstrance.

I once knew an older Irish American guy who drove his wife to Mass each Sunday, but never joined her in Church. He respected her practice, yet preferred to find God in nature by sitting outside the church. I also knew an Italian American man in my hometown who would bring his wife to church every Sunday and then sit in the car reading the Sunday New York Times. I never talked to him about this, but his practice reminds me of the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth’s  recommendation that we should pray with the Bible in one hand and the day’s newspaper in the other.

Recently I read Margaret Coel’s novel Night of the White Buffalo (2014), part of her best-selling Wind River Reservation mystery series featuring Fr. John O’Malley, SJ. He is pastor at the Mission Church and also an extraordinary detective. For there’s always a murder to be solved in each novel. Yet as a pastor, O’Malley is deeply involved in the lives of folks on the Rez. Thus in each novel we not only learn “who-done-it,” but much about contemporary Native American life.

In Night of the White Buffalo, a white calf born on a buffalo ranch near the reservation sends a sacred shockwave through the native world, especially among those who honor the traditional story about the “Woman Clothed in a White Buffalo Skin” who  returns to her People as a white calf when their needs are critical. (For me, this tradition is kin to Catholic belief about Mary’s Apparitions and to the apocalyptic Woman Clothed with the Sun in Rev. 12: 1.) Soon hundreds, and eventually thousands, of Native Americans from across the country will come to the ranch to see the white calf and to leave (sacramental) totems — feathers, pipe tobacco, jewelry, prayer notes – and donations on the fence around the herd. Many of the locals who come are Catholics who regularly receive the sacraments at the Mission church. O’Malley isn’t bothered by this overlap of “sacramental” practice and belief.

Then, on a recent summer morning, I took my granddaughter to join other children playing in the fountains outside Denver’s Union Station. Watching these little ones I experienced Jesus’ saying “they are of the kingdom of heaven.” Often, too, I sit with my dog outside the station and am amazed at the diversity of folks passing bye. More than amazed, I really sense that these are the body of Christ.

Yet my Catholic upbringing emphasized the Seven Sacraments and many “sacramentals” – lesser sacred objects like candles, holy water, medals, rosaries, and crucifixes that had been blessed by the Church.  Far more fundamentally, these Catholic teachings and practices separated such church-related sacredness from the larger world of essentially secular things and practices. One’s home was an exception because the presence (on walls and desks) of blessed candles and ikons, as well as the practice of family prayers before meals and at night, assured the sacredness of a Catholic  family’s home.

There was at that time much devotion to St. Francis of Assisi, but (at least in my memory) not much talk about the sacredness in the natural world or in public places.

And these days, at least in “conservative” dioceses like Denver, children must be baptized in Church by a priest (except in cases of emergency) and marriages must be blessed by a priest and only in churches (no outdoor settings). Mass is mandatory, at least on Sundays, and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament still much recommended.

Still, I doubt that even the most conservative Catholics any longer consider non-baptized children as limbo-bound pagans. And I’m not sure whether they any longer think of all  those married without benefit of the sacrament as “living in sin.”

I am trying to make a general point about traditional Catholic restriction of the sacred to things performed or blessed by priests and mainly in church buildings, at altars or fonts or (in some places still) communion rails. Yet I know I am simplifying terribly and overstating the point.

At very least, traditional Catholic veneration of the Saints sees them as signs and reminders of the sacred in daily and “worldly” activities like caring for the sick, feeding the poor, giving to beggars. Though it is noteworthy that until quite recently most of the saints have been church men and woman – priests and nuns.

These days there is serious theological discussion about “the Catholic or sacramental imagination” at work, for instance, in secular film and fiction by Catholic directors and writers. Priest Sociologist Andrew Greeley (1929-2013), who contributed much to that discussion, even argued that Catholics have better sex lives because of their “sacramental” sensitiveness to God’s presence in physical objects. And his wildly popular novels about Catholics are quite deliberately filled with racy characters and scenes — not so much to sell his books as to criticize “traditional” Catholicism’s narrow views about sexuality.

Then, too, Jesuits have long spoken about “finding God in all things.” Indeed, William Lynch spoke the following words in 1954 at a Mass for a Catholic Poets’ Society:

Our God is a God of Existence, and not of dreams . . . He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and being this kind of God, being a God of existence, then He can only be found in existence, in the things that are, in real people, real situations. This God is not to be found in the past, nor in the future, nor in a dream, but in the present, its people, its mud, its obscurities, its need for pain and decisions . . .

So we come, finally, to Lynch’s ideas which, for me at least, provide firm foundation to the both-and understanding of sacraments which I am urging.

Lynch’s constant battle was against the pervasive human tendency to absolutize particular practices or beliefs – to make them into “the one way” or the only way to see and understand. Such tendencies lead to polarizations, to seeing things in either-or ways. The way, I have been suggesting,  “conservative” Catholics tend to think about sacraments.

To combat such tendencies, Lynch regularly recommended what one of his later articles calls “The Task of Enlargement” (1976).  It’s a commonsense practice – pulling back from a too narrow focus on things, seeing the bigger picture. Yet when there is conflict or serious difference, especially when polarization has already set in, it is a very difficult practice.

In the case our understanding of sacraments and sacred presence, we need to enlarge our vision so that, to repeat, church sacraments and secular or natural sacraments (whether children playing or a white buffalo calf) are part of a bigger picture. Both are needed and reinforce each other. We find God in all things in part because we are sensitized to God’s presence by the physical/ritual reality of church sacraments. Yet our sensitivity to natural sacraments also enables us to embrace the fuller meaning of church sacraments and to avoid practicing them superstitiously.

In more philosophical terms, Lynch’s fourth book, The Integrating Mind (1962), provides a detailed exploration of what he calls “contrariety.”  The word is philosophical jargon for the fundamental fact that we humans, as finite and physical creatures, always and everywhere find ourselves living within many tensions between “contraries” — like past and future, self and world, body and mind, secular and sacred, church and state, nationalism and internationalism, and so on and on.

Our constant tendency is to simplify things by grasping onto one pole of such contraries and separating from the other – escaping from our bodies into mind or spirit (or doing the reverse), retreating from the world into ourselves, retreating from the globe into supposedly patriotic nationalism, escaping from the past by leaping towards the future or (perhaps more commonly) escaping some future by nostalgic return to the past.

Of course it never really works, at least not for long. Rather the realistic challenge for us is that of integrating these contraries — living with the tension so that each pole or contrary nourishes and develops the other — so that memories give grounds for hope, or being engaged out there in the world gives us a more real sense of ourselves.  Or, as the old Latin has it, we experience mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body).  Or (to repeat) a sense of the sacred in church opens us to the presence of God in all things.

So that’s my thought today – concern about God’s presence in both church and world, with (hopefully) some help from Lynch.  Of course,  there is much more to be thought and said, and I hope as always that some readers might add their thoughts on this site.

Let me end by highly recommending a recent short online article by Dani Clark, one of NCR’s staff writers. The title itself may intrigue – “St. Bernadette’s Rib Opened Something” – and the writing is wonderfully earthy and real. About food and drink on an Italian Island, about a relic of the Saint being honored in a local church, with memories of a miraculous medal and the real presence of Mary and other mothers. It’s a really good read which, in its way, gets at much of what I’ve been laboring over in this posting

Himmelfahrt (Again)

This morning I read the liturgical readings for today, the Catholic Holy Day for the Feast of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven.  Then I remembered the writing I’d first done for the Denver Post’s religion blog and reprinted on this site some years later.  It had gotten some very positive feedback.  So I reread it as part of my morning prayers, and now I’m posting it again.  Perhaps a re-posting is just narcissism; but perhaps its basic idea — that somehow God is involved in this mess and Mary’s Assumption, far from celebrating escape really celebrates that Presence — is  worth repeating.  Since the mess still seems as bad as ever, and the temptation to escape as great (whether to heaven or to some private place of reverie).  I at least need to be challenged continually to affirm that Presence and be aware of its reality.

So here, should you be interested, is a link to that former posting on “The Feast of Mary’s Assumption” (Himmelfahrt in German!).

And Happy Feastday!

Revisiting Death and Afterlife

I’ve been away, but resume blogging today by revisiting questions about death and afterlife which I’ve written about frequently.  They are perennial questions which, for me, deserve regular revisiting. Yet please feel free to skip if it’s not your cup of tea.

My last remaining uncle died several weeks back and more recently a revered professor died. In addition, I regularly receive notice of the death of classmates, academic colleagues, church congregants, and other friends. It’s mainly a function of age (I’m now 77), which is also the reason that I glance daily at obits. And, as some readers know, my son died of cancer 15 years ago.

So death is often on my mind, as well as questions about afterlife – whether there is any kind of afterlife, whether Christian beliefs about death and resurrection are true, or Aristotelian beliefs about the immortality of the soul more likely, or Buddhist beliefs about nirvana and karma more reliable.

I know that many Christian friends don’t believe or are agnostic about “the resurrection and the life.” And I take their views seriously even as I continue to disagree.

Here I want to reiterate my belief that Buddhist ideas (as I understand them) about nirvana and karma as well as Christian belief in the bodily resurrection and eternal life (or heaven) are true, and that these Buddhist and Christian ideas are different but compatible.

Regarding the philosophical notion of an “immortal soul,” I find it interesting but implausible – for our souls are not separable from our bodies, even in death. Rather they are, as Aquinas best argued, the “form” (his term) or the life-force of our bodies. Without a soul the body does not live. (For what it’s worth, I also think this is also true for plants and animals.) And without a body, the soul is a myth in the negative sense – what one skeptic called “a ghost in the machine.”

I find the Buddhist notion of nirvana (again, as I understand it) quite compelling – and broadly analogous to Christian ideas about sanctity and thus related to Jesus’ saying that “the kingdom of God is among you” or “within you” (translations of Luke 17: 21 differ).

The historical Indian Prince named Siddhartha Gautama lived and died as we humans all do. Yet in this life he achieved enlightenment, buddha-hood or nirvana. After his enlightenment he was still fully human, teaching and touching, eating and sleeping, and so on. Yet he also lived on or in a “transcendent” level that was beyond desire and suffering – as Buddhism conceives these fundamental and world-governing powers — though beyond suffering from a twisted ankle or desiring a drink of tea.

He was recognized by his companions and experienced himself as a buddha, an enlightened one who had achieved nirvana. He was one of many such, both before his life and since. For most practicing Buddhists, then and now, buddhas are holy people who have attained enlightenment in the only way possible, while living a fully human life. They are not gods, not heavenly figures, but models or ikons or saints. Nirvana, then, is not a kind of life after death but a way of living in this life.

Those who know Buddhism know that nirvana and samsara (the force of desire and suffering which make the world go round) are identical, paradoxical as this seems. They also know that there is a “pure land” school of Buddhism which came to believe that all such enlightened ones continue to live after their death in a “pure land” that is broadly akin to Western ideas about heaven. They are, in my understanding, analogous to the Christian saints who, having achieved or been graced with holiness in this life, now reside with God in eternity or heaven.  (And if you know Buddhism and disagree, I again ask you to comment below.)

The complementary Buddhist (and Hindu) idea of karma means that the good we do in this life spreads into the world, into our families and societies (and even into the natural world), just as the evil we do (both as individuals and societies) causes evil effects to spread into the world. This strikes me as a straightforward empirical fact. Yet (the key point here) the good we do (as also the evil) lives on after our deaths. Our good karma, then, adds to the cosmic flow of compassion which pervades and grounds and nurtures this world – both while we live and after we die.

Thus, again on my understanding, nirvana means living this life deeply within the flow of cosmic compassion and contributing to it force. Just as bad karma contributes to the force of samsara (akin to biblical notions about the powers of this world) both during our lives and after we die. We ordinary humans, then, do indeed live on after this life by having contributed to this cosmic river of compassion or to its “samsaric” antithesis.

As I’ve said, I believe that these Buddhist ideas about nirvana and karma are fully compatible with Christian ideas about holiness and about death and resurrection, about the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” Yet, as I’ve suggested, most Buddhists do not believe in any heaven or afterlife, certainly not in “the resurrection of the body.”

Christian belief in “the resurrection and the life” grew initially from debates within the Hebrew world Jesus knew (where certain schools believed in an afterlife and others rejected the idea). Christian belief was undoubtedly also influenced by Greek philosophy and perhaps by other ancient religions. Yet the one final foundation of Christian belief in heaven (and our own “bodily” resurrection) is the resurrection Jesus of Nazareth who was only then finally understood as the Christ or Messiah.

The shaping or formalizing of belief in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead took time, and thus there are different/differing accounts of empty tombs and resurrection appearances in the New Testament. But Christian orthodoxy has never denied that Jesus really died (in the full hospital sense of dead), just as the Buddha and Socrates really died, and as have all of our human ancestors. Just as all of us will really die. Gone, dead, nada. (Which is why I have problems with euphemistic understandings of “passing” which may suggest that aunt Emma didn’t really die.)

Yet while Jesus really died, orthodox Christian belief is that he somehow rose from the dead and returned. He appeared in what seemed a body, since he ate and talked, touched and was touched. Yet he also seemed able to appear suddenly and disappear – not “beam me down Scotty,” and not something anybody we know can actually do. Some sort of “transformed body” — my term, though an idea shared by many Christian thinkers and believers.  (Regarding the mystical transportation of place claimed for some saints, like Padre Pio whom I love, I remain faithfully agnostic.)

And because Jesus really died, and then rose to a new kind of life, Christians believe in an afterlife for the rest of us which is best understood as bodily resurrection. It’s as simple and unimaginable as that.

Yes, I know that much biblical testimony and Christian belief speaks of a “general resurrection” and judgment at the end of time for all who have died. Yet I also know that most believers, at least these days, think that their beloved dead are with God in heaven immediately. (“Aunt Emma is in a better place.”) I don’t think these beliefs incompatible, but it would take too long to explain why.  Just google around if you’re interested.

There’s more to be said and argued about all of this, and I hope anyone who’s read this far might choose to comment below.

And since Palestine and Israel are again/continually in news, I will note here my previous and final blog post on Israel should you want to look at it . As far as I’m concerned, while names and events change, nothing essential has changed from what I then wrote.

Three Days in May: Which Started with the Dog… And Ended at a Zoo

So yes, I took the dog for its morning business and, since I have a full day ahead but no deadlines, I sat with the dog in front of Denver’s Union Station and started again to notice so many other dogs, and of course many people…men and women to and from work, couples and families wandering and enjoying, all sizes and shapes. And yes, like most men, I do tend to notice women’s shapes first, but retirement has given me time to broaden my range of admiration, and not just among humans, but for critters of many shapes and sizes and species.  So much to admire.

Day 1: the dog and I

So there we were outside Union Station, seated in the chilly morning sun,  observing/appreciating. In the surrounding square blocks there are probably 50 breeds of dogs, of different ages, many sizes and shapes, female and male (and whatever other gender types dogs may have). They come regularly to the Station plaza, especially in morning and late afternoon when the young professionals living downtown rush to get puppy taken care of and kid(s) to daycare or school… Point is, lots of dogs and lots of folks on leashes being walked by dogs searching for just the right place to take care of their business, smelling everything of the same sort left by previous pups, and everything else. Of course there are also folks not being led by dogs. Some feed the pigeons and other birds who flit around pecking at what the dogs had sniffed. Some admire the shrubs and flower beds where the dogs do their fertilizing. All of which led to reflection not just on the diversity of dogs and people, but of birds and bushes and flowers as well…

I recently read that there are 40-some bird species inhabiting Denver’s City Park (which of course is a lot bigger and greener than Union Station Plaza). Over and above all the caged birds in the big Zoo in the Park.

I have relatives who are serious birders.  They know the latest guestimates about the total global number of bird species, and have probably seen at least 400 or 500 of them in parks and shorelines, wetlands and forests around the world.

Day 2, Peter and me.

Next day it’s raining – part of the weather shifts we get in Denver.  True elsewhere but, because of mountains and altitude, it’s especially true of our shape-shifting weather.

At any rate, grandson Peter Seamus and I are running into the Museum of Nature and Science which is also in City Park. It too has lots of bird species, or at least their ancient skeletons and modern (stuffed or statued) models, from eagle and osprey to raven and redbird to….

He is a bouncy and very curious three and a-half year old. I a doddering 77. Where to go, what to do – so many options – dinosaurs or North American mammals (which he choses), then a movie on service dogs or the children’s Discovery playroom (which he choose — no doubt who’s in charge here!). At each station along the way, I found myself less noticing the wondrous diversity of snakes and birds than the diversity of people moving around, talking and shouting, while they look at the snakes and birds and other critters, and of course at each other.

Mainly school kids that day – probably 20+ busloads, most from Denver schools, not from the burbs – so the diversity of not just sizes and shapes, but of skin colors and languages, and endlessly different paces of stopping and strolling, running and chasing, laughing and shouting, now and then pushing and pulling. And, of course, harried groups of teachers and parent aides (others not so hurried) riding herd on this magnificent celebratory babel of language and noise.

In the children’s “Discovery” playroom, the noises were lower and the sizes smaller – kids too young to be on school trips: the crawlers, little climbers, and short jumpers – and the guardians also mostly younger. Yes, some grandparents like me, but mostly nannies or moms in groups, the latter typically older than the former – or at least that is what I suspected as I admired the many sizes and shapes, including of course the admirable shapes and sizes of the few dads on the scene.

I tired before Peter, so we again raced the rain and returned for lunch and naps.

Day 3, Me and Jeanie

Sunny again, much warmer. So we (and the dog) trek to the Denver Botanic Garden’s annual spring sale.  The Gardens are a year-round “zoo” of plants and trees and grasses from round the globe, today augmented by the temporary zoo of seedlings for every plant species growable in Metro Denver – with accompanying varieties of soils and composts and organic fertilizers, and gloves and shovels and planters and…and… To say nothing of the also transient zoo of our human species on their own migratory search for spring flowers and summer fruits – food for both soul and body.

Since Jeanie was doing the food and flowers, the dog and I spent most of the time watching people. At least I did. Not sure about the dog.

I’d say, on the basis of my morning surveillance, that the spring sale also represents a ritual pilgrimage for the mainly middle-class devotees of our blooming green religion, along with their younger and frequently grungier fellow devotees, all acolytes and evangelists for spreading the green gospel. And, of course, it still is a sale – “sales” being the most central ritual of our more fundamental (and often less benign) American faith in markets (mostly not green). But this is a green sale, at one of our better civic temples, which then enables we, the people, to set up altars for daily devotion in gardens, window pots, arbors, and green lawns (or even higher altars in the newer xeriscape Edens).

The devotees came in many shapes and sizes. One lean and bearded old-timer – with a modern 3-pronged cane, wearing an old grey beret and a tasseled tan buckskin jacket – shuffled slowly by a seemingly chagrinned 14 year-old, one of many such, whose lean body had probably shot up a foot or more since last spring, clad in the mandated baggy basketball shorts and flat brimmed baseball cap (front facing if white, back facing if black – the kid, not the cap). Chagrinned sloop shoulders because of the 10 zillion better things he’d like to be doing, most probably in front of some loud screen, but mom controls the car and much else and she needs his man muscles to carry the dirt.

That during just the first two minutes of observation. I doubt the dog noticed.

Then there was the lioness. I had left the dog to search for Jeanie when, coming down an aisle of potted plants in one of the gospel-tents, I was brushed aside by her as she hunted, dragging and urging three cubs in her rush to pounce on the best of what was left.

Then the late-40s couple posing under apple-blossoms for a photo, he in jeans and cowboy hat, she in flowered dress, smiling their love to camera and world. And the young Filipina (we spoke) on a bike with the coolest rear wheel storage pack system I’d ever seen.  One of the gear gen. And the turbaned Singh guy (we didn’t speak since he was busy with phone business while the family’s women harvested the tented fields).

Eventually we loaded the car and left so Peter could (today in the warm sun) help Jeanie with planting.

A Moral to the Stories?

There’s both good and bad news. It’s good (Gospel) news that we live with such amazing diversity of life on this our Mother Earth, and that there is so much attention to it. Yet there’s also a not-so-slow motion Apocalypse that is our Fate — with many species newly extinct, more dying, many more threatened. An Apocalypse that already threatens our species (how could it not?) and will do so increasingly. Yet the Gospel remains true — as I’ve written previously — and with it both hope and a call to action.

A Final Word about Admiration:

My mentor William Lynch, SJ, left an unfinished manuscript which he titled “A Book of Admiration” – a book about the importance of the habit of admiration for us humans, lest we get locked into fears and oppositions which may be necessary but can too easily dominate our lives. His antidote (though he’d stress there are many) is admiration – that we continually counter or balance our fears (however legitimate) with the regular practice of admiration for all the good of our world – not so much for the “big” things (heroes, nations, leaders, IDEAS) we are supposed to admire (though I do admire Pope Francis), but above all for the small and daily things, for folks on the bus or dogs on the plaza, kids in the museum and critters at the zoo, and even the dirt (perhaps beneath layers of concrete) under our feet. Admiration may amount to little more than a momentary “smell-the-flowers” escape.  But it’s not so trivial when it becomes a regular practice in the many different dimensions of our lives.  This too I’ve previously written about.

So it was for me — and for Peter and Jeanie and (I hope) for many others throughout our city — during three ordinary days in May, filled with life, with so much to  admire even with our so many fears.

SHE WHO IS — Mother Earth…Hagia Sophia…Our Mother in Heaven…Mary of Nazareth

I was asked to preach at an ecumenical service (Presbyterian and Catholic) this past Sunday. This post is a revision of my sermon. And it is deliberately posted on “May Day” – a day of worldwide celebration of solidarity with workers, especially among Socialists and Social Democrats; AND the first day of “Mary’s Month,” long celebrated by Catholics worldwide. Should you choose to read further, I suggest you might take time for the reflective pauses enjoyed by the congregation this past Sunday.

I begin today “In the name of the Mother and Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” asking God to bless my words for our common good.

The focus of our service is the environment. My specific focus is the feminine and maternal dimensions, indeed foundations, of our world.

I choose this focus because of Amos’ words from our first reading: “Seek good, not evil, that you may live” (Amos 5: 14).

It is right to focus on the many evils involved in the environmental crisis. Fear and anger are justified, resistance and action are needed. Yet finally it is only the good that will sustain hope, nourish vision, and give courage. “Seek good that you may live.”

Following St. Francis and feminist theologians, I believe that one of the most fundamental ways to understand the great good of our world is to see its reality as feminine and maternal.

I hope by a series of brief evocations, each followed by a pause for reflection, that we might together find ourselves living in that good.

1) Let’s begin with the great image of “Mother Earth.”

Today, in early Spring, that image is especially easy to evoke as nature is reborn around us and we directly experience the reality of the earth as a mother. Yet experience of the earth as our mother has been made far more profound by our knowledge of the processes of evolution. Perhaps especially by the awareness that our own bodies and minds, with their genetic coding, have been birthed by this earth over hundreds of millions of years – and that the stages of our individual lives, from conception till death, are also “dust to dust” – coming from the clay of Mother Earth and returning to Her. It is not only the grass and flowers, but we ourselves who have been birthed by this Earth, sustained by her fields and rivers, and returned to her when we die.

So we pause to imagine and remember ways that earth is truly our Mother, ours together but also in ways unique to each of us.


2) The Hebrew Scriptures as well as contemporary theologians remind us that Holy Wisdom – Hagia Sophia – is at work and play in the creation and renewal of the world.

“For She is,” in the words of Solomon, “a breath of the power of God…. She is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God…. Although She is but one, She can do all things, and while remaining in Herself, She renews all things; in every generation She passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets…. She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and She orders all things well.” (Wisdom 7: 22 – 8: 1)

My colleague at Regis, Professor Chris Pramuk, has written a magnificent study entitled Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton (Liturgical Press, 2009). He followed it with a shorter, more meditative version, At Play in Creation: Merton’s Awakening to the Feminine Divine (Liturgical Press, 2015). Both books revolve around Merton’s late prose-poem “Hagia Sophia” (1962).

Merton begins that poem with a memory of waking early in a hospital bed on “July the second, the Feast of Our Lady’s Visitation. A Feast of Wisdom” – awakened by the soft voice and gentle touch of a nurse whom he now knows had embodied Sophia. Thus he calls her “my Sister, sent to me from the depths of the divine fecundity.” “I am,” he continues, “like all mankind awakening from all the dreams that ever were dreamed in all the nights of the world….It is like the first morning of the world (when Adam at the sweet voice of Wisdom, awoke from nonentity and knew her), and like the Last Morning of the world when all the fragments of Adam will return from death at the voice of Hagia Sophia…. It is like being awakened by Eve. It is like being awakened by the Blessed Virgin. It is like coming forth from primordial nothingness and standing in clarity, in Paradise. In the cool hand of the nurse there is the touch of all life, the touch of Spirit. Thus Wisdom cries out to all who will hear…and she cries out particularly to the little, to the ignorant and the helpless.”

Merton’s entire poem (I’ve cited opening lines) does what I am attempting today – seeking to understand the ways that divinity and all existence are maternal and feminine. He does it beautifully with the detail and development of theological poetry.

As in his opening memory, I suspect that each of us as children, and then as adolescents and adults, has heard Sophia’s voice and felt her touch – from mothers and grandmothers, sisters and cousins and aunts, friends and lovers. While we probably didn’t think of their words and touches as expressions of God’s Holy Wisdom, it was She nonetheless who touched us through them, even as she now touches us – both in spring’s freshness and in the refreshing words and touches we continue to receive and to give.

I do not want to romanticize. Many of us have had difficult times with the women in our lives. Yet the goodness of Sophia’s touch remains fundamental, even amidst difficulty. So we pause to remember the women who have touched our lives, and to imagine how they have mediated Holy Wisdom’s strength and freshness to us.


I ask you now, in honor of those women and following their example, to rise and greet those around you with a word and a touch. (In the Catholic mass we call this “The Kiss of Peace,” though it occurs just before communion.)

3) Hagia Sophia is one immensely important expression or manifestation of what both feminist theology and many in personal faith recognize as SHE WHO IS. That name for God first came to me from Elizabeth Johnson’s already classic study She Who Is (Crossroad, 1992).

The Hebrew acronym YHWH, pronounced “Yahweh,” stands for the great “I AM” of God’s Pure Existence. That is to say, Yahweh means SHE WHO IS. SHE WHO IS the Source of everything else that is. SHE WHO IS pure grace and mercy, SHE WHO holds “the whole wide world in Her hands…. [like] a little bitty baby in Her hands…” (to paraphrase a wonderful African American spiritual).

She is the Great Mother imagined by ancient peoples.

SHE, as I pray adapting Jesus’ words, is “Our Mother in Heaven,” whose name is hallowed, whose kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. SHE gives us our daily bread and forgives as we forgive. For HERS is the kingdom and the power and the glory, now and forever.

So, even if it is not our usual form of belief and prayer, let us pause to evoke and try to imagine the reality of SHE WHO IS, on earth as in heaven.


4) Since this is an ecumenical service, and I am a Catholic long devoted to her – when sleep does not come, I often silently sing the monastic evening chant “Salve Regina” – I now evoke the memory and the reality of Mary of Nazareth, the Theotokos of “Mother of God” proclaimed by our ancient Creeds.

She is the strong young woman who opened herself to God’s coming as her human baby. Her visit led her cousin Elizabeth to call her “Blessed among women.” To which Mary gave the exultant response read today from Luke’s Gospel (1: 46-55) and widely known as the “Magnificat.”

Mary says it is God Who has done great things for her, and raises up all who are lowly, poor and vulnerable, including (as the Psalms remind us) all the vulnerable creatures of land and air and sea.

Mary then announces the prophetic word that God will scatter the proud, cast down the mighty, and send the rich away empty, even as SHE will exalt the lowly.

Later Mary held Jesus’ tortured and crucified body, just as today our Pieta holds all who are poor and suffer injustice, depredation, even crucifixion.

With the other disciples Mary experienced her son’s resurrection, and then, in an upper room at the first Pentecost, she too experienced the Spirit-breathed birth of God’s New Creation.

Today Mary remains, as the terrible fire at Notre Dame has reminded us, one of the most civilizing and humanizing ikons at work through the millennia of Western and much of Eastern civilization, and now too in Africa and Asia. She works today, both as a cultural force and as that great Saint, our heavenly Mother of Mercy, to heal our wounded world. Something celebrated by Catholics and others at pilgrimage cites like Lourdes in France.

So let us again pause to think, even if it is not the normal practice of your church, about this lowly and great woman, mother of our rabbi-Messiah and Queen of Heaven.


Finally, for all the ideas and images, the beliefs and hopes which may have arisen during these few minutes, let us conclude by together saying “Amen” … (“May it always be so”) … and in this season we together say “Alleluia” … (“Praise to Yahweh, to SHE WHO IS”)

The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus

I have been travelling of late and not writing. Yet a friend’s question led me back to my desk and to this undoubtedly too lengthy writing.

On Easter Sunday the NYT printed an interview by columnist Nicholas Kristof with Rev. Prof. Serene Jones, the President of Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. It is the latest in a series of interviews Kristof has done with Christian opinion leaders from across the theological/ecclesiastical spectrum, most notably (for me) with President Jimmy Carter and Newark’s Cardinal James Tobin. Yet both the Easter Sunday publication date and this interview’s title (“Reverend, You Say the Virgin Birth Is ‘a Bizarre Claim’?”) were shocking for me and others.

I urge you to read the relatively short interview before continuing here.

As Kristof noted a few days later: “My Easter column, an interview with Rev. Serene Jones as part of my ongoing series of conversations about faith, was meant to encourage conversation across America’s God Gulf but instead generated an unfortunately toxic response.” He then describes Jones “as a distinguished scholar of Christian history” who as a result of the interview has been “accused by some religious conservatives” who were then counter-attacked by various liberals. He notes Jones’ subsequent Twitter call for tolerance and makes a similar call of his own.

Fr. James Martin, SJ, also posted an irenic disagreement with Jones in America  I agree with the substance of his response though my tone may at times be somewhat less irenic. Indeed, my first response to Jones’ remarks was both a sense of déjà vu and of offense at her breathless ease about serious topics, perhaps especially her breezy dismissal of the Virgin Birth and bodily Resurrection of Jesus.

Yet I am fairly certain that many of my friends and many “ordinary” Christians share Prof. Jones’ doubts, if not her certainties. So I write here for such folks..

Let me, as comic overture, begin with some name-play:  Kristof, who admires Jesus’ teaching but is openly skeptical of miraculous claims, suggests thereby that “Kristof” no longer refers to “Christ” even though Nicholas still admires Jesus. And, as I’ve already suggested, Rev. Jones’ remarks strike me as hardly “serene.”

More seriously, I want to emphasize that my response here is not only to Professor Jones, but to the tradition of “liberal Protestant theology” out of which she speaks. Thus the déjà vu aspect of my response. As a theological friend recently wrote me, “Jones sounds like [many professors] I’ve met over the years” who teach at prestigious Protestant seminaries from the East Coast to the Bay Area. I hasten to add, as would my friend, that the tone which offended should not be attributed to those liberal professors and is probably not typical of Jones on most occasions.

Liberal Protestant theology (since the Enlightenment) has largely been, as I see it, less an attempt to defend traditional Christian claims than to reinterpret them in terms acceptable to secular philosophy. Some Catholic conservatives probably think the same is true of “modern” Catholic theology before and since Vatican II. Yet in both tone and substance there is a world of difference between that Catholic effort to take seriously the claims of modern science and philosophy – and similar efforts by many Reformed theologians – and the broader thrust (some would say capitulation) of liberal protestant theology. Karl Barth’s magistral study, Protestant Theology in the 19th Century (1952), remains for me the best in-depth critical study of the origins of the liberal effort.

So what do I think about these traditional beliefs and the liberal dismissal of them?
As I’ve suggested, I distinguish between two kinds of efforts (among both theologians and “ordinary” folks) to respond to scientific discoveries and philosophical critiques of traditional Christian claims. The “liberal” approach strikes me as overly responsive to modern/secular objections, even though what it is trying to do is much needed. The other approach – found in most contemporary Catholic and much Reformed theology (and among Jews and Muslims seeking to re-think their faiths) — is more careful, what I like to think of as a “progressive conservatism” (to borrow the serious name of an earlier Canadian political party). It is critically open to the truth of science and the importance of much modern thought (about evolution, for instance, and human reproduction, or about liberty and women’s rights) without capitulating to the scientism and secularism within which such truths are often expressed. For such secular “isms” are as absolute, uncritical, and wrong-headed in their claims as are Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) fundamentalists in theirs.

So yes, I believe in the “bodily” resurrection of Jesus. I also acknowledge the clear differences between New Testament accounts written long after the fact. With the consensus of most contemporary Catholic and many Reformed theologians, and the best of classical theology, I think that those differences clearly indicate that the resurrection involves transformation into a new form of existence. That’s the reason for my quotation marks around “bodily.” Resurrection, according to this consensus, is not resuscitation. Jesus really died, just as we today experience death. Yet he then returned for a brief time to his disciples in some sort of spirit-body (my term) – clearly visible, at times touchable, able to speak and eat, and thus somehow in a human body, yet no longer bound as our bodies are by time and place. This I believe, even as, with most believers, I struggle to understand it.

Professor Jones, along with liberal Protestant thought as I understand it and with some Catholic thinkers, believes that the Resurrection is best understood as a “resurrection” of trust in Jesus’ message among his disciples, and thus as the gradual resurgence and spread of the spirit of love that had first reached a prophetic fullness in Jesus’ life and teaching. Jones’ articulation of this understanding of Jesus’ Resurrection strikes me as a fair presentation of contemporary liberal theology.

Thus I find myself agreeing with the point of one of Kristof’s questions: “Isn’t a Christianity without a physical resurrection less powerful and awesome? When the message is about love, that’s less religion, more philosophy.” And, I would add, a particularly secular form of philosophical humanism.

As to the Virgin Birth – traditionally understood as Jesus’ conception in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit and without sexual intercourse – I first of all agree that other miraculous conceptions are reported in Hebrew tradition – as in the elderly Sara’s conception of Isaac — and are also found in other ancient religions and mythologies — such as the Buddhist story of Gautama Siddhartha’s supernatural conception in his mother’s womb.

More significantly, I do share liberal questions about whether such claims are literally/physically true. I simply don’t know and, more important, I don’t think we can know.  Thus I find liberal claims which at least imply clear knowledge about such things curious at best.

So I find Jones’ dismissal (“I find the virgin birth a bizarre claim”) not only ungrounded but offensive. Why “bizarre”? Why not “poetic” or “imaginative,” or “the way ancient thought announced world-shaking births,” or even “reverently, if mistakenly, believed by earlier Christians and many Christians today.”

It is, moreover, not just the tone but also the substance of her dismissal that seems quite wrong-headed. She asserts that the Virgin Birth “has nothing to do with Jesus’ message.” Really? Wow! Why not at least admit that it’s the way that Mathew and Luke, from within their cultures, announced the world-shaking birth of the Messiah.  Thus one way they prepared their readers to appreciate their subsequent accounts of Jesus message? Instead, to repeat, we get a dogmatic assertion that the Virgin Birth has “nothing to do with Jesus message.”

Then we read Jones’ explanation for her dismissal: “The virgin birth only becomes important if you have a theology in which sexuality is considered sinful.” Yet it is at least interesting to note that that the Hebrew mind and its Jewish successor have never considered sexuality sinful. They, unlike Jones it seems, have long been able to distinguish between the great good of sexuality and the hard reality of sexual sin, of abuse and misuse. Christianity, too, for all its’ mixed and messy history about sex, has also been able to make that distinction even though some important theologians and too much popular preaching failed to do so.

And finally Jones’ coup de grace, her claim that belief in the Virgin Birth “promotes this notion that the pure, untouched female body is the best body, and that idea has led to centuries of oppressing women.” That remark may touch the hearts of some soi-disant “feminists.” but there are fortunately many other feminisms.  For it does not even begin to explain the millennial oppression of women which has characterized most cultures and those religions which give no particular importance to virgin births. Nor does it acknowledge the legitimate importance that mothers, every bit as much as fathers, have long placed on protecting the bodies of young daughters.

I need to add my suspicion that most liberals who reject belief in a literal Virgin Birth may not share Jones’ “feminist” grounds for their rejection. Indeed, and here I am clearly speculating in a way that may be offensive to some, Jones seems to me to be expressing a deep kind of pain suffered by some (many?) women. And, as with pain-filled claims by racial and ethnic minorities, and even by white nationalists, the pain needs to be heard and taken seriously. But such respect does not mean agreement.

I also find Jones’ remarks about belief in an afterlife objectionable if less important. Among the adult Christians I know and read, doing good during this life is necessary in itself and not a childish calculation for gaining heavenly rewards. This is true even for those of us who do share the traditions’ hope for such rewards.

For what it’s worth, I believe in “the resurrection and the life” because I believe in Jesus’ Resurrection which Paul describes as “the first born among many” (Rom. 8:29). But I don’t try to imagine the afterlife. I find most images – from roads paved with gold or St. Bridget’s lake of beer to Aquinas and Dante’s more sophisticated image of eternal joy in the face of utter beauty – somewhat wonder-full. Yet in the end I share Updike’s inability to imagine. As in his short story (I forget the title, but hope I remember it correctly) satirizing a theological student working as a summer lifeguard and trying to imagine how the crowds at a beach and all the billions who’ve ever lived could be crowded into some vast heavenly “space.” Yet while I don’t take images of heaven too seriously, I do (again) believe in the reality of heaven because of Jesus’ Resurrection. I believe, in other words, in the transformed rebirth promised by Christian tradition — though I happen to disagree with Paul about the heavenly possibility of sex in the next life.

I could go on. Anyone who has read this far will get (and may well disagree with) the substance of my response to this undoubtedly serious professor and the liberal tradition I take her to represent.

Let me end on a hopefully irenic note. Jones closes her interview with a series of comments about Christianity (and other religions) being at “something of a turning point” where traditional beliefs and structures are failing and new forms are emerging – as happened previously at the Reformation and earlier during the times when Jesus lived. I definitely agree that we are living within a period of immense cultural and religious transition.

Most liberal and secular thinking about this transition recognizes its very real problems and challenges, but (to repeat) as I see it is moving in the wrong direction with a “naively liberal” response.  I think much the same about “naively conservative” fundamentalist responses to these same challenges. I have written to urge a more mediating or “progressive conservative” response — even though I know that some will find this little more than intellectual evasion, weaseling out of hard choices.

By the way, the best book I’ve read on the topic of this posting is Raymond Brown’s The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (1972), though I freely admit to not having kept up with more recent biblical scholarship. Brown (1928-98) was a Catholic priest widely considered the best New Testament scholar of his generation. Often under suspicion from a conservative Catholic hierarchy, he was honored with a chaired professorship at Union Theological Seminary where he taught from 1971 to 1990 – well before Professor Jones’ presidency.