At the United Nations: A Bit of History 

21 September 2017

I remember the event. I had just arrived in Belgium to begin my studies at the Catholic University of Louvain. Pope Paul VI had arrived in New York, to address the United Nations. It was Monday, October 4, 1965. Gathered with my US classmates at The American College of Louvain, we watched the pope, speaking in French, on a small black and white TV with an occasionally flickering screen, because the rabbit ears were not working that well. Here, in English translation, are some excerpts from that historic address, because I believe they truly have contemporary significance:

Pope Paul VI at the United Nations

As I begin to speak to this audience that is unique in the whole world, I must first of all express my profound thanks to Mr. Thant, your Secretary General, who was kind enough to invite me to pay a visit to the United Nations on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of this world institution for peace and collaboration between the nations of the whole world…. This gathering, as you are all aware, has a twofold nature: it is marked at one and the same time by simplicity and by greatness. By simplicity because the one who is speaking to you is a man like yourselves. He is your brother, and even one of the least among you who represent sovereign States, since he possesses – if you choose to consider it from this point of view – only a tiny and practically symbolic temporal sovereignty: the minimum needed in order to be free to exercise his spiritual mission and to assure those who deal with him that he is independent of any sovereignty of this world….   

Permit me to say that I have a message, and a happy one, to hand over to each one of you My message is meant to be first of all a solemn moral ratification of this lofty institution, and it comes from my experience of history. It is as an “expert on humanity” that I bring this organization the support and approval of my recent predecessors, that of the Catholic hierarchy, and my own, convinced as I am that this organization represents the obligatory path of modern civilization and world peace. 

In saying this, I am aware that I am speaking for the dead as well as for the living: for the dead who have fallen in the terrible wars of the past, dreaming of world peace and harmony; for the living who have survived the wars and who in their hearts condemn in advance those who would try to have them repeated; for other living people, as well: today’s younger generation who are moving ahead trustfully with every right to expect a better humankind.  

I also want to speak for the poor, the disinherited, the unfortunate, those who long for justice, a dignified life, liberty, prosperity and progress. People turn to the United Nations as if it were their last hope for peace and harmony.  

I presume to bring here their tribute of honor and of hope along with my own. That is why this moment is a great one for you too. I know that you are fully aware of this. So, listen now to the rest of my message, which is directed completely towards the future.  

This edifice that you have built must never again fall into ruins: it must be improved upon and adapted to the demands which the history of the world will make upon it. You mark a stage in the development of humankind. Henceforth, it is impossible to go back; you must go forward. 

You offer the many states  which can no longer ignore each other a form of coexistence that is extremely simple and fruitful. First of all, you recognize them and distinguish them from each other. Now you certainly do not confer existence on states, but you do qualify each nation as worthy of being seated in the orderly assembly of peoples. You confer recognition of lofty moral and juridical value upon each sovereign national community and you guarantee it an honorable international citizenship. It is in itself a great service to the cause of humanity to define clearly and honor the nations that are the subjects of the world community and to set them up in a juridical position which wins them the recognition and respect of all, and which can serve as the basis for an orderly and stable system of international life.  

You sanction the great principle that relationships between nations must be regulated by reason, justice, law and negotiation, and not by force, violence, war, nor indeed by fear and deceit…. 

Here my message reaches its culmination…. These are the words you are looking for me to say and the words I cannot utter without feeling aware of their seriousness and solemnity: never again one against the other, never, never again! Was not this the very end for which the United Nations came into existence: to be against war and for peace? Listen to the clear words of a great man who is no longer with us, John Kennedy, who proclaimed four years ago: Humans must put an end to war, or war will put an end to humanity. There is no need for a long talk to proclaim the main purpose of your institution. It is enough to recall that the blood of millions, countless unheard-of sufferings, useless massacres and frightening ruins have sanctioned the agreement that unites you with an oath that ought to change the future history of the world: never again war, never again war! It is peace, peace, that must guide the destiny of the nations of all humankind! 

Selective Christianity

15 September 2017

Selective Christianity is seductively attractive because it offers simple answers for complex questions, comforts the anxious without dealing with their anxieties, and equates fidelity to Christ with unquestioned obedience to doctrinaire spokespersons.  

Selective Christianity is a kind of pick-and-choose religion that makes people feel good by looking at life with a kind of self-stroking barrel vision. In the old days it was called heresy. The word “heresy” comes from the Greek word hairetikos meaning “choice.” Heresies are always a selective choice. They take one part of a reality and proclaim it as the whole thing. The old Christological heresies, for example, either denied Christ’s divinity (as in Arianism and Nestorianism) or denied his humanity (as in Docetism and Marcionism). The orthodox Christian understanding of course is that Jesus Christ is human and divine.  And believers in every age ponder how to best understand and express this reality…

These days I prefer the term “selective Christianity.” People select what they like to hear and what makes them feel good and important. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister whom the Nazis executed by hanging on 9 April 1945, would have called it “cheap grace.”  

Selective Christianity is powerful reality in contemporary America and found among Catholics as well as Protestants….and among Republicans as well as Democrats. I guess it is not surprising that, in a time of great socio-cultural polarization, we see increased Christian polarization and unhealthy distortion and disturbances in contemporary Christianity. I resonate strongly with the recent observation of the “progressive evangelical” David Gushee, who is Director of the Center for Faith and Public Life at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia: 

“American Christians are as hopelessly divided as the rest of American culture, these conflicts are rooted in fundamentally different perspectives on the massive social changes that have taken place in our country since the 1960s, and there is little evidence that the fight will end anytime soon. This capitulation to America’s “red” and “blue,” and the vicious conflict between them, marks a profound failure of American Christianity, reflecting weaknesses in our identity and theology that require serious reflection.” 

Evangelist Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, is a case in point and high on my list of unhealthy selective Christians. He distorts the Gospel by equating far-right US politics with God’s will for America. Graham sees a “satanic liberal conspiracy” that is working against President Trump. In an interview with Charisma magazine at the end of August, Graham junior proclaimed: “Trump has the might of God behind him and liberals will be hit by thunderbolts if they try to remove him.” In sync with Franklin, televangelist Paula White, one of President Trump’s key spiritual advisers, has now declared that opposition to the president is opposition to God. This is not just selective Christianity. It is perverted Christianity.  

While Franklin warns of heavenly thunderbolts, his sister, Anne Graham Lotz, warns that God is punishing and speaking to America through record-breaking fires in the northwest, hurricanes in Texas and Florida, and even the earthquake in Mexico. According to Anne, God is punishing the United States for permissive homosexuality and transgender “silliness.” Earlier in August she had warned that the solar eclipse of August 21st was God’s early warning sign to Americans about impending disaster and destruction. 

Minister Kevin Swanson, a Christian broadcaster from Colorado, said Houston had sinned by having a “very, very aggressively pro-homosexual mayor.” He told his radio audience “Jesus sends the message home, unless Americans repent, unless Houston repents, unless New Orleans repents, they will all likewise perish.” His comments came just a few days after Christian radio personality Rick Wiles linked Houston’s progressive sexual attitudes with the storm. “Here’s a city that has boasted of its LGBT devotion, its affinity for the sexual perversion movement in America,” he said, and then he added: “They’re underwater.” 

Actually the idea of a punishing and vengeful God is nothing new in America. The Puritans brought it with them in the eighteenth century. Jonathan Edwards’ 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” simply reaffirmed it. Can a vengeful God however be reconciled with the life and teaching of Jesus, who constantly reaffirmed God as “abba” his loving father? A vindictive and vengeful God, sending destructive storms, is a selective Christian aberration.  

From a vindictive, hard-nosed, and angry god one moves easily to vindictive, hard-nosed, and angry people. People perceived as enemies of the “faithful” become God’s enemies and should be irradiated. We saw it a month ago in Charlottesville, but we see it in our daily news as well. The list of enemies is long: blacks, gays, “liberals,” “bad hombre” Mexicans, foreigners in general, Jews, Muslims, “intellectuals,” “losers” and other “lazy bums”…..The vindictive thrive on a warped version of Christianity. They create division and destruction in the family of God. Their in-group love thrives on out-group hatred. Sin becomes virtue. When this happens, we are approaching what happened in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.  

What to do? 

All — which includes you and me of course — who strongly profess to be Christian have to examine their consciences about their beliefs and actions. To what degree are they consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth? We also need to be critical and dialogical bridge-builders: to enter into serious head-the-head, eye-to-eye, and heart-to-hear dialogue with other Christians about our understanding of the Gospel and how it challenges us to speak and behave in contemporary society. 

Some observations for reflection and dialogue: 

(1) Caesaropapism: This is an exaggerated political understanding which sees the head of state as the key religious leader: God’s spokesperson. Variations on the theme are that the United States is (or should be) a Christian theocracy, or even a “white Christian America.” Perhaps the “America first” doctrine is pernicious and anti-Christian because it really asks Americans to replace worship of God with worship of the nation?

(2) A conflictual relationship between science and faith: This is a false conflict actually, because both science and faith pursue ultimate truth. Red flags begin to wave however when religious leaders begin to warn about the dangers of asking questions about God, Reality, and human nature. Our theological and ethical understandings do change and evolve – along with our understanding of what it means that be a human person with dignity and self-worth, regardless of race or gender.

(3) A conflict between a literal and an historical-critical understanding of Sacred Scripture: One of my favorite biblical scholars, John Dominic Crossan, summed it up this way: “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”

(4) Being pro-life: Being “pro-life” means being opposed to abortion but much more. Doesn’t being “pro-life” demand a consistent-ethic-of-life morality? For years I have been amazed by those once active anti-abortion pro-life people who seem to ignore human life once the fetus becomes a baby, a child dying of hunger, an impoverished person, the poor, the unemployed, even the criminal awaiting execution on death row. I agree wth Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich that being pro-life also means being pro-gun-control. Taking effect yesterday, Cardinal Cupich has issued a decree banning guns in all parishes, schools and other facilities across the Archdiocese of Chicago. Anyone found with a gun on archdiocesan property will be asked to remove it from the premises and will not be allowed to return until it’s gone. Clergy and Catholic institution staff members will also face disciplinary action if they fail to comply with Cupich’s directive.

(5) Taking the Incarnation seriously in today’s world: The Incarnation means that God is with us in our humanity — everyone’s humanity: black, white, every culture, every religion, every race and nationality. It is God’s amazing grace. Once we really begin to appreciate what this means and what it asks of us, we can all chant the lyrics of the old song: “I once was lost but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.” 

Hurricanes and Forest Fires

9 September 2017

Like so many people, my attention and my concern this week end goes out to all those people affected – and soon to be affected – by hurricanes and continuing forest fires. What do we say and do, when bad things happen?
Right now I am in more of a contemplative than a writing mood. I too have family and friends affected by this week end’s developments.

In 1981 the prominent American rabbi, Harold S. Kushner, published a book titled “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” The book deals with questions about human suffering, God, omnipotence, and a contemporary theology. Perhaps next week I will explore a bit more of his thinking; but today I would like share a couple quotations that have helped me and kept me going over the years: 

God does not cause our misfortunes. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal. living in a world of inflexible natural laws.  

The painful things that happen to us are not punishments for our misbehavior, nor are they in any way part of some grand design on God’s part. Because the tragedy is not God’s will, we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes….. Given the unfairness that strikes so many people in life, I would rather believe in a God of limited power and unlimited love and justice, rather than the other way around.

One of the basic needs of every human being is the need to be loved, to have our wishes and feelings taken seriously, to be validated as people who matter.

Global Change: More Thoughts

Labor Day Week End – 3 September 2017

A few readers have asked me to briefly expand on my “Silk Road” and global change thoughts from last week. You can call today’s essay something for post Labor Day reflection……I am an historical theologian, not a political scientist. Nevertheless, I do try to stay alert to the ever changing world around us, because that is our Reality — the only place where we encounter God, the Spirit of Christ, and our ongoing Christian challenge. 

A New Silk Road?

What I found fascinating in Peter Frankopan’s book was: (1) his survey of past civilizations and the trade routes that brought them to power, and (2) his projections about a new global trade route and the contemporary shift in economic and political power from the West to the East.

Asian and other non-European countries are indeed ascending to central places in the global order and are refashioning its structure. A key development here is China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR). It is unprecedented in its size and scope. China’s OBOR project promises investments of around $1 trillion, covering countries that account for 60 percent of the world’s population and one-third of global GDP. This dramatic change occurs at a time when Western global leadership is stymied by ineffective political and international leadership on both sides of the Atlantic.

OBOR, today, increases Beijing’s influence in states all along major trade routes, from East Asia, through the Indian Ocean and Central Asia, then the Middle East and on to Africa and Europe. It means, indeed, a galactic shift for international trade and global political influence.

Beijing is calling this 21st century initiative “Silk Road.” The project’s geography brings up thoughts of a grandiose past when European powers were not dominant and the New World was yet to be colonized. The Silk Road imagery portrays an interlinked Eurasian landmass that, frankly, does not include the United States.

My observations are not anti-American but realistic. We need to reflect about who we are and where we are going as we look deeper into the significance of this major global shift. How do we live on this globe in peaceful collaboration with differing understandings of nationalism and strong political ideologies? How do we promote and support human identity and human rights? How do we collaborate in safeguarding the environment as we confront increasingly dramatic and destructive climate change?

As our world changes, there are urgent ethical issues that we cannot ignore. There are major religious trends, as well, that cannot be ignored.

Five religions trends projected by the Pew Research Center pin point for me major global religious change and influence.

(1) Muslims today are the world’s fastest growing religious group because they have high fertility rates and the world’s youngest population.

(2) The share of the world’s population that is Christian is expected to remain steady (at about 31%), but the regional distribution of Christians is forecast to change significantly: 38% living in Subsaharan Africa by 2050, an increase from the 24% who lived there in 2010. The percentage of the world’s Christians living in Europe – which fell from 66% in 1910 to 26% in 2010 – will continue to decline, to roughly 16% in 2050.

(3) In the United States, Christians will decline from more than three-quarters of the population in 2010 to two-thirds in 2050, with corresponding rises of religious “nones” as well as Muslims, Hindus and others. At mid-century, Judaism will no longer be the largest non-Christian religion in the US. Muslims are projected to be more numerous than people who identify as religiously Jewish.

(4) Indonesia is currently home to the world’s largest Muslim population, but that is expected to change. By 2050, the Pew Center projects India to be the country with the largest number of Muslims – more than 310 million – even though Hindus will continue to make up a solid majority of India’s population (77%), while Muslims remain a minority (18%). Indonesia will have the third-largest number of Muslims, with Pakistan ranking second.

(5) The farther into the future we look, the more uncertainty exists, which is why the Pew projections stop at 2050. But if they are extended into the second half of this century, the projections forecast Muslims and Christians to be roughly equal in number around 2070, with Muslims the slightly larger group after that year.


Who Am I? Where Am I Going? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?

25 August 2017

I suggest that most of our contemporary issues, concerns, and problems — involving religion, gender, race, patriotism, and politics — focus on personal and group identity in a changing world. The great constant of course is change, and our changing world is changing ever more rapidly. 

My entire life I have been an “American” a citizen of the USA. My paternal ancestors arrived in Pennsylvania in 1682. I am proud of that. My American identity, however, has changed and evolved over the years, just as the world identity of the United States has changed over the years…. My entire life I have been a Christian, of the Roman Catholic variety. My Catholic identity over more than seventy years has changed tremendously. Yes I am a critical Catholic but I still identify with the Roman Catholic tradition, as that tradition continues to change and evolve. (And I try to give it a little push from time to time.)  

Perhaps the real constant in my life is the realization that I am on a life journey, along a road that sustains me and keeps me going with occasional wonderful surprises; but there are bumps and unhappy twists in the road as well. Change. A fact of life. 

Yesterday I finished reading a fascinating book about our changing world: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan. While one could perhaps question a couple interpretations here and there, the historic panorama that Frankopan depicts is magnificent and provocative in every good way.  Peter Frankopan is a senior researcher in Oxford and director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research.  

While for many of us the traditional historic view has been that Western civilization descended from the Romans, who were in turn heirs to the Greeks, who, in some historic accounts, were heirs to the Egyptians, Peter Frankopan argues that the Persian Empire was the center point for the rise of humanity. A fascinating perspective, which he presents very persuasively.  He begins his 636 paged analysis in Mesopotamia in the sixth century BCE. He then guides the reader through cycles of human creation, destruction, and re-creation right up to our contemporary twenty-first century global transformations. The element that continually stared out at me was how, over millennia, people have turned other people into international slave-trade commodities. Packaging people for the big sale. Or slaughtering them when they were of no practical use. 

Frankopan points to periods of wisdom, insight, and discovery. Unfortunately — and far too often — to periods as well of savage brutality executed in the name of God, country, and the world’s great religions. Christians, by the way, have not always been paragons of virtue. 

In the book’s final chapter, titled “The New Silk Road,” we find Frankopan’s predictions for tomorrow:  “The age of the West is at a crossroads if not at an end….The world is changing around us….networks and connections are quietly becoming knitted together across the spine of Asia; or rather they are being restored. The Silk Roads are rising again.” The world’s center of gravity is shifting East and away from Europe and the United States. Back to the East with all the economic, political, and religious implications arising from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, etc.; and China of course.  I am not fearful but solidly realistic. They may have some contemporary importance; but today’s really big issues are far greater than Trump tweets or tantrums in the White House. Another galactic shift is well underway. 

So where does one find identity and security in our tremendously changing global environment? Probably where we always did: in a lived sense of personal dignity and worth reaffirmed by those whom we love and who love us. I offer no pious or romantic platitudes. We need other people to be a real person …. and they need us.

We are all time travelers, but occasionally we forget THAT part of our reality. In a delightful discussion with a group of university students last week, all of a sudden it hit me. My experiences and dreams in the 1950s and 1960s helped to shape my identity. In fact, however, the 1950s and 1960s, today, make about as much sense to these bright young women and men as the stories of the ancient Greeks and their search for the Golden Fleece. We either live in the present or we die in the past. God bless my students. May they live long with critical reflection, insight, and inner contentment. 

Change is a fact of human life. The challenge is clear. If we are incapable of respecting and loving those around us here today, we are doomed to end our lives in desperation and violent destruction. This is our contemporary truth message (with nothing “alt” about it). It rings true down the street, across the country, and around the globe. 

Our perspectives do change over time, if we are alert time travelers. My theological understanding of reality, for instance, has changed tremendously. Terms like “supernatural” and “metaphysical” are no longer part of my vocabulary. Reality is a unified whole, with many dimensions. Space, time, and spiritual dimensions …and probably many more! And far more exciting than a magnificent solar eclipse.  

God is not “up there” or “out there.” God, “divinity,” “the sacred,” “the holy” is as close to us as the air in our lungs and the poundings in our hearts. God-with-us is the greatest source of security for time travelers. We need to listen, think, and explore a bit more. We are not alone. 

A final reflection about living in sometimes turbulent times, whether in Charlottesville, Barcelona, or the shopping mall across town: Time travelers will have a more contented and a more optimistic journey when they keep their eyes open, their minds receptive and alert, and – like people packing suitcases for a big journey – when they only only carry with them the values and attitudes that sustain and support human life. The rest should be discarded as unneeded and unhealthy baggage. 

Safe travels. 

From “Knownothings” to “Knowsomethings”

August 18, 2017

This week end, we are flooded with post Charlottesville commentary. I will keep my own reflection brief and to the point.

It is much easier to remove old statues and Confederate monuments than it is to remove blindness, barrel vision, and just plain ignorance about history and current realities.  

Keeping in mind the warning of Jesus of Nazareth in Matthew 7:5 that we need to take the planks out of our own eyes and then remove the specks from our brother’s or sister’s eyes, we do need to help the “knownothings” become “knowsomethings.” It is our Christian duty. 

By the “knownothings,” I mean contemporary ignorant people; although many of them do of course resonate with the “Know Nothing Party” during the late 1840s and the early 1850s. (Nineteenth century Know Nothing Party members strongly opposed immigrants and especially Roman Catholics.) 

As I reflect on today’s “knownothings,” I think about people who ignore or don’t react to what’s happening around them. The words of the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) come immediately to mind. Niemöllers words are engraved on a monument in the recently desecrated (for the second time this summer) New England Holocaust Memorial In Boston, Massachusetts. 

          First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

          Because I was not a Socialist.

          Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

          Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

          Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

          Because I was not a Jew.

          Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

My most serious concern about contemporary “knownothings,” however, is their prominently proclaimed ignorance about Christianity. They mourn the loss of “white Christian America.” We should mourn their distortion of Christian belief. Charlottesville is a Christian wake-up call. 

White supremacists are not authentic Christians. There is nothing Christian about racism. As Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, tweeted:“When it comes to racism, there is only one side: to stand against it.”

A final thought about foreigners, racism, and Jesus of Nazareth: Our familiar images of Jesus come from the Byzantine era, from the 4th Century onwards. Contemporary scholars agree that the historical Jesus was probably dark-skinned. Probably had shorter hair than traditionally depicted and a well trimmed beard. He spoke a “foreign” Middle Eastern language: Aramaic. And of course, Jesus was a Jew.  

Jesus, who descended from Judah, was a man of his own time and place. He did not resemble a white Anglo-Saxon American. Most importantly, the parable of the Good Samaritan, told by Jesus in Luke 10:25–37, has particular importance for all of us in these post Charlottesville days. 
— Jack

The American College of Louvain

August 5, 2017

Dear Another Voice Friends, 

Starting Sunday morning, August 6th, and continuing until August 13th I am coordinating an alumni reunion and theological conference for over fifty alumni and friends from my alma mater in Louvain (Leuven) Belgium. I will return to Another Voice on the week end of August 19/20. 

I am a proud non-ordained alumnus of The American College of Louvain and the Catholic University of Leuven. They truly opened my eyes and changed my life in very good ways. My father, who passed away in 1996, often said over the years “Jack was never the same after Louvain!” He was correct of course….

The American College of Louvain was founded in Leuven (then internationally known as “Louvain”) Belgium on March 19th 1857, under the leadership of Bishop Martin J. Spalding, Bishop of Louisville, Kentucky and Bishop Peter Paul Lefevere, Bishop of Detroit. Up until June 2011, when the U.S. bishops closed it as a seminary, The American College had operated under the auspices of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as one of two U.S. seminaries in Europe: The American College of Louvain and the younger Pontifical North American College in Rome. Today in its 160th year, The American College, owned and operated by the Catholic University of Leuven, is a wonderfully renovated residence for more than a hundred men and women pursuing university studies in a variety of disciplines. It is a delightfully energetic place and I am so very proud to say I am an alumnus. 

A bit of historical background: At the mid-point of the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church in North America was facing two major needs: finding priests to minister to a rapidly growing Catholic immigrant population, coming to its shores from Europe, and the formation of U.S. priests to minister in North America. The bishops of the United States looked, in large part, to Europe for their priests, since they had few seminaries of their own and very few native-born priests. The American College in Leuven was established by the bishops of the United States, therefore, with the dual purpose of training young European men to serve as missionary priests in North America and to train and educate young American seminarians in the philosophical and theological traditions of Louvain. 

Louvain has long been well known for its stress on the “historical-critical method” in theology. Historical criticism, also known as the historical-critical method or higher criticism, investigates the origins and meanings of ancient texts in order to understand what a text meant back then and what it means today. It applies to texts from the Bible but also doctrinal statements over the centuries, because the meanings of words, modes of thought, and literary styles change and evolve over the years. 

At the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Louvain theologians, working with Belgian bishops like Cardinal Suenens, had a major role in the drafting of what would become ground-breaking documents like Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes, reflecting a modern and developmental self-understanding for the Roman Catholic Church. 

Today The American College’s alumni minister in parishes, some are diocesan bishops, and many hold professorships at colleges and universities across the United States and around the world. Their areas of academic expertise are what they specialized in at Louvain: historical theology, moral theology, biblical theology, and church law. My own area is historical theology. 

As an older alumnus of The American College (Class of 1969) and a former professor and member of the faculty, I share, with our alumni, an immense sense of gratitude and appreciation for the professors, staff members, and students who have maintained and passed on “the spirit of Louvain.”

In ways and forms still evolving, I understand and greatly appreciate the words of Father David Russell, a student from Louisville, Kentucky — and the very first American student at the College.  

Shortly after his arrival in 1858, David wrote enthusiastically about The American College to his bishop: “The zeal of its supporters is invincible.” 
Kind regards, Jack


The Prophetic Call

Sunday —  July 30, 2017

In every age, religious people and religious institutions need prophets. A prophet is not primarily someone who predicts what will happen tomorrow, but a courageous observer who says what’s going wrong today. 

In our contemporary world, we certainly need our prophets: in traditional religion and in the American civil religion I touched on last week….

The prophet observes (phase one) what is really going on in society, with a kind of clear and objective vision: avoiding the fantasies and falsifications of narrow-vision special interest people and groups: even if they have high positions in the cathedral across town or the presidential house on Pennsylvania Avenue.

In phase two, the prophet moves into critical thinking: asking whether or not religious believers and spokespersons are truly living according to the faith experience that should be the source and sustainer of the particular religious tradition. A big caveat here of course is that it is much easier to critique someone else’s religious behavior than one’s own. I can, for instance, easily critique the immoral behavior of Islamic terrorists and clearly point out how they are behaving contrary to what is taught in the Quran. 

Phase two requires clear thinking based on correct information. It doesn’t happen over night and certainly not in a fit of emotional frenzy or frustration (like the actions of the peeved gun-owner, who takes the law into his or her own hands and shoots to kill).

The problem with phase two is that one can become highly skilled at passing judgment without ever accomplishing anything. It is so easy to be a critic and to get abundant “likes” on Facebook, or to chuckle and applaud the latest Borowitz Report. But then?

Phase three takes conviction and stamina, what we call real guts. Without phase three however our talk (to paraphrase William Shakespeare) can easily become a lot of sound and furry but signify nothing.

In phase three, people take action. In many ways people today need to take action.

When Christian religious leaders, for instance, create qualitative classes of people, they are acting on their own narrow prejudices not the Gospel of Christ. The Roman Catholic bishop of Springfield, Illinois has instructed priests in his diocese to deny communion, the last rites, and funerals to people in same-sex marriages; nor can they be buried in a Catholic cemetery. If one is going the make qualitative classes of Catholics and sanction them, even after death, I would ask the bishop what about all those “good Catholics” who are wife-beaters, child-molesters, cruel employers, political monsters, and financial crooks? What about ecclesiastical bureaucrats who bamboozle people with pious nonsense?

I don’t care to get into a political debate right now, but one can ask how genuinely American a political leader is who rejects the U.S. foundational teachings of the Declaration of Independence that all people are created equal. I question as well the Christianity of a political leader who promotes and wallows in narcissism, greed, pride, wrath, and lust as though they were the primary Christian virtues.

Healthy Christianity promotes and strengthens a basic sense of inter-personal relatedness, trust, and responsibility. Healthy Christianity promotes and honors human dignity. It empowers people without overpowering them. It promotes charity — not fear — as the key Christian virtue. All actions that denigrate people because of their religious, ethnic or racial origins, gender, and sexual orientation are not just humanly demeaning. They are contrary to the Gospel of Christ.

Observe, judge, and ACT: these are the keys to effective prophetic behavior. Can we not become more prophetic religious people? How can we encourage people to move from critical speaking to effective and constructive action? Can we not turn our churches into prophetic training centers? Who are today’s prophets? How can we promote and sustain them? As we read in Corinthians (1 Cor. 14:29) “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.”

….And a very final thought. This from Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:
“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

Kind regards — Jack

American Civil Religion

21 July 2017

The painting above is by John James Barralet, an Irish artist who spent the final years of his career in the United States. The painting is often called the “Apotheosis of George Washington,” i.e. Washington’s divinization. The first version of the painting appeared in 1802, three years after Washington’s death. It shows President Washington, as America’s first civil religion saint, being taken up into heaven by an angel and Father Time. Another “Apotheosis of Washington,” painted right after the Civil War, by Constantino Brumidi in 1865, is found in the eye of the US Capitol Rotunda. It depicts President Washington rising to the heavens in glory, flanked by female figures representing Liberty and Victory.

Some have argued, and still do, that Christianity is the national American faith. Others that Christianity, the Deism of the founding fathers, and other religious traditions in the United States have long inspired Americans in a rather generalized religion of the American Way of Life.  

My observation this week is that there is indeed an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America, alongside of and clearly differentiated from the established religious traditions. The words and acts of the founding fathers and our first few presidents shaped the form and tone of American civil religion as it has been maintained ever since.  

American civil religion is a deeply felt and strongly patriotic universal religion of the nation. It does not compete with established religions but exists alongside them and is supported by them. It is all part of the American way of religion. People growing up outside the United States, like my European friends, cannot understand it, because they have had very different experiences of religion. I am not being arrogant, but there is something unique about the American experience. 

Originating in the work of Jean Jacques Rousseau, with echoes in Alexis de Tocqueville, the civil religion concept made its first major impact on the social scientific study of religion in America with the publication of an essay titled “Civil Religion in America,” written in 1967 by sociologist of religion Robert Bellah (1927-2013). “While some have argued that Christianity is the national faith,” Bellah observed,” few have realized that there actually exists alongside the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.” (One of my delights some years ago was a series of informal conversations and lunch with Bellah when he visited our university.) Civil religion is unique in American culture because it does not claim an identifiable social group but the entire society itself; or as British writer G. K. Chesterton once observed: The United States is “a nation with the soul of a church.”  

All religions have certain common features:  

(1) A god or a transcendent principle. 

(2) Sacred objects and symbols that support and unite people in their beliefs.

(3) Holy days and rituals that unite people and link them with the transcendent.

(4) Religious leaders like priests or ministers.

(5) Sacred places and shrines.

(6) Saints or heroic sacred people.

(7) Sacred writings.

American civil religion has these common features:

(1) A belief in Divine Providence that looks over America. “God bless America.”  

(2) Holy objects like the American flag and the dollar bill. And a belief in America itself as an object of religious devotion.

(3) American holy days like the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, etc.

(4) In many ways, the U.S. president – who becomes president with his hand on the Bible — functions as a kind of national high priest. FDR clearly functioned this way with his New Deal program and fireside chats.

(5) Sacred Places like the Lincoln Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery where the “martyrs” are buried, Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore, etc.

(6) Sacred People like Saints George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. We commemorate them with calendar feast days each year. (I don’t think there will be a Saint Donald Trump but one never knows.)

(7) Our sacred documents are of course the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. It is not surprising that the National Archives building resembles a basilica and the nation’s sacred scriptures are displayed in an altar-type protective reliquary

Up until the Civil War (1861 – 1865), American civil religion focused, above all, on the American Revolution. It was the final act of the Exodus from the old world across the sea. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were considered new sacred scriptures; and Washington was the divinely appointed new Moses who led his people out of the old world tyranny.  

With the Civil War, new themes of death, sacrifice, and rebirth enter American civil religion. They are symbolized in the life and death of President Abraham Lincoln; and, at the end of the Civil War, in a series of national, civil religion, Holy Week events: Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865 — Palm Sunday. When he was shot on Good Friday, April, 14, President Lincoln shed his blood for his country. Lincoln died on Saturday and so, on the following day — Easter 1865, “Reconstruction” resurrection began under President Andrew Johnson.  

A few years before his own death, the American poet, Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977), understood the civil religion impact of Lincoln and offered this reflection: “The Gettysburg Address is a symbolic and sacramental act. In his words, Lincoln symbolically died, just as the Union soldiers really died – and as he himself was soon really to die. By his words, he gave the field of battle a symbolic significance that it has lacked. For us and our country, he left Jefferson’s ideals of freedom and equality joined to the Christian sacrificial act of death and rebirth. I believe this is the meaning that goes beyond sect or religion and beyond peace and war, and is now part of our lives as a challenge, obstacle, and hope.” 

Following the Civil War, the great number of war dead required the establishment of several national cemeteries. Of these, Gettysburg National Cemetery, which Lincoln’s famous address served to dedicate, has been overshadowed only by the Arlington National Cemetery, begun on the Robert E. Lee estate across the river from Washington. 

Memorial Day grew out of the Civil War. Memorial Day integrates people and local communities into a national observance, just as Thanksgiving Day, which was institutionalized as an annual national holiday under the presidency of Lincoln, serves to integrate families into an American civil religion celebration of unity and gratitude for the blessings of Divine Providence.    

As I mentioned last week, post WWII America was fertile ground for American civil religion; and President Dwight David Eisenhower its strong advocate. With the support of people like the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale and the Rev. Billy Graham, Eisenhower presided over a vigorous assertion of the place of religion in public life. Even when, as he said, he didn’t care what the religion was. He established the annual “presidential” prayer breakfast, and the presidential practice of ending speeches with “may God bless America.” With Eisenhower’s support, Congress inserted “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance and placed “In God We Trust” on all currency. Few Americans opposed such steps. Protestants and Catholics were happy, and Jewish Americans felt they could live with Eisenhower’s vague public religiosity.  

A very popular civil religion spin-off at this time was the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale and his “Positive Thinking” religio-psychiatry.  Peale, who died in 1993, was probably the most famous clergyman in the United States in the 1940s and early 1950s. When Donald Trump was a child, the Trump family regularly attended Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. Years later, Peale presided over Trump’s first marriage to Ivana in 1977. It was Norman Vincent Peale, by the way, who taught Donald Trump to promote and worship himself. 

Since the early nineteenth century, American civil religion has been predominantly activist, moralistic, and social rather than contemplative or theological. American civil religion has never been anticlerical or militantly secular. It has consistently borrowed from set religious traditions in such a way that the average American has seen no conflict between the two. In this way, civil religion, with no opposition from the churches, has been able to construct powerful symbols of national solidarity and to activate deep levels of personal engagement for the attainment of national goals. I am not opposed per se to private schools; but one really must also acknowledge here the contribution of public schools as shapers of civil religion values. They should not disappear.  

Sustaining the whole panorama of American civil religion are key biblical archetypes: Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. But how should people understand these themes today? Do they correctly understand them? Even Robert Bellah observed years ago that “civil religion has not always been invoked in favor of worthy causes.” Today we see it being used in a rather fanatic fundamentalist way to justify racism, police brutality, homophobia, misogyny, and xenophobia. And there will always be people like Pat Robertson, who said this week on the 700 Club: “You can’t trust those liberal colleges to educate your kids. You send your son to a liberal college and he’ll come back as a transgender, who believes satanic lies like evolution and global warming.” The wax nose of civil religion? 

Next week, my final reflection on the themes of religion, faith, and civil religion …..and the challenges ahead. Yes, where do we go from here? 

Kind regards to all. 



Christianity and the American Self-Image

July 15, 2017

This week’s reflection is part one of a two part reflection about Christianity and the formation of the American self-image. For many years the area of religion and values in American society has been my area of research and teaching. I remain a critical-thinking, patriotic American. I remain as well a critical-thinking Christian believer. 

The uniqueness of the American (US) experience is rooted in the self-image and world-image of the 17th century English colonialists who understood themselves as SENT BY GOD. Those early Americans saw themselves in terms of Jewish/Christian imagery. They were the NEW ISRAEL going to a NEW PROMISED LAND and they understood themselves as SPECIALLY CHOSEN BY GOD. 

We see this understanding in “A Model of Christian Charity,” the 1630 sermon given by Puritan leader John Winthrop, on board the ship Arbella en route to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. 

Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with him for this work, we have taken out a commission…. Now the only way to avoid shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah: to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God…….The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us as his own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies: when he shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations: ‘the Lord make it like that of New England.’ For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill: The eyes of all people are upon us….” 

So the American self-image stressed being: the new chosen people, a superior people, led by Divine Providence, self-made people, with a messianic mission to humankind to convert the world. 

For the newly developing Americans, the old world was a sinister and dangerous place: the old world of monarchs and popes was corrupt. The only hope for humankind was in a new world and a new age. We see this belief displayed on the one dollar bill: “In God we trust;” God blesses the American undertaking, “ANNUIT COEPTIS;” and America is a NEW CREATION “NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM.”  

For Americans “new” has always been better than old. The throw-away culture: out with the old and in with the better-working and better-looking NEW. They established New York, New Orleans, New Buffalo, etc. We have new states like New Jersey, New Hampshire, and New Mexico. 

Our ancestral Americans saw the world as the great stage for an ongoing battle battle between good and evil. They understood the struggle between good and evil as a struggle between God and Satan…..Contemporary political debate has followed the same pattern. The country is best unified when we have a devil to oppose, whether it is Adolf Hitler, Nikita Khrushchev, or Osama bin Laden. American national unity reaches its peak in times of crisis: World War II, the height of the Cold War, and the early days of the War on Terrorism. When the outside threat passes, however, they can turn on each other with racist and police brutality. The American irony. Who is the enemy? 

Right from the beginning Americans had to confront real and imagined enemies. They feared a wilderness they did not known, a climate that could destroy them, Indian conspiracies, slave revolts, famine, “popery,” witchcraft, and werewolves. Clearly identifying the “enemy” brought cohesion and a uniform identity. 

In the historical development of their identity and mission, Americans have had a succession of OUTSIDE enemies: Kings, Roman Catholics, “Indians,” “Barbarian” Germans, North Vietnamese, Islamic terrorists. Fear has been an underlying element in all of these interactions. I have often thought FDR’s words could be applied across the whole panorama of US history: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” 

Curiously, when we look at US history, African Americans were denigrated, taken for granted, and often conveniently overlooked in considerations about US identity. Were they people? I am still shocked when I read my four-times-back great grandfather’s last will and testament. He owned a plantation in Virginia and died n 1790. He listed the property and items that should go to his children. He asked the children to care for their mother. Then he listed the number and kinds of animals in the barn. At the end of the will, after the farm animals, he lists his slaves…. 

Of course, Americans are not per se bad. Americans have always struggled, however, with two elements of their character and can find a justification for each in Biblical imagery…… 

FIRST there is a positive humanitarian orientation to seek justice, do good, build a better world (as we see in the words of the Prophet MICAH). Here we can point to various humanitarian programs throughout the world, involvement to save Europe in two world wars, creation of the United Nations, etc. 

A less positive side of the American character, on the other hand, is found in a kind of self-righteousness and self-importance that arrogantly dismisses the rest of the world, due to an exaggerated sense of being a superior, CHOSEN PEOPLE. In our history, we have had: manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine, various times of isolationism, extreme xenophobia, and the policies like those advocated by the currant presidential administration. 

Although the situation is now changing, Christianity has been greatly valued by Americans, because it has reinforced the sense of being a special people in a special land and it has served as the social glue that holds the country together. It is a point for discussion but I think much of the emphasis on Christianity has been more about RELIGION and NATIONALISM than FAITH. At the time of US engagement in WWI, the popular evangelist Billy Sunday (1862-1935) said, “Christianity and Patriotism are synonymous terms, and hell and traitors are synonymous.” Those words still echo in parts of the country today.  

There is a uniquely American kind of focus on religion. The 18th century observer of American culture, Alexis de Toqueville, summed it up this way: “As for what we generally understand as faiths, such as customs, ancient traditions, the strength of memories, up to the present I don’t see a trace of them….The religious state of this people is perhaps the most curious thing to examine here. Go into the churches, you will hear morality preached, but of dogma not a word. What is most important for America is not that all citizens profess the true religion —- but that they should profess religion.” 

President Eisenhower echoed de Toqueville, when he observed in the 1950s “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on deep religious belief and I don’t care what it is…..” And, at about the same time, the American sociologist Will Herbert (1901-1977) wrote: “The typical American has developed a remarkable capacity for being serious about religion without taking religion seriously.” “Americans” he stressed ”believe in religion in a way that perhaps no other people do.”  

Bear with me. This is an ongoing reflection. Next week some observations about American civil religion. Then my thoughts about what I see as major contemporary trends in American religion and culture.