Faith, Belief, and Contemporary Culture

28 April 2017
Many years ago, one of my wife’s uncles approached me during a family reunion. He said he needed to draw on my expertise. He then pulled from his pocket a small reddish stone and said: “what do you make of this?” I looked at it and said: “very colorful.” He frowned and said: “but what is your interpretation?” I told him I had no idea about it. Very disappointed, he grumbled something and then said: “they told me your field of expertise was geology.” I chuckled and said: “not GEology but THEology.”

The best definition of THEOLOGY is still that of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109): Fides quarens intellectum – Faith seeking understanding. When people do theology, they reflect in depth about their Faith experiences and Reality: experiences of being touched by God, even for people for whom the word “God” may be problematic. I remember the words of Dag Hammarskjöld in his book Markings: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.” 

When we do theology we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words and rituals that are products of our culture. In fact, all our concepts and experiential interpretations are shaped and influenced to a great extent by the culture and the language out of which they emerge. 

In every age, theologians must strive to better articulate the human experience of the Divine for contemporary believers.  

I shared the story of the stone-in-hand uncle-in-law with an adult discussion group, which I moderate. One lady in the group, a retired professor of sociology at our university, then asked: “ok…but in these days of alt-truth, how do we distinguish healthy and unhealthy theological developments?”  

A very good question, because some theology does indeed appear unhealthy, more like a cold old stone. 

Good theology should speak to contemporary people in contemporary language. It should help them discover the signs of Divine presence in human life and promote a morality of interpersonal respect, compassion, and solidarity: Jesus taught and lived the truth that love of God cannot exist without love of neighbor. 

I suggest five points for evaluating theology…….regardless whether it comes from episcopal lips, from the local church pulpit, or from the keyboard of an old theologian. 

1. The aim of theology cannot be a kind of nostalgic retreat to recover a lost mode of being in the world. Some Roman Catholic cardinals and bishops are trying to do this right now, as they suggest that Pope Francis may be a heretic. Other Christian leaders in support of “marriage and family life” want to restrict women and basically return them to a kind of patriarchal servitude. We really cannot turn-back the clock. We should not even try. To become a religious child again would mean to abandon the adult capacity to think and make one’s own judgments based on critical reflection and developmental human understanding. The current upsurge of populist fundamentalism – with its appeal for “the good old days” — is not just annoyingly offensive; but is dangerously subversive and destructive. 

2. Theological thinking today needs to feel and experience the “call” of the Sacred (the Faith experience) by interpreting and thereby re-creating the meaning and power of religious language. A few years ago, I began this blog to encourage people to think and speak with “another voice.” The truly healthy contemporary theological thinker must have one foot anchored in the present and the other in the tradition of the past: maintaining a dynamic tension between contemporary religious consciousness and historical critical consciousness.  

3. When we do theology – when we reflect in depth about our Faith experiences – we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words and rituals that are products of our culture; but we also look for the resonance and dialogue with tradition: with the theological expressions of earlier cultures. I often tell people in my lectures that I am not a far-out progressive liberal but a Christian traditionalist…..(Don’t laugh….) 

4. Authentic and life-giving theology can never be self-serving narcissism: only the expression of individual, subjective experience. Theology is the result of deep reflection about my Faith experience AND your Faith experience AND the Faith experience of the community of Faith: today as well as yesterday. Yesterday’s theology becomes a heritage, a tradition that finds expression in historical doctrine, scripture, symbol, ritual and patterns of conduct. 

5. Theology therefore relies on culture but can never become locked within a particular culture. It cannot, for example, venerate just European or North American culture. All cultures perceive reality through their own particular lenses; and these lenses are shaped and adjusted by shared human events and great movements in human history. When a theology becomes so locked within a particular culture that it is hardly distinguishable from it, we are on the road to idolatry: when the words, symbols and rituals of a particular culture no longer communicate and connect people to the depth of the human experience but become objects of worship in themselves.   

Springtime Reflections for Church Renewal

April 20, 2017
Reform-minded people need to change their conversation about church reform. Otherwise they end up either talking to themselves or simply repeating what everyone else has been saying for the past ten years. Changing the conversation means looking at church life in new ways and developing new strategies and patterns for church life today and tomorrow. It means thinking creatively and asking challenging and deeper questions….

Some proposals for refection: 
(1)   Look less at the church as institution and more as a community of faith. What is happening within your own community of faith? What are the life-issues that really concern your family and friends? Where do you find your support? How can you motivate and help the men and women in your community to truly minister to each other? What is keeping us from experimenting with new forms of parish and parish life? Perhaps a parish should be a collection of many smaller communities of faith? Household churches in which the heads of the households – men and women — preside over informal Eucharistic liturgies, as in the Apostolic era?

(2)   Look deeper than the shortage of ordained ministers and ordained women ministers. Let’s look at the meaning of ministry itself. Let’s look at and examine the very idea of ORDAINED ministry. Jesus did not ordain anyone. Let’s scratch our heads about new forms of ministry and break out of the old patterns and paradigms. Why not have ordained graduate students helping out in university parishes? Ordaining men and women for five year terms? Perhaps a parish should have many part-time ordained ministers who have “regular” jobs? And how about dropping the word “priest”? “Minister” has better resonance with the Gospel. Should we close all seminaries and agree that they are not the best structures for the formation and education of ordained ministers?

(3)   And why not elect diocesan bishop overseers for limited terms of ministry? Why not five year terms, which could be renewed for just another five-year term? Another thought, do bishops have to be the top person in a diocese? Why not give ecclesiastical authority to a diocesan leadership team? I could see a team of at least three people: a diocesan administrator, who could be a man or woman and not necessarily ordained; a diocesan director of pastoral formation, who could be a man or woman and not necessarily ordained; and a bishop (man of woman) who would serve as spiritual director and sacramental coordinator for the diocese. Shared decision-making and a great way to dismantle the clerical old boys club.

(4)   Catholic and Christian. Healthy Catholicism is rooted in healthy Christianity. So what does it really mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ today? This raises questions of belief. What do we really know about the historical Jesus? He was not white, for sure. Jesus was most likely dark brown and sun-tanned. What about all of those rather saccharin and androgynous images of Jesus that really distort who he was and what he was all about? Was his biological father the Holy Spirit or the man we call
Joseph? Isn’t the “virgin birth” more about saying he was a very special person than analyzing the biology of his conception? What if Jesus was gay or a married fellow with children? Would that make a difference for you? Would that destroy his meaning for Christian believers? Why? Was JesusGod? Early Jewish Christians, including St. Paul, would have never said that. Or was Jesus the revelation of God’s graciousness and love, as well as the revelation of authentic humanity? Jesus is “Lord,” the “Christ,” “Son of Humanity,” and “Son of God.” All of our language tries to point to his uniqueness……..

(5)   Ecumenical discussions. What are the real differences between church groups in Christianity today? Are there any good reasons why we cannot simply start worshiping together? Are we not locked in medieval theological categories about “them” and “us”? Are structural church distinctions based on Protestantism and Roman Catholicism still significant differences in belief? Isn’t Jesus Christ, for example, just as truly “present” in Episcopalian Eucharist as he is in Roman Catholic Eucharist? Are Lutherans and Presbyterians cut off from him in their worship services? What today is the uniqueness of Roman Catholicism? Perhaps the goal of ecumenical collaboration today should be respecting a variety of traditions and at the same time enhancing the Christian life of all believers and not creating a mega-church institution? Why not turn places, like the Vatican, into United Nations heritage sites? Tourist revenue could be used to fight world poverty. Church palaces could be turned into schools and hospitals or residences for political refugees.

(6)    Seven sacraments. We now know of course that the seven sacraments were created by the church not the historical Jesus. What then is the meaning of “sacrament” today? Who controls sacramental forms? Does it make sense to argue about who can “validly” administer certain sacraments? When I got married, I was told, based on Catholic sacramental understandings, that my wife and I as baptized believers “conferred the sacrament” on each other and the priest was simply an official
witness. OK, what about baptized gays and lesbians who get married? Isn’t their marriage then just as “sacramental” as mine? What about “lay” pastoral ministers in hospitals and homes for the elderly. They are often the key Christian ministers in these people’s lives. Why can’t they “anoint” the sick and dying? Maybe they should just start doing it? Isn’t Christian ministry about prayer and  compassion and comforting the sick?

These are just a few thought-starters…… Creative and critical reflection is not a dangerous activity and it can be a source of life….

Easter 2017

Happy Easter to my Another Voice readers. 

“Christianity is precisely a liberation from every rigid legal and religious system. This is asserted with such categorical force by St Paul, that we cease to be Christians the moment our religion becomes slavery to “the Law” rather than a free personal adherence by loving faith, to the risen and living Christ.….Let us not darken the joy of Christ’s victory by remaining in captivity and in darkness, but let us declare his power, by living as free men and women who have been called by him out of darkness into his admirable light.” — Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968)


Spring in Leuven

For Palm Sunday and Holy Week: Reflections from T.S. Eliot

7 April 2017

From “Ash Wednesday”:

“…Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still

Even among these rocks,

Our peace in His will

And even among these rocks

Sister, mother

And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,

Suffer me not to be separated……And let my cry come unto Thee.”

From “Journey of the Magi”:

“…All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

I should be glad of another death.”



My very best wishes for the Easter season.

I will be away from my computer for a few days and expect to return at the end of April.

Homespun Truth

Fifth Sunday of Lent 2 April 2017

          On both sides of the Atlantic it appears that an increasing number of people are obsessed with proclaiming their own homespun “truth.” The phenomenon is often rooted in ignorance and proclaimed with a kind of self-righteous arrogance. It can also be a convenient deception, as we see in contemporary political discourse. Perhaps the Declaration of Independence will soon be re-written from “we hold these truths to be self-evident” to “we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true.” 

          An acquaintance, who should know better, told me a few days ago that the sun revolves around the earth. I asked him if he had any other medieval beliefs and he told me, with a bit of dismissive annoyance, that he had “found Jesus” and now doubted “a lot of that modern science stuff.” I did some checking and discovered that about 79% of Americans believe the earth revolves around the sun; and 18% say it is obvious that the sun revolves around the earth. In Germany, 74% believe the earth goes around the sun; but in Great Britain, only 67% believe that. (Perhaps that helps explain Brexit?)  

          When it comes to theology, the early medieval mentality seems to still attract many followers, who adamantly refuse to accept “a lot of that modern science stuff.” Just about 42 % of contemporary Americans believe that God created human beings, in their present form, less than 10,000 years ago. They believe as well that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. I know I look like an old fossil, but I told one of my fundamentalist friends that, based on fossil remains, the current scientific consensus places the origin of dinosaurs between 231 and 243 million years ago and that the dinosaurs became extinct 66 million years ago. He said “that nonsense is not science but the work of the devil.”   

          What is the basis for our truth statements? How do we verify? Is personal opinion becoming more reliable than factual verification?  

          Last semester, when discussing the U.S. Civil War (the “War Between the States” if you are from the South) I told my university students that all the churches – even Roman Catholic – in the North supported the Union and all the same churches in the South supported the Confederacy. Even Pope Pius IX encouraged and supported the Confederacy. I asked my students how God could have actively supported both the Union and the Confederate causes. Two young men from the USA said it was simply a matter of personal opinion and that Union and Confederate opinions should have been and should still be respected. “So God battled against God?” I asked. They replied that I had a right to express my opinion……I then jumped to the Shoah and the Nazi extermination of Jews. “Was that right or wrong” I asked, “or a matter of opinion,” One student, who told the class her grandparents were Jewish, said she had serious thoughts about the whole thing today. She said perhaps, if she had lived back then she would have seen things differently and supported the Nazis. The fellow sitting next to her shouted out that the whole Nazi thing was a hoax and Jews were not gassed in Nazi concentration camps. I said that I have been to Auschwitz. He replied that Auschwitz looks very realistic, like a Hollywood film creation;  but that Nazi Germany’s Final Solution was aimed only at deporting Jews not exterminating them. 

          More homespun truth…..Contemporary examples are abundant. Many Christian leaders in my tradition, for instance, still view sexuality as simply a matter of genital activity geared to procreation and consider contraception immoral and gay people innately disordered. 

          Sometimes I fear we are quickly moving from people being uninformed and misinformed to being proudly and aggressively wrong. What we see is not just a rejection of existing knowledge. It is a rejection of historical-critical rationality. Knowledge is becoming a do-it-self creation. If it feels good, it must be right.  

          These days it is not Islamic fundamentalism that I fear but a growing obsession with self-fabricated truth. It is sometimes self-created and affirmed because if feels good. It is also being mass produced by people adept at developing attractive arguments and using their skills to mislead and exploit fearful and gullible people. 

What do we do? 

          We need to become actively engaged in educational reform. We need to evaluate, and reform where appropriate, the curricula in public and private schools. Some principles to guide curricular planning and evaluartion:

(1) Science is neither diabolic nor the enemy. Good science and healthy faith do not contradict each other. When apparent contradictions appear, these are red flags indicating the presence of either poor science or shaky religion.  

(2) Currently accepted facts – the substance of contemporary knowledge — are based on empirical evidence and deductive reasoning not personal opinion. 

(3) Historical-critical thinking is neither “critical” nor negative. Perhaps a more accurate term we should use is evaluative thinking. We examine and evaluate various statements and viewpoints in terms of factual reality: when statements were made, what they were based on, what kinds of language were used, etc. Dinosaurs were long, long gone from our earthly scene, more than ten thousand years ago. This is not theory but fact. The biblical account of Adam and Eve, right from the beginning of the narration, was biblical mythology and not historic fact. Biblical mythology, properly understood, communicates important religious truths 

(4) We ought to be greatly concerned about the survival of the humanities, now being unfunded and pushed to the side. The humanities insure and safeguard how we process and document the human experience. We desperately need literature, art, music, and history to truly be human and to understand who we are as human beings.  

(5) Most importantly, we need the humanities to experience and relate to the sacred….the very essence of humanity and reality…the Divine. God has not abandoned us but far too many people have lost touch with artistic, musical, and symbolic avenues to the Divine. Education is more than AbCs, math, and athletics.

(6) At all levels in the educational process, we need to maintain a global awareness and stress global responsibilities. This touches on climate change of course; but I am thinking right now about a global reality that is minimally stressed in the news, hardly discussed in political circles, and has not even been the subject of a presidential tweet: famine in Africa which is an appalling failure of the world system. Today in Ethiopia and its neighbors in East Africa 16 million people are on the brink of starvation and desperately in need of food, water, and medical treatment.   

The danger of homespun truth is that it easily mutates into a deadly virus that destroys the heart and soul of humanity. Fact-based knowledge, critical thinking skills, historical awareness, and anchors in art, music, and literature are essential elements in maintaining a humane and humanizing life and culture. Otherwise we risk becoming thoughtlessly-muted but violently xenophobic……….and narcissistic anthropological aberrations. 



Alternate Christianity 


I guess one should not be surprised, in an age of alternate facts and alternate truth, that alternate Christianity exists as well. Reminiscent of the days of medieval Christendom, today’s alternate Christianity tries to link patriotism, politics, and governmental power and call it the Gospel. 

Televangelist Pat Robertson, whose pulpit is The 700 Club, the flagship of the Christian Broadcasting Network, is a strong advocate of alternate Christianity. In February he declared, not so surprisingly, that Donald Trump is God’s anointed leader and that those who criticize him are really operating against God and God’s plan for America. He even described Trump’s critics as Satanic. Franklin Graham, the son of the world-famous Baptist minister Billy Graham, echoes Robertson when he says it was “the hand of God,” rather than Russian hackers, that put Donald Trump in the White House. 

White evangelicals voted overwhelmingly in support of Mr. trump, ignoring of course the candidate’s widespread rejection of traditional Christian values, like honesty, compassion, and sexual self-restraint. They have alternate beliefs about American history, the Constitution, economics, science, climate change, and of course issues of gender and human sexuality.  

These evangelicals find alternate Christianity attractive because of their desire for a strong, even quasi-dictatorial leader who promises to keep feminists, multiculturalists, secularists and “progressives” in their place. Alternate Christians are ethnic and tribal. They are nostalgic about a 1950s America; and they worry about the demise of white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism in the United States. They believe the president’s assertions that, under him, (white) Christians will once again have power. They enthusiastically support his right-hand man on the National Security Council, Steve Bannon, who has called for a coalition of Christian traditionalists to wage a holy war against Islam. 

Bannon is a strange fellow and a traditionalist Roman Catholic, who is convinced Pope Francis is a dangerously misguided, heterodox, pro-Islamic, and alarmingly socialist pontiff. In a 2014 conference at the Vatican, Bannon warned: “We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict…..We are in an outright war against jihadists, Islam, and Islamic fascism.” He also condemned “the immense secularization of the West” and an increasing secularism among millennials. (The Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party, by the way, have praised the president for appointing Bannon to top positions in his administration. Makes sense. Steve Bannon is a hardened racist and a white supremacist sympathizer.) 

Today’s alternate Christianity is no small thing. It is worrisome; and supporters of alternate Christianity should not be quickly dismissed. In some ways they are quite pious. Their piety however resonates poorly with authentic Christian faith. It echoes better with an exaggerated American civil religion: a rather sectarian form of conservative white American patriotism. Evangelical alternate Christians resonated strongly with the new president, when he proclaimed January 20th, the day of his inauguration, a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion.” President Trump is the alternate Christian savior. And how strange it is that so many evangelicals continue to support him, even when that requires their looking the other way, when confronting his hypocrisy. 

Patriotic devotion or patriotic adoration? In Christian theology worshipping that which is not God is called idolatry. History shows of course that idolatry can be quite an impressive form of devotion. History shows as well that idolaters usually end up condemning and killing those who call into question their “god.” 

Mr Trump identifies himself as a Presbyterian. He says he will make Christianity great again. Frankly, I think he and his faithful followers identify more with Norman Vincent Peale, one of Trump’s former friends, than Jesus of Nazareth. That’s our contemporary American challenge. Just as we need to carefully sift alternate facts and alternate truths, we need to sift and point out the false beliefs of alternate Christianity.  

Norman Vincent Peale was immensely popular in past WWII America, especially because of his 1952 book The Power of Positive  Thinking. Peale’s message misrepresented Christianity, offering a self-centered personal happiness approach to life: more love yourself than love your neighbor. He was more influenced by Christian Science and his own fascination with psychiatry than by the message of the Gospels. Christianity in Peale’s preaching was a set of self-stroking success-oriented beliefs: more energetic narcissism than altruism. “There is a real magic in enthusiasm,” Peale once said.”It spells the difference between mediocrity and accomplishment.” Trump’s followers, wearing their make-America-great caps, have adopted this strategy and applied it to the country, ignoring racism, poverty, and “the losers.” Their gospel is looking out for number one.  

I can understand why Donald Trump considered Peale his friend and mentor. (Peale also presided at Trump’s 1977 wedding to Ivana Trump in the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan.) What Trump admired in Peale, who died on the day before Christmas in 1993, was Peale’s religion of success and personal fulfillment. The people who flocked to Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church were, like Trump’s parents, wealthy and success-driven CEOs who thought very positively about themselves. When Donald Trump looks at the world, he needs to see himself on center stage. “When I think I’m right,” he once said on 60 Minutes, “nothing bothers me.” And on another occasion, “Show me someone without an ego, and I’ll show you a loser.” 

And so here we are, three weeks from Easter. Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t quite fit the alternate Christian model. He was not self-centered. He did think positively about other people. He did not categorize some people as “losers.” He raised up the downtrodden. He ate with publicans and sinners. Those whom society shunned, Jesus touched and healed. The Bible that Jesus read, believed, and preached, the Hebrew Bible, bears strong witness to the same principles. The God of Israel condemned those who “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” (Amos 2:7) 

Alternate facts are fiction. Alternate truth is falsehood. Alternate Christianity is a fiction, a convenient fantasy, and a very dangerous falsehood.  

Teacher,” he asked, “which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40) 


Retreat, Escape, or Face the Challenge 

18 March 2017

Three recent books are energizing conservative-minded Roman Catholics and other Christians these days. The theme in all three is the end of Christian America. One of my traditionalist friends called them to my attention, hoping to lure me away from my “dangerous liberal thinking.”

I guess a variety of viewpoints has always been with us; and I really do respect other opinions. I do not agree with the authors of these three books, however, because they propose solutions to some genuine American problems that are either unhelpfully narrow-minded or simply utopian fantasies.

On the other hand, out of fairness to my friend who brought them to my attention, I guess one could indeed use these books for a very healthy and effective discussion about what it means to be a truly contemporary Christian… well as a contemporary American, deeply concerned about religion, values, and morality in today’s USA.

I begin with Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World by Charles J. Chaput, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia.

Archbishop Chaput offers a strongly negative critique of contemporary U.S. society. I suspect many readers who page through his book will shake their heads in agreement, as they read his lamentations that the United States has now been conquered by a secularist, pleasure-seeking, self-absorbed worldview that leaves little place for Jesus or traditional morality. Telltale signs of America’s “post-Christian” decadence, according to the Archbishop, are divorce, contraception, abortion, materialism, an invasive Obama-generated government, and gay marriage.

Considering my own religious tradition that has long valued the voice of the People of God, and thinking about the city where the Declaration of Independence was drafted, the first red light about this book started flashing for me, when I saw Philadelphia’s Archbishop asserting that “Democracy tends to unmoor society from the idea of permanent truths.” An alternative fact?

Archbishop Chaput has Native American roots but, very frankly, political and ecclesiastical barrel vision. He says the U.S. press is much too hostile toward President Trump; and he praises Mr. Trump and his administration for their pro-life concerns. (It seems clear to me that the Trump administration’s pro-life concerns terminate once a fetus becomes a self-breathing human being in need of nurture, shelter, and education… but then I don’t want to be overly political.) Philadelphia’s Archbishop is critical of Pope Francis as well. Here he shares the concerns of the American Cardinal Raymond Burke. They both suspect Francis is not being faithful to Catholic orthodoxy and fear he is spreading doctrinal confusion in the church. Chaput, for sure, has no confusion. He has instructed pastoral ministers in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to NOT allow communion for divorced and remarried or cohabiting couples (unless they can demonstrate that they are not having sex!); and he believes children of same-sex couples should not be allowed to attend Catholic schools. Very pro-life? When it comes to contraception, the Archbishop believes the widespread use of contraceptives has now subverted the purpose of human sexuality and has led to conjugal infidelity and a general lowering of morality. He is concerned as well about an exaggerated feminism which, he says, has actively contributed to women’s dehumanization.

The good old days. Archbishop Chaput has often said he longs for the 1950s. He would like to retreat to a (highly romanticized) time when everything was clear. Men and women were clear about their identities. Sex was for procreation. The church was clear about its teachings and Catholics were obedient to clearly demonstrated church authority. I suspect the Archbishop is indeed a stranger in his own strangely perceived environment.

A second Catholic author is sounding the trumpet for his own kind of strong retreat from today’s American malaise. A professor at Providence College, Anthony Esolen is widely promoting his book Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. In Esolen’s eyes, the United States is a cultural nightmare. I resonate with his concern about a commitment to truth; and I fear with him that America’s most powerful institutions—including the government—are becoming mass producers of deceit. I understand as well what he means when he says “Sometimes entire civilizations do decay and die, and the people who point that out are correct.” I do not agree, however, with his assessment of our contemporary United States. The situation is hardly as dark and decadent as he would have us believe.

I do not agree with Esolen that our public schools are failures beyond repair and must be replaced by private schools. Nor do I agree with him that most of our universities have become complete failures. In fact, I find it more than disconcerting that the handful of universities, he holds up as stellar examples for our emulation, are rigidly fundamentalist and lean far to the right politically.

Somewhat like Archbishop Chaput, Anthony Esolen would like to return to the good old days of Western Civilization, to a time before the sexual revolution when, as he emphasizes, people truly understood what sex was about and “men were men and women were women.”  Yes I do understand what some call the glory days of Western Civilization. I speak Latin and Greek, and I know and appreciate the philosophical, literary, and artistic traditions in our cultural DNA. I do not however want to return to some kind of late medieval world view with its exaggerated patriarchy, misogyny, religious narrow mindedness, and its great ignorance about psychology and ongoing human development and understanding.

Now to the third book my friend recommended to bring me back to the straight and narrow: The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher. In his life (he is 50 years old) he has already had quite a personal religious journey. He began life as a Methodist. Later became a Roman Catholic. He dropped out of the Catholic Church because of the sexual abuse scandal. Curiously he says that sexual abuse is not due to pedophilia but rather to a network of gay priests which he calls the Lavender Mafia. I think he is wrong here on both counts. Pedophilia does not spring from homosexuality and the Lavender Mafia is pure fantasy. After being a Roman Catholic, Dreher next joined Eastern Orthodoxy.

Journalist Dreher has strong conservative credentials. He is a former publications director for the John Templeton Foundation and currently senior editor and blogger at The American Conservative. His view of contemporary America is totally apocalyptic. In his own words, he describes it this way: “There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. By God’s mercy, the faith may continue to flourish in the Global South and China, but barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America. This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind would deny it.”

The solution for believers? The only way to escape apocalyptic destruction, according to Dreher, is for Christians to drop out of American society and create and live in their own subgroups like Benedictine monks. Not everyone of course can run off to a monastery. (I would suggest as well that Dreher has a misconception about Benedictine monastic spirituality and mission.)

My major concern, however, at the end the of this week’s reflection, is that the author of the Benedict Option misunderstands the Incarnation and what Jesus was all about. Jesus did not run away from his contemporary socio-cultural environment. He plunged in. Jesus ate with publicans and sinners. He understood the signs of the times. He lived in a Rome dominated society much more troubling and far more inhumane than contemporary America.

What Jesus did, of course, is now our contemporary Christian challenge.

My contact information:  Email:

Jesus, Christianity, and Other World Religions

9 March 2017

A couple days ago, a friend asked me when I began my theological questioning. I remember the event that really triggered it….

I was in fourth grade in St. Mary’s Elementary School in Paw Paw, Michigan. It was a Monday morning. The local Catholic priest, a rigid but friendly fellow, had come for his weekly classroom visit. He started by asking everyone who had not been to Mass that Sunday to stand up. (Fortunately, that Sunday I had gone to Mass and was saved the embarrassment of standing there in my shame.) He then launched into a tirade against Protestantism as “a false religion.” My Dad was Protestant. I raised my hand, stood up, and challenged our Catholic pastor. With a bit of youthful bravado, I asked him how there could be anything “false” about my Dad. I said that he was a Christian, a good man, read the Bible, and said his prayers. That evening, I told my Dad what had happened. He very calmly said “I am sure Father is a good man. He’s just a terribly ignorant and narrow-minded priest.” 

We learn. We grow. Theological understandings change over time.  

My reflection about Jesus, Christianity, and other world religions comes as a reaction to the recent vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, bomb threats (now close to a hundred) against Jewish community centers, anti-Islam violence, and the destructive burning of mosques by crusading Christians. I find it particularly repugnant when Christian leaders like Franklin Graham call Islam a “very evil and wicked religion.” 

In Roman Catholic theological reflection, especially since the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965), we not only understand that Protestants and all Christians belong to the Body of Christ; but in our respect for and appreciation for other world religions, there has been a tremendous development as well. Two books that have helped me refine my own thinking are: Jesus Symbol of God (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999) by Roger Haight, S.J., and Theologies of Religion (also Orbis Books, 2002) by Paul Knitter. 

Theological understanding changes over time. My own thinking is moving beyond three more or less rigid viewpoints about the relation of other religious traditions to Christianity: pluralism, exclusivism, and inclusivism. 

Pluralism. Pluralism is generally the position that all world religions are true and equally valid. Well, I remain a Christian and an historical theologian. We all live and grow where we have been planted. The essential structure of the Christian faith in God is that it is mediated by Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus remains uniquely the center of Christian faith insofar as it is he who was and is the medium and focus of a Christian’s faith in God. I would suggest that the validity or truth of Christian beliefs is displayed by a thoughtful examination that shows its reasonability and credibility within common human experience. 

Exclusivism. Exclusivism is the theological position that maintains the absolute necessity of faith in Christ. Exclusivists insist that there is no salvation in non-Christian religions. This position, today, is most often identified with conservative evangelical Christians. The main objection to exclusivism is that it contradicts the message of the New Testament. Jesus announced God’s salvation for all. When we read the New Testament, we see absolutely no indications that the God proclaimed by Jesus was interested in saving just a distinct minority of human beings. 

Inclusivism. While exclusivism is clearly a minority theological position today, the same is not true of the inclusive view that Jesus causes the salvation of all. In one form or another this has been the dominant theology of mainline churches for some time. Inclusivism maintains that God is present in non-Christian religions but only through Christ. This viewpoint gave rise to the concept of the “anonymous Christian” by which God saves through Christ, even when the believer knows nothing about Christ or Christianity. The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner popularized this “anonymous Christian” understanding. 

I am not ready to be burned at the stake but would suggest, however, that a close and careful reading of the texts indicates that the witness of the New Testament runs in a direction quite contrary to inclusivism. Theologians like Roger Haight and contemporary biblical scholars are strong in their assertion that Jesus did not preach himself but the Reign of God.  

The message of Jesus is theocentric: God saves and God is love. Jesus is the great symbol and reality of the proclamation of God’s salvation. A theocentric perspective on Jesus – where I am today — enables Christians to be fully committed to Jesus Christ and fully open to other religions. I remember very well the words of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. It was issued on October 28, 1965, shortly after my arrival as a younger man and a theology student in Louvain. 

“In our time,” the document stressed, “when day by day humankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the church examines more closely its relationship to non-Christian religions. In the church’s task of promoting unity and love among all men and women, indeed among all nations, it considers above all, in this declaration, what people have in common and what draws them to fellowship. One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth. One also is their final goal: God. God’s providence, God’s manifestations of goodness, God’s saving design extended to all people.” [My inclusive language translation.] 

Yes of course, Jesus is the center of Christian faith insofar as it is he who was and is the focus of a Christian’s faith in God. The God of Christians, however, (and here we do have what for many believers amounts to a paradigm shift) cannot be conceived by Christians as just some kind of local or tribal God, who exists only for themselves. Christians can indeed regard other world faiths as true, in the sense that they too are mediations of God’s salvation.  

Considering the world’s religions, I suggest we have to work together in what the Roman Catholic theologian, Paul Knitter, has called a kind of “unitive pluralism.” We need to move beyond a simple tolerance for other religions and develop a positive appreciation for what they have to offer…. Moving from tolerance to collaboration. From collaboration to genuine appreciation. From appreciation to learning from the other. 

Global understanding, anchored in inter-religious dialogue and collaboration, is essential for everyone’s life and future. Our goal does not have to be the reduction of all faiths into one. We do need to look for commonalities, different expressions and understandings of the Sacred, and a base for common ethical responsibilities in a turbulent and anxious world. And yes, all participants in the conversation must remain humbly open to the challenges of mutual criticism and correction. No faith tradition has all the answers. We are all learning believers.  

Inter-religious dialogue is not just something that is a nice thing to do. It is appropriate and absolutely essential for our survival in a world of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multinational interdependence. We cannot survive by “going it alone,” even if we think we are great. 

I conclude with another citation from the Declaration on Non-Christian Religions: 

“People expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the hearts of all men and women: What is the human person? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment, and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?” 

Yes. We are all on this journey together. Our enemies are not Jews and Muslims but arrogant self-righteousness, ignorance, and xenophobic paranoia…… 


Dr. J. A. Dick

Geldenaaksebaan 85

3001 Heverlee BELGIUM



2017 Blog Appeal

Dear Friends,

I am very appreciative that so many people responded to my original 2017 blog fund appeal. Since people have been asking, to date I have reached 75% of my goal. This is simply a final update. I promise to continue thinking and writing.

Warmest regards to all

Dr. J.A. Dick

Geldenaaksebaan 85A

3001 Heverlee