Muslims in the USA

11 August 2018

This week end some brief reflections about our USA multicultural and multi-religious society. This reflection is prompted by comments from two young postgraduate university students. One asked me: “Aren’t you afraid that fanatic Muslims will take over the United States?” Before I could respond, the other a young doctoral student replied with a chuckle, “I would be more afraid of fanatic Christians.”

My paternal ancestors were English immigrants. They were Quakers from Chester, England and arrived in Pennsylvania in 1682. When they arrived, what would become the United States of American was already multi-cultural and multi-religious.

People sometimes only look at our history through Christian-tinted glasses. This is not an anti-Christian comment. Just an objective observation. We all wear different kinds of glasses or none at all.

Right from the beginning, the USA was multi-religious: Christian, Muslim. Jewish, and (not to forget) Native American religious in a variety of forms. In general, it was not always easy but we have learned to live together, support one another, and grow in our understanding of Divinity. No single religion controls God. When a religion tries to do that, society slips into idolatry and authoritarian inhumanity. Religious freedom — much talked about today — means the freedom to be and practice your own religious belief.

Not all history books are clear about this; but Muslims arrived in North America long before the founding of the United States. Not just a few, but thousands. Muslims arrived in North America as early as the 17th century, eventually composing 15 to 30 percent of the enslaved West African population of British America. Muslims from the Middle East did not begin to immigrate to the United States as free citizens until the late 19th century. Key USA “Founding Fathers” demonstrated a marked interest in Islam and its practitioners, most notably Thomas Jefferson. A few months after writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson returned to Virginia to draft legislation about religion for his native state. Writing, in his private notes a paraphrase of the English philosopher John Locke’s 1689 “Letter on Toleration,” he noted: “Neither Pagan nor Mahometan (Muslim) nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.”

Later, as President Jefferson, he welcomed to the White House, in 1805, the first Muslim Ambassador to the United States. Because it was then Ramadan, the president moved the state dinner from 3:30 p.m. to be “precisely at sunset,” a recognition of the Tunisian ambassador’s religious beliefs, though not quite the first White House official celebration of Ramadan.

Yes, Islam in America is a tradition with deep roots. An estimated 20 percent of enslaved Africans were Muslims. They were not “citizens” but slaves. Scholars debate the number of Muslim slaves brought to the Americas. The estimates range from 40,000 (in the USA) up to 3 million across North and South America and the Caribbean. [In the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade (1525-1866), 12.5 million Africans were “shipped” to the New World.]

Charles Ball, an enslaved African-American from Maryland, best known for his 1837 account as a fugitive slave, The Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, wrote: “I knew several who must have been, from what I have since learned, Mohamedans; though at that time, I had never heard of the religion of Mohamed. There was one man on this plantation… who prayed five times every day, always turning his face to the east, when in the performance of his devotion.” Ball’s grandfather, from a prominent African family, was enslaved and brought to Calvert County, Maryland around 1730.

I suspect very few contemporary U.S. Americans know that many Muslim slaves were educated and literate in Arabic; and that they occupied leadership roles in the jobs that slaves performed on plantations in the American South. Historians researching Muslim slaves, in antebellum America, have discovered that the presence of such slaves stratified slave society, by creating the category of the superior “Moor” over the inferior “Negro.” Nevertheless, conversion to Christianity was the most widespread method by which most African Muslims had to reconfigure their religious practices and beliefs to adapt to their new societal context. Therefore, American-born children of African Muslims did not practice Islam nor did they self-identify as Muslims. Nevertheless, when Islam was fading among communities of slaves and former slaves, millions of new Muslim immigrants began arriving in the USA in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among them, tens of thousands from Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and Eastern Europe.

The United States’ first mosque was built in Chicago, in 1893. Frankly it was an “attraction” at the World’s Columbian Exhibition. The second mosque built in the United States was located in Highland Park, Michigan. It was completed in 1921. This time it was built, not as an exotic or foreign cultural attraction, but to witness to an authentic American faith tradition —just like the nearby Christian churches and synagogues. It was built for Muslim worshipers: Muslims who were truly American citizens.

Subsequent to the 1965 “U..S. Immigration and Naturalization Act,” more than 1.1 million new Muslims arrived in the United States, before the end of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, the contemporary “Islamophobia industry,” heavily funded and heavily biased with often factually inaccurate information, is working hard to spread the falsehood that Muslim Americans are dangerous, violent, sinister, and un-American. This is racist, xenophobic propaganda, and fake news.

Today Islam is the third largest religion in the United States after Christianity and Judaism; but one must pay close attention to the percentages. Contrary to certain contemporary political rhetoric, neither a Jewish nor an Islamic takeover is imminent. According to the 2017 study by the Public Religion Research Institute, approximately 69% of Americans are Christian; Judaism is the religion of approximately 2%; and Islam represents approximately 1% of the total U.S. population.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2017 survey of U.S. Muslims, Muslim Americans have great optimism and positive feelings about being Muslim and about being American. They are proud to be Americans. They believe that hard work generally brings success. They are satisfied with the way things are going in their own lives – even if they are not satisfied with the direction of the country as a whole.

Especially noteworthy is the Pew finding that American Muslims largely share the general U.S. public’s concerns about religious extremism. In fact U.S. Muslims may be more concerned than non-Muslims about extremism in the name of Islam. They stress, there is little support for extremism within the U.S. Muslim community, and very few say violence against civilians can be justified in pursuit of religious, political, or social causes. Overall, eight-in-ten Muslims (82%) say they are concerned about extremism in the name of Islam around the world. This is similar to the percentage of the U.S. general public that shares these concerns (83%). We do need correct information these days and a balanced perspective on all contemporary Americans not just the narrow-minded ones.

There is a particular urgency for Christians and Jews to become participants in dialogue with Muslims, their brothers and sisters in the Abrahamic tradition. Anti-Muslim prejudices in the United States are very real and damaging. In recent years, Anti-Muslim protesters have broken into mosques, destroyed copies of the Qur’an, spray-painted vulgar language on Muslim buildings, accompanied by threats of other violence, arson attacks, and even murder. (It reminds me of the nineteenth century U.S. “Nativist” prejudice and the burning of churches and convents, and murderous attacks against Catholics.)

Religious, cultural, and political polarization is a contemporary evil. It does not have to be that way……For our survival it MUST NOT be that way. The house divided against itself will not stand….


NPD : A Personal Disorder — Our Moral Challenge

4 August 2018

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) involves a distorted self-image and is a psychological disorder, with moral implications. It affects approximately 1% of the population, with a greater prevalence in men. Historically we have often seen it in men in leadership positions. Their emotions can be unstable and intense; and they display excessive concerns about personal prestige and power, stressing personal “greatness.” They also tend to lack compassion, have an exaggerated sense of superiority, and enjoy bullying people. Nothing Christian in such behavior. The Gospel is good news. Not fake news propaganda.

Below are some of the most common characteristics of people with a narcissistic personality disorder life orientation:

1 They have an insatiable appetite for the attention of others, by claiming to be the smartest, the most popular, and the most loved.

2. They exaggerate, fabricate or simply lie about achievements, talents, and importance.

3. They take advantage of others to achieve a personal goal, without regret or conscience.

4. They create facts or simply re-shape the truth to mislead, confuse, and control people. Their focus is not reality news but propaganda. Any media coverage unfavorable to them is rejected as part of a fake news “hoax” against them. Paranoia prioritized.

5. They lack empathy, or the ability to understand the feelings of others. They disregard, joke about, or demean others’ feelings.

6. They react to criticism by denigrating their critics in racist and xenophobic diatribes.Their toxic rhetoric and propaganda stimulate and support hate groups and racist movements.

7. They use women as playthings and brag about their sexual exploits in immature and adolescent boyish fashion.

8. Whatever they crave or yearn for must be “the best” because they are the best and deserve the best.

9. They clandestinely or openly take advantage of others so they can move forward in life and/or get what they want, with no remorse toward the ones stepped on, used, and abused.

10. Narcissists are toxic people. They are proudly self-obsessed, arrogant, tough-minded bullies, and immature people lacking healthy emotions.

What to do?

People with NPD need help. Psychotherapy. For many, the disorder lasts a lifetime. Nevertheless, they still have moral responsibilities toward other people and within the institutions in which they operate. One cannot excuse their behavior.

People who are victimized by people with NPD, or who are alarmed by the power and negative influence of people with NPD, need to network and collaborate in curtailing their power and influence.

I first encountered an NPD person when he was pastor of a nearby parish. The situation went from annoying to bad then to very bad. Eventually the parish council, with abundant documented evidence about his erratic behavior and psychological disorder, told the local bishop that the pastor was “very unwell” and had to go. Within a few days, a healthy “pastoral change” was made. Change is possible when conscientious and courageous people work together.

I suspect one could make a list of famous people with NPD. Reflecting, as an old historian, on Western European history, I think immediately about people like Henry VIII, Napoleon, Generalissimo Franco, and Hitler of course. In the church I think of men like Pope Pius IX (1792 – 1878). “Pio Nono” was pope for more than 31 years. He started out good but then regressed. Loss of papal influence and power, and then the the loss of the Papal States twisted his brain. He could not make the papacy great again. He was the last Pope-King before the Catholic Church’s broad temporal power was swept away. He became the quintessence of ecclesiastical obscurantism and intransigence. He is famous for papal infallibility (personal papal power) and his 1864 “Syllabus of Errors” : a strong condemnation of liberalism, modernism, and separation of church and state. (He also supported President Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy in the US American Civil War.)

In contemporary political life there are also people with NPD. Vladimir Putin is just one key example.

NPD is a pressing contemporary challenge. People who recognize this disorder in political and religious leaders need to deal with the problem constructively and effectively. The clock is ticking.

As the Spanish-born, US American/European philosopher and novelist George Santayana (1863 – 1952) said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”


Pro-Life: Pro-People

July 28, 2018

Considerations about United States Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh are again generating heated pro-life/pro-choice/abortion debates.

This week, some personal thoughts about about being pro-life. Friends and associates have encouraged me to write-down my own current understandings and concerns….

The big abortion debate in the United States was launched by Roe v. Wade, the US Supreme Court decision issued on January 22, 1973, on the constitutionality of laws that criminalized or restricted access to abortions. The Court ruled 7–2 that a right to privacy, under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, extended to a woman’s decision to have an abortion. The Court therefore deemed abortion a fundamental right under the United States Constitution. Frantic polarization set in back then. I remember it well. I was a high school religion teacher in a Catholic school!

That Supreme Court decision opened a heated national debate; and the debate is just as heated today. A key element in that debate has been clarifying the role of religious and moral views in the political sphere. Who controls morality? Is that an appropriate role for politicians? Should the church control political decision-making and governmental legislation?

I will not pretend to resolve the issue; but I do have some carefully thought-out positions in the pro-life/pro-choice debate. Twelve reflections. I list them in no particular hierarchical order. As always, people are free to disagree; but then the conversation has to be respectful and civil. My thoughts:

(1) One must make a distinction between morality and civil law. Morality and law are not identical. Civil law is ordered to promote the common good and should not legislate all ethical acts; but only those that affect the common good. Civil law is aimed at making it possible for people to live together in community: in justice, peace, and freedom.

(2) A proper understanding of civil law recognizes that respecting the freedom of the individual person is essential; but that does not necessarily mean that one must support everything that a person does with his or her freedom. In a multicultural civil society, everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, subject only to those limitations necessary for public safety, public order, or protection of the rights and freedoms of others. A couple examples: I disagree with the racist xenophobia of an acquaintance; but he has a right to hold and express his opinion — as long as he doesn’t start shooting people at the grocery store. Same-sex marriage is now legal in all fifty US states. A person does not have to agree with it. According to civil law, however, one must respect the rights of same-sex couples to marry and not hinder them.

(3) As theologian Charles Curran once said: “We are pilgrim people living in a pluralistic and imperfect society — and in an imperfect church! In this context, considerations of the freedom of the person, the feasibility of legislation, and the reality of compromise cannot be denied.”

(4) We need to have reasoned and mutually respectful ongoing discussion about appropriate civil laws that promote the common good. We cannot, however, allow ourselves or our country to fall into the trap of having the government legislate moral behavior. That would lead to tyranny, the loss of human freedom, and the threat of inhumane demagoguery. As we see developing in Turkey and other countries today, like fundamentalist Catholic Poland. Again, separation of church (institutional religion) and state is terribly important. Everywhere.

(5) What I miss in just about all anti-abortion debates, is an informed and reasoned conversation about what abortion procedures really do. Is all abortion murder: the taking of a human life? I have known several obstetricians over the years (and some very conservative ones) who strongly say that not all abortion is murder. Some time ago, in an earnest and friendly way, I asked an archbishop, whom I know rather well, if we could discuss this. He got angry, suddenly, and yelled at me: “No! There is no discussion about that!”…. Far too often today people would rather condemn than question and seek to understand. There is so much absolute certainty based on pre-determined ideas and conformity to how the group feels.

(6) I am strongly pro-life. I generally oppose direct abortion. That being said, I can understand indirect abortion, for a proportionate reason, like saving the life of the mother. There will always be situations in which one must give the benefit of the doubt, and respect the pregnant woman’s freedom of conscience. Civil legislation must always respect and support freedom of conscience.

(7) I am strongly pro-life. Not just pro fetal life. I am amazed how many pro-life advocates and demonstrators forget about caring for people AFTER they are born. Pro-life is pro-people, regardless whether they are foreign, black, or white. Regardless whether they are refugees or stalwart citizens. Regardless whether they are gay or straight, Muslim or Christian, rich or poor, men or women. Pro-life is pro-everybody who has dignity, self-worth, and the right to life and liberty. Pro-life is much more than anti-abortion. Our current US president strongly asserts that he is anti-abortion. Many people voted him into office for that very reason. Is he in fact pro-life? So far, under the current president’s US-Mexico border “zero-tolerance” policy, 914 children have been deemed “ineligible” for reunification and 463 children’s parents deported. That makes 1377 displaced children. Lost forever? Not a question of abortion, but a major “pro-life” issue for sure.

(8) Seriously, I am not anti-Catholic; but I have long feared, especially in my Catholic tradition, that a “pro-life” emphasis, that is really just an “anti-abortion” emphasis, gives the church only a single-issue voice and ignores or downplays many other moral issues involving peace, social justice, and opposition to contemporary violence-wielding racist movements and organizations.

(9) One cannot build a genuinely pro-life ethical house if one builds only on ani-abortion sand. One must deal with ALL threats to human life and dignity: racism and discrimination, the death penalty, unjust wars, torture, poverty, health care, and immigration. All of these issues involve serious moral challenges.

(10) Some people, especially in my religious tradition, argue that since abortion is an “intrinsic moral evil,” it differs from all other issues like immigration, the death penalty, human rights, or use of nuclear weapons. Curiously, masturbation, homosexual acts, and contraceptive heterosexual acts are all, according to traditional Catholic moral teaching, intrinsic moral evils. Needless to say, there are Catholic moralists who disagree with this tradition. For today, however, “intrinsic moral evil” involves a discussion we have neither time nor space to get into…. I would suggest however that if one really wants to start making a list of “intrinsic moral evils,” clerical sexual abuse of children and teenagers belongs on top.

(11) One can be anti-abortion; but what about having some compassion, understanding, and support for women who do have abortions? That too is pastoral ministry. The teenager who got pregnant. The woman who was raped? Many other kinds of situations….Traumatic life experiences often bring women to the abortion clinic. Just as I support counseling, psychological, and physical help for women contemplating an abortion, I would also like to see counseling, psychological, and physical help for women after an abortion. I strongly disagree with the president who has said that women should be punished for having an abortion. In April 2018 a lieutenant governor candidate in Idaho even said that, once abortion were declared illegal, women who get an abortion should be punished and that the punishment should include the death penalty. Well, in that case what about the men who impregnated them?

(12) Finally but primary in importance, it is absolutely essential that people have good birth control information, good education and formation about human sexuality, and access to contraceptives. Every study indicates that abortion rates greatly diminish where birth control information and contraceptives are readily available. I find it offensive and inhumane that some governmental and ecclesiastical authorities limit the availability of condoms as protection against AIDS, because they consider birth control intrinsically immoral.

Take care…..


Being Non-Political

July 21, 2018

To begin with: A very brief comment about today’s local holiday. Akin to our USA Fourth of July. The Belgian National Day is a public holiday celebrated on 21 July each year. In 1830, Belgium gained political independence and regained cultural independence from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. Up until then, the Belgian area was known as the Southern Netherlands and had been governed by other countries including Spain and France.

Now on to politics but with this advisory: after Helsinki and post-Helsinki developments I will avoid touching directly on DJT.

An acquaintance, who regularly follows my posts, asked me if I would please avoid commenting about politics in the coming months. He hoped I would because in his words “theologians should stay out of politics.”

Well theologians reflect on our faith experiences and the signs of the times. Frankly one cannot really be non-political; and one can and must be politically critical as well as religiously critical.

The signs of the times beckon to all of us. My old friend, Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, observed not so long ago: “There is no such thing as being non-political. Everything we say or do either affirms or critiques the status quo. To say nothing is to say something.”

Today I would like to say something about religion and nationalism. What agitated me this week, aside from an Helsinki headache, was the announcement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of a new Israeli Basic Law which proclaims: “The actualization of the right of national self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” So there we have it. Israel is now the Jewish State. Part of the contemporary religion/nationalism trend.

When I was in Moscow for a conference a year ago, a Russian professor friend reminded me that Mother Russia is Russian Orthodox. With some delight he stressed that even President Putin is strongly Orthodox and he and Moscow’s Orthodox Patriarch Kirill are mutually supportive. Kirill has backed the expansion of Russian power into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. He is strongly anti-gay; and even has often stressed that “Orthodoxy must defend itself” and fight against the “heresy” of human rights, which “contradicted the Bible.” Hmm

Contemporary Poland is a curious example. There Catholic nationalism is the religion of the far right government. During the former Soviet-backed Communist rule in Poland, the church was a symbol of intellectual freedom and served as a force of resistance against the oppressive regime. Today it is part of the oppressive regime. Rafał Pankowski, co-founder of the anti-racist Never Again Association and professor at the Collegium Civitas in Warsaw said that nationalists benefit from the status of religion in Poland, where 94 percent of citizens say they belong to the church. They strongly support a Polish national agenda that is anti-gay, anti-Muslim, and anti-Semitic.

Contemporary Catholic Poland reminds me of Catholic Spain under the dictatorship of Generalissimo Franco.

But now just two more contemporary examples of religion and nationalism….

In Turkey fifteen years into his rule, President Erdoğan has gradually turned his country away from the secular tradition of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the modern state in 1923. Today he promotes extreme Islamic religion in public life, clamps down on opponents and the media, and moves ever more firmly away from democratic norms. Unhealthy religion and unhealthy nationalism.

Finally a brief comment about contemporary India. (At my university we have a lot of students from India.)

The Bharatiya Janata Party, currently in power, is a right-wing, nationalist group, allied with the position that India should be only a Hindu nation. Anti-Muslim and anti-Christian incidents are on the rise. All for one national religion….

Religion and nationalism always make a volatile mix. I have always thought separation of church and state should be considered a pro-Christian virtue. Perhaps however, one needs to be more alert these days to an underlying problem of nationalism.

Patriotism can be strong and positively humane. Nationalism too often raises red flags.

In 1945, the same year he wrote Animal Farm, George Orwell emphasized the difference between “nationalism” and “patriotism.” Nationalism, Orwell argued, is the belief that one’s own nation should dominate others. It “is inseparable from the desire for power.” A nationalist, Orwell argued, “thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige … his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.” Patriotism, by contrast, involves “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one has no wish to force on other people.”

Orwell’s explanation of patriotism is brief. But his implication is that while nationalism is about the

relationship between one’s country and other countries, patriotism is about the relationship between

one’s country and oneself. It derives from the Latin pater, meaning “father.” Just as devotion to family

requires placing its well-being above one’s own, devotion to country—patriotism—extends that principle to the nation as a whole.

Take care.


Women and Authority in Early Christianity

14 July 2018

My reflection this week end is about a book I strongly recommend to all readers, and especially to men in ecclesiastical leadership and hierarchical positions: CRISPINA AND HER SISTERS: WOMEN AND AUTHORITY IN EARLY CHRISTIANITY by Sister Christine Schenk, CSJ (Fortress Press)

Thanks to Christine Schenk and many other researchers and historical theologians, we have come to a much better understanding of the place and role of women in early Christianity. They were central figures and their stories and lives have been obscured too long by male scriptural scholars and theologians with paternalistic (and often misogynist) barrel vision.

As Laure Brink noted in her recent (July 11, 2018) review in the National Catholic Reporter, “Schenk’s research and writing took three years to accomplish. She explored visual imagery found on burial artifacts of prominent late third- and fourth-century Christian women….Schenk analyzed 2,119 images and descriptors of sarcophagi (stone coffins) and fragments from the third to fifth centuries.” This is no small thing. Women played a very significant institutional role in early Christianity.

Christine Schenk’s observations about her book are very much to the point. Her goal is “allowing men, and especially women, to retrieve the memory of influential women whose witness has for too long been invisible or distorted in Christian memory” with the “hope that drawing attention to these ancient images of early Christian women in iconic authority portrayals may help us reset our preconceived mental models.”

Schenk begins with the socio-cultural context of women in early Christianity (chapter one) and clearly notes that the rapid growth of Christianity was due in no small measure to the ministry and patronage of women who welcomed early Christian missionaries, both male and female, into the complex social network of Greco-Roman households. She then moves on (chapter two) to examine women’s exercise of authority in the first-century Christian churches as reflected in Paul’s letters, Acts, and other early Christian writings. Paul, for example, has an impressive list: Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Junia, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus’s mother, Julia, and Nereus’s sister. Peter Lampe, theologian and Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Heidelberg, deduces that women may have been more active than men in the first-century Christian community in Rome.

Chapter three provides a broad overview of methods used by art historians to analyze early Christian art as well as the interpretive challenges of relating it to the history of early Christian women. Then (chapter four) one has an analysis of the earliest frescos depicting Christian women found at the catacombs of Priscilla. We then embark on a study of late ancient Roman funerary practices (chapter five): a fascinating journey into the history and culture of the late Roman Empire.

In chapter six, Christine Schenk zeroes in on the underlying assumption of her book: that late third- through fifth-century Christian portrait funerary art is an important source of information about early Christian women as persons who exercised religious authority and influence. Chapter seven examines the implications of female iconography.

Chapter eight is titled “Women and Authority in the Fourth Century: Integrating the Literary Evidence.” This concluding chapter explores what can be known from the literary sources about the Christian women who lived during this dramatically transformative time in church and empire.

History educates, confirms, inspires, and motivates…… And this is a very fine historical study.

I conclude with a bit of serendipity. This morning, my wife and I participated in a Belgian, Roman Catholic funeral for the wife of a friend. It was an impressive and memorable service. The presider, dressed in white, speaking and singing in a wonderfully warm and reassuring way was a woman. I couldn’t help thinking, with a gentle knowing smile, about Crispina, her sisters, and author Sister Christine Schenk.


Conservative Dialogue

Saturday 7 July 2018

Not so long ago I had a reunion with an old college friend, who knew my parents quite well. Slapping me on the back, as some old boys like to do, he reprimanded me and asked how it was possible that I became such an “old liberal” when my parents were so “ultra-conservative.” I told him I thought such labels applied to neither my parents nor me. I said drop the labels and talk about the issues, please.

Terms like “liberal” and “conservative” can be very confusing and distorting these days when so much of our language seems increasingly disconnected from reality. My parents valued accuracy, truthfulness, and critical thinking. I as well. In many ways they were traditionalists. I as well, because all genuine theological research and reflection is anchored in tradition, biblical exegesis, and contemporary faith experience. Tradition is not only important but essential.

Tradition gets interpreted, and that is where the discussion/dialogue should start.

An article in today’s International New York Times caught my attention because the author is Roger Scruton, an English philosopher and writer, well-know for his “traditionalist conservative” views. Scruton first came to my attention when I read his 2017 book Conservatism: Ideas in Profile.

Roger Scruton’s New York Times article was titled: “What Trump doesn’t get about conservatism” and I — the “old liberal” — found myself resonating with much of his viewpoint.

Some excerpts:

“I have devoted a substantial part of my intellectual life to defining and defending conservatism, as a social philosophy and a political program,” Scruton writes. “Each time I think I have hit the nail on the head, the nail slips to one side and the hammer blow falls on my fingers…..

In the current president “…. we encounter a politician who uses social media to bypass the realm of ideas entirely, addressing the sentiments of his followers without a filter of educated argument and with only a marginal interest in what anyone with a mind might have said…..

“Institutions, traditions, and allegiances survive by adapting, not by remaining forever in the condition in which a political leader might inherit them. Conservative thinkers have in general understood this. And the principle of adaptability applies not only to law but also to the economy on which all citizens depend…..

“Conservative thinkers have on the whole praised the free market, but they do not think that market values are the only values there are. Their primary concern is with the aspects of society in which markets have little or no part to play: education, culture, religion, marriage, and the family. Such spheres of social endeavor arise not through buying and selling but through cherishing what cannot be bought and sold: things like love, loyalty, art and knowledge, which are not means to an end but ends in themselves.

“About such things it is fair to say that Mr. Trump has at best only a distorted vision. He is a product of the cultural decline that is rapidly consigning our artistic and philosophical inheritance to oblivion. And perhaps the principal reason for doubting Mr. Trump’s conservative credentials is that being a creation of social media, he has lost the sense that there is a civilization out there that stands above his deals and his tweets in a posture of disinterested judgment.”

My point this week end is not so much to critique the current president — worth doing of course — but to stress the importance of evidence-based dialogue. “Conservative” dialogue. “Liberal” dialogue. “Traditionalist” dialogue.

Dialogue with everyone without slipping into the barrel vision of contemporary labels

Ultimately, as history demonstrates, the only alternative to dialogue is war.


Fourth of July Another Voice

July 4, 2018

Yes I am back. A couple weeks ago, while traveling in Eastern Europe, I decided to resume my Another Voice reflections this summer on the Fourth of July.

No fireworks. Just a few observations.

In an uniquely historic way, the July 4th 1776 Declaration of Independence was truly and is truly another voice in the struggle for human rights and respecting everyone’s human dignity.

The Declaration was a courageous critique of authoritarian and abusive political power. Jefferson’s words, endorsed by representatives of the original colonies, were solidly anchored in REALITY, REASON, and the self-evident TRUTH that that all are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

A clear voice for humanity. A clear voice for compassion and collaboration, rather than denigration and deception. A clear voice for immigrant respect and fellowship, rather than family separation and incarceration. Good material for a socio-political examination of conscience.

There were a lot of immigrants in those first thirteen states: they were British, Dutch, French, German, and Irish. (Not to forget of course Native Americans and African slaves!) They were Protestant and Catholic, as well as Jewish and Muslim. Xenophobia and bigotry are un-American. The authentic American voice proclaims mutual understanding and support for American multiculturalism and a great abundance of ethnic and racial variety: the pluribus of e pluribus unum.

We are not perfect but capable of doing better and being better. Acknowledging popular and political shortcomings and constructive change are key elements as well in our U.S. American experience: we can and have humbly acknowledged our own wrongdoing. We try to repair and move ahead…..

Yes I am proud to be an American and celebrate that with my U.S. friends this Fourth of July.

And I close with an adaptation of a statement painted on a coat:

“I do care. Don’t U?”


Historical Theologian


Power over people is not a virtue; and history shows again and again that in religion and in civil society absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Prophesy, Visions, Dreams


May 20, 2018

Once again we find encouragement in Acts of Apostles: “ I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions. Your old men will dream dreams.”(Acts 2:17)

One Spirit, enlightening all people, across all ages. A cause for Pentecost celebration and again the source of our challenge. To speak out. To have a vision. To dream.

We live in strange times, when truth has become do-itself fantasy, violence has become a value, and the people who should speak out close their eyes, turn off their brains, and turn their backs in silence.

A fellow blogger, whom I greatly respect, Joris Heise (, said it so clearly a few days ago:

“So much distrust, anger and hatred rise like weeds from our ignorance of one another. We see someone whom we don’t know – and who might look or talk different – and, too often, because our instinct is to fear what is different, to become uncomfortable with what is strange, we turn off the love of God. On the other hand, someone who follows Jesus – and who tries to be Jesus in our present world – sees another person of whatever kind as someone loved by God, and kept in existence by our loving Creator…..the love that God has for our world is within—inside ourselves, our conscience, and our mind, waiting to emerge. Only the habit of prejudice, the failure to grow up, an environmental culture of caution and fear – these keep us from feeling and expressing the love of God for our neighbor.”

So yes… in our prophetic witness, in our visions, and in our dreams the Spirit beckons. We are indeed human beings, made in the image and likeness of God. We have dignity. We have self-worth. We are multicultural brothers and sisters…not immigrant “animals,” as a Western head of state said last week. (First step down the road to genocide? It began that way once before.)

The signs of the times should be prophetic eye-openers.

Extreme Israeli violence against Palestinian protestors on the day the U.S. Embassy was opened In Jerusalem? At least sixty dead and thousands wounded. Many children and young people. Justified because the Palestinians are terrorists?

Meanwhile, some 40 miles away there was Pastor Robert Jeffress, one of President Trump’s closest evangelical advisers. He offered a prayerful reflection at the U.S. Embassy ceremonies in Jerusalem. Pastor Jeffress has strong religious convictions. Can one reconcile them with the message of Jesus? Or with historical American values? According to the Reverend, “God sends good people to Hell. Not only do religions like Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism — not only do they lead people away from God, they lead people to an eternity of separation from God in Hell.”

In my own RCC tradition, the signs of the times are historic. On Friday, May 18, every Roman Catholic bishop from Chile offered his resignation because of sex abuse and the cover-up scandal. Indeed, the biggest shakeup in the Catholic Church’s long-running sex abuse saga. At the end of an emergency summit with Pope Francis in Rome, all thirty-one active bishops and three retired bishops signed a document offering to resign and putting their fate in the hands of the pope.

And that same Friday, as I was writing this reflection, nine students and one teacher were killed at Santa Fe High School in Galveston County, South of Houston. Since 2000, there have been 213 school shootings in the USA. The highest number in other countries (Australia, Canada, Germany, and South Africa) 5.

Challenges abound. The Spirit has not abandoned us. It appears however that a lot of believers have abandoned the Spirit.

Warm regards this Pentecost.

Thanks for traveling with me!



I am not running away from the challenge. This week end, however, I am again stepping away from my blog for a while. Going on a kind of R&R retreat with my wife. A time to relax and escape to a quiet place. Time to reflect. Lots of thoughts going through my aging head; and I enjoyed a busy year, still teaching three classes a week. I hope to log in again towards the end of June. Another Voice is not gone. Just dreaming dreams.

Christian Humanism

Sunday 13 May 2018

The Path to the Divine, at the heart of Reality, is through Christian Humanism.

Erasmus of Rotterdam (c1466 – 1536) explored it already when he wrote in his Enchiridion Militis Christiani (1503) that God is simply the life of the human soul. Much earlier, Augustine the Bishop of Hippo (354-430) could write to God in his Confessions “When I recognize myself, I recognize you!” For Augustine, God is the inner illumination of the mind, which propels the self beyond itself into the Divine. God is the light of the world reflected in the human soul.

Augustine of course was echoing the Apostle Paul: “The God who made the world and everything in it is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands….From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God —though indeed God is not far from each one of us.” (Acts 17:24-28)

Christian humanism affirms that at the core of authentic human existence there is some revelation and experience of the authentically Divine.

Here then, for reflection and discussion, are ten affirmations about Christian Humanism:

1. Human beings possess capacities to sense, understand, and respond to events of transcendence manifest in everyday existence.

2. The sense of the transcendent, or what one could call ‘an instinct for the Divine,’ responds to real disclosures within the natural, historical, and lived experiences of Reality.

3. “God” names what is actually present in the power, depth, scope, intensity, and claim of life.

4. These disclosures of divinity within the natural and historical lives of peoples need to be read and interpreted like one reads a text. Sometimes one needs to learn the necessary language….

5. Human beings can gain real intimations of the Divine via signs of sacredness in the world around them. Some people are vision impaired……

6. A Christian humanist freely decides to sense, attend to, and reflect on those intimations of Divine presence in human lived experence.

7. Critical thinking remains a necessary moment in the interpretation of Divine disclosures.

8. Christian humanism demands that we develop a conscience that is self-critical. And to become people of conscience we adopt spiritual and religious practices that actualize our capacities to be aware of and open to the fullness of life.

9. Christian humanism aims at inculcating a vigilant faith, a resolute hope, and an abundant love as modes of openness to the Divine.

10. Christian humanism fosters attitudes and feelings of heartfelt gratitude, steadfast humility, and demanding compassion.

Disciplined attention to Christian humanism discloses that in spite of sorrow, pain, and agony, human life is nevertheless saturated with worth and that responsible human action is to draw together that goodness into a complete vision of life with others and for oneself.

That my friends is our big challenge.


A Constructive Contemporary Theological Agenda

Sunday — May 6, 2018

As I stressed last week: TODAY, we need to find a way to articulate the human experience of the Divine that reduces it neither to the extreme secularity of the “post-theistic theologians” nor to the unthinking and closed-minded certitude of the static believers. We need to find a way to understand the positive, substantive and normative meaning of transcendence as it makes a claim on human beings within contemporary historical existence: within contemporary culture.

We need to find a new theological language. As Paul Ricoeur had prophetically noted already in his “The Symbolism of Evil” (Beacon, 1967, p.349), “It is not regret for the sunken Atlantis that animates us, but hope for a re-creation of language.”

Contemporary people want the security of answers – yet much official contemporary religion seems to give them answers from a place far away from their daily lives. Indeed religious fundamentalism and static belief theology seems motivated by this longing for the sunken Atlantis!

I suggest five principles for the contemporary theological agenda:

(1) The AIM of theology cannot be a kind of nostalgic retreat to recover a lost mode of being in the world. (I often think about this when I see some conservative cardinals prancing around in their colorful late medieval costumes. And their language fits their red dresses.)

(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.

(3) We also look for the resonance and dialogue with tradition: with the theological expressions of earlier cultures. We resonate with them not just repeat them again and again….

(4) A truly authentic theology can never be simply the expression of individual, subjective experience. We belong to a community of believers…the Body of Christ.

(5) Theology therefore relies on culture but can never become locked within a particular culture. Nor can it venerate exclusively any particular culture….. One should not expect, for example, that African believers should use Western European language and rituals nor should their Christian cousins in China. And none of us should feel comfortable with the thought categories of a Neo-Platonic creed from the fourth century. We live, think, and speak today….

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.

Every healthy theology (because its focus is what lies within and yet beyond culture in all of its historical manifestations) is continually engaged in a critical reflection and a critique of the contemporary and previous cultures.

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.

The road around both regressive static belief and exaggerated humanization is an authentic Christian humanism. And that is my focus for next week!