24 February 2017
NASA announced this week that the Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star. This discovery sets a new record for the number of habitable-zone planets, found around a single star, outside of our solar system.
Astronomy and the physical sciences are transforming the picture of the cosmos and of our galaxy and our planet’s place within it. To date, astronomers have found more than 500 solar systems; and each year new ones are being discovered. There may be tens of billions, perhaps even a hundred billion, solar systems just in our own galaxy; and astronomers now estimate there are at least one hundred billion galaxies in our observable universe. Add to that the recent findings that our universe is expanding and changing at an accelerated rate.
Reflecting on the age and size of created reality, our image and conception of God takes on new forms as well. Do we have a spirituality for God of the expanding cosmos? Are the old theistic anthropomorphisms adequate for today’s believers? Years ago I read that Albert Einstein had started asking these kinds of questions. He wrote about “A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity.” He added: “and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.”
A new expanded consciousness, I suggest in these trumpish chaotic days, must become operative in our thinking about ultimate realities such as God, Jesus Christ, humanity, and how we relate to each other. A new cosmic consciousness demands a more encompassing terrestrial engagement. How do we implement, down the street and around the globe, the Christian values of love, mercy, forgiveness, justice, and concern for the poor? New challenges for the world’s religions. New challenges for world politics as well. Who is master of our planet? Who should be Earth’s master? Can we continue to discuss but ignore climate change and simply wait until the seas rise? The current best estimates predict that sea level will rise 6.6 feet, or 2 meters, by the year 2100. That’s about 80 years from now. Then, the problem will not be immigrants but refugees from seacoast cities like New York and Amsterdam. What does it mean to take charge of people and their lives? What does it mean to make a country great? Is one race naturally superior to another? Can one race, or one country, or one religion ignore and/or denigrate the rest?
In my more than seven decades being a student and a teacher, I have come to realize that a good teacher is not necessarily the answer person, but the one who raises questions and helps students think and act within a broader and deeper horizon. Now I realize more than ever that all of us on planet Earth are called and challenged to be students and teachers for each other. We are one human reality and one human family. We need to begin restructuring how we relate to one another. We are believers and unbelievers, Muslims and Christians, Republicans and Democrats, trumps and immigrants, gays and straights, and all the in betweens….. We either learn to live together or perish together. The clock is ticking on planet Earth.
As I mentioned briefly last week, televangelist Pat Robertson announced recently that people who oppose Donald Trump are really revolting against God. I find this an interesting statement, when one looks at the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Drawing from a distinctly Jewish tradition, we see God as the one who assures justice for those who are defenseless and oppressed. In his words and actions, Jesus proclaimed a God whose goodness and graciousness are expressed in liberation of the oppressed and vindication of the weak and helpless. Jesus was no advocate for deceptive lying, racism, and xenophobia. Does Reverend Robertson need remedial Bible study? He certainly has a strange perspective on Gospel values.
Cosmic consciousness? God is the creator of everything and the lover of all human beings, together as a group and individually as members of the species we call human. Yes, today we also see human beings caught up in negative situations of ignorance, sin, suffering, and death. We are members of a single humanity. Our human solidarity should prohibit anyone from conceiving or hoping for a salvation that would leave others behind. Is it conceivable that God would love some and not the others? Is God’s truth up for grabs in a society of alternative truths.
The solidarity of humankind as creatures of one God is central to an authentic Christian vision. We need to remember this, when we observe modern western cultures promoting a privatized notion of salvation: looking out for my salvation, whether or not others are saved. A distorted idea of self-righteousness leads to an arrogant corruption of Christian belief. It’s happening around the world, not just in Washington.
Across Europe, I see a new and troublesome political arrogance, especially in countries like Austria, Hungary, Italy, Romania, and France, which have ambivalent relationships with their fascist and Nazi pasts. I hear echoes of a fundamentalist Christian conservative-reactionary agenda in Poland, Bulgaria, Croatia, and even in Belgium. Political leaders in these countries fear Islam and want to “make their country great again.”
As a theologian, with a special interest in ethics, I am alarmed by how easily governmental leaders get away with consequential ethics: an approach to human behavior that says the end justifies any means. We see it with revived interest in waterboarding and approval of other forms of torture to get “dangerous people” to talk. We see it with the arrests and crackdowns on “dissidents” in Turkey. We see it in the Philippines, where a new president’s government has hired vigilantes and secret death squads to combat drug sales and eliminate drug users. There is nothing Christian, just, or humane in any of this.
Terrestrial engagement is our calling, our mission, and our urgent responsibility today. Our churches, schools, colleges, voluntary organizations of all types, and cultural groups constitute the primary places where we should be actively engaged. Protests are often good and appropriate; but by themselves, they are not enough. We need structural and institutional change. Christians properly understood must be social change agents.
In the United States, Jesus is used to prop up politics on both sides of the aisle; yet in his preaching and action, Jesus revealed and announced the Reign of God: salvation that comes from God and is at work now on our planet Earth. The Jesus message challenges all political parties. In his day, Jesus, the Jewish prophet, bothered both the Romans as well as certain Jewish authorities. The Gospel of Mark (1:14-15) summarizes: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The Reign of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” The Reign of God, the salvation Jesus preached and exemplified is a mission that must be taken up by Jesus’ followers and acted out in their history: in our history as we move beyond pious words and old Christian clichés. If there is no liberating practice from social oppression, by the followers of Jesus, it is nonsense to speak about salvation in this world. We urgently need to implement a liberation theology for the poor and politically oppressed; a feminist theology, that confronts and disables all androcentric forms of patriarchal misogyny, denigration, and abuse; a queer theology, that values and sustains people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity; an inter-religion theology, that values all the great religious traditions and promotes dialogue and collaboration…. The list is long.
These are matters of belief and ethics not politics; but they challenge all politicians and all church leaders.
Next week — the first week of Lent 2017 — some reflections about Jesus and world religions.
Dr. J. A. Dick
Geldenaaksebaan 85A, 3001 Heverlee, BELGIUM
18 February 2017
No politics this week end. Just church-talk. Institutional religion in America (except for far-right evangelicals) is having a rough time. Membership numbers are still going down. Young people are turned off and have greatly dropped out, or never bothered joining up. Bishops are silent when they should be protesting. Angry old cardinals are undermining the pope. It is easy for people my age to find things to post and complain about on Facebook. I am not running away from reality. I have not lost my critical edge. I suggest however we can more effectively spend our time changing the conversation.
Conversation changes come from attitudinal changes and changed perspectives. This week end, I suggest we talk less about the institutional church and focus more on Christian community.
Let’s support genuine Christian communities where they exist, and strive to revive them in places where they are languishing or have died.
We can observe. We can talk. Now is the time to act.
Bigger is not always better. In my tradition parishes are disappearing and churches are being closed. Consolidation is becoming the Roman Catholic word. Smaller parishes are being closed, church buildings sold, and people are encouraged to join the remaining, consolidated big parishes. For older people, consolidation is bad news because they cannot always get to the bigger parish across town. For everyone it can be a real downer. Where people once had a sense of community with face-to-face parish friendships, feeling part of a neighborhood community with supportive relationships, they now find themselves more like observers in a larger but anonymous congregation.
If we change our perspective, we realize that the vitality of the church has always been based on the church as a genuine, warm-blooded community of believers in which people know one another, listen and talk to one another, and support one another. When we read the New Testament, and see the word that has often been incorrectly translated as “church,” we should more correctly see the word “community.”
Paul wrote, for example, to the COMMUNITY in Ephesus. His words have a special meaning for us today: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6)
Buildings are institutional structures. They can come and go. People are the community of faith and always come first. If a church building costs too much to maintain, sell it but don’t destroy the sense and reality of community. Let people stay together. Small communities can meet in school halls, shared churches, neighborhood centers, or even a store front. A healthy community thrives on creativity. For several years, by way of example, my wife and I belonged to a Catholic community of faith (a diocesan approved “neighborhood church”) that used the local Methodist church for our services, adult faith sharing, youth catechetics program, and potluck suppers.
Yes! We need to put on our thinking caps, because we need to shift from large congregations to intimate small size communities. Large parishes can be divided into smaller neighborhood prayer groups and study groups. Mega churches have the energy of a football game; but small communities have the energy of the human heart. This is not downsizing but reconfiguring.
Too often big corporations and big institutional churches consider downsizing a virtue. In my RCC tradition right now, dioceses have big bills from sexual-abuse lawsuits. (They are not going to disappear next year, or the year thereafter…..) Downsizing and selling church real-estate can generate a lot of dollars, especially if the small churches you want to close and sell are in a place like Manhattan. But what about the people in those small communities? Maybe the cathedrals should be rented out periodically as meeting halls for management seminars, concerts, and university lectures? Perhaps then the small church buildings can be saved? Or provided by the Archbishop free of charge?
Young people are good at networking. People often criticize them and joke about them: always having their thumbs on smart phones and Ipads. What the critics don’t realize is that those same young people are networking. Thumbs on smart phones lead to studying together, partying together, or (yes) demonstrating together. We must shift our parish focus from buildings to networking with people. I know a young pastor who understands this completely. He is electronically connected with his parishioners of all ages. His parish is alive and dynamic. It is a warm and supportive community. A community of faith.
As we change our conversation, I suggest we stop talking about and longing for the good old days. We all have many happy memories. And some not so happy ones as well. I grew up in the 1950s and had a happy childhood. I also had just about every childhood disease imaginable and feared polio creeping around my neighborhood. I don’t want to live in the 1950s. Today I would not go to a physician anchored in a 1950’s cardiology. Why should we put up with a church leadership anchored in a 1950s theology? A 1950s understanding of human sexuality? A 1950’s understanding of “the woman’s place in society”? A 1950s Catholic conception of Protestantism as “a false religion”?
All recent sociological studies – and I read and reflect on a lot of them – speak about the Millennial generation and their perspectives on life, their hopes and expectations, and their questions about values and religion. Changing the conversation, means we stop talking ABOUT them and begin to engage WITH them. How can we creatively make a place for young people in our Christian communities? How about a place for them as voting members on the parish council, in the education commission, on the finance committee, on the Christian service committee?
Changing the conversation means as well that we courageously speak out and correct error and confusion. It means educating people about the Bible and our Christian tradition. It means calling nonsense nonsense. Yes, there are Christians today speaking a lot of pure nonsense. Changing the conversation does not mean that we denigrate and demean them. Paul, again in Ephesians 4, reminds us that we need to “speak the truth in love.” It is our Christian responsibility to offer the challenge of Christian correction.
Two days ago, on “The 700 Club,” the former Southern Baptist minister, Pat Robertson, argued that people who oppose President Trump are revolting against God. That is pure nonsense. Robertson is not giving Christian witness but propagandizing a politicized religion pretending to be Christian. Regardless whether one likes him or not (see: I said no politics this week end!) the current president of the United States is not a divinely appointed and supreme monarch. And the United States is not a theocracy.
In my own Christian tradition, Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke uttered his own religious nonsense last week, when he outlined his plans to keep Protestant theology from infiltrating the Roman Catholic Church. Burke, perhaps inspired by the severe screening of immigrants at airports, proposes a screening test for Protestant converts to the Catholicism. Burke may be knowledgeable about his field which is church law. When it comes to theology, however, he needs drastic remedial education. Like the clothes he wraps around his body, Cardinal Burke’s theology is late medieval.
As I write this, the sun is in my face. Spring is in the air. Hope is alive.
10 February 2017
A few days ago, a friend gave me some friendly criticism. He suggested that I had begun to write more about politics than theology. He encouraged me to “stick to theology please.” His reprimand invited not a rebuttal but a longer reflection.
The word “politics” comes from the old Greek word politica. It concerns achieving and exercising governance over a human community like a city or a state. Politics, in the traditional humanitarian sense, strives to maintain the common good. In our American political tradition, of course, key political expressions of the U.S. common good are found in the 1776 Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution: all people are created equal and have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The 1787 U.S. Constitution stresses the importance of insuring justice, domestic tranquility, liberty, and the general welfare – for all.
“Theology” comes from two Greek words: theos and logos, meaning discourse about God. The traditional definition of theology is that it is “faith seeking understanding.” Theology probes and tries to understand and interpret the human experience of the Divine, whether called “Ground of Being;” “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;” “the Sacred;” “God;” or “Allah.”
In every generation, Christian theology strives to provide a believers’ narrative that makes sense of who we are today: that makes sense of the Good News of Christianity that God is love and we are not fated by our mistakes. Life is stronger than death. Care is stronger than hatred. We are all destined to be friends with one another and with God. Christian theology comes from a thoughtful conversation between the “I” who is a believer and the “we” who are believers. It is grounded in Christian tradition, the scriptures, and the experience of contemporary believers.
I am not a politician but a theologian. I have no interest in getting involved in party politics. One can be a Republican or a Democrat or belong to any or none of the smaller political party groups. In the current U.S. political situation, I respect all party loyalties. I respect the right of anyone to be “conservative” or “progressive.” I expect people to respect my political stance as well.
As a citizen of the United States and of the world, I do have some concerns about the current occupant of the White House. Yes, these are my personal opinions and I have no desire to impose them on anyone. Personally, I think the current occupant is an immoral, psychologically unstable, and incompetent leader. The U.S. political process will have to deal with what has already become a very real and critically dangerous situation.
Now to religion. A religion is an institutionally organized and highly structured theology. It has institutional and cultic leaders, set symbols and rituals, an official creed or statement of belief, a code of morality, sacred scriptures, and sacred places like shrines, synagogues, mosques, and churches.
When religion and politics get twisted together, one can expect sparks, short circuits, and explosions. The genius of the American political philosophy and governmental structure has been a strict separation of church and state. Good political wisdom. Good religious wisdom. As an American I don’t want a theocracy. I don’t, for instance, want an imam telling me what to do: establishing rules of life for me and telling me what I can or cannot do. That being said, I don’t want any rabbi or any bishop or any evangelical reformer establishing rules of life for me and telling me what I can or cannot do as a citizen. Religious leaders can and should critique government policies; but they shouldn’t become political operators. And certainly not high level functionaries of any political party. An established church or religion is the end of democracy, and undermines the common good.
It is a very dangerous situation, when a religion becomes the political engine that runs a country. Why? History teaches and current events demonstrate that highly politicized religion loses its proper religious identity. By becoming so intimately bound up in the political operations of society, it loses its ability to challenge the values of that society. It loses the always necessary prophetic and counter-cultural social critique function of a religion. Over time, it loses as well its ability to be of service to people. It loses its proper religious identity. Instead, it becomes an autocratic crowd-control mechanism. It ceases being the object of respect and admiration. It becomes the cold, controlling, and demanding object of idolatry. We see this happening in Erdogan’s Turkey. The Orthodox Church and Putin are doing it in Russia. Mr. Trump is clueless about what is going on.
By way of conclusion, I have no desire to get entangled in party politics. As a strong believer in Christ and as an historical theologian, however, I will speak out about and challenge any politician, political policy, or political movement that denigrates or destroys another person because of that person’s gender, sexual orientation, race, religious identity, or nationality. Being the Good Samaritan is not just pious platitude demanding polite lip service. It is the way of Christ. I will speak out as well, however, and I will protest any religious leader who becomes so entangled in politics that he or she ceases to be a prophetic witness to the message a spirit of Christ in contemporary society.
Lent is just around the corner and I am gathering my Christian thoughts……Warmest regards to all. If you have suggestions you can always write.
Dr. J. A. Dick — Geldenaaksebaan 85A, 3001 Heverlee, Belgium. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
February 4, 2017
I really don’t think “the end is near.” But….one never knows for sure. Since January 20, 2017, we have certainly entered a new era in the United States and abroad: domestic and international seismic shifts. The Doomsday Clock, created in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to sound the alarm about the catastrophic nature of nuclear weapons, has now been set ahead 30 seconds, to two and a half minutes to midnight. This is the closest it’s been to midnight since 1953.
With current events in the back of my head, and some of my friends talking about a new apocalypse, I decided to revisit the last book of the New Testament: “Revelation” also know as “Apocalypse,” from the Greek word apokálypsis which means “uncovering” or “revelation.” One of my spiritual exercises in the next few days is a careful and reflective re-reading of Revelation; and I am thinking about using it for a Bible study group later in the year.
The Book of Revelation is packed with powerful images — a mystic journey to heaven, a beast with seven heads, four horsemen, a scroll with seven seals, a whore of Babylon, etc. The book is highly symbolic and imaginative. Parts of it are like contemporary political cartoons. They point to deeper realities and invite deeper thinking and challenging dialogue. Revelation is, nonetheless, divine revelation: in a variety of literary styles and symbolic images, it narrates the challenges and confrontations that Christians face in contemporary life and culture. In many ways, we twenty-first century believers can resonate with the Christian experiences of first-century believers.
Anyone doing biblical study these days — even old historical theologians — needs of course a trustworthy and up- to-date study guide. One can always be misled by “alternative facts.” One of my old professors at the university of Louvain used to say that the Bible has a wax nose which interpreters can twist and shape according to their own biases….Sometimes I get the impression that there is a lot of biblical nose-twisting going on these days.
For my Revelation guide, I have picked a small book by Steve Mueller Reassuring Visions: Reading John’s Book of Revelation (Faith Alive Books). Mueller’s book is well-grounded in contemporary biblical theology and is excellent for personal or group study. I plan to use it for my own Bible study group. It is not a ponderous annotated scholarly commentary on Revelation but a trustworthy pastoral guide for Christians struggling to live as authentic followers of Christ today.
The text. The contemporary scholarly consensus suggests that Revelation was composed sometime during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian (CE 81 – 96). His was an authoritarian, totalitarian government built and sustained around a narcissistic cult of his own personality. He viewed himself as a divine monarch: “Son of God.” His admirers addressed him as Dominus et Deus: “Lord and God.” It made him feel very, very great. He had no use for the senate’s powers. He relied on his close group of sycophant advisors. Loyalty to him was the essential political value. He was annoyed when people joked about him. He hated actors who satirized him or his government. People who wrote against him were punished by exile or death. He was also very sensitive about his hair. As he got older, he was getting bald; and had a great assortment of wigs.
The writer. The author of Revelation called himself “John.” At one time the presumption was that he was the “John” of the Fourth Gospel. Contemporary scholarship takes a different view, calling him simply “John,” a Christian prophet from the island of Patmos in the Aegean. A prophet of course is one who courageously speaks out in support of authentic Christian teaching and behavior. A prophet also sounds the alarm about false prophets.
Focus. In Revelation John shares the distress of the Christian communities near him: the seven churches. They were being oppressed by socio-political powers greater than themselves. In his letters to the seven churches, John stresses his concerns about truth and the dangers of deception. The Roman world view, propagated and imposed by Domitian, was fundamentally based on a false view of reality, unethical values, and a deceptive and demeaning use of power.
John encourages his audience to adopt the Christian vision of reality. That of course will demand a revision of both their values and their behavior. Will they choose evil, personified in the divinity-seeking Roman emperor Domitian and his subordinates, or will they choose Christ? In Revelation, the Christian view of reality affirms that God in Christ, and in the Christian community, is initiating the transformation of our world into a new creation characterized by justice, love, no persecution, and no sting of death. God’s new creation will bring about peace for both the cosmos and for all humanity. Not the end of the world but a new start. Revelation is not about doom and gloom.
Politics. John contrasts the political strategy of Domitian and the strategy of Christ. The Roman imperial program used religion to promote and justify war and condone the killing of imperial enemies. This led to victory and a tightly controlled state of “peace.” The dangerous trouble-makers and dissident people were simply eliminated. The counter-program of the other “Son of God” uses religion to inspire and motivate people to seek nonviolence, justice, and peace.
Peace. These were and still are the two great strategies for global peace: a controlled peace through violent war and victorious over-powering or a calming peace of human solidarity through nonviolent justice.
Proverbs 29 warns: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” One could add that where there is a wrong vision, people will perish even faster.
Mixing politics and religion can be a toxic and dangerous mix. The traditional American separation of church and state safeguards both church and state. In enables the church to exercise its mission in the world: being a free counter-cultural voice and influence: questioning and challenging political leaders and socio-cultural values and behavior.
Final Thought. Three days ago in Commonweal, the independent Catholic journal of religion, politics, and culture, journalist John Gehring summarized for me the message of the prophet John of Patmos:
“Prayer, theology, and Christian discipleship,” Gehring wrote, “should be counter-cultural because the Gospel is subversive. The Lord’s Prayer is radical and revolutionary. When we pray that God’s kingdom will be made real here on earth, we’re praying for a kingdom where the poor, the refugee, the sick, and the broken have the best seat at the banquet. Building that kingdom requires prayer, activism, solidarity, and moral resistance that are politically engaged but which ultimately transcend the politics of the day.”
That indeed is the message of John’s Apocalypse……
That indeed is our contemporary Christian challenge…..
Dr. J. A. Dick
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