Theology: Stones or Bread


October 20, 2018

A few years ago my wife and I were invited to a family reunion with our Dutch relatives. It was a pleasant and delightful gathering. While having a before dinner drink, one of my wife’s uncles approached me and said he had an important question for me. He then withdraw from his pocket a small stone with very colorful lines in it. “Now,” he said “can you explain this to me?” I looked at it, rubbed my fingers on it, and said with a polite chuckle: “a lovely little stone and very colorful, but that’s all I can say.” VERY disappointed he turned away from me and walked over to my wife. “I thought you said your husband knew something about geology!” “No!” She replied: “Not GEology but THEology!”

Yes I do theology… and we all should do theology… We cannot survive without theology. Up-date-theology helps us understand and live our Faith. Outdated theology distorts Christian belief and misconstrues Sacred Scripture. Our theology has to be contemporary and credible. Retro-theology and ritual are more like geological stones. Human life, however, is nourished with living bread not colorful old stones.

Good theology interprets our Faith experience in contemporary language, symbol, and ritual. It leads to life-sustaining ministry and healthy institutional structures. It promotes authentic Christian behavior. Good theology helps us grow in our understanding of who God is for us and who we are with God for each other. Good theology stimulates us, sustains us, and calls us to growth. Defective or often passé theology disorients people and distorts the Gospel. God is not a hard-nosed old judge, ready to send people to hell. God is, to use a Jesus theological image, a loving “abba” – “Father” not an imperial disciplinarian. And no, women were not created inferior to men. Wives are not divinely ordered to be subservient to their husbands, nor are women ministerially inferior to men. (One really does not need male gonads to be a Catholic priest. The whole idea is preposterous if not downright disgusting.) Protestantism is not inferior to Catholicism. Gays are not innately disordered.

Outmoded and defective theology, at the institutional level, creates a loss of credibility and a moral leadership vacuum.

A very disordered theology of ordained ministry that stressed clerical power over people, rather than service, has directly contributed to the decades-long sexual abuse of children. Sex abuse is first about power and then sex. According to a recent CBS News report, a quarter of U.S. Catholics say that clerical sexual abuse reports have now made them personally question whether or not they will remain in the Catholic Church. The Catholic ecclipse.

+++

Right from the beginning, our early Christian communities were nourished by a number of different theologies, each addressed to a specific Christian and culturally-based religious group. The four Gospels are the prime example.

The Gospels evolved from oral traditions, passed on from person to person and from place to place. More than one single person (i.e. Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) composed the final versions of the Gospels as we have them today. Each time the authors adapted their accounts to the needs, understanding, and cultural-religious backgrounds of their listeners.

Mark’s Gospel was written for Gentile Christians in Rome. They suffered Roman persecution but

also discrimination from Judaeo-Christians, who considered themselves superior to Gentile converts. Mark portrays Jesus as the authoritative Son of God, with little reference to the Hebrew Scriptures. The Gospel According to Matthew, on the other hand, was written from a Judeo-Christian perspective. For Matthew Jesus is the great embodiment of all preceding Hebrew history.

While Mark focused on the mostly Gentile Christian community in Rome and Matthew was

more focused on the Judeo-Christian community in Antioch, Luke stresses that Christianity is

a way of life for Gentile as well as Judeo-Christian believers; and that it warrants legal

recognition in the Roman Empire. Luke is about healing and reconciliation: actions greatly

needed in our own contemporary society. The Gospel According to John differs from the Synoptics (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) in style and content in several ways. John uses a “post-resurrection” point of view. The author looks back on the Jesus events and emphasizes the inability of the apostles to understand the things that were happening at the time they occurred. The Johannine community was greatly concerned with hot issues in the church–synagogue debate and defined itself primarily in contrast to Judaism.

A variety of theological viewpoints is basically good, as long as people are (1) in conversation with each-other, (2) understand and acknowledge that a variety of viewpoints is legitimate, (3) don’t get locked into just one viewpoint, and (4) remember that the focus of any theology is our Faith experience.

When I was a younger Catholic growing-up in Michigan in the 1950s , the church was locked in a nineteenth century theology that, by way of example, still had a hang-up about sex. (Some Catholics still do, especially some who wear colorful uniforms.) I remember a page from our 1950s “Baltimore Catechism” which basically said that if you wanted to be a really good Christian you should avoid sex. Married life was “good” but no-sex religious life was “better.” (You can still find the illustration on the Internet.)

Theology changes and evolves as does our understanding of Christian tradition and human self-awareness. Theology must always change so it doesn’t get locked in a static particular cultural time frame. Theology challenges contemporary culture. It doesn’t canonize it, however. I have many Asian Christian friends who ask why they have to worship using European liturgical symbols and rituals….A good question. We must remember as well that the historical Jesus was not a pale-faced European but much more black than lily white. And, by the way, he had no problems accepting women as his disciples. So what is the basis for contemporary sexist prejudice and hangups? Send a letter to Rome.

Time-bound theology often tries to squeeze God into a narrow theological box. (My opening illustration.) God is bigger and richer than any theology. We are made in the “Image and likeness of God.” Distorted theology says that God is made in OUR image and likeness. We need liberation theology, black theology, queer theology, feminist theology, etc. to express the broad range of reality.

We need to disconnect from old theologies that supported patriarchy, power, sexism, and homophobia. Christianity is not about power over people but empowering people to take responsibility to love the other as oneself. Power over people is not a virtue, whether in Rome or Washington DC. History shows again and again that, in religion and in civil government, absolute power corrupts absolutely. My comment, by the way, is not about being a “Republican” or a “Democrat.” It is about being a decent and ethically responsible human being.

The contemporary theological challenge calls out to all of us. Contemporary believers – you and I — need to continually reflect and ask the big questions: who or what is God for me today? How do I understand Jesus today? How can I be a genuine follower of Christ today? And….where do I find the joy and support of a community of believers, who share my hunger for living bread?

– Jack

[The God in a box cartoon is by David Hayward and used here with his explicit permission.]

Authoritarianism


October 13, 2018

Authoritarianism has always bothered me because it uses and abuses people. It destroys human freedom to think, act, and live. It manipulates people and often destroys the “undesirables.”

The historical Jesus stressed that human greatness is based on compassion and service. His authority was used to motivate and guide people, to heal, support, and call to conversion. Some “Christian leaders” still don’t get the message.

In contemporary political and religious life, we are confronted with a creeping authoritarianism that seeks to dominate and control – and often displace and destroy. A very unhealthy kind of leadership.

It is not just in the United States, but around the world. We see it in Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and other countries. And I see it and study it in fanatic and fundamentalist manifestations of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Cultural change and human migration make some observers anxious and fearful. They feel threatened. They neither hear nor understand the words of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Instead they prefer to circle their wagons, or build their walls, to protect “us against them.” In ignorance, fear, and anxiety they surrender to the exaggerated rhetoric and growing influence of authoritarian leaders.

This is becoming our contemporary leadership problem. “Leaders” who should be be trusted for wisdom, intelligence, and humanitarian service are becoming hard-nosed autocrats, surrendering to the psychological and mental disorder of authoritarianism.

Honesty and integrity are replaced by self-promoting deceit and dishonesty. Self-centered authoritarians are self-stroking and need to feel good. Life for them boils down to what one can get and what one can get away with. Life is jungle warfare in a world of lazy and evil “losers.”

My immediate concern right now, however, is creeping authoritarianism in the U.S.A. It is becoming a destructive and sinister social virus that shows itself in increased racial violence, increased anti-Semitism, extreme political and social polarization, and the rise of militant Neo-Nazi groups.

Some symptoms of this contemporary social virus:

1. Ongoing efforts to intimidate and discredit the media, except for Fox News. The distinction between information and misinformation disappears.

2. Truth becomes fake news….and the actual fake news becomes the to-be-accepted real news. As George Orwell (1903-1950) predicted years ago: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

3. Police surveillance and violence against ideological “enemies” is accepted as a contemporary and necessary public safety necessity.

4. “Foreigners” are arrested, families are torn apart, and children and adults are incarcerated fir indefinite amounts of time in military camps. They are not yet called concentration camps.

5. The Supreme Court is being questionably stacked, with questionable judges, to promote a narrow authoritarian political ideology.

6. White supremacism, sexism, homophobia, far-right extremism are not criticized but promoted.

7. Fear mongering is stimulated and prompted in the name of national safety and security.

8. And, of course, the opposition is demonized.

Authoritarian “leaders” can only succeed because because authoritarian followers applaud and support them. Much more so than the average person, authoritarian followers go through life with impaired thinking. Their reasoning is often sloppy and based on prejudiced beliefs and a fierce dogmatism, that rejects evidence and logic. These cognitive defects in authoritarian followers enable them to follow any would-be dictator. As Hitler reportedly said,“What good fortune for those in power that people do not think.”

So what does one do?

Well, we must first of all acknowledge that authoritarian followers are extremely resistant to change. The more one learns about authoritarianism, the more one realizes how difficult it will be to reach people who are so ferociously aggressive and fiercely defensive. Polarization is now extreme and deeply rooted.

We need to educate and promote (starting at home with little children) a balanced education which is: (1) handing on authentic information, (2) teaching people where to find correct information, and (3) giving people the skills to be well-informed critical thinkers.

Our Christian communities, more than ever, must become, in the Spirit of Christ, compassionate and supportive gatherings of multicultural, multi-ethnic, and all-gender, brothers and sisters.

We need to courageously speak out and we need to help other people courageously speak out. If something is wrong or something untrue, people need to strongly and clearly state that it is wrong or untrue. Those who courageously speak out need the strong support of friends gathered around them. Going alone is increasingly difficult if not impossible in our cyber-linked world.

We need to be on guard, as well, that we do not become promoters of polarization and vicious partisanship. We need to learn how to work together for the common good….As Jesus said in Matthew (chapter 12): “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.”

Together we move forward.

Jack

Catholic Crossroads and Catholic Conflict


October 5, 2018

The Pew Research Center reports this week that, as allegations and investigations of sex abuse in the Catholic Church continue to become more widespread, U.S. Catholic confidence in how Pope Francis is handling the crisis has plummeted. Only three-in-ten Catholic adults say Francis is doing an “excellent” or a “good” job. This is down 24 points since 2015 and 14 points down from when the Pew Research Center last asked the question in January of this year.

The declining confidence in Pope Francis is broad-based, occurring across a wide variety of subgroups of U.S. Catholics. Since 2015, for instance, the share who gave the pope “excellent” or “good” ratings for his handling of the sex abuse issue has declined by 24 points among Catholic men and 23 points among Catholic women. Similarly, both younger and older Catholics have become increasingly critical of the pope’s handling of the still growing problem.

Even among Catholics who say they attend Mass regularly, the share who give Francis high marks for his handling of the sex abuse crisis has been cut in half since 2015. Just 34% in this group now give him “excellent” or “good” ratings. In 2015, 67% gave him a positive evaluation.

Meanwhile, within the American Catholic Church, the culture war is about to get even stronger and much more problematic.

A group of wealthy American Catholics, called “The Better Church Governance Group,” have banded together to fund what they describe as a public investigation into every member of the church’s College of Cardinals. They want to prevent a repeat of the 2013 conclave which elected Pope Francis.

As the Catholic news site CRUX reported on Monday, October 1st, the group has assembled almost 100 academics, investigators, journalists, and former FBI agents to produce what it’s calling the “Red Hat Report.” This Catholic watchdog group plans to spend more than $1 million in its first year, with the goal of naming “those credibly accused in scandal, abuse, or cover-ups.” They will also check what they consider the orthodoxy of the world’s cardinals. A contemporary Catholic witch hunt?

The goal of the new Better Church Governance Group, as the CRUX story makes clear, is to influence the election of the next pope, who will be chosen by a subset of current cardinals. “What if we would have had someone else in 2013 who would have been more proactive in protecting the innocent and the young?” the group’s operations director, Jacob Imam, asked attendees at the group’s inaugural event at the Catholic University of America. In other words: What if we could have prevented the 2013 selection of Pope Francis?

The wealthy Americans behind Better Church Governance are crusading not just against Pope Francis’ leadership, but against cardinals who do not adhere to “traditional values”— particularly against homosexuality in the church.

There are two Francis issues here and people are not making distinctions: (1) the clerical sex abuse issue and (2) an issue of moving beyond a rigid nineteenth century Catholic theological ethos. One can ask serious questions about the leadership of Pope Francis; but I see people, without critical reflection, using Francis as the scapegoat for both problems. The situation is much more complex. Too many people today would rather not think and just react according to their feelings. Frankly, I think Pope Francis has indeed opened some important doors. I also see Francis as an older fellow who is stuck in the theology of his years-ago seminary formation. If one looks at his administrative actions — and not just his airplane interviews and offhand remarks — he is basically homophobic and sexist in an old-fashioned clerical way. (Yes, many of my friends get angry when I say these things; but I try to be objective.) Regardless, we need to look at issues in a calm, rational, and mutually respectful way. When I look at movements like the Better Church Governance Group, I see more signs of clandestine suspicions maneuvering than mutually respectful behavior.

Contemporary Catholic intrigue is indeed becoming curiouser and curiouser. The American arch-conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke is now collaborating closely with the arch-conservative, and former White House chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, to promote the agenda of the far right Dignitatis Humanae Institute.

Benjamin Harnwell, the founder and director of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, located in the ancient Abbey of Trisulti, 75 miles south-east of Rome, told Reuters that Bannon has been helping to build up the institute for about half of its eight-year life. Cardinal Raymond Burke, president of the Institute’s board of advisers, said Bannon will hold a key position within the institute and his collaboration reinforces the Dignitatis Humanae Institute’s intention to create a new Catholic leadership movement far from what Burke considers to be Pope Francis’ questionably orthodox ideas: leaning towards an old style conservative and traditionalist establishment. Very Burkean for sure.

Cardinal Burke told Reuters he looked forward to working with Harnwell and Bannon “to promote a number of projects that should make a decisive contribution to the defense of what used to be called Christendom.”

The third millennial Catholic game change is underway…..

Jack

(PHOTO: Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke attends a consistory as Pope Francis elevates five Roman Catholic prelates to the rank of cardinal, at Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, June 28, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi/File Photo)