My Religion, Your Religion, Our God


May 3, 2019

Theological understandings change over time. My own theological understanding of world religions has been greatly influenced by the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. It was issued on October 28, 1965, shortly after my arrival as a younger man and a theology student in at the University of Louvain/Leuven.

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

Two books that have helped me refine my own thinking about Christianity and would religions are: Jesus Symbol of God (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999) by Roger Haight, S.J., and Theologies of Religion (also Orbis Books, 2002) by Paul Knitter.

My own understanding has moved beyond three more or less rigid viewpoints about the relation of other religious traditions to Christianity: pluralism, exclusivism, and inclusivism.

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

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

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

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

The message of Jesus is theocentric: God saves and God is love.

Jesus is the great symbol and reality of the proclamation of God’s salvation. A theocentric perspective on Jesus – where I am today — enables Christians to be fully committed to Jesus Christ and fully open to other religions.

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

Global understanding, anchored in inter-religious dialogue and collaboration, is essential for everyone’s life and future.

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

Global Religious Change


First Sunday after Easter

According to a new Gallup poll, the percentage of adults in the United States who belong to a church or other religious institution has plunged by 20 percentage points over the past two decades, hitting a low of 50%. Church membership was 70% in 1999 — and close to or higher than that figure for most of the 20th century. Since 1999, however, the figure has fallen steadily.

Among Americans, who identify with a particular religion, the sharpest drop in institutional membership is among Catholics: from 76% to 63% over the past two decades. Membership among Protestants dropped from 73% to 67% percent over the same period.

Most interestingly, among Hispanic Americans, church membership has dropped from 68% to 45% since 2000. Bad news for Catholic church leaders who have been counting on Hispanics to keep their church alive.

So what is happening? I suggest there is an increasing erosion in the level of trust people have for institutions in general and for churches in particular. Just look at the current U.S. political landscape….This trend will continue until institutional credibility is restored. If and when. Institutions and institutional leaders become credible only when they speak in a helpfully meaningful way about contemporary life issues.

An important factor in the the examination of contemporary religion is being clear that “religion” and “faith” are not the same thing. Major complications arise when this distinction is unknown or ignored. Religion should support and promote faith but doesn’t always do that. Faith is a person’s relationship with the deepest heart of Reality, called “God,” the “Divine,” or in the language of theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) the “Ground of Being.”

Religion is an institutionalized interpretation of the faith experience, expressed in a system of beliefs and practices. Ideally it should point people to the Divine. In practice it sometimes points only to itself. Then a form of idolatry takes over: not the Divine but the institution, with its doctrines, power bosses, and structures, becomes the object of veneration.

Another contemporary example of the use of religion. Back in 2016, many journalists pointed out a stunning change in how religious values were understood. They noted how white evangelicals perceived the connection between private and public morality. In 2011, a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Religion News Service found that 60 % of white evangelicals believed that a public official who “commits an immoral act in their personal life” cannot still “behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” But in an October 2016 poll by PRRI and the Brookings Institution — after the release of numerous revelations of sexual immorality by a key political figure in Washington DC — only 20 % of evangelicals, answering the same question, said that private immorality meant someone could not behave ethically in public

Sometimes religions serve politics more than God.

Where there is religion there is a continual need for healthy criticism and reformation. European Christianity experienced a big Reformation in the sixteenth century. An even bigger one is underway right now but its extent and shape are still evolving. Things like, former pope, Bishop Ratzinger’s recently published reflections and trouble-maker Steve Bannon’s attacks on Pope Francis are mere distortions.

Back to some recognizable trends….Across 27 countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center, more people in North America and Europe say religion plays a less important role today than it did 20 years ago: in the U.S.A. (58%), in Canada (64%), in Germany (51%), in Poland (46%), and in the Netherlands (61%), by way of examples.

Note well, however, that adults in the Asia-Pacific region have a very different perspective on the role religion plays in their societies. In Indonesia (83%), the Philippines (58%), and in India (54%) believe that religion has a bigger impact on their nations today than it did 20 years ago. However, in South Korea, Japan and Australia, people tend to say religion has become less important or there has been no change.

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, a 65% majority thinks religion plays a more important role in their country, and 60% of Kenyans say the same. Significantly, large majorities in these countries (96% and 93%, respectively) say religion is very important in their lives.

How does one interpret these trends? That calls for more research and reflection. Much, I believe, has to do with the cultural and political roles that religion plays in people’s lives. In the Putin era in Russia, by way of example, the Russian Orthodox Church is extremely powerful and strongly supportive of the government. If you want to move ahead in Russia, you must be Orthodox. Only 18% of today’s Russians think religion is les important that twenty years ago.

This will be an ongoing discussion in various says.

Personally, I am still a believer but much less “religious” than twenty years ago. Some of my old religious practices just don’t make sense to me anymore. But my daily prayer and contact with the Divine are stronger now than ever. I scratch my old head about to speak in contemporary language about God. Nevertheless, I am hardly a saint but I do truly believe I journey with God each day and that with the love of my wife, son, and friends keeps me going.

Next week some thoughts about Christianity and world religions…..

Easter 2019


(A field by Park Abbey close to home….)

An Easter reflection by one of my theological heroes: Jon Sobrino.

“The Resurrection of Jesus is…a symbol of hope…I don’t see how you can show love…without being in solidarity with the victims of this world. And if you are in solidarity with the victims, I don’t see how you can avoid the cross. The theology of the cross is the theology of love in our real world.

“There is a reality of sin, which has structural causes and kills a majority of the population, and an evident need to overcome this situation of death. Without doing this task, theology was neither human nor Christian. From here I re-thought the reign of God—as justice and fellowship—as the core of Jesus of Nazareth. I re-thought the historical Jesus, and the following of him, including centrally his compassion towards the poor, the announcement of good news to the oppressed and the denunciation of the oppressors. I insisted that for this he died on a cross, and I insisted that the risen Christ is a crucified Christ. The resurrection of Jesus was the reaction of God against the victimizers who killed the innocent. From the love of the crucified and from his rehabilitation on the part of God emerges hope. God is the God of life in a struggle against the idols that demand death for survival.”

Happy Easter!

Jon Sobrino SJ (born 1938) is a Jesuit Catholic ordained minister and theologian, known mostly for his contributions to liberation theology. Born into a Basque family in Barcelona, Sobrino entered the Society of Jesus when he was 18. The following year, in 1958, he was sent to El Salvador. He later studied engineering at Saint Louis University, and then theology at Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt in West Germany for his Doctor of Theology degree. Returning to El Salvador, he taught at the Jesuit-run University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador, which he had helped to found.

Palm Sunday 2019


With the arrival of Palm Sunday, we are now ready to commemorate the final week in the life of the historical Jesus.

Jesus of Nazareth experienced firsthand – and dramatically to say the least — the religious and political polarization in Jerusalem around the year 30 CE. The enthusiastic crowd of Palm Sunday joyfully shouting “Hosanna!” and the mob on Good Friday yelling “Crucify him!”

In Another Voice, last week , I stressed the optimism brought by the Resurrection and our trust in Christ. Many readers appreciated that. I remain optimistic.

Nevertheless, I am also a realist. These days, polarization is my big concern. We see it in countries like Poland, Hungary, and Turkey. As an American expat, I am concerned especially about my native United States, where polarization is sharper and stronger than at the time of the nineteenth century “Civil War,” or as one of my cousins in Virginia still calls it “The War of Northern Aggression.”

Polarization is often based on toxic ideologies and twisted thinking. It is just as pernicious and nasty today as it was back then, when Jesus was the victim.

The historical Jesus was a bridge builder: between people and between people and God. He was not into building walls. His virtues were compassion, forgiveness, and healing. In Ephesians 2:14, we read “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,”

Our contemporary challenge is to emulate Jesus and tear down today’s walls of hostility. That is hard work. Polarization is easier. If I disagree with someone it is easy for me to self righteously condemn the other as stupid, ignorant, or just plain evil.

Polarization gives short-term pleasure but its lasting impact is deadly. Our contemporary religious and political polarization is a social virus. We find it in progressives and conservatives, in Republicans and Democrats, in Christians, Jews, and Muslims, in Protestants and Catholics, and in believers and non-believers. When polarization is promoted, death and destruction are sure to follow. Divided houses self-destruct, eventually.

The characteristics of polarization are clear. Polarization absolutizes one’s preferred values. It says “my position is always the correct position,” and it relies on the approval of an in-group (“my side”) to guide one’s thinking. Polarization says one should never question his or own position because uncertainty is a mark of weakness and sin. People who ask questions are dangerous. Polarization encourages selective reasoning: always and only looking for evidence that supports ones own position and denigrates the position of opponents. Polarization presumes that one’s opponents are always motivated by bad faith, and it suggests that many opponents are truly evil people.

Polarization is a virus that infects our conceptual system as well and gradually destroys our ability to respect and collaborate with others. The symptoms appear all around us. In discussions about Christianity, for example, I still hear people talking about “Catholics” and “non-Catholics.” This defective vision destroys Christian unity and promotes the presumed superiority of one group over the other. It is similar to the defective and polarizing viewpoint of those who see society as composed of “whites” and “non-whites.” Many see it in the policy of Christian leaders who strongly advocate and lobby for “religious freedom and human equality”…..except when it means protecting the freedom and equality of LGBTQ Americans. Are they less human?

Polarizing leaders learned long ago that labeling people eases the transition to public denigration and destruction of the other. The Nazis used the word “vermin” to describe the Jews. In the Rwandan Civil War, the Hutus called the Tutsis “cockroaches.” In the American Civil War, Southern slaveowners called their slaves “animals.” Once people are conveniently labeled as “not really people but animals,” the walls go up, people cheer, and xenophobic violence becomes a necessary and acceptable form of political and public behavior.

In our shared humanity we encounter the signs and presence of the Divine. That is truly remarkable. Once again, the Easter message….. If we lose sight of this we are on a suicidal journey.

Walls, whether, for example, along the Mexican U.S.A. border or along the Israeli West Bank, promote arrogance, antagonism, and often lead to death.

I still recall the words of President Ronald Reagan, in West Berlin on June 12, 1987, when he proclaimed “Tear down this wall!” Today there are many walls that should be dismantled ….

We need to dismantle, as well, certain attitudes, in our national discourse, that prevent a rational conversation about immigration. There is a kind of toxic moralism these days, that tries to sabotage any ability to have a rational and pragmatic conversation about comprehensive immigration reform. Building walls is the agenda. And so terribly shortsighted.

It is tempting, of course, to make a straightforward “us versus them” enemies list when it comes to who’s to blame for polarization. In fact, few of us are blameless. The very impulse to create an enemies list is part of the problem.

Some of us are more inclined to polarizing habits than others. Some who foster polarization are more aware of what they are doing than others. And some people are quite content promoting self-affirming polarization. When that happens, we either forget or ignore who our neighbor is.

In Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus asks which of the three – the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan – acted as a neighbor to the robbed man, the lawyer answered: “The one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus said we should love our neighbor as ourself. We can’t love people we’re unwilling to listen to. The Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, one of the most important political philosophers of the twentieth century, called Jesus “the only completely valid, completely convincing experience Western mankind ever had with the active love of goodness as the inspiring principle of all actions.”

Hosanna!

A New Perspective….Spring in the Air


A very brief reflection for the fifth Sunday of Lent 2019.

Our welcomed journey into Spring continues, with its colorful assurances of new life….and we are drawing ever closer to the annual celebration of the Spring of Christian life: Easter.

This past week, I have been reading The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See by Richard Rohr.

I resonate with Richard’s optimism, at a time when so much pessimism is the daily focus in the media.

Many people, Richard notes in his book, are now finding a special kind of solidarity in think tanks, support groups, prayer groups, study groups, projects building houses for the poor, healing circles, and mission organizations. “So perhaps without fully recognizing it, we are often heading in the right direction these days,” he observes. “We are creating many para-church organizations, and some new studies claim that if we look at the statistics, we will see that Christians are not leaving Christianity as much as they are realigning with groups that live Christian values in the world, instead of just gathering to again hear the readings, recite the creed, and sing songs on Sunday.”

Yes. Genuine Christianity is alive in many people, even when some church realities, like the old abbey church pictured above, are crumbling. But if you look closely, there are signs of new life there as well…..in and around the ruins.

Indeed, actual Christian behavior just might be growing more than we think. Spring. New life. Resurrection.

A broad perspective can change everything we see. Richard continues: “Resurrection is about the whole of creation, it is about history, it is about every human who has ever been conceived, sinned, suffered, and died, every animal that has lived and died a tortured death, every element that has changed from solid, to liquid, to ether, over great expanses of time. It is about you and it is about me. It is about everything. ‘The Christ journey’ is indeed another name for everything.”

The Christian Gospel will never be worthy of being called “Good News” unless it is indeed a win-win reality for everyone: a truly worldview, which means “good news for all people” (Luke 2: 10) — without exceptions.

Safe travels on the road to Easter…….May we all have clear vision and the life-giving companionship of good and supportive friends. Jesus had that as well.

A New Dimension


Lenten Reflection for 29 March 2019

A young university student told me he has dropped out of the church, because Christians are “self-righteous hypocrites.” I told him I understand his concern but also suggested that he do some reading and reflection not about the church but about Jesus of Nazareth. Church can come later….

First of all, Jesus, the man from Nazareth, was a human being who truly lived at a particular time and in a particular place. The man was not a myth. He remains – for me and for all people inside and outside the church — an historic figure from whom enormous energy flows.

The New Testament epistles and gospels point to Jesus’ life that was truly lived in history, but it was not a collection of historic details about his physical life which really mattered to the biblical writers. It was what Jesus meant and what it was that they believed they had experienced in and through him. Paul, writing before the gospels were written, expressed it this way: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away. See everything has become new” (2 Cor. 5: 17).

Jesus brought a new dimension. The Christian Scriptures were written to invite us into the Jesus experience of new life: a new humanity, one not bound by death and one that reaches toward transcendence, because he revealed authentic humanity and genuine divinity. And it is there that we best think deeply about the mystery of God, the mystery of life, the mystery of love, and the mystery of being.

Jesus was not a tribal chief. The spiritually short-sighted always miss this. Jesus invites us to break out of our religious and political tribalism…..The more people sink into tribal attitudes, the more their lives are consumed with hatred and the less human they become. Trust in Jesus brings the empowerment to step into a new consciousness that calls us to break out of old prejudices and stereotypes…

To the Galatians, Paul wrote that for people inside the Christ experience all tribal barriers melted away. In Christ there is “neither Jew nor Greek,” i.e. neither Jew nor Gentile (3: 28).

In this new dimension, Jesus was taught wholeness. He saw humanity from a new perspective. He believed that the humanity in one person could touch the humanity in another and empower that other to step out of old and narrow tribal security systems, with their fears and defining prejudices, behind which people search for an illusive security.

The call of Jesus is for all times: always contemporary. So real and pressing today, when so many people around the globe are becoming infected by toxic tribalism and its fear-promoting group/mob mentality.

We have the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand, rising antisemitism across Europe and the United States, and more than a thousand hate groups now active in the USA, most of which espouse some form of white supremacist ideology and a very distorted Christian religion. Tribes demand loyalty, and in return they confer the security of belonging. Toxic tribalism sets in motion a process of degeneration. People with this mindset become angry, bitter, and resentful towards everything and everyone outside of their tribe. Toxic tribal people try to protect themselves, their culture, and their religion by creating rules to specify who is in and who is out. Extreme polarization. The other becomes not just different but evil.

Toxic tribalism is particularly strong in contemporary politics, which threatens to become a perpetual tribal war, in which the ends justify almost any means. Individual citizens are encouraged to ignore the constraints of normal decency. People who, for example, would never tolerate cruelty or lying or even ordinary impoliteness cheer every expression of it in their tribal political leaders.

And of course I could wrote a book about toxic tribalism in the church. The clerical old boys club that uses and abuses and denigrates women. The toxic tribalism of church authorities who, to protect their tribe, abandon their morals and forfeit the safety of vulnerable children and obedient religious women —sisters — by covering up, ignoring, or denying extensive evidence of sexual abuse by priests and bishops.

Belonging is a crucial human need, but it can descend into dangerous tribalism. We continually need the witness of critical observers and prophetic speakers.

In his ministry Jesus moved from exclusive tribalism to the inclusive Reign of God. This is the whole point of the parable of the Good Samaritan….Who is my neighbor?

The ministry of Jesus was the embodiment of a compassionate love that broke down cultural, ethnic, gender, and religious barriers.

People today have crucial choices to make. Will they live together in harmony, with civility, respect, and empathy? Or choose to live in perpetual animosity and conflict?

May we live in and promote the new dimension in the spirit of Jesus.

An important update from my friend Earlene about “A Franciscan Blessing.”


This blessing has been a favorite of mine since it was first published in a Catholic periodical before the World Wide Web existed. Years later I saw it on the web as “A Franciscan Blessing.” This blessing was written and delivered by Benedictine Sister Ruth Fox of Sacred Heart Monastery in Richardton ND about 32 years ago at a Dickinson State University graduation. After some searching, I located Sr. Ruth and was able to contact her. She verified that she did indeed write it. Every time I find it described as Franciscan, I contact the site to request a correction. Sr. Ruth and I are still in touch.

Where Will We End Up?


March 22, 2019

Toward the end of his book SAPIENS, the historian Yuval Noah Harari observes: “To satisfy both optimists and pessimists, we may conclude by saying that we are on the threshold of both heaven and hell, moving nervously between the gateway of the one and the anteroom of the other. History has still not decided where we will end up, and a string of coincidences might yet send us rolling in either direction.”

I was thinking about Harari’s observation this week, following the attacks on Muslims in New Zealand and growing reports of extreme and hardened polarization around the world. Each side is fighting to maintain its identity in a world of change and upheaval. Last Sunday’s destructive Yellow Vest rampage along the Champs Elysees in Paris is another prime example. People wanting to assert their own identity at the expense of — or total destruction of — the OTHER.

History has not decided where we will end up, but you and I can.

I begin this week’s reflection with a somewhat comical experience, related to contemporary identity issues…..

A couple days ago at my local Belgian grocery store, I was in the check-out lane and a young lady in front of me, probably a student from India, hadn’t weighed the vegetables she wanted to buy. The young fellow at the cash register was polite and told her, in Dutch, she had to weigh the vegetables first. She said in English she didn’t understand what he was saying. In the check-out lane right behind me, a very annoyed lady said to me in Dutch “Just what we need! Another foreigner!” I chuckled and said in Dutch (with my inescapable American accent) “It is a question of perspective. In someone’s eyes, we are all foreigners, even you.” She moved to another check-out lane. Ironically, as fate would have it, when I got to the parking lot I saw her again. Our cars were parked adjacent to each other..

Well, today I have ten brief observations and then a concluding prayer:

(1) If our societies continue on the path of extreme polarization, in which there is no tolerance for the other, we will slip into chaos.

(2) In times of chaos, people surrender to authoritarian rulers. One does not have to think, just follow directives, and without questioning. Let the big boss take control. George Orwell’s Big Brother. Today we see an alarming resurgence of political and religious authoritarianism.

(3) Authoritarian regimes is springing up all around the world, supported and manipulated by people like Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn, in Hungary; President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Turkey; Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi; Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro; Brazil’s far-right authoritarian President Jair Bolsonaro; and yes his authoritarian good friend in Washington DC.

(4) Authoritarian rulers stress the importance of a national identity, anchored in rigidly extreme and powerful nationalism. Such nationalism is a red flag, because it mirrors Nazism and the other extreme forms nationalism seen in the first half of the twentieth century.

(5) I suggest, however, there is also a good, healthy form of national identity – I prefer to call it patriotism — that accepts the diversity of peoples within a country; that is not exclusive; and is not aggressive. (That by the way, I would say, is what really makes America great.)

(6) This healthy patriotic identity stresses that: we are a democratic community, with shared ideals and political values; and, as a community, we need to work together to support them. We need to integrate people, rather than polarize and divide them according to race, ethnicity, and religion.

(7) Of course Christianity can make a contribution here.

(8) Years ago I was attracted to Jesus of Nazareth because he was strong and courageous and he gave people healing and hope. I was a very religious young man. In high school and college my classmates called “Pious Dick.”

(9) As he grew in his understanding of faith, religion and the world around him, Pious Dick became critical of organized religion and he discovered as well that Jesus was critical of hardened and self-righteous religion.

(10) Religions have many faces. Throughout Christian history, we have had great and heroic men and women. We also have a rogues gallery of men and women who proclaimed Jesus as their Lord and Savior but then contradicted, in the name of their religion, everything Jesus taught and lived. They could talk the Jesus talk but in fact they were cruel, warlike, greedy, racist, and selfish. They could not walk and live as Jesus walked and lived.

To conclude….History has not decided where we will end up, but you and I can.

My concluding prayer is called “A Franciscan Blessing.” I rediscovered a few days ago thanks to a Facebook post from a good friend, who went to high school with Pious Dick…..

May God bless you with discomfort,

At easy answers, half-truths,

And superficial relationships

So that you may live

Deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger

At injustice, oppression,

And exploitation of people,

So that you may work for

Justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears,

To shed for those who suffer pain,

Rejection, hunger and war,

So that you may reach out your hand

To comfort them and

To turn their pain to joy

And may God bless you

With enough foolishness

To believe that you can

Make a difference in the world,

So that you can do

What others claim cannot be done

To bring justice and kindness

To all our children and the poor.

Amen

Jesus’ Followers Back Then


March 15, 2019

These days, trying to maintain a youthful outlook as I contemplate my upcoming seventy-sixth birthday, I am gathering information about the Post-Millennials, also called Generation Z or Gen Z. They are the demographic cohort after the Millennials, and the Pew Research Center puts their birth years between 1997 and 2012. They make up about 25% of the current U.S. population. This means they are a larger cohort than the Baby Boomers or Millennials.

The Post-Millennials make me optimistic. They have lower teen pregnancy rates, less substance abuse, and higher on-time high school graduation rates when compared with the Millennials. I see them as thoughtful, open-minded, and responsible young men and women. They really want to create a climate conscious and more humane society.

When I told a friend last week that the Post-Millennials give me hope for the future of Christianity, he replied, with a bit of friendly sarcasm, “I guess they can tweet for Jesus and chat about him on Twitter and Facebook; but Our Blessed Lord at least had the wisdom to pick wise, older men to be his closest disciples.”

I have never doubted Jesus’ wisdom. I suggest however that my friend’s understanding of early Jesus discipleship is too narrow and sexist.

First of all the Scriptures clearly indicate that men AND women were disciples. Jewish women disciples, including Mary the Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, accompanied Jesus during his ministry and supported him out of their private means (Luke 8:1-3). The whole point of the account in Luke 10:38-42, where Jesus visits the home of Martha and Mary is that Mary indeed is also a disciple and shouldn’t be just relegated to the kitchen, because she is a woman. Even stronger evidence for women disciples comes from the accounts of who first witnessed the empty tomb and testified that Jesus had been raised from the dead. All four gospels report that women were the first disciples to find the tomb of Jesus empty. According to Mark and Luke, the first announcement of Jesus’ being raised from the dead was made to women. According to Mark and John, Jesus appeared first (in Mark 16:9 and John 20:14) to Mary the Magdalene.

When we look at the Christian Scriptures about who were considered early Christian apostles, several women are indicated as well as men. In the Letter to the Romans, Paul sends greetings to a number of people and specifically mentions Priscilla and her husband Aquila. They are mentioned six times as missionary partners with the Apostle Paul. Others are Julia, and Nereus’ sister, who worked and traveled as missionaries with their husbands or brothers. There was Phoebe, a leader from the Christian community at Cenchreae, a port city near Corinth. And of course we have Junia, whom Paul praises as a prominent apostle.

Jesus’ disciples were hardly just a bunch of OLDER men. In fact, contemporary scholarship suggests that Jesus’ disciples may have all been under 20 years old, with some as young as 15. Again, in the days of Jesus a young man, aged 15, was done with his basic training in the Torah. A young fellow who was bright enough, or whose parents were wealthy enough, could find a rabbi to take him on as a student. One had to show proficiency. Many advanced young Jewish students, back then, had large portions of the Law and Prophets committed to memory. The Apostle Paul’s case may have been like this: a bright Jewish student from Tarsus, who was sent by his wealthy parents to Jerusalem to study under the great Rabbi Gamaliel.

If a Jewish son was unable or did not want to do this, he would enter the workforce by his mid-teens; and in almost every case, he would apprentice under his father in the family trade. Perhaps many of Jesus’ male disciples were apprenticing at their trades when called, as in the case of James and John, working in the family fishing business. They must have been at least older than 15 but not yet 20. By age 20 most Jewish males were married and on their own.

The age factors! One very remarkable thing scholars tell us about Mary, the mother of Jesus, is that she would almost certainly have been 12 to 14 years old when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. We know this because the common custom at that time was for girls to marry early, at that age. The Bible never gives Mary’s age when she got pregnant or gave birth to Jesus, and that is because when something happened that was common in the culture, nothing was said about it.

The questions! Did Jesus have brothers and sisters? Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55 record the people of Nazareth saying of Jesus: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Judas, and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” The traditional Catholic interpretation has been that the Scriptures here are talking either about Jesus’ cousins or children of Jesus’ father from a previous marriage. These are creative imaginative interpretations, because official Catholic teaching has maintained that Jesus’ mother was always a virgin “before, during, and after the birth of Jesus.” (Here I suggest some Catholic dogmaticians and hierarchs need remedial biology.)

Back to the Post-Millennials….If they knew what contemporary scholarship says about the early followers of Jesus – his disciples – I think many of our contemporary Post-Millennials would find that exciting and inviting. I mean today’s young people, estranged from religion, but who self-identify as being compassionate, thoughtful, open-minded, and responsible young women and men.

About Mary and about Jesus’ extended family perhaps we should simply say: (1) The New Testament writers really didn’t leave a clear picture of what first-century Christians thought about Mary’s virginity after the birth of Jesus or if they had any details at all. (2) Perhaps all one can say for sure is that Jesus’ family tree looks just as complicated as those of many modern families.

– Jack

PS A man who was a friend and very supportive of me over many years died yesterday: Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels. He was a wonderful man, perhaps not perfect, which he realized. But I must say a very good friend. RIP

A Question of Perspective


March 8, 2019

Reflection for the First Week of Lent

We are busy people. Multitaskers. On our cellphones, iPads, and computers. Always connected it seems. After office hours and on week ends and even on holidays. The need to be connected. Our attention always drawn somewhere.

More and more people are connected 24/7. Yet, too often disconnected from what is really important? A young professor, one of my former students, said it well in an email. “I am very busy; but I often think I am not really connected to reality. I keep waiting for the big moment when I can relax and say now my life makes sense.”

I was thinking last week about the old play that, some years ago, had a big impact on me and my reflections about theology and life: Samuel Becket’s “Waiting for Godot.” Two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for the arrival of someone named Godot. When he doesn’t arrive, they get a rope and even contemplate suicide. But then decide to wait yet another day. And on it goes. When the play ends, Godot has still not arrived.

There are many interpretations of what Becket was trying to say, but my interpretation, back then, was that it was about people waiting for their experience of God. I guess I was as well…..back then….but my perspective changed and my vision of reality changed. I began to understand that we have the real and the Real.

I came to realize that one cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already totally IN the presence of God. What’s absent so often is awareness. It’s a matter of perspective. For busy people it is a contemporary problem. In a post last week, fellow blogger Joris Heise expressed it very well: too many people today have “spiritual glaucoma.”

It is a problem of vision and awareness; and part of that problem is that organized religion is often too concerned about itself and too often skims over the surface of human realities. It tends to prefer and protect either the comfortable status quo or the supposedly wonderful past. What we now see in numerous sexual abuse reports about high-placed religious leaders is that their religion, too often, simply preserved their own power and privilege.

God is deeper than religion. Good religion, however, reveals the Sacred with depth and awareness.

There are certain basic questions that all human beings must come to terms with if they are to take their life experiences seriously: looking and seeing with greater depth and awareness. Questions such as life, death, the meaning of human existence, and the place of God in that existence.

I read last week that toward the end of his career Carl Jung (1875-1961), the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, said that he was not aware of a single one of his patients in the second half of their lives whose problem could not have been solved by contact with the “numinous” or the Absolute Center. The “numinous” for Jung, who was estranged from organized religion, meant the presence of Divinity, of the Holy, of the Sacred.

We don’t think ourselves into a new way of living. We live ourselves into a new way of thinking. Contemplation.

Unfortunately, the contemplative mind, over the last five hundred years, has been put on the sidelines. We have become pragmatic and productive. With the “Enlightenment” Western Christianity almost abandoned contemplation in favor of its own form of “rational” thought: we ended up confusing information with enlightenment and confusing thinking with experiencing. People settled for quick and easy doctrinal answers instead of deep perception, which they left to poets, artists, musicians, and philosophers. Yet depth and breadth of perception should have been and should always be the primary focus for all authentic religion. How else could one possibly find God?

Thomas Merton (1915-1968), the American Trappist monk, mystic, and social activist, felt, toward the end and of his life, that even monastic life had lost the contemplative mindset. He observed that monks just “said prayers.” Frankly, I would suggest that without the contemplative mind — honest and humble perception — religion risks becoming a dangerous enterprise. It does happen.

There are many forms of contemplation such as a reflective walk in stillness without your cellphone, quiet meditation, keeping a daily journal: contemplative writing, yoga, wandering in nature, expressing your feelings in art, or returning to regular reflective Scripture reading.

During Lent, try a practice and stay with it for some time, making it a normal part of your day. Put your phone on airplane mode. Tune in to your inner self and the depth of Reality around you.

“There are not sacred and profane things, places, and moments. There are only sacred and desecrated things, places, and moments — and it is we alone who desecrate them by our blindness and lack of reverence. It is one sacred universe, and we are all a part of it.” — Richard Rohr