Faith: Development or Stunted Growth

November 1, 2019 All Saints

Thinking about some well-known public personalities who, despite their age, are still rather adolescent in their beliefs and behavior, I went back to James Fowler’s understanding of faith development.

James W. Fowler (1940-2015) was an American theologian who was Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University. He was director of both the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics until he retired in 2005. He was a minister in the United Methodist Church.

Fowler described faith as a person’s or group’s way of moving into the force field of life: the way one finds coherence and meaning in the multiple forces and relationships that make up our lives. In his book, Stages of Faith, he proposed that faith development occurs in six predictable stages, though not everyone progresses through all six stages; and some people get stuck in earlier stages, primarily because they cannot move beyond their own self-centeredness.

Pre-stage: Infancy and Undifferentiated Faith

Before Stage 1, Fowler described a Pre-Stage, of Infancy and Undifferentiated Faith, roughly from birth to age two. This is the time of developing “Trust vs Mistrust.” Here Fowler stressed that, “the quality of mutuality and the strength of trust, autonomy, hope and courage (or their opposites) developed in this phase underlie (or threaten to undermine) all that comes later in faith development.” Indeed, this stage provides the foundation for the future.

Holding my recently-born great-great niece a couple weeks ago, I felt so happy for her because she has been born into a warm and loving family network. Trust vs Mistrust.

Stage One: Intuitive-Projective Faith

Most typically for children aged 3 to 7. Intuitive-Projective Faith is learned through stories, images, feelings, and actions from significant adults. The child’s imagination plays an important role in this stage of faith development. The child’s religious descriptions may not make sense logically, because they are symbols, images, and stories that fit together in seemingly random patterns.

The Stage 1 child learns self-awareness, without understanding that others may have a different perspective.

Stage Two: Mythic-Literal Faith

In the Mythic-Literal stage, the young person begins to take on the stories, beliefs, and observances that symbolize belonging to a community. Faith stories are understood as logical, concrete and literal.

In Stage 2 the young believer learns to distinguish between real and make believe. Justice is based on fairness, with rewards and punishments are given based on adherence to moral rules. The person in this stage is better able to take on the perspectives of others.

God is thought of in anthropomorphic terms, described with human qualities and actions. This stage is mostly found in school age children, but some adults remain locked in this stage for their entire life. (A very important understanding for pastoral ministers….)

Stage Three: Synthetic Conventional Faith

Synthetic Conventional Faith generally develops during adolescence when personality and self-identity emerge. Interpersonal relationships and being known and accepted by a group are extremely important in this stage, because self-identity is formed as a member of the group.

Since self-identity is still developing, there is often little independent perspective beyond that of the group to which the person conforms.

Synthetic Conventional faith relies on external authority. For these reasons, many religious institutions (but political ones as well) work best with a majority of committed people locked in Stage 3. Many church authorities can be quite satisfied when most of their members maintain a Stage 3 faith of unquestioned commitment to the beliefs and practices of the church. (I remember a bishop telling me, when I was a high school teacher on Michigan, “your duty is NOT to question but to obey.”)

The beliefs and value system of Stage 3 are unexamined and tacitly held. Like fish in a fish bowl, people in Stage 3 are unable to view their system from the outside and unable to understand that there are other systems, other fish bowls.

Transition to Stage 4 can only be precipitated by the experience of leaving home, either emotionally or physically, or both. This can occur through marriage, going to college, entering the workforce, or joining the military, when the Stage 3 person encounters people from other groups and different perspectives.

I was edged out of Stage 3 when, as a young man, I left Southwestern Michigan to become a graduate student in Louvain, Belgium. It was exciting but unsettling as well.

Today, I try to nudge people toward a higher stage of faith development, through educational trips, engagement with other cultures, and interfaith dialogue: placing people in contact with other people with differing world-views.

Some people of course don’t want to be confronted with a differing world-view. They regress or retreat to a fundamentalist or even fascist perspective. Donald Trump and his supporters are found here; although one can really question whether or not DJT has any genuine Christian faith.

Stage 4: Individuate-Reflective Faith

Individuate-Reflective Faith usually begins in young adulthood with exposure to the wider world of diverse cultures and perspectives. This can be a time of disequilibrium as unexamined beliefs and values are called into question and compared to alternative value systems.

Authority in Stage 3 comes EXTERNALLY from the group. In Stage 4, authority shifts INTERNALLY to the self, with an emphasis on individuality, independence, and self-fulfillment. The individual makes her- or his own judgments about values and beliefs.

Previously accepted religious symbols, practices, and biblical narratives can be rejected as naïve. People at this stage often reject traditional faith of any kind. Today, a lot of millennials and post-millennials are at this stage, as well as the people whom sociologists call the “nones.”

As an older fellow, I am especially interested in this group, because they are often asking all the right questions.

Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith

Conjunctive Faith is rare before midlife. With it comes a greater acceptance of diversity, complexity, mystery, and paradox.

Conjunctive Faith is often called the “second naïvete.” Previously rejected religious symbols and practices are now reaffirmed as tools that help one encounter God and the truth, rather than as merely ends in themselves. One begins to appreciate life as a journey of discovery.

Knowing reality in Stage 5 is characterized by a willingness to let reality speak its word. One develops wisdom and an appreciation in knowing things as they are, without seeking to modify, control, or order them to fit one’s prior categories.

Stage 6: Universalizing Faith

Stage 6, Universalizing Faith is extremely rare.

James Fowler mentions people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as examples of people who reached a Universalizing Faith. People at this stage can become important religious teachers because they have the ability to relate to anyone at any stage and from any faith. They are able to relate to others without condescension but at the same time are able to challenge the assumptions of those in other stages.

The perspectives and actions of Stage 6 people often run counter to the surrounding culture. They see all men and women as part of a universal family. They selflessly serve others. Many of them are persecuted and martyred in life, but later revered in death.

Concluding thoughts: While there is some predictability due to age and intellectual development, progression through these stages of faith is not automatic. Some people move more slowly than others from one stage to the next. And some people remain in earlier stages throughout their adult lives.

In all of this, the Christian community plays a key role. A kind of “sponsorship” by the community can make a significant difference as people move from one stage to the next and they grow in their faith. A sponsoring – ministering – community can provide affirmation, encouragement, guidance for a person’s ongoing growth and development.

May we continue our journey together …..


Trust, Truthfulness, and Together

October 25, 2019

A short reflection as I sit in the airport in Chicago, listening, watching, and chatting with people around me awaiting my flight across the Atlantic and back to Leuven/Louvain….

Some people, depending of course on one’s personal and/or religious values — and who often make a lot of noise in public — think of public morality as primarily a way of regulating sexual behavior: prostitution, same gender marriage, pre-marital sex, pornography, matters of dress and nudity, and pornography. I find those very same people often tend to ignore issues like ecclesiastical corruption, political leaders who are regular liars in official public statements; and who certainly ignore personal and group responsibilities connected with the environment, immigration, income inequality, misogyny, and racism.

I would contend that public morality is what motivates and holds a society together. It is based on a social covenant of truthfulness, trust, and respectful collaboration. Sometimes I fear, in our highly polarized society, that we live in a time of a broken public covenant.

Public morality should keep us from killing each other, enable us to respect individual life, respect people’s property; and promote constructive and effective social interaction.

Ideally, public morality should be a set of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors TRANSMITTED and REINFORCED by all social institutions: church, family, school, neighborhood associations, the workplace, and government.

Looking at the contemporary signs of the times, the traditional shapers of public morality have lost much of their effective voice because of lost institutional credibility, uncertainty about truth and falsehood, and a cultural impoverishment that disconnects people from tradition, history, literature, and a sense of common human identity.

Some people fall back on the one thing they have: an exaggerated sense of individualism. Then individual experience and personal sentiment determine what is true. A young fellow at the airport said he didn’t know much about Nazi concentration camps, thinks much is probably made up, but that if he had lived “back then,” he might have supported the anti-Jewish movements in Germany “because, well after all they ARE just a bunch of selfish crooks.”

And yes, today we do have a growing secularization that perceives God and religious institutions as unimportant and simply a matter of personal taste. Christian values become personal and individual values and not matters of public virtue.

I am truly convinced that gradually a new public morality will take shape – a new consensus in our pluralistic society. Before that happens, however, various religious and political fundamentalisms will try to take charge and control individuals, groups, and society in general.

We need to be alert travelers. It will be a bumpy and turbulent flight…..

Take care.


Changing Religious Landscape: Decline of Christianity in USA Continues at Rapid Pace

October 18, 2019

According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, the religious landscape of the United States continues to change ever more rapidly. Based on surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults now describe themselves as Christians. This is down 12 percentage points over the past decade. The religiously unaffiliated share of the population, people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%. This us up from 17% in 2009.

One of my friends suggested that this was primarily a Catholic problem due to sexual abuse by clergy. Well, not exactly. Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses of population. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) now identify as Catholic, down from 23% in 2009.

Meanwhile….. in the religiously unaffiliated population – the religious “nones” – we see the numbers swelling. Self-described atheists account for 4% of U.S. adults. This is up modestly but significantly from 2% in 2009. Agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009.

Religious “nones” are growing faster among Democrats than Republicans, although their ranks are swelling in both parties. And although the religiously unaffiliated are on the rise among younger people and most groups of older adults, their growth is most pronounced among young adults. Christianity is losing contact with young people.

So how does one interpret this? The simple answer is to say that people are simply becoming more sinful and secular. Period. Frankly I find that too simple and an unfair response.

We need a new Christian Reformation. I fear too many church leaders want to preserve churchianity not Christianity…… We need to seriously reflect about what it means to be a believer today. We need to examine our own “Christian” behavior. We need to better communicate what we are all about as contemporary believers.

And yes…..I would like to see our Christian communities MORE actively listening to young people and truly involving them in life and ministry in our communities. And in our communities of faith, we must absolutely affirm and support our gay, lesbian, and transgender people. People should not be fired or expelled from our institutions because of their sexual orientation.

Quick but serious thoughts. I am in the air this week end. Going to Chicago!


Today’s Special Anniversary

October 11, 2019

For observers of Christian history, and especially for Christians in the Catholic tradition, October 11th is an important date.

Fifty-seven years ago today the Second Vatican Council opened in St. Peter’s Basilica In Vatican City. Between 2,000 and 2,500 bishops and thousands of observers, auditors, women religious, laymen, and laywomen gathered at St. Peter’s between 1962 and 1965. Pope John XXIII opened the Catholic Church’s windows for what was called “aggiornamento”: bringing the Catholic Church up to date. At the time, I was in my second year of college in Detroit and one of my professors, with a bit of dry humor, observed “the old pope is opening the windows and the winds of change will shake-up everything.”

The winds of change actually preceded Vatican II, starting in the 1940s and 1950s with a non-hierarchical theological movement called la nouvelle théologie – the “new theology.” For some people the term was a negative put-down. Nevertheless, the nouvelle théologie theologians we’re truly prophetic. One of them, Edward Schillebeeckx, ended up being my professor at the Catholic University of Nijmegen in the late 1960s. He had a profound impact on my life and thinking.

The nouvelle théologie arose especially among certain groups of French, Belgian, and German theologians. Their shared objective was a fundamental reform of how the Catholic Church was approaching theology. The movement reacted against the dominance of nineteenth century neo-scholasticism which insisted on a rigid adherence to the thought, methods, and principles of the 13th-century thinker Thomas Aquinas.

The new theology advocated an historical-critical understanding of the written “sources” of Christian belief, and a methodological approach known by its French name ressourcement “return to the sources”). It rejected, for example, the then official Catholic teaching that Moses wrote the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The new scholarly consensus had affirmed that the Pentateuch had multiple authors and that its composition took place over centuries, starting in the late 7th or 6th century BCE. It pointedly observed that Moses died around 1592 BCE. (Some contemporary scholars understand Moses as a legendary figure and not an historical person; but I don’t care to get into that today!)

The new theology also advocated a genuine openness to “the signs of the times” and to dialogue with the contemporary world on issues of human meaning and Christian belief and understanding. That dialogue of course must be ever ongoing.

Today, on this anniversary day, it is appropriate that we all commemorate and NOT forget the prophetic message of la nouvelle théologie, the opened windows of the Second Vatican Council, and the message of its life-giving theology.

Vatican II stressed that humanity and the human condition progress through time. Cultural understandings and the ways in which we think and express ourselves change. The “signs of the times” deserve in depth reflection and concrete action rooted in that reflection. Yesterday’s understanding of the human condition is not necessarily today’s and may not be tomorrow’s. Church teaching, like all theology, is time-bound. Healthy theology dares to ask questions and dares to formulate answers that echo the tradition and resonate with the experiences of contemporary believers.

Pope John XXIII smiled at the world and opened the windows. Today there are some – like the red-hat critics of Pope Francis — who dream of a fantasy-land glorious past and want to slam the windows shut, and keep them tightly closed. They are constitutionally unable to function in fresh air and with fresh ideas. Well, perhaps we need to open even more old windows….

Post-Vatican II, we have our own contemporary theological challenges: How do we speak today about our experiences of the Divine? Who is God for contemporary believers? Two thousand years after he walked the earth, who is Jesus of Nazareth, raised from the dead, whom we proclaim Lord and Christ? And what does it mean to be a human person? And how do we develop and live a system of values that respects that humanity in all its cultural, historic, religious, ethnic, sexual, and gender varieties? And how do Christian believers collaborate to turn back the contemporary tide of racism, xenophobia, and authoritarian political leadership?

These are our contemporary issues. With faith and fortitude, we can meet the challenge.

As Vatican II said (using an inclusive language translation of the Latin text) in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men and women of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs, and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts….”

The windows are open…..




October 4, 2019

The gift of prophecy is listed among the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:10 and Romans 12:6. The Greek word translated “prophesying” or “prophecy” in both passages most properly means to “speak forth.”

Many people misunderstand the gift of prophecy as the ability to predict the future. Knowing something about the future may sometimes have been an aspect of prophecy; but it is really a gift of proclamation (“forth-telling”) and not of prediction (“fore-telling”).

Prophets and prophetic movements are agents of social change. We need them. We also need to support and take on the prophetic challenge. In my RCC tradition, I greatly value the Roman Catholic Women Priests movement. These ordained women are courageous contemporary prophets.

We need prophets in religion and of course in politics and environmental issues. I find Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish environmental activist, a contemporary prophet.

Maybe we need to set up formation centers for training prophets, who can be effective change agents….A good parish project for Advent or Lent? A project for youth ministry?

I see five qualities necessary for effective prophetic change agents (drawing from the book THE INNOVATOR’S MINDSET, by the Canadian educator George Couros):

1. Having a Clear Vision – The change agent does not have to be the person in authority, but does have to have a clear vision and has to be able to clearly communicate that to others. A clear vision does not mean that there is only one way to do things. Having a clear vision means one can draw on the strengths of the people one works with and can help them see that there are many ways to work toward a common objective. Interactive dialogue is important. Know-it-all little dictators are not bonafide change agents.

2. Being patient yet persistent – Change does not happen overnight. To have sustainable change, it must be presented as something truly meaningful and something people see as important and something they should embrace. In our push-button culture, many people get frustrated that change does not happen fast enough and they lose sight of the vision as something that can really be achieved. Effective change agents need to help people see that every step forward is a step closer to the goal. This helps people to continue moving ahead.

3. Asking tough questions – When a solution is someone else’s, there is little accountability for seeing it through. When people feel a personal connection to something, however, they can truly move ahead. Asking questions and helping people come to their own conclusions, based on their experience, is when people truly take ownership in what they are doing. Effective change agents ask questions to help people think. They don’t just tell people what to do.

4. Being knowledgeable and leading by example – Effective change agents have character and credibility. They are not just nice people. They are knowledgeable in what they are speaking about. If one wants to create change, one must not only be able to articulate what that change would look like but actually show it to others. What I like, for example, about the women priests movement is that women are truly and effectively ministering as ordained ministers.

5. Having strong relationships built on trust – All of the points above, mean just about nothing if one does not have solid relationships with the people one is serving. People will not want to grow if they do not trust the person who is pushing for change. Change agents must be extremely approachable and reliable. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t willing to have respectful but tough conversations. That also builds trust. Trust is built when one knows someone will deal with things and not be afraid to do what is right, even if it is uncomfortable.

A friend asked me last week what changes I would like to see in our communities of faith. There are three I would stress right now:

First of all, I am very concerned about young people. I would like to see our Christian communities actively listening to young people and truly involving them in life and ministry in our communities. A Catholic bishop acquaintance told me, not so long ago, that he was going to meet with about a hundred young men and women from his diocese. I said: “Terrific. What are you going to do?” He replied: “I have a list of things to tell them, because, as their bishop, I am their teacher.” I chuckled and replied: “But maybe you should first of all just listen to what they are thinking and want to say. Perhaps they are YOUR teachers.”

Next month I am starting a new course about Jesus, his disciples, and the early Christian communities. In my first class, I will point out to my students that the men AND WOMEN who were Jesus’ disciples were YOUNG — most likely all under 20 and some quite possibly as young as 15 or 16.

Secondly, in our communities of faith, we must absolutely affirm and support our gay, lesbian, and transgender people. People should not be fired or expelled from our institutions because of their sexual orientation. Jesus said, as I stressed in an earlier post, absolutely nothing about sexual orientation. I find especially repugnant the ecclesial hypocrisy of church leaders who are publicly homophobic and privately abusively gay. I am thinking right now of a bishop who died this past year. In public he was strongly anti-gay and proclaimed that they were “innately disordered.” Privately he was a regular sexual molester of handsome young seminarians.

Thirdly, I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state. Church leaders have no business telling people for whom they should vote. Church leaders, however, do have a responsibility to encourage believers to Observe, Judge, and Act: (1) Observe how our political leaders are speaking and behaving, (2) Judge whether or not their rhetoric and actions are consistent with their often-professed Christianity, and (3) if there are obvious values failures and shortcomings, to take appropriate Action. There are many contemporary applications here…..

May we all be prophetic,


Contemporary Values Clarification

September 27, 2019

Values are basic attitudes about human life that shape our thinking and behavior. Our values help us find human life meaningful and worth living.

Last week’s reflection was on being an open-minded believer. I continue that reflection this week, with a reflection on values clarification: being an open-minded believer also requires an ongoing personal and group values clarification process. (In the old days, I guess we called this “an examination of conscience.” )

In the values clarification process, there are two areas to examine: (1) one’s personal values and (2) the values upheld by one’s contemporary culture. For example — Since I claim to be a Christian believer, the first question therefore is this: Is my speech and my behavior consistent with authentic Christian belief? Second question — Do the values of my parish, my school, my fellow Christians truly reflect authentic Christian belief?

Without becoming too political, one can ask the same kinds of questions about being a citizen. For example — Although an “expat,” I am still very much an American (USA) citizen. I am an active member of my US political party. I vote and I help with voter registration of USA students. And I encourage other expats to vote. I do believe in the core USA values of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. First question — In my life as a citizen, do I truly live those values in my words and behavior? Second question — Is the contemporary rhetoric and behavior of our leaders consistent with the key values of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness for all Americans?

If one answers NO to any of the above questions, there are some major challenges in his or her values journey.

Moral dilemmas are an unavoidable part of our human experience and development. We develop and promote our moral self-concept based on our daily experiences. There we have to make decisions and regulate our behavior, coping with new challenges and contemporary social influences. We observe. We judge. Then, we act. Just observing and then doing nothing is a cop-out.

I conclude this values reflection with a personal observation about the values conflicts that I see in contemporary Western culture (not just the USA). These demand our Observation, Judgment, and Action:

Some Contemporary Values Questions

Is the institutional church’s real value CHRISTIAN MINISTRY to all men and women or SAFEGUARDING ECCLESIASTICAL power, paternalism and homophobia?

In our political life, do we want DEMOCRACY or an exaggerated AUTHORITARIANISM that grows ever closer to a revival of FASCISM?


Do my words and actions promote LOVE OF NEIGHBOR or EGOTISTICAL SELF-LOVE?

Do we respect the PERSONAL DIGNITY of each person or simply USE PEOPLE for their

temporary utilitarian worth?

Is a key value in our society UNITY of word and action or DUPLICITY in speech and deeds?

Is the key church or political value today institutional LOYALTY or a non-critical ADORATION of institutional leaders?

When it comes to Christian values, Paul reminds us in his letter to the Christian community in Corinth:

If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing.

If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged.

It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out.

Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

Take care,


Being an Open-Minded Believer

September 20, 2019

A friend wonders if I am becoming too negative, with a doom and gloom mentality. I hope not. I do have a lot of concerns these days. I remain, however, generally optimistic. I still believe that problems created by human brings can be solved by human beings – although it may take some time.

I also strive to be an open-minded believer and I hope I will never become a sourpuss, closed-minded old guy. A negative and grouchy outlook displays a short supply of Christian joy, generosity, and tolerance.

Being open-minded can be tough sometimes. It shakes a person loose from beliefs and values once so comforting. It enables a person to appreciate that some beliefs and values are temporary and provisional stages along life’s journey. As friend and fellow-blogger, Joris Heise, recently wrote: “Faith is the readiness to change, to grow, to admit blindness and deafness—to become open.”

We learn new things. We adjust our vision and beliefs. We re-shape our values, as we go along life’s road. The journey always leads, I believe, to sunrise at the horizon. I remain the perennial optimist. But we do indeed change….as our world changes; and we confront its ups and downs.

I once thought, for instance, as I was taught in a small Catholic grade school in Southwest Michigan, that Protestants adhered to a false religion. Then one day I looked at my Protestant father, reading his Bible, and I started thinking: my dad is really a great guy who follows the way of Jesus and believes in God just as I do. Nothing very false about that. I was taught as well, by our parish priest, that priests were ontologically superior to lay men and that all men are inherently superior to women. Contact with many men and many women over the years convinced me, long ago, that men who maintain and proclaim such beliefs are inherently ignorant fools.

There is much to be learned and appreciated from opening the doors to one’s mind and letting new ideas and beliefs come in. Over the years I have tried to help my students become informed and open-minded critical thinkers. Critical thinking is a skill, greatly needed today. And I have had to deal –- sometimes with great difficulty — with sourpuss, narrow-minded priests and bishops, who were my “superiors” and controlled my paycheck. They were unable, however, to read the contemporary road signs; and, unfortunately, their cars only went in reverse. One had to carefully maneuver around them. I survived.

Yes of course, there are indeed some fine younger and older people in ordained ministry. And more and more wonderfully pastoral women in ordained ministry today. They deserve our appreciation and, even more, our moral and public support. Their’s is not an easy life these days….

Being an open-minded believer greatly enriches a person’s life. I can think of seven ways, but I am sure there are more:

(1) It enables one to explore and discover. A person allows himself or herself to experience new ideas and fresh thoughts that stimulate personal growth as they challenge old visions, understandings, and beliefs. It can be a very liberating look at one’s contemporary world through an open mind. Remember Paul in First Corinthians: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”

(2) It promotes personal change and transformation. Opening up our minds to new ideas allows us the opportunity to change what we think as well as our view of the world. This doesn’t mean one will necessarily change basic beliefs. It does give one the option to adjust beliefs, when one begins to think with a more open mind. I once thought it impossible for women to be ordained. I once thought Jesus’ disciples were all guys. Now I know that both beliefs/understandings are pure nonsense.

(3) It also makes oneself vulnerable. This is more scary. In agreeing to have an open-minded view of the world, we acknowledge we don’t know everything; and we accept that there are possibilities we may not have considered. This vulnerability can be both terrifying and exhilarating. The jar is half full or half empty. It depends on one’s perspective.

(4) It helps one see and acknowledge personal mistakes. With an open mind one begins to see things from others’ perspectives; and one can recognize the mistakes one has made. From time to time, we all fail and fall. The challenge is to acknowledge it and then get back up again and continue the journey. That is the virtue of Christian humility and courage!

(5) It strengthens oneself and gives stability. Open-mindedness presents a platform upon which a person can build, putting one idea on top of another. With an open mind, one learns about new things; and one uses new ideas to build on old ideas. In my field we call this ongoing theological development. Dangerous stuff for the old guard at the Vatican! Nevertheless, everything a woman or a man or a child experiences adds up. It strengthens who one is and what one believes. Note well: It’s very hard to build on experiences without having an open mind.

(6) It helps one gain confidence. When a person really lives with an open mind, he or she develops a stronger sense of self. One can respect and appreciate, but is no longer confined by, the beliefs of others. Then the respectful dialogue can and should begin….

(7) It promotes self-honesty. Being open-minded means admitting that one is not all-knowing. Even if one is a bishop or a pope….or an older theologian! Whatever “truth” one holds, each person must realize that the underlying reality in its depth has more to it than anyone realizes. This understanding creates a sense of honesty that characterizes anyone who lives with an open mind.

For some people, being open-minded is easy. It seems to come as effortlessly as breathing. For others, having an open mind can be more of a challenge. But for anyone who wants to travel the road of life, it is absolutely essential. We remember the words of Jesus in the Gospel According to John: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Take care,


Cults: Faith Gone Awry

September 13. 2019

Cults arise when people become fearful, want immediate and simple answers, and lose contact with genuine faith. They thrive on what can be called a kind of cultural fatigue and profound ignorance. Historically, for example, when Moses went up into biblical Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:12-18), he left the Israelites for forty days and forty nights. The Israelites became restless and fearful in his absence. Turning away from God, they directed their devotion to worshiping the Golden Calf. It was immediate, provided simple answers, and required no thinking.

There are of course more contemporary examples, where people become fearful, want immediate and simple answers to life’s big issues and problems. They stop thinking. Their critical faculties decline and they surrender to the simple but phony propaganda of cultic leaders. And they are usually supported by far-right movements with strong racial supremacy. Sometimes the beginning of these movements tends to be relatively quiet and gradual; but they remain sinister red flags nonetheless.

Quite often the line between conventional religion and a cult is not so clearly defined. Cults are exclusive, highly secretive, and authoritarian. Some religions of course are that way as well. Some cults even proclaim Christianity, but bear no resemblance to anything truly and authentically Christian. There are as well political cults, which attract and control because they act like captivating religions, whose only demands are obedience and unquestioned loyalty.

A typical cult has a somewhat theatrical and unaccountable leader, who persuades by coercion and exploits the cult’s members economically, sexually, or in some other way. Cult leaders often get people to react to what they are doing by saying something they don’t really or fully believe. Cultic leaders shun and ostracize members who don’t accept the cult’s exclusive claims to truth. When it comes to truth, cult leaders gradually turn fantasy and fiction into accepted truths by continually repeating false statements in rhetoric, propaganda, and the media.

The ninety-three years old American psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton, known for his studies of the psychological causes and effects of war and political violence, delineates three characteristics, which are the most common features of destructive cults:

(1) A living leader, who has no meaningful accountability and becomes the single most defining element of the group and its source of power and authority.

(2) A process of indoctrination, persuasion or thought reform, commonly called “brainwashing.” In this process, members of the group often do things that are not in their own best interest, but in the best interest of the group and its leader.

(3) Economic, sexual, social, and political exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.

The warning signs of cultic development are clear:

• It advocates authoritarianism without meaningful accountability. Leaders, if not downright evil are self-centered, mediocre, crass, and juvenile.

• No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry. Dissent and criticism are not permitted. Those who dissent are marginalized, excluded from decision-making, and labeled “troublemakers” or “dangerous,” or even demonic.

• No meaningful financial disclosure for the leader such as an independently audited financial statement.

• The leader promotes exaggerated and misguided fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophes, evil conspiracies, and persecutions.

• The group leader is always right. The leader becomes the exclusive way of knowing and passing on the “truth.”

• History and the past become malleable constructs that the leader can adjust to meet the needs and agenda of the cult. Genuine facts become fake news. Actual fake news becomes the new accepted truth.

• Members of the cult believe their leader was sent by God to change the world; and all must therefore be obedient and loyal to the leader.

We all need to be alert to cultic leaders and groups. They are unhealthy and pernicious. We need to have the courage to speak out. They are people who thrive on fear and fear of social change; and they take advantage of people by controlling information and promoting fear. In the process, they support a very unhealthy kind of religion.

Healthy religion builds bridges between people. It strengthens a basic sense of trust and inter-personal relatedness to people and promotes personal responsibility. It encourages intellectual honesty and does not run away from questions or doubts. It does not oversimplify the human situation or its sometimes tangled complexity. And yes: it emphasizes love and growth not fear.

Take care,


Human Nature and Human Sexuality – Some Contemporary Reflections

September 6, 2019

In determining contemporary moral values and behavior, a realistic understanding of human life requires an historically conscious worldview, because reality is dynamic, evolving, and changing.

Human understanding develops over time. We certainly see this when it comes to medical science and procedures, but not everyone makes an application to moral values. As our human understanding develops, so too our human concepts, theories, and courses of action can change. It is not a matter of relativism but of perspective. There is a human thread that links faith and moral values from generation to generation. People in every age reflect, evaluate, and interpret that tradition in therms of their contemporary culture and understanding.

When people derive moral obligations from “nature,” they are actually deriving them from our human interpretation of “nature.” The challenge with “natural law,” “human nature,” and human sexuality is that the understanding of human sexuality – including biological, emotional, psychological, relational, and spiritual dimensions — has developed and continues to develop.

Today’s understanding of “natural law” involves a fundamental shift from looking at a static “human nature” to considering the dynamic “human person.” The old “traditional” biological and strictly physicalist understanding of traditional natural law and human “nature” must be transformed into a contemporary personalist, relational understanding. The former defines the morality of acts based on the physical, biological structure of those acts. The latter defines the morality of acts based on the meaning of those acts for persons and relationships. Marital sexuality, for example, is about much more than simply linking genitalia to produce progeny.

Now some specific observations about questions people have asked me:

(1) What did the historical Jesus say about sex? Well a strong case can be made that Jesus did not directly discuss sexual activity at all. The biblical record is totally silent about his attitudes towards the sexually-related religious controversies of the present day: equal rights for homosexuals, same-sex marriage, transgender, masturbation, pre-marital sex, etc. Jesus did stress the fundamental moral principle of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. That really covers ALL human actions.

(2) What about cohabitation and premarital intercourse? Cohabitation describes the situation of a man and a woman who live together like husband and wife and enjoy intimate sexual relations. It could be a couple living together prior to their marriage or a couple living together with no real intention of getting married. A sharp increase in cohabitation is one of the most fundamental social changes in Western countries today. It is often assumed to be a new phenomenon; but actually it isn’t. Among the lower classes in medieval Europe, men and women cohabited informally, disregarding Christian ceremonies. Throughout the Middle Ages, in general, peasant marriages were not common, as there was little need for a formal exchange of property among the poor. For the upper class people, marriage was more common but it was not based on love. Most marriages were political and economic arrangements. Husbands and wives were generally strangers until they first met. If love was involved at all, it came after the couple had been married. Even if love did not develop through marriage, the couple generally developed a friendship of some sort. (And men turned to their mistresses for regular sexual pleasure and intimacy.) Particularly noteworthy is that medieval cohabitation, with an active sex life, was a phenomenon often practiced by the “celibate” clergy.

Before 1564, Catholics needed no wedding ceremony to be married. Before 1754, the citizens of England and its empire needed no official wedding ceremony to be married. People lived together. It didn’t always happen; but if there was some kind of public wedding, it often didn’t happen until the wife was pregnant.

I align myself with those contemporary moral theologians who stress that cohabiting couples – those who plan to “get married” as well as those who don’t – should be helped and encouraged to live together in a stable environment, and continue the process of establishing their relationship as one of love, justice, equality, intimacy, and mutual respect and fulfillment. The moral implications of sexual intercourse, sexual pleasure, and desired procreation are best set in the context of a mature interpersonal relationship and not merely in the context of sexual acts.

(3) What about same-sex activity and relationships? Historical consciousness is particularly important here. In the light of contemporary biblical scholarship, it is impossible to agree that the texts so often used to assert the immorality of homosexual acts are unambiguous and provide solid foundations for condemning same sex behavior. The context in which both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament condemn homosexual acts is shaped by the socio-historical conditions of the times in which they were written. Probably the most influential Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) text leading to the condemnation of homosexual acts is the interpretation given to the biblical story of Sodom in the Book of Genesis. Scholars agree that contextual exegesis shows that the homosexual interpretation of the Sodom story is not accurate and that the sin in both the Hebrew text and its literary context is the sin of inhospitality. Traditionally the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans has been seen as the New Testament’s clearest condemnation of same-sex relations—both male and female. Recent scholarship, however, suggests a different interpretation. Paul, the religious Jew, is looking at life in the capital of Greco-Roman culture. Homosexuality itself is not the focus of his condemnation. Rather, Paul’s criticism falls upon paganism’s refusal to acknowledge the true God. Paul, in fact, probably did not understand a homosexual orientation; and biblical scholars today suggest that he struggled personally, his “thorn in the flesh,” with his own same-sex desires. (I suspect many churchmen today, especially in my RCC tradition, struggle with their own same-sex desires. They are often privately gay and publicly homophobic.)

I resonate with contemporary moral theologians who state very simply that homosexual sexual acts are “natural” for people with a homosexual orientation, just as heterosexual sexual acts are “natural” for people with a heterosexual orientation. Sexual acts are moral when they are natural, reasonable, and expressed in a truly human, just, and loving manner. In today’s churches we need to sit down face-to-face and dialogue about this.

(4) So change is a fact of life? Christian thinkers in the past, including greatly respected theologians, did not know the full reality of the human person as it unfolded over the centuries. Nor did they know the full reality of human biology and sexuality either physiologically or psychologically. Today we understand “nature” as something that has been interpreted in a certain way. Put more directly, “nature” is a socially constructed category. Human knowing is not simply a matter of seeing and hearing and accepting. It is also perceiving, interpreting, and judging.

To some extend we are all involved in what I call a process of moral conversion: progressively understanding the present situation, exposing and eradicating our individual and societal biases, constantly evaluating our scales of preferred values, paying attention to criticism, and listening to others.

(5) What then are the basic values in sexual morality? I see at least seven sexuality values (drawn from Anthony Kosnik’s book Human Sexuality) that are conducive to the healthy growth of the human person:

1. Self-liberating

Sexuality should be a source and means of personal growth toward maturity and self- assurance and not become self-enslaving.

2. Other-enriching

Human sexuality gives expression to a generous interest and concern for the well- being of the other. It should therefore be: sensitive, considerate, thoughtful, compassionate, understanding, and supportive.

3. Honest

Human sexuality expresses openly and candidly and as truthfully as possible the depth of the relationship that exists between people. It avoids pretense, evasion, and deception in every form as a betrayal of the mutual trust that any sexual expression should imply if it is truly creative and integrative.

4. Faithful

Fidelity facilitates the development of stable relationships.

5. Socially responsible

Wholesome human sexuality gives expression not only to individual relationships but in a way also reflects the relationship and responsibility of the individuals to the larger community.

6. Life-serving

Every expression of human sexuality should respect the relationship between the “creative” and “integrative” aspects (i.e. the “procreative” and “unitive”).

7. Joyous

The importance of the erotic element, that is, instinctual desire for pleasure and gratification deserves to be affirmed and encouraged. Human sexual expression is meant to be enjoyed without feelings of guilt or remorse.

So here I conclude what could be called perhaps “Sexual Morality 101.”

Take care,


Personal Perspectives: Religion and Values in U.S. Society

August 23, 2019

Today some personal observations, because people have asked me. My area of research and university teaching for many years has been religion and values in American (U.S.) society. I have often thought that my fascination with religion in American culture and history springs from my family history and perhaps my “theological DNA.”

My paternal ancestors were immigrants to the United States long before it became the United States. My paternal grandfather’s family came from England. Arriving in 1684, they were Quakers from Chester, England. My paternal grandmother’s family arrived in the late seventeenth century. They were French Huguenots, escaping France after King Louis XIV enacted the Edict of Fontainebleau, which made Protestantism illegal. My maternal ancestors were French and German speaking Roman Catholic immigrants from Alsace who arrived in the early nineteenth century.

With immigrant roots, I am indeed an authentic American. I am also an open-minded Roman Catholic, although some Catholics think I am really a Protestant. Although living abroad these days, because of my academic career, I remain a politically active American citizen, involved in discussion/action groups, voter registration, etc..

I do not belong to the religious right, where some of my friends are located. I respect them and they respect me. As I look at U.S. society today, however, I am alarmed that so many leaders of the religious right, who long claimed to be the champions of Christianity and American morality, appear to have gladly traded their values for a kind of theocratic power in support of a White House occupant who repeatedly demonstrates, by rhetoric and behavior, that he has no resonance with the moral vision and values of Jesus Christ.

So what do we say about American culture and its underlying values? I think right now about this month’s deadly shootings in El Paso and Dayton. So much racist and xenophobic violence. So many Americans fear lost identity and security. How they fill the gaps is important.

This week I have simply made a list of my observations and concerns. I am always interested, of course, in reader reactions.

(1) The U.S.A. is indeed a nation of immigrants, who have generally learned how to live and work together. This has been the genius of the American experience. That being said, however, it was not always easy. Right from the start, the country’s people had to deal with racism and xenophobia: fear of “Indians” our native Americans, fear and control of African slaves, prejudice and violence against Italians, against the Irish, against “papist” Catholics, and others. Today of course against Mexicans and other national groups.

(2) We need to acknowledge our historic faults and short-comings, learn from them, and move ahead. The good old days, in fact, were not always that great.

(3) As contemporary Americans (U.S. citizens) search for meaning, purpose, and security in their lives, many feel that the American Dream has by-passed them. In many respects this may be true; but it is too easy, and incorrect, to blame the situation on Mexicans and other foreigners.

A political administration with a humanitarian conscience, compassion, and a creative approach to social welfare can help a lot here.

(4) Many white skinned Americans feel that they are becoming a minority because of the rise of non-whites in U.S. society. Their rhetoric Is fueling a kind of violent white nationalism. Well…. we do have to acknowledge that the racial mix in U.S. society is changing greatly. It is a fact of life. It is not necessarily bad. Racial and ethnic diversity is part of who we are as Americans. By 2060, 44.29 % of the population will be White, 27.5 % Hispanic, 15% Black, and 9.1 % Asian. We need to learn how to live together in respectful collaboration and harmony. Churches can help here a lot.

(5) Right from the start, religion has been important for Americans. Most people know about the famous Christians who contributed to the making of America. (My ancestors among them.) The first Jewish settlers arrived in New Amsterdam (today’s New York) in 1654. By 1776 there were an estimated 2,000 Jewish people living in America. In Charleston, South Carolina, interesting enough, almost every adult Jewish male fought on the side of U.S. freedom. Islam in America? Many enslaved peoples brought to America from Africa were Muslims from the predominantly Muslim West African region. Current American statistics: About 70.6 % are Christian, 1.9 % are Jewish, and 0.9 % are Muslim.

(6) I cannot condone Christian leaders, like the well-known White House friend, Pastor Robert Jeffress, who proclaims that Satan is behind Roman Catholicism and that Mormons, Muslims, Jews, and gays are all destined for Hell.

(7) In the current presidential administration, far-right fundamentalist Christians (Protestant as well as Catholic) are working to turn the United States into a theocracy. A theocracy is the antithesis of a democracy. In a democracy, political authority comes from the consent of the governed. In a theocracy, authority comes directly from God. How does one vote the representative of God out of office? The answer, of course, is that you don’t. History shows, however, that theocracies end up being authoritarian dictatorships. Sometimes I fear America is moving toward an authoritarian dictatorship.

(8) Netflix’s new five-part series “The Family,” now streaming, explores an elite coalition of theocratic fundamentalist Christians who have enormous influence in contemporary American politics. This past week I read, in connection with the Netflix presentations, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power by Jeffrey Sharlett. He stresses in his book that the organization embellishes political power over people by comparing Jesus to Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, and Bin Laden as examples of leaders who change the world through the strength of the covenants they established with their “brothers.” A bizarre Christianity to say the least. Bizarre politics as well.

(9) The Fellowship, also known as The Family, is best known for serving as the organizer of the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual gathering of diplomats and world leaders in Washington, D.C. The core issue for The Fellowship is capitalism and power. It has connections with businessmen in the oil and aerospace industries, the CIA, the Pentagon, and the Department of Defense.

(10) We need to be very clear today. The politics of xenophobia, can only be pursued in contradiction to the Gospel. A truly humane culture welcomes the stranger, embraces the orphan, and heals the wounds of all who are our really neighbors. It does not promote a politics of cruelty and fear.

(11) As the Chicago-based scripture scholar, Donald Senior, (a doctoral graduate of my university) wrote recently, we need to “Speak truth to power….encouraging those who know the truth not to hesitate to proclaim it, even in the face of indifferent or oppressive power, such as government officials or heads of industry or, for that matter, religious leaders. It implies that often those in positions of power hide or distort the truth for their own purpose or to protect their institutions.”

From Moses, to the prophets, to Job, to Jesus, the Biblical message is on the side of the powerless. May we truly speak truth to power.

Take care. We can and will move forward.


P.S. I will be away from my computer during the Labor Day week end. Back in touch with you the week after that.