History in the Eye of the Beholder

May 24, 2019

This week end, for my US family and friends Memorial Day week end, basically launches the summer season. For me, this week end also marks my annual short-term departure from Another Voice. I will return in time for the Fourth of July!

True to my personal history, I will escape from my computer to spend more time reading and reflecting. And to relax and travel with my wife. This June we celebrate our 49th wedding anniversary. Now THAT celebrates important history.

History is a slice of life that we observe and interpret, it is always through the observer’s eyes. We need, therefore, many historians observing and interpreting……Just like we need many theologians observing and interpreting. Once again I will be an historical theologian in Eastern Europe: enjoying the salty and clear waters of the Adriatic and taking another look at religion and values after Communism. It intrigues me. The questions of course are about the role religion plays in people’s lives today in that part of the world.

A couple years ago, in a small town in Eastern Europe, I learned that the most prominent and influential members of a local Catholic parish, were once important (anti-Catholic) Communist Party bosses……Today they are still in control but now they make a pious sign of the cross and receive communion on Sunday mornings……Is it a matter of socio-cultural identity, political expediency, or Christian faith?

Not so strange perhaps when one sees how Vladimir Putin uses Russian Orthodoxy to grow his empire.

Last week a friend observed : “History continually repeats itself. Life is a repetitive cycle…” I basically disagree. We do have control over our lives. Our “history” is not predetermined. Yes people sometimes repeat the human mistakes made in the past, acting out of ignorance or an unwillingness to confront life as it is. Today we are indeed caught up in a tremendous wave of cultural change. It takes time to decipher what’s happening. Millions of people are now banding together in forms of xenophobic populism. This week’s European elections underline that with a red pencil.

It takes time to make sense of what’s happening. It is all part of the human journey. Even when people are confused, chaotic, or uncertain about tomorrow. Growing pains.

I resonate with Martin Luther King Jr. who said “history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” History shows how we take or reject personal and group responsibility for the world in which we live. We can grow in our understanding of human existence, life, morality, sacred scriptures, faith, and religious traditions. Or, we can close in on ourselves, wither, and dry up.

I am not ready to dry up and I do plan to be back in contact with you in a few weeks. And….when I return, I hope I will have something worthwhile to share with you.

Take care!


Focus on Faith

May 17, 2019

All religions go through a 4-stage evolution. They begin with an energetic, charismatic, and loosely structured foundation phase, in which faith communities develop where people live in the spirit of the founder. In the history of Christianity, we see this first stage in the early Christian communities, characterized by creativity.

The second stage arrives when the original disciples begin to die-off and people become concerned about passing-on their faith heritage to the next generation. In stage two, beliefs are written down, sacred scriptures (like Paul’s letters and the Four Gospels) take a set form, and specific rituals, like baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are more uniformly established. This is the institutionalization phase. It is necessary and really unavoidable.

Often many years later, stage three arrives. A religious hardening of the arteries and barrel-vision gradually set in. Doctrinal statements, rituals, and church structures that once sustained people become narrow restraints and barriers to growth and life. The church which once pointed to God now begins to point more to itself. People start being evaluated more in terms of doctrinal fidelity and obedience to ecclesiastical authority. People understand faith in Christianity as largely a matter of believing things to be true or false (faith as intellectual assent) instead of giving people concrete practices (faith as life in the Spirit) so they can live as Jesus lived. Being an institutional man is important. And knowing that the men are in charge is important for institutional women.

Stage four is REFORMATION. That’s where we are today. And today’s reformation involves all Christian traditions.

In the current reformation, we need to move from a belief-based religion to a practice-based religion.

Richard Rohr describes very well what happened to Christianity in stage three: “We morphed into “Churchianity” more than any genuine, transformative Christianity….Today, many Christians do not even know what we mean by the ‘Gospel life’ because it became a belief and belonging system more than a full lifestyle….

“In Europe, this took the form of highly academic theology, and in America the form of narrow ahistorical fundamentalism. Both of these are largely in the head—and the left brain at that—showing little interest in issues such as human suffering, healing, poverty, environmentalism, social justice, inclusivity, care for the outsider, or political oppression. In recent centuries, the Christian churches were on the wrong sides of most human reformations and revolutions, until after these reformations succeeded. As a result, Christianity has often become ineffective or even in-credible to much of the world. Our history now works against us.”

The agenda now is reform. I really don’t write to change anybody’s beliefs. I hope to change the way people understand those beliefs. Christian Faith Is more about how to believe than what to believe.

Winter is over and Spring is in the air.


Targeting Pope Francis

May 10, 2019

Catholic fundamentalists are taking aim on Pope Francis. On April 30, a group of 19 Catholics, called more or less “prominent,” released an open letter to the bishops of the world, accusing Pope Francis of heresy.

Certainly, a formal public accusation of heresy against a pope by a group of Catholics, associated with Catholic universities and institutions, cannot simply be ignored. When one examines their accusations, however, one sees a list of what I would call more administrative and public relations issues than strict theological problems: Francis’ efforts to expand relations with China, his work in interfaith dialogue, and what I would call his “perceived” openness to L.G.B.T. people.

The papal critics also take issue with “Amoris Laetitia,” the 2016 apostolic exhortation on family life issued by Pope Francis. Some bishops have interpreted it as opening the way for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. This is more about church discipline than theological heresy. In the days of widespread Catholic clerical sexual abuse of children, men, and women religious, enabling divorced people to receive communion is not high on my list of Catholic worries.

Finally, the singers of this anti-Francis letter lapse into complete foolishness when they complain that, at the opening mass for the Synod on Youth in 2018, Pope Francis carried a staff in the form of a “stang” an object used in satanic rituals. No. Francis is neither satanic nor diabolic. Some of his theological critics however are devious old demons.

Francis is not a heretic. There will be no burning at the stake in front of St. Peter’s. But is Francis blameless? I don’t think so…. Francis can appear friendly, down to earth, and like-able. I do criticize him, however, for his leadership short-comings.

A number of my friends are appalled that I would dare criticize Pope Francis. My criticism, however, is constructive. It is neither nasty nor demeaning. Constructive criticism helps the individual as well as the institution.

I suggest that Pope Francis is a well-intentioned old time administrator trying to save his collapsing institution. He cannot see that his Catholic Church needs major structural change and rebuilding. It is time for the Church of Rome to become less Roman.

If I were to write a letter to the Pope Francis, here are the concerns I would mention:

(1)PR PACKAGING: Be careful about the public relations trap of saying the catchy phrase, that draws applause and headlines, like “who am I to judge?” And then you fall back into the old ecclesiastical homophobia. (Which in today’s Vatican is quite ironic to say the lest.) Positive words need positive action. You praise women but then complain that “every feminism ends up being a machismo with a skirt.” You have a clever speechwriter but people are getting mixed messages. And nothing really changes.

(2)REORGANIZATION: I think it is great that you want to reorganize the Roman Curia. It is greatly needed. So far it looks to me, however, like you are still locked in a bureaucratic institutional mindset. You are still re-arranging the deck chairs on what appears to be a sinking ship. Disband burdensome structures. Decentralize, and decentralize ….Retire the old bureaucrats. Maybe you should move them into an old folks home in Castle Gandolfo. Give more decision-making responsibility, around the world, to local committees of bishops, lay and ordained experts. They know local conditions and needs. The days of imperial Rome, with its overpowering central administration, are gone. Over. Finished. Let’s move ahead.

(3)CLERICAL CLOTHES: Signs and symbols are important. Please stop the wearing of outlandish medieval and Renaissance clothing by church leaders. It is outdated and silly. It doesn’t fit. It is offensively archaic for church leaders who proclaim simplicity and solidarity with the poor. I understand it costs about $6,000 to put a cardinal in his “simple” red uniform, from red hat to red socks. And that is just for starters….

(4)INFLATED TITLES: While you are at it, drop the archaic language of “monsignor,” “your eminence,” “your excellency,” etc. We are brothers and sisters.

(5)SISTERS: And yes, we are brothers and SISTERS…. In the community of faith we are equal. We don’t need a papal commission to determine this. We know who we are today and we clearly understand our history.Get on with it. Acknowledge the many women today who are already ordained ministers: deacons, priests, and bishops. And let all ordained ministers get married if they so choose — men and women, gay and straight. There is great richness in the community of believers. Let’s acknowledge it and promote it. It would certainly provide a more realistic, balanced, and healthy church environment.

(6)INTELLIGENT REALISM: Speaking about being realistic, lets acknowledge that we grow in our understanding of human nature, of history, and of course in our understanding of Sacred Scripture and theological tradition. If we are solidly anchored in our Faith, we understand the need for development in our Belief. We do not fear it. Healthy growth in understanding promotes a healthy Faith life. We either grow or we become old relics. I do respect you, but you really do need remedial theological education. You and most of your close collaborators.

(7)OPUS DEI: Speaking of your collaborators, I realized long ago that many of them belong to Opus Dei: a very secretive, very powerful, and ultra-conservative Catholic organization. For me, this is a very big red flag. Opus Dei behavior is often closer to the style of Franco of Spain than to Jesus of Nazareth. This is a serious issue. Unlike the DaVinci Code it is not fiction.

(8)POWER: The Catholic institution is still caught up in a distorted understanding of power as power OVER people. Often unexplained and secretive. Indeed, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith used to be called “the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition.” Thanks to Constantine and a long line of popes who followed his example, power over people became the Catholic way. But now seriously, Brother Francis, Jesus was not an imperial power boss. He understood that pastoral ministry is a ministry of support and empowering people to take charge of their lives. It is not an exercise of power OVER people.

A CONCLUDING NOTE: Like you I am an old Catholic. I am not anti-Catholic. I am grateful for the many ways in which our Catholic tradition has educated and formed me as a person and a believer. Right now however, I fear that our tradition is on its death bed. It is not finished, however. You can help change course before its too late. And Francis please don’t allow those old unhappy traditionalists, who call you a heretic, to get under your skin. Be strong.

Please do acknowledge however that you do need better advisors. Talented young men and women from a variety of disciplines. Not just a bunch of aging bishops in colorful dress.

And you do need to put constructive action behind your pleasant-sounding words.

Your old friend, Jack

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.”


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.