Easter 2017

Happy Easter to my Another Voice readers. 

“Christianity is precisely a liberation from every rigid legal and religious system. This is asserted with such categorical force by St Paul, that we cease to be Christians the moment our religion becomes slavery to “the Law” rather than a free personal adherence by loving faith, to the risen and living Christ.….Let us not darken the joy of Christ’s victory by remaining in captivity and in darkness, but let us declare his power, by living as free men and women who have been called by him out of darkness into his admirable light.” — Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968)



Spring in Leuven

For Palm Sunday and Holy Week: Reflections from T.S. Eliot

7 April 2017

From “Ash Wednesday”:

“…Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still

Even among these rocks,

Our peace in His will

And even among these rocks

Sister, mother

And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,

Suffer me not to be separated……And let my cry come unto Thee.”

From “Journey of the Magi”:

“…All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

I should be glad of another death.”




My very best wishes for the Easter season.

I will be away from my computer for a few days and expect to return at the end of April.

Homespun Truth

Fifth Sunday of Lent 2 April 2017

          On both sides of the Atlantic it appears that an increasing number of people are obsessed with proclaiming their own homespun “truth.” The phenomenon is often rooted in ignorance and proclaimed with a kind of self-righteous arrogance. It can also be a convenient deception, as we see in contemporary political discourse. Perhaps the Declaration of Independence will soon be re-written from “we hold these truths to be self-evident” to “we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true.” 

          An acquaintance, who should know better, told me a few days ago that the sun revolves around the earth. I asked him if he had any other medieval beliefs and he told me, with a bit of dismissive annoyance, that he had “found Jesus” and now doubted “a lot of that modern science stuff.” I did some checking and discovered that about 79% of Americans believe the earth revolves around the sun; and 18% say it is obvious that the sun revolves around the earth. In Germany, 74% believe the earth goes around the sun; but in Great Britain, only 67% believe that. (Perhaps that helps explain Brexit?)  

          When it comes to theology, the early medieval mentality seems to still attract many followers, who adamantly refuse to accept “a lot of that modern science stuff.” Just about 42 % of contemporary Americans believe that God created human beings, in their present form, less than 10,000 years ago. They believe as well that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. I know I look like an old fossil, but I told one of my fundamentalist friends that, based on fossil remains, the current scientific consensus places the origin of dinosaurs between 231 and 243 million years ago and that the dinosaurs became extinct 66 million years ago. He said “that nonsense is not science but the work of the devil.”   

          What is the basis for our truth statements? How do we verify? Is personal opinion becoming more reliable than factual verification?  

          Last semester, when discussing the U.S. Civil War (the “War Between the States” if you are from the South) I told my university students that all the churches – even Roman Catholic – in the North supported the Union and all the same churches in the South supported the Confederacy. Even Pope Pius IX encouraged and supported the Confederacy. I asked my students how God could have actively supported both the Union and the Confederate causes. Two young men from the USA said it was simply a matter of personal opinion and that Union and Confederate opinions should have been and should still be respected. “So God battled against God?” I asked. They replied that I had a right to express my opinion……I then jumped to the Shoah and the Nazi extermination of Jews. “Was that right or wrong” I asked, “or a matter of opinion,” One student, who told the class her grandparents were Jewish, said she had serious thoughts about the whole thing today. She said perhaps, if she had lived back then she would have seen things differently and supported the Nazis. The fellow sitting next to her shouted out that the whole Nazi thing was a hoax and Jews were not gassed in Nazi concentration camps. I said that I have been to Auschwitz. He replied that Auschwitz looks very realistic, like a Hollywood film creation;  but that Nazi Germany’s Final Solution was aimed only at deporting Jews not exterminating them. 

          More homespun truth…..Contemporary examples are abundant. Many Christian leaders in my tradition, for instance, still view sexuality as simply a matter of genital activity geared to procreation and consider contraception immoral and gay people innately disordered. 

          Sometimes I fear we are quickly moving from people being uninformed and misinformed to being proudly and aggressively wrong. What we see is not just a rejection of existing knowledge. It is a rejection of historical-critical rationality. Knowledge is becoming a do-it-self creation. If it feels good, it must be right.  

          These days it is not Islamic fundamentalism that I fear but a growing obsession with self-fabricated truth. It is sometimes self-created and affirmed because if feels good. It is also being mass produced by people adept at developing attractive arguments and using their skills to mislead and exploit fearful and gullible people. 

What do we do? 

          We need to become actively engaged in educational reform. We need to evaluate, and reform where appropriate, the curricula in public and private schools. Some principles to guide curricular planning and evaluartion:

(1) Science is neither diabolic nor the enemy. Good science and healthy faith do not contradict each other. When apparent contradictions appear, these are red flags indicating the presence of either poor science or shaky religion.  

(2) Currently accepted facts – the substance of contemporary knowledge — are based on empirical evidence and deductive reasoning not personal opinion. 

(3) Historical-critical thinking is neither “critical” nor negative. Perhaps a more accurate term we should use is evaluative thinking. We examine and evaluate various statements and viewpoints in terms of factual reality: when statements were made, what they were based on, what kinds of language were used, etc. Dinosaurs were long, long gone from our earthly scene, more than ten thousand years ago. This is not theory but fact. The biblical account of Adam and Eve, right from the beginning of the narration, was biblical mythology and not historic fact. Biblical mythology, properly understood, communicates important religious truths 

(4) We ought to be greatly concerned about the survival of the humanities, now being unfunded and pushed to the side. The humanities insure and safeguard how we process and document the human experience. We desperately need literature, art, music, and history to truly be human and to understand who we are as human beings.  

(5) Most importantly, we need the humanities to experience and relate to the sacred….the very essence of humanity and reality…the Divine. God has not abandoned us but far too many people have lost touch with artistic, musical, and symbolic avenues to the Divine. Education is more than AbCs, math, and athletics.

(6) At all levels in the educational process, we need to maintain a global awareness and stress global responsibilities. This touches on climate change of course; but I am thinking right now about a global reality that is minimally stressed in the news, hardly discussed in political circles, and has not even been the subject of a presidential tweet: famine in Africa which is an appalling failure of the world system. Today in Ethiopia and its neighbors in East Africa 16 million people are on the brink of starvation and desperately in need of food, water, and medical treatment.   

The danger of homespun truth is that it easily mutates into a deadly virus that destroys the heart and soul of humanity. Fact-based knowledge, critical thinking skills, historical awareness, and anchors in art, music, and literature are essential elements in maintaining a humane and humanizing life and culture. Otherwise we risk becoming thoughtlessly-muted but violently xenophobic……….and narcissistic anthropological aberrations. 




Alternate Christianity 


I guess one should not be surprised, in an age of alternate facts and alternate truth, that alternate Christianity exists as well. Reminiscent of the days of medieval Christendom, today’s alternate Christianity tries to link patriotism, politics, and governmental power and call it the Gospel. 

Televangelist Pat Robertson, whose pulpit is The 700 Club, the flagship of the Christian Broadcasting Network, is a strong advocate of alternate Christianity. In February he declared, not so surprisingly, that Donald Trump is God’s anointed leader and that those who criticize him are really operating against God and God’s plan for America. He even described Trump’s critics as Satanic. Franklin Graham, the son of the world-famous Baptist minister Billy Graham, echoes Robertson when he says it was “the hand of God,” rather than Russian hackers, that put Donald Trump in the White House. 

White evangelicals voted overwhelmingly in support of Mr. trump, ignoring of course the candidate’s widespread rejection of traditional Christian values, like honesty, compassion, and sexual self-restraint. They have alternate beliefs about American history, the Constitution, economics, science, climate change, and of course issues of gender and human sexuality.  

These evangelicals find alternate Christianity attractive because of their desire for a strong, even quasi-dictatorial leader who promises to keep feminists, multiculturalists, secularists and “progressives” in their place. Alternate Christians are ethnic and tribal. They are nostalgic about a 1950s America; and they worry about the demise of white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism in the United States. They believe the president’s assertions that, under him, (white) Christians will once again have power. They enthusiastically support his right-hand man on the National Security Council, Steve Bannon, who has called for a coalition of Christian traditionalists to wage a holy war against Islam. 

Bannon is a strange fellow and a traditionalist Roman Catholic, who is convinced Pope Francis is a dangerously misguided, heterodox, pro-Islamic, and alarmingly socialist pontiff. In a 2014 conference at the Vatican, Bannon warned: “We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict…..We are in an outright war against jihadists, Islam, and Islamic fascism.” He also condemned “the immense secularization of the West” and an increasing secularism among millennials. (The Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party, by the way, have praised the president for appointing Bannon to top positions in his administration. Makes sense. Steve Bannon is a hardened racist and a white supremacist sympathizer.) 

Today’s alternate Christianity is no small thing. It is worrisome; and supporters of alternate Christianity should not be quickly dismissed. In some ways they are quite pious. Their piety however resonates poorly with authentic Christian faith. It echoes better with an exaggerated American civil religion: a rather sectarian form of conservative white American patriotism. Evangelical alternate Christians resonated strongly with the new president, when he proclaimed January 20th, the day of his inauguration, a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion.” President Trump is the alternate Christian savior. And how strange it is that so many evangelicals continue to support him, even when that requires their looking the other way, when confronting his hypocrisy. 

Patriotic devotion or patriotic adoration? In Christian theology worshipping that which is not God is called idolatry. History shows of course that idolatry can be quite an impressive form of devotion. History shows as well that idolaters usually end up condemning and killing those who call into question their “god.” 

Mr Trump identifies himself as a Presbyterian. He says he will make Christianity great again. Frankly, I think he and his faithful followers identify more with Norman Vincent Peale, one of Trump’s former friends, than Jesus of Nazareth. That’s our contemporary American challenge. Just as we need to carefully sift alternate facts and alternate truths, we need to sift and point out the false beliefs of alternate Christianity.  

Norman Vincent Peale was immensely popular in past WWII America, especially because of his 1952 book The Power of Positive  Thinking. Peale’s message misrepresented Christianity, offering a self-centered personal happiness approach to life: more love yourself than love your neighbor. He was more influenced by Christian Science and his own fascination with psychiatry than by the message of the Gospels. Christianity in Peale’s preaching was a set of self-stroking success-oriented beliefs: more energetic narcissism than altruism. “There is a real magic in enthusiasm,” Peale once said.”It spells the difference between mediocrity and accomplishment.” Trump’s followers, wearing their make-America-great caps, have adopted this strategy and applied it to the country, ignoring racism, poverty, and “the losers.” Their gospel is looking out for number one.  

I can understand why Donald Trump considered Peale his friend and mentor. (Peale also presided at Trump’s 1977 wedding to Ivana Trump in the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan.) What Trump admired in Peale, who died on the day before Christmas in 1993, was Peale’s religion of success and personal fulfillment. The people who flocked to Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church were, like Trump’s parents, wealthy and success-driven CEOs who thought very positively about themselves. When Donald Trump looks at the world, he needs to see himself on center stage. “When I think I’m right,” he once said on 60 Minutes, “nothing bothers me.” And on another occasion, “Show me someone without an ego, and I’ll show you a loser.” 

And so here we are, three weeks from Easter. Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t quite fit the alternate Christian model. He was not self-centered. He did think positively about other people. He did not categorize some people as “losers.” He raised up the downtrodden. He ate with publicans and sinners. Those whom society shunned, Jesus touched and healed. The Bible that Jesus read, believed, and preached, the Hebrew Bible, bears strong witness to the same principles. The God of Israel condemned those who “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” (Amos 2:7) 

Alternate facts are fiction. Alternate truth is falsehood. Alternate Christianity is a fiction, a convenient fantasy, and a very dangerous falsehood.  

Teacher,” he asked, “which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40) 



Retreat, Escape, or Face the Challenge 

18 March 2017

Three recent books are energizing conservative-minded Roman Catholics and other Christians these days. The theme in all three is the end of Christian America. One of my traditionalist friends called them to my attention, hoping to lure me away from my “dangerous liberal thinking.”

I guess a variety of viewpoints has always been with us; and I really do respect other opinions. I do not agree with the authors of these three books, however, because they propose solutions to some genuine American problems that are either unhelpfully narrow-minded or simply utopian fantasies.

On the other hand, out of fairness to my friend who brought them to my attention, I guess one could indeed use these books for a very healthy and effective discussion about what it means to be a truly contemporary Christian…..as well as a contemporary American, deeply concerned about religion, values, and morality in today’s USA.

I begin with Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World by Charles J. Chaput, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia.

Archbishop Chaput offers a strongly negative critique of contemporary U.S. society. I suspect many readers who page through his book will shake their heads in agreement, as they read his lamentations that the United States has now been conquered by a secularist, pleasure-seeking, self-absorbed worldview that leaves little place for Jesus or traditional morality. Telltale signs of America’s “post-Christian” decadence, according to the Archbishop, are divorce, contraception, abortion, materialism, an invasive Obama-generated government, and gay marriage.

Considering my own religious tradition that has long valued the voice of the People of God, and thinking about the city where the Declaration of Independence was drafted, the first red light about this book started flashing for me, when I saw Philadelphia’s Archbishop asserting that “Democracy tends to unmoor society from the idea of permanent truths.” An alternative fact?

Archbishop Chaput has Native American roots but, very frankly, political and ecclesiastical barrel vision. He says the U.S. press is much too hostile toward President Trump; and he praises Mr. Trump and his administration for their pro-life concerns. (It seems clear to me that the Trump administration’s pro-life concerns terminate once a fetus becomes a self-breathing human being in need of nurture, shelter, and education… but then I don’t want to be overly political.) Philadelphia’s Archbishop is critical of Pope Francis as well. Here he shares the concerns of the American Cardinal Raymond Burke. They both suspect Francis is not being faithful to Catholic orthodoxy and fear he is spreading doctrinal confusion in the church. Chaput, for sure, has no confusion. He has instructed pastoral ministers in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to NOT allow communion for divorced and remarried or cohabiting couples (unless they can demonstrate that they are not having sex!); and he believes children of same-sex couples should not be allowed to attend Catholic schools. Very pro-life? When it comes to contraception, the Archbishop believes the widespread use of contraceptives has now subverted the purpose of human sexuality and has led to conjugal infidelity and a general lowering of morality. He is concerned as well about an exaggerated feminism which, he says, has actively contributed to women’s dehumanization.

The good old days. Archbishop Chaput has often said he longs for the 1950s. He would like to retreat to a (highly romanticized) time when everything was clear. Men and women were clear about their identities. Sex was for procreation. The church was clear about its teachings and Catholics were obedient to clearly demonstrated church authority. I suspect the Archbishop is indeed a stranger in his own strangely perceived environment.

A second Catholic author is sounding the trumpet for his own kind of strong retreat from today’s American malaise. A professor at Providence College, Anthony Esolen is widely promoting his book Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. In Esolen’s eyes, the United States is a cultural nightmare. I resonate with his concern about a commitment to truth; and I fear with him that America’s most powerful institutions—including the government—are becoming mass producers of deceit. I understand as well what he means when he says “Sometimes entire civilizations do decay and die, and the people who point that out are correct.” I do not agree, however, with his assessment of our contemporary United States. The situation is hardly as dark and decadent as he would have us believe.

I do not agree with Esolen that our public schools are failures beyond repair and must be replaced by private schools. Nor do I agree with him that most of our universities have become complete failures. In fact, I find it more than disconcerting that the handful of universities, he holds up as stellar examples for our emulation, are rigidly fundamentalist and lean far to the right politically.

Somewhat like Archbishop Chaput, Anthony Esolen would like to return to the good old days of Western Civilization, to a time before the sexual revolution when, as he emphasizes, people truly understood what sex was about and “men were men and women were women.”  Yes I do understand what some call the glory days of Western Civilization. I speak Latin and Greek, and I know and appreciate the philosophical, literary, and artistic traditions in our cultural DNA. I do not however want to return to some kind of late medieval world view with its exaggerated patriarchy, misogyny, religious narrow mindedness, and its great ignorance about psychology and ongoing human development and understanding.

Now to the third book my friend recommended to bring me back to the straight and narrow: The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher. In his life (he is 50 years old) he has already had quite a personal religious journey. He began life as a Methodist. Later became a Roman Catholic. He dropped out of the Catholic Church because of the sexual abuse scandal. Curiously he says that sexual abuse is not due to pedophilia but rather to a network of gay priests which he calls the Lavender Mafia. I think he is wrong here on both counts. Pedophilia does not spring from homosexuality and the Lavender Mafia is pure fantasy. After being a Roman Catholic, Dreher next joined Eastern Orthodoxy.

Journalist Dreher has strong conservative credentials. He is a former publications director for the John Templeton Foundation and currently senior editor and blogger at The American Conservative. His view of contemporary America is totally apocalyptic. In his own words, he describes it this way: “There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. By God’s mercy, the faith may continue to flourish in the Global South and China, but barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America. This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind would deny it.”

The solution for believers? The only way to escape apocalyptic destruction, according to Dreher, is for Christians to drop out of American society and create and live in their own subgroups like Benedictine monks. Not everyone of course can run off to a monastery. (I would suggest as well that Dreher has a misconception about Benedictine monastic spirituality and mission.)

My major concern, however, at the end the of this week’s reflection, is that the author of the Benedict Option misunderstands the Incarnation and what Jesus was all about. Jesus did not run away from his contemporary socio-cultural environment. He plunged in. Jesus ate with publicans and sinners. He understood the signs of the times. He lived in a Rome dominated society much more troubling and far more inhumane than contemporary America.

What Jesus did, of course, is now our contemporary Christian challenge.

My contact information:  Email: jadleuven@gmail.com

Jesus, Christianity, and Other World Religions

9 March 2017

A couple days ago, a friend asked me when I began my theological questioning. I remember the event that really triggered it….

I was in fourth grade in St. Mary’s Elementary School in Paw Paw, Michigan. It was a Monday morning. The local Catholic priest, a rigid but friendly fellow, had come for his weekly classroom visit. He started by asking everyone who had not been to Mass that Sunday to stand up. (Fortunately, that Sunday I had gone to Mass and was saved the embarrassment of standing there in my shame.) He then launched into a tirade against Protestantism as “a false religion.” My Dad was Protestant. I raised my hand, stood up, and challenged our Catholic pastor. With a bit of youthful bravado, I asked him how there could be anything “false” about my Dad. I said that he was a Christian, a good man, read the Bible, and said his prayers. That evening, I told my Dad what had happened. He very calmly said “I am sure Father is a good man. He’s just a terribly ignorant and narrow-minded priest.” 

We learn. We grow. Theological understandings change over time.  

My reflection about Jesus, Christianity, and other world religions comes as a reaction to the recent vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, bomb threats (now close to a hundred) against Jewish community centers, anti-Islam violence, and the destructive burning of mosques by crusading Christians. I find it particularly repugnant when Christian leaders like Franklin Graham call Islam a “very evil and wicked religion.” 

In Roman Catholic theological reflection, especially since the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965), we not only understand that Protestants and all Christians belong to the Body of Christ; but in our respect for and appreciation for other world religions, there has been a tremendous development as well. Two books that have helped me refine my own thinking 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. 

Theological understanding changes over time. My own thinking is moving 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. I remember very well the words of 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 Louvain. 

“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.] 

Yes of course, Jesus is the center of Christian faith insofar as it is he who was and is the focus of a Christian’s faith in God. The God of Christians, however, (and here we do have what for many believers amounts to a paradigm shift) cannot be conceived by Christians as just some kind of local or tribal God, who exists only for themselves. Christians can indeed regard other world faiths as true, in the sense that they too are mediations of God’s salvation.  

Considering the world’s religions, I suggest we have to work together in what the Roman 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. Our goal does not have to be the reduction of all faiths into one. We do need to look for commonalities, different expressions and understandings of the Sacred, and a base for common ethical responsibilities in a turbulent and anxious world. And yes, all participants in the conversation must remain humbly open to the challenges of mutual criticism and correction. No faith tradition has all the answers. We are all learning believers.  

Inter-religious dialogue is not just something that is a nice thing to do. It is appropriate and absolutely essential for our survival in a world of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multinational interdependence. We cannot survive by “going it alone,” even if we think we are great. 

I conclude with another citation from the Declaration on Non-Christian Religions: 

“People expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the hearts of all men and women: What is the human person? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment, and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?” 

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


Dr. J. A. Dick

Geldenaaksebaan 85

3001 Heverlee BELGIUM

Email: jadleuven@gmail.com


2017 Blog Appeal

Dear Friends,

I am very appreciative that so many people responded to my original 2017 blog fund appeal. Since people have been asking, to date I have reached 75% of my goal. This is simply a final update. I promise to continue thinking and writing.

Warmest regards to all

Dr. J.A. Dick

Geldenaaksebaan 85A

3001 Heverlee


Ash Wednesday Jottings

1 March 2017

Next week, my promised reflection on Jesus and world religions. Today some brief reflections about the first week of March and the first week of Lent, inspired by signs of the times. 

As my calendar shifted to March, thoughts of an earlier March popped into my head. I was ten years old……I remember the day well: 5 March 1953. It was a Thursday (Ash Wednesday that year fell on 18 February) and my Dad had gathered the family around the radio in our living room. He said “something historic is happening.” Then Walter Winchell came on the radio and announced that Joseph Stalin had died.  

It seems so long ago. No. I am not slipping into an old guy nostalgia trip. My concerns today are more contemporary, but today’s current events seem to resonate so much with events back then.  

Although I suspect a couple of my readers may not agree, my brief thoughts today are truly Christian theological, not partisan party political. 

Stalin, who once upon a time studied to be an Orthodox priest, maneuvered himself into becoming head of the Soviet Union, following Lenin’s death in 1924. He consolidated his power by manipulating information, passing laws against what he called terrorist organizations, and exploiting his own inflated personality cult. He insisted that he should be remembered for “the extraordinary modesty characteristic of truly great people.” Stalin of course was one of the 20th century’s most ruthless dictators.

What I especially remember about Stalin is how he branded his opponents “enemies of the people,” and subjected them to interrogation, deportation, and even death. Commenting about “enemies of the people,” Mitchell A. Orenstein, University of Pennsylvania professor of Russian and East European Studies, observed: “In essence, it was a label that meant death. It meant you were subhuman and entirely expendable.” 

Stalin succeeded because he was good at authoritarian seduction: emotionally-charged bully-talk, with very little rational or honest content. He was a self-centered, write-your-own-rules dictator. He got away with it in grand style. 

Strangely, authoritarian followers are loyal and easily submissive to such authoritarian leaders, insisting that everyone behave as dictated by the authoritarian. They are fearful about a changing world and a changing society, which they either don’t understand or do not want to understand. They are attracted to strong leaders, who appeal to their feelings of fear and anxiety. They respond aggressively toward “outsiders.” They scapegoat foreigners and people from other cultural or religious traditions. Blind faith is substituted for critical reason. A leader’s feckless racism and compulsive lying are seen not as moral failures but as signs of strength. The unknown and the different become the enemy. Authoritarianism becomes even more sinister, when authoritarian leaders begin to proclaim their message in the name of Christianity.  

Authoritarianism is not a Christian virtue. Jesus was not an authoritarian leader. He was neither boastful nor pretentious, and hardly a self-stroking narcissist. Jesus neither controlled nor directed his followers to isolate, segregate, humiliate, or persecute. In the New Testament, Jesus’ authority is not power OVER people but EMPOWERING people: motivating and empowering them to serve, to minister, and to spread the Goodnews. Jesus invites and empowers us today. He challenges us to think, to speak, and to act courageously.  

Authentic Christianity promotes solidarity and hope, not fear. Genuine Christians consider helpless refugees their brothers and sisters in need, not enemies. Followers of Christ do not set one group of people against another; nor do they promote a distorted view of patriotism that proclaims one country’s greatness is best established by demeaning other people. 

In Lent we have 40 days to take stock of ourselves. And to take stock of the world in which we live. On Ash Wednesday, we are charged to repent and believe in the Gospel. Believing in the Gospel means as well living the Gospel. May we encourage each other to stand strong, think clearly, and act resolutely. We live in very challenging times. 

For spiritual reading between now and Easter, why not a systematic re-reading the Gospels? I suggest starting with Mark. If you are looking for a handy guide for reading the Gospels I can suggest another book by Steve Mueller, who wrote the book on Revelation,  “So What’s the Good News? ” (Faith Alive Books). He writes with clarity and pastoral realism; and again, he is a knowledgeable and trustworthy scriptural guide. Gather a group of friends.His book would be perfect for your own Bible study group: sharing today to shape tomorrow!

If you are looking for something more comprehensive, I suggest: “Introduction to the New Testament” by Raymond F. Collins (Doubleday). Ray’s book is excellent. He offers a clearly written and very fine introduction to New Testament scholarship–its history, methodology, and findings. 

As always, I appreciate your observations and support. My contact info:  Dr. J. A. Dick — Geldenaaksebaan 85A, 3001 Heverlee, Belgium  

Email: jadleuven@gmail.com 

Cosmic Consciousness & Terrestrial Engagement

24 February 2017

NASA announced this week that the Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star. This discovery sets a new record for the number of habitable-zone planets, found around a single star, outside of our solar system. 

Astronomy and the physical sciences are transforming the picture of the cosmos and of our galaxy and our planet’s place within it. To date, astronomers have found more than 500 solar systems; and each year new ones are being discovered. There may be tens of billions, perhaps even a hundred billion, solar systems just in our own galaxy; and astronomers now estimate there are at least one hundred billion galaxies in our observable universe. Add to that the recent findings that our universe is expanding and changing at an accelerated rate.  

Reflecting on the age and size of created reality, our image and conception of God takes on new forms as well. Do we have a spirituality for God of the expanding cosmos? Are the old theistic anthropomorphisms adequate for today’s believers? Years ago I read that Albert Einstein had started asking these kinds of questions. He wrote about “A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity.” He added: “and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.” 

A new expanded consciousness, I suggest in these trumpish chaotic days, must become operative in our thinking about ultimate realities such as God, Jesus Christ, humanity, and how we relate to each other. A new cosmic consciousness demands a more encompassing terrestrial engagement. How do we implement, down the street and around the globe, the Christian values of love, mercy, forgiveness, justice, and concern for the poor? New challenges for the world’s religions. New challenges for world politics as well. Who is master of our planet? Who should be Earth’s master? Can we continue to discuss but ignore climate change and simply wait until the seas rise? The current best estimates predict that sea level will rise 6.6 feet, or 2 meters, by the year 2100. That’s about 80 years from now. Then, the problem will not be immigrants but refugees from seacoast cities like New York and Amsterdam. What does it mean to take charge of people and their lives? What does it mean to make a country great? Is one race naturally superior to another? Can one race, or one country, or one religion ignore and/or denigrate the rest? 

In my more than seven decades being a student and a teacher, I have come to realize that a good teacher is not necessarily the answer person, but the one who raises questions and helps students think and act within a broader and deeper horizon. Now I realize more than ever that all of us on planet Earth are called and challenged to be students and teachers for each other. We are one human reality and one human family. We need to begin restructuring how we relate to one another. We are believers and unbelievers, Muslims and Christians, Republicans and Democrats, trumps and immigrants, gays and straights, and all the in betweens….. We either learn to live together or perish together. The clock is ticking on planet Earth. 

As I mentioned briefly last week, televangelist Pat Robertson announced recently that people who oppose Donald Trump are really revolting against God. I find this an interesting statement, when one looks at the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Drawing from a distinctly Jewish tradition, we see God as the one who assures justice for those who are defenseless and oppressed. In his words and actions, Jesus proclaimed a God whose goodness and graciousness are expressed in liberation of the oppressed and vindication of the weak and helpless. Jesus was no advocate for deceptive lying, racism, and xenophobia. Does Reverend Robertson need remedial Bible study? He certainly has a strange perspective on Gospel values.  

Cosmic consciousness? God is the creator of everything and the lover of all human beings, together as a group and individually as members of the species we call human. Yes, today we also see human beings caught up in negative situations of ignorance, sin, suffering, and death. We are members of a single humanity. Our human solidarity should prohibit anyone from conceiving or hoping for a salvation that would leave others behind. Is it conceivable that God would love some and not the others? Is God’s truth up for grabs in a society of alternative truths. 

The solidarity of humankind as creatures of one God is central to an authentic Christian vision. We need to remember this, when we observe modern western cultures promoting a privatized notion of salvation: looking out for my salvation, whether or not others are saved. A distorted idea of self-righteousness leads to an arrogant corruption of Christian belief. It’s happening around the world, not just in Washington. 

Across Europe, I see a new and troublesome political arrogance, especially in countries like Austria, Hungary, Italy, Romania, and France, which have ambivalent relationships with their fascist and Nazi pasts. I hear echoes of a fundamentalist Christian conservative-reactionary agenda in Poland, Bulgaria, Croatia, and even in Belgium. Political leaders in these countries fear Islam and want to “make their country great again.” 

As a theologian, with a special interest in ethics, I am alarmed by how easily governmental leaders get away with consequential ethics: an approach to human behavior that says the end justifies any means. We see it with revived interest in waterboarding and approval of other forms of torture to get “dangerous people” to talk. We see it with the arrests and crackdowns on “dissidents” in Turkey. We see it in the Philippines, where a new president’s government has hired vigilantes and secret death squads to combat drug sales and eliminate drug users. There is nothing Christian, just, or humane in any of this.  

Terrestrial engagement is our calling, our mission, and our urgent responsibility today. Our churches, schools, colleges, voluntary organizations of all types, and cultural groups constitute the primary places where we should be actively engaged. Protests are often good and appropriate; but by themselves, they are not enough. We need structural and institutional change. Christians properly understood must be social change agents.  

In the United States, Jesus is used to prop up politics on both sides of the aisle; yet in his preaching and action, Jesus revealed and announced the Reign of God: salvation that comes from God and is at work now on our planet Earth. The Jesus message challenges all political parties. In his day, Jesus, the Jewish prophet, bothered both the Romans as well as certain Jewish authorities. The Gospel of Mark (1:14-15) summarizes: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The Reign of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” The Reign of God, the salvation Jesus preached and exemplified is a mission that must be taken up by Jesus’ followers and acted out in their history: in our history as we move beyond pious words and old Christian clichés. If there is no liberating practice from social oppression, by the followers of Jesus, it is nonsense to speak about salvation in this world. We urgently need to implement a liberation theology for the poor and politically oppressed; a feminist theology, that confronts and disables all androcentric forms of patriarchal misogyny, denigration, and abuse; a queer theology, that values and sustains people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity; an inter-religion theology, that values all the great religious traditions and promotes dialogue and collaboration…. The list is long.  

These are matters of belief and ethics not politics; but they challenge all politicians and all church leaders.  

Next week — the first week of Lent 2017 — some reflections about Jesus and world religions. 

Dr. J. A. Dick

Geldenaaksebaan 85A, 3001 Heverlee, BELGIUM


A Conversation about Church and Community

18 February 2017

No politics this week end. Just church-talk. Institutional religion in America (except for far-right evangelicals) is having a rough time. Membership numbers are still going down. Young people are turned off and have greatly dropped out, or never bothered joining up. Bishops are silent when they should be protesting. Angry old cardinals are undermining the pope. It is easy for people my age to find things to post and complain about on Facebook. I am not running away from reality. I have not lost my critical edge. I suggest however we can more effectively spend our time changing the conversation.

Conversation changes come from attitudinal changes and changed perspectives. This week end, I suggest we talk less about the institutional church and focus more on Christian community. 

Let’s support genuine Christian communities where they exist, and strive to revive them in places where they are languishing or have died.  

We can observe. We can talk. Now is the time to act.  

Bigger is not always better. In my tradition parishes are disappearing and churches are being closed. Consolidation is becoming the Roman Catholic word. Smaller parishes are being closed, church buildings sold, and people are encouraged to join the remaining, consolidated big parishes. For older people, consolidation is bad news because they cannot always get to the bigger parish across town. For everyone it can be a real downer. Where people once had a sense of community with face-to-face parish friendships, feeling part of a neighborhood community with supportive relationships, they now find themselves more like observers in a larger but anonymous congregation.  

If we change our perspective, we realize that the vitality of the church has always been based on the church as a genuine, warm-blooded community of believers in which people know one another, listen and talk to one another, and support one another. When we read the New Testament, and see the word that has often been incorrectly translated as “church,” we should more correctly see the word “community.”  

Paul wrote, for example, to the COMMUNITY in Ephesus. His words have a special meaning for us today: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6)

Buildings are institutional structures. They can come and go. People are the community of faith and always come first. If a church building costs too much to maintain, sell it but don’t destroy the sense and reality of community. Let people stay together. Small communities can meet in school halls, shared churches, neighborhood centers, or even a store front. A healthy community thrives on creativity. For several years, by way of example, my wife and I belonged to a Catholic community of faith (a diocesan approved “neighborhood church”) that used the local Methodist church for our services, adult faith sharing, youth catechetics program, and potluck suppers. 

Yes! We need to put on our thinking caps, because we need to shift from large congregations to intimate small size communities. Large parishes can be divided into smaller neighborhood prayer groups and study groups. Mega churches have the energy of a football game; but small communities have the energy of the human heart. This is not downsizing but reconfiguring. 

Too often big corporations and big institutional churches consider downsizing a virtue. In my RCC tradition right now, dioceses have big bills from sexual-abuse lawsuits. (They are not going to disappear next year, or the year thereafter…..) Downsizing and selling church real-estate can generate a lot of dollars, especially if the small churches you want to close and sell are in a place like Manhattan. But what about the people in those small communities? Maybe the cathedrals should be rented out periodically as meeting halls for management seminars, concerts, and university lectures? Perhaps then the small church buildings can be saved? Or provided by the Archbishop free of charge? 

Young people are good at networking. People often criticize them and joke about them: always having their thumbs on smart phones and Ipads. What the critics don’t realize is that those same young people are networking. Thumbs on smart phones lead to studying together, partying together, or (yes) demonstrating together. We must shift our parish focus from buildings to networking with people. I know a young pastor who understands this completely. He is electronically connected with his parishioners of all ages. His parish is alive and dynamic. It is a warm and supportive community. A community of faith.  

As we change our conversation, I suggest we stop talking about and longing for the good old days. We all have many happy memories. And some not so happy ones as well. I grew up in the 1950s and had a happy childhood. I also had just about every childhood disease imaginable and feared polio creeping around my neighborhood. I don’t want to live in the 1950s. Today I would not go to a physician anchored in a 1950’s cardiology. Why should we put up with a church leadership anchored in a 1950s theology? A 1950s understanding of human sexuality? A 1950’s understanding of “the woman’s place in society”? A 1950s Catholic conception of Protestantism as “a false religion”? 

All recent sociological studies – and I read and reflect on a lot of them – speak about the Millennial generation and their perspectives on life, their hopes and expectations, and their questions about values and religion. Changing the conversation, means we stop talking ABOUT them and begin to engage WITH them. How can we creatively make a place for young people in our Christian communities? How about a place for them as voting members on the parish council, in the education commission, on the finance committee, on the Christian service committee? 

Changing the conversation means as well that we courageously speak out and correct error and confusion. It means educating people about the Bible and our Christian tradition. It means calling nonsense nonsense. Yes, there are Christians today speaking a lot of pure nonsense. Changing the conversation does not mean that we denigrate and demean them. Paul, again in Ephesians 4, reminds us that we need to “speak the truth in love.” It is our Christian responsibility to offer the challenge of Christian correction.  

Two days ago, on “The 700 Club,” the former Southern Baptist minister, Pat Robertson, argued that people who oppose President Trump are revolting against God. That is pure nonsense. Robertson is not giving Christian witness but propagandizing a politicized religion pretending to be Christian. Regardless whether one likes him or not (see: I said no politics this week end!) the current president of the United States is not a divinely appointed and supreme monarch. And the United States is not a theocracy.  

In my own Christian tradition, Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke uttered his own religious nonsense last week, when he outlined his plans to keep Protestant theology from infiltrating the Roman Catholic Church. Burke, perhaps inspired by the severe screening of immigrants at airports, proposes a screening test for Protestant converts to the Catholicism. Burke may be knowledgeable about his field which is church law. When it comes to theology, however, he needs drastic remedial education. Like the clothes he wraps around his body, Cardinal Burke’s theology is late medieval. 

 As I write this, the sun is in my face. Spring is in the air. Hope is alive. 

Dr. J. A. Dick – Geldenaaksebaan 85A, 3001 Heverlee, BELGIUM

Email: jadleuven@gmail.com