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

August 23, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take care. We can and will move forward.


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

An Assumption

August 16, 2019

Albrecht Dürer, The Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin, 1510

I have absolutely no desire to denigrate Jesus’ Mother. She must have been a wonderfully faith-filled, attentive, and caring mother. She remains as well a source of strength and encouragement for any woman who has lost a son or a husband especially through a violent death. Actually a source of strength and encouragement for all of us. No wonder she is also Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Consolation, and Mother of Perpetual Help.

Reflecting, on August 15th — Feast of the Assumption — this week, it struck me, nevertheless, that the Assumption is indeed a good case study for official Catholic teachings past and present.

The Assumption of Mary is a Roman Catholic dogma: a belief which must be accepted and affirmed by all Catholics. Pope Pius XII proclaimed this dogma, “infallibly,” on November 1, 1950. The document issued that day taught that the “Immaculate Virgin,” the Mother of Jesus, “after the completion of her earthly life was assumed body and soul into the glory of Heaven.” This means that after her death, Jesus’ Mother was assumed into heaven, body and soul, in a manner similar to Enoch and Elijah in the Hebrew Scriptures. The doctrine further states that she was glorified in heaven and is “exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things.”

The dogma of the Assumption, however, is based solely on very post-apostolic church traditions and has no foundation in the Christian Scriptures.

The Christian Scriptures say very little, in fact, about the Mother of Jesus. The Gospel According to Mark names her only once (6:3) and mentions her as Jesus’ Mother, without mentioning her name: in 3:31. The Gospel According to Luke mentions Mary the Mother of Jesus most often: identifying her by name twelve times and all of these in the infancy narrative (1:27,30,34,38,39,41,46,56; 2:5,16,19,34). The Gospel According to Matthew mentions her by name five times, four of these (1:16,18,20; 2:11) in the infancy narrative and only once (13:55) outside the infancy narrative.

The Gospel According to John refers to the Mother of Jesus twice but never mentions her by name. She makes two appearances in the Johannine Gospel. She is first seen at the wedding at Cana of Galilee (Jn 2:1-12) which is mentioned only in this Gospel. The second reference, also exclusively listed in this Gospel, has the Mother of Jesus standing near the cross of her son together with the (also unnamed) “disciple whom Jesus loved” (Jn 19:25-26). John 2:1-12, by the way, is the only text in the Christian canonical scriptures in which the Mother of Jesus speaks to, and about, the adult Jesus.

In the Book of Acts, the Mother of Jesus, and the “brothers of Jesus,” are mentioned in the company of the eleven, gathered in the upper room after the ascension (Acts 1:14).

It took a good four or five hundred years, after the earthly days of Jesus’ Mother, for the development of an imaginative and creative Marian tradition that became the basis for nineteenth and twentieth century infallibly-proclaimed Virgin Mary dogmas. There is really no big list of infallible teachings. That is because there are only two, and both are about Mary: her Immaculate Conception, declared by Pope Pius IX in 1854 even before the First Vatican Council’s declaration of papal infallibility in 1870 and her bodily Assumption into heaven.

In the second century, St. Justin the Martyr (c. 100 to 165 CE) gave us the understanding that the Mother of Jesus had always been a virgin. In the fourth century, Christian theologians decided Mary the Mother of Jesus was a very unique kind of virgin: her hymen was not even broken in childbirth. Baby Jesus simply passed miraculously through the wall. (A bit of theological hymenology by celibate males?) But then the learned men had to deal with another Bible-based theological problem.

In the Gospel According to Mark and in the Gospel According to Matthew, we read about Jesus’ “brothers and sisters.” As the doctrine of Mary’s “perpetual virginity” became increasingly widespread so did confusion about Jesus’ siblings. Theologians had to harmonize the New Testament with the new dogma (a bit of biblical revisionism) ….and so “brothers and sisters” became “cousins.” Problem solved……

The fourth century was also a particularly fruitful time for creative religious archeology. Constantine’s mother, Empress Helena (c. 246 to 330 CE) was a strong supporter of the developing Mary-Mother-of-Jesus cult and created what one could call ecclesiastical archeology. In 313 AD, the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which accepted Christianity and 10 years later, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Helena told her son they needed some Christian holy places.

Helena was quite a researcher….. Everywhere she went, local tour guides (who were well paid) helped her find “evidence” of Jesus or the Mother of Jesus. She then had churches built on the spot! She found, for example, the cave of the nativity (or so the local people had told her), the house of the Last Supper (or so the local people had told her), the Garden of Gethsemane (or so the local people……), the hill of crucifixion, the empty tomb, the cross itself. She even found the very tree from which the wood for Jesus’ cross was cut!

Every shrine that Helena discovered was honored with imperial patronage and became a profitable pilgrimage site as well. With each shrine went a Mary festival.

But back to my reflection about the Assumption……

The world view and the theological perspective that underlie the Assumption belong to an archaic pre-Galileo cosmology: the older flat earth model of Hebrew biblical and early and medieval Christian cosmology. Over the flat earth was a dome-shaped rigid canopy called the firmament. God the Father’s throne was in the firmament and he controlled the earthly and human events down below. Heaven was understood as the place and space around God high up in the firmament.

Sitting at the right hand of God the Father was Jesus, his Son, whom he raised from the dead and elevated up to heaven, on a cloud, on Jesus’ Ascension Day.

Later, in the seventh century, thanks especially to the theology of John of Damascus (c. 675 to 749 CE) and Gregory of Tours (c. 538 to 594 CE), the church developed the understanding (another theological assumption) that the Mother of Jesus, as well, was carried on a cloud and assumed body and soul up to heaven.

And my point today?

What do contemporary Catholic believers do when they suspect that a dogma or doctrine safeguarded by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is flawed or is simply not believed anymore by many in the Church, including its best scholars?

There must be an avenue in the Catholic Church for open, respectful, and intellectually honest dialogue about serious kinds of theological questions. On the top of that list today I would put recognizing and supporting women’s ordination. (I think Mary would like that.) There are of course a great number of questions to be explored, especially when it comes to human sexuality and what is “natural” or “unnatural.” Theological exploration is an open field….or should be.

– Jack

Sacralizing Politics

August 9, 2019

It happens. A few days ago I was unfriended on Facebook by a fellow who fears I have ceased being a theologian and am now a political agitator. Actually, I don’t mind agitating a bit but I am still very much a theologian…..

If they are true to their calling, theologians must critique social movements and political positions, when they are unethical and promote false belief. It happened in the past and is happening today. And not just in the U.S.A……

This week I continue a theological reflection connected with last week’s post on Christian America. We are certainly living in a time of major socio-cultural shifts and unsettlingly cruel and evil developments, as the recent killings and violence in El Paso and Dayton have so painfully demonstrated. This time a new political twist was added; and an August 6th editorial in the National Catholic Reporter expressed it pointedly: “Never have we experienced political leadership where mass murderers could quote the very rhetoric emanating from the White House to justify their evil.”

My thoughts today are about what happens when people – without questions or critique — begin to use religion to sacralize politics; and authoritarian leaders misuse religion to promote their distorted political agendas. When belief is twisted out of shape and paves the way for authoritarian movements and regimes – what we call today neofascism.

I remember being in a taxi along Interstate 170 near St. Louis, Missouri last autumn, when I saw a large billboard with a picture of the 45th U.S. president. With the picture was this caption “And the Word was made flesh.” I asked the cab driver what he thought about that. “Well,” he said “I don’t think our president is Jesus Christ but, like Jesus, he was sent by God. He is a man of God and we need him to save us.” The sacralization of politics. Perverted religion. Perverted politics.

“History doesn’t repeat itself,” Mark Twain supposedly said, “but it rhymes.”

In 1932 Mussolini declared that the fascist state had not created its own god but recognized the God of traditional saints and Christian heroes. He was playing a phony political game. Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI both had come to power in 1922. Thanks to their shared distrust of democracy and anti-communist zeal, the two leaders clicked immediately. Evil often comes dressed up as something Good. In 1929, Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty with the Vatican, ending decades of struggle between the Italian state and the Papacy, and recognized the independence of Vatican City. A grateful Pope Pius XI acclaimed Mussolini as “the Man of Providence.” Mussolini needed Catholic support but in fact he resonated strongly with Friedrich Nietzsche’s anti-Christian ideas and the negation of God’s existence. He did the talk and played the game. And who was really listening?

It is a perennial problem. Who is really observing what’s happening? Who is seriously considering the implications? And who is willing to speak out and take action?

Catholics in Germany, by way of another historical example, were basically opposed to Hitler. In 1933, however, Hitler signed a concordat with the Vatican. It was signed by the Cardinal Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, who later became Pope Pius XII. Catholic rights in Germany were theoretically put on a new basis, while the Hitler regime was strengthened. The Vatican had a sense that Hitler, was an indispensable bulwark against Bolshevism. The concordat gave moral legitimacy to the Nazi regime; and Hitler acquired dictatorial powers through the Enabling Act of 1933, which was facilitated through the support of the Catholic Center Party. In the years after the concordat was signed, however, the Nazis regularly ignored it. Hitler in fact was hostile to the Catholic Church, but for his political strategy played the public image game. There were of course Catholic protestors. Some of the most courageous demonstrations of opposition to Hitler were the 1941 sermons of the Catholic Bishop August von Galen of Münster.

In general, Protestants in Germany found a way to be both believers in Christianity and supporters of Nazism. A few –- like Dietrich Bonhoeffer — openly opposed the Nazis, while others saw themselves as neutral. Still others actively supported Nazism, calling themselves “storm troopers of Jesus Christ.” Nazism was not just an alternative political party. It was, in Hitler’s own words, “a form of conversion, a new faith.” In responding to one of his co-conspirators in his 1923 coup attempt, Hitler had said “I need for the building up of a great political movement, the Catholics of Bavaria and the Protestants of Prussia.”

While the Second World War did bring an end to Nazism in Germany, the evil dictatorships of Franco and Salazar persisted well into the mid-1970s.

Societies in transition, as we experience today, are always vulnerable to strong forces for political change. The link between Franco’s fascism and the Catholic Church was at that time a marriage of convenience. When Franco’s government defeated the Spanish socialist party that had taken control from 1931 to 1936, it aligned itself with Spain’s Catholic Church and the Spanish bishops overwhelmingly endorsed Franco’s Spain. Under the guise of religion, the Franco government used the Catholic educational system as a means of socialization and connecting nationalism and religion to promote their fascist agenda. To achieve his economic goals, Franco relied as well on the wealthy and ultra-right Catholic group Opus Dei. Franco’s dictatorial style did introduce social and economic reform – as well as the slaughter of thousands of men, women, and children. The consistent elements in his long rule (1939 to 1975) were above all authoritarianism, extreme Spanish nationalism, conservative Catholicism, anti-Communism, imprisonments, torture, and mass executions.

Today’s authoritarian (neofascist) leaders display all the old historic characteristics: exaggerated nationalism, invoking the blessings of conservative religious leaders, disdain for the human rights of foreigners, racist and incendiary rhetoric, fabricating “the truth,” glamorizing the military with big parades, misogyny promoted by a kind of toxic masculinity, and protecting corporate power.

Returning to the historic Jesus, one sees a very different perspective.

In Matthew 25: 37-40, we read: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The Lord will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

Here ends today’s theological reflection. Followers of Jesus must be willing to speak truth to power.

Kind regards to all. Please don’t unfriend me…..

– Jack

Christian America…

2 August 2019

Some find this a “sensitive issue;” but we really have to deal with it…. Separation of church and state is an important safeguard for both the church and the state.

A group of nineteen U.S. Christian leaders — Protestant, Episcopalian, and Catholic — have put out a statement warning about the threat of “Christian nationalism” in the United States. They stress that Christian and American identities must remain separate to not distort “both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy.” Their strong concern, which I share, is that such a distortion as Christian nationalism wrongly suggests that to be a good American, one must be Christian and that to be a good Christian, one must be American.

“Conflating religious authority with political authority” the statement warns “is idolatrous and often leads to oppression of minorities and other marginalized groups as well as the spiritual impoverishment of religion.” The complete statement is here:

Christians Against Christian Nationalism

As Christians, our faith teaches us everyone is created in God’s image and commands us to love one another. As Americans, we value our system of government and the good that can be accomplished in our constitutional democracy. Today, we are concerned about a persistent threat to both our religious communities and our democracy — Christian nationalism.

Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. We reject this damaging political ideology and invite our Christian brothers and sisters to join us in opposing this threat to our faith and to our nation.

As Christians, we are bound to Christ, not by citizenship, but by faith. We believe that:

* People of all faiths and none have the right and responsibility to engage constructively in the public square.

* Patriotism does not require us to minimize our religious convictions.

* One’s religious affiliation, or lack thereof, should be irrelevant to one’s standing in the civic community.

*Government should not prefer one religion over another or religion over nonreligion.

* Religious instruction is best left to our houses of worship, other religious institutions and families.

* America’s historic commitment to religious pluralism enables faith communities to live in civic harmony with one another without sacrificing our theological convictions.

* Conflating religious authority with political authority is idolatrous and often leads to oppression of minority and other marginalized groups as well as the spiritual impoverishment of religion.

We must stand up to and speak out against Christian nationalism, especially when it inspires acts of violence and intimidation—including vandalism, bomb threats, arson, hate crimes, and attacks on houses of worship—against religious communities at home and abroad.

Whether we worship at a church, mosque, synagogue, or temple, America has no second-class faiths. All are equal under the U.S. Constitution. As Christians, we must speak in one voice condemning Christian nationalism as a distortion of the gospel of Jesus and a threat to American democracy.

Mary the Magdalene

26 July 2019

Mary the Magdalene is considered an early Christian saint in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions. This past Monday, July 22nd, was her feast day, I thought about the irony of it all. Four U.S. congresswomen, labeled “the squad,” by misogynist politicians were being denigrated in the press and political gatherings, while I was working on an article about women in ministry, the Catholic reluctance to ordain women, and the great apostolic woman leader: Mary the Magdalene.

Over the centuries, the Magdalene has been greatly maligned and misrepresented by misogynist churchmen. The man who launched this false and derogatory understanding was Pope Gregory called “the great.” On September 14, 591, Gregory gave a homily in Rome that proclaimed that: (1) Mary the Magdalene, (2) Luke’s unnamed prostitute, and (3) Mary of Bethany were all the same person. From that time on, Mary the Magdalene was Mary the reformed prostitute. Fake news from the papal throne. It lasted until 1969 when the Vatican cleared her name. (Some, nevertheless, still think Mary had been a prostitute. Fake news hangs on for a long time.)

Gregory the Great was an extreme authoritarian, who turned the papacy into a strong international power. His father had been a senator and for a time the Prefect of the City of Rome. His great-great-grandfather was Pope Felix III. Gregory had served as the governor of Rome when he was 30 years old; and he brought a strongly male-dominant imperial Roman administrative structure to the papacy.

Back to Mary….John’s Gospel clearly portrays Mary the Magdalene as the apostle to the apostles. Mark and Matthew place her first on the list of women at the cross. Luke names her first in his list of women disciples from Galilee. In the Synoptic Gospels the Magdalene appears first among the women at the tomb and the first person at the tomb in the Fourth Gospel. John elevates her above everyone else in his or any Gospel. She is the person to whom the resurrected Jesus appears.

Curiously, due to an error in biblical translation, just about every English language version of the New Testament gives the name of this great woman incorrectly. In all four Greek versions of the Gospels, the authors always use the definitive Greek article in her name. In Greek, definitive articles are used to emphasize a name. In English we would say “THE” as in “Mary THE Magdalene.” The English translators missed that significant point. (I do a lot of translating and understand the problem. Here it is a bad translation error nonetheless.)

Many religious writers — and even Wikipedia — still use the titles “Mary Magdalene” or “Mary of Magdala.” Some authors suggest this is because the historical Mary came from a town named Magdala. This is an unfortunate mistake. In Mary the Magdalene’s time, there was NO TOWN called Magdala. Mary the Magdalene did not come from a town called Magdala. In the days of Greek and Roman power in Galilee, the town known today as “Magdala” was called “Taricheae.” According to the first-century Romano-Jewish historian, Josephus, the town of Taricheae was totally destroyed by the Romans in 67 CE. Much later a new town was built over the ruins of Taricheae, and this town was called “Magdala Nunnayah. During the lifetime of Mary, however, the town on that location was Taricheae.

What then does “Mary the Magdalene” mean? “Magdalene” in Aramaic means “tower or pillar.” Mary the Magdalene was a tower or pillar of strength for Jesus and the early Christians: a companion and source of care and loving support. She was the preeminent ministerial woman: compassionate, hard-working, helpful, and courageous.

There are a couple other questions about Mary the Magdalen that we need to clarify. The first is that she had seven devils cast out of her. Reading the opening lines of chapter eight in Luke, we find: “Soon afterwards he [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out………”

Over the centuries, Christian misogynists have used this demon theme to paint a very negative image of the Magdalene and many other women with their “demons.” Just a few examples: “Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman.” – Saint Clement of Alexandria, Christian theologian (c150-215) ——- “Woman, you are the gate to hell.” –Tertullian, “the father of Latin Christianity” (c160-225) ——- “Woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison to his. Therefore she is unsure in herself. What she cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil.” – Saint Albertus Magnus, Dominican theologian, 13th century.

Now back to Luke chapter eight. Clearly Luke held the women accompanying Jesus in high esteem. Contemporary biblical scholars, when considering Mary the Magdalene’s “demons,” tend to agree that her seven demons represent illness, which, as a biblical researcher friend said recently, “could have been anything from epilepsy to psoriasis.” The important point here, nevertheless, is that some of the disciples who journeyed with Jesus were women; and prominent among them was Mary the Magdalene.

One more point to briefly consider….Were Jesus and the Magdalene a couple? In his 2003 fantasy novel, The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown suggests that Mary the Magdalene was Jesus’ wife. Periodically, over the years, writers and some biblical scholars have suggested in fact that Jesus was married and Mary was his wife. To date there is really no solid evidence for this. I suppose it is possible. Some writers also suggest that Jesus was actually gay. To date there is no solid evidence for this either; although I suppose it is possible.

Gay or straight, married or single, Jesus remains the Christ. He remains for all of us, and for all time, “the way and the truth and the life.” Frankly, I really don’t care about his marital state or sexuality and don’t get into those discussions.

I am grateful, however, for Mary the Magdalene and her example and ministry. Let us celebrate, support, and be grateful for her and all those women who are successors of Mary the Magdalene: tower and pillar of strength and apostle to the apostles. And let us support and promote all those women today who are in pastoral ministry or feel called to it.

– Jack


19 July 2019

Recent events emanating from Washington DC compel me to reflect and write about how we treat one another in political discourse. I am not writing about politics but about virtue and public morality.

What were once episodes of ugly verbal abuse are now evolving into a plague of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. A fierce polarization is creating deep divisions. Civility is being replaced by adolescent-type bullying and public denigration of anyone who challenges and questions the administration. There is nothing Christian about such behavior and it creates a threateningly inhumane cultural environment.

Civility means much more than politeness, although politeness is indeed an important first step. Civility is about interpersonal respect and seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences. It is about moving beyond preconceptions and listening to the other and encouraging others to do the same.

Civility is hard work because it means staying present to people with whom one can have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. It is political in the sense that it is a necessary prerequisite for civic action. Civility means collaborating for the common good. It is about negotiating interpersonal power in such a way that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s voice is ignored. Civility means that despite different perspectives we still have a shared vision and collaborate to make it a reality.

When civility is replaced by mockery, dishonest accusations, and abusive slogans, people become monsters. History amply demonstrates that monsters create more monsters. History also reminds us that such a scenario never has a happy ending.

The message this week is small. The task awaiting us is enormous. Civility begins with you and me, with family and friends, with neighbors and colleagues, etc. We gradually construct what I like to call coalitions of transformation: communities of faith, hope, and support.

At the end of this week, we all should reflect on the message in Luke 10:25-37: On one occasion an expert in the law, who wanted to justify himself, stood up to test Jesus and so he asked Jesus “And who is my neighbor?”

Take care.


Natural and Unnatural

12 July 2019

On Monday, July 8, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the creation of an advisory commission: the “Commission on Unalienable Rights.” He hopes it “will provide the intellectual grist of what I hope will be one of the most profound re-examinations of inalienable rights in the world since the 1948 Universal Declaration.”

The Commission on Unalienable Rights will be headed by Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and a former United States Ambassador to the Holy See. When he was a law student at Harvard, Pompeo was Glendon’s research assistant. Glendon, when thanking Pompeo for the appointment, stressed that this is a time when “basic human rights are being misunderstood by many, manipulated by many and ignored by the world’s worst human rights violators.” One can agree with her, perhaps, but then one needs to make some important distinctions.

Mary Ann Glendon’s statement, underlines my current concerns about the basis for human rights today and what has been called the “natural law.” Indeed, when setting up the commission at the State Department, the Secretary of State said its purpose would be to redefine human rights based on “natural law and natural rights.”

What is natural is a perennial question. Viewed over several centuries, “natural law” has often had a wax nose, which has bern twisted to accommodate the morality of those in power, in church and state. Arguments based on natural law have been used to justify slavery, condone torture, denigrate women, condemn gays, and of course (in the Catholic Church) to condemn contraception.

Nevertheless, my observations today are not about politics, Pompeo, or Glendon. The more important issue is clarifying, first of all, what we mean by “natural law” and, secondly, how one can promote an international ethic, still struggling to be born under the rubric of human rights.

When we survey the history of Western philosophy and theology, we see of course many thinkers who have referred to natural law. By no means have they always understood the same thing. They often came to different conclusions about what the natural law called for in human conduct. For centuries now there have been disputes between the Thomistic and Suarezian interpretations of natural law. These divergent views show that even older Catholic authors never agreed on a univocal understanding of natural law. In fact, natural law as a coherent theory with an agreed upon body of ethical content throughout history has never existed, even in the Catholic tradition. The approach of Thomas Aquinas to natural law, for instance, differs from that of many Scholastics; and outside the Catholic tradition there does not exist a concept of natural law as a monolithic theory, with an agreed-upon body of ethical content.

People who argue, for example, that the U.S. Declaration of Independence is a clear statement of the “natural law” principle that “all men are created equal” forget that this eighteenth century understanding of “natural law” did not apply to imported African slaves, to Native Americans, and certainly did not support any natural equality of men and women.

It takes time but institutional perspectives do change, thanks to, as I wrote last week, coalitions of transformation. The Catholic perspective on the world and “natural law” certainly changed dramatically in the mid 1960s.

At the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965), Catholic moral theology — what is more often called today “theological ethics” —moved from classicism to historical consciousness; and historical consciousness greatly affects the understanding of natural law.

Classicism and historical consciousness are two different ways of looking at the world. Classicism sees reality in terms of the static, the unchanging, and the eternal. (Actually, before his great awakening, Jack was a very pious young man solidly anchored in classicism.) Historical consciousness, on the other hand, sees reality in terms of historical change and places more emphasis on the particular and the individual, while classicism stresses the abstract and the universal.

Classicism (strongly upheld by many fundamentalists and by Pope John Paul II in his 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor) understands objective truth as unchanged in the course of history.

Historical consciousness says ultimately there is objective truth, but it recognizes the historicity of truth and the need for people to grasp and understand it. Historical consciousness gives greater importance to the subject seeking truth and to the historical reality itself. We are still on the road to discovery.

As an historical theologian and a proponent of historical consciousness I would be quick to point out, contrary to the objections of people like the former-pope Cardinal Ratzinger, that historical consciousness is not the same thing as historical relativism. It is a matter of perspective. Our human history involves both continuity and discontinuity. Historical consciousness is a middle position between the extremes of classicism and relativism. We are anchored in human life and tradition; and we move toward a greater understanding of life and tradition.

We learn. We grow. We are always moving toward ultimate truth. And we maintain our stability with the words of Jesus of Nazareth: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” THAT is our fundamental moral principle. That covers a lot of human territory and reenforces human dignity.

I don’t recall that Jesus ever distinguished between gay and straight, male and female, Latinos and Gringos, black and white, etc. Jesus, truly human and truly divine, had a marvelous respect for the other.

We say we live in his spirit. That is not just our challenge. It is our duty.. No relativism here.


The Fourth of July : An Historic Coalition of Transformation

To all my USA family and friends happy Fourth of July!

We can indeed celebrate. The Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. It initiated a revolutionary political change, which had global implications. Representatives from the 13 American colonies, a coalition of transformation, rejected the authoritarianism of King George III and British control over the colonies.

George was a model authoritarian ruler. (The only thing he lacked was a Twitter account.) When he assumed his nation’s highest office, he had no previous governmental experience. He was born wealthy. Never worked for anyone. Although he became his nation’s commander in chief, he had never served in the military.

For his every move, he relied on a secretive, eccentric advisor bent on reshaping the nation’s political order. Demanding absolute loyalty, the new authoritarian ruler did not trust anyone more popular than he was, and he detested all opposition. He took advantage of severe insomnia to grab his pen quill —day and night — and write often bizarre, negative notes about people with whom he had big and small complaints: cabinet ministers, generals, and citizens. Nothing was too great or too trivial for his authoritarian critical pen.

George gathered around himself a group of loyal authoritarian followers: a coalition of restoration to make his monarchy great again.

The challenging question in 1776 was transformation or restoration. The thirteen American colonies decided to become a coalition of transformation: creating a new, democratic government independent from England. They chose not to build a coalition of authoritarian followers, that would enable King George III to manage and manipulate them according to his own self-centered authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism is something leaders and their followers generate when they create a coalition of restoration — longing for the imagined good old days — to maintain control. It often occurs in times of socio-cultural change, when too many people close their eyes, stop thinking, and allow fear to replace faith.

We live in a time of tremendous socio-cultural change. A heyday for authoritarians, with their closed systems of power and authority.

The collapse of a critical social consciousness begins when authoritarian followers unquestioningly submit to their leaders. Loyalty is demanded and rewarded. Cheap slogans become truth statements. Fiction becomes reality. Gradually authoritarian “leaders” are allowed to do whatever they want, which is often undemocratic, amoral, tyrannical, and inhumanely brutal.

In today’s world, we have ample examples of people surrendering to mind-distorting authoritarianism, which spreads like a cancerous growth. We see it politics, but it is out there in church as well.

Humanity, human rights, human dignity, compassion, and collaboration. These are the values that healthy leaders promote. Whether civil or religious, leaders and institutions must be challenged to promote people not denigrate them. When they begin to deny the human dignity of every man, woman, and child, institutional structures and leaders must be changed. We need to build coalitions of transformation.

This week, for example I am delighted to read that half a million Catholic women in Germany demand access to ordained ministry (priesthood). Germany’s largest Catholic women’s organization has for the first time called for the ordination of women to the priesthood, passing a unanimous resolution to this effect in a Federal Assembly in Mainz. Now that is what we mean by a coalition of transformation. Change can happen.

People thinking and collaborating to construct new frameworks, with new language, new images, and new inspirations.

Happy Fourth of July!

Another Voice is back……..

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.