Faith, Belief, and Contemporary Culture

28 April 2017
Many years ago, one of my wife’s uncles approached me during a family reunion. He said he needed to draw on my expertise. He then pulled from his pocket a small reddish stone and said: “what do you make of this?” I looked at it and said: “very colorful.” He frowned and said: “but what is your interpretation?” I told him I had no idea about it. Very disappointed, he grumbled something and then said: “they told me your field of expertise was geology.” I chuckled and said: “not GEology but THEology.”

The best definition of THEOLOGY is still that of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109): Fides quarens intellectum – Faith seeking understanding. When people do theology, they reflect in depth about their Faith experiences and Reality: experiences of being touched by God, even for people for whom the word “God” may be problematic. I remember the words of Dag Hammarskjöld in his book Markings: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.” 

When we do theology we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words and rituals that are products of our culture. In fact, all our concepts and experiential interpretations are shaped and influenced to a great extent by the culture and the language out of which they emerge. 

In every age, theologians must strive to better articulate the human experience of the Divine for contemporary believers.  

I shared the story of the stone-in-hand uncle-in-law with an adult discussion group, which I moderate. One lady in the group, a retired professor of sociology at our university, then asked: “ok…but in these days of alt-truth, how do we distinguish healthy and unhealthy theological developments?”  

A very good question, because some theology does indeed appear unhealthy, more like a cold old stone. 

Good theology should speak to contemporary people in contemporary language. It should help them discover the signs of Divine presence in human life and promote a morality of interpersonal respect, compassion, and solidarity: Jesus taught and lived the truth that love of God cannot exist without love of neighbor. 

I suggest five points for evaluating theology…….regardless whether it comes from episcopal lips, from the local church pulpit, or from the keyboard of an old theologian. 

1. The aim of theology cannot be a kind of nostalgic retreat to recover a lost mode of being in the world. Some Roman Catholic cardinals and bishops are trying to do this right now, as they suggest that Pope Francis may be a heretic. Other Christian leaders in support of “marriage and family life” want to restrict women and basically return them to a kind of patriarchal servitude. We really cannot turn-back the clock. We should not even try. To become a religious child again would mean to abandon the adult capacity to think and make one’s own judgments based on critical reflection and developmental human understanding. The current upsurge of populist fundamentalism – with its appeal for “the good old days” — is not just annoyingly offensive; but is dangerously subversive and destructive. 

2. Theological thinking today needs to feel and experience the “call” of the Sacred (the Faith experience) by interpreting and thereby re-creating the meaning and power of religious language. A few years ago, I began this blog to encourage people to think and speak with “another voice.” The truly healthy contemporary theological thinker must have one foot anchored in the present and the other in the tradition of the past: maintaining a dynamic tension between contemporary religious consciousness and historical critical consciousness.  

3. When we do theology – when we reflect in depth about our Faith experiences – we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words and rituals that are products of our culture; but we also look for the resonance and dialogue with tradition: with the theological expressions of earlier cultures. I often tell people in my lectures that I am not a far-out progressive liberal but a Christian traditionalist…..(Don’t laugh….) 

4. Authentic and life-giving theology can never be self-serving narcissism: only the expression of individual, subjective experience. Theology is the result of deep reflection about my Faith experience AND your Faith experience AND the Faith experience of the community of Faith: today as well as yesterday. Yesterday’s theology becomes a heritage, a tradition that finds expression in historical doctrine, scripture, symbol, ritual and patterns of conduct. 

5. Theology therefore relies on culture but can never become locked within a particular culture. It cannot, for example, venerate just European or North American culture. All cultures perceive reality through their own particular lenses; and these lenses are shaped and adjusted by shared human events and great movements in human history. When a theology becomes so locked within a particular culture that it is hardly distinguishable from it, we are on the road to idolatry: when the words, symbols and rituals of a particular culture no longer communicate and connect people to the depth of the human experience but become objects of worship in themselves.   

Springtime Reflections for Church Renewal

April 20, 2017
Reform-minded people need to change their conversation about church reform. Otherwise they end up either talking to themselves or simply repeating what everyone else has been saying for the past ten years. Changing the conversation means looking at church life in new ways and developing new strategies and patterns for church life today and tomorrow. It means thinking creatively and asking challenging and deeper questions….

Some proposals for refection: 
(1)   Look less at the church as institution and more as a community of faith. What is happening within your own community of faith? What are the life-issues that really concern your family and friends? Where do you find your support? How can you motivate and help the men and women in your community to truly minister to each other? What is keeping us from experimenting with new forms of parish and parish life? Perhaps a parish should be a collection of many smaller communities of faith? Household churches in which the heads of the households – men and women — preside over informal Eucharistic liturgies, as in the Apostolic era?

(2)   Look deeper than the shortage of ordained ministers and ordained women ministers. Let’s look at the meaning of ministry itself. Let’s look at and examine the very idea of ORDAINED ministry. Jesus did not ordain anyone. Let’s scratch our heads about new forms of ministry and break out of the old patterns and paradigms. Why not have ordained graduate students helping out in university parishes? Ordaining men and women for five year terms? Perhaps a parish should have many part-time ordained ministers who have “regular” jobs? And how about dropping the word “priest”? “Minister” has better resonance with the Gospel. Should we close all seminaries and agree that they are not the best structures for the formation and education of ordained ministers?

(3)   And why not elect diocesan bishop overseers for limited terms of ministry? Why not five year terms, which could be renewed for just another five-year term? Another thought, do bishops have to be the top person in a diocese? Why not give ecclesiastical authority to a diocesan leadership team? I could see a team of at least three people: a diocesan administrator, who could be a man or woman and not necessarily ordained; a diocesan director of pastoral formation, who could be a man or woman and not necessarily ordained; and a bishop (man of woman) who would serve as spiritual director and sacramental coordinator for the diocese. Shared decision-making and a great way to dismantle the clerical old boys club.

(4)   Catholic and Christian. Healthy Catholicism is rooted in healthy Christianity. So what does it really mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ today? This raises questions of belief. What do we really know about the historical Jesus? He was not white, for sure. Jesus was most likely dark brown and sun-tanned. What about all of those rather saccharin and androgynous images of Jesus that really distort who he was and what he was all about? Was his biological father the Holy Spirit or the man we call
Joseph? Isn’t the “virgin birth” more about saying he was a very special person than analyzing the biology of his conception? What if Jesus was gay or a married fellow with children? Would that make a difference for you? Would that destroy his meaning for Christian believers? Why? Was JesusGod? Early Jewish Christians, including St. Paul, would have never said that. Or was Jesus the revelation of God’s graciousness and love, as well as the revelation of authentic humanity? Jesus is “Lord,” the “Christ,” “Son of Humanity,” and “Son of God.” All of our language tries to point to his uniqueness……..

(5)   Ecumenical discussions. What are the real differences between church groups in Christianity today? Are there any good reasons why we cannot simply start worshiping together? Are we not locked in medieval theological categories about “them” and “us”? Are structural church distinctions based on Protestantism and Roman Catholicism still significant differences in belief? Isn’t Jesus Christ, for example, just as truly “present” in Episcopalian Eucharist as he is in Roman Catholic Eucharist? Are Lutherans and Presbyterians cut off from him in their worship services? What today is the uniqueness of Roman Catholicism? Perhaps the goal of ecumenical collaboration today should be respecting a variety of traditions and at the same time enhancing the Christian life of all believers and not creating a mega-church institution? Why not turn places, like the Vatican, into United Nations heritage sites? Tourist revenue could be used to fight world poverty. Church palaces could be turned into schools and hospitals or residences for political refugees.

(6)    Seven sacraments. We now know of course that the seven sacraments were created by the church not the historical Jesus. What then is the meaning of “sacrament” today? Who controls sacramental forms? Does it make sense to argue about who can “validly” administer certain sacraments? When I got married, I was told, based on Catholic sacramental understandings, that my wife and I as baptized believers “conferred the sacrament” on each other and the priest was simply an official
witness. OK, what about baptized gays and lesbians who get married? Isn’t their marriage then just as “sacramental” as mine? What about “lay” pastoral ministers in hospitals and homes for the elderly. They are often the key Christian ministers in these people’s lives. Why can’t they “anoint” the sick and dying? Maybe they should just start doing it? Isn’t Christian ministry about prayer and  compassion and comforting the sick?

These are just a few thought-starters…… Creative and critical reflection is not a dangerous activity and it can be a source of life….

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.