Contemporary Belief and Reality

Sunday 29 April 2018

For many people, contemporary religious belief is twisted and distorted by two contending and often exaggerated tensions: Static Belief and Short-Sighted Humanization.

Static belief advocates simply revert to and reproduce the old static theology: they unquestioningly defend the beliefs and practices of earlier ages. For them historical critical reflection is not only unnecessary but dangerously unorthodox. They consider the old theology, clothed in the language of an earlier culture, to be self-evident, authoritative, unchanging, and exclusive. In my own Roman Catholic tradition, static belief cardinals and bishops are openly denouncing Pope Francis, whom they consider dangerous and most probably heretical.

For static believers, truth is obedient conformity to time-locked sacred stories, doctrinal understandings, and moral directives. Nothing changes. They insist that no one should question their “traditional” truth and morality. Nor should there be openness to new theological, historical, or biblical discoveries. Many contemporary Catholic and Protestant fundamentalists, for example, are locked in a static literal understanding of Sacred Scripture and are avid static believers. For them, Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark were historic events. Curiously, 60% of the today’s Americans believe the Biblical account of Noah’s ark to be literally true. (About 12% of today’s adult Americans believe that “Joan of Arc” was Noah’s wife. But that is another issue….) These literal believers are repulsed by the very thought of biblical mythology. Obviously they cannot resonate with biblical scholar John Dominic Crossman’s famous observation: “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”

Today’s static believers have a number of challenges coming from respected contemporary New Testament scholars and church historians. So much has been discovered since the middle ages, even since the nineteenth century. Four examples: (1) ORDINATION. The historic Jesus did not ordain anyone. Jesus had no understanding of ordination. Nevertheless, one of my cardinal friends still loves to tell the story, in his ordination homilies, that Jesus, at the Last Super, ordained the apostles as bishops. Well in fact ordination did not arrive until decades after Jesus’s death and resurrection; and it was not about some kind of “sacramental power” to “confect the sacrament.” It was more about quality control — an assurance to Christian communities that their designated leaders were trustworthy. (2) WOMEN APOSTLES. Among Jesus’s followers there were women disciples as well as male disciples; and yes, there were also women apostles, like Mary the Magdalene, Prisca, and Junia. (3) WOMEN AND EUCHARIST. The people who presided at Eucharist in early Christianity were the heads of households. Some heads of households were women. Yes, that means women presided at Eucharist. (4) JESUS’S SIBLINGS. About the historic Jesus, a number of biblical scholars would agree that he had brothers and sisters. His brother James was in charge of the Christian community in Jerusalem. Were they Mary’s sons and daughters as well?

And there are still more questions…….Something for future reflections……

Turning quickly to short-sighted humanization, we also see today a profusion of barrel-vision humanized responses to theological questions. “Experts” who see the human being as just a material object and substitute physical and psychological theory for genuine theological thinking. I contend they have scientific barrel-vision because they cannot see the breadth and depth of Reality. I am thinking in particular about people like the best-selling authors Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell) and Sam Harris (The End of Faith).

Many of these “post-theistic theologians” (if one can really call them “theologians”) are strongly influenced by the postmodern thinking of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). They celebrate the creative capacities of autonomous human beings by deconstructing all that is considered sacred.

Radical “post-theistic theologians” fall victim to what can be called a short-sighted humanization of theological questions. It is really extreme secularism. The signs of the sacred are simply reduced to signs of linguistic, political and often repressive social theories. In the end, it is but a short step to nihilism.

TODAY, we need to find a way to articulate the human experience of the Divine that reduces it neither to the extreme secularity of the post-theistic theologians nor to the unthinking certitude of static believers.

NEXT WEEK: A Constructive Contemporary Theological Agenda


How We Understand and Speak About REALITY

Sunday — 22 April 2018

In 1886 the French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) dismissed all gods as unimportant window dressing and insisted that religions are just rites and rituals.

In The Origin of Species (p. 470), Charles Darwin wrote that: “The feeling of religious devotion is a highly complex one….Nevertheless, we see some distant approach to this state of mind in the deep love of a dog for his master, associated with complete submission, some fear and perhaps some other feelings.”

Ever since Darwin equated human devotion to God with a dog’s devotion to its master, biologists, psychologists, and some philosophers have been postulating religious instincts and other neurological bases for religion. Their work always attracts attention, especially in the popular media. Time Magazine and Newsweek, for example periodically announce a “new” revelation about religion. In his best-selling 2006 book, English biologist Richard Dawkins tried to say it all: The God Delusion.

And so the contemporary REALITY questions:

Dose God exist?

Have we discovered God, or have we invented God?

Are there so many similarities among the great religions simply because God is the product of universal wish fulfillment?

Have human beings historically created supernatural beings, because of their need for comfort in the face of existential tragedy and to find purpose and significance in life?

Or….have people in many places and in many times, to a greater and lesser degree, actually gained glimpses of God?

Theologians try to understand and interpret our experience of REALITY. I see three approaches in contemporary “theology,” as it tries to answer the above questions: (1) Static Belief, (2) Short-Sighted Humanization, and (3) Christian Humanism.

Before moving into these three categories, we need to clarify what theology is and is not.

Faith is our experience of God: the human experience of the Divine. Theology is an interpretation of that faith experience and finds expression in words and symbols. The best definition of theology is still that of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109): Fides quarens intellectum – “faith seeking understanding.” Theology is an interpretation. When we do theology we express ourselves in the symbols, words, and rituals that are products of our culture.

Cultural change means that theology changes as well – in small ways and occasionally in big ways.

In every age people scratch their heads trying to best express what they experience in their faith experiences of the Divine. There is always change in theology just because words change, thought categories change, and symbols and rituals that worked in one era do not always work in another time frame. This has always been my point with my blog “Another Voice,” the challenge I read long ago in Little Gidding by T. S. Eliot: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language; and next year’s words await another voice.”

Next week: Two strong but unhealthy contemporary theological trends – Static Belief and Short-Sighted Humanization…..Bear with me please!


Human Rights / Human Dignity

Sunday — April 15, 2018

“‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” Acts of Apostles 2:17

In my first post Easter reflection, some thoughts — for people of all ages — about being prophetic in living our dreams and visions.

First a brief story.

A friend sent me a short video about a young man’s vision of Jesus. A young white fellow was deeply troubled and tearfully crying and praying in church: “Jesus help me! Lord help me please!” Suddenly a dark-skinned man in a robe appeared and said: “Hey man, what’s the problem?” The fair-skinned fellow cries out: “I need Jesus!” The dark-skinned man replies: “Yes. I am here. What’s your problem?” The young man says: “but…but you don’t look like your pictures!” Jesus replied: “Get over it kid. I am dark-skinned and speak and act like a foreigner. I grew up in a different part of the world. My Mom and Dad were very dark-skinned as well. We all looked like migrants to people like you……now what’s the problem?”

The message of Christ proclaims the dignity and worth of every human person. There can be no exceptions. The must basic human right is the right to be oneself: to be accepted, to be acknowledged as a human being who by nature has value and deserves to be respected.

In authentic Christian behavior all must be acknowledged, respected, supported, and helped: male, female, transgender. Black, white, yellow and colorful combinations. Gay, straight, and uncertain. Americans, Mexicans, Syrians, and other foreigners. The young and old. Rich and pour. Handsome and ugly. Smart and stupid. Saints and sinners.

Are you listening bishops? Are you listening rabbis and imams? Are you listening White House? Are you listening Democrats and Republicans? Are you really listening United Nations representatives from around the world?

In the revelation of Jesus Raised from the Dead, this is authentic Christian behavior. It is authentic human behavior: not just our challenge but our duty. It is our responsibility. Political party or religious tradition differences allow no exceptions.

Next week some pointed theological questions.


Easter 2018

Happy Easter!

May we move forward, supporting each other,

in the Way of Jesus who is our Truth and Life.

“Instead of reading the Bible to assure ourselves that we are right,

we would be better to read it to discover where we have not been

listening.”– Raymond E. Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind, p150.


I will be away for a couple of weeks.