Religious Discourse and Dynamics: Signs of the Times

On the Friday before Pentecost 2020, a contemporary theological reflection: What are the religious discourse and dynamics that shape our contemporary lives?

Religious people today, especially as society grows ever more divided, have very differing perspectives on belief and God. Some make God in their own image and likeness, adjusting their God-image to fit their ideological agenda. What they don’t like, God doesn’t like. Ask no questions.

For some, God is an angry judgmental God, who has sent the Coronavirus as punishment for homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, pornography, and abortion. A right-wing pastor in Florida even proclaimed, recently, that the spread of the Coronavirus in synagogues is God’s way of punishing the Jewish people for opposing Jesus of Nazareth. Bizarre, but antisemitism is flourishing these days….. People who shape God in their own image and likeness know what their God likes, and what their God dislikes…..

Some Catholic clergy, on the other hand, like the former Papal Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Viganò, and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Once known as the “Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal INQUISITION”) have launched an appeal, warning that the Corona pandemic is not a punishment from God but a sinister and evil human creation being used by world leaders so that “centuries of Christian civilization” can be “erased under the pretext of a virus” and establishing an “odious technological tyranny” in its place. Viganò and Müller stress unquestioned faith over science; and they stress fidelity to “traditional” religious doctrine.

The Viganò and Müller focus has not been on dynamic pastoral life but always on strict dogmatic rigidity. Both men belong to the traditionalist Catholic group that has condemned Pope Francis for being weak in proclaiming Catholic doctrine, thereby contributing to “the fraud of the anti-Christ.” The Viganò-Müller God-image too is that of a stern judgmental task master demanding unquestioned obedience.

We really do need to reflect on the religious dynamics that guide people’s lives. Over the past several months, of course, we have been witnessing a lot of religious dynamics — from bad advice and nonsense about the Corona virus to fundamentalist objections to anti-measles and anti-polio vaccinations.

What are the religious attitudes and religious values that shape our human actions? I see three: (1) Reward and punishment, (2) Narcissism, and (3) Jesus-based acceptance. These values shape and direct how religious people behave. They can be the basis for a deep and serious self-examination.

(1) Reward and Punishment

Some religious people believe – and at one time many religious people believed – that God rewards or punishes people, here and now, for their behavior.

Reward-Punishment-preachers remind us that Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden because of their sinfulness. They remind us about Noah and the flood. Just a few years ago, remember, various religious leaders in the United States suggested that Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,836 people, was sent as a divine punishment for the sins of New Orleans.

For far too long, many Christians have seen the crucifixion and death of Jesus of Nazareth as a necessary supreme sacrifice to appease a judgmental and vengeful God. We can thank Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) for pushing this “atonement theology.” That kind of God-image, however, is so very distant from the Loving Father, about whom Jesus spoke. In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), the prophets called for justice in the face of evil and for reliance on a gracious and loving God. Abraham, recall, was told by God’s messenger that God did not want the human sacrifice of his son Isaac. In Isaiah chapter I, we read that God does not want sacrificial offerings, but says: “Take your evil deeds out of my sight. Stop doing wrong. Learn to do right. Seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless., Plead the case of the widow.”

Actually the concept of the reward-and-punishment-God works best for anxiety-plagued religious people who are still in an early stage in human development. If I don’t behave well, Mommy and Daddy will punish me.

(2) Narcissism

In Christian history, God’s fidelity to God’s people has too often been seen in a tribal way: God was faithful just to God’s chosen people. Religious narcissism. Many Christians even taught that one of the joys of the chosen was to see the annihilation of the unchosen. This viewpoint inspired the Crusades of course and the religious wars in the sixteenth century. Even today, some fundamentalist Muslims, Jews and Christians still operate with this kind of religious narcissism.

The notion that God’s grace is for some and not others is not just problematic. It is pernicious. Quite frankly, however, Western imperialism and colonialism have been one of its most powerful manifestations. Today of course “white supremacy” is a key example. Annihilation of the unchosen by the chosen is always very tempting. Blacks. Mexicans. Muslims…I am thinking right now about George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis…

(3) Jesus-based Acceptance
As a Jewish fellow of his own time, I suspect Jesus of Nazareth had to work-through his own understanding of God and grow and mature as a believer. Perhaps it took him thirty years to do that. Jesus had a human mind, a human will, human emotions, and a human body, etc.

Looking at the life and ministry of Jesus, what stands out in amazing clarity is his sense of God’s love and grace for all. That is the golden thread that links us to the historical Jesus and connects all Christian history – even when Christians, at times, have been miserable failures at living it out.

With the men and women who were his disciples and apostles, Jesus believed in and longed for the Reign of God. And if we pay close attention to the life and message of Jesus it becomes absolutely clear that for us today, if we are truly his followers, there can be no talk of divine vengeance, condemnation, repudiation, or of religious rejection or exclusion of anyone for any reason whatever. All men and women are radically equal before God. And this is Good News for certain. It is also our Christian challenge……

Come Holy Spirit!


Short-Sighted Moral Vision

Christopher White, national correspondent for the online Catholic newspaper Crux, reported that President Donald Trump made a conference call, at the end of April, to an estimated 600 US Catholic leaders, among whom were: Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York; Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston; Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB); Bishop Michael C. Barber of Oakland, Chair of the USCCB committee for Catholic Education. Also among the 600 were superintendents of Catholic schools in Los Angeles and Denver, and a variety of other US Catholic leaders.

In his message to these prominent US Catholics, the President reiterated his pro-life (meaning for him ‘anti-abortion’) position and his support for Catholic schools. Clearly begging for support from Catholic leaders, President Trump repeated his warnings of dire consequences for the Catholic Church in the United States, if he would not be reelected.

On April 26, the Sunday following this presidential conference call, Cardinal Dolan, from his pulpit in St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, offered friendly and great praise for Mr. Trump: “The president has seemed particularly sensitive to the religious community…..I’m in admiration of his leadership.”

Meanwhile, Father Frank Pavone, Catholic priest and National Director of Priests for Life and President of the National Pro-Life Religious Council, announced that he enthusiastically supports President Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection.

Pavone, one may recall, made national headlines in 2016 when he strongly endorsed Donald Trump for President. In his 2016 pro-Trump video-propaganda, he used a dead aborted baby, laying naked and bloody on an altar, as a campaign prop. Quite a sign of being a pro-life priest.

These days Pavone is a key leader in the “Catholics for Trump Coalition.” In a recent interview he stressed that while Trump is “trying to protect the right to life,” the president is acting on other issues as well in ways “completely consistent with Catholic teaching.” He went on, “He’s protecting our people by strengthening borders, not to stop immigration but to stop crime, to protect families, to protect neighborhoods,” He sounds just like a Trump speech writer….

Some may doubt me, but very honestly I am not interested in playing politics in Another Voice. If people ask, I acknowledge that I am a Democrat. Frankly, I come from an active and solidly Republican family background. (In grade school in 1951, I was an avid supporter of Dwight David Eisenhower’s Republican presidential campaign. “I Like Ike” was my theme song and I proudly wore one of his campaign buttons to prove it.)

These days I am not a political activist. I am an historical theologian. My theological DNA has been strongly shaped by both my Catholic mother and my Protestant father….My now rather long academic career, however, has been in mostly Catholic institutions.

As a Christian believer and an historical theologian, I am very critical of the current US President. I find his values and behavior morally repugnant. If he is a “Christian” I suspect that must be a personal quality in name only. I am also very critical, therefore, of Catholics who support the policies of our current chief executive. Whether bishops, priests, or lay people, I believe they have succumbed to a very distorted moral vision. I find their behavior in supporting the current chief executive disorienting, disruptive, and disconcerting. I find it difficult, for instance, to reconcile continued public lying, no compassion for the distressed, self-centered admiration, xenophobia, promoting racist stereotypes, mocking people with disabilities, and denigrating women with any sense of healthy Christian virtue.

They and we urgently need some contemporary values clarification discussions and exercises.

Some fundamental questions that should be asked: What are the person’s basic beliefs, principles, and attitudes? What are they based on? Are they humane? Are they Christian? Are they good and healthy values? How does one know? If these are one’s values, is one’s behavior consistent with them? If institutions or institutional leaders do not have good values, are values re-education and transformation possible? Is it enough to inform the emperor that he has no clothes? Or maybe one needs a new emperor….one who has better moral sense and sensitivity.

Opposing abortion is not enough for a genuine Christian response to today’s human life situations. Over the years I have encountered a great number of anti-abortion demonstrators who were cruel, crude, and inhumane. Fortunately there have been, as well, Catholics – even bishops — who have demonstrated broader Christian beliefs and behavior.

In 2011, by way of example, the then Catholic bishops of the United States issued a “Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities” which advocated a consistent broad-based ethic of life. This is material for good values clarification discussions and exercises for contemporary Catholics, regardless of their political party affiliations. In that document issued almost ten years ago, we read: “Opposing abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care…”

Now THAT reflects authentically Christian values!


A New Virus….

These days in the big picture, I remain an optimist. However, I am also a realist. Populist, political, and media reactions to the Corona pandemic reveal the presence of yet another deadly virus. Out in the open. Not even hand-washing and face masks offer protection.

Officially this other deadly virus is called “Agnotology”  (from Greek roots for ignorance and speech). 

Agnotology is the planned and willful human endeavor to spread ignorance, confusion, and deceit.

It is used to sell an ideology or to win support for a socio-political cause. It is very cultic with sinister propaganda banners and symbols. Agnotology is a resuscitated old phenomenon. It has become very much an active contemporary virus. As an historian, I would not say that history repeats itself. Rather, I suggest that people do not always learn from history, until it is often just about too late. Agnotology is a key example.

Institutional leaders and populist agitators often promote ignorance and spread false information as ways to exercise power over people or to protect and promote the power of their authoritarian leaders. They gradually mutate people’s brains, weaponizing them against dissenting voices. Efforts to communicate the truth to modified-brain people, become for them acts of aggression against the one they see as the chosen one. No one can criticize the chosen one. Some, in this cult, even believe their leader was sent by God.

When people abandon or reconfigure facts, Agnotology rules life. As Yale University professor, Timothy Synder, wrote in his little book On Tyranny: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”  

Down the slippery slope to deadly Agnotology: 

(1) People begin to succumb to the disease when they renounce the difference between what they want to hear and what is really the case. “Conservatives” do it; but “liberals and progressives” do it as well. Denigrating people and launching conspiracy theories is a symptom.

(2) We need to be aware of the seductive character of leaders who promote ignorance through an endless repetition of certain phrases that cloud and conceal reality or turn individual people into dangerous stereotypes. Continually repeated executive tweets, and only watching Fox News cloud and disfigure one’s sense of reality. Continual refrains of anti-abortion rhetoric, for example, distort and conceal the reality of anti-abortion politicians who are NOT pro-life in any way. 

(3) When people begin to base their big decisions on feelings rather than reason, the disease has begun to metastasize. Feelings can be positive or negative but cannot replace the importance of critical reflection and rational argumentation. 

(4) Infected Agnotology people reject all personal responsibility for maintaining the common good. Feeling insecure, they blame social and economic problems on science, homosexuals, blacks, foreigners and (once again) Jews.  

(5) Clear signs of Agnotology are: when influential people begin to despise the accepted truths of daily existence; when clever slogans appeal to fearful feelings and resonate in popular rhetoric like a new religion; and when convenient myths replace facts, history, and critical journalism.

(6) Infected people become religious militants who reject traditional religious values and preach racism, misogyny, and xenophobia in their place. Some claim to be exemplary Christians but the spirit of Christ has no presence in their hardened hearts.

And Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)

Truth. Honesty. Critical thinking. Compassion. Mutual respect. We have a lot of work to do….Challenging Agnotology..


Christianity in a Time of Sickness

Today some thoughts inspired by words from Tomas Halik professor of sociology at Charles University, Prague and university chaplain. During the Communist regime Tomas Halik was active in the “underground church,” in the former Czechoslovakia.

After this global Covid-19 experience, which may last a couple years, the world won’t be the same as it was before. We will never again return to “normal life.” At best, perhaps, there will be a new normal. As an historical theologian, I ask what kind of challenge this situation presents for Christianity, for Christian believers, and for the institutional church.

Pope Francis said the church should be a “field hospital.” Tomas Halik observed: “as a good hospital, the church must also fulfill other tasks. It has a diagnostic role to play (identifying the “signs of the times”), a preventive role (creating an “immune system” in a society in which the malignant viruses of fear, hatred, populism and nationalism are rife) and a convalescent role (overcoming the traumas of the past by forgiveness).”

Currently there are no services in thousands of churches on several continents. Thinking about this, while listening to the bells calling from a local church, the thought struck me: those empty churches today are truly a special sign for all who call themselves Christian.

Maybe empty church buildings symbolically expose a contemporary problem that many “Christians” are rather empty themselves. They talk of Christianity but their actions hardly reflect the Spirit and message of Christ. The daily news and social media feature these people every day. Some make a lot of noise even within the White House.

I belong to a church reform organization. For decades I have been very active in “church reform” movements. But the bells have been ringing in my head — perhaps my reform efforts and those of my reform-minded colleagues have been out of focus. Structural reforms (women in ministry, moving beyond clericalism, welcoming and affirming LGBT people, etc.) are of course very important. They mean absolutely nothing, however, unless they spring from changed hearts, changed attitudes, changed behavior…..all from renewed spirits and a clear Christian vision.

Maybe the empty churches should remind us of the empty tomb we pondered this past Easter. Recall, for example in Mark 16, the women at the empty tomb: “He is not here! See the place where they laid him. Go tell the disciples he is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him….”

Now, we live in Covid-19 estrangement, fear, uncertainty, and yes, sorry to say, dangerous angry protests and demonstrations. Symbolically, but really, this is perhaps our contemporary Galilee. The message remains clear, even if people have clouded eyes and shaky nerves. We have not been abandoned by God. Jesus raised from the dead lives here and lives with us right now.

Some are already saying, as a friend said yesterday, empty and silent churches are a temporary situation, soon to be forgotten. Frankly, I don’t think so….The pandemic may indeed last into 2021; but the emptiness can last much longer.

Like my local church bells still ringing on the hour, the call now is to renew ourselves with a new Christian identity in a world which is being radically transformed before our eyes. Yes we can live with a new spirit, a new heart, a new security that is anchored in active Christian faith, hope, and care. Genuine Christianity is not about authoritarian power over people. It is not about observing, on TV or Facebook, solitary rituals carefully executed by colorfully dressed clerics. It is about people interacting (now safely) with other people. It is about human and humane behavior: compassion, empathy, forgiveness, acceptance, mutual support.

Let’s not forget Matthew 25: “I was a stranger and you did not take me in, I was naked and you did not clothe me. I was sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” And they too will reply,”Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then the Lord will answer, “I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

And so with faith and hope we strive to be Christian in this time of sickness…….


Care, Compassion, and Civility

May First, 2020

Another Voice is back after a post-Easter break for a bit of R&R and taking care of the home front. How our pandemic-shaken world has changed since Easter! 

Pandemic history and folklore are something I grew up with. My paternal grandfather, Alonzo William Dick, an authentic hoosier schoolmaster, died in the Spanish flu pandemic in 1919. That pandemic lasted almost 36 months from January 1918 to December 1920. My grandmother, Mary Elen Jarrett, and their five boys survived but Mary Ellen and most of the boys could not attend Alonzo’s funeral because they were bed-ridden and critically ill with the flu. In my childhood I found this a frightening  story.

I was very close to my grandmother because she lived about a hundred yards from our home in a small house my dad had built for her. She was often housemother, housekeeper and cook. My mother and father were very active people.

Maryellen was a courageous and strong woman, but what characterized her (and her five sons) the most were the virtues of care, compassion, and civility.

Care, compassion, and civility are what I appreciate so much from my family and helpful friends in these Covid-19 days BUT exactly the very humane virtues I miss in today’s angry demonstrators, and so many religious and political “leaders.” They talk Christ but display none of his spirit.

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. 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 can all 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?”

Be healthy and safe!


Alonzo William and Mary Ellen on their wedding day 1902