Once again my Christmas reflection is “Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965).
Eliot was Born in St. Louis, Missouri but moved to England in 1914 at the age of 25. He became a British citizen in 1927. In the late 1950s, Eliot described his religious beliefs as “a Catholic cast of mind, a Calvinist heritage, and a Puritanical temperament.” “Ash-Wednesday” is the first long poem written by Eliot, after his 1927 conversion to Anglicanism. He also wrote “Journey of the Magi” in 1927.
Thomas Stearns Eliot remains my favorite poet. I don’t have a Calvinist puritanical temperament but I do resonate with him in many ways. My inspiration for this blog came from his 1942 poetic observation: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”
Warmest regards to all and every good wish for Christmas and the New Year. May we all make good beginnings in 2023.
PS I will be away from my computer until the second week of January.
A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year For a journey, and such a long journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp, The very dead of winter.’ And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory, Lying down in the melting snow. There were times we regretted The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, And the silken girls bringing sherbet. Then the camel men cursing and grumbling and running away, and wanting their liquor and women, And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters, And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly And the villages dirty and charging high prices: A hard time we had of it. At the end we preferred to travel all night, Sleeping in snatches, With the voices singing in our ears, saying That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley, Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation; With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness, And three trees on the low sky, And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow. Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel, Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver, And feet kicking the empty wine-skins. But there was no information, and so we continued And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
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, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.
As we now draw very close to Christmas, a friend asked me how I understand the relationship between Christianity and other world religions.
My own theological understanding of world religions has been greatly influenced by the Roman Catholic Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.” It was issued on October 28, 1965, shortly after my arrival as a younger man and a theology student at the Catholic University of Leuven, then called “Louvain.”
“In our time,” the document stressed, “when day by day humankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the church examines more closely its relationship to non-Christian religions. In the church’s task of promoting unity and love among all people, indeed among all nations, it considers above all, in this declaration, what people have in common and what draws them to fellowship. One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth. One also is their final goal: God. God’s providence, God’s manifestations of goodness, God’s saving design extended to all people.”
My own theological understanding has moved beyond three “traditional” viewpoints about Christianity and other religious traditions: pluralism, exclusivism, and inclusivism.
Pluralism. Pluralism is generally the position that all world religions are true and equally valid. Jesus becomes just one more historic religious founder like Mohamed or Siddhartha Gautama, etc. Well, I respect other religious traditions but I remain a committed Christian. We all live and grow where we have been planted. I remain rooted in Christian faith in God as mediated by Jesus of Nazareth, who remains uniquely the center of my faith.
Exclusivism. Exclusivism is the theological position that maintains the absolute necessity of faith in Christ. Exclusivists insist that there is no salvation in non-Christian religions. The main objection to exclusivism, however, is that it contradicts the essential message of the New Testament. Jesus announced God’s salvation for all and not to members of just one religious group.
Inclusivism. While exclusivism is clearly a minority theological position today, the same is not true of the inclusive view that Jesus causes the salvation of all. In one form or another this has been the dominant theology of mainline churches for some time. Inclusivism maintains that God is present in non-Christian religions but only through Christ. This viewpoint gave rise to the concept of the “anonymous Christian” by which God saves through Christ, even when the believer knows nothing about Christ or Christianity. The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner (1904 – 1984) popularized this “anonymous Christian” understanding.
I would suggest, however, that a close and careful reading of the New Testament runs in a direction quite contrary to inclusivism. The message of Jesus is theocentric. It is about God. God who saves and God who is love. Jesus is the great symbol and reality of the proclamation of God’s salvation. I would stress that a theocentric perspective on Jesus – where we are today — enables Christians to be fully committed to Jesus Christ and fully open to other religions.
Considering the world’s religions, I suggest we need to work together in what the US American theologian, Paul Knitter (currently emeritus professor at Union Theological Seminary where he was the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions, and Culture) has called “unitive pluralism.”
We need to move beyond a simple tolerance for other religions. We need to develop a positive appreciation for what they have to offer. We need to move from tolerance to collaboration. From collaboration to genuine appreciation. From appreciation to learning from the other.
Global understanding, anchored in inter-religious dialogue and collaboration, is essential for everyone’s life and future. Yes. We are all on this journey together. We can no longer travel arrogantly alone.
This past week, I was thinking about the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, as I also began sorting some Christmas decorations, and came across a Star of Bethlehem.
The “Star of Bethlehem,” or the “Christmas Star,” appears only in the Gospel of Matthew (composed 80 – 90 CE). There we read that “Wise Men from the East” were inspired by the star to travel to Jerusalem. The star then led them to Jesus’ Bethlehem birthplace, where they worshiped him and gave him gifts. Most contemporary biblical scholars do not understand the story as an historical event but an imaginative way to demonstrate the uniquely all-encompassing significance of Jesus’ birth as Immanuel — “God with us.”
Moving toward the third Sunday of Advent 2022, the Star of Bethlehem narrative leads me to a contemporary reflection about God, our Cosmos, and our place in the Cosmos.
Astronomy and the physical sciences are transforming our picture of the Cosmos. Titan, Saturn’s moon, for example, is a prime target in the hunt for extraterrestrial life. I read this week that NASA plans to put a flying robot there in 2026 as part of its newest planetary scientific mission.
Our Cosmos is fascinating. There may be tens of billions, perhaps even a hundred billion, solar systems just in our own galaxy. AND astronomers now estimate that there are at least one hundred billion galaxies in our observable universe. Amazing. One hundred billion galaxies. And our universe is still expanding and changing at an accelerated rate.
Reflecting on the age and size of created reality, our image and conception of God takes on new forms as well. Even more fascinating and amazing. A good friend is completing a book in which he calls God “Creator.” I like that. Our universe is expanding. Our sense of God as well.
Do we have a spirituality for Creator of the expanding cosmos? Are the old theistic anthropomorphisms adequate for today’s believers? Years ago I read that Albert Einstein had started asking these kinds of questions. He wrote about “A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity.” He added: “and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.”
And…the First Epistle of John (written in Ephesus between 95 and 110 CE) reminds us: “We have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16)
I suggest a new cosmic consciousness demands a more encompassing Earthly engagement as well. How do we implement, down the street and around the globe, the Christian values of love, mercy, forgiveness, justice, and concern for the poor?
There are new challenges for all of the world’s religions. New challenges for world governments as well.
Who is master of our planet Earth? Can we continue, for instance, to just discuss but really ignore climate change? Can we just sit back and wait until the seas rise? The current best estimates predict that the average sea level rise for the contiguous United States could be 7.2 feet by 2100 and 13 feet by 2150.
What will it mean in 80 years to take care and responsibility for people and their lives, when millions of people are displaced by rising waters? What does it mean to take care and responsibility for people and their lives today? Is one race naturally superior to another? Can one race, or one country, or one religion ignore and/or denigrate the rest?
In my now more than seven decades being a student and a teacher, I have come to realize that a good teacher is not necessarily the answer person, but the one who raises questions and helps students think and act within a broader and deeper horizon. Now I realize, more than ever, that all of us on planet Earth are called and challenged to be students and teachers for each other. We are one human reality and one human family. We either learn to live together or perish together.
Cosmic consciousness? I believe God is Creator of everything and calls for responsible action on behalf of all human beings, together as a group and individually as members of the species we call human. Yes, today we also see human beings caught up in negative situations of ignorance, sin, suffering, and death. We are members of a single humanity. Our human solidarity should prohibit anyone from conceiving or hoping for a salvation that would leave others behind. Is it conceivable that Creator would stress love for some and not for the others? Is Creator’s truth up for grabs in a society of alternative truths.
The solidarity of humankind is central to an authentic Christian vision.
Each year we see ever more clearly that our planet Earth is like a grain of sand in an immense Cosmos. But, Earthly engagement is our calling, our mission, and our urgent responsibility today.
Our churches, schools, colleges, voluntary organizations of all types, and cultural groups constitute the primary places where we should be actively engaged. Protests are often good and appropriate. Just by themselves, however, they are not enough. We need structural and institutional change. Christians, properly understood, must be active social-change agents.
The Jesus message – the Good News — challenges everyone. We urgently need to implement a liberation theology for the poor and politically oppressed; a feminist theology, that confronts and disables all androcentric forms of patriarchal misogyny, denigration, and abuse; a queer theology, that values and sustains people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity; and an inter-religion theology, that values all the great religious traditions and promotes dialogue and collaboration…
Then we can truly live the Good News and celebrate Emmanuel: God-with-us.
The older we get, the more we realize that we are travelers. In our life journeys we move not just from day to day, but from place to place, and from event to event. There are grand discoveries, routine daily chores, great joys and great disappointments.
One of my favorite New Testament journey accounts is the journey of the married couple from Jerusalem to Emmaus found in Luke 24. In that journey the couple chat with a fellow traveler about Jesus. They share their grief about Jesus’ crucifixion and death. Later, they come to the amazing realization that they had been journeying with the Resurrected Christ. In our life journeys as well, we sometimes forget that God travels with us.
Throughout our Advent journey, indeed, the realization that we need to focus on is that God travels with us. Perhaps we don’t always recognize the Divine presence, but it is life-giving. And now we look forward again to celebrating the birth of Immanuel who is “God with us.”
Very soon, we hear again the biblical account of the journey of Jesus’ parents to Bethlehem. The Gospel of Luke starts with Joseph and a pregnant Mary in Galilee. Mary was probably between 13 and 15 years old. They journey to Bethlehem in response to a census that the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus had required. The U.S. Catholic biblical scholar John Meier (1942 – 2022) stressed that Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem is to be taken not as an historical fact but as a theological affirmation put into the form of an apparently historical narrative. In other words, the belief that Jesus was a descendant of King David led to the development of a story about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
Nevertheless, we have a powerful image of the young couple on the road. Their journey leading to the great revelation that would change the course of human history. Matthew’s infancy narrative also describes Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as refugees, fleeing into Egypt to escape the villainy of Herod the Great. Self-centered Herod launched colossal building projects. He ordered great buildings and walls and promised to make Judea Great. Focusing on Jerusalem, he expanded the Second Temple (“Herod’s Temple”) and even slaughtered children to eliminate any possible opposition. Every age has a Herod, determined to make things great, branding “accomplishments” with his own name.
And so for today, as we look toward the Second Sunday of Advent, my travel advisory for contemporary Christians:
Traveling with “them.” The fundamental reality for most travelers is that we travel with other people. It is easy then to make comparisons and to make judgments. Other travelers can make us feel uncomfortable and occasionally frightened. They do it to us; but we do it to them as well. In truth, however, we may dress strangely and speak in funny ways; but we all have human dignity, equality, and self-worth. We are not just “us” and “them.” We are brothers and sisters. If we travel with the Spirit of Christ, differences in gender, race, political party, and nationality can never allow us to denigrate and condemn the other. Contrary to an old Catholic teaching about queer people, for example, no one is innately disordered. God loves all. So should we. We need to welcome and accommodate them.
Travel brings change. Life is not static. Change happens. We either make the best of things and move forward or we regress and die. Nostalgia can be fun for a short time, but do we really want to live in the past? An acquaintance, who is a US Catholic cardinal, told me some time ago how wonderful the 1950’s were and how much he misses those days. I chuckled and said he had a very selective memory. I said I remember the “good old days” as well. I remember having scarlet fever. I remember the petrifying fear of polio and learning that a couple kids in my school were in “iron lungs.” And I remember public drinking fountains marked “for whites only.”
We change and our understandings can and should change. Women are not inferior to men. Protestants do not adhere to a “false religion.” Some of our religious understandings and practices (perhaps) made sense in the Middle Ages but certainly are nonsensical today.
News travels fast. Yes, but not all the news is fit to print. A lot if it these days is phony and dishonest, especially when linked with regressive politics. As we travel through time and cyberspace, we have an obligation to check facts, and to speak out about and protest those often self-righteous “Christians” who propagate falsehoods and plant seeds of destructive discord.
Traveling with fear. Fear is a part of life. In our human journeys, I suspect most of us have had fearful days that threatened to destabilize or even destroy us. I certainly have. And, in our sociocultural polarized times, new fears are on the horizon. We need to acknowledge our fears but continue the journey and face life with courage. We are not alone. As believers we know that, despite paralyzing problems, we are loved. Love energizes and strengthens. Over the years I have often thought about the final journey of the young Hebrew man in his early thirties, stumbling towards his death, with a cross-beam on his back. Frightened beyond belief. His courage, suffering, and death give us the courage to continue our journeys on difficult days. “Greater love no one has than to lay down one’s life for a friend…”
On a God pilgrimage. We are traveling with God and to God. The most exciting part of our journey. There are of course threatening temptations along the way. The first is to think that God is only for “us” and only with “us.” God travels indeed with all kinds of believers and nonbelievers. God is at the heart of all life and all Reality. No group owns God. The second temptation, however, is to act as though we can indeed control God and, like some fundamentalist fanatics found in all religious, use God to condemn and destroy the people we just don’t like. The temptation is there — to make God in our own image and likeness.
Safe travels. May we be courageous…
And once again many sincere thanks to those who responded to my annual appeal