Travel Reflection — Second Sunday of Advent 2022

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…

Jack

And once again many sincere thanks to those who responded to my annual appeal

Advent 2022

Sunday, November 27th is the first Sunday of Advent 2022, a time of reflective preparation for celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth: God’s revelation of Divinity as well as God’s revelation of authentic humanity. 

Regardless where we are on planet Earth these days, we are witnessing a major shift in human history. Perhaps we no longer have the best language or imagery to correctly describe and interpret what’s happening. Perhaps we have grown so accustomed to inflated rhetoric and public relations packaging that we have lost our perspective on the human drama that is reshaping our lives. People are fearful and anxious about losing identity: national identities, religious identities, sex and gender identities, racial and ethnic identities. 

A person’s identity was once based on a common language, a common religious tradition, and ancestral, social, cultural, or national experiences. Today, in a world of tremendous human migrations across all the ancient boarders, and with ever-growing cyber communications networks, identities are changing, whether people are comfortable or not about the new realities. 

Perhaps we should see our identity as based on something far deeper? Maybe we need a new perspective on identity? Some fearful people are working hard to reassert their old, often prejudicial, identities. In the United States, and across Europe, we see the last gasps of white male supremacy in all its ugliness, hatred, and violence. In the United States, we see as well a level of socio-cultural polarization that is higher than at the time of the nineteenth century Civil War (or the “War of Northern Aggression” if you are from the South). The past week has brought seven mass shootings in the United States. Twenty-two people have been killed and 44 wounded. 

I suggest we need a new perspective about contemporary life and contemporary people. Seeing people in the old categories just won’t work anymore: liberal vs conservative, Republican vs Democrat, traditional Catholic vs Vatican II Catholic, and of course evangelical Protestant vs progressive Christian.

Although an older fellow, I still meet occasionally with groups of young university students.They are a delight. They experience socio-cultural change as part of our contemporary reality and not a threat to their identity. They are much more concerned about the human values of truthfulness, integrity, honesty, respect for the other, and human outreach based on dialogue, compassion, and personal encounter.

I get frustrated with contemporary church leaders trying to resurrect the 1950s. Or worse. In October a fundamentalist pastor in Idaho told his congregation that gay, lesbian, and transgender people should be executed. A Texas fundamentalist pastor did the same in multiple sermons. They call themselves Christian! And I get frustrated with contemporary politicians pretending to be Christians but displaying neither words nor actions grounded in Christian belief.

We should ask all of them: To what degree do the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth reverberate in your hearts? That is what our conversation should be about. To what degree does the Gospel guide decision-making: celebrating divine love to the extent that people genuinely care for others, support, and yes even forgive one another. This conversation undercuts racism, the denigration of “losers,” the unhealthy lifestyles of self-centered and self-seeking bullies, xenophobia, homophobia, and all human phobias. 

Genuine Christianity celebrates the life of the Holy Spirit to the extent that a healthy and healing spirit pervades the individual and collective lives of people who try to genuinely follow the way of Jesus.

This week end we light the first Advent candle, remembering the Prophet Isaiah’s words: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” Isaiah 9:2

Jack

Today is also U.S. American Thanksgiving. I offer a very sincere thank you to readers who have contributed to my annual For Another Voice appeal. If  someone would still like to contribute, all details are in last week’s post. Any questions? Just write me at  jack.dick@kuleuven.be

Annual Giving

Annual Giving

Dear followers of For Another Voice, 

As I do once a year, I am inviting you to contribute to my annual appeal. As you know there is no charge for my blog. Once a year contributions therefore help me keep my equipment up to and cover other related expenses. Right now my old laptop is on its last legs.

There are several ways readers can contribute:

(1) With a US dollars check, from a US bank, sent to: Dr. John A. Dick, Geldenaaksebaan 85A 002 — 3001 Heverlee BELGIUM

 (2) By ZELLE using:       jack.dick@kuleuven.be

(3) By international bank transfer to my Belgian bank: BNP Paribas Fortis Bank name of John A. DickSWIFT CODE: GEBABEBB   — IBAN: BE83 2300 3923 6015

(4) By credit card or PayPal. Simply click on this link:   https://www.paypal.com/donate?hosted_button_id=PKYCT8S5Q44SN

Many sincere thanks for your support. 

If you have any questions, please contact me at:   
 jack.dick@kuleuven.be

Jack

A Brief Meditation

From time to time, we all need to simply reflect. This week a brief meditation, based on The Hill We Climb. Find a quiet place. Turn off cellphone. Read slowly and then reflect in silence…

THE HILL WE CLIMB

by

Amanda Gorman

When day comes we ask ourselves,

where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

The loss we carry,

a sea we must wade.

We’ve braved the belly of the beast,

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,

and the norms and notions

of what just is

isn’t always just-ice.

And yet the dawn is ours

before we knew it.

Somehow we do it.

Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed

a nation that isn’t broken,

but simply unfinished.

We the successors of a country and a time

where a skinny Black girl

descended from slaves and raised by a single mother

can dream of becoming president

only to find herself reciting for one.

And yes we are far from polished.

Far from pristine.

But that doesn’t mean we are

striving to form a union that is perfect.

We are striving to forge a union with purpose,

to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and

conditions of man.

And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us,

but what stands before us.

We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,

we must first put our differences aside.

We lay down our arms

so we can reach out our arms

to one another.

We seek harm to none and harmony for all.

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true,

that even as we grieved, we grew,

that even as we hurt, we hoped,

that even as we tired, we tried

that we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.

Not because we will never again know defeat,

but because we will never again sow division.

Scripture tells us to envision

that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree

and no one shall make them afraid.

If we’re to live up to our own time,

then victory won’t lie in the blade.

But in all the bridges we’ve made,

that is the promise to glade,

the hill we climb.

If only we dare.

It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,

it’s the past we step into

and how we repair it.

We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation

rather than share it.

Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.

And this effort very nearly succeeded.

But while democracy can be periodically delayed,

it can never be permanently defeated.

In this truth,

in this faith we trust.

For while we have our eyes on the future,

history has its eyes on us.

This is the era of just redemption

we feared at its inception.

We did not feel prepared to be the heirs

of such a terrifying hour

but within it we found the power

to author a new chapter.

To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.

So while once we asked,

how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?

Now we assert,

How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?

We will not march back to what was,

but move to what shall be.

A country that is bruised but whole,

benevolent but bold,

fierce and free.

We will not be turned around

or interrupted by intimidation,

because we know our inaction and inertia

will be the inheritance of the next generation.

Our blunders become their burdens.

But one thing is certain,

If we merge mercy with might,

and might with right,

then love becomes our legacy,

and change our children’s birthright.

So let us leave behind a country

better than the one we were left with.

Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,

we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.

We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west.

We will rise from the windswept northeast,

where our forefathers first realized revolution.

We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states.

We will rise from the sunbaked south.

We will rebuild, reconcile and recover.

And every known nook of our nation and

every corner called our country,

our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,

battered and beautiful.

When day comes we step out of the shade,

aflame and unafraid,

the new dawn blooms as we free it.

For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.

The Big Question

When I think about the November 8th midterm elections, I ask myself where are we going in a highly polarized U.S. society. A healthy democracy is a social system in which citizens are constructively linked with fellow citizens, with each person bearing social as well as personal responsibilities. A healthy democracy gives the homeless shelter, gives the sick care, gives the vulnerable protection, and gives the terrified refuge. It is anchored in honesty and truthfulness. It asks how we treat ourselves and how we treat others. It asks us to seriously consider our place and our responsibilities in a fragile world. 

Looking toward next Tuesday, I am thinking of course about political leadership. When political leadership gets disconnected from the truth, democracies collapse into either chaos or authoritarian regimes. Those dangers are very real today. What is truth? What are the contemporary socio-political delusions that people adhere to? What are their contemporary socio-religious delusions?

In authoritarian regimes, social order is maintained not by adherence to shared public values but by fidelity to the dictates and wishes of the authoritarian leader. Authoritarian leaders like chaotic situations in which people, living in fear, can be kept obedient and dependent on the leader. 

In a healthy democracy there are certain primary values, like, for example, that murder is immoral, that theft is immoral, that dishonesty is immoral, that harming innocent people is immoral, and that lying is immoral. When these immoral actions, however, are turned into social virtues or social normalities, society is in trouble. And the survival of the human spirit is threatened.

By the “human spirit” I mean those positive aspects of humanity that people show towards one another: empathy, respect, generosity, compassion, and identifying with the other. Contrary to the “human spirit” are extremely self-centered attitudes and behavior:  “my race,” “ my perspective,” “my politics,”” my kind of people.” They lead to conflict, not cooperation. To fear, not hope. To aggression, not mutual respect. And to suspicion, not trust. 

The United States is a country that is seriously struggling with issues of race, economic inequality, gender, immigration and, yes, crime. But constructive change is possible. The story is not over. Another exciting chapter can begin.

People set and adjust their values through interaction with family and friends, and with social, religious, and political groups with whom they identify. After the midterm elections, regardless of the election results, we will need to safeguard our lives and our society based on shared common-good values. 

Houses fall apart if they are not maintained. Democracies as well.  I remember the words of the French philosopher and writer Voltaire (1694 – 1778), who was an advocate of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

May we all observe, judge, and vote.

Jack

PS As a U.S. citizen living abroad, my absentee vote has been sent.

From Compassionate and Caring Community to Imperial Church

The early Christian communities were compassionate and caring – and charismatic and creative, when it came to their ministry and rituals. Men and women, who were heads of households, presided at Eucharist. They considered themselves a community of believers not an institutional church.

The communities gathered regularly, breaking-bread in memory of Jesus the Christ, and they created rituals for welcoming new members, reconciling members who had fallen away, and comforting and supporting those who were sick or close to death. 

Their spirit and lives were anchored in the exhortation of Jesus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)

Tertullian (c. 155 AD – c. 220), the early Christian author from ancient Carthage in the Roman province of Africa, imagined pagans looking at Christians and saying, “Look . . . see how they love one another (for they themselves the pagans hate one another). And see how they are ready to die for each other (for the pagans themselves are more ready to kill each other).”

The early Christian community elected and evaluated their leaders. The first century Christian document known as the Didache tells Christians “You must, then, elect for yourselves overseers [i.e. “bishops”] and deacons who are a credit to the Lord…who are gentle, generous, faithful, and reliable.” 

In his Apostolic Tradition, Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170 – 236), an influential second-century theologian, emphasized that “The one who is ordained as an overseer, being chosen by all the people, must be irreproachable.” Cyprian (c. 210 – 256), writer and bishop of Carthage in North Africa, stressed that, by virtue of the community’s divine authority, the bishop should be elected by all the faithful. He added that the people “have the power of choosing worthy priests and of rejecting unworthy ones.” 

Speaking of the election of Cornelius (died in 253) as bishop of Rome in 251, Cyprian remarked “Cornelius was made overseer by the judgment of God and his Christ, by the testimony of almost all the clergy, by the vote of the people who were present, and by the college of mature priests and good people.”

Christian social and cultural identity shifted dramatically, however, under Emperor Constantine (c. 272 – 337) who made Christianity an important and legitimate religion in his Roman Empire and under Emperor Theodosius I (347 – 395) who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380.

As Christianity developed a well defined institutional structure, thanks especially to strong Constantinian support, a major ecclesiastical paradigm shift was underway. 

Sometimes people and leaders don’t see and don’t understand the long-term implications of what they are getting into. True yesterday. True today. Antiquated structures get formalized into stone-like monuments. Leadership people lose sight of their real purpose and focus more and more on promoting their own egos and power.

In the autumn of 312 CE, according to the old legend, Constantine and his soldiers had a profound military-religious experience which encouraging them to fight under the sign of Christ. Fighting under the insignia of Christ, at the Battle of the Tiber’s Milvian Bridge, Constantine’s troops defeated his major rivals, especially fellow emperor Maxentius (c. 283 – 312), whose head was triumphantly carried through the streets of Rome. 

Constantine became the single Roman Emperor. He converted to Christianity (but was not baptized until shortly before his death in 337). Historians wonder if he really became a Christian or very pragmatically used the growing Christian religion to tie together his unsteady empire. Personally I think he was a very pragmatic politician and a very distorted Christian. In any event, Constantine hoped to unify his Roman Empire by promoting (and taking advantage of) just one religion for all. His was the earliest form of Christian nationalism.

In 313 Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, making Christianity one of the legally recognized religions in the Roman Empire. Then, in 325, he convened a council of all Christian bishops in Nicaea (now İznik, Turkey). They formulated the Nicene Creed – still used today — and demanded that all Christians accept it. For Constantine it was another step in unifying his empire. Constantine desired unity in the church not for the sake of Christianity but for the welfare of his empire. 

Basically he annexed the church to use it as an agent of political and social control. Bishops became civil judges. Although Constantine died in 337, forty-three years after his death his dream was realized with the Edict of Thessalonica, which declared Nicene Christianity to be the ONLY legitimate religion for the Roman Empire. Church and state were becoming one. Church leaders became imperial leaders in power and influence, as well as courtly attire, and institutional protocol. The bishops of Rome gloried in it. 

Constantinian Christianity clearly mirrored Constantine more than Christ. Although Constantine really preached a false gospel, church leaders marched to to beat of his imperial drum because he had eliminated persecution and had given them great power and status. 

Curiously, the Nicene Creed of 325 said nothing about what Jesus had taught, beyond the idea that God is a Father. It said nothing about loving one another, about compassion, or forgiveness, or helping the poor and needy, or renouncing violence, or building bridges with one’s enemies. Christianity shifted its identity focus from correct Christian conduct to doctrinal fidelity and institutional obedience. Jesus had empowered people to change their lives. Constantinian Christianity exercised power over people. Compassion was replaced by control. 

The episcopal office evolved into an excessively organized institutional bureaucracy. The Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563 in Trento, Italy, reinforced the power and position of bishops. Already in the medieval period, Christian bishops had assumed the place of Roman commanders, making secular decisions for their cities, and even leading their own troops in military battles when necessary. Let us not forget that the popes had their own army and navy up until the fall of the Papal States in 1870. The last ships of the papal flotilla were sold in France after the death of Pius IX in 1878.

Under the princely acting bishops, relations with ordinary people were not always cordial. The institutional church had become an administrative pyramid and the bishops were at the top. They controlled not only ministry (ministerium) but also theological teaching (magisterium). Bishops became powerful men who had not only institutional power but considerable economic and political power. They had once been called “Father,” but their titles became what they are today “Excellency” or “Eminence.” And of course they began to dress like Renaissance princes in luxurious clothing. 

Church members, back then as today, had no voice in electing or critiquing their institutional leaders. We should change that today. Certainly the synodal movements point in that direction. But will they be effective? We need a more horizontal leadership structure and a reform much more extensive than the 16th century Reformation. The church should not be an authoritarian pyramid.

I think J. P. Grayland, a presbyter of Palmerston North Catholic Diocese in New Zealand, says it very well in an October 26 article in LaCroix: 

          “The Catholic Church cannot avoid institutional change much longer because its institutional model, at least in the West, has passed its ‘use-by’ date. One of the dominant models of perceiving the Church is the model of institution. This model’s decision-making structure is more oligarchical than collegial, and its approach to contemporary questions is preservationist rather than integrationist. Whether we like it or not, the Western Church’s operating model as a hierarchical edifice is challenged by the forces of institutional collapse.”

Perspective: Sexual Orientation and Catholic Teaching


James Martin, S.J., editor at large for the monthly magazine America is the author of Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity, HarperColins, 2017. In his book he stresses that Roman Catholic teaching at the most basic level is contained in the Gospels and, even more specifically, in the revelation of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Therefore, Martin emphasizes, the most fundamental of all church teachings about gay and lesbian people should be that God loves them. Gay and lesbian people are beloved and created by God, deserving, like all of us, God’s loving care.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, howeverthe same-sex orientation is considered “objectively disordered.” Needless to say, official Catholic teaching rules out same-sex marriage and any sort of sexual activity outside of the marriage of a man and a woman, like premarital sex, adultery, and even masturbation, “an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” 

Theologians Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler from Creighton University have written extensively about Catholic sexual morality. I strongly recommend their book The Sexual Person, Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology, Georgetown University Press, 2008. Their book draws historically and anthropologically from Catholic tradition and provides a helpful context for current ethical debates about marriage, cohabitation, sexual orientation, and reproductive technologies.

Todd and Michael contend that the Catholic Church is being inconsistent in its teaching by adopting a dynamic, historically conscious anthropology and worldview on social ethics and the interpretation of scripture while still adopting a static, classicist anthropology and worldview on sexual ethics. They propose a definition of human sexuality that finds love and truth in all just and loving heterosexual, lesbian, gay, and bisexual acts. Current Catholic teaching, however, adheres to a definition of human dignity that finds love and truth in an understanding of human sexuality that is limited to sexual acts in heterosexual marriage. The Church proposes norms and legislation based on that definition.

Currently, there is no scientific consensus on the origins of sexual orientation. While scientists do not know the exact cause of sexual orientation, they theorize that it is caused by a complex interplay of genetic, hormonal, and environmental influences.

About sexual activity, there is no doubt that all animals have genitals in order to reproduce. Human animals, however, have added a second meaning to their genital activity, namely, to express in a bodily activity the personal love they have for one another. Much depends on our human nature. But that opens an important discussion.

Some argue, with Church support, that same-sex activity is unnatural. Contemporary sexual anthropology, however, recognizes sexual orientation as an intrinsic dimension of human nature, and what is accepted as natural sexual activity will vary depending on whether a person’s sexual orientation is same-sex or heterosexual. Gay and lesbian acts are natural for people with a same-sex orientation. Heterosexual acts are natural for people with a heterosexual orientation.

Heterosexual and same-sex acts, therefore, are natural because they reflect the person’s fundamental human nature as interpreted by right reason. To be ethical, Salzman and Lawler stipulate, every human sexual act, same-sex or heterosexual, must be not only natural but also free, just, loving, and respectful of the human dignity and flourishing of both partners.

I know and greatly respect Todd Salzman, who did his doctorate in Leuven in 1994. I conclude this reflection with an excerpt from a 2020 article written by Todd and Michael Lawler, “Exploring Human Dignity: Foundations and Applications that Transform Contemporary Society.” (Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society, Volume 6 (2020): Issue 1 July)

 “Church teaching on the truth of the meaning of human sexuality, that homosexual orientation is objectively disordered, that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered, and that legislation preventing same-sex civil unions, adoption by homosexual parents, and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender is deeply flawed and violates human dignity and the truth of God’s unconditional love for all people. It is also driving young people away from the Church, doing serious emotional, psychological, relational and spiritual damage to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and unintentionally legitimizing hate-speech and violence against them.”

And so what should we do today? 

First of all of course we need to check our own attitudes and behavior. Then we need to work with others in changing institutional attitudes and behavior. Just expressing our genuine concerns and assuring people of our thoughts and prayers is not enough. As the old saying goes: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good people do nothing.” 

It is a very big issue. The American Library Association, for example, reports that in 2022, public and school libraries have received a record-breaking 1,650 calls for elimination of books, with over a third of the targets featuring LGBTQ content. Meanwhile, far-right Christians are still insisting that any teacher or librarian who makes LGBTQ-friendly material available is part of a global pedophilia ring, an accusation that began with QAnon. It is crazy and becoming even more crazy as people push toward the November 8 midterm elections.

For more information about being supportive of LGBTQ+ people, I recommend checking regularly with Dignity USA via their website.      https://www.dignityusa.org/

The most fundamental of all church teachings about LGBTQ+ people should be that God loves them. They are beloved and created by God, deserving, like all of us, God’s loving care – and our loving care and support. And “loving care and support” demands that we work to change institutional attitudes, teaching, and behavior. Working together we can do that. As my friend, Patrick Sullivan, emeritus president of ARCC, has so often said: “Once people start to believe change is possible, the drive to achieve it accelerates.”

An Historical Reflection about U.S. Civil Religion

The Apotheosis of President George Washington, who is shown as having ascended to a divine status. The fresco was painted by Greek-Italian artist Constantino Brumidi in 1865 and is visible through the oculus of the dome in the rotunda of the United States Capitol. 

This week’s reflection is a bit longer than usual. Please bear with me…

Some have argued, and still do, that Christianity is the national faith in the United States. Others argue that historically Christianity, the Deism of the founding fathers, and other religious traditions have long inspired U.S. Americans. Today of course Christian nationalism is very much in the news.

Religion and values in U.S. American society has been my academic and research focus for the past thirty years. I would argue that, for a very long time, there has been a well-institutionalized civil religion in the United States, alongside of and clearly differentiated from the established religious traditions like Christianity and Judaism. 

All religions are systems of beliefs and practices that help people answer their deeper questions about identity, life, and meaning. U.S. civil religion has all the qualities of a religion. It has foundational sacred texts with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The National Archives building in Washington DC, in fact, is designed like a temple; and the nation’s sacred scriptures are displayed in an altar-type protective reliquary. (Many years ago, when we were little kids, my sister and I visited the National Archives. We walked in, looked around and the first thing we did, as good Catholic kids sensing a church-type environment, was genuflect. Then we were embarrassed and just started laughing.)

U.S. civil religion has national saints like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. (I don’t think there will be a Saint Donald Trump. But many of his followers would love that.) The U.S. has a broad collection of laws establishing codes of conduct. The key civil religion symbol of course is the Stars and Stripes. There are abundant sacred shrines in U.S. civil religion: places like the Capitol in Washington DC; the Lincoln Memorial; the Statue of Liberty; Arlington National Cemetery, where the “martyrs” are buried; Mount Rushmore, commemorating four civil saints; the Vietnam Memorial; and a great variety of statues and memorials scattered across the country. I have been to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC many times. What always strikes me is how silent people become when they walk up the statue of Abraham Lincoln.

And of course we have civil religion holy days like the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Washington’s Birthday, Martin Luther King Day, and of course Thanksgiving.

U.S. civil religion has been a deeply felt and strongly patriotic universal religion of the nation. It does not compete with established religions but exists alongside them and is supported by them. In many U.S. church sanctuaries, for example, the American flag hangs as a traditional adornment. People growing up outside the United States, like my European friends, cannot understand the U.S. reverence for the flag and that U.S. citizens are expected to hold their hands over their hearts during a rendition of the national anthem or when they recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In Belgium the flag comes out when there is a big football game.

The U.S. civil religion concept, originating  in the work of Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) with echoes in Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859), made its first major impact on the sociological study of religion in the United States with the publication of an essay titled “Civil Religion in America,” written in 1967 by the sociologist of religion Robert Bellah (1927-2013). “While some have argued that Christianity is the national faith,” Bellah observed, “few have realized that there actually exists alongside the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.” (One of my delights some years ago was a series of informal conversations and lunch with Robert Bellah and his wife, when they visited our university.) 

Civil religion is unique in U.S. culture because it does not claim an identifiable social group but the entire society itself; or as British writer G. K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936) once observed: The United States is “a nation with the soul of a church.”

U.S. civil religion has not only the common features of a religion but a regularly expressed belief in Divine Providence that looks over America: “In God we trust,” and annuit coeptis – translated as He favors our undertakings” – on the one dollar bill, by way of example.  In 1956, during the height of the Cold War struggle with the officially atheist Soviet Union, Congress passed a joint resolution, signed by President Dwight D.Eisenhower (1890 – 1969), declaring “In God We Trust” to be the national motto of the United States.

Up until the Civil War (1861 – 1865), U.S. civil religion focused on the American Revolution (1765 – 1791) as the final act of the Exodus from the old world across the sea. George Washington was seen as the divinely appointed new Moses who led his people out of the old world tyranny of the British Empire. 

With the Civil War, new themes of death, sacrifice, and rebirth entered U.S. civil religion. They were symbolized in the life and death of President Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865); and, at the end of the Civil War, in a series of national, civil religion, Holy Week events. Confederate General Robert E. Lee (1807 – 1870) surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant (1822 – 1885) on April 9, 1865 — Palm Sunday. When he was shot on Good Friday, April, 14, President Lincoln shed his blood for his country. Lincoln died on Saturday and so, on the following day — Easter 1865, “Reconstruction” resurrection began under President Andrew Johnson (1808 – 1875). 

A few years before his own death, the American poet, Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977), understood the civil religion impact of Lincoln and offered this reflection: “The Gettysburg Address is a symbolic and sacramental act. In his words, Lincoln symbolically died, just as the Union soldiers really died – and as he himself was soon really to die. By his words, he gave the field of battle a symbolic significance that it has lacked. For us and our country, he left Jefferson’s ideals of freedom and equality joined to the Christian sacrificial act of death and rebirth. I believe this is the meaning that goes beyond sect or religion and beyond peace and war, and is now part of our lives as a challenge, obstacle, and hope.”

Following the Civil War, the great number of war dead required the establishment of several national cemeteries. Of these, Gettysburg National Cemetery, which Lincoln’s famous address served to dedicate, has been overshadowed only by the Arlington National Cemetery, begun on the Robert E. Lee estate across the river from Washington.

Memorial Day grew out of the Civil War. Memorial Day integrates people and local communities into a national observance, just as Thanksgiving Day, which was institutionalized as an annual national holiday under the presidency of Lincoln, serves to integrate families into a national civil religion celebration of unity and gratitude for the blessings of Divine Providence.   

Post WWII America was fertile ground for American civil religion; and President Dwight David Eisenhower its strong advocate. With the support of people like the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale (1898 – 1993) and the Rev. Billy Graham (1918 – 2018), Eisenhower presided over a vigorous assertion of the place of religion in public life. Even when, as he said, he didn’t care what the religion was. He established the annual “presidential” prayer breakfast, and the presidential practice of ending speeches with “May God bless America.” With Eisenhower’s support, Congress inserted “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance and placed “In God We Trust” on all currency. Few Americans opposed such steps. Protestants and Catholics were happy, and Jewish Americans felt they could live with Eisenhower’s vague public religiosity. 

A very popular civil religion spin-off fellow at this time was the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale and his “Positive Thinking” religio-psychiatry.  Peale was probably the most famous clergyman in the United States in the 1940s and early 1950s. When Donald Trump was a child, the Trump family regularly attended Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. Years later, Peale presided over Trump’s first marriage to Ivana (1949 – 2022) in 1977. It was Norman Vincent Peale, by the way, who taught Donald Trump to promote and worship himself.

U.S. civil religion has never been anticlerical or militantly secular. It has consistently borrowed from set religious traditions in such a way that the average U.S citizen has seen no conflict between the two. In this way, civil religion, with no opposition from the churches, has been able to construct powerful symbols of national solidarity and to activate deep levels of personal engagement for the attainment of national goals. And here one really must also acknowledge the contribution of public schools as shapers of civil religion values. 

Sustaining the whole panorama of American civil religion are key biblical archetypes: Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. But how should people understand these themes today? Do they correctly understand them? Even Robert Bellah observed years ago that “civil religion has not always been invoked in favor of worthy causes.” 

Today civil religion is buried in Christian nationalism and various fundamentalist movements. We see it being used in a rather fanatic way to justify racism, police brutality, homophobia, misogyny, and xenophobia. 

U.S. civil religion has taken a complicated shift since January 6th 2021, as the American political idea has been linked to Christian nationalism. Among those who invaded the U.S. Capitol on January 6thwere many who said they were led by their Christian beliefs. Interestingly, however, members of the Capitol Police warned the protesters that they they were violating the “sacred space” of the Capitol.

The religious nationalism present at the January 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington stands, however, in clear contrast to the U.S. tradition of civil religion, which places sanctity in the symbols (such as the Capitol building with Saint George Washington portrayed in the rotunda dome) and ceremonies that represent U.S. guiding principles like national unity and the dignity for all. 

In his inaugural address, on January 20, 2021, President Biden condemned the violence at the U.S. Capitol in the language of religion, asserting the sacredness of American democratic traditions. “On this hallowed ground where just a few days ago violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation,” he said, “we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries.” 

John Carlson, associate director of religious studies at Arizona State University, and interim director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, wrote on the day after the Biden inauguration that U.S. civil religion was on full display during the inauguration:  “Presidential inaugurations serve as the high holiday of our American civil religion: In front of ‘the temple of our democracy’ — the Capitol — presidents and vice presidents take their ‘sacred oaths’ by placing their hands upon special bibles, often with histories as rich as the ceremony itself. The president’s inaugural address serves as a kind of sermon or catechism to the masses….’Civil religion,’ then, is a scholarly term for the common understanding of principles, ideals, narratives, symbols and events that describe the American experience of democracy in light of higher truths.”

My head-scratching these days: Is the concept of U.S. civil religion still useful for understanding socio-cultural life in the contemporary United States? If not, how should one think about religion in the U.S.A. today? How do we interpret what is happening –- socio-politically —  in the contemporary United States?  What will be the implications of the November 2022 midterm elections, when, according to a Washington Post analysis, a majority of Republican nominees for House, Senate, and key statewide offices — 299 in all — have denied or questioned the outcome of the 2020 presidential election?

I still reflect on the stirring words and phrases from Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem: “The Hill We Climb.”

And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us,

but what stands before us.

We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,

we must first put our differences aside.

We lay down our arms

so we can reach out our arms

to one another.

We seek harm to none and harmony for all.

Fundamentalism


Closing the three-day National Conservatism Conference, in Miami on September 13, 2022, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, argued that the great divide in the United States is now between Christian theology and a “woke religion that is raising itself up as the official state ideology,” adding that “insofar as conservatism as a movement has a future, it is a future that is going to be increasingly tied to explicit theological claims.” 

“Theological claims” of course caught my attention.

Mohler is a “young earth creationist.” He maintains that our Earth and its lifeforms were created by the Abrahamic God, just 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. Mohler is an ardent fundamentalist.

My point today is not to get into a discussion about the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky but to share some thoughts about fundamentalism, because it underlies so many contemporary religious – and political — movements. On both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe: Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and now Italy, by way of examples.  

The word “fundamentalist” was first used in print in the United States, in 1920, by Curtis Lee Laws, editor of The Watchman Examiner, a national Baptist newspaper. He proposed that Christians who were fighting for the fundamentals of their faith should be called “fundamentalists.” But the term “fundamentalism” was extended to other religious traditions around the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1978-79.

In general all fundamentalist movements arise when people are confronted with an unsettling disruption of their “normal” way of life. Sensing societal chaos, they develop strong feelings of anxiety and fear about losing control over their lives and losing personal and group identity. 

Regardless of the religious tradition to which they belong, all fundamentalists follow certain patterns: 

• Religious ideology is the basis for their personal and communal identity.

• They insist upon one statement of truth that is inerrant, revealed, and unchangeable

• They see themselves as part of a cosmic struggle between good and evil. 

• They seize on historical moments and reinterpret them in the light of this cosmic struggle. 

• They demonize their opposition. 

• They are selective in what parts of the religious tradition and heritage they will stress. 

Although we have not usually thought of Roman Catholics as fundamentalists, the term can certainly be applied to a number of Roman Catholic individuals and movements. Certainly more than a few of today’s U.S. Roman Catholic bishops are starting to resemble fundamentalists in their words and actions.

Religious fundamentalists place such a high priority on doctrinal conformity and obedience to doctrinaire spokespersons that they end up sacrificing values basic to all the great religious traditions: love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, and caring.

When Christian belief becomes highly fundamentalized, churches start to become repositories not of grace but of grievances. They become places where something like tribal identities are reinforced, fears are nurtured, and aggression and nastiness become part of a holy cause. In their overwhelming seriousness about “their” religion, fundamentalists do not hesitate to intervene in political and social processes to ensure that society conforms to the values and behaviors required by their fundamentalist worldview. Fundamentalists become their own justification.

Fundamentalism appeals for a variety of reasons: 

  • For people who feel unimportant or insignificant, fundamentalism says you are important because you are God’s “special messenger.” 
  • For people who are fearful, fundamentalism says “you can’t be saved without us…join us and be saved.” 
  • For the confused, fundamentalism says one doesn’t have to think about doctrine nor even be educated in it. Just believe what we say.
  • Fundamentalism makes the fundamentalist feel good about himself or herself. It is self-stroking.
  • Fundamentalism justifies hatred of one group of people for another, because it believes that God hates those who do not conform to the fundamentalist worldview.
  • Fundamentalism appeals to people burdened by guilt and shame because it exempts them from responsibility for situations or actions that cause guilt and shame. Fundamentalism says…if you are one of us, you are OK.
  • Fundamentalism excuses people from honest self-examination; and it justifies their prejudices, zealotry, intolerance, and hatefulness.

What does one do about fundamentalism?

  • The best way to confront the narrow vision of fundamentalism is through broad-based education that emphasizes critical, analytical thinking skills.
  • Broad-based education emphasizes the importance of gathering evidence and then proceeding to conclusions. Fundamentalists work in the opposite fashion. They begin  with their conclusions and then search for arguments to support them.
  • We need to establish channels for dialogue and support those institutions that promote multi-cultural knowledge and understanding.
  • We need to courageously work against ignorance and speak-out about dishonest or faulty information. And speak-out about those who advocate and publish it.
  • We need to humbly realize that we too are still on the road to discovery. We cannot fall into the trap of many fundamentalists who have become self-centered know-it-alls.

****

“Truth is always complicated by the human envelope in which it is enclosed.
It’s not only an intellectual problem, but one at the heart of the gospel itself. It was not sinners who turned Jesus off. It was the righteous religious types who felt they had all the answers.”- Rev. Raymond E. Brown (1928 – 1998), Catholic biblical scholar