Growing-up a Personal Reflection

This summer, while driving through the ancient city of Split Croatia which in 305 CE became the site of the Palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian (245 – 312), I thought “all these old buildings and ancient people.” Then it struck me. I too am old. I have been happily married for fifty-three years, have been teaching about religion and theology for more than fifty years, and I am eighty years old. But I have never forgotten what Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) allegedly wrote: “People like you and I, though mortal of course like everyone else, do not grow old no matter how long we live. What I mean is we never cease to stand like curious children before the great Mystery into which we were born.” – Albert Einstein in a letter to Otto Julius Birger, September 29, 1942.

I remember growing up as a pious Catholic kid in southern Michigan who was very much afraid of God: the God of threat and punishment, the God who watches me and judges, the God who takes sides and causes victories and defeats, and the God who responds to appeasement and sacrificial offerings. I believed and feared that I would suffer eternal punishment in hell for missing Mass on a single Sunday or eating meat on a day of abstinence, or my great fear: committing an adolescent sexual sin. I was taught to “go to confession” every week, because God was the Supreme Judge who demands that everything in our lives be in good order. There were so many things I had to avoid “under pain of mortal sin.”

Gradually I began to grow up. Fortunately I had healthy guidance from some very good high school teachers and college professors at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. (I was never ordained but became what they called back then “a lay theolgian.”) I began to realize that God does not exist in some far-off place, watching, and judging me. God is in the here and now. I began to understand God as the empowering energy of everything and as philosopher Paul Tillich (1888 – 1965) said the “ground of being.” I began to understand that God is love and when we love we are actively living in God. There we find salvation.

As one grows up, he or she realizes that perspective is important. Scientists have determined that the universe came into being 13.8 billion years ago. We humans are a very recent development; and it was only a moment ago that Jesus lived on Earth. But Jesus still lives and shows us how to be human. My  perspective on Jesus changed greatly thanks especially to Professor Gustave Thils (1909 – 2000) at the Catholic University of Leuven and Professor Edward Schillebeeckx (1914 – 2009) at the Catholic University of Nijmegen. Both men also encouraged me and strongly supported my wish to become an historical theologian.

More growth: I remember when Richard McBrien (1936 – 2015), longtime professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, wrote that it seems more and more difficult to say something original about Jesus’ resurrection. Edward Schillebeeckx in his book Jesus: An experiment in Christology (Dutch ed. 1974), had argued that we should not imagine that the belief of the disciples that Jesus had risen was caused by an empty tomb and the resurrection appearances. He proposed instead that a belief in the resurrection was grounded in “the new orientation of living which this Jesus has brought about in their lives and was not rendered meaningless by his death – quite the opposite.”

Frankly, considering what one reads in the New Testament, it is often difficult to distinguish between what should be taken word for word and what is to be understood as metaphor in the post-resurrection accounts. As Christians we accept Jesus as the ultimate life-giver, the very word of God, realizing that we are called not only to believe, but to imitate.  John’s Gospel, chapter 12, we read “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” Indeed but for many belief is easier than imitation.

As a Catholic historical theologian, one of my concerns over the years has been an accurate portrayal of  the Mother of Jesus. It is not that easy. When a  person or an event seems larger than life, people turn to poetry, creative imagination, symbolism, and figurative speech. That has certainly been the case with Mary. And so we have the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception thanks to Bishop Augustine of Hippo’s (354 -430) concept of Original Sin, the notion that all human beings are born in a sinful condition inherited from Adam and Eve and passed on through sexual intercourse. But Mary, because she was the Mother of Jesus, the church taught, had to be exempted from Original Sin. Mary therefore had a no-original-sin Immaculate Conception. 

Today of course we realize that there was no Adam and Eve, no Garden of Eden, no tempting snake, and no angry and punishing God. And no Augustinian Original Sin. So what do we do with Mary’s Immaculate Conception? One could also ask the same question about Mary’s Assumption up above the clouds into heaven. And of course her perpetual virginity. The brothers of Jesus are named in the New Testament as James, Joses, Simon, and Jude. The Greek word translated as “brothers” is adelphoí, which literally means “from the same womb.” Jesus’ unnamed sisters are mentioned as well in Mark and Matthew. The church doctrine about Mary’s perpetual virginity, however, was first officially proclaimed at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 CE which proclaimed her “ever virgin.” Then at the Lateran Synod of 649 CE Pope Martin I (c. 590 – 655) emphasized the threefold character of her perpetual virginity: before, during, and after the birth of Jesus.

Anchored in our Christian tradition we can and we should continue to grow in our knowledge and understandings about past people and events. Mary was probably about thirteen years old when she and her husband, traditionally called “Joseph,” gave birth to Jesus. She deserves great respect and veneration for being a loving, wise, and supportive mother throughout Jesus’ life from birth to his crucifixion and death on the cross. Her son James was leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem. About her other children we know nothing. Over the centuries, Christians have certainly found the Mother of Jesus a supportive Lady of Sorrows, Consolation, and Perpetual Help. Her faith in the loving and powerful presence of God was her strength, her wisdom, and her lifeline. It is our faith as well.

And so we go on, people of faith, knowing that life brings sun and cool breezes as well as occasional storms but confident that the creative and life-giving Spirit is with us every step of the way.


PS For an excellent exploration of contemporary Catholic belief I recommend Richard G. Rento’s book It’s Not Necessarily So: A Senior Priest Separates Faith from Fiction and Makes Sense of Belief.

When Bridges Collapse, Violence and Hatred Explode

When the bridges between groups of people collapse, civility breaks down and polarization breads hatred and violence. Political and religious polarization in the United States will become even more heated as people move toward another presidential campaign and election year. “Project 2025,”for example, led by the Heritage Foundation, is a coalition of more than 65 right-wing organizations putting in place personnel and policies to recommend to any Republican who may win in 2024. Supporters of “Project 2025” have embraced the antidemocratic ideology of authoritarian leaders like Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán. 

In a highly polarized society, people revert to a kind of primitive tribalism with a strong dogmatic intolerance: the tendency to reject, and consider as inferior, wrong, or evil any ideological belief that differs from one’s own. Right now I can think of some highly publicized politicians as well as some contemporary Catholic and Protestant “leaders” caught up in strong dogmatic intolerance. In today’s Catholic Church, for example, it is easy to recognize strong polarization. Archbishop Timothy Broglio (b.1951), is the current president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as Archbishop for the Military Services, USA. Broglio is a culture warrior who blames the Catholic Church’s sex abuse crisis on gay and “effeminate” priests. As Archbishop for Military Services, Broglio voiced opposition to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, opposition to the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and he showed strong support for the Donald Trump administration’s ban on transgender individuals serving in the United States military. 

At the end of June 2023, Archbishop Alexander Sample (b.1960) of Portland Oregon, closed the Department of Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Portland, because school officials revolted against his guidelines on “gender ideology.” Two Catholic school principals have resigned and teachers have had their contracts terminated after refusing to sign an archdiocesan statement promising to uphold the Archbishop’s directive. The Portland Archbishop attributes the increasing acceptance of LGBTQ+ to Satan. Blaming Satan, of course,  is a convenient way to avoid any serious discussion about an issue.

It was also in June that the US Supreme Court, on June 30, 2023, decided in favor of a Christian web designer in Colorado who refused to create websites to celebrate same-sex weddings out of personal religious convictions. This Supreme Court decision opens the door for supporting — as First Amendment rights — other discriminatory acts launched by white supremacists, antisemites, Islamaphobes and other hate-filled individuals and groups.

People with dogmatic rigidity in their mindsets have difficulty processing opposing ideas and information, and a tendency to denigrate those who oppose their position. People have strong “feelings” about other people and issues, based on ideological, racial, religious, or gender issues. Facts are distorted or ignored. And what is missing, of course, in so much of today’s polarized rhetoric and behavior is a focus on basic moral values: Treating each other with civility and respect. 

So what do we do? Here are my brief suggestions for combating polarization:

We need to promote good continuing education for people at all levels in the Christian community. Yes there is a lot of ignorance. 

We need to be good listeners. We have to first of all humbly listen to the other if we want the other to listen to us. 

We must stop using denigrating language. This becomes especially important, for example, when telling jokes. The dumb blond jokes? The Jewish jokes? The Polish Jokes? Or the Stupid Republican jokes? Or the Subversive Democrat jokes?

We must decide to be part of the solution. When questioned, we can explain why we think the way we do and respectfully ask others why they think the way they do. 

We should use social media wisely. These days, social media may have done more to promote polarized taking sides than seeing the world through the eyes of another. 

We must be alert to phony facts and dishonest information. Finding the truth these days can be difficult. Truth twisters – like FOX NEWS — can be very popular and appealing. 

Last but not least, we need to be humble truth seekers. It is absolutely essential to remember that no one has all the truth. No political party. No particular church. No particular religion. No particular country or nation. 

And I conclude with my favorite quotation from Walter Brueggemann (b.1933) United Church of Christ ordained minister and greatly respected Hebrew Scriptures scholar: “The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in an illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.”


Institutional Religion and Civil Government 

My academic focus for many years has been religion and values in US society. Still very much a US American, my Fourth of July reflections last week drifted from the July 4th  1776 Declaration of Independence to the December 15th  1791 First Amendment to the US Constitution. 

The First Amendment prevents the government from making laws that regulate an establishment of religion, or that prohibit the free exercise of religion, or abridge the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, and the freedom.of assembly. 

Today of course – contrary to the First Amendment — one hears increased rumblings about US Christian Nationalism which is an anti-democratic notion that the United States is a nation by and for Christians alone. 

In his book One Nation Under God: How Corporate  America Invented Christian America,Kevin M. Kruse, professor of history at Princeton University, argues: “Demographically speaking, America certainly resembled a ‘nation of Christians’ at the time of its founding and has ever since. But it’s a rather different proposition to claim that the founders established the new American government as a ‘Christian nation.’ Clearly, they did not.”

My paternal ancestors, who arrived in Pennsylvania in 1684, were Quaker Christians from Cheshire, England. But, when thinking about US American history, too many people forget about the original indigenous Americans with their own religious practices, and the fact that, along with Christians, many of the initial immigrants to the North American colonies actually had Jewish and Muslim backgrounds. There have been Jewish communities in the United States since colonial times. They were primarily immigrants from Brazil, England, and the Netherlands (Amsterdam). About Muslim “immigrants,” scholars estimate that as many as 30% of the African slaves brought to the US from West and Central African countries like Gambia and Cameroon, were Muslim.

Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826), author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States from 1801 to 1809, was most comfortable not with Christianity but with philosophical Deism, based on rational thought without any reliance on revealed religions or religious authority. He also coined the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut. In her book Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation, Amanda Porterfield, emerita  professor of religion at Florida State University, makes this observation about religion and Thomas Jefferson: “Jefferson explained his support for religious freedom in practical terms: ‘It does me no injury for my neighbor to believe in twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.'”

If the founders had not made their stance on this “Christian nation” issue clear enough in the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, they certainly did so in Article 11 of the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli. Begun by George Washington, signed by John Adams and ratified unanimously by a Senate still half-filled with signers of the Constitution, this treaty announced firmly and flatly to the world that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

Nevertheless, last week Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley displayed his Christian nationalism (and historical ignorance) when he tweeted a quote falsely attributed to a “Founding Father” claiming the United States was founded “on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” In September last year, during a speech titled “Biblical Revolution” at the National Conservatism conference in Miami, Hawley said “We are a revolutionary nation precisely because we are the heirs of the revolution of the Bible…. Without the Bible, there is no America.”

During the 1950s, US President Dwight David Eisenhower (1880  – 1969), who was president from 1953 to 1961, revolutionized the role of religion in US political culture, by inventing new traditions from presidential inaugural prayers to the National Prayer Breakfast. During his administration Congress added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 and in 1956 made “In God We Trust” the country’s first official motto. Eisenhower by the way was the only president ever to have been baptized while in office. On February 1, 1953, just 10 days after his inauguration, Eisenhower was baptized and welcomed into the National Presbyterian Church.

At its core, the notion of Christian nationalism threatens the principle of the separation of church and state and really undermines religion as well as the state. I would strongly argue that separation of church and state really protects the “church.” Christian nationalism is a virus that also threatens a number of countries around the world, especially as more countries shift to the far right. I can think immediately of Brazil, Hungary, Poland, and, most alarmingly, Russia.

The Russian Orthodox Church, for example, thanks to Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill (Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev, born in 1946) has established close ties with the Kremlin. Kirill now enjoys the personal patronage of President Vladimir Putin (b. 1952). The patriarch endorsed Putin’s election in 2012 and calls Putin’s presidency “God’s miracle.” Patriarch Kirill stresses that Putin today is fighting the Antichrist and working to preserve “Christian civilization” against the secular decadence of the West. Part of that secular decadence, according to Kirill, is support for globalization, same-sex marriage, and “feminism” because it proclaims “the pseudo-freedom of women outside of marriage and outside of the family.” 

As reported in the press on both sides of the Atlantic, Patriarch Kirill publicly backed Russia’s “special peacekeeping operation” days after the February 24, 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. “We have entered into a struggle,” he said “that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance.” Kirill reassured Russian soldiers, fighting in Ukraine, that “sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins.” His exhortation reminded me of Pope Urban II (c.1035 – 1099) when he preached the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont on November 27, 1095. There Pope Urban told the crusaders “Undertake this journey eagerly for the remission of your sins, and be assured of the reward of imperishable glory in the Kingdom of Heaven” 

For many on the “religious right” in the United States, Putin is very much admired as an authoritarian defender of a Christian civilization against secularism and particularly against Islam. But is it truly Christian? And is it really civilization? The sincerity of Putin’s Christianity has been strongly rejected by Sergei Pugachev (b. 1963), a Russian Orthodox Christian and a former member of the Russian president’s inner circle. In recent years, nevertheless, Putin has increasingly highlighted his own religiosity by doing things like wearing a silver cross around his neck, kissing icons, and well publicized frequent participation in Russian Orthodox services. Putin regards as his spiritual destiny the rebuilding of a Moscow-based Christendom. He and Patriarch Kirill see Russian Orthodoxy as the guardian of the “true faith” in contrast to Western Catholicism and Protestantism. I suggest Vladimir Putin is simply using Russian Orthodoxy the same way the Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 272 – 337) used Christianity: to promote his political goals. I doubt that Constantine really cared that much about genuine Christian belief. I doubt that Vladimir does either. 

Thinking about next year’s US presidential campaign, I am sure Christian nationalists will be very active. I am a committed Christian and still very much a US American but I find US Christian nationalism too much associated with racism, white supremacy, and political violence. Once seen as a fringe viewpoint, Christian nationalism now has a foothold in American politics, particularly in the contemporary Republican Party, according to a 2023 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Brookings Institution. More than half of today’s Republicans believe the country should be a strictly Christian nation, either adhering to the ideals of Christian nationalism (21%) or sympathizing with those views (33%).

As the United States has become less white and less Christian, supporters of White Christian nationalism want to hold on to their cultural and political power. Under 18 non-Hispanic White Americans in the US, according to the Pew Research Center, were already a minority as of 2020 and it is projected that non-Hispanic Whites  overall will become a minority within the US by 2045. About 64% of US Americans call themselves Christian today. Fifty years ago that number was 90%.  The number of US Christians continues to decline

According to the PRRI survey, 50% of Christian nationalism adherents, and nearly 4 in 10 sympathizers, said they support the idea of an authoritarian leader in order to keep “Christian values” in society. As Robert P. Jones, the president and founder of the nonpartisan PRRI, stressed when the survey results were published in February 2023 “… a sizeable minority is not only willing to declare themselves opposed to pluralism and democracy — but are also willing to say, ‘I am willing to fight and either kill or harm my fellow Americans to keep it that way.'”

According to Nilay Saiya, assistant professor of public policy and global affairs at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and author of  The Global Politics of Jesus: A Christian Case for Church-State Separation, “Christian nationalist rhetoric is deeply cloaked in threat narratives, prompting efforts to retain Christianity’s hegemonic status, sometimes through violence.” And, according to the to PRRI/Brookings Institution data, 40% of Christian nationalism supporters believe that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”

Christian nationalism is a Christian challenge at home and abroad, because it is not Christian.  As Christians, we are bound to Christ, not by citizenship but by faith. Far too often, linking religious authority with political authority leads to the oppression of marginalized groups and the spiritual impoverishment of religion.

As Christians, we must speak in one voice condemning Christian nationalism because it is a deceptive and dangerous distortion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

– Jack

Words, Meanings, and Lost in Translation

Words can be helpfully descriptive but also very unhelpfully misleading or confusing. I often chuckle about my own experiences with British words and the same words in North American English, which have very different meanings. Years ago I walked into a men’s clothing store in London, looking for a pair of trousers. I told the young fellow who came to help me that I needed “a pair of pants.” He said “we have a good supply” and took me to the store’s display of men’s underwear. In British English “pants” are underwear. And yes I remember my dismay when a British friend in Brussels came to me after one of my lectures at the international parish and said with a big smile: “my wife and I would like to invite you and your wife for dinner next week because your wife is so very homely.” I was flabbergasted and didn’t know how to react. In North American English “homely” means “unattractive and ugly.”  Hardly a good description of my wife! I told him I would have to check my calendar and would get back to him. That evening, while talking with another expat friend, I learned that “homely” in British English has a positive meaning. A homely person means someone who makes you feel very comfortable and “at home.”

Word difficulties occur in biblical translations as well. Such translations can create problems, especially when they shape religious beliefs and behavior. By way of example, the historical Jesus, “Yeshua” as he was known, belonged to the Hebrew religious tradition. He was a Galilean from Nazareth. His home territory, Galilee, was part of the province of Judaea. There were no “Jews” in the days of Jesus. The word “Jew” came into existence centuries after Jesus. And the inscription on Jesus’ cross, often abbreviated as “INRI,” stood for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Judaeans). NOT “King of the Jews.” Pontius Pilate, responsible for the jeering inscription, was the fifth governor of the Roman province of Judaea

Our biblical translations and religious language need a corrective and thorough updating. This is particularly important when we realize how New Testament mistranslations have supported antisemitism.

The Gospel of Matthew has been interpreted, in many Christian traditions, in an antisemitic way because the Greek and Latin words ioudaios and iudaeus have been translated not as “Judaean” but “Jew.” The Gospel of Matthew has often been regarded as a great contributor to the development of antisemitism, particularly because of the charge of Matthew 27:25. This so-called “blood guilt” text has been interpreted to mean that the Hebrew people of Jesus’ time and afterwards the “Jewish” people bear responsibility for the death of Jesus. I clearly remember the RCC Good Friday prayer, as it existed before 1959: “Let us pray also for the faithless Jews, that Almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord.” [A note regarding the spelling of Iesus and Iudaeorum, the letter “J” did not exist until the sixteenth century.]

As we go through life, we question, discover, and learn. Change is a part of life and our understandings do change. From the early through the late Middle Ages, for example, Europeans moved from an almost mystical way of thinking about the universe to an acceptance of a well-ordered, geocentric universe. In this universe, the earth was at the center and other heavenly bodies rotated around it in a series of concentric spheres. They thought therefore that the sun revolved around the earth. Today we know that our earth revolves in orbit around the sun in 365 days, 6 hours, and 9 minutes. We know as well that our earth is just one of millions and millions of planets in the universe. The exact number is around 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. All of these planets orbit around different stars and make up their own solar systems and galaxies. Where then is heaven? Early and later Christians thought it was up there above the earth.

Getting back to translations, I still have three more observations:

(1) In Matthew 1:23 we read “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” Each year in the Christmas season, of course, we hear and read the text repeatedly as a prophecy about the birth of Jesus. The text in Matthew comes originally from Isaiah 7:14 in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament).

The Hebrew Scriptures were written originally in Hebrew  during the period from 1200 to 100 BCE. Later a Greek translation called the Septuagint was written from the 3rd through the 1st centuries BCE. The Greek Septuagint translation of Isaiah 7:14 uses the word  parthenos  which meant “virgin.” The original Hebrew language text of Isaiah 7:14, however, did not use a word meaning “virgin” but the word almāh meaning  “a young woman of childbearing age.” The original text of Isaiah 7:14 referred to the birth of a son for King  Ahaz of Judah whose reign was 732–716 BCE.

Actually, contemporary biblical scholars point out that the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures differs from the original Hebrew language texts in many ways and the Greek translations often demonstrate a real ignorance of Hebrew idiomatic usage. For these reasons, most people in the Hebrew tradition abandoned the Septuagint around the second century CE. The earliest Gentile Christians, however, used the Septuagint out of necessity. It was the only Greek version of the Scriptures available to them and most of these early Gentile Christians could not read Hebrew. 

Well this textual clarification can lead to a discussion about Jesus’ “virgin birth” — something I have touched on before and can return to if necessary. Most contemporary biblical scholars would say that Jesus’ “virgin birth,” mentioned only in Matthew 1:18–25 and Luke 1:26–38, is more theologically symbolic than historical. The author of the Gospel of Mark, composed around 70 CE, thus much earlier than Matthew and Luke, was not aware of any special circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. 

(2) My second translation observation is about the Greek word ekklesia  (ecclesia in Latin) which New Testament translations translate as “church.” Ekklesia is a Greek word meaning “an assembly or congregation.” The Greek ekklesia is the basis for our English words ecclesiastical and ecclesiology. The word in the New Testament, however, was also used to refer to any assembly of people and especially a community of Christians.

It is unfortunate that ekklesia has been translated as “church” in New Testament translations. For example, Acts 11:26 says “Barnabas and Saul met with the church [ekklesia]” in Antioch. And in 1 Corinthians 15:9 Paul says  he had persecuted the “church [ekklesia] of God.” In most New Testament contexts, the word ekklesia is used to refer to the people who comprised the New Testament communities of faith. This is an important and key issue. Barnabas and Saul met with the Christian community in Antioch. The early Christians were organized into communities of faith. Not hierarchical institutional churches. When reading these New Testament texts, we should say “community” not “church.”

And the correct understandings ekklesia encourages us to ask about our own contemporary understanding of the institutional church. 

(3) My third translation observation is connected with my  observations about ekklesia but is about another Greek word epískopos. In Latin it is episcopus. We get our English word “episcopal” from that. The Greek and Latin words meant “an overseer,” one who exercised general oversight in a Christian community. Men as well as women exercised this ministerial role in the early Christian communities. The New Testament translators translate the Greek and Latin words as “bishop.” 

One of my friends said “ok…so what’s the big deal?” The big deal is about the historical meaning of a bishop’s ministerial role, which should be an important reminder about the shape and form of a bishop’s ministry today.

A bishop should not be a power-broker and an authoritarian big boss in the church but a traveling companion in the community of faith — one who journeys with and in the community as a member of the community, helping to insure that community life resonates with the way of Jesus. Early Christian community overseers (episcopi in plural) had no sense of sacramental power that elevated them above the community, and they had not been “ordained” by the historical Jesus, because ordination did not exist in his lifetime. The historical Jesus, contrary to what a US cardnal acquaintance still says, did not ordain the first bishops at the Last Supper. 

Unfortunately the role of many bishops today is far removed from the example of the early bishop overseerers. They resonate more with the post-Constantinian and later medieval bishops who were rich and powerful men at the top, in a well-organized ecclesiastical hierarchical pyramid. Many US bishops today, sorry to say, see themselves in a similar pyramid and are really out of touch with the people in their diocesan communities, when it comes to ongoing clerical sexual abuse, women’s ordination, and a broad range of LGBTQ issues.

Historically the growth of episcopal power owed a lot to the Roman Emperor Constantine (c.272 – 337) whose “conversion” to Christianity was very politically motivated. Constantine used Christianity as the dominant religion in his Roman Empire. In fact, he was baptized only on his deathbed. In what we call “the Constantinian shift,” the efficient organization of the Roman Empire became the template for the organization of the institutional Christian church in the 4th century particularly after Constantine’s Edict of Milan (313). Then, as Roman authority began to fail in the western portion of the empire, the bishops took over much of the civil administration, becoming regional judges. The role of western bishops as civil authorities, often called prince bishops, continued throughout much of the Middle Ages, far removed from the pattern of the episcopus spiritual guide and overseer in the early Christian communities.

Well, words are important because they not only shape understandings but behavior. A clarification of biblical words can also be an invitation for reformation and renewal.

  • Jack


Last week we looked at how people grow in their faith experience or become rigid or even static fundamentalists. This week a brief look at belief, religion, and the need for change – reformation.

FAITH EXPERIENCE: In the Faith Experience people do have an experience of the Divine, often described under various names: God, Creator, Father, Mother, Allah, the Ground of Being, etc. Sometimes people cannot put a name on their deepest human experiences. I still remember the observation by Dag Hammarskjöld who served as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations from April 1953 until his death in a plane crash in September 1961. He wrote: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder the source of which is beyond all reason.”

And these days I resonate more and more with the words of Karl Rahner (1904-1984) one of the most influential Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century: “I must confess to you in all honesty that for me God is and has always been absolute  mystery. I do not understand what God is; no one can. We have intimations, and inklings. We make faltering attempts to put mystery into words. But there is no word for it, no sentence for it.”  

BELIEF: Belief is the attempt to put into words the meaning of our faith experience. Belief is really theology which is “faith seeking understanding.” 

RELIGION: Religion is an attempt to interpret and systematize belief. Any religion is a system of beliefs and practices that helps people understand and live their faith experience. Religion therefore gives people: rituals, ritual places, ritual  leaders, sacred books, sacred places, sacred days and seasons, codes of morality and creedal statements. Religion provides helpful aids – MEANS – that point people to the Divine. That’s good and proper. But religion is not Faith. (Sometimes very religious people can be very ungodly.)

RELIGION LIFE-CYCLE: All religions go through a four-stage cycle

(1) They begin with the charismatic foundational state, e.g. the primitive Christian community. Here men and women had such a vivid lived awareness of the Faith experience that they had little need for institutional structure. They relied on do-it-self and charismatic ways of praying, speaking, and celebrating. Men and women presided at Eucharist.

(2) Then when people start thinking and asking  “how do we safeguard what we have and how do we pass this on to the next generation?” a religion enters stage two. This is the stage of institutionalization: important things are written down (e.g. writing the Gospels), set ways of praying are established (official sacramental rituals and gestures are established), properly authorized leaders are established (e.g. ordination is created as a kind of quality control mechanism to make certain that the Christian leaders are competent and reliable. Ordination was not originally about sacramental power!)

(3) After some time, a religion enters stage three. I call it the stage of self-focused short-sightedness. The institutional religion becomes so self-centered and so self-protective that it becomes less a means and path to the Divine and more and more the OBJECT of religious devotion. This stage comes close to idolatry. The church institution and certain institutional leaders, religious objects, and teachings are treated like IDOLS. People get so involved in acts of religious veneration that they miss or distort the Divine. 

(4) When stage three happens, the only solution is REFORMATION. This demands a serious effort to regain the vision and focus on the Divine. To recapture the vigor and creative enthusiasm of stages one and two.

All religions need periodic reformations. The old saying in Latin ecclesia semper reformanda est was true yesterday and is certainly true today: “the church must always be reformed.” 


So… how do we move ahead in the reformation process? 

We need to be – and invite our friends to be – critical observers and prophetic change agents. We need to OBSERVE, JUDGE, and ACT. 

The “Observe, Judge, Act” methodology was developed in the 1920s by the Belgian priest and later cardinal, Joseph Cardijn (1882 – 1967) in an attempt to mobilize laborers at a time when there were major industrial abuses affecting the dignity and well-being of laborers. 

For us today, we need to Observe what is happening in the church, Judge what should be done about it, and then Act in reforming actions. (The same is true of course in politics. But my focus today is religion.)

Clues that we need reformation are found in signs of unhealthy religion:

1. Healthy religion is grounded in contemporary Reality with all of its ups and downs. Unhealthy religion is grounded in fantasy and longs for the “good old days,” which were not so great for most people. Unhealthy religion imposes, as well, the antiquated and discredited historical and theological understandings of the “good old days.”

2. Healthy religion builds bridges between people. Unhealthy religion builds walls and creates barriers separating people into qualitative classes of people. It demonizes “those who don’t fit in” and validates hatred and cruelty through racism, misogyny, and homophobia.

3.  Unhealthy religion imposes power OVER people in often dismissive and demeaning ways through abuse, control, repression, and coercion. It uses guilt, fear, and overly-strict rules. 

4. Healthy religion promotes hope-filled love, compassion, and collaboration.

May we all be alert and courageous reformers.


PS   As I have now done for several years, starting next week I will be away from my blog for some late spring R&R and travel with my wife, as we celebrate 53 years of happily married life. I hope to return at the end of June with fresh thoughts. I often worry about becoming just another babbling old man.

Why Do People Believe the Way They Do?

Reflecting on religious authoritarianism and fundamentalism in a variety of contemporary religions, I went back to the analysis of human growth and faith development by James W. Fowler (1940 – 2015). 

For many years now I have been interested in Fowler’s thinking. He was Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University. Fowler argued that the development of people’s spiritual awareness runs parallel to other aspects of human development. His research into stages of faith development has helped me understand my own development and has greatly influenced my own approaches to faith formation and continuing education. At Emory University in Atlanta, he was director of both the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics until he retired in 2005. He was also an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. Fowler is perhaps best known for his book Stages of Faith, published in 1981, in which he outlined his understanding of the developmental process in “human faith.”

Fowler proposed a multi-stage understanding of faith development. His analysis is closely related to the work of the developmental psychologists Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980), Erik Erikson (1902 – 1994), and Lawrence Kohlberg (1907 – 1987). He defines faith as an activity of trusting, committing, and relating to reality based on a set of assumptions about how one is related to others, the world, and the Divine.

According to Fowler, there are seven primary stages of faith development (including Stage 0) in the life of an individual. They are as follows:

Stage 0 – “Primal or Undifferentiated” faith: From birth until about age 2, people are greatly shaped by their experiences of a safe or unsafe environment. A child at this stage learns to trust the goodness or badness of the world based on the way the child is treated by his or her parents. But situations of neglect or abuse can lead to the formation of feelings of distrust and fear of the universe and the Divine. How important the early childhood environment! And the kind of day care centers in which they are placed.

Stage 1 – “Intuitive-Projective” faith: From ages 3 to 7. Spiritual awareness is learned primarily through experiences, stories, images, and the people with whom one comes in contact. What kind of people? What kind of parents? Again day care personnel? In this stage, children begin to use symbols and their imagination. Children at this stage tend to take ideas about right and wrong very literally. The ability to distinguish the real from fantasy is not yet well developed. Also, they are generally not yet able to see the world from another person’s perspective.

Stage 2 – “Mythic-Literal” faith: At this stage, elementary-school-aged children develop an anthropomorphic sense of the Divine. Metaphors and symbolic language are often taken literally. This second stage starts around the sixth or seventh year of life and continues until about the twelfth year of life. In this stage beliefs are interpreted literally. Religious truth is communicated through stories, in which morality is legalistic. But some people stay in this phase for their whole lives.

Stage 3 – “Synthetic-Conventional” faith: From about age 12 to adulthood. This stage is characterized by conformity to religious authority and the development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one’s beliefs are ignored at this stage. One fears inconsistencies and what challenges authority. It is better not to question. Some people have arrested development at this stage; and we find them quite often ending up in fundamentalist movements. They don’t move beyond this stage.

Stage 4 – “Individuative-Reflective” faith: From the mid 20s to mid 30s. This is a stage of angst and struggle as one begins to take personal responsibility for his or her own beliefs. One begins to see that life issues are not so easily clear cut. One becomes open to the complexity of faith and more aware of conflicts in one’s belief. One also begins to question existing authority structures within one’s religious institution. This stage is an important turning point as one either accepts ambiguity and the need to explore or one simply shuts the door to faith challenges. Is this why some young people become missionaries and care-givers, while others become terrorists and suicide bombers?

Stage 5 – “Conjunctive” faith: This is the time of the mid-life crisis. People in this stage acknowledge the paradoxes found in human life and can begin to resolve conflicts about reality through a complex understanding that human life is grounded in a multidimensional and interdependent “truth” that can be neither controlled by nor completely contained in any particular institution. Everyone is a truth-seeker. Many people who have reached this stage are beginning to become more and more open to the religions and beliefs of other people. This is not because they distance themselves from their own faith, but because they believe that the faith of others can inform, deepen, and enrich their own.

Stage 6 – “Universalizing” faith: Some call this “enlightenment.” The individual realizes that all people — regardless of their sex, gender, age, religion, nationality, or culture – must be treated with compassion, guided by universal principles of love and justice. I think Jesus of Nazareth arrived at this stage when he was close to 30. And he hoped his followers would arrive there as well. Some did of course. And some still do. People who are at this stage have the potential to become important religious figures. That’s because they have the ability to interact with anyone at any stage of faith development without being condescending. People in this phase cherish life, but do not take life too seriously. They put their faith into action, challenge the status quo, and work to create justice in the world.


Closing reflection. In all segments of the community of faith – members, teachers and leaders in the church – we need to ask: How are we alert to and ministering to babies, children, teenagers, young adults, and older adults? In not just what we say, but in what we do, are we stimulating and promoting healthy human development and growth in authentic faith? 

Or…are we, by actions or inaction, contributing to interpersonal environments that stunt human growth and faith development, and distort individual and group religious understanding? Last week’s thoughts about authoritarian fundamentalism are of course part of this question. 


Authoritarian Power and Control

This week I am returning to some thoughts and concerns about authoritarian leaders. A critic told me recently that I should not get into politics but, as he said, “just stick with the theology stuff.” I understand his concern. I have no desire to argue about either U.S. political party, both of which I know quite well. I am currently a Democrat but grew up in a very Eisenhower-Republican home. My Dad, in fact, was a Republican county commissioner in lower Michigan and I worked on his political campaign. Today, as an historical theologian, I am very concerned about safeguarding human dignity and authentic Christian values. “Theology stuff” as my critic would say. My concern is the degree to which supporters of the forty-fifth U.S. president, are pushing the United States toward an authoritarian regime. Not just banning books but banning people and restricting civil rights. 

Across the globe in countries with long-established democracies, authoritarian leaders have taken advantage of people’s fears and anxieties in a rapidly changing world. They condemn the “problematic” people and have become advocates of hatred, violence, and passionate demagoguery. We see a similar development in some fundamentalist religious movements.

Authoritarianism is hardly a new phenomenon. In the early twentieth century there were repressive authoritarian regimes in countries like Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, and the Croatian fascist Ustasha movement. While some researchers debate the causes of authoritarianism, the public and institutional behavior of authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers is rather clear-cut.

ADDICTION: Just like drug dealers and their “clients,” authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers sell and promote authoritarian addiction. It happens when followers stop thinking for themselves and submit to the emotional rhetoric of authoritarian leaders. We now see classic examples in our daily news. The primary focus of the authoritarian leader is the leader. The authoritarian leader uses and manipulates people to achieve the leader’s goals. The leader’s campaign message is often loaded with dishonest fabrications and emotionally charged bully-talk.

SUBMISSIVE: Authoritarian followers are highly submissive to authoritarian leaders and aggressively insist that everyone should behave as dictated by the authority. They are fearful about a changing world and a changing society which they neither understand nor want to understand. They would rather turn the clock back to some imagined golden era.

BLIND OBEDIENCE: Easily incited, easily led, and reluctant to think for themselves, authoritarian followers don’t question. They obey. They are attracted to and follow strong leaders, who, in often theatrical style, appeal to their feelings of fear and anxiety. And they respond aggressively toward “outsiders.” Blind faith is substituted for critical reason. The unknown and the different become the enemy.

ANTI-CHRISTIAN: What authoritarian leaders want to implement is undemocratic, tyrannical, and often brutal. Authoritarianism becomes even more sinister, when authoritarian leaders begin to proclaim their message in the name of Christianity. Then, in reality, it becomes an anti-Christian social cancer starting to metastasize across the society. Blurred vision and bizarre rhetoric are the result. There is indeed a strong correlation between religious fundamentalism and authoritarianism. 

FUNDAMENTALISM: Authoritarian fundamentalists see themselves as part of a cosmic struggle between good and evil. They consider themselves – and their authoritarian leaders – as messengers sent by God. They seize on historical moments as prophetic and reinterpret them in the light of this cosmic struggle. They believe that God hates those who do not conform to the fundamentalist worldview. They therefore condemn and demonize their opposition as evil. By way of By way of example, on April 28th in Cleveland, Texas, five victims, including a nine year old boy, were killed in an attack which began when the family asked their neighbor to stop firing his gun because their baby was trying to sleep. The far-right, authoritarian governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, demonized the victims of the Texas shooting in a tweet calling them “illegal immigrants.”  

Also in Texas, in Grapevine 20 miles northwest of Dallas, some religious and political leaders have called a school board election this week a spiritual battle between forces of good and evil. During a Sunday worship service, Robert Morris, a megachurch pastor and spiritual adviser to former President Donald Trump, warned his congregation that Satan was at work in area schools.

FAULTY THINKING: All authoritarians go through life with barrel-vision and impaired reasoning. Their thinking is sloppy and they are slaves to a ferocious dogmatism that blinds them to evidence and logic. As Adolf Hitler reportedly said, “What good fortune for those in power that people do not think.” I often think about a good example of faulty-thinking, given many years ago by my college logic professor: “All fish live in the sea. Sharks live in the sea. Therefore, sharks are fish.” Today of course one hears faulty-thinking authoritarian politicians and their supportive religious leaders asserting: “All Muslims are terrorists” … “African Americans are lazy”…“Feminists are undermining male and female identity”… “Gays are destroying marriage and family life.” And on and on it goes. Falsehood and nonsense that denigrates and kills people.


Certainly we need to confront authoritarianism, because it is a malignancy that threatens and polarizes society. We need to speak-out now or forever hold our silence. But it is not enough to talk about it or write articles about it. Too many people are simply standing on the sidewalk, quietly staring at the authoritarian parade as it marches on.

We need to take courageous leadership to clearly inform and organize others. We need to inform and motivate voters to elect well-informed and critical-thinking political leaders. Ignorance is neither civic nor religious bliss; and prejudice is based on ignorance.

The best way to confront ignorance is through real education that emphasizes critical, analytical thinking skills. Real education teaches the importance of gathering evidence and then proceeding to conclusions. Authoritarians and fundamentalists work in opposite fashion.

We need to establish channels for dialogue. If people are telling lies or spreading falsehood, on social media, we need to be clear about what is truthful information and help spread that. When I see falsehood on Facebook, for example, I point that out. I am not speaking about opinions but about truthfulness and honesty. Social media can indeed spread falsehood but it can be used to spread truthfulness as well. 

Asking “why?” is a virtue. Questioning is healthy and mature. Unquestioned loyalty and obedience force authoritarian followers into servitude. If your religion makes you hate someone, you need a new religion. Empathy and compassion are Christ-like; but authoritarian hatred and denigration are anti-Christ.

[For further reading, I recommend Twilight of Democracy, a book by Anne Applebaum, Polish-American journalist and historian.]


PS “The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in an illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.” – Walter Brueggemann (Born: March 11, 1933) U.S. Hebrew Scriptures scholar and theologian

Christianity’s Ebb and Flow in the United States

In 1741, the young Puritan preacher and theologian, Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758), warned that only God’s mercy prevented sinners from sizzling in hellfire like spiders over a candle flame. Edwards helped launch the first Great Awakening, a revival of Christian engagement and practice that lasted throughout much of the 18th century. Historians point to four waves of U.S. religious awakening between the early 18th century and the late 20th century. Each of these “Great Awakenings” was characterized by widespread revivals led by evangelical Protestant ministers. 

I wonder what Edwards would be thinking about U.S. Christianity today. In 2000, 80% of U.S. adults were Christian, with 54% of them Protestant and 25% Roman Catholic. The latest analysis of U.S. religious trends by the Pew Research Center, however, says U.S. American Christians could make up less than half of the U.S. population within a few decades. The 2015 report had projected that two-thirds of Americans would be Christian in 2050. But the 2022 analysis has projected that just 47% of the population would be Christian at midcentury under the likeliest scenario, and 39% by 2070. 

Although it is difficult to get a precise figure, currently in the United States about 4,000 churches close down each year. Some get repurposed as shops, theaters, community centers, or apartments. Others just get demolished. Some are also closed, demolished, and the property sold just because the real estate has become so valuable.

For me one of the most interesting changes in U.S. Christianity concerns Latinos, where Roman Catholicism continues to decline. Although Catholics do remain the largest religious group among Latinos, their share among Latino adults has steadily declined over the past decade. At the same time, the percentage who are religiously unaffiliated has grown substantially over the same period. In 2022, 43% of Latino adults identified as Catholic, down from 67% in 2010. 

When it comes to Catholicism in the U.S., major reconfigurations are already underway, especially when one looks at Roman Catholic ordained ministers (priests). New vocations and seminarians these days come most significantly from outside the USA. As CRUX editor and journalist John L. Allen Jr. wrote in CRUX  on February 13th of last year: “If the church in the U.S. tomorrow had to kick out all the Mexican, Colombian, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, Nigerian, Ugandan, and Congolese priests serving in American dioceses, not to mention all the religious women from those places, it might as well put a ‘going out of business’ sign on the front door of almost every diocesan cathedral in the country.” 

Since 1970, according to the Pew Research Center, weekly church attendance among U.S. Catholics has dropped from 55% to 20%, and the number of people who have left Catholicism has increased from under 2 million in 1975 to over 30 million at the start of 2022. 

Thinking and talking about the great decline in U.S. Catholic involvement, one of my bishop friends observed, very much off the record, “My God who will pay our bills?” I chuckled and said “Maybe you have to start down-sizing. Sell your suburban episcopal mansion near the golf course and move into a small apartment in the city near the cathedral.” He was not amused. “But most importantly,” I said “My friend, we really do have to ask why people are leaving.” I also added “And, unfortunately, when speaking about many contemporary issues, church leadership has a credibility problem: politics, women, gay rights, and of course sexual abuse.”

Thinking about Christianity in general, another area where we see significant change is looking at young people and their belief. 

The “Zoomers,” Generation Z, people born mid-to-late 1990s, is now the least religious generation yet. Today 34 % of Generation Z are religiously unaffiliated, a significantly larger proportion than among Millennials, born 1981 to 1996, at 29 %, and Generation X, born early 1960s to late 1970s, at 25%. 

Fewer than 18% of the Baby Boomers, people born 1946 to 1964, are religiously unaffiliated. But only 9 % of the Silent Generation are religiously unaffiliated. The Silent Generation, also known as the “Traditionalist Generation,” is the generation preceding the Baby Boomers, people born from 1928 to 1945.

Certainly, new patterns of religious change can emerge at any time. Some of my friends say we have to get ready for the fifth Great Awakening. Could be. There are so many issues in our contemporary society: increasing gun violence, rising authoritarianism, homophobic hatred or antipathy, worsening economic conditions, etc. So many issues that can launch sudden social, political, and religious upheavals.

We always need to read the signs of the times, and then reflect on their implications for contemporary belief and behavior. “There are tranquil times, which seem to contain that which will last forever,” the German-Swiss philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883 – 1969) once observed. “And there are ages of change, which see upheavals that, in extreme instances, appear to go to the roots of humanity itself.” I resonate with Jaspers, and I would say that we indeed are in an extreme socio-cultural upheaval. So far the U.S. is setting a record pace for mass killings in 2023, replaying the horror on a loop roughly once a week so far this year. The carnage has taken 88 lives in 17 mass killings over 111 days.

Reading Acts of Apostles a few days ago, I read once again: “God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17) Yes. We need to share Visions and Dreams today. I thought as well about the young university student I mentioned last week. I truly believe we need to support and encourage young men and women to pursue their visions of a future Christian understanding, in times of great change. That’s my dream. I am not a pessimist. Church leaders should have listening sessions, inviting young men and women to share there thoughts about life and church today. We should not lecture to them. We should listen to them. Constructive dialogue begins with listening to the other. Asking “what?” and asking “why?”

Listening to the other was a key element in the ministry of my friend Archbishop Jean Jadot (1909-2009) whom I thought about this past week, while re-reading and sorting some old files. Jean Jadot was Apostolic Delegate to the United States from 1973 to 1980. (Two years ago my book about the Archbishop was published and is still available on Amazon: Jean Jadot: Paul’s Man in Washington.) From the time he was a young child, his family called him “Mr. Why?” because he was always asking questions. Shortly after his arrival in Washington DC in 1973, the “whys” of appropriate pastoral ministry for Catholics in the United States began to churn in Jadot’s head as he travelled, observed, and reflected. 

Jadot had been appointed by Pope Paul VI (pope from 1963 to 1978). The more than a hundred men Jadot selected for U.S. Catholic bishops were ordained ministers attuned to the pastoral needs of people in their dioceses. After Pope Paul’s death in 1978, his successor, John Paul II, gradually became more and more  displeased and perturbed at Jadot. He did not like the Jadot bishops. He told Archbishop Jadot he did not want “creatively pastoral” bishops. He wanted bishops who were “loyal and obedient to me in Rome.” Certainly Pope John Paul II and then Pope Benedict XVI did their best to eliminate Jadot-type bishops.

I remember visiting Jadot after he was removed from the United States by John Paul II. I asked him how he felt. He smiled and said “It is winter now. But spring will return.” 

Jean Jadot, right from the start of his U.S. ministry, was strongly pro-American yet saw major American social problems developing; and he was committed to shaping an appropriate American Catholic response. In my visits and interviews with him over many years, Archbishop Jadot often spoke about his being present at grandiose, impressive, and yet almost medieval liturgies in cathedrals like St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. 

The Archbishop said he often looked at the faces of young and older Catholics in the congregation and saw immediately that that kind of liturgy, for them, was just about meaningless. “Why?” he said, “Why can’t we be more creative with liturgical celebrations that truly engage and speak to contemporary people?” I nodded my head in agreement and added “Why can’t we be more creative in many ways: women in ministry, married ordained ministers, lay men and women in leadership positions, dialogue with Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, etc.” Jadot nodded his head in complete agreement.

I look to today’s younger Christian thinkers and activists to answer Jadot’s questions and many others. Perhaps the first thing we need to do is start listening more closely to them and to the disaffiliated. We must humbly admit that we may not have the best answers…and quite possibly they do. We cannot dialogue and work together to resolve problems and shape the future until we first of all practice attentive listening.


Theological Twists and Turns

Not so long ago I met a young energetic and inquisitive university student, when he was visiting mutual friends. He knew I was a retired professor and asked what my field was. I told him theology. He stared at me, then chuckled, and said that he no longer believed in Santa Claus and the old Deity up in the sky. I laughed and said “I don’t either.” Then, surprisingly, we got into a very serious discussion about
belief, Jesus, and God. That discussion, I hope, will continue.

Over the past two thousand years, Christianity has gone through a lot of
theological twists and turns. Most involve a shifting focus on either “orthopraxy” or “orthodoxy.” In a life-centered Christian theology, the primary focus is orthopraxy which means “correct conduct.” Orthodoxy, on the other hand, means and emphasizes “correct belief.”

Orthopraxy was certainly the focus in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth: being courageous, compassionate, and inspiring in the midst of life’s ups and downs. And Jesus certainly experienced life’s ups and downs. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) In orthopraxy the Christian is like the Good Samaritan and embodies and lives out the Sermon on the Mount by
caring for the marginalized, promoting compassion and peace, and sharing God’s love.

Certainly in Roman Catholic history the focus on unquestioning acceptance of orthodoxy created an atmosphere of thought control and, quite often, fear for those who dared to question. Growing up as a pious Catholic teenager, I remember regularly saying the Act of Faith prayer, in which I so fervently prayed: “…I believe these and all the truths which the Holy Catholic Church teaches because you have revealed them, who are eternal truth and wisdom, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. In this faith I intend to live and die.” My high school classmates called me “Pious Dick.”

Orthodoxy is not life-centered but doctrine-centered. It is about correct teaching. When orthodoxy is stressed, people are taught the official doctrine and must then unquestioningly accept that doctrine.
From 1910 to 1967, by way of example, all Roman Catholic “clergy, pastors, confessors, preachers, religious superiors, and professors in philosophicaltheological seminaries” had to take the Oath Against Modernism. Theological modernism interpreted Christian teaching by taking into consideration modern knowledge, science and ethics. It emphasized the importance of reason and experience over doctrinal authority. The Oath marked a high point in Pope Pius X’s campaign against “modernism” which he denounced as heretical. Although Pius X
died in 1914, his very far right influence on Catholic thought control lasted a long time.

In the fullness of time, Pious Dick grew up and became an open-minded professor of historical theology in a “philosophical-theological seminary.” Fortunately he never had to take the Oath Against Modernism. He did occasionally have to confront a couple bishops who strongly resonated with Pius X’s narrow vision and accused him of heretical teachings. One even tried, without success, to get him
fired from the Catholic University of Leuven.

The focus on a strongly enforced orthodoxy in Christianity began actually in 310 CE when Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in his Roman Empire. Although he was not baptized until close to death in 337, Constantine was very pragmatic about Christianity and wanted to use it for his own political agenda.

Constantine called the First Council of Nicaea in 325. The bishops had to attend. Most significantly, the Council of Nicaea issued the very first uniform statement of Christian doctrine, called the Nicene Creed. Anyone who refused to obediently accept the Nicene Creed was excommunicated and exiled…or worse. I have always found it noteworthy that the Nicene Creed says nothing about actual
Christian living, i.e. orthopraxy. After Nicaea “faith” very quickly became a matter of intellectual assent.

Actually, “faith” had its original meaning in the Greek word pistis, which means trust, commitment, and personal engagement. Faith in God, therefore, was a trust in and a commitment to God. Faith in Christ was an engaged commitment to the call and ministry of Jesus. It was a commitment to do the Gospel, to be a follower of Christ. Originally therefore, “faith” meant active living — orthopraxy. Between 383 and 404 CE, however, when Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, the Greek word pistis was translated as the Latin word fides (belief): a matter of intellectual assent.

By the late fourth century and early fifth century the church was becoming an authoritarian institution demanding obedience: faithful assent. The church’s understanding of God, thanks to Bishop Augustine of Hippo’s doctrine of original sin, became that of a heavenly judge seated on HIS throne. Augustine taught that humans have a sinful tainted nature passed on through sexual intercourse. About
five hundred years after Augustine, another bishop, Anselm of Canterbury, made the perspective on God even much worse with his Satisfaction Theory of Atonement. Bishop Anselm said that God was so greatly offended by human sinfulness that God demanded the crucifixion and death of his own son Jesus to atone for humankind’s sin. A strange view of God. A very severe orthodoxy. Anstrange understanding of the historical Jesus.

A more healthy theological perspective — the Jesus perspective — has no sinister view of God but sees God as the Divine Presence. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” we read in the First Epistle of John (1 Jn 4:15). Jesus revealed the Divine Presence within the human. His dream was for people to see the Divine Presence within them. So very different from Bishop Anselm of Canterbury’s vision of an offended and vengeful God up in heaven who chose to disconnect from sinful Humanity.

In his book It’s Time: Challenges to the Doctrine of the Faith, the Australian theologian Michael Morwood stresses: “It is time to break from the worldview of two thousand years ago with its notions of a Supreme overlord God who lived in the heavens and who disconnected access to “Himself” because of some supposed sin by the first human.”

Yes. It is time to make a significant shift in our perspective on “God.” We need to move to an appreciation of the Divine Presence always here, always and everywhere active in an expanding universe, and in the evolution of life on this planet. This changed perspective resonates with contemporary science which finds itself speaking in terms of mystery and wonder, as it tries to explain the how and why of reality. And the problem of evil. Our contemporary understanding of Humanity realizes that Humanity is capable of destroying itself and everything around it.

Indeed, Humanity can give its best expression to the Divine Presence
only when it frees itself from destructive activity and behavior that destroys people and damages the natural world.

Humans can only truly experience and give expression to the Divine Presence within them when they follow the universal life-giving patterns of co-operation and working together. We, not a God in heaven, have to overcome evil. And the only thing needed for the triumph of evil is for good people to stand by and do nothing.


Theology and the Universe Through Ancient Hebrew Eyes


Taking a walk in my yard and staring into the sky on a clear spring night, my thoughts turned first of all to the complex immensity of the universe. What a delight to look at moon and stars after far too many cloudy days and nights.

Almost all of the stars I could see, the astronomers say, are close to Earth in galactic terms. Most are within a hundred light-years or so. Some are visible from 1,000 light-years away. But even then, that’s only 1% of the distance across our galaxy which we call “The Milky Way,” a slowly rotating cluster of more than 200 billion stars! 

Our Milky Way galaxy is one of many. And galaxies like the Milky Way probably have about 17 billion Earth size planets. Just a few years ago, researches estimated that there were between 100 and 200 billion galaxies in our observable universe. Today, however, research astronomers suggests that the total size of the universe is unknown and could very well be infinite, implying there could be an infinite number of galaxies. And, they stress, the universe is still expanding.

Coming back into the house, I thought about Psalm 19 “The heavens declare the glory of God.” I thought as well, with fascination and amazement, that with such an immense and expanding universe perhaps we need to expand our perspectives on Creator God.

Despite our contemporary scientific and technological progress, our religious thinking is sometimes remarkably undeveloped. Much of our official God imagery is rather dated and still influenced by the ancient Hebrew understanding of the universe.

The ancient Hebrews envisaged our universe as a flat Earth with Heaven above and the Underworld below. Humans inhabited Earth during their lifetimes and the Underworld after death.

The flat disk-shaped Earth was immovable and set on a foundation of pillars. Above the Earth was the “firmament” on which the stars, planets, sun and moon revolve. Heaven or the realm of God was understood as a set of chambers just above the firmament. A special passage, like a tunnel through the clouds, led from Earth up to Heaven. The firmament dome surrounded the Earth, with its edge meeting at the horizon. (See Genesis 1:7 “Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so.”) The firmament was supported by “pillars” or “foundations,” thought to be the tops of mountains, whose peaks appeared to touch the sky. The heavens had doors and windows through which God could send rain and let waters above flow down on Earth. And also control waters from below. (See Genesis 7:11 “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month, on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.”)

The Underworld, the realm of the dead was located under the Earth. The most frequent term for this place was Sheol. (See for example Proverbs 9:18 “But he does not know that the spirits of the dead are there, And that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.”) The graves dug by humans represented gateways to the Underworld. Below the Earth and the Underworld were the lower seas or “the Great Deep.”

The ancient Hebrew understanding of the universe had a long-lasting impact on the Christian understanding of the universe. After his death, the  Apostles Creed says that Jesus “descended into the Underworld.” (Most people know only the very faulty translation of the Creed which says Jesus “descended into hell.” Very unfortunate. Good and correct translations are so important.)

The Ascension of Jesus, according to Luke 24:51 and Acts 1:1-9, was a journey in a cloud up to Heaven. In their Hebraic universe understanding, early Christians no doubt pictured the Resurrected Jesus passing through the tunnel in the clouds up to heaven to sit on a throne at the right hand of God the Father.

Much later, in the seventeenth century, elements of the ancient Hebrew universe perspective, maintained by the Catholic Church, led to the trial and condemnation of Galileo Galilei by the Roman Catholic Inquisition in 1633. The reason: Galileo supported heliocentrism in which the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun. 

Some old images last a long time. I remember November 1, 1950, when Pope Pius XII solemnly proclaimed in his apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus, that in was: “…a dogma revealed by God that the immaculate Mother of God, Mary ever virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven.” Body and soul.

Well, today we need to move beyond ancient cosmology and ancient theology based on it. So much of our religious perspective has been anchored in outdated ideas about the universe and planet Earth’s place in the universe.

Clearly, a major paradigm shift is already underway: a major re-visioning of Christianity. The older conventional way of seeing Christianity was dominant for hundreds of years. And, in an important sense, it worked. Nevertheless, over the last thirty to forty years, it has become unpersuasive to millions of people in our culture. Certainly young people do not connect with it. But not just young people. Churches are becoming echo chambers.

In an ever expanding universe, we need an expanded image of Creator God and a broader theology about God. That theology should be like poetry, which takes us to the end of what words and thoughts can do and redirects our minds and hearts. All  religious language must reach beyond itself into a sort of silent awe and amazement. It is like describing being in love. We realize of course that God is always greater than anything we can understand.

Sometimes people get so wrapped up in their religious words and rituals that they miss what those words and rituals are actually pointing toward.

I believe we all have moments of awe, wonder, and excitement that lift us beyond ourselves. We realize, if only for a short time, that something — someone— is touching us very deeply within. We need to spend more time reflecting on those kinds of experiences. Spiritual reflection. Meditation. And this has to be a major part of the so greatly needed re-visioning of Christianity going on in our time.

Well, this is my first reflection after Easter 2023. And it cuts across all religious traditions and addresses the non-religious as well.