Why the Church?

Sometimes it’s good just to remind ourselves why we are members of the Church.  

First, the fact that the Church exists in its global form is good (these are just my own reflections):  

1.    Only faith can account for human dignity.  Science is good at exhorting us to equality and fairness, but it cannot account for why an individual’s good should not be ignored for the good of the group.  It is no accident that every tyranny in the twentieth century began by outlawing or marginalizing religion before subjugating the individual to the needs of the state.  Each regime was enthusiastically devoted to science.  Collectively, those regimes killed 100 million people in the last century.  (Atheism, not faith, is dangerous.) The Church can defend the conclusions of faith and human dignity in an organized way and with a powerful voice.
2.    If you wanted to reduce the most intense human suffering, how would you do it?  I am thinking now not of reducing the most collective suffering (e.g.: if everyone on Earth had a hangnail, it would equate to a lot of suffering) but of the most painful individual suffering: the death of one’s young child, facing the long-term illness of one’s child or one’s self, or a life without meaning or purpose (which many believe is the worst kind of suffering – and seems to be on a cataclysmic rise).  Faith offers solace in all those circumstances, better and more consistently than anything else, and the Church can support that faith.  
3.    In a related but distinct way, the Church can pool charitable resources and make real inroads in global human suffering.
4.    The Church can commit resources to research the best ways to nurture faith and provide some standardization of that process. 
5.    The Church can nurture an intellectual tradition and develop and defend a coherent theology.  A healthy one will embrace debate and advance human understanding of our relationship to God and how to be whole individuals. A fractured, factional group of churches will seek the middle and the popular. A global Church can challenge things that inevitably arise in modern human societies such as ideological hate, populism (the idea that what has majority support is necessarily moral) and consumerism from a unique perspective.
6.    The Church can be the seedbank of learning when society regresses.
7.    The Church can sponsor the spread of faith and the good things that come from faith in places and in populations that would otherwise be neglected. 
8.    The Church can bring grandeur to liturgy and allow us to approach the divine as a host of millions.

No doubt, the Church has fallen short of these goals often, but the potentiality has always been there and has come to fruition much more often than not.  No secular institution exists that can take over.

What does being part of the Church do for you as an individual?   Some of the traditional answers are compelling, some fall a little flat for me.  Nonetheless:

1.    There is the metaphysical answer: you are part of the Body of Christ and so you belong in the Church.
2.    There is the moral imperative answer: you are morally obligated (via divine command or otherwise) to participate in, and support the Church.
3.    There is the education answer: you and your children learn about faith in a Church setting.
4.    There is the support answer: you receive support in bad times from the Church community.
5.    There is the liturgical answer: as a member of the Church, by definition you participate in liturgy – approaching God in community.
6.    There is the discipline answer: Being part of a Church keeps us honest and engaged.  To rely on yourself to do the hard, lifelong work of faith usually results in complacency and failure.
7.    There is the social responsibility answer:  If you agree that the Church is good, and its members and humanity as a whole would be much worse off if it didn’t exist, we each have an obligation to do our part.   The Church would be dramatically diminished if we opted to let others carry the weight.

Aquinas on Free Will

Aquinas distinguished between two kinds of volition. First, there is the inevitable attraction to those things that you deem perfectly good or desirable. You always will choose what you perceive as perfectly fair, for instance.  Aquinas would say you are not truly “free” to choose otherwise.

Second, there are those things that are deemed partially good or partially desirable.  In those cases, human beings have the capacity to evaluate the pros and cons of each – to deliberate. It is in the weighing of those pros and cons that humanity exerts something akin to freedom.  Of course, we each deliberate as best we can with the facts at our disposal, subconsciously applying our preconceptions and biases.  Although we make a "choice", it is not "free" in a manner for which we can be held morally responsible. 

“Aquinas did not talk about “free will”; the term libera voluntas is found only twice in all his works, and then only in a nontechnical usage.  Rather he spoke of free choice or decision (liberum arbitrium).”[1]

If we do not have free will, and if God is aware of this fact and is reasonably fair-minded, then universal salvation is a reality.  If it is heretical to think so, then St. Aquinas's position is too.    

[1] Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 8, p. 108

October 21, 2018 - Be Humble or God Won't Love You

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." He replied, "What do you wish me to do for you?"  They answered him, "Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left." Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" They said to him, "We can." Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared." When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John. Jesus summoned them and said to them, "You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Mark 10

This overarching theme of this blog is that God is unconditionally loving; in other words, He will love us regardless of what we do or don’t do.  This sounds like the ordinary Christian position, but it is more uncompromising:  God requires nothing – no behavior, no contrition, and no belief – in order to love us. The result is universal salvation and it is almost universally rejected.  God knows we don’t like universal salvation and so innumerable stories and parables criticize us - those who demand that God judge and condemn.  Remember the elder brother in the Prodigal Son story? Remember Jonah and the Ninevites? Remember the lost sheep and the lost coin?  Remember the vineyard workers who started work earliest? Remember the multiplication of the loaves?  All these stories speak of a God whose love is so abundant that it can feed everyone with more leftover, and the people who don’t like that. Yet we always read these stories as requiring something from us: usually altruism.

In this case we read the story to mean that God requires humility.  And certainly this Sunday’s Gospel and last Sunday’s Gospel can be read as instructions to clergy to live an ascetic, simple life and not to organize themselves into hierarchies.  They can also be read as instructions to the laity to give generously to charity (although the story seems to call for something more extreme) and to be humble. And maybe Jesus became incarnate to encourage these traits in us – but it makes Jesus seem a little prosaic. More importantly, that view requires that God is not unconditionally loving; He imposes conditions. It is an inviting interpretation because it allows us to tsk tsk at unpleasant arrogant people, or to critique the Church.  And that’s easy and fun.

What is the true meaning?

It is hidden in plain sight.  Two millennia after the life of Jesus we have become numb to the extraordinary message of the Gospel. God became incarnate! Whether this is true in every respect or true just in the most important ways, this is an extraordinary thing.  And He didn’t become incarnate to establish dominion over humanity.  Scholars say the Jewish innovation was monotheism.  I believe the Jewish innovation was divine regard and love for humanity. Before Abraham’s encounter with God in which God tells Abraham he must not sacrifice his son, the divine was either wholly disinterested in human affairs, or imposed a transactional relationship: you do this for me, and I’ll send rain, or fertility, or let the sun come up again. Today, we hear something extraordinarily different:

For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Think about that.  Or think about how good it is to be humble.

October 14, 2018 - Christianity in a Nutshell

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up,
knelt down before him, and asked him,
"Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Jesus answered him, "Why do you call me good? 
No one is good but God alone.
You know the commandments: You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
you shall not defraud;
honor your father and your mother." 
He replied and said to him,
"Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth."
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him,
"You are lacking in one thing.
Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." 
At that statement his face fell,
and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, 
"How hard it is for those who have wealth 
to enter the kingdom of God!" 
The disciples were amazed at his words.

So Jesus again said to them in reply,
"Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." 
They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves,
"Then who can be saved?"
Jesus looked at them and said,
"For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. 
All things are possible for God." 
Peter began to say to him,
"We have given up everything and followed you." 
Jesus said, "Amen, I say to you,
there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters
or mother or father or children or lands
for my sake and for the sake of the gospel
who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age:
houses and brothers and sisters
and mothers and children and lands,
with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come."

Mark 10

Several interesting things are happening in Sunday’s Gospel.

In the first paragraph, Jesus encounters a man who wishes to know how he can inherit eternal life. He asserts that he has followed the law impeccably. Jesus suggests he needs to do two more things.  The first is to give away all that he has to the poor.  The second is to follow Jesus.

A transactional or dualist approach to faith makes quick work of this passage: God requires that you follow the commandments, give to the poor to improve their economic circumstances, and finally follow Jesus’ example of going around doing kindnesses and being humble.

Alistair McIntyre turned moral philosophy on its head in his 1981 book, After Virtue, by pointing out that while modern moral philosophy is almost always about making the right moral decision in hard cases, in Aristotle’s time, moral philosophy was about cultivating good moral habits and becoming a habitually good person.  Aristotle was not particularly interested in the moral quandaries modern moral philosophers pose for themselves.  Aristotle wanted to know how to be a good, virtuous person.

We can be reasonably sure Jesus followed the Aristotelian model. When Jesus tells anyone to give their money to the poor, it is never to change the economic circumstances of the poor.  Judas thought the opposite and, after the episode with the nard, he was so scandalized by Jesus’ refusal to connect faith to altruism he betrayed him to his executioners.  Jesus is advising the man how to be a whole person. Part of being a whole person is to keep material possessions in perspective and, for the truly committed, to cast them off entirely.    

What does it mean to follow Jesus in this context?  Almost certainly Jesus meant that this man should drop everything and literally follow Jesus in an ascetic life.  This is a uniform prerequisite for the most dedicated spiritual pursuits in every tradition.  The Buddha, for example, named his newborn son “Tether” and abandoned him and his wife forever in order to lead an ascetic life.  Elsewhere, Jesus and Elijah tell prospective disciples to leave their families, leave their livelihoods, and even leave the dead unburied to follow them.  It is not a life for everyone.  It is not a morally responsible choice for everyone.

Then Jesus offers his famous “camel through an eye of a needle” metaphor.  We must never fail to read this passage to the end. Jesus recognizes that no one is good, no one is without sin, no one has successfully ransomed his own life or been worthy of the divine sacrifice represented by Jesus’ incarnation and death.  This is not a threat of hell.  As usual, it is a promise of salvation for every single human being that has ever lived and an invitation to us to rejoice in that rather than to begrudge it being given to those  who we feel might not deserve it.  None of us deserves it.  Our human desire to commodify God’s love and deeply resent its non-exclusivity is the point of a raft of parables and stories:  the multiplication of loaves, the workers in the vineyard, the prodigal son, Jonah, Job, the man blind from birth, the wedding feast, and the Beatitudes to name just a few[1].  Read Luke 4:14-30 carefully: what causes Jesus to be nearly thrown off a cliff in his hometown is not that he declared himself the messiah; it is that he declared that people other than Jews would receive salvation! But we will always skew the interpretations to make God’s love conditional and limited again.  I believe it is that human instinct that got Jesus crucified. Are we really Christians before we come to terms with this?

[1] This is the subject-matter of my book, Faith on a Stone Foundation.

September 30, 2018 - Heck

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'

Mark 9

What did Jesus mean here by ‘sin’?

Most would reflexively answer that he meant an egregious failure to be altruistic – to engage in murder or assault for instance, or to be insensible of the dire needs of others. For this, some of us might agree (on a really bad day), eternal damnation is justifiable and proportionate.

But in Jesus’s time, the concept of sin had not yet been narrowed to ‘being a nice person’. Sin principally meant a violation of one of the 600+ rules of Torah. Those rules certainly included a prohibition against murder and a prescription for altruism (“care for the widow and orphan”) but also included a great many rules we would consider arbitrary and that we violate without hesitation today: keeping kosher and keeping the Sabbath, for instance.  

We might be inclined to take this passage at face value: that some of us are going to hell (undoubtedly assuming we will find a loophole for ourselves).  Some of us will dismiss this passage (and perhaps all of faith) altogether for its apparent harshness. We should look deeper.

So, if not a stern warning to follow Torah impeccably, what might this passage mean?

In the last line, Jesus is quoting the very last line of Chapter 66 of Isaiah. In fact, it is the second-to-last line of the entire Book**.  That part of Isaiah is actually written by an author that biblical scholars call ‘Trito-Isaiah’ – one of three authors of the Book of Isaiah. Almost all of Chapter 66 is an extraordinary, poetic message of hope for the exiled Israelites.  They will return to Jerusalem and they, together with all Gentiles, will enjoy prosperity and peace in this kingdom of God.  According to Trito-Isiah, it is the nasty Canaanites, with their sacrifices to Ba’al, the god of fertility, that will be disgraced - burned outside the city gates in Gehenna, where (ironically) Canaanites traditionally had sacrificed their firstborn to Ba’al on pyres. They have no faith in the one true God.

Another hint appears in the first line of the Gospel passage.  Jesus is warning those who make those “who believe him” to sin.

In the last line (which did not make the Lectionary version), Jesus says if salt loses its taste, you cannot restore it with seasoning.  In other words, there is no substitute for salt. 

We reflexively assume Jesus is warning everyone to be altruistic or suffer terrible consequences at the hands of an angry god. More likely, he is exhorting us to take our faith seriously.   Failure won’t literally land you in Sheol, Hades or Gehenna, but the consequences are nonetheless severe.  Faith should be the most important thing in our lives.  We should not allow anything to get in our way.  There is no substitute for faith once lost.

** interestingly, Jesus is misquoting.  Where Trito-Isaiah says, “their fire”, Jesus says, “the fire”.  

September 23, 2018 - One

Jesus and his disciples left from there and began a journey through Galilee, but he did not wish anyone to know about it.  He was teaching his disciples and telling them, “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”  But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.

They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, he began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”  But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.  Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Taking a child, he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”

Mark 9

The second part of this Sunday’s Gospel invites a commentary of pious drivel.  

Did humanity need Jesus to tell us to be humble or to be kind to children or to each other?  As a firm believer in the inspired nature of Scripture and in the truth of the Incarnation, this is simply unbelievable to me.  

Every major religion comes to the same principal conclusion:  All of creation, including humanity, emerges from the same Source and returns to the same Source. We have a divine inheritance. In Eastern religions, this is usually expressed as full-blown identification: humanity is part of the divine. The self is just part of the great Self in the Hindu Upanishads.  The recognition that the ego is illusion is a major goal in Buddhism.   In Western religions, the divine remains distinct from us, but there is a tight connection: God made us in His image, God declared us His own at Mount Sinai and that He would dwell with and within us, His Son became incarnate – both human and divine, Jacob’s ladder formed a bridge between earth and heaven, and at Jesus’s death the veil between the Holly of Holies and the rest of the world would tear in two.   

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus declares that he will die and rise again. He returns to the Source and emerges from It effortlessly and the implication is that we will too.  This is immediately followed by an exhortation to understand that any sort of dualism is simply wrong: there is no greatest or least, blessed or cursed, there is not even a distinction in the mind of God between sinner and saint.  How would we live if we understood this in our bones?  We would be compassionate - not because it is commanded by a demanding god ready to punish us for failure; and not because it will benefit us in an afterlife, but because we are all one and one with God.  When we receive a child, we receive ourselves, we receive each other, and we receive God.