May 28, 2017 - Suffering

Rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ,
so that when his glory is revealed
you may also rejoice exultantly.
If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you,
for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.
But let no one among you be made to suffer
as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as an intriguer.
But whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed
but glorify God because of the name.

1 Peter 4:13-16 (Second Reading)

At first glance, this looks like the worst fluff.  ‘Suffer for faith and you will be rewarded in heaven.’  But notice that the author doesn’t say that at all.  If you suffer, he says, you can “rejoice exultantly,” the Spirit of glory and God will rest on you, and you will be “blessed”.  It doesn’t sound like suffering is rewarded in any but the most ephemeral ways.

In the passage immediately preceding this week’s Gospel, Jesus predicts that he will be left alone to suffer his fate:

Behold, the time is coming, yes, and has now come, that you will be scattered, everyone to his own place, and you will leave me alone. 

But he will take comfort in the knowledge that God is with him:

Yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me. I have told you these things, that in me you may have peace. (John 16:32-33)

Faith is not a good luck charm or a promise of divine intervention.  Faith is the belief that you are never really alone.  That provide more peace than any intervention. God is taking the advice of palliative care pioneer, Elisabeth K├╝bler Ross: “Don’t just do something, stand there.”


The eleven disciples went to Galilee,
to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.
When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.
Then Jesus approached and said to them,
"All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age."

Matthew 28:16-20

What catches the eye in this story is that, in the very process of worshiping the risen Jesus, the author notes, “but they doubted.”  This occurs just three verses before the end of the entire Gospel!  It was immediately prefaced with a believable alternate explanation of the Resurrection: Matthew says the chief priests encouraged the guards to tell the people Jesus’s body was stolen by his disciples, “and that this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.” (Matthew 28:11-15)

The theme of doubt around the Resurrection appears in all four Gospels:

In the Gospel of Mark, Mary Magdalene’s story of encountering the risen Jesus, reported to the apostles, is dismissed: “they would not believe it.” (Mark 16:11) When he appears on the road to two disciples and they tell the apostles, again Mark records, “but they did not believe them.”  (Mark 16:13) Jesus finally appears to all eleven apostles and, “he upbraided them for their unbelief,” even as he commissions them to spread the Gospel throughout the world. (Mark 16:14)

In Luke, Mary Magdalene’s story is corroborated by two other women but receives even less respect: “but these words seemed to them as an idle tale and they did not believe them.” (Luke 24:11) The story of the two disciples appears in Luke as well, and Jesus criticizes the two harshly for not recognizing him: “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25).  When Jesus appears to the apostles, he has to show them the nail wounds in his hands and feet and they, “still disbelieved for joy.” (Luke 24:41) 

In the Gospel of John, disbelief is concentrated and personified exclusively in Doubting Thomas who demands to see Jesus’s wounds and is scolded for requiring proof. (John 20:26-29)

What are the authors of Scripture trying to convey by this?  One explanation is that the Gospels writers are inviting us to look deeper.  The Resurrection story is not supposed to be a proof of God’s existence – you don’t use an account as proof if the eyewitnesses themselves remain skeptical and even offer an alternate explanation. God’s existence is treated as a given in each of these narratives.  No, the Resurrection is intended to assert something else.     

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason

New Atheist Sam Harris, insists that faith is responsible for the vast majority of the atrocities that have occurred in history, and that faith is driving humanity towards apocalypse:

A glance at history, or at the pages of any newspaper, reveals that ideas which divide one group of human beings from another, only to unite them in slaughter, generally have their roots in religion. (The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason p.12)

Of course, Adolph Hitler, Mao Tse Tung and Joseph Stalin were together responsible for the death of between 80 and 109 million non-combatants.

Harris believes these deaths ought to be blamed on faith.  His reasoning?

Consider the millions of people who were killed by Stalin and Mao: although these tyrants paid lip service to rationality, communism was little more than a political religion … Even though their beliefs did not reach beyond this world, they were both cultic and irrational. (p.79) 

The rise of Nazism in Germany required much in the way of “uncritical loyalty.”  Beyond the abject (and religious) loyalty to Hitler, the Holocaust emerged out of people’s acceptance of some very implausible ideas.  (p.100, italics in the original)

Harris’s extraordinary assertions aside, these men were all atheists and socialists.  For their recent arrival on the world stage, these ideologies certainly have a disproportionate volume of blood on their hands.  This is without taking in account Pol Pot of the Khmer Rouge who was responsible for another two million lives lost – 25% of the Cambodian population.    

What should this tell us about atheism and socialism?

Whenever you hear that people have begun killing noncombatants intentionally and indiscriminately, ask yourself what dogma stands at their backs. What do these freshly minted killers believe?  You will find that it is always – always – preposterous. (p.106)

Of course, I am using Harris's propensity for vitriol and overstatement against him. Neither atheism nor socialism inevitably results in holocausts. But Harris’s view on religion clearly does not bear scrutiny.

May 21, 2017 - A Reason for Your Hope

Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.
Always be ready to give an explanation
to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,
but do it with gentleness and reverence.

Peter 3:15

It sounds like Peter is exhorting us to be ready to offer proofs of God's existence. But proof-seeking runs counter to other passages in Scripture (See April 23, 2017 - Proof of God's Existence) and we must acknowledge that it is not possible to objectively prove (or disprove) God's existence.  

Perhaps Peter is asking us to justify how faith's values differ from secular values. But their content is virtually identical: both encourage kindness, charity, and humility. 

The difference may be in what motivates us.  Both the faithful and secular people are motivated by the human instinct toward altruism, we want to avoid punishment and receive reward (whether its earthly or otherwise), and we want to be well regarded.

But Peter's exhortation suggests another motivation exclusive to people of faith:  the impulse to sanctify ourselves and make ourselves worthy of the divine attention humanity receives. This would be nonsensical to an atheist, but to a person of faith may well be the principal aim of a well-lived life.

Love (Part Two)

Can a woman forget her nursing child,
that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb?
Yes, these may forget,
yet I will not forget you!
Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.

Isaiah 49:15-16

Purely secular value systems favor utilitarianism.*  If we insist that only that which is measurable can have value, and maximizing happiness is the aim of morality, then morality becomes simple math: the happiness of two people must outweigh the happiness of one, because two is greater than one.  Inevitably, we are each one born into servitude to the many - which doesn't sound so bad when we use the euphemism, "the common good".

A faith-based value system begins with the premise that every individual is the beloved child of God.  Our value is not cumulative and simple math does not apply: if you touch a second flame to a lit candle, the flame does not double.

Countless Scriptural passages attest to this, in addition to the passage from Isaiah, above:

Aren’t two sparrows sold for an Assarion coin? Not one of them falls on the ground apart from your Father’s will, but the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Therefore, don’t be afraid. You are of more value than many sparrows.  Matthew 10:29-31

He told them this parable. “Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it? When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing. Luke 15:3-5

Or what woman, if she had ten drachma coins, if she lost one drachma coin, wouldn’t light a lamp, sweep the house, and seek diligently until she found it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the drachma which I had lost.’ Luke 15: 8-10

Even the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is usually seen as a story about divine condemnation of an entire city, actually stands for the opposite. The vast majority of the text is taken up by a dialogue in which God agrees that He would spare the city if fewer and fewer innocents might be caught up in the maelstrom. Finally, God would spare the city if as few as ten people would be unjustly condemned (and the implication is that even one would do it). 

This is the basis of Christian love.  It does not require productivity or net benefit to the common good.  You can be an overwhelming burden on the common good and make many, many people unhappy and still be the object of dignity and love.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love never fails. 

Image: St. Joseph's Abbey, Spencer, Massachusetts

* I am taking the view that deontological arguments fail.

1 Corinthians 13 - Love (Part One)

If I speak with the languages of men and of angels, but don’t have love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but don’t have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my goods to feed the poor and if I give my body to be burned, but don’t have love, it profits me nothing.

Love is patient and is kind. Love doesn’t envy. Love doesn’t brag, is not proud, doesn’t behave itself inappropriately, doesn’t seek its own way, is not provoked, takes no account of evil; doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love never fails. 

1 Corinthians 13:1-8

You cannot be commanded to love. Obligatory love is not love.  We can certainly be required to act in a way that imitates love, but that is not love.  If I give away everything to feed the poor, and I don't do it out of true love, it profits me nothing!  This ought to offend everyone who equates faith with good conduct. Something more is possible.  In the first paragraph, Paul is exhorting us to really fall in love with one another.  

Faith is not a value system; faith is a belief system.  Certainly, that belief system includes belief in the existence of God and (for Christians) belief that Jesus accomplished something by his life and death that was beyond our ability. It also includes the belief that each of us is unequivocally and irrevocably a beloved child of God.  If we truly believe that, as we must, we see each other with new eyes.  Then we are able to give life to Paul's second paragraph.


Brothers and sisters:
If you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
Now the works of the flesh are obvious:
immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry,
sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy,
outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness,
dissensions, factions, occasions of envy,
drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. …
In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, generosity,
faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Against such there is no law.
Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires.
If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.

Galatians 5:18-25

We are a consequentialist culture, dismissing as antiquated any objection to “victimless crimes” even if they clearly diminish us.  My legal education tells me unequivocally that it would be inappropriate to make illegal “impurity” and the other characteristics Paul condemns, but I’m not ready to dismiss him altogether.  I suspect he is right that if we fully appreciated our status as children of God we would be more inclined to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and even self-control - not because they bear good consequences - but because we are proud of who we are.

May 14, 2017 - Charity

As the number of disciples continued to grow,
the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews
because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.
So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said,
"It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table.
Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men,
filled with the Spirit and wisdom,
whom we shall appoint to this task,
whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer
and to the ministry of the word."
The proposal was acceptable to the whole community,
so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit,
also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas,
and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism.
They presented these men to the apostles
who prayed and laid hands on them.

Acts 6:1-7

This blog is critical of placing too much emphasis on the moral aspects of Scripture.  The theme of my book is that if we do not have free will and God is just, then He cannot reward and punish us according to our deeds or beliefs.  The focus on faith should be on transcendent concerns rather than moral ones.  This is in direct contradiction to popular culture theology and the preeminent academic theology of our day which generally believes that if you are a “good person” you have discharged the principal obligations of faith.

A lot of interesting things are happening in this Sunday’s first reading.  Evidently, the Hellenists (those who did not start as Jews before converting to Christianity) feel they are being shortchanged in how a “daily distribution” to needy widows is being allocated.  

The apostles treat this charitable obligation as decidedly second-rate and ancillary.  Their language indicates dismissiveness.  They create a second tier of clergy - deacons – to administer this charity because, "It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table.”

There is no question that faith has a moral component. But kindness is so uncontroversial, so universally accepted, and so much more easily spoken of than transcendence, that it can quickly use up all the air in the room and take an inappropriately central position in faith.

Image: St. Joseph's Abbey, Spencer, Massachusetts

May 3, 2017 - I Am the Way

Jesus said to Thomas, "I am the way and the truth and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.

John 14:6

This passage has been used for centuries as an excuse for Christian exceptionalism.  Jesus, it is argued, is saying that you must be a Christian in order to be saved.  I argue in my book that, if we do not have free will as science suggests, then what we believe or don’t believe is purely the product of our nature and nurture, and a just God would not reward or punish us according to what we cannot control. Christian exceptionalism is therefore not possible.

Two other possibilities present themselves:

The first is that Jesus is saying that his birth, death and resurrection accomplished something necessary to fulfill God’s covenant.  Without him, the promise made to all of humanity at Mount Sinai does not come to full fruition.  But then the benefits of incarnation are universal.  We don’t have to inclined to choose the way; the way has been opened whether we believe it or not and we are all happily compelled to walk it.

The second is that Jesus offers some information about God without which it is impossible to understand our relationship to Him. Jesus’s principal message was one of forgiveness.  We typically interpret that to mean sin avoidance, but Jesus really didn’t seem nearly as interested in avoiding sin as forgiving it.  It would have been nice, for instance, if Jesus told Judas not to betray him, or to tell Peter precisely the circumstances under which Peter could avoid betraying him.  It would have been nice if God didn’t harden Pharaoh’s heart multiple times in Exodus, essentially leading him into villainy.  We also interpret Jesus’s focus on forgiveness to mean an imperative that we forgive.  In fact, it appears Jesus was most often describing God’s decision to forgive (grace).  I believe it is God’s radical forgiveness and grace that is the necessary piece to complete the puzzle and understand our relationship to God. That insight is the only way to the Father.

May 7, 2017 - The Good Shepherd

Jesus said:
"Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate
but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.
But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice,
as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has driven out all his own,
he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him,
because they recognize his voice.
But they will not follow a stranger;
they will run away from him,
because they do not recognize the voice of strangers."
Although Jesus used this figure of speech,
the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.

So Jesus said again, "Amen, amen, I say to you,
I am the gate for the sheep.
All who came before me are thieves and robbers,
but the sheep did not listen to them.
I am the gate.
Whoever enters through me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture.
A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;
I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly."

John 10:1-10

Two weeks ago, in connection with the story of Doubting Thomas, I asserted that faith (along with morality and politics) is the product of intuition much more than it is the product of rationality. (April 23, 2017 – Proof of God’s Existence) We have a better chance of understanding the nature of our relationship to God if we abandon proof-seeking and embrace what our deepest intuition is telling us.

Today’s Gospel seems to confirm that.  Jesus does not suggest that the shepherd provides proofs or rational arguments to gain the trust of the sheep.  Instead, the sheep simply know his voice. 

Correspondingly, Jesus says false prophets can be identified by the red flags that are run up in the hearts of the faithful at the sound of their teaching. 

In Matthew 7:15, Jesus says false prophets can be identified by the effect of their teaching: “By their fruits you will know them.”  In contrast to false prophets, Jesus leads us to pasture -  again, probably not something that can be measured in worldly metrics - but rather that which nourishes, supports our spiritual lives and is marked by abundance.

Image: the Jordan River