September 2, 2018 - Why Liturgy?

When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands.  For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds. So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, "Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?"  He responded, "Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God's commandment but cling to human tradition." He summoned the crowd again and said to them, "Hear me, all of you, and understand.  Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.

"From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile."

Mark 7

At first glance, Jesus seems to diminish – even outright reject – ritual. This is not the only instance of it either.  In similar circumstances, he recited the mantra (circulating among Jewish theologians of the time) that, “the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

But elsewhere, Jesus will overturn the tables of the money-changers in the Temple to protect its sanctity. He clearly participated in liturgy in synagogues and took great personal risk to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot.  His celebration of Passover provided the prelude for his execution. It is a deeply ritualized meal structured around the blessing bread and wine, recited remembrance and incantation. Its Christian successor, the Eucharist, is similarly ritualized

We think of Jesus as being the great teacher of human morality, but I believe this is incorrect.  Jesus was overwhelmingly concerned with telling us about the moral code God follows rather than the moral code we should follow.  In Jesus’s time, both popular culture and theologians believed that God rewarded and punished based on behavior.  Many of us still do – although we hedge it a little.  Time and time again, Jesus said emphatically, “no”: God loves the sinner. Sickness is not a sign of God’s disfavor – God has a special place in His heart for the sick, the meek, the poor and the poor in spirit.  The man blind from birth is not cursed; he is loved. God’s morality is mercy. He tells us this not because we are supposed to emulate God (although it would be nice), but so that we understand and fully appreciate the profound depth and radical nature of God’s love of us.

In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees are implying that God will look unfavorably on those who do not follow ritual – that they are rendering themselves impure. Jesus is not rejecting ritual. His commitment to ritual elsewhere is too strong. I think Jesus is insisting ritual must be followed for the right reasons: not to receive divine reward or avoid divine punishment, but because it is how we approach God in community, because it makes us more resiliently happy, as an expression of a sense of gratitude or creatureliness (as Rudolph Otto would say), or humility. The Pharisees in the story are not wrong to follow ritual – they are “hypocrites” - they follow ritual for the wrong reasons.  

Belief in God remains extremely high in the United States. Rates of daily and weekly prayer are actually increasing.  But participation in liturgy is collapsing at a rate of about1% per year – which is catastrophic. Perhaps we have decided God doesn’t ‘require’ ritual as long as we are altruistic (as long as, “I am a good person”).  The challenge is to wonder if there is another reason to go.

The Glory

Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man.  It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning down toward dynamite.  It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms.  The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet.  Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes.  A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and the trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale.  And then - the glory - so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished.  And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories.  It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world.  It is the mother of all creativeness, and it sets each man separate from other men.     

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

August 26, 2018 - To whom shall we go?

Jesus then said to the Twelve, "Do you also want to leave?" Simon Peter answered him, "Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God."

John 6

Why attend Mass?  Does it make sense to stop attending Mass in response to institutional scandal?

Certainly, part of the reason many attend Mass is to hear an educated voice interpret the Scriptures and challenge us to live the well-lived, whole, abundant life informed by a lifetime of serious commitment to spiritual thought and discipline.  Faith that the Church is effectively identifying and developing such voices has certainly been damaged.  To be blunt, although it has done a better job of weeding out predators among its ranks in the last decade, that is a ridiculously low bar.

On the other hand, as I argued in my book, Faith on a Stone Foundation, there is much, much more going on at Mass than a lecture.

Presumably we attend Mass because we believe it is good for us – an integral part of living the well-lived life.  Presumably we attend Mass because we believe something is done there that connects us to the divine in a way that we are humble enough to know we can’t accomplish on our own. Spirituality and community are not separable.  In today’s Gospel the apostles stay – not because they are commanded to, nor out of loyalty – but out of self-interest.

What is the fundamental problem and how can it be resolved?

The Church’s commitment to celibacy is often cited as the root of the problem.  Celibacy among the clergy is not a command from God. Nor does it come from antiquated notions of purity. (And, no, it’s not a ploy to keep priests from dividing up Church property among heirs.  It is, after all, Church property.)  It is one of several disciplines almost universally observed by clergy across religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Taoism. Historical Judaism had the Nazarite vow. Confucianism requires celibacy while mourning. Only Protestantism and Islam have no tradition of it. It is one of several disciplines uniformly observed those who dedicate themselves, either temporarily or permanently, to a completely focused religious life.  It inevitably goes hand-in-hand with a commitment to other expressions of asceticism: eating sparingly and fasting periodically, avoiding alcohol, living as simply and gently as possible, living communally, relying on alms, avoiding excessive engagement with the world, etc..  For thousands of years and across virtually every culture, it has been asserted that asceticism leads to spiritual insight worth sharing. 

Another virtually universally accepted principle is that asceticism must be practiced consistently and programmatically.  Only then does it have a chance to become second nature, effortless and spontaneous.  Only then does the adherent find spiritual wisdom, and only then can he or she speak with authority. To be celibate but eat without restraint hardly makes sense.

The root of the problem is this: the Church has demanded adherence to some of these as a price of admission, but they cannot be cherrypicked, and they must be motivated by more than mere obedience.  The idea that the Church must dispense with the asceticism altogether is clearly a mistake.

The Church is addressing the symptoms of an exceptionally serious problem.  In the long term, however, I hope the Church rededicates itself to identifying and developing clergy who are committed to the full palette of spiritual disciplines and for the right reasons. 

August 5, 2018 - Abundance

So, they said to him, "What can we do to accomplish the works of God?"
Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent." 

John 6:28-29

This small excerpt from this Sunday’s Gospel is extraordinary.

Last week, we heard about the abundance of God.  The multiplication of loaves and fishes could not be more obvious: God gives a trophy to every child.  We hate that, but He does it. It’s good – truly – to be the best you can be – but don’t expect God to reward you more than he who fails.

The excerpt I’ve chosen from this Sunday’s Gospel reading really says the same thing.  How do you accomplish the works of God?  With simple belief.  Ah ha! So, you have to believe in correct dogma!  Or believe in the Incarnation! Or believe in the existence of God!

No.  You cannot believe something by sheer force of will, or to receive reward or avoid punishment.  More importantly, no loving God would require it.  What Jesus is saying is existential: You cannot accomplish the works of God.  Or better yet – they have been accomplished for you.

It is good news. 

Photo: Cathedral Rock, Arizona