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Archive for December, 2012

The Pope celebrating Midnight Mass in 2012

The Pope celebrating Midnight Mass in 2012

Sometimes a plea on behalf of God can tell us more about our society and ourselves than God. That the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church would use his homily during the Midnight Mass of Christmas 2012 to ask people to make room for God is hardly news. It is like the President of the United States urging Americans to become better citizens—hardly worth printing such obvious messages. However, behind the Pope’s expected plea is something not immediately obvious about us and our culture in the modern world.

Referring to God, the Pope asked, “Do we have time and space for him? Do we not actually turn away God himself? We begin to do so when we have no time for him. The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full.” It is ironic that the advent of time-saving tools has resulted in our time being “completely full.” This is not necessarily so; rather, valuing the gadgets tends to fill up our lives.

In other words, valuing the self-contained world of things means that exogenous “things” like God do not occur to us. “Even if he seems to knock at the door of our thinking, he has to be explained away. If thinking is to be taken seriously, it must be structured in such a way that the ‘God hypothesis’ becomes superfluous,” the Pope said. Even thinking of God as knocking treats God as a thing, or entity, and such thinking can be informed by a culture ensconced with things. Alternatively, God could be thought of as the experience of transcending things. It is this experience, which involves reaching without being able to grasp, that is excluded by an orientation to ipads and computers, for example.

“There is no room for him,” the Pope said. “Not even in our feelings and desires is there any room for him. We want ourselves. We want what we can seize hold of, we want happiness that is within our reach, we want our plans and purposes to succeed. We are so ‘full’ of ourselves that there is no room left for God.” Pivoting from God as a “him” that is requesting attention—what I would call an object orientation—the Pope came to rest on what lies behind our desires. We want ourselves because we want to the kind of happiness that can lie within our reach. This sort of satisfaction requires being full of ourselves in the sense of taking our realm as the whole rather than as a part. In contrast, transcendent experience eclipses being able to grasp a desired object—indeed, even the concept of an object—and thus treats the human domain or world as relative or a part.

Put another way, we live in a culture in which selfishness and impatience are the norm and our desired reach is not very far from ourselves. It’s all about us. We want ourselves. Not only do we not see God in others; our focus on what we want does not even admit the sheer existence of what others want. In contrast, one byproduct of regular transcending is heightened sensitivity to others because existence itself is felt more.

The connection between perceiving one’s very existence as transparent (i.e., perceptible) and being more oriented to others is also in the Pope’s homily. “Let us ask the Lord that we may become vigilant for his presence, that we may hear how softly yet insistently he knocks at the door of our being and willing. . . . Let us ask that we may make room for him within ourselves, that we may recognise him also in those through whom he speaks to us: children, the suffering, the abandoned, those who are excluded and the poor of this world,” The “door of our being” suggests a more transcendent orientation or “gaze,” a byproduct of which is sensitivity to the existence of others and thus their desires.

For more, please see: Philip Pullella, “Pope Christmas Eve Mass 2012: Find Room For God,” The Huffington Post, December 25, 2012.

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A call by Mormon women in Salt Lake City to wear pants to church had by the end of 2012 stretched around the world and, perhaps all too expectedly, created a backlash that included even death threats. Beyond the issue of what counts as “proper attire” that according to the Mormon Church is “a sign of respect for the Savior”—a matter the Church leaves up to the individual church member—is the “elephant in the living room.” Specifically, is a pathological loss of perspective inherent to religion itself, or merely a symptom of having gotten religion wrong?

I contend that women wearing pants to a church service hardly counts as a big deal, whether in secular or religious terms. In terms of feminism, the “protest” has its most significance. “Wear Pants to Church” was meant to draw attention to the role of women in the Mormon Church. In religious terms, however, drawing attention to gender equality takes the focus off of transcendent experience, wherein the stuff that we think is so important in the world is marginalized or relativized. This is not to say that women who wear pants to church are somehow less religious.

In fact, bashing the women wearing pants on religious grounds only further removes both sides from the opportunity for religious experience. The loss of perspective is particularly salient in the “no” camp. For example, a man at a church in a Salt Lake City suburb said, “Women who want to wear pants, they just don’t know how to follow the Lord.” Besides treating something that is not religious as though it were in fact vital to it, the man had completely lost perspective, as Jesus is nowhere on record as having said as much. Prime facie, what one wears is not so determinant concerning the ability to have a religious experience—although wearing distinctively religious garb can have religious significance in that the purpose of the vestments is to remove one from the world in to the realm of the sacred. Unfortunately for the man, his comment about pants and following the Lord is too profane to be counted as being oriented to the sacred. Indeed, the statement indicates that he had missed an opportunity to engage in transcendent experience, wherein issues that seem important in this world are also transcended.

I contend that religious rightly understood as being of or at least oriented to transcendent experience does not contain or trigger lapses of perspective. Rather, perspective itself is transcended. A “religious practitioner” losing perspective—particularly if doing so is a weapon of sorts—is not really a religious practitioner. Rather, such a person is taking the artifacts of religion as ends rather than as means, then using those ends as means to inflict pain or otherwise harm another person. That religion has so often been abused may raise the question of whether the decadence is in religion itself—or at least whether religion can afford its artifacts.

For instance, the popes who raised troops to fight in the Crusades promised the recruits salvation in fighting for the Lord. The troops no doubt believed that because they believed that Jesus is the Son of God that they would be saved even in killing rather than loving their enemies on the battlefield. Considering the carnage under these “religious” auspices, one might argue that historical Christianity could ill-afford its focus on Christology rather than on principles such as “love thy enemy” and “turn the other cheek.” To be sure, such principles can be viewed as means to trigger a shift of perspective capable of giving rise in turn to a transcendent experience, rather than merely as moral dictates of Christian ethics. Generally speaking, if “Jesus as the Son of God” is used as a weapon, even in passive aggression, the attendant loss of perspective alone signals a lack of religiosity. The question is perhaps whether the loss is inherent to Christianity or a falling away from the real message of the faith to something that is more easily recognizable—even potentially self-idolatrous.

The Mormon man who said that women who want to wear pants just don’t know how to follow the Lord was likely also capable of saying that people who don’t believe that Jesus is a god-man are going to hell. In using Christology as a weapon, the Mormon man would be castigating himself into hell because he would be essentially keeping himself from transcending to something deeper and more fundamental than even theological concepts.

Abstractly speaking, experience is distinct from cognitive belief. Getting caught up on a particular belief, even if it ostensibly concerns a religious idea, can have the opportunity cost of foregone transcendent experience. Put another way, a loss of perspective divides whereas religious experience transcends divisions—being oriented to the unity of a more fundamental, or transcendent, source. Religio literally means, “back to the source.” In contrast, losing perspective by treating little things as vitally important even in religious terms distants one from a more fundamental source wherein the little things are even less significant. Therefore, getting upset about pants, or even particular cognitive beliefs, pushes one away from one’s very source or basis. Such a use of “religion” weakens one, or reflects one’s weak state. Perhaps it could be said that religion is susceptible to being abused by weakness in the name of religion, and that the world too often is blind to the abuse itself—treating it as part of religion and therefore as legitimate and perhaps even laudatory.

For more on the story of Mormon feminists using pants as a symbol, see Timothy Pratt, “Mormon Women Set Out to Take a Stand, in Pants,” The New York Times, December 20, 2012.

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How far can clergy reasonably go in the name of religion? More to the point, are there any limits to what counts as religious? In the wake of the massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, religious leaders “vowed to mobilize their congregants to push for gun control legislation and provide the ground support for politicians willing to take on the gun lobby.” According to the New York Times, the leaders had come to the conclusion that the time had come for “action beyond praying and comforting the families of those killed.” Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Church’s public policy office—the General Board of Church and Society—sent out an “action alert” on gun control to bishops and other church leaders. “I could tell there was this real need, real hunger, at least in my denomination, for there to be some response that is not only prayers and expressions of sadness, but also a call to action. And it came from some who wouldn’t normally care that much about public policy action, but who would be more interested in spiritual responses.” I contend that Winkler missed an opportunity for a more intense or riveting spiritual response than merely praying or being sad (as though this were a religious response) as he moved off religion itself into the realm of political activism. It is possible that the clergy in general undercut their own religious credibility in becoming advocates for gun legislation.

To take sides on a political issue is to be partisan in nature. Even if many people in one’s congregation happen to take the same position, those who take the opposite stance would at the very least feel a slight discomfort in listening to a speech under the subterfuge of a sermon. The New York Times reported at the time that advocating limits on guns was controversial within many religious groups, and many evangelicals were opposed. A CBS News poll taken during the week following the massacre found that while 69 percent of Catholics wanted stricter laws on gun control, only 37 percent of white evangelical Christians agreed. Even in a Catholic homily, promoting gun control could distance or even offend nearly 30 percent of a congregation. The advocacy could be viewed as a manifestation of the priest’s own politics taking advantage of the pulpit.

Therefore, a cleric’s decision to weigh in on a political issue could potentially divide or even rupture a house of worship. At what cost to the worship? Indeed, partisanship itself may be inherently inconsistent with worship. Whereas the latter is transcendent in nature or orientation, political issues are “this worldly” and thus eclipse transcendence. Jim Winkler not only risked introducing division into Methodist churches; he also missed the opportunity for transcendence beyond that which comes with prayer. In other words, he was going off a false dichotomy.

Admittedly, there was something unifying, and thus holistic, in the gathering of clergy from the three Abrahamic religions (and various sects thereof) at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. exactly one week after the shooting. It might be tempting to conflate this unity with that which is presumed through faith to go along with transcendence (e.g., an attribute of God or of the experience itself). There is something “other worldly” about the church bells including on toll for the 20 year-old gunman who committed suicide after having killed 20 children and 8 adults at the school. That is to say, including him changes the perspective to one that is more holistic, even transcendent, because he is grouped in with the victims. Experiencing the toll for the shooter can be transcendent because the symbolic act goes beyond “the ways of this world” in treating humanity itself as a part rather than the whole. The unity of various religions taking part would have enhanced the significance of the transcendence were it, rather than gun control or even sadness for the victims, emphasized by the clergy. Had they been oriented to changing the perspective to one that is more transcendent, they would have remained within the religious domain.  In fact, they would have been promoting it! Using the occasion to lobby or organize for gun-control legislation, on the other hand, shifted attention away from the more transcendent perspective onto one that is divisive or at least all too familiar in terms of partisan divisions.

Generally speaking, a religious perspective that is transcendent via symbol, myth or ritual can situate a horrible situation that seems total. Including the two “sides” of a conflict in a way that erases sides altogether by adding a transcendent dimension—which relativizes the conflict itself—can demonstrate the utility of transcendent experience itself, and thus religion. The point is not forgiveness. That new moral implications can ensue is also not the point. Nor does it mean that religion is morality (or even is bound to moral principles). Drawing a moral lesson from a tragedy is not in itself religious. Worse still, taking a side and promoting it—which from a religious angle could be categorized under self-idolatry—treats the conflict or issue itself as the background or basis rather than as relative or partial. Perhaps in wanting to cover more ground, the clergy oriented to gun-control legislation may actually wind up with less from the standpoint of their own native fauna. In wanting more, maybe we betray ourselves and, in so doing, can actually wind up with less.

For more, please see Laurie Goodstein, “Religious Leaders Push Congregants on Gun Control, Sensing a Watershed Moment,” The New York Times, December 20, 2012.

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On December 21, 2012—the day of the winter solstice—the 5,125 year cycle known as the Long Count in the Mayan calendar ends. Russia, which as a “minister of emergency situations,” said on November 30 2012 that he had access to “methods of monitoring what is occurring on the planet Earth” and that he could confirm with confidence that the world was not shortly to end. A top official of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia’s “chief sanitary doctor” echoed the minister’s words to calm the Russian masses, which have a penchant for superstition.

Lest the penchant be presumed limited to Russia, in France access to Bugarach mountain was to be blocked on the “fateful day” out of concern that visitors would inundate the area due to its “sacred” character. Meanwhile, the patriarch of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church issued a statement assuring the faithful that “doomsday is sure to come,” but that it will be provoked by the moral decline of mankind, not the “so-called parade of planets or the end of the Mayan calendar.” That the patriarch knew that doomsday is sure to come is no less of a dogmatic claim for him to make than those of the believers in the Mayan calendar. Even so, making a claim that is in the mainstream or at least is in line with a biblical basis is typically not viewed as an over-stretch of human reason beyond its capacity.

More generally, religious belief, being treated as though it were known (i.e., as a fact of empirical knowledge), can be regarded as an encroachment by human beings beyond our native fauna. Even were there a “doomsday” by supernatural design or “intent” revealed to us, we could not say for certain that we had interpreted the signs correctly. Particularly troubling is the presumption of being correct regarding a domain that is inherently transcendent. The habit at issue is the willingness to overlook or ignore the fallacy wherein one can know what lies inherently beyond human cognition and perception. Rather than being rooted in religion, the nature of the error is epistemological—based on what the human mind can know.

Whether it is known that the world will end at the end of the Mayan calendar or as a religious Armageddon, the sheer certainty in the declaration itself is almost always overlooked or taken for granted rather than treated as a problem—even a sickness. Put another way, the old sin of pride may be all over the place in the form of presumption. The “sin” is in the asserting itself, rather than the content of that which one is asserting. Whether that content seems odd or is familiar, the presumption is the same in that it goes beyond human capacity as though with impunity.

 

 

For more on superstition based on the Mayan calendar, see Ellen Barry’s report, “In Panicky Russia, It’s Official: End of World Is Not Near” in the New York Times (December 2, 2012). http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/02/world/europe/mayan-end-of-world-stirs-panic-in-russia-and-elsewhere.html

 

 

 

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