Archive for the ‘Christian Theology’ Category

In the First Great Awakening, which occurred in colonial British America in the 1730s and 40s, 98 schisms took place in Congregational churches in New England. “New Lights,” who were “awakened” to a heightened personal experience of needing to be redeemed by Jesus Christ, split from the “traditionalists,” who refused to relegate ritual and ceremony. By 1800, a further splintering occurred as many Congregational churches in New England had shifted to a Unitarian basis. Even by the 1750s, several Congregational preachers were preaching universal salvation—a teaching that put those preachers at odds with those of the First Great Awakening. In theory, a New England town could have three Congregational churches (or two plus a Unitarian church) standing side by side on the central green. At the time of any of the schisms, the particular basis of the split must have seemed quite important to Christianity.

More than two hundred years later, the significance of the “conflict” between personal experience and ritual would long have passed, at least with respect to any demand to split off from an established denomination. In the first couple decades of the twentieth century, the matter deemed significant in this sense concerned “social issues,” especially that of homosexuality.

For example, the leadership and two-thirds of the laity of the Episcopal diocese of South Carolina split off from the Episcopal Church in November 2012 due to the denomination’s approval of same-sex unions and the ordination of gay clergy. The break-away conservative group filed suit in a South Carolina court to get ownership of 35 parishes. The matter was also in federal court, where the conservative break-away group argued that the freedom of religion plank of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives the group the right to leave the denomination. “We have the freedom to remove ourselves,” Rev. James Lewis of the break-away group said. That argument is a red herring, however.

The freedom of religion language in the First Amendment maintains that the government cannot tell a citizen (or resident) which religion he or she must sign up with or practice. The language does not apply to the infighting within a denomination. Freedom of association would be a stronger basis for that, but even that constitutional basis would not guarantee that the church property goes along with the dissenters. “We strongly agree with the freedom of religion and the freedom of these folks to go their own way,” Matthew McGill, a lawyer representing the Episcopal Church said. “You simply can’t take it with you.” In other words, freedom to form a new association does not entail the freedom to assume ownership rights of the property of the pre-existing group. In actuality, the issue before the courts is property rights.

As traumatic as the “social issue” ecclesiastical splits may seem in its time, it is by no means the case that the contentious issue will still divide churches even fifty years later. The fighting itself, however, could hurt the image of Christianity, though any long-term decline in membership would likely have more to do with recognition of the cumulative splits—all of which seemed vital at one time only to have this perception defeated by time itself. Put another way, the ecclesiastical splits due to gay rights may someday look just as unnecessary as the splitting during the First Great Awakening looked by the time of the “social issue” splits. For people to assume such significance in matters whose gravity passes so easily with time reflects negatively on the strength of their religion, especially if the fighting takes place in and through the religion. As Nietzsche would say, such a religion would have to be human, all too human.

For more, please see Valerie Bauerlein’s article, “Church Fight Heads to Court,” in the Wall Street Journal of April 14, 2013. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324010704578418983895885100.html?mod=ITP_pageone_1

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The question can be unpacked, as religion consists of a number of elements, only some of which may be innate. First, does the human brain have a proclivity to make and find meaning in myth, or sacred narrative? Claude Levi-Strauss thought so. He theorized that myth is a way in which the mind holds without reconciling opposites such as life and death. For example, the notion of resurrection maintains the duality of life and death without resolving their opposition. The resurrected Christ walks through a door but is hungry and eats a fish. The tension in the myth is not resolved; rather, the opposition between life and death is transcended. It is the human discomfort with unresolved basic oppositions that spurs the mind on to mythmaking, according the Levi-Strauss. Just because myth or sacred narrative (e.g., the Passion story) serves a purpose does not mean that mythmaking or believing in a living myth is innate. Automobiles serve a purpose in transporting humans, but cars are not innate. So too, religious story may be an external tool. In fact, a religion’s mythology or sacred story can be distinguished from dreams, which are innate. In other words, myths are formed externally, whereas dreams are entirely manufactured by the mind during sleep. For example, a myth could be created out of a conversation between co-religionists. Their own agendas, and at the very least their intentions, can impact the story. Peter’s followers may have added the part about Jesus giving the keys to Peter, for example. Such strategizing makes the myth at least in part artificial. Moreover, the content of some myths is different from the world in which we live that myth-making may be artificial rather than natural. It is not as if the notion of the world beginning as an egg, as in Hinduism, automatically occurs to Hindu children. The myth must be conveyed externally.

Second, the act of worship can be distinguished from the cognitive activity in myth-making and believing. Do humans have an innate proclivity to worship? Here belief in the object to be worshipped can be distinguished from worshipping as an activity. Taking the object itself, are the divine attributes and descriptions innate or manufactured? The answer may be found by investigating whether young children untouched by a religion think about a transcendent object of the sort that would be worshipped. I don’t know the answer to this question, but I suspect that the developed theologies of the established religions do not naturally spring from young minds untouched by religious instruction.

For example, viewing God as “Father” does not automatically follow from a sense of God as a power or even as the source of Creation. We don’t view seeds as the fathers of plants. We don’t think of lava as the father of a volcano. To project the concept of father onto metaphysical concepts is anthropomorphic, which means ascribing human characteristics or relations to non-human objects. Even to say “that plant is happy there” is anthropomorphic. To apply a human characteristic to something not of the world is even more of a stretched. Hume suggests that it is difficult for the human mind to hold on to an idea of invisible divine simplicity (e.g. God as the One—Plotinus’s notion) that the mind adds anthropomorphic “layers” onto the pure idea. A religion thus becomes increasingly about us until it is finally discredited as too much “of the world.”

One might be tempted to conclude that divine simplicity is therefore innate. However, if such an idea is difficult for a human mind to embrace, it is not likely that the idea comes from the mind. Rather, it is more likely external to the mind, interlarded from an external source such as a parent or religious teacher. If the human mind naturally has any internally-sourced sense of a religious or spiritual phenomenon, thing or entity, it is likely vague and mostly undefined in a cognitive sense. It is unlikely that “God is one in essence” would spontaneously dawn on a boy as he walks through the woods or down a residential street. Instead, such a lad might be inclined to wonder, and thus have a sense of mystery. “Why does the sun move so regularly?” he might wonder. “Is there a bigger force behind it? Will the sun always rise and set? What happens to me after I die? Grandma died—is she somewhere hidden? I’m just a boy. Is there something larger out there that I don’t see?” The boy might have a sense of himself and even the world he knows as somehow part of something bigger, as when he looks out at all the stars on a clear warm night. “Is there any limit? Any end?” He might have a sense of himself as small relative to what he observes, whether it be the myriad of stars or a powerful storm. He would be apt to have awe for the infinity and power, respectively, even though you or I might tell him that neither infinite space nor forces of nature are themselves divine. When he gets older, he might explain that what he had observed as a child gave him an intuitive sense of bigness, and thus of beyondness. From this standpoint, the emphasis that some religions place on creed is rather contrived, or artificial in nature.

Even if some vague sense of something divine or transcendent comes naturally to mind in the development of the human mind that is untouched by religious instruction, one can ask whether worship activity, such as devotion other than how one would be devoted to one’s parents or family, for instance, is innate. If it is, how much emphasis does the worshipper naturally give to the activity relative to the object? In institutional religions, the tendency is to emphasize the nature of the object even at the expense of the worship experience. Lectures about the deity can cut into worship time in a religious service. So much emphasis can be placed on cognitive assent to a description of the deity that actual communing with it, such as just after taking communion in the Mass, can easily be marginalized.

Before my teenage years, I was raised largely outside of organized religion. The morality stories of Jesus were about all I got from an occasional Sunday School lesson at a Congregational Church in which theology was all but absent. My mother’s parents had both been raised Quaker, which stresses the personal or private aspect of spirituality. My grandfather practiced charity toward neighbor, such as by delivering free produce and eggs to friends on Sundays. Honesty was among the most important virtues, as was genuineness and tolerance. Theology was not required in order to instill these virtues. As a young teenager, I attended a Unitarian Universalist Society for a few years with my parents. Religion was even less in evidence in Sunday School there, as “UUism” was then dominated by humanism. When I was a freshman in high school, I attended Catholic Mass with friends on a regular basis. I found the ritual completely novel and interesting. Watching the laity kneel after receiving communion, I saw sustained and concentrated worship in terms of trying to commune in the sense of transcending. While in college, I became a member of the Catholic Church. In graduate school, I was so interested in the religion thing I had discovered that I thought seriously about a religious vocation. Thinking I would want to eventually marry, I joined the Episcopalians. However, I did not get a sense of worshipping after communion that I had witnessed in Catholic churches.

My religious or spiritual experience has not been limited to institutional religion. For two years while I was in High School, I practiced Transcendental Meditation on a regular basis. Although repeating a mantra (a word without meaning) to give one’s mind a rest from thinking (i.e., “pure consciousness”) is not in my view religious or spiritual, I would eventually apply the technique during the “corpse pose” at the end of yoga sessions. I began attending yoga sessions when I was in graduate school. Depending on how the instructor handles the practice and especially the final resting pose, yoga can even be explicitly spiritual without any hint of the existence of the world religions. It dawned on me that institutional religion is not inevitable, even within the religious or spiritual domain. In fact, the institutional religions may not be very good at providing dedicated worship activity.

For example, in the Mass the worshipping just after the Body of Christ is ingested is typically truncated in favor of ending the Mass and getting outside. The ritual, I concluded, is prep rather than the point, but this point had somehow been lost along the way. Similar to Hume’s theory that it is difficult for the mind to hold onto an idea of divine simplicity, it may be difficult for the mind to stay in a pure or unadulterated worship experience. The mind tends to wander, or we get bored or tired reaching to transcend in a religious sense. If so, the worshipping activity is not innate; rather, it must be learned and practiced, not the least of which through socialization.

My experience in institutional religion spanned from the religious left to the traditionalists in Christianity (i.e., not counting UUism), with occasional attendance of “mainstream” Protestant denominations including evangelical meta-churches. In Catholicism alone, my experience ran from the post-Vatican II movement back to the hegemony of the traditionalists. The theology and rituals I was taught were so different from my boyhood “religious wondering” and the spirituality in yoga practice that I have concluded that theology and worshipping must be artificial rather than innate. Put another way, the cognitive and praxis content of a revealed religion is so qualitatively different (i.e., in kind) from the wondering and activity of a child or young adult unschooled in any institutional religion and the spirituality outside the religions that an organized religion is likely constructed rather than natural or innate.

Lest be objected that religious worship is too universal to be a function of externals, religiosity has been far from universal. Only 15 percent of Europeans attend weekly religious services, while most people are just fine leading a secular life. Among hunter-gatherers, the !Kung bushmen of southwestern Africa have a highly developed religious belief-system, while the Hadza of eastern Africa have minimal religion and do not believe in an afterlife. Were the idea of a deity and the action of worshiping innate, the Hadza (and Europeans) would instinctively comply. Prosperity and security would not be inversely related to religiosity, and rough conditions in primitive societies and financial inequality in modern ones would not be associated with increasing religious worship.

Therefore, just as theological concepts such as Trinity do not just dawn on people who are unfamiliar with Christian theology, there is probably not a worshipping instinct in the human brain either. Without being socialized into an organized religion, a person is not apt to spontaneously reconstruct an existing theology or start worshipping. I did not come even close to worshipping when I “wondered” as a kid about “big questions” and had a sense of being a limited being compared with the universe and life itself. Realizing I will die one day and wondering what that means, it did not even occur to me to pray to a divine being so I could continue existing after death or even go to heaven. Belief in an afterlife is not innate to the human mind; the reason many people hold such a belief is probably psychological in nature. Specific worshipping via ritual, including prayer, undoubtedly comes from socialization. Children of Catholic parents are taught that the Virgin Mary exists and should be used as an intercessor in prayer. The children are taught how to pray.

The conclusions here do not mean that I have rejected religious or spiritual experience. Just because I do not view them as a necessary part of me or as obligatory does not mean that I recognize no value in worship. Having been socialized into specific worshipping techniques, I have found value in the experience. From my experience, I have found that the specific characteristics of the object being worshipped are less important than that the yearning to transcend in the direction of the mysterious beyond, or “beyondness,” is the worshipper’s sustained focus during the activity. I have found that regular experiencing of this sort heightens sensitivity outside of the worshipping experience. The world having been transcended is seen clearer or more distinctly, hence the heightened sensitivity to subtle things such as another person’s change in mood. The added sensitivity in turn naturally renders the regular worshipper more compassionate to others. Rather than being innate, the external tool impacts something natural. So there is value in a worship activity even though it is difficult for the human mind to do. While theology provides a background or context for the activity, worshipping can transcend even theological concepts of God. Those concepts may be useful as a launching pad, after which concentration can turn to the experience itself—the action of yearning to transcend. If I am right, it is the experience of yearning that is the religious experience, with compassion as a byproduct.


For additional material, see Gregory Paul’s “Why Belief in God Is Not Innate,” in the Wall Street Journal of April 10, 2013. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304222504575173890997846742.html

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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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Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, noted in 2012 just after his Church rejected legislation that would have allowed women to become bishops that a “lot of explaining” would be necessary. For the Church of England “undoubtedly” lost a “measure of credibility” societally as a result. “We have, to put it very bluntly, a lot of explaining to do,” he told the Church’s General Synod. “Whatever the motivation for voting yesterday whatever the theological principle on which people acted and spoke, the fact remains that a great deal of this discussion is not intelligible to our wider society. Worse than that, it seems as if we are willfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of that wider society.” As a result, “we have . . . undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility in our society.” Some commentators even suggested that the Christian sect known as the Anglican Church might lose appreciable membership as a result. While such a prediction may be exaggerated, Williams’ comments can be unpacked for greater insight.

 general synod

First, whenever an organization breaches societal norms, it can be expected that the group suffers a loss of credibility, or reputational capital, as a result. This is true of entities in business and government as well as religion. When the breach is on a well-established norm, the loss of credibility can effectively relegate the organization in terms even of being taken seriously.

Second, Williams points to “theological principle” as a possible rationale behind the laity chamber’s rejection of the proposal. It is interesting that the theological point was not an obstacle in the clerical chamber, as the proposal passed there. It can be asked, however, whether the tradition passed down that Jesus had only male disciples is indeed a theological principle. If so, would a preference for bread at breakfast be a theological principle for a Christian were Jesus said to have only eaten bread in the morning? Theologically, if Jesus is “fully human, fully divine,” then would his particular habits while on earth necessarily be theological in nature if they are in regard to the “fully human” side? Jesus walking through a door after his resurrection can be taken as theological in nature, whereas absent any theological rationale on his part for having a bunch of guys as disciples, it could have been a reflection of the culture at the time. Were Mary Magdalene one of the disciples, the assumed theological principle would turn out to be wrong, which would have even greater implications for historical Christianity in that it will have been wrong on something it regarded as theological. In short, the “fact” that Jesus walked around historically introduces non-theological reasons for some of his decisions.

Third, the argument that a theological rationale should have priority over a well-established cultural norm introduces complexities. On the one hand, God’s omnipotence, or power, cannot by definition be limited to human mores or even ethical principles. The Book of Job bears this point out. God does not exactly allow Job to be treated ethically by the devil. On the other hand, the theological domain transcends a human’s grasp. To the extent that allowing a theological principle to trump a societal norm—even an ethical norm—implies a sort of omniscience or “all-knowing” regarding the principle, it could be that societal norms, at least with regard to what is believed to be fair, should constrain how far people go with their theological principles (even if such a limitation does not apply to God). In short, the vote may evince a certain theological arrogance. William’s reference to the vote not being “intelligible” to the wider society could imply a certain conceit, for it could be that the common-sense fairness regarding women was not “intelligible” to the Church’s laity represented in the chamber that voted down the proposal. If so, the proper response would not be one of a “lot of explaining to do,” but, rather, a lot of listening.

For more on this piece, please see: “Women Bishops: Rowan Williams Says Church Has ‘Lot Of Explaining To Do,” The Huffington Post, November 21, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/11/21/women-bishops-archbishop-_n_2169883.html?utm_hp_ref=uk

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A piece of a papyrus paper written in Coptic in the fourth century, probably translated from another manuscript written in Greek in the second contains the following line: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife . . .’” A second clause just below says, “she will be able to be my disciple.” This wife-disciple combo dovetails with the line in the Gospel of Philip, which says, “[Christ loved] M[ary] more than [all] the disciples, and used to kiss her on her . . . “  Lest these findings seem to upend Christian dogma, the significance should be carefully considered.

First, even if the paper is genuine, it does not prove that the historical person was married. Writers of religious texts do not view themselves as historians documenting empirical events; rather, sayings or narrative serves religious points. If such a point is best served by wandering from “what really happened,” doing so would be in line with the writer’s objective and thus perfectly acceptable in his or her mind.

Theologically speaking, a married Jesus who has sex with his wife as he wanders with his followers throughout his preaching days suggests that his way into the kingdom of God may not be foreign to us mere mortals. That is to say, stressing Jesus’s human nature can show his way as realizable rather than ethereal.  For this point to be made, the writer could have invented the marriage if Jesus had not been said to be married. In short, making Jesus more human (not at the expense of his divinity) is not the project of a historian. Superimposing the latter would reflect more on us than on anything in the writing of the text.

Second, even theologically, portraying Jesus as married does not mean that he could not be a god-man figure (i.e., the Son of God).  Being married—even having sex—is consistent with being fully human, fully divine, the two qualitatively different elements not intermingling. The biological sex act would doubtlessly be on the human side, though “making love” suggests that “divinity as love” could come into play. Therefore, a theologically orthodox Christian should have no problem with “married tradition” evinced in some early scriptures.

The question of whether Jesus and his wife had children opens up the question of whether Jesus’s “genes from His Father” could be passed down. In other words, if your dad is a god-man, are you likely to be a mere mortal or might you have some special qualities. Greek mythology contains god-men such as Hercules and Dionysus who had special qualities. I do not know whether the offspring of such an offspring of Zeus and a mortal woman were said to have special qualities. It could be that Jesus’s children would have laid low after their father’s cruel death, so the lack of any reported miracle-worker does not mean that Jesus’s children were only fully human.

Rather than serving as historical evidence or upending theology as it has come down to us, the reference to Jesus having a wife bears mostly on the traditions of some of the more traditional Christian sects, such as the Roman Catholic Church. Specifically, if Jesus was said by religious to be married and his wife to be a disciple, the tradition of the clergy being limited to single men (or simply men) would be directly confronted as dogmatic, or arbitrary. I submit that even this matter is of little significance in religious terms, as a tradition is not dogma. That religious functionaries would view the matter as much more important may suggest that they are more worldly than religious, for if one’s eye is on unfolding the Kingdom of God that lies within, the matter of the sex and marital status of priests would pale in comparison.

To be sure, if the Christology of theology—the identity of Jesus Christ—has through the centuries become “higher and higher,” the discovery that Jesus might have actually been married or portrayed  in faith narratives as such could “crack that pristine egg.”  That is to say, if the notion of the Son of God became less and less “human” through the centuries (or even decades), then introducing a married Jesus who had sex could be seen as discrediting the entire God-man concept—the entire Christology. Even if “fully human, fully divine” can support such a man who fucks his wife, the god-man figure as idol surely cannot. This does not mean that the “new information” is lethal to the theology; rather, it is the obsession that has engulfed the god-man concept at the possible expense of the historical Jesus that is at risk. At the very least, its utter inflexibility renders its decadence transparent. That a married Jesus need not cancel or invalidate Jesus’s message that the kingdom of God is at hand suggests that the significance of the reference to a wife is not a big deal  after all, at least to his authentic followers in the real Church.  In fact, the contrary reaction of the “guardians” of the Church could be helpful in making them transparent, and thus more avoidable as obstacles to the faithful.

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The Roman Catholic missal of 2011 reflects a trend then well-underway in the Church to return to pre-Vatican II customs and assumptions, such as on the relationship between the clergy and laity. In particular, the changes in the missal reflect an attempt to more accurately translate the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass. I contend that such changes also make the distinctly theological element of the belief system more transparent. It could be that the translations in the 1970s blurred the lines between theological concepts and things from our daily lives in the world. Even though theological constructs are intentionally distinguished from temporal matters, we tend to want to place them as existing or having referents empirically. The religious putrification of the twentieth century can be put in the form of the question, Did it really happen?, even when the it is a concept having the theological attribute of eternal.

For example, when reciting the Nicene Creed, the statement of faith, Jesus being “one in being with the Father” is changed to Jesus as “consubstantial with the Father.” Also, Jesus is not “born of the Virgin Mary,” but, rather, “incarnate of the Virgin Mary.” The terms consubstantial and incarnate are theological terms. In other words, they have currency only as theological concepts. Where as animals, including human beings, are born, for example, the term incarnate exists only as a theological construct. One cannot go outside and say, Look mom, there’s something incarnating over there! To expect to find something or someone incarnating is to commit a category mistake by taking a concept that exists in theology and applying it elsewhere. Constructs such as consubstantial and incarnate, as well as transsubstantiation (i.e., real presence of Christ in the Eucharist) exist in the domain of theology. In other words, they exist theologically. Transsubstantiation makes sense only theologically; to look for it otherwise, as though lying in a field somewhere, does not make sense. Indeed, the Aristotelian distinction between substance and accident is a philosophical distinction that has no place other than in doing philosophy. The theological concept of transsubstantiation makes use of this distinction. Neither the distinction nor the theological construct are empirical; rather, they involve constructs that have existence in the mind.

Therefore, to equate incarnate with the act of being born, consubstantial with “being made of the same stuff,” and transsubstantiation with a substance that exists empirically (i.e., has an existence apart from the in the mind) is to treat theological constructs as though they were something else–indeed, as something more banal and worldly. The category mistake conflates theology with empirical science or gives the former an existence in the latter. Merely in asking the question, Is real presence in the physical object?, a theological construct is being applied outside of its domain, which is in the mind. A theological question would be: Is the essence of real presence agape (self-giving love)? In focusing on real presence, it is a category mistake to focus on an empirical object as though the construct is somehow in it. Just as the consubstantial relation of the theological Father and Son does not reflect relationships between dads and sons, incarnate should not be thought of in terms of the empirical conception (beginning) of a human being. Hence, to ask whether the Incarnation “really happened”–meaning empirically in history as a fact somehow evidenced by a faith narrative–does not make sense; or better yet, it reflects a category mistake, which in turn evinces a fundamental misconception of incarnate as part of the vocabulary of history rather than theology. Unlike scientific and historical concepts, theological abstractions are not “in” objects existing empirically in the world, even if certain objects are associated with them.

For example, Catholics apply the theological concept of real presence to concecrated bread and wine. That association depends on the mind applying it (and the associated agreed-upon “social contract”), as transsubstantiation is theologically rather than empirically “in” the object. The object is not a mere symbol, however, for the meaning of the theological concept mandates a real theological presence. Even so, if I were to stick a concecrated wafer in your sandwich without you realizing it, your eating it would not convey the theological concept. Nor would there be theological real presence in the Sacred Blood spilt on the carpet and walked on by unknowing people. They would not be walking on Christ’s blood, for it would be again wine on a carpet without the application of the theological concept. For one knowing that the wine had been consecrated, one could simply say that the theological application would not apply to the Blood as soon as it is spilt; the application dissolves because of the incompatible use of the wine. It is the mind’s application of the theological concept that is key here–not some magic quality of an empirical object irrespective of use. Once again, the application does not change or inhere in the empirical object empirically (i.e., in its matter) because the change is theological. The real presence is theological, and in this sense real, but not physical (or symbolic).

To look for a theological concept as though it were a rock or a mushroom is to engage in a quest that must finally be futile. If I am correct, the Roman missal of 2011 represents progress in delimiting theological concepts to their own domain. To refer to incarnate as though it is like born misses the distinctiveness of theological concepts and sets us up for disappointment when we don’t find incarnate among the evidence of births. Even so, I suspect that people will continue to look for unicorns in the country and mistake horses for the abstraction–saying, a unicorn really did exist! It is not necessarily the case that “really” in the empirical/historical sense is any more real than “really” in the theological sense. Indeed, the felt-meaning of a theological concept can be just as real, if not more, to the person of faith. Such a person would instinctively view historical or factual verification as a step backwards. Even more, such an assumed basis would evince a category mistake–indeed, the category mistake when it comes to religion in the twentieth century and I suspect beyond.


Jaweed Kaleem, “Changes to Roman Catholic Mass Will Surprise Majority in the Pews, Survey Says,” The Huffington Post, August 19, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/19/roman-catholic-mass-changes_n_931908.html

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According to George Barna, a religious statistics expert on contemporary American religion, “We are a designer society. We want everything customized to our personal needs—our clothing, our food, our education”—and our religion. In 1991, 49% of American adults attended religious services in a six-month period and 35% said they accepted Jesus and expected to be saved. Twenty years later, the regular attendance figure had dropped to 40% while those accepting Jesus had “risen” to 40 percent. How can these apparently contradictory trajectories be explained?

One could point to the fundamentalist or evangelical movement, which was growing during the twenty years. Such believers tend to be non-denominational and less liturgically-oriented than Roman Catholics, for instance (for whom the Eucharist is central and necessarily liturgical). An evangelical Christian would be likely to point to his or her belief in Christ and relationship to Jesus rather than to attending church as decisive for faith. For example, the prosperity gospel holds that right belief—not necessarily regular church attendance—is rewarded by God in terms of material riches.

The advent of “rock-concert-like” evangelical services has probably tempered the trend of the evangelical movement distinguishing church attendance from believing in Jesus. The “dead” quality of mainline denomination services, on the other hand, has likely contributed to the decline in regular attendance. I attended a Methodist service in 2010, for instance, only to wonder if the audience was still alive. I was informed that Methodists are about “method” so they don’t like change. Such an approach, while typical in my small-minded (yet never wrong) hometown in the Midwest, does not bode well for the spirit breaking free from the strictures of the letter. It is as though typical Christian liturgies were designed expressly to cut off religious experience—being more about a bunch of things put into a program (with the vested interests, of course) than opening a time for transcending devoid of distractions.

According to Cathy Grossman of USA Today, “Barna blames pastors for those oddly contradictory findings. Everyone hears, ‘Jesus is the answer. . . . People end up bored, burned out and empty,’he says. ‘They look at church and wonder, ‘Jesus died for this?’” Barna reports that as a result, “People say, ‘I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a good book. And then I believe whatever I want.’” In other words, denominations are fracturing.

It is perhaps worthy of note that the New Testament has Jesus saying that he came to teach on the mysteries of the Kingdom of God—the Father’s realm—and how we can more fully realize the Kingdom of God within. Simply saying, “Jesus is the answer” stops at the means. I once heard a priest preach, “Jesus is above me, Jesus is below me, Jesus is to the right of me, Jesus is to the left of me, Jesus is in front of me, Jesus is behind me.” At the time, I thought of George Fox’s “empty form,” here verbal form. In other words, has institutional Christianity gotten caught up on the nature of the religious object, which is by definition beyond the limits of human cognition and perception, at the expense of religious experience? Has that which Jesus is portrayed as preaching—how to get into the Kingdom of God—been eclipsed by a fixation on the messenger himself?

In general terms, the constriction of canonical Christian dogma since the first century of Christianity and the fixation on Christology may be why more Christians are splitting off. To be sure, “I believe whatever I want” has a ring of childishness and selfishness to it and a lack of boundaries (e.g., I decide what is good for me, with a result being that I come out good). Religion reduced to the path most convenient is essentially a form of self-idolatry. I witnessed this from someone at a Bahai service. As a scholar of comparative religion, I sometimes attend services of different religions to expand my knowledge of the phenomenon of religion.

After the service, the topic of which was love in the various religions, a woman referred to a certain religion from the Middle East as “of peace.” A man cited a few verses from that religion’s scripture advocating the killing of neighbors who refuse to convert rather than risk the chance that they could pollute the beliefs of the faithful. The woman insisted that the man simply interpreted the passage as not being of peace. It occurred to me that she may have been imposing a value or ideology that is salient in Bahai on the religion in question, with the result that anything in religion at odds with peace is ignored. Religion itself becomes peace—a human moral system essentially limiting that which is divine. The woman’s religious idolatry (i.e., worship of a human conception of peace as a religious object—her conception as the conception) seems to have triggered or involved cognitive distortion without any recognition of possibly being wrong. Her dismissiveness itself evinced the power of self-idolatry—the “I believe whatever I want”—in religion. Lest the phenomenon be thought to be a function of individualization of religion, self-idolatry can also be found among church authorities in the history of Christianity. Such idolatry can go a long way in accounting for the decline in attendance and the fracturing of sects to accommodate the inherent diversity of beliefs, values and approaches within the human family—and even the Christian family.  

To assume that one size fits all—that uniformity is necessary for (rather than adverse to) authentic unity—in matters of religion discounts or ignores the nature of the human spirit as well as the phenomenon of religion. Furthermore, constricting an entire religion to one’s own interpretation is dogmatic (i.e., arbitrary) and essentially self-idolatry under the subterfuge of leadership. The process of canonicalization of scripture, which included a willowing-down or narrowing of acceptable religious writings, can be viewed as laying the seeds of the religion’s downsizing by making otherwise viable alternatives extrinsic and even heretical. In other words, the canonical process would have been more credible had the chosen texts not been those favored by the deciders. To be crass, the ensuing religion can be said to be that of the deciders—essentially, “I believe whatever I want” and (literally) to hell with those Christians who favor other texts (e.g. the book of Q—sayings absent the supernatural narrative—the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and the Gospel of Thomas). It is ironic that a religion of convenience within the Church provokes religious convenience as a reaction. For a religion wherein God is agapé (selfless love) seu benevolentia universalis (or, universal benevolence), self has been rather prominent, even if apparently hidden under a “self-effacing” subterfuge.

Nietzsche, for example, writes in the second essay of his Genealogy of Morals on the religion of convenience of priests, who yearn so much to dominate their flocks in spite of voluntarily weakening themselves (e.g., impotence). The aggressiveness—even intentional cruelty—involved in such dominance is particularly dangerous because the priests (and bishops) having the instinct have tended to be oblivious to it even while under its spell. In the midst of a narrow-minded yet judgmental priest, it is perhaps only natural to retort, “I believe whatever I want.” Essentially, both the priest and the reaction are gripped with self-idolatry in the name of religion. The priest, however, is far more dangerous even if under the subterfuge of selfless love.

In short, trends in American religion (which has been dominated by Christianity) can be interpreted as manifestations of self-idolatry all around in the name of religion. Religion may be far more about us than we realize. If so, we may be taking it far too seriously even as we do not hold it sufficiently accountable. Sadly, religious experience and agape seem relegated or lost amid the power-struggles of self-idolatry imposed through a fixation on religion as belief. Little attention is given to freeing ourselves from the grip of religion in our own images. So little freedom must surely snuff out what little spirit manages to manifest within or between us. It is no wonder that more people are heading for the exits. The wonder may be that even more have not left. What is needed, Nietzsche avers, are more free spirits. Such spirits seek to overcome the power of their own most stubborn instinct—which may be the urge to follow the route of least resistance rather than the road less traveled.


Cathy Lynn Grossman, “More Americans Customize Religion to Fit Their Personal Needs,” USA Today, September 13, 2011. http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2011-09-14/america-religious-denominations/50376288/1

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