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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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Heading directly in the “eye of the storm,” Pope Francis announced an advisory group of cardinals to proposal reforms to the Curia, the government of the Church. Part of the Curia, the Vatican Bank has been involved in a number of scandals through the years. The office of Secretary of State, second only to the Pope’s office, has so much power that abuse of power has been a real temptation for the office holders through the years. With corruption and scandal in its governance, the Roman Catholic Church risks charges of hypocrisy. After all, Christ threw out the money-changers and instructed his disciples to go town to town without even carrying purses. The Vatican Bank is a far cry from Christ’s instructions. Pope Francis would be well advised to harken back to St. Francis’s view of wealth.

In the absence of radical reform, such as ending the Vatican Bank much like President Jackson of the U.S. put an end to the Second National Bank of the U.S., Pope Francis was smart to name a majority of Curia critics to his advisory council. According to the Wall Street Journal, “(n)early all of the cardinals advising Pope Francis on the administrative overhaul come from local archdioceses far from the insular world of Vatican politics. Only one member, Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, comes from inside Vatican City. But the office he currently runs, the Governerato in charge of administering the actual grounds of the world’s smallest state, isn’t considered part of the Curia.” Reaching from beyond Europe also has the benefit of going to where the Catholic Church is growing rather than shrinking. It also makes the Roman Church truer to its claim of being the universal church.

“It’s an epochal shift because it brings the Vatican closer to a more collegial governance,” said Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert. He meant a greater sharing of power between Rome and local churches in governing the Catholic Church. According to the New York Times, this notion “was central to the liberalizing changes of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, but critics said both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI consolidated more control with the Vatican. Francis’ new advisory group reverses the trend. ‘For years, cardinals and others said that the Second Vatican Council sought a more horizontal government, that the pope should listen to bishops to resolve scandals,’ Mr. Rodari said. ‘The first big decision of this pope really is that, to convoke a governing board. It’s a revolution.’”

It may go a bit too far to say that the appointment of a group of advisors is “an epochal shift” on the scale of “a revolution.” At most, the move signals a shift back in the direction of Vatican II by not relying on the Vatican insiders to fix themselves from within. For epochal change to take place, the Pope would have to implement a governance form like federalism by amending the governance documents of the Curia. Crucially, the added authority of the regional councils of bishops would have to be protected in terms of canon law from encroachments from the Vatican. The Curia’s authority would essentially be split between two systems—that of the Vatican (i.e., centralized) and the councils (i.e., regional). The Pope could settle disputes between the two systems and act as figurehead for the Church.

Given the different cultural contexts in which the worldwide church increasingly finds itself, Francis’s council of cardinals could do worse than consider federalism as a possible form of governance for the Curia. Federalism has the virtue of being able to accommodate differences while allowing for unity, for which uniformity is not necessary. In fact, uniformity as in “one size fits all” can actually impede unity because the diversity of context is frustrated in its expression and solutions. One way federalism could manifest is by the return of authority to the regional bishop conferences. Those bodies could have a role in holding the Vatican Bank accountable, besides being able to address many of their particular problems.

In conclusion, while Pope Francis has opened the door to reform, too much should not be read into his initial move. An advisory council is just that. Even reform-oriented cardinals will doubtless find the status quo at the Vatican to be a difficult rock to move, even if it is the foundation of a worldwide Church.

 

For more, see Stacy Meichtry’s article, “Pope Begins Vatican Overhaul,” in the Wall Street Journal of April 13, 2013. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324240804578420710330497342.html?mod=WSJ_MIDDLENexttoWhatsNewsSecond

Also, Gaia Pianigiani and Rachel Donadio, “Pope Francis Names Advissory Panal at Vatican,” The New York times of April 14, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/14/world/europe/pope-francis-names-advisory-panel-at-vatican.html

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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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Jorge Bergoglio had come in second behind Joe Ratzinger in 2005 at the conclave tasked with electing the next pope. Eight years later, Bergoglio himself was elected to the holy and powerful office. The American media, treading water as usual on the surface, proclaimed Pope Francis to be a reformer. After all, he was the first non-European to hold the office in more than a millennium. However, Francis is a reformer in a very narrow sense, and he is not as much of an outsider as one might suppose from the media reports. As with most matters in life, the truth is more nuanced.

I begin with the matter of the pope ostensibly being an outsider. Because Bergoglio had been born and raised in Argentina, his election quickly came to stand for or personify the increasing salience of Latin America in the contemporary Catholic Church. At the announcement habamus papam, Latino Catholics in the Vatican’s square and on a much larger scale in Argentina spontaneously rose in celebration. However, the assumption that Bergoglio is the first Latin American pope needs some qualification because his parents were Italian immigrants. Not surprisingly, he grew up speaking fluent Italian in addition to Spanish. Accordingly, he had no trouble giving the homily of his first papal Mass in Italian. Italian culture was doubtless a part of his upbringing as well. So it is not strictly true that a non-European was elected pope. More accurately, Pope Francis is a hybrid, or “third culture person,” consisting of Latin American and European elements.

Moreover, in having achieved the high office of cardinal, Pope Francis is not an outsider. His status as an outsider is relatively narrow, being that he has not worked in the Curia at the Vatican. However, even this respect could be moderated by the pope’s Italian upbringing. That is to say, he undoubtedly has the sense of being in the familia in virtue of his Italian roots. Italian cardinals and bishops in the Curia could thus expect to have some pull with him. I doubt this point was not lost on at least some of the Italian cardinals in the conclave. Of course, the fact that the pope appointed so many reformers to his advisory council on the Curia suggests that the term “reformer” applies to him in respect to dealing with the corruption in the Vatican, including its bank and senior officials. This does not mean that he is a reformer writ large—meaning in terms of doctrine, the hierarchy, and social issues.

Even though feminist groups dared to hope that the new pope might finally bring the Church into the twenty-first century on social issues, Bergoglio had been stanchly conservative on social issues such as abortion, gay marriage, women in the Church, and even contraception. Therefore, it is very unlikely the new pope would make any changes along the lines sought in the developed West.

Indeed, a month after becoming pope, Francis reaffirmed his predecessor’s rebuke of the Leadership Conference of the Women Religious (LCWR). The umbrella group of American nuns had been accused of excessive feminism and too much attention to social justice and the poor at the expense of preventing abortions. The affirmation is particularly astonishing because Bergoglio had emphasized social justice and the poor as an archbishop  in Argentina. That his reaffirmation of the previous pope’s rebuke pertains to a group that shares his own priorities on social justice and the poor suggests that his role as a reformer is narrow indeed. His reforms inside the Church are likely to be limited to reforming the Curia to get rid of its corruption and insularity. To be sure, that he had spoken out against unregulated markets and oppression could suggest that the pope might be a reformer in terms of human rights outside the Church. He might even urge governments to enhance financial regulation and fortify safety nets for the poor. Crucially for our purposes here, this would not make him a doctrinal or social-issue reformer in terms of Catholicism.

George Weigel, a traditionalist Catholic theologian, put the matter of the pope’s orientation very well. “He is a reformer, and making clear that the LCWR’s program in recent decades has been incompatible with Catholicism is part of the reform-by-purification that he is going to lead.” The term “purification” is key here, for it describes the traditionalist approach of the prior two popes wherein a traditionalist interpretation of doctrine (including on social issues) has been used to purge the marginal (i.e., moderate and liberal) Catholics on the way to restoring the true Church to the true believers. In a sense, the traditionalists had succeeded in using the “reform” label for their own purposes, but this does not mean that Pope Francis will open up the Church to women or married priests or relaxed positions on gay marriage, abortion and even contraception. Rather, a bishops’-led return to outward caring for the poor in place of insular infighting and corruption is the sort of “reform” that is perfectly consistent with the ecclesiastical traditionalism of the cardinals who elected the Italian-Argentinian cardinal.

 

 

For more, see Jaweed Kaleem’s article, “Pope Francis Gets Strong Ratings From U.S. Catholics in First Days,” in the Huffington Post on March 15, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/15/pope-francis-approval-us-catholics_n_2884494.html?utm_hp_ref=religion ; Cathy Grossman, “Pope Francis Keeps Tight Rein on U.S. Nuns,” USA Today, April 16, 2013; Laurie Goodstein, “Pope Upholds Reprimand of American Nuns’ Group,” in the New York Times on April 16, 2013

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The Family Research Council had already been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2010. In late 2012, a petition was created at the White House’s online system to have the Catholic Church labeled as a hate group. The petition came on the heels of the Pope’s address to Vatican administrators in which he denounced gay marriage as a threat to Western civilization. The petition claims the Pope used “hateful language and discriminatory remarks” implying “that gay families are sub-human.” Closer to the truth, the objection was that the clergy viewed gays themselves as subhuman. Closer still, the reaction was to the hatred itself. Meanwhile, Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, was being criticized for having claimed that Jewish leaders are “enemies of the Church.” Here again, hatred is salient. Rather than being a “gay issue,” the hatred of Catholic traditionalist clergy is toward modernity itself, which the traditionalists assume is secularist in nature. The modern phenomenon of religious fundamentalism (including in evangelical Christianity) belies this assumption.

The hatred is really directed to those holding a very different ideological stance. Since the clergy dominating the Vatican as of 2012 was traditionalist in ideological orientation, it is natural to conclude that ideological differences pertain to modernists. Interestingly, even evangelical Christianity is marginalized, though not hated, within the Catholic Church. Both hatred and dismissiveness are easily manifested in the traditionalists’ demeanor toward those holding a very different opinion even on non-religious matters. This goes far beyond gay rights, feminism and the Jews.

The core of the pathology is in the very intensity of the hatred, the blind spot of which is furnished by the incredible allowance for hypocrisy. God is rationalized as essentially traditionalist, ideologically. That ideology is distinct from faith means that the traditionalist dominant coalition at the Vatican had gone off its terra firma onto alien fauna without any recognition of so doing. This over-reach by religious functionaries, plus the intensity of their hatred toward those with whom they disagree, is the issue. Put another way, hatred in the name of religion is a seething poison. Ironically, it can contaminate the very thing that religious purport to love.

 

For more, see “Bernard Fellay, Head of Traditionalist Catholic Sect”: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/07/bernard-fellay-jews-enemies-of-the-church-radical-catholic-sect_n_2425711.html

“Catholic Hate Group?” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/07/catholic-hate-group-activists-mobilize-around-white-house-online-petition-system_n_2427266.html

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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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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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