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As Madrid prepared for the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day in August 2011, many people, including 120 priests, were raising objections to the Pope’s visit. Rev. Federico Lombardi, a spokesman at the Vatican, said at a briefing at Rome that the protests were not very surprising. Dismissing the objections, he said, “It’s part of life in a democratic country.”  I contend that there is a certain arrogance in this statement. Would the spokesman use the same statement regarding protests against apartheid, for example?  Oh, well, what can you expect; there are always protests. To be sure, the frequency of protest does indeed rarify the impact of any particular protest. Surely, however, the gravity of the causes differs. Exterminating the Jews, for example, should not be treated as of similar importance as saving some bird species, yet both causes could be expected to eventuate in protests.

In the case of the Pope’s visit to Madrid for the youth festival, priests who work with the poor objected to the “lavish $72 million celebration.” That some of this sum would be paid with tax dollars even as Spain was in an austerity program affecting the poor had more than some people shaking their heads at the priorities of the Vatican and Spain. It was not as though the Pope had not visited the state. In fact, Esther Lopez Barcelo, a youth coordinate for a political party, observed, “They still can’t tell us how much the pope’s visit cost two years ago. Every time he comes here, the figures become opaque.” Cost-containment is obviously not a priority at the Vatican.

To be sure, having more than a million visitors in Madrid could be expected to benefit both local business and the government’s coffers, though it is doubtful that the spending by the youth would match the increased municipal expenses such as trash removal. In short, Spain—one of the PIGS in the E.U. in terms of the debt crisis—was in no position to host a church’s youth day. The Pope’s home region of Bavaria in Germany would have been a better pick, considering the state of the German economy.

For the Catholic Church, the Vatican’s dismissiveness of the protest signed by 120 of its own priests plus others rings of the sort of heartlessness in ignoring someone. It is the sort of heartlessness in someone who has no qualms about enjoying himself even as he knows that some people nearby are suffering. There is a fakeness to such a smile that involves willful blocking of something that is not convenient.

In a broader context, the Vatican’s indifference regarding objections to its lavish spending was amid a trend since 1979 away from social justice and human rights and toward a hypertrophy in abortion and stem-cell protests. I wonder, by the way, whether “It’s all part of life in a democratic country” could also be used by pro-choice groups to dismiss pro-life rallies? Furthermore, I wonder if the Vatican would object to that use of its statement?  Would the Vatican be willing to contend that using a human stem-cell in research is more objectionable than diverting religious and public funds from the poor in a time of need?

On the Church’s “own turf,” one could point to Jesus’ use of the five loafs and two fishes to feed the multitudes. Furthermore, one could recount the saying attributed to Jesus about the rich man getting into the kingdom of heaven being like a camel getting through the eye of a needle. Surely, profligate spending for a festival as the poor are suffering from austerity-program cut-backs is hard to square with Jesus’s teachings. Higher human love (caritas), and especially selfless divine love (agape), manifest justly in terms of universal benevolence (benevolentia universalis). Leibniz, for example, based this justness of this obligation on the fact that we all share in being—God is perfect Being. Augustine based the justness on caritas applying even to one’s enemies (as opposed to merely one’s friends—Cicero’s amicitia).

Similarly, John Rawls points to the unfairness involved in knowing beforehand where one is situated in benefiting from the benevolence. Under a veil of ignorance concerning one’s station, it is only fair to see to it that the least fortunate position benefits. Practically speaking, one never knows if one will someday occupy such a position. For a person (or organization) to ignore the poor while using funds that those people who are barely surviving badly need (from the state)—particularly when one knows one’s station (i.e., as not poor)—is to add selfishness and a hardened heart to the unfairness. This is not exactly a station of the Cross. Rather, it pertains to the lofty, who are justly brought low, rather than to the lowly, who are to be exalted.

To refuse to take part in the exaltation of the lowly by ignoring the obligation of redistributive justice, particularly as arrives at a festival as the star of the show, reflects on one’s underlying attitude toward the teachings attributed to Jesus (or Gandhi, for that matter) as well as the ethical principle of basic fairness. It is, in short, to practice hypocrisy, if one represents a Church in the name of a simple carpenter who may well have gone from meal to meal.

See Suzanne Daley, “Catholic Clergy Protest Pope’s Visit, and Its Price Tag,” New York Times, August 16, 2011.

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While it might seem easy, discerning saints from sinners can be rather difficult. Hence, we are urged not to judge, lest we, too, be judged. This lesson landed on me when I found my opinion on a seemingly-saintly elderly woman change dramatically.

The elderly Philipino woman whom I met seemed at first to be very pious, having an explicit desire to gain the attribute of holiness. The simplicity of her faith appealed to me. Yet when I made reference to one of her priests being–to put it nicely–more of an administrator than a pastor, she replied that her priest “was Jesus.” I replied that the priests are in the line of the Apostles, rather than instantiating Jesus. I cited apostolic succession, and she relented. Not content to be corrected, she asserted that the Bible is sufficient as a source of historical evidence. I replied that a faith narrative is neither written with the intention of recording historical facts nor of the genre of historical writings that is taken as proffering historical evidence. The woman disagreed, insisting that a faith narrative can be considered as a source of historical facts. I asked her whether she knows or believes the so-called facts. She readily replied that she knows them. “Well,” I observed, “then it would seem that you have no use for faith then.” My unexpected comment stopped her in her tracks. “What do you mean?” she asked. “We have faith in things we don’t know–things we are not certain of, such as whether we will be alive tomorrow,” I replied. “It doesn’t make sense to have faith in something we know because there is not uncertainty about it. So if the Bible gives you facts that you know, that tells me that it is not a matter of faith.” Taken back, she repeated that she knew that the Bible proves that certain historical events took place. “And you can’t be wrong about that?” I asked. “Yes, I can’t be wrong about it.” As if giving the conclusion of a syllogism, I remarked, “Then that means that not only is faith unnecessary for you, but it is based on arrogance–that of presuming that you cannot be wrong.” My pronouncement stunned her into speechlessness. She stood staring at the ground as if unable to move. There was no anger or resentment–just a wall that was blocking her view and not letting her pass.

If Jesus is a door, then a believer opens the door and walks through; one does not keep holding on to a front door once one has entered a house. The elderly woman was stuck holding on to a doornob as if it were attached to a wall. For myself, I was simply stunned that religion could so distort cognition so much and involve denial to the extent that a human being readily admits to not being able to be wrong about something that most of us would say involves belief rather than knowledge. It is as if the domain furtherest from certain knowledge were somehow the most capable of proffering evidence about which a person could not be wrong.

Perhaps this exchange reflects the saying, “Where God builds a church, Satan builds a chapel.” My question is: In preaching against arrogance, was I in the church or chapel?

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While I was editing some writing at a coffee shop a few days ago, one of the employees asked me what I was writing.  I replied that I was writing on Augustine.  He was very interested.  Well, last night his pastor stopped by to give him something.  Introductions were made and before I knew it the pastor and I were discussing religion.  He is an evangelical Christian and I view religious faith as an inherently personal matter.  I told the pastor that public utterances (and collective displays) seem to me to be at the surface, and therefore distorted manifestions of what is really much deeper (i.e., the soul’s relationship to God).  I told him that I thought there is much to much certainty regarding what people think they know about God (as evinced by stating the creeds as if they refer to known facts).  I even said I thought it rather presumptuous what people tend to assume they know about God (and then try to impose on others).  Well, as you might expect, this didn’t stop him from doing just that.  The manipulation (and self-absorption) was palpable.  I was astonished that even after I had made my statements he went ahead undaunted.   I felt disrespected (and ignored…or disregarded).  It was all about getting me to come to his church.  All about him.  Of course it was for God, of whom the pastor knows very well.   All I could do was let him speak; I had already decided that would be the last substantive discussion I would have with him.  I was left with a sense of the sheer presumptuousness and how blind the guy was to it…even as he presumed to know God with so much certainty.  Ironic to say the least.

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A rabbi, a minister and a sheik are at a baseball game, one of them cries “foul”,…

So is there a punch-line or have I struck out?  (I would never ask such a question or be so punny with the comments feature on, so I’ll just assume you find my sense of humor emetic and move on to the more serious business of trying to make a point)

The NYT does a better job: “It sounds like the start of a joke: a rabbi, a minister and a Muslim sheik walk into a restaurant.  But there they were, Rabbi Ted Falcon, the Rev. Don Mackenzie and Sheik Jamal Rahman, walking into an Indian restaurant, and afterward a Presbyterian church.”  Here is their family photo:

Rather than reducing their conversations to the lowest common politically-correct denominator, “the three say they became close not by avoiding or glossing over their conflicts, but by running straight at them.”  I find this to be rather important.  But they do not charge headlong into the others’ religions; rather, they balance self-criticism with honest feedback on what they don’t like about the others.  I have found this mixture to be useful in discussing politics with people from other countries–my self-criticism often times being surprising to my interlocators.   But whereas in politics criticizing one’s own country or leaders can almost be a pasttime, at least in the US, it is generally taboo for a religionist to criticize anything in his or her own faith. 
There seems to be, moreover, an assumption that for a religion to be viable, it must be accepted without erasure or amendment.  Eviscerating a passage in a scripture is particularly verboten, and even traditions can reach the status of being a given.   In my opinion, this rigidity is not justified by the process by which scripture (and tradition) are begun or formed because human beings are involved in it.  I suspect that with time a given scripture or tradition come to be treated as “a given” whereas it was not so treated when it was formed.   The distance of time, in other words, is transformative–and not necessarily for the good.   Lincoln, for example, is today a mythic figure who freed the slaves.  But the truth is, he exempted the five slave states that remained in the Union (MI, KY, WV, MD, and DE), and he considered exiling the freed slaves.  What Lincoln has become–and without justification we presume this was how he was then–is far different than what he was.  In Christianity, this same dynamic might be involved in the “From Jesus to Christ” idea (as well as that of the historical Jesus as distinct from what he is taken to be today).   In any case, a certain “hardening of the arteries” seems to be part of the aging process of a religion.   As a given religion becomes increasingly artificial, it becomes more of a dead letter rather than a living spirit…and thus eventually dies. 
From this perspective, I am particularly impressed with our three amigos.  First, they declare what they most value as the core teachings of their tradition. At one gathering,  minister said “unconditional love.” The sheik said “compassion.” And the rabbi said “oneness.”  They also give honest feedback on what they don’t like about the others’ religions, but then, they do something almost unheard of.  The NYT suggests as much in reporting, “the room then grew quiet.”   Each stood and recited what he regarded as the “untruths” in his own faith. The minister said that one “untruth” for him was that “Christianity is the only way to God.” The rabbi said for him it was the notion of Jews as “the chosen people.” And the sheik said for him it was the “sword verses” in the Koran, like “kill the unbeliever.”  The instinct in line with how we tend to understand religion is to immediately hedge.  For example, the sheik immediately added, “It is a verse taken out of context,” and he pointed out that the previous verse says that God has no love for aggressors. “But we have to acknowledge that ‘kill the unbelievers’ is an awkward verse,’ ” the sheik said as the crowd laughed. “Some verses are literal, some are metaphorical, but the Koran doesn’t say which is which.”  Well,the verse isn’t just awkward.  One could argue it ought to be expunged from the Islamic scripture.   The problem is, we tend to assume this would render the entire scripture somehow null and void.  It either hangs together or falls together. 
Well, I beg your pardon to differ.  At the very least, because human beings are involved in at least the copying, it is possible, even likely, that errors are made, which do not render an entire work null and void.   The problem is, given that interpretation involves the subjective assessment of whether a given passage is literal, symbolic, figurative or metaphorical, deciding on whether a given passage should be extracted does not have the certainty as in “2+2=5 is incorrect and thus should be erased.”  There is a “what if we are wrong?” element in “messing” with a scripture.   We tend to focus on the human element that would be involved in editing a scripture while ignoring the fact that human beings were involved in the writing of it.  This asymetry points to a basic flaw in religion as it is typically understood and practiced by mankind.  That is to say, we could improve religion itself.  It can be advanced, as can technology or political systems.  
To be alive, of spirit, a religious text (and tradition) must be able to breath.  Of course, removing mistakes or cultural artifacts that are no longer fitting (e.g., slavery) does involve the risk of making a mistake, but the chance of making one is mitigated, or worth the risk, where it is pretty clear that a given passage is problematic or wrong.  If nothing else, the practice of a religion, which typically involves compassion or love, involves removing the source of pain to another.  This alone justifies removing passages deemed offensive by others.  However, even here, one must discern a legimate beef from over-sensitivity.   In any case, self-criticism (without caveat) and compassion ought to override the current view of what being a scripture means.  Ironically, by admitting the human element in religion, we can make our religions more closely approximate the divine, and the more we treat our own handiwork as divine the further we fall from our ideal. It is our choice–not a given. 

For more, pls see:  http://twitter.com/deligentia

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/24/us/24amigos.html?_r=1

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Hanna Rosin has written a piece called, “Did Christianity cause the crisis?” in The Atlantic (vol. 304, issue 5, pp. 38-48).  She describes the current prosperity gospel, which, it seems, contributed to the sub-prime mortgage collapse and ensuing financial crisis.  Unhinged from their economic realities, many evangelical Christians who had hitherto only been able to rent decided to go for huge houses because “nothing is impossible with God,” and “God makes the true believers wealthy.”  These Christians could cite 2 John 2: “I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health.”  Unlike the Christian emphasis on virtues such as self-discipline and industriousness that characterized the evangelical titans of the Gilded Age such as John D. Rockefeller, the modern evangelical relies on grace as a kind of spiritual luck applying to risky financial activities.  Little attention was paid to the predatory mortgage-lending industry, which would make contributions to the megachurches for each congregant who signed up for a sub-prime.  Hence pastors preached the believer’s right to the good life as if Jesus had been a friend of money (ignoring what he did to the money-changers).   In any case, the irrational exuberance of the housing bubble may have had in it a component of irrationalism from religion–people taking leave of their senses (and their responsibilities) and being utterly blind to it under the subterfuge of a divine sanction. 

Stepping back to grasp the phenomenon from the perspective of the religion, it strikes me that the too close a friendship between Christianity and the good life eviscerates the distance between the faith and the world.  In other words, the Kingdom of God penetrates the world rather than acts as a check or alternative.  No longer are the last first and the first, last.  No longer is there an eye of the needle for the camel–rather, the doors are wide open.  And no longer must the rich man walk away from his treasure to follow Jesus.   God and mammon effectively fuse,  adding power to self-centeredness by clothing it in gilded robes.   This is particularly evident in the preachers–the scandals alone, such as that of Jim and Tami, attest that something has been amiss.   In other words, there is something downright odd about a minister or pastor living in luxury: Christianity become too convenient for its own good. 

Stepping back even further: Is it inevitable that a religion goes through a life-cycle of sorts during which it becomes decreasingly distinct and increasingly feckless vis a vis the world?   If so, are we witnessing perhaps the final centuries of Christianity?

For more, pls see:  http://twitter.com/deligentia

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I’m reading an article on MSBNC on the Rev. Moon of the Unification Church.  He is set to marry off and bless 40,000 in a “massive global ceremony.”   The following paragraph caught my eye:

“Moon, a self-proclaimed messiah who says he was 15 when Jesus Christ called upon him to carry out his unfinished work, has courted controversy and criticism since founding the Unification Church in Seoul in 1954.”

Such a claim is so fantastic and original that one might conclude that the line between religion and sanity has been breached here.  However, how do we know?  Furthermore, for all we know, the miracles and angels surrounding ancient revelations of a messiah were ex post facto accretions.  What if Jesus was like Moon, claiming “I am the Messiah” to a skeptical world?  Is Moon today like Jesus was in his time, and if so, how will the Unification Church view him in 60, 400, or 2000 years?  We don’t get to go back and see what was really going on in Jesus’ day, so we don’t know how much of what we think we know about him really happened.  Scholars tell us that the Gospel writers were not oriented to writing history; they had other purposes.  Yet we presume historical veracity in their works.   What if we are seeing how a new religious figure is “born”?…like using the Hubble telescope to see how the universe looked just after it began.  In other words, what if the “beginnings” is more mundane than we think?  It is possible

Source: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/33296507/ns/world_news-asiapacific/

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I have been reading Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God. It is possible that Jesus rose from the dead and has since been a person or manifestation of God in the form of a resurrected body.  That no one alive can say he or she has seen Jesus empirically means that it is very unlikely that any of us can know how much of what is said to have happened really happened.  I suppose it is the likelihood that none of us can know for sure that bothers me in the theological debates because some assert the literal or historical dimension.  We were all to agree on the meaning and let history be history and not religion, I think religion would not be so grievous.

I do not believe in the Passion Story literally as in historically the case, although I do believe that what the myth stands for. That is, that compassionate self-emptying is vindicated on account of its inherent strength and value even though it seems weak by the world’s standards.  We seem to have lost the mythic meaning of the passion story, only to concentrate on its historicity and empirical “factness.”   The evangelical Christian would rightly point out to me that I could be wrong on the resurrection being a historical fact.  Neither of us can know the answer.  Faith is by definition in the absence of knowledge (otherwise there would be no need for faith on the matter).   For all I know, Jesus could have been knocking down the books to get my attention.   Compassionate self-emptying would suggest or require that I remember my own limitations and that the “other” could be right…and to treat him or her in such terms.  Too often, I think we presume that our opinions are truth, and that those who disagree with us are not only wrong, but erroneous.  This is a ghost difficult to shake off, but ultimately necessary for constructive religious dialogue in line with the love taught by the world’s religions.   If we could all just remember that we are all in the same boat as human beings in terms of knowing things in themselves we might get along a lot better and enjoy life more.

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