Posts Tagged ‘ecumenical dialogue’

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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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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“Speaking at the conference on Thursday, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s point man for relations with the Anglicans, said ecumenism was strong but he alluded to problems. He acknowledged in a recent interview with the Vatican newspaper that Archbishop Williams had called him “in the middle of the night” after finding out at the last minute about the new Anglican rite. In the future, Cardinal Kasper said, such delicate issues “should be undertaken in the greatest possible transparency, tactfulness and mutual esteem in order not to entail meaningless tensions with our ecumenical partners.”

My reaction:  So Rowan Williams calls Walter Kasper at night after hearing that the Vatican intends to make it easier for Anglicans to convert and Walter is complaining about the call, as if that is the cause of the tension?   I raise this point because it illustrates a modern brain sickness of sorts.  The malady goes as follows: I insult you but I ignore the insult and treat your reaction as the problem.  The true culprit?  The principal sin, we are told, is pride.  What is particularly sordid is when the prince wears the aureole of self-righteousness as he points his fingers down.  How distant is Paul’s admonition not to make things harder on your brother.  That is to say, stop fighting, boys; it is quite unbecoming, particularly given the vocation you seek to claim for yourselves.  Having it both ways is not at all respectable. 

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


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In reading several replies to my posts on religion, I have been very impressed with the quality of the thought expressed, even where I find myself completely disagreeing with the view being expressed.   I am far more taken that the persons would put such thought and effort into their replies than I am distressed by the disagreements.  The unity, in other words, is in the good-faith effort and mutual desire not to get sidetracked into a shouting match.  Such unity does not require uniformity of belief.   Wouldn’t it be ironic if unity requires disagreement?   The latter need not rule the day.   This is not to say that differences will be resolved.  In deciding to reply not just to what I agree with, I have been assuming that the differences are real. Were I to paper over them for fear of precipitating a fight, I would be left with tissue paper discussions that feel good but are ultimately not fulfilling.   So, in replying to a comment,  I mention both where I agree and disagree, but orient myself to the good-faith effort and excellent thought that is palpable in the comment.   I am more overawed by the effort and thought involved than detracted by the disagreements.  As human beings, each of us with our own minds, how could we ever expect the absence of disagreement; surely unity does not depend on uniformity of opinion.

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This morning, I read the introduction of Karen Armstrong’s A Case for God.  I had seen her on a talk show last night.  Her basic argument is that the modern advocates or apologists of the dominant faiths in the West (e.g., Judaism, Christianity and Islam) suffer from an “unskillful” practice.   She claims that the scientific tenor of Western society since the 1600s has transformed the approaches to religion to stress cognition (i.e., belief) and rationality in way that renders religious narrative, or myth, as reduceable to a factual and historical basis.  For example, did the historical Jesus really walk around after he had been crucified?  Was he really a poor carpenter?  Was Mary a virgin physiologically?  The historical German method of interpreting the Bible led the way in this line of hermaneutics, but the twentieth-century fundamentalism (e.g., evangelicalism) was not far behind with its literalness.  

In contrast to the dominant modern rendering of religion in terms of cognitive belief affirmations of fact and historical literalness, Armstrong claims that religion is about practice.  Such praxis, she  maintains, is geared to compassionate (i.e., feeling with) humility.  Although she claims that all religions aim at this practical goal, it is so close to Jesus’ teachings and example that she might be projecting a Christianity-based understanding onto religion itself.   Also, in practically reducing religion to practice, she may be reacting against another extreme (the cognitive-literal approach).  In other words, her rendering could be viewed as partial rather than synopic.   For instance, she claims that the metaphysical claims in a religion should be read as that the ethical practices have meaning.   In my view, she comes very close to reducing religion to ethics, which is something liberal Protestantism has been criticized for doing.   Take, for example, “God is love.”   I interpret this as teaching that love is the source or basis of existence.  Even though our acts of love (and feelings!…which Armstrong also discounts relative to conduct) involve “God is love” being actualized, there is also the sense irrespective of one’s conduct that existence itself is love.  I take the transcendent wisdom of the latter to be just as important as conduct in religious terms.  

I take religion to be a multifaceted phenomenon that does not reduce to practice or creedal belief.  Even though Armstrong may come up short in this respect, she makes an excellent point that the modern understanding of religion is presumptuous (e.g., assuming we know more about God than we are entitled as finite beings to be able to know) and ahistoric.   On the latter, she means that we have not sufficiently studied ancient and medieval interpretations that would place our modern cognitive and literal approach in relief as rather narrow and, indeed, out of sorts with the nature of religion.   That is to say, if faith is not primarily about cognition or empirical knowledge of past events or persons (e.g., Moses, Jesus or Mohammad), then the dominant modern approach is “unskillful” or misplaced.  It is ironic that moderns who may be so far off would presume to know so much about God, citing revelation.   Of course, even perfect revelation would have to make its way through our own limited and imperfect eyes or ears, and neuropathways/rationality.   Especially where a religion is reduced to its cognitive factfulness and empirical truth, our own limitations become quite salient.  

I must admit I have been astounded (and frustrated) at the presumptuousness evinced by finite human beings who assume that the perfection of revelation runs perfectly through them as if they were innert permeable membranes rather than filters.  In actuality, if the revelation was written without cognitive affirmation or literalness being assumed throughout, a “believer” who reads scripture in such terms could be distorting it without realizing it because of ignorance of the writers’ perspective.   Of course, jthe fact that someone had to write down the revelation makes it difficult to maintain that the revelation itself is perfect.  That someone taking himself to be a believer would not only assume that he has the truth but also seek to actively impose it on another human being with different beliefs is a rather emetic phenomenon.  It is a package built on stilts…yet presumes it can run!   That one human being would say to another, “No, your faith is wrong…Here’s mine…it is true” reminds me of self-idolatry (i.e., taking oneself to be God, or reducing God to a projection of oneself). 

 Observing the modern context of presumptuousness even as religion is understood and portrayed so differently than it has been understood historically, I wonder if the problems discussed by Armstrong are remeable.    Can arrogance and presumption designed to bypass human critique by being based on God’s revelation be rectified by humans?  It seems to me that the tools brought to bear on this problem would simply be dismissed–which is part and parcel of arrogant presumption.   It could be that the only efficacious correction possible would have to come from within the “unskilled” themselves.  This would involve a person recognizing and coming to terms with his or her own presumption as presumption.   It may be far more likely that an approach to religion in line with the nature of religion will have to wait for a new epoch–perhaps one less enamored with rationality and empirical truth (i.e., “Just the facts”).  

The attempts in the twentieth century to reduce religion to terms extrinsic to the nature of the phenomenon may be a symption of a broader societal decadence (which includes arrogant presumption, ironically).   If I am correct in my thesis here, the old saying “You can’t fight ignorance” would be relevant.  When confronted with an arrogant and ignorant person, I suppose all we can do is remember our own limitations and try to be compassionate.   The nexus of arrogance and ignorance issuing in presumptuous claims may simply be the front gard of a suffering and insecure person.   Reducing him or her to the shock wherein his or her faith turns against itself and freezes up may be deserved, but it would hardly be compassionate.

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