(Sunday Homily) Everybody’s Right (Even Donald Trump) and Is Doing the Best S/he Can

trump-crowd

Readings for First Sunday in Lent: GN 2:7-9, 3:1-7; PS 51: 3-6, 12-13, 17; ROM 5: 12-19; MT 4: 1-11.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Its liturgy of the word reminds me of what’s been on my mind these days as I’m working on my critical thinking book. For the last two weeks, I’ve shared some of those thoughts here on my blog.

So, I wrote a week ago about the stages of human development – from egocentric to ethnocentric, to world-centric and cosmic-centric. It probably reminded some of the work of Abraham Maslow and Jean Piaget. Actually, though, my principal reference was to Ken Wilber who, in his A Theory of Everything and elsewhere attempts to integrate and transcend those more familiar works. I recommend Wilber very strongly.

In any case, it strikes me, on this first Sunday of Lent that the season’s challenge is to expand our awareness to something approaching what Jesus manifests in today’s Gospel selection. There, the carpenter from Nazareth is depicted as passing forty days in the desert enduring temptation the whole time.

The story not only recalls the history of Israel’s forty years in the desert; it tracks Jesus’ growth through the stages of human development that all of us must pass through. No one can skip any of them. And the limits of our particular stage of growth make it very difficult and even impossible for us to understand stages beyond our own. Thus, for instance, a person like Donald Trump cannot begin to understand someone like Pope Francis.

This means that when we were children at the egocentric stage, we couldn’t really understand ethnocentrism, much less world-centrism or cosmic-centrism. Similarly, those at the ethnocentric stage cannot understand the evolutionary stages beyond their own. To them it all seems like nonsense and even dangerous.

No one is to blame for any of that. It’s perfectly natural. However, the fear of moving forward can freeze some at lower stages of development. Some remain egocentric all their lives. And it’s the same with ethnocentrism and world-centrism. Nonetheless, we’re all called to the fullness of being human as embodied in avatars like Jesus of Nazareth. In his fullness of human development, he recognized the unity of all creation and everyone’s essential innocence. So as the Compassionate Christ, he saw that (given their stage of development) everyone’s right and is doing the best s/he can. As a result, he could even forgive his executioners who (as he said) “know not what they do.”

Jesus was committed, however, to moving human consciousness forward. He called that stage “the Kingdom of God” — a this-worldly reality. To get there, Jesus recognized that it is not at all necessary for everyone to advance to Kingdom-consciousness or even world-centrism. A small group embodying such awareness would be sufficient to move the entire world forward. [In Wilber’s terms, there’s a tipping point at about 10% of the world’s population. He estimates that at present about 40-60% of the world is fixated at the ethnocentric stage. About 25% are at world-centrism, and about 7% stand at cosmic-centrism. Only a 3% growth in the latter would reach the tipping point.]

Notice Jesus growth as depicted in this morning’s highly condensed symbolic story. Jesus’ first temptation is ego-centric – to feed himself by turning stones into bread. His second temptation is ethnocentric – connected with his nation’s temple and the quasi-magical attributes accorded the structure by his Jewish contemporaries. Jesus’ final temptation is world-centric – to exercise dominion of “all the nations of the world.” By rejecting all three (including the imperial, dominator hierarchy implied in the final temptation), Jesus symbolically achieves the cosmic-consciousness we’re all summoned to. The story ends with his being ministered to by angels. (Thus the divine growth hierarchy I’m trying to explain here is affirmed.)

The bottom line is that Jesus’ vision quest in the desert maps out our Lenten path. It leads from self-centeredness to cosmic consciousness of unity with the One in whom we live and move and have our being. There egoism no longer makes sense, nor does nationalism. Instead all the thinking and values of this world are turned on their heads. God alone matters. Forgiveness of everyone – compassion towards all — is natural.

If that sounds excessively utopian, the point is made about the inability of those at lower stages of development to understand and accept the Christ-consciousness towards which we’re all summoned to stretch. Those who claim to be Christians must simply take Jesus at his word, and pray for further growth.

In other words, the Christ-consciousness that Jesus attained can look at those whom we at lower stages of development might be tempted to vilify and despise and simply forgive them. Our forgiveness recognizes that we too passed through the stages at which they might be frozen. Put still otherwise, we can recognize that the childish, the greedy, the nationalists, and others seduced by the thinking of our world – and we ourselves – are right (given our respective stages of growth) and are doing the best we can.

So Lent challenges us all. Our path this season cannot be traveled without struggle. Its goal cannot be achieved without breaking free from selfishness, xenophobia, and the arrogance of life in an imperial center whose ways are unsustainable and far removed from its evolutionary roots. That’s the point of Lent’s prayerfulness, penance, fasting, and abstinence.

Practically speaking realizing our True Self this Lent – being transformed like Jesus – moving the world’s consciousness forward — might mean:

  • Renewing our prayer life. Even unbelievers can do this. How? I recommend reading Eknath Easwaran’s Passage Meditation to find out. Yes, meditate each day during Lent. It will bring you into contact with your True Self. (And, I predict, you won’t stop at the end of 40 days – it’s that life-transforming.)
    • Abstaining from fast food and reclaiming the kitchen. Leave behind for forty days the typically chemicalized, fatty, sugar-hyped American diet, and perhaps experiment with vegetarianism. That seems far more beneficial than traditional “fast and abstinence.”
    • Shopping locally and refusing to set foot in any of the Big Boxes during Lent’s 40 days. Think of it as homage to Jesus’ counter-cultural resort to the desert.
    • Escaping ethnocentrism and imperial sway, by adopting as your news source OpEdNews and/or Al Jazzera rather than the New York Times.
    • Resolving each day to actually respond to one of those many appeals we all receive to make phone calls and write letters to our “representatives” in Congress.

In the “Comment” space below, please share other suggestions.

Yes, it’s Lent once again. We faced up to our origins in dust last Ash Wednesday. A good Lent which leaves behind selfishness, ethnocentrism and allegiance to empire will also challenge us to move the world forward towards the Christ-consciousness that Jesus embodies.

There Really Are Alternative Facts (2nd in a Series on Critical Thinking)

wilbers-stages

Clearly our culture and the world have entered uncharted territory with the announcement from multiple sources that we’ve entered a post-fact world of fake news. Nowadays, it seems, one person’s truth is another’s propaganda. In such a world, critical thinking is either essential or irrelevant.

I hold for the former.

I believe that truth is relevant, that facts exist, and that the facts of some are truer than those of others. At the same time, however, I recognize that my own understanding of “fact” has changed drastically over the course of my life. What I once fervently embraced as truth, I no longer accept. Something similar, I think, is true for all of us. As Paul of Tarsus put it in his letter to Christians in Corinth 2000 years ago: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” (ICOR 13:11)

Paul’s insight holds for western culture as well, including the scientific community. It readily admits that facts change. For instance, scientists once universally accepted as absolute fact that the earth was the center of the universe. Galileo changed all of that.

And that brings me to what I wrote last week about those essential elements of critical thinking: world-centrism, evidence, comprehensiveness, and commitment.

As for world-centrism, the argument here begins by noting that truth is largely relative. Our perception of it often depends on our stage of personal development – on the degree of evolution we’ve attained. What’s true for children (think Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy) is not true for adults. This by no means invalidates what children think. Their insights are often more acute than grownups’.

On the other hand, however, there are hierarchies of truth. While honoring children’s perceptions, adults cannot generally operate on the basis of what youngsters believe about the world. Neither do all (even very sincere) adults enjoy the same credibility. Some of them are more mature than others – more highly evolved at least in their chosen fields. Einstein, for instance, enjoyed high credibility in the field of physics. He also played the violin. However, his credibility in the field of music didn’t begin to approach that of Jascha Heifetz. It’s the same with other endeavors. Expertise matters.

Recognizing such relativity makes us realize that we do actually inhabit a world of “alternative facts.” But not all fact-claims have the same value. To separate true from less true and truth from falsehood, we must exercise extreme care. Recognizing the previously mentioned truth-hierarchies associated with universal stages of personal development is part of that process.

Philosopher Ken Wilber identifies four major stages of personal development or evolution. The perceptions of higher stages are superior to their lower-stage counterparts. Children, Wilber notes, tend to be egocentric. As such, their world and judgments tend to revolve around themselves, their feelings, needs and naïve beliefs.

In early adolescence or sooner, their scope of concern begins to widen towards group identification or ethnocentrism. They identify with their family, church, school, town, teams, and country. Relative to nation, the attitude here can be as narrow as “My country, right or wrong.” Many people never move beyond ethnocentrism. And in practice, their tribal superiority complex often leads to what Wilber calls “dominator hierarchies,” where control extends beyond the abstract realm of “truth” and “facts” to the politics of imperialism, war, and even slavery.

Those who move beyond ethnocentrism advance to the next evolutionary stage, world-centrism. Here allegiance shifts from my tribe and country to the world and human race. At this stage it becomes possible to criticize even habitually one’s tribe and country from the viewpoint of outsiders, “foreigners,” and independently verifiable data. Dominator hierarchies become less acceptable.

A final (as far as we can tell) stage of development is cosmic-centrism or what Wilber terms “integral thinking.” The cosmic-centric thinker is a mystic, who realizes the unity of all reality, animate and inanimate. (S)he holds that separation between human beings and their environment is only apparent. As many of them put it, “There is really only one of us here.”

The crucial point to note in this context, is that each of these developmental stages has its set of “alternative facts.”

Take the question of Donald Trump’s inauguration audience. According to many observers, Mr. Trump has largely been fixated at the stage of egocentrism (with, no doubt, ethnocentrism rising). Accordingly, he evidently thinks that because of his exceptionality, brilliance, and importance, his crowd must have been larger than that of President Obama, because the latter isn’t nearly as important or smart as Mr. Trump. At Trump’s stage of development, his perception constitutes a fact, pure and simple. Those who disagree are disseminating fake news.

For their parts, the dissenters – reporters, for instance – are usually ethnocentric. In the United States, they typically report from an “American” point of view. They regard Mr. Trump’s statements about crowd size as lies, since his assertions do not agree with readily available independent data information. As previously noted, the D.C. police, for instance, say that Mr. Obama’s crowd was four times larger than Mr. Trump’s. Moreover, ethnocentric reporters regard Mr. Trump’s lies as particularly egregious, because the falsehoods bring discredit and shame on the United States, which they consider the greatest and most virtuous country in the world.

Those with world-centric consciousness subscribe to yet another set of alternative facts. While agreeing that independent data is important for “fact checking,” they emphatically disagree with the premise that the United States is exceptional in its greatness or virtue. Simply put, it is not the greatest country in the world. Instead, for many (especially in the Global South with its history of U.S.-supported regime changes, wars, and dictatorships), fact-checked data show that the United States is the cause of most of the world’s problems. In the words of world-centric Martin Luther King, it is the planet’s “greatest purveyor of violence.” That recognition shapes and relativizes every other judgment of fact.

Cosmic-centered thinkers profoundly disagree with the so-called “facts” of all three previous stages of development. Nonetheless, they recognize that all human beings – and they themselves – must pass through the stages of egocentrism, ethnocentrism, and world-centrism before arriving at cosmic-centrism. That is, though most humans do not surpass ethnocentrism, no stage can be skipped. One cannot become world-centric without having previously been ethnocentric. One cannot adopt a cosmic-centered viewpoint, without first having traversed the world-centric stage. So, instead of anger, those with cosmic consciousness experience great compassion, for instance, towards Donald Trump and his critics both patriotic and more cosmopolitan.

Nonetheless, mystics approaching “facts” from their particular altitude insist that antecedent stages of awareness, though true in ways appropriate for those phases, are at best incomplete. All of them are incapable of discerning the Universe’s single most important truth that renders all else highly misleading. And that’s the fact is that all consciousness of separation is itself an illusion. Hence the size of Donald Trump’s inauguration audience is completely irrelevant. But so are questions about “the greatest country in the world.” No country is greater than any other. In the end, the only truth is God and divine love. Nationalist separation, fear, war, hatred, and associated attitudes are all false. They remain without factual support.

What I’m saying here is that ethnocentrism is superior to egocentrism, world-centrism is superior to ethnocentrism, and cosmic-centrism ranks above world-centrism. In that light, the ultimate task of critical thinking is to help practitioners move from one stage of awareness to a higher one – specifically from ethnocentrism and its invalid dominator hierarchies to world-centrism with its more valid growth hierarchy, and to at least acquaint them with the notion of cosmic-centrism.

In the terms just explained, what stage of evolutionary development are you?  Where do you think most of your friends are located?

(Next week: Why the world’s impoverished know more than Americans)

(Sunday Homily) Jesus & His Friends: Slackers All

hippie-jesus

Readings for 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 49:14-15; PS 62: 2-3, 6-9; I COR 4: 1-5; MT 6: 24-34.

Today’s liturgy of the word raises the question of work and money – always two difficult elements of life for those claiming to follow Jesus’ Way. They’re difficult because both occupy so much of our attention and lives that they can distract us from what’s really important – what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.” Consequently, in this morning’s Gospel selection, Jesus tells us to back off from both money and work while opening ourselves to the abundance of God’s Kingdom.

For American workaholics, that’s surprising. It’s especially challenging for those who love to attack “the undeserving poor” – that is, workers empowered by government programs even like the Affordable Health Care Act.

About money Jesus directly compares the worship of God with the common attitude Americans adopt towards money – or as Jesus puts it, “Mammon” (the name for an idol). It’s impossible, Jesus says, to make money the focus of your life while claiming to serve God. In fact money can make us hate God. But that’s not the surprising part.

What is surprising is that Jesus’ claim comes very close to saying that loving God should make us hate money. That seems to be the meaning of his words recorded in today’s selection from Matthew. Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

In other words, there’s a choice to be made here: serve God or money; hate and despise money or hate and despise God. No one can have it both ways. The text seems to bear that reading, don’t you think?

Of course Jesus’ pronouncement will lead many to “clarify” his words to mean don’t be attached to money. It’s the service of money – it’s making money your master – they would explain, that causes hatred of God.

Okay. But who among us (even financiers, banksters and hedge fund managers) would claim to serve money even though they spend all their waking hours scheming about it. Who would admit that they’re attached to money, or have made it their master? Even those 85 individuals proud of owning as much as half the human race would probably deny that they “serve” money or that it’s their master. (And if they’re right, we can stop our discussion right here!)

On the other hand, those wishing to have it both ways might go further. They might invoke “nature.” They might point out we obviously can’t do without money; it’s a product of nature (human nature) they might say. Some might even argue we can’t even do without capitalism and its drive to “maximize profit.” Capitalism and profit maximization simply represent the inescapable way the world works. They are reflections of the natural order. If they allow 85 people to own more than half the world, so be it. That’s simply natural.

Such talk about nature brings us to my second point – Jesus’ attitude towards work and those who choose not to. Here he definitely has a “back to nature” approach. And once again, it’s surprising. Jesus is not talking about the naturalness of competition or of the law of supply and demand.

In today’s reading from Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says clearly that the natural order not only minimizes the importance of money (at the very least); it also minimizes the importance of work. “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus says, “they don’t sow or reap or store food in barns.” Or “Consider the lilies of the field. They neither toil nor spin.” Learn from them both. Follow their example.

Say what? Is Jesus intention here to discourage work itself? (Talk about contradicting “American” values!) It’s easy to draw that conclusion, I think. After all, he seems to be saying don’t sow or reap or store products in warehouses. Don’t toil or spin. It’s a short step from there to saying, “Don’t work!”

Besides that, Jesus seems to have lived out that latter implication. I mean as an able-bodied 30-something, he left his job as a carpenter to wander from village to village in Palestine philosophizing and apparently living on hand-outs. On the road, he had no home and must have sought shelter from friends. Moreover, he got rough fishermen to leave their nets and follow his example of what appears to be idleness as far as economic productivity is concerned.

In fact, Republicans today would clearly regard Jesus and his apostles as examples of the idle undeserving poor – not to say bums – living off the donations of hard working people. I mean, does that contradict our Protestant Work Ethic, or what?

The point is that Jesus and his sainted friends were not only among the undeserving poor, they flaunted it. They recognized that according to God’s natural order, the world belongs to all creatures including the birds and flowers. If its resources were shared according to Jesus’ Kingdom values, there’d be enough for everyone – just as there was for birds and flowers in Jesus’ day.

So in minimizing the importance of money and praising freedom from work, Jesus was not being unrealistic or some starry-eyed hippy. Instead (as always) he was proclaiming the Kingdom of God. In God’s order, he insisted, there is abundance for everyone – or as Gandhi said enough for everyone’s need, but not for their greed.

Realizing the reality of God’s and nature’s abundance – and not giving in to the world’s myth of scarcity, overwork, and focus on money – should give workers rather than those belonging to the 1% courage to demand what is their birthright.

That natural condition is a life without worry about making ends meet and with enough leisure to enjoy life just like the birds and flowers.

Critical Thinking & Fake News (1st in a series)

fake-news

I’m currently writing a book on critical thinking. A first draft is being reviewed by Peter Lang Publishers. Peer reviewers are giving it the once-over. In this series, I’d like to expose some of the book’s key ideas. What I share immediately below tries to set the stage for  the analysis that will follow in subsequent postings, usually on Tuesdays.

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By all accounts, we’re living in a post-fact age, where it’s increasingly difficult to tell truth from falsehood. That’s why in our culture, contemporary debate rages over terms such as “post-truth,” “truthiness,” “alternative facts,” “fake news,” outright “bullshit,” and “propaganda.”

In fact, according to the Oxford Dictionary, the 2016 Word of the Year (WOTY) was “post-truth.” That same year, the Australian Macquarie Dictionary identified “fake news” as its own WOTY. The trend is unmistakable – signaled as far back as 2006, when “truthiness,” a term coined by Stephen Colbert, took the Oxford Dictionary honor. The Colbert term synthesized the trend’s direction. “Truthiness” was defined as “The quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.”

That’s what the post-truth era centralized: feelings over analysis. “Trust your gut and not your brain,” as Beppe Grillo put it while urging Italians to vote with his conservative Five Star Party against constitutional reforms.

Shortly after being elected, Donald Trump’s team took the trend a step further. Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway, introduced the phrase “alternative facts.” She was debating “Meet the Press” host, Chuck Todd about the size of Trump’s 2017 inauguration audience.

Conway defended the position expressed by Sean Spicer, President Trump’s Press Secretary. He had described the crowd was the largest in inauguration history. Todd disagreed citing D.C. police estimates that it was four times smaller than the number attending Barack Obama’s second inauguration. Conway responded, “. . . Our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that. . .” Todd answered, “Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”

Philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt would put Todd’s point in even starker terms. Drawing on the title of his best-selling book, Frankfurt would say it’s simply “B.S.”  In On Bullshit the professor contrasts liars and bullshitters. The Liar, Frankfurt writes, cares about truth and attempts to hide it; bullshitters don’t care if what they say is true or false. Their only concern is whether or not their listeners are persuaded.

According to another philosopher, Ken Wilber, polls taken during the 2016 election cycle showed that truthiness was valued more highly by a majority of voters than researched facts. Day after day, Wilber writes, newspapers would keep count of questionable statements made by Donald Trump the previous day. Reporters would write things like, “Our fact checkers have found that Mr. Trump told 17 lies on the campaign trail yesterday.” To a lesser extent, they criticized Ms. Clinton’s statements. And yet, when asked who is more truthful, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton? the polls consistently ranked Trump first. This signified, Wilber says, that poll respondents valued persuasiveness more highly than what news reporters called truth.

Truthiness, alternative facts, and bullshit have given rise to widespread concern about “fake news.” During the 2016 presidential campaign, the phrase received prominence when it was discovered that Eastern European bloggers had concocted from whole cloth wild stories about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The stories were directed towards supporters of Donald Trump, and the concoctions’ only purpose was to have the tales go viral – while earning thousands of dollars for their authors. So, readers were treated to headlines such as: “JUST IN: Obama Illegally Transferred DOJ Money to Clinton Campaign!” and “BREAKING: Obama Confirms Refusal to Leave White House, He Will Stay in Power!”

Such headlines might make one laugh. However, Noam Chomsky reminds us that “fake news” is by no means a trivial matter. However, its principal perpetrators are not Macedonian teenagers trolling for cash. They are the C.I.A., the NSA, and the White House (under any president). Their messages are communicated to the rest of us through the mainstream media (MSM) whose function is the dissemination of propaganda. In Necessary Illusions, Chomsky and Edward Herman put it this way:

“The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.”

In other words, at least according to Chomsky and Herman, fake news has long been with us. It is the official policy of the country’s ruling elites.

Now that’s the “fake news” that should really concern us. It’s just about all we get from the mainstream media in this country. And it’s been that way at least since the end of the Second Inter-Capitalist War. In that sense, Donald Trump’s continual lambasting of the press is right on target. (Next week: There Really Are Alternative Facts!)

Sunday Homily: U.S. Christians Shouldn’t Be the World’s Most Violent People (But We Are!)

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Readings for 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time: LV 19: 1-2, 17-18; PS 103: 1-4, 8, 10, 12-13; I COR 3: 16-23; MT 5: 38-48.

We’re living at a time characterized by military crisis; wouldn’t you agree? I mean we’re still in Afghanistan (our country’s longest war ever). Can you tell me why? We’re also fighting in Iraq and have been doing that one way or another since at least 1990. Then there’s Syria and Yemen – not to mention droning in Libya, Somalia, and who knows where else? And on top of that there’s saber-rattling about what Russia does in its backyard, and even about “our” rights to float battleships in the South China Sea – more than 7000 miles away from our shores. We spend more on war than all the other nations of the world combined, and are in the process of modernizing our nuclear weapons arsenal that our “leaders” once pledged to abolish.

And what has it all accomplished? Can you tell me that? Well, while it may make arms manufacturers richer and happier, here’s a short list of its downsides:

  • It kills millions of people – yes more than a million in Iraq alone since 2003!
  • It threatens the very future of the human race.
  • It contributes mightily to environmental destruction,
  • And to global warming as the U.S. military remains the largest institutional consumer of oil in the world
  • As well as to the creation of an unprecedented refugee problem,
  • It appears to motivate terrorists to respond in kind.
  • All of which seems to make us less safe rather than more so.

Doesn’t that seem crazy? Why do we put up with it? I mean to spend more than a billion dollars each day on war and to have absolutely nothing positive to show for it? NOTHING! And then instead of facing that colossal failure, to pledge to do even more of the same – forever and ever?

I’m hard put to think of anything crazier. And scandalously, it’s a nation that claims to be Christian that’s doing all of that – in the name of God and even of Jesus. The Muslims would have a hard time even remotely approaching that level of religiously-motivated violence!

Say, here’s an idea: why don’t we try following the actual teachings of Jesus as found in today’s Liturgy of the Word? I didn’t say “the teachings of the Bible” in general, but the teachings of Jesus.

I mean, in today’s Gospel, the Master takes pains to distinguish between the Bible’s warlike vengeful God and its Compassionate One. Jesus specifically rejects the one and endorses the other. For Matthew that rejection and endorsement was momentous – as significant as Moses reception of the Ten Commandments from his God, Yahweh. That’s why Matthew [in contrast to Luke’s equivalent “Sermon on the Plain” (LK 6:17-49)] has Jesus deliver his “sermon” on a mountain (5:1-7:27). The evangelist is implicitly comparing Moses on Mt. Sinai and Jesus on “the Mount.”

In any case, through a series of antitheses (“You have heard . .. but I say to you . . .”), Jesus contrasts his understanding of the Law with more traditional interpretations. The Mosaic Law demanded an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but Jesus’ Law commands:

  • Turning the other cheek
    • Going the extra mile
    • Generosity with adversaries
    • Open-handedness to beggars
    • Lending without charging interest
    • Love of enemies

Matthew concludes that if we want to be followers of Jesus, we must also be merciful and compassionate ourselves. As today’s reading from Leviticus says, we are called to be holy as God is holy. Or as Jesus puts it, perfect as God is perfect.

And how perfect is that? It’s the perfection of nature where the sun shines on good and bad alike – where rain falls on all fields regardless of who owns them. It’s the perfection of the God described in this morning’s responsorial. According to the psalmist, the Divine One pardons all placing an infinite distance (“as far as east is from west”) between sinners and their guilt. God heals all ills and as a loving parent is the very source of human goodness and compassion. That’s the perfection that Jesus’ followers are called to emulate.

All of that is contrasted with what Paul calls “the wisdom of the world” in today’s excerpt from his first letter to the Christian community in Corinth. The world regards turning the other cheek as weakness. Going the extra mile only invites exploitation. Generosity towards legal adversaries will lose you your case in court. Open-handedness towards beggars encourages laziness. Lending without interest is simply bad business. And loving one’s enemies is a recipe for military defeat and enslavement.

Yet Paul insists. And he bases his insistence on the conviction that we encounter God in every human individual whether they be our abusers, exploiters, or legal adversaries – whether they be beggars or debtors unlikely to repay our interest-free loans.

All of those people, Paul points out are “temples of God.” God dwells in each of them just as God does in us. In the end, that’s the basis of the command we heard in the Leviticus reading, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Normally, our self-centered culture interprets that dictum to mean: (1) we clearly love ourselves more above all; so (2) we should love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.

But in the light of Paul’s mystical teaching that God dwells within every human being, the command about neighbor-love takes on much deeper implication. That is, Paul the mystic teaches that our deepest Self is the very God who dwells within each of us as in the Temple. We should therefore love our neighbor (and our enemy, debtor, adversary, and those who beg and borrow from us) because God dwells within them — because they ARE ourselves. They ARE us! To bomb them, to fight wars against them is therefore suicidal.

No wonder, then, that Paul predicts the destruction of the person who fails to recognize others as temples of God and harms them. Paul means that by destroying others we ipso facto destroy ourselves, because in the end, the God-Self dwelling within us is identical with the Self present in the ones we shoot, bomb and drone. That is a very high mystical teaching. It should be the faith of those pretending to follow Jesus. It should make all of them (all of us!) pacifists.

If we owned that truth, that would be the end of wars. Imagine if the world’s 2.2 billion Christians gave up our addiction to violence and simply refused to destroy our fellow human beings because we recognized in them the indwelling presence of God. Imagine if we stopped worshipping the God Jesus rejects – the “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” War God – and embraced Jesus’ compassionate and loving All-Parent.

The resources freed up would be sufficient to literally transform this world into a paradise.

“No Priests” Is the Remedy for the Priest Shortage: Notes for a Home Church (Pt. 4 of 4)

helpwanted

A friend of mine recently told me, “If you’re trying to initiate something new (like reclaiming my priesthood) and the response isn’t ‘Hell yeah!’ you’re probably on the wrong track.”

Well, I haven’t yet heard many “Hell yeahs!” in response to my efforts to (as I said here) re-appropriate my priesthood and start a house church in Berea, Kentucky.

Oh, my very good and generous friends have humored me by showing up on Saturday evenings. But even the closest of them have made it clear that they were doing so out of a sense of duty, rather than enthusiasm.

On top of that, my own reflection on our gatherings has been less than “Hell yeah!” And that’s led me to think that perhaps the whole form of Eucharistic gathering (Mass) might be passé. Certainly, as Garry Wills has pointed out in his book Why Priests? “priesthood” as we’ve known it is beyond recall.

That’s not surprising, since the office of priest turns out to be foreign in the experience of the early church. In fact, no “priest” is mentioned In the accounts of Eucharistic meals found in the first two centuries of Christianity [e.g. in the Dialog with Typho and First Apology of Justin Martyr (100-165)]

Instead, we find mention of a presider – a proestos in Greek – whose function was to stand in front of the congregation, call it to order, and keep the meeting on track. That’s what proestos (the Greek word for the presider at the Eucharist) literally means – the “stander-in-front.”

“Priests” came in much later – and definitively after Christianity became the official religion of Rome. Then, as mentioned earlier, the Christian Eucharist took on the trappings of Roman “mystery cults,” like for instance the cult of the Sun God, Mithra, a favorite of the Roman army, whose birthday was celebrated each year on December 25th.

Mystery cults worshipped gods and goddesses like Mithra, Isis, Osiris, and the Great Mother. All of them descended from heaven, lived on earth for a while, and then ascended back to heaven. From there they offered eternal life to followers who in at least one cult ate the divine one’s body under the form of bread and drank his blood under the form of wine to attain eternal life.

Does that sound familiar?

Of course, it does, because that’s what Jesus became under the aegis of Rome. And priests were part of the syndrome. The new Christian Holy Men dressed up like their mystery cult counterparts, and performed a liturgy so similar to the pagan sacred meal rituals that most Romans probably couldn’t tell the difference.

Nonetheless, the pagan cults were eventually swallowed up entirely by Christianity, and believers were left with a ritual that resembled neither Jesus’ “Lord’s Supper” nor a blood sacrifice. Even the bread stopped looking like bread, but more like a plastic wafer.

But the priests remained, accompanied by an ideological lore that justified their existence by claiming that:

  • Jesus was a priest.
  • His apostles were the first Christian priests.
  • In fact, Jesus’ right-hand man, Peter, was the first pope.
  • Priests were necessary to forgive sin.
  • And to offer what was now called “the holy sacrifice of the Mass.”

Such convictions meant that priests became separated from ordinary Christians. The cleric’s alleged power to miraculously change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ did that. Performing the miracle seemed to be something between priests and God. Mass was often “celebrated” by the priest alone accompanied by an altar boy.  Even in public, Mass rubrics had the priest facing away from the congregation in a sanctuary fenced off from the congregation by a “communion railing.” There priests completed their duties more or less in secret and using a language (Latin) that few besides the clergy could understand.

Mandatory celibacy also contributed to the otherness of priests. Largely to protect church property from priests’ heirs, the requirement became de rigueur for all priests in the Roman dispensation after the 12th century. Priests were so special that contrary to Jesus’ specific teaching about calling no man “Father” (MT 23:9), they could assume that title for themselves (as in referencing the pope as “Holy Father.”).

Priests signified their specialness by even dressing differently from other Christians – with the pope assuming all the trappings of the Roman Emperor.  Eventually, ecclesiastical life revolved entirely around the “clergy.” They alone were allowed to preach and even touch the sacred elements.

In all of this, the “faithful” were reduced to the role of spectators at priestly cultic events. All such rituals centered on the “Host” consecrated at Mass, and afterwards taking on a life of its own in its “tabernacle,” or displayed for “benediction” in a monstrance, which was sometimes carried ceremoniously in Eucharistic processions.

All of that changed with the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65), when the Church of Rome finally caught up with the Protestant Reformation. The Council recognized the “priesthood of the faithful” that Martin Luther had celebrated. Vatican II also described the Eucharist as a “sacred meal,” rather than simply as a “holy sacrifice.” The altar became a “table” and was turned around and moved closer to the people. More and more frequently, liturgical periti (experts) at the Council described the priest as a “presider.” Lay people were allowed to touch and distribute the sacred elements. Council fathers recognized Jesus’ “real presence” not simply in the Eucharist, but also in Sacred Scripture and in the community they referred to as the “Pilgrim People of God.”

Meanwhile the “search for the historical Jesus” that had begun in earnest with the work of Albert Schweitzer in 1906 took a giant leap forward with the emergence of liberation theology and its adoption by CELAM (the Latin American Bishops’ Conference). Liberation theology was reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed, especially in the former colonial world.  It recognized Jesus as a poor peasant like his Third World counterparts. He was seen as thoroughly Jewish and as a resister to Roman Imperialism.

Far from being a priest himself, he was a foe of priests and all they stood for.

Such developments – Vatican II, its theological and liturgical reforms, new insights about the historical Jesus, and re-evaluations of the priesthood itself –  brought priests down from their pedestals; their office became déclassé. With their own baptismal priesthood affirmed, the faithful felt empowered. They spontaneously stopped “going to confession.” Priests everywhere experienced identity crises. Mandatory celibacy entered full debate. As a result, thousands of priests worldwide left the priesthood to marry.

In response, the hierarchical church tried to backpedal. While recognizing the teaching of Vatican II as its own official teaching, the long reign of Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) followed by that of Benedict XVI (2006-2013) gave Vatican II Catholics the feeling that the hierarchy’s honoring of the Council was mostly lip-service.

John Paul II and Benedict systematically replaced cardinals and bishops who had taken to heart the Second Vatican Council’s reforms. The reactionary popes also packed the College of Cardinals (who would elect future popes) with conservatives, made it more difficult for priests to “return to the lay state,” suppressed liberation theology, silenced and removed creative theologians from teaching posts, returned Latinisms to the Eucharistic liturgy, cooperated with neoliberal political regimes, and were generally backward-looking.

Perhaps most importantly, formation programs in Catholic seminaries took a sharp turn to the right. The priests who emerged from them showed little sympathy for conciliar reforms. They displayed ignorance of modern scripture scholarship or awareness of ecumenical theology, as well as any inclination to connect the Gospel with contemporary issues other than abortion or gay marriage.

Such rightward drift came to a sudden and unexpected halt with the election of Pope Francis, an Argentinian, and the first Global South pope in the history of the church. Ordained in 1969, Francis is a product of the Second Vatican Council and inevitably influenced by liberation theology, which was largely a product of Latin America.

His Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (JG, 2013) was seen as his manifesto announcing an acceleration of Vatican II reforms. It called for a “new chapter” in the history of the Catholic Church and for the church to embark on a “new path” on which things could not be left unchanged (JG 25). Preaching had to improve, he said (135-159). The roles of women needed expansion (103-4). Outreach was necessary to Christians of other denominations who share unity with Catholics on many fronts (246). And the struggle for social justice and participation in political life was an inescapable “moral obligation” (220,258).

As for priests, Francis’ Exhortation continued the clerical downgrading implied in Vatican II reforms. The priesthood, the pope taught, represents simply a church function. It is a service not necessarily distinguished in dignity, holiness, or superiority from those rendered by other baptized Christians (204).

And there’s more. Recently, Leonardo Boff (a Brazilian liberation theologian silenced under John Paul II, but reinstated by Pope Francis) spoke glowingly of the current pope. “He is one of us,” Boff said – presumably referring to liberationist Catholics. In any case, Boff went on to speculate that Francis is about to address the Brazilian priest shortage by making possible the reinstatement of the country’s thousands of laicized priests. Boff also conjectured that the pope might be on the brink of allowing women to become deacons. Both changes would represent giant steps towards eliminating mandatory celibacy for priests and towards ordination of women.

CONCLUSION

But is any of those measures sufficient for resolving the priest shortage – or for addressing the irrelevance of the church noted at the beginning of this series of four essays? I doubt it.

That’s because the very bases of priestly powers are in practice no longer believable. I’m referring to the quasi-magic ability to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, and the authority to forgive sins in the sacrament of Penance. On these two functions, hangs all priestly authority and the entire special identity of the Catholic clergy.

And like the Protestant Reformers before them, many adult, thinking Catholics can no longer accept either. As we have seen, scripture scholars have shown that neither power enjoys biblical endorsement. They are inheritances from post-first century fundamentalists who lacked sensitivity to the rich symbolism of the words attributed to Jesus in the Christian Testament.

As explained earlier, that rich symbolism finds in a loaf of bread a wonderful image of the human condition. Its single reality summarizes it all. Bread is the product of seed, earth, sun, rain, and human labor. When shared it miraculously creates and sustains human community. Wine is similar. Throughout his life, Jesus celebrated the community that such simple elements manifest. His teachings reinforced that basic insight. He was a prophet, a spiritual master, and a religious reformer who preferred rough illiterate fishermen over pretentious, exclusive priests. That was a radical and liberating message.

The Protestant reformers saw all of that quite clearly. And so they did away with priests who insisted on being separate and special, while being honored with titles Jesus forbade.

All of this means that the reforms of Vatican II didn’t go nearly far enough. Pope Francis is correct. To survive, the church must embark on that “new path” he called for.  There nothing can be left unchanged (JG 25). The roles of women need expansion (103-4). Ecumenical cooperation with other denominations and religions must be centralized as well as the struggle for social justice (220, 258). Until all Christians in close cooperation with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, New Agers, and atheists cooperate to attack injustice, the survival of the world itself is in doubt.

Evidently, Pope Francis himself has not perceived the implications of his brave words. Certainly, church leaders have not. It remains for the rest of us to take the lead.

Taking that lead was the thought behind my initial “Hell yeah!” to the idea of house church.  

 

 

The Ten Commandments: God’s and The Donald’s (Sunday Homily)

trump-commandments
Readings for 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time: SIR 15: 15-20; PS 119: 1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34; I Cor 2: 6-10; MT 5: 17-37.
The emphasis in today’s liturgy of the word is on the wonders of God’s law. “Keep the commandments; no one has a license to sin,” the first reading from Sirach intones. “Walk blamelessly in God’s law; observe its decrees; delight in its wonder,” sings the psalmist in today’s responsorial. And then in the Gospel reading Jesus presents himself as the defender of even the least of the commandments. Break the least, he says, and you’ll be least in God’s Kingdom.
On hearing all of this, I couldn’t but squirm on behalf of Christian Trump supporters who respect what they consider God’s Word. After all, The Donald seems to live by his own rules. And those guidelines don’t seem to have much to do with the Bible’s Ten and the delight, joy, and fulfillment today’s readings suggest infallibly result from observance of the Decalogue. Or as comedian, Bill Maher put it during the campaign season, “It’s hard to bring up the Ten Commandments when your candidate has spent most his life breaking all of them.”
On the other hand, Richard Dawkins, a sworn enemy of Christianity has formulated his own Ten Commandments. Ironically, Dawkins’ rules are more in harmony with today’s delight-full estimation of God’s Law. In fact, they seem more worthy of Christian support than the one’s Mr. Trump apparently lives by.
So just for fun, in the light of today’s readings, let’s contrast the two sets of commandments, and see what we can learn. It might be that Dawkins’ natural law commandments are more promising in terms of Nature’s delight, joy and peace than what we hear implicitly proclaimed by casino king Donald Trump and his Christian followers.

Begin with Mr. Trump. Here’s how humorist Neel Ingram compared the Bible’s Ten Commandments with what seems to be their Trumpian counterparts. (Ingram hosts a website called Chewing The Fat With God). Using Trump’s own words, Ingram writes:

Commandment 1: You shall have no other gods before Me.

Commandment 1 (Trump Edition): I won the popular vote… I’m really smart. I have the best words. Best words. Believe me.

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Commandment 2: You shall not make for yourself a carved image of Me.

Commandment 2 (Trump Edition): You shall not publish unflattering photos. Giant portraits are okay if they’re of Me. For Me.

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Commandment 3: You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.

Commandment 3 (Trump Edition): You shall not mock me, the ratings machine, Donald J. Trump, or I will declare you boring and unfunny. Bigly.

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Commandment 4: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

Commandment 4 (Trump Edition): I proclaim a National Day of Patriotic Devotion in my honor. A great day. Best day.

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Commandment 5: Honor your father and your mother.

Commandment 5 (Trump Edition): My parents… great people… truly great… great, unbelievable parents. I’m a really good father. My children really like me — love me — a lot.

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Commandment 6: You shall not murder.

Commandment 6 (Trump Edition): Murder is a terrible crime. Don’t murder. Murder’s not good. Bad!

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Commandment 7: You shall not commit adultery.

Commandment 7 (Trump Edition): Adultery — I don’t think it should be done. Don’t screw around unless she’s hot as sh*t and you think you’ll get away with it.

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Commandment 8: You shall not steal.

Commandment 8 (Trump Edition): Don’t steal. Do a deal. My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy. I’ve grabbed all the money I could get. I’m so greedy.

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Commandment 9: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Commandment 9 (Trump Edition): False witnesses are like fake news. Media can’t be trusted. Serious bias — big problem! Sad.

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Commandment 10: You shall not covet anything that is your neighbor’s.

Commandment 10 (Trump Edition): Don’t covet. I’m really rich. When you’re really rich there’s nothing to covet. Except p*ssy. When you’re a star you can do anything. Grab them by the p*ssy. It’s amazing. Terrific.

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Mr. Trump’s outrageous profanity aside, now take a look at what today’s readings have to say about God’s law. All of them (and especially Jesus’ words) suggest that “God’s Law” has nothing to do with Mr. Trump’s guiding principles. Neither is it written in stone. Instead, God’s commandments are enshrined deep in the human heart. And human happiness is impossible without observing that law which in its essence is no different from nature’s law.

That’s the line Richard Dawkins takes. Beginning with The Golden Rule, he lists his Ten Commandments in the following words:

  1. Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you
    2. In all things, strive to cause no harm
    3. Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
    4. Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
    5. Live life with a sense of joy and wonder
    6. Always seek to be learning something new
    7. Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.
    8. Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
    9. Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
    10. Question everything

Dawkins also has something to say about that fraught area of sexuality which evidently so concerns D.T. and his Christian friends. But whereas The Donald emphasizes power and exploitation while his friends emphasize prohibition and suppression, Mr. Dawkins’ commandments stress the joy and freedom centralized in today’s readings. Dawkins writes:

  1. Enjoy your own sexual life (as long as it does not harm to others), and let others enjoy their sexual lives in private according to their own inclinations which in any case are none of your business.
    2. Don’t discriminate against or oppress anyone because of their sex, race or (insofar as possible) species.
    3. Don’t indoctrinate your children. Teach them to think for themselves, how to weigh evidence, and how to disagree with you.
    4. Respect the future beyond the temporal limits of your own life.

Now those laws are “delightful,” wouldn’t you agree? They seem to make sense because they reflect human nature and nature’s laws. Their observance could bring the world together rather than tearing it apart on the basis of supposedly revealed religious dogmas.

That’s what Roman Catholic (but suspended) theologian, Hans Kung thinks. He says that such a “global ethic” is necessary to finally end the armed conflicts that characterize our age. Towards that end, Kung has articulated four principles: (1) International peace is impossible without peace between religions; (2) there can be no inter-religious peace without inter-religious dialog; (3) there can be no inter-religious dialog without agreement about a global ethic, and (4) our world cannot survive without such an ethic that is universally accepted.

The United Nations seconds Dr. Kung. It boils down his desired global ethic to just four basic “commandments”: (1) Don’t kill; (2) Don’t rape; (3) Don’t lie, and (4) Don’t steal.

Could it be that Christians have more to learn about God’s law from an atheist than from the authoritarian so many Christians and Christian pastors evidently support?

In any case, while the latter promises eternal conflict, the former holds hope of dialog, mutual understanding, and cessation of hostilities.

The choice is ours: Trump’s self-serving law or God’s law written in our hearts.