Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

The Thinker

Going to the dogs

It was a brief moment today. I was driving to work through a residential neighborhood. As I often do on Tuesdays, I had to wend my way past the trash truck. I give these guys a brake and wait for them to say it’s okay to pass them. Today though the guys on the trash truck were oblivious to me. They were petting a dog.

One of the homeowners had her dog on a leash and was doing walkies along the sidewalk. This dog, like most dogs, is a friendly dog, as was evident by its wagging tail. I didn’t quite catch the breed, but it was smaller than most, and black. The guys hauling the trash, unsurprisingly I am sorry to say, were also black. There were two in the back and one in the cab. The two in the back normally gather trashcans from both sides of the street at once, and the guy in the cab drives.

Today though the crew had gone to the dogs, er, dog. Both of them had stopped the hauling and were petting the dog that was happily making their acquaintance and straining at his leash as if he wanted to sit on their nonexistent laps. The lady at the other end of the leash was laughing. The guys on the street were laughing as they petted the dog. The guy in the cab smiled through his side view mirror at the encounter. I pulled around them cautiously and made my way to work, smiling as well.

That one dog provided a lot of happiness. Moreover, like most dogs, this was a colorblind dog, both physically and metaphorically. Dogs, bless them, have no sense of social class. One friendly human is as good as another to them. Black face, white face, brown face, red face – it just doesn’t matter to them. All that matters is their sense of you and how you relate to them. Everyone in this encounter appeared to be a dog lover, at least for that moment. No one cared if a minute or two of productivity was lost. There was a friendly dog that wanted some attention and was glad to give some attention. At least until that encounter ended, social class simply did not matter. The dog had brought together people who would probably never talk to each other otherwise.

In the gospels we learn that Jesus was a man from Galilee, he was definitely human and that he was also a holy man who many believe was God in human form. Jesus of course spent some years in Galilee and Judea preaching about love and inclusiveness. It’s hard to know where Jesus was in the social class of Judea at the time. If he was truly a carpenter’s son, he could probably be considered middle class for those generally impoverished times. For a while he developed quite a following, at least according to the Gospels, but he also developed enemies. The priests in the temple did not like him because he was so different and because people called him a rabbi. The Romans put him to death. And it appears he drew the scorn of many because he hung out with losers like Mary Magdalene, a common prostitute in the eyes of many, as well as lepers, the homeless and general miscreants. Our understanding of Jesus is of course imperfect. We have only the legend of Jesus, as there is no scrap of evidence that he actually lived, and the original gospels have long ago returned to dust. But Jesus as he is depicted certainly believed in transcending class, and in universal love, and in recognizing our common humanity.

Jesus, in other words, was a man who had gone to the dogs. It would not have surprised me if his family had a dog. For if you have to learn about love and have no other guide, in most cases you can get it courtesy of the family or neighborhood mutt.

I am a cat person more than a dog person, simply because my wife introduced me to cats and I had no pets to speak of growing up except for a family parakeet. I have spent enough time though with dogs to know they are fundamentally different than cats. Cats are Republicans. They want to know what’s in it for them and it’s almost always me first. In general, they will only return affection when they first get some. They may rub at your heels for attention, but their attention tends to be fleeting. If you ignore them for a few weeks, you will probably lose any affection they had for you.

Dogs, on the other hand, are Democrats. Certainly not all dogs are friendly, and many will be affectionate only with their master. But once you have earned their trust, and it usually takes nothing more than a chew toy, snack or just a scritch of their heads, you are part of their tribe. It may be fleeting or it may be permanent. Dogs are all about finding joy in life and in getting in touch with the feelings of creatures around them. Class means nothing to them. Most of the time they will radiate love, particularly with their owner, but often with anyone in their locality. If you don’t look happy they will sense this and come over to you, and darn well try to make you happy. It’s their nature.

Christians are still waiting for the second coming of Christ. Many believe he will descend from heaven through the clouds, with his radiance pouring down across the earth. Then the saved will be saved and the damned will be damned. As for me, today’s encounter makes me think that Christ has already returned. In fact, he’s been here for a long time and you can find him nearby. Just seek out your family or neighborhood dog. Feel their love, feel their radiance, feel the cares of the world recede when you are with them or, as I saw today, see class barriers momentarily disappear. If you want to be more Christ-like, perhaps you could just imitate your mutt more. Be friendly, be open, be loving by nature and if you sense someone is hurting go over and say you want to help them feel better.

We should all go to the dogs.

 
The Thinker

A pope for the rest of us

I wish I could be a fly on the wall of the Vatican right now. It’s an incestuous conclave of medieval thinkers who can barely accept that the world is round. Now suddenly it is finding itself thrust into the modern world. If I were Pope Francis, I would consider a personal bodyguard, an official food tester and maybe a bulletproof vest. The rage of institutional clerics in the place must be palpable. I can summon up the one word they must be thinking right now:

Betrayed!

Right now they are reacting like stunned bunnies to the highly unorthodox words coming from their new supreme cleric. I expect that eventually even within the highly servile Catholic Church, where masochism toward Catholic orthodoxy is a virtue, that these forces will challenge Pope Francis. That’s when things are going to get interesting.

Despite all the odds designed to prevent popes like Pope Francis from being elected, there he is channeling a stunning amount of common sense. For the most part, he appears to be someone more concerned about the state of the forest than that every tree in it be perfectly straight. Pope Francis seems to have a true grasp of the purpose of religion.

For clerics in the Vatican it must be like Gollum seeing the sunlight: “It stings! It burns!” Apparently there is more to Catholicism than the metaphorical need to avoid stepping on cracks of the sidewalk. Pope Francis seems to be saying go ahead and step on those cracks. Wander onto the grass as well. Take your shoes off and slip your feet in the stream.

I must say, this former Catholic is quite impressed by this newest pope. His election won’t be enough to make me go and rejoin the Catholic Church, at least not unless Pope Francis totally transforms it. I can’t imagine him going that far. I can’t imagine him suggesting a consecrated host is, well, just bread. Or that gays are not only welcome but should be married in the church. Or that prayer is wasted time and thought. Or that Jesus was a very wise man but not divine. In other words, if he were to transform the Catholic Church into the Unitarian Universalism I actually practice, yeah, I could rejoin the Catholic Church. For one thing, Catholics know how to do stained glass and incense. As a rule, Unitarian Universalists don’t have a clue. We are great at drinking coffee after services, however.

It’s pretty clear though that Pope Francis understands that much of what passes for Catholic thought is silly and/or harmful. Some of these statements from the pope are jaw droppers. Here are some of them:

  • Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense.
  • Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.
  • Remember that the Church is feminine.
  • No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community.
  • We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
  • Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience.
  • If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency (to homosexuality) is not the problem … they’re our brothers.

To me, what is most remarkable about Francis is not that he is opening dialog with atheists or that he is showing tolerance toward homosexuals, but that he gets the bigger picture. Religion is not really about making people believe as the Church believes; religion is about loving broadly and universally. It’s about making human kindness central to everything that we do. Francis seems to be saying that it is through kindness that people connect with God and that God is not so much an abstract external entity, but the loving whole of universal kindness and compassion. By becoming kind people we pick up the godly attributes, we heal ourselves and we help heal others too.

That’s a message that most of us can hear gladly. It’s also reassuring for us to hear his humility and him confess his sinfulness. It’s reassuring to see he practices what he preaches, by embracing a young boy who strays onto the altar with him to eschewing the papal apartment to be with the people by living in a nearby hotel. Real ministry happens person to person. It does not come from being secluded behind the insular walls of the Vatican. Francis seems to be saying that walking the walk is meaningful while talking the talk is not. Implicit in what he is saying is that a lot of what the Church does is counterproductive and sometimes hurtful. It is certainly not Christ-like.

So I may have to see if Pope Francis has a Facebook account, just so I can “like” him. I don’t expect to ever be a Catholic again, but it’s nice to know that the leader of the Catholic Church is a rather ordinary person with a good heart, instead of yet another Stepford pope chained to its orthodoxy and bereft of actual ministerial capabilities.

For every action — and this is a huge change in the Vatican — there is bound to be a reaction. It will be interesting to see if the Church can remain coherent during his time as pope. It could well fracture with some leaving to follow a new true “orthodox” Roman Catholic Church. For many devout Catholics it doesn’t matter too much where the path leads so much as that you stay on it. My time in the Catholic Church convinced me that devout Catholics were just the latter, captured by ritual and process, almost the way someone into bondage is into being controlled. But mostly the Church missing the essence of Jesus’s message. Pope Francis at least sees the larger picture. That’s a refreshing change.

 
The Thinker

God gets revised

Yes, it’s pretty cheeky of man thinking we can revise God. It’s cheeky unless you think that God is largely a creation of man anyhow. I happen to be in that boat. So seeing the book God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age by one of my favorite Unitarian Universalist luminaries for sale had me plunking down twenty bucks or so for the hardcover version.

Its author is Galen Guengerich, the senior minister at the All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan. What made this book particularly interesting to me is that I got a preview of it four years ago, when I first attended the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I got introduced to Rev. Guengerich in a large conference room over two days. Yes, there was so much meat in his seminar that one-day would not do it. Clearly that occasion was on his mind. He even alluded to it this year, during another seminar that he gave. You might say I was there in the beginning of this book. This book is the result of four years of thought.

Guengerich himself is something of a contradiction, but that makes his story all the more interesting. He grew up in a Mennonite community near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. As a Mennonite community, it was considered moderate, but Mennonites are very much a cloistered religion where you generally entered the faith with birth, married someone in the faith, lived your life in a Mennonite community and died therein. Guengerich eventually left the faith, but not the ministry. It is in the family blood as his father was a minister. His rambling search for a faith consistent with his rational mind and his calling toward ministry eventually lead him into my Unitarian Universalist denomination and to the very prestigious church in Manhattan as its senior minister.

In Unitarian Universalist (UU) circles, he comes close to being a rock star. UUs are uncomfortable with this designation, but he is clearly one of our leading theologians and luminaries. In this book, Guengerich ponders what God is in the scientific age and if so what it means to be religious. His conclusions will seem radical to those enmeshed in a traditional faith, but not so much to Unitarian Universalists. I was not surprised that he still sees the need for religion. However, religion is clearly in decline, at least in the secular areas of the world. More and more people have ditched religion and prefer to be labeled “spiritual”, a bland word that really describes nothing. As a minister that caters to people who are more spiritual than religious, Guengerich sees this type of person all the time. Mostly they consist of people too rational to believe in most of the clearly wacky and antiquated notions of God, and who often have been spiritually wounded by the faith of their youth. However, try as they might this “spirituality” thing isn’t working for them. There is nothing much to lash onto. Many feel disconnected and flighty, carried by currents they don’t understand.

This book was really written for these people, not people “of the book” who find their revelations in the Bible, the Torah or the Quran. Those in the latter group, if they read the book at all, are going to feel offended. It’s not that Guengerich dismisses them or their beliefs. One of the curious things about this book is how respectfully he writes about all people of faith, and how he qualifies his own faith (such as it is) with uncertainty.

One can accept the mystery of holy books full of contradictions, as billions are glad to do, even though it leads to cognitive dissonance. Or one can look at these holy books, put a yellow highlighter to them and see that much of the advice or beliefs are just wrong, or simply don’t work in our modern age. Guengerich does the latter, and systematically but respectfully goes through many of these beliefs and shows why they not only should not be believed, but also are dangerous to believe. He goes through the consequences of people believing in some of these ideas, the wreckage of which is all around us. The Taliban are an overly extreme but not unique example. They would keep women ignorant, cloistered in their houses and covered in all public spaces (well, at least while they have periods).

His conclusion, unsurprisingly similar to mine, is that there is no personal God, but that our universe is worthy of reverence. He pretty much agrees with my independent thesis some years back that God is not a noun, but a verb. He also believes that religion is necessary. It connects us with a higher purpose and gives us the courage we need in an impersonal world to change it, but also to feel real community. The practice of worship, he argues, connects emotion with reason, for we need both to find the courage to make our dispiriting world a better place. To the extent that God exists, he argues, it is through us. As I mentioned some posts back (and I confess I stole this idea from his lecture), we are very much the hands of God. (He says we are the fulcrum, the change agent that makes change possible.) The world can be made a better, more civilized and loving place only through our actions. In congregation and through the practice of worship, we find the stamina and the courage to turn abstract hopes into concrete actions. We become the change agents for the better world that we need.

This conclusion should not be surprising but is not something we routinely think about. You look at how great positive change occurs in the world, and it arrives by practicing faith that typically gets set in houses of worship. It’s how slaves won freedom and found safe passage north. It’s how Gandhi won independence for his country and how Martin Luther King reoriented our moral compass. It’s how suffrage happened and Catholic abuses of indulgences were ended. Without worship space for like minds to come together as people of faith, positive change is much less likely to happen.

Guengerich writes eloquently but sparsely, packing ideas into short sentences that connect well with his larger themes. His one largest theme is gratitude as the basis of faith. Having the gift of life, in spite of its complexities, is still an amazing experience. We exist only because of our utter dependence on each other. Breaking our bonds of connection is suicidal. He says that we need a reverence for our relationships with one another and the natural world. A positive religion for the 21st century will help get us there.

His book is a great read for open minds but is also straightforward, easily readable, and just the right length to keep you turning the pages and to never feel bored. Put it on your Kindle for just $10.67.

 
The Thinker

The hands of God

It’s been four years since I wrote a sermon. There is little reason to write one if you are not a minister, which I am certainly am not. But it has also been four years since I attended the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Four years ago it was in Salt Lake City. This week it is in Louisville, Kentucky. Unsurprisingly if you attend an event like this you will hear lots of sermons as well as prominent speakers, albeit given in large conference rooms instead of sanctuaries. This sermon is tangentially based on a lecture I attended yesterday. No one will hear this sermon but some will at least read it. Enjoy.

Not long ago I wrote about TheTweetofGod, a Twitter feed that hilariously claims to be thoughts from God himself. Many of the prayerful believe they get personal communications from God. Most of us get the sense that God is distant and at best we hear from him through other channels and rarely get information we need when we need it. Many of the more secular of us, such as me, observe that God seems to be far too busy in other outer worldly tasks than to bother with my pedestrian needs. It is hard for us to reconcile the perfectly compassionate God we were taught with the world we inhabit. In the real world, so many of us live harsh, cruel and often capricious lives. Why does an all-loving God allow evil to happen to people? It’s an eternal mystery and for all their quoting of Bible passages, the arguments by the devout are weak at best. It is entirely rational to see God as absent at best and a figment of our suffering at worst.

Yet we move forward in life, at least those of us do with innate survival skills, aided perhaps in part by our local house of worship. Some of us end up as road kill: victims of suicide, homicide, starvation and various diseases. Most of us particularly if blessed with opportunity and education carve some meaning through career, family and social engagement. Life becomes, if not heavenly, at least somewhat bearable with challenges and happy periods. All of us share the same fate. All of us, if we are honest, can say that any other life that happens after death is unfathomable.

Catholics in particular are comfortable with the notion of saints. Saints are men and women with god-like spiritual powers, whose works on earth seem at least inspired by God. Some of the saints Catholics worship seem to have wizard-like capabilities. They are not God, but seem touched by God in some special way to channel abilities seemingly beyond mortal men. Saints tend to have specializations. St. Francis of Assisi, for example, seemed to be especially in tune with the animals.

In truth most of us have gifts that if we practiced them would make us saintly. Simply practicing compassion to those suffering around us can do much to reduce suffering. Many of these skills are easy to learn, if not innate, and are not difficult to practice on a daily basis. I am a reasonably compassionate person but I will confess it is hard to act compassionately to the homeless people on the streets here in Louisville as I walk to the convention center from my hotel. It’s much easier to be compassionate toward more trusted sources, like my wife and daughter. Given that these skills are easy to acquire, and perhaps innate, all of us are in some ways capable of being ministers. The fundamental skill required of ministry is simply the ability to relate to a person and acknowledge them as a person, no better or worse than ourselves.

Thus, while all of us are imperfect, we are still God-like. We have the ability to combine reason with empathy to reduce not just our suffering but the suffering of those we encounter. We become, in effect, the hands of God in the world. We have the ability to do the boots-on-the-ground ministry that God himself seems unwilling to do directly.

Perhaps this is because God is not some external entity wholly apart from us. Perhaps it is because we are all a part of the body of God whether we acknowledge it or not. Obviously none of us acts with perfect knowledge and perfect empathy, but neither does an individual cell in your own body. And yet just as each cell in your body has functions, so do you. Some of these functions can be used to spread love and reduce misery. At any moment we can choose whether or not we wish to exercise these talents.

If we have an erroneous zone, perhaps it is in thinking that God is some external being, rather than we are the hands of God. Perhaps we discount our own ability to be the hands of God, because we see ourselves as too imperfect, and thus unworthy of divinity. Perhaps we have been trained to wallow in our unworthiness, and thus find it hard to love and trust ourselves. Perhaps we believe because we know of our innate imperfections that we cannot summon our god-like powers. And yet we all have them and can use them at any time we choose to do so. We can put a dollar in the cup of a homeless man. We can pick up a man who has fallen and take him to the hospital. We can nurture a son or a daughter. We can hold the hand of our aging parent as they confess their fears of dying. We can scour our pantry for food that we don’t need so that the poor can have sustenance. We can peel potatoes in a soup kitchen. We can pick up trash from public lots. We can plant trees and remove garbage from our estuaries.

Perhaps God is simply saying to us who want to worship him: I gave you hands, feet, eyes and mouths for a reason: so that you can make your world a better place for you and for all life. All we have to do is choose to engage that part of us, and we can create the paradise that we imagine. We simply have to act.

Amen.

 
The Thinker

Bored of directors

You can only dodge the bullet for so long. Somehow I dodged it for sixteen years.

That’s how long I’ve been attending my local Unitarian Universalist church. And that’s how long I’ve not been on its board of directors. Not that I never did anything more than put money into the collection plate. Over the years I’ve taught religious education, helped with a youth group, took kids on field trips, spent a night in a lockdown so youth could play all night and even went to our denomination’s general assembly. I’ve ushered, helped put together lunches for annual meetings, cleaned up the church kitchen after services, put away lots of chairs and hymnals after services and drank copious amounts of coffee after services too. I’ve attended church auctions, church dinners, facilitated rummage sales, painted walls, cleaned out closets and showed youth how to pray toward Mecca.

That was then. This weekend I find myself on our board of directors, although my three-year term does not start officially until July. I tried to talk them out of it. I said usually directors were chosen from an elite inner circle, not from the next circle in, which is where I saw myself. That’s probably where they saw me too except after sixteen years they could no longer not call me. They had run through the usual suspects too many times. So I am on the board of directors, somewhat unwillingly, but mainly because I could not think of a good enough excuse to get out of it.

In truth I have plenty of other commitments already. This would be one more and anecdotally it was likely to evolve into one of these unappreciated, time consuming and open-ended commitments. The sad truth about non-profit operations like churches is they don’t run themselves. They are complex organisms of relationships. Bill Gates once famously said that trying to manage programmers was like trying to herd cats. Managing churches is like trying to nail Jello to the wall.

There are all sorts of challenges in our church, none of which are likely to get solved no matter how much we flagellate ourselves or how much time I give it. Membership is declining. Our minister of just three years is leaving, for reasons she will not explicitly state, which of course pumps the rumor mill. As I once noted, churches are human institutions, and ours certainly is. We have a long and storied history of settled ministers leaving us for greener pastures or in strange circumstances, and this latest episode is just one more that feeds the fear, is there something intrinsically wrong with us?

Supposedly we have institutionalized trust issues but it seems that we really have ministerial issues. Our first minister was later revealed to be philandering with the congregants he was supposed to be counseling. His replacement left abruptly after less than a year. One of our interim ministers wrote a letter purporting to be from our board of directors endorsing himself for a permanent ministry elsewhere. He was, of course, quickly sacked. The last interim minister complained that we were a surreal congregation, happy enough to listen to sermons but reticent to challenge him on them, something he saw routinely in other congregations. Not that all of our ministers have been bad. Most recently we had a husband/wife pair that spent nine happy years with us.

The Catholics at least have a pragmatic solution to these organizational problems: the priest gets to decide. His decisions may be imperfect, but at least they tend to be final. In a covenantal church like ours everything is done democratically, which means that consensus is usually needed and usually hard to achieve, even though we are quite similar to each other in categories like race, income levels and politics. A building expansion consumed ten years, all but two of which involved in coming to consensus on whether then what to build. Curiously, once we finally broke ground it all went swimmingly: delivered on time and on budget but for a lot more money than had we done it in year one instead of year eight.

All these details and institutional detritus were on display this weekend as I and eight other members of the board huddled at the church for our annual retreat. It’s an opportunity to talk about big picture things, and for new members like me to get acquainted and subsumed in the church issues of the day. You would think that after forty years we’d have a refined governance structure, but we haggled through issues like whether we should micromanage or empower committees, and how to oversee the myriad committees that we have. Some things are clearer: slowly declining membership is probably due to some cliquishness in the congregation but mostly due to the pressure on members to do church work, and then do more church work. If you aren’t on a couple of committees already, you are a considered some sort of slacker. Being a member is more about taking a second, unpaid job than getting spiritually enlightened. It’s not surprising then that many who come through the door don’t want to stay.

So maybe we need to do less as a church, but no one seems to want to give up any programs. They are all vital. No hypothermia project? How can we let homeless people freeze on cold winter nights? No social action committee? Fighting for issues like gay marriage is in our DNA. And yet it is clearly too much and everyone is exhausted, including me, their newest board member, from just listening to it all. The sandwiches for our retreat from PotBelly were at least tasty, but except for sleep spending twenty-four hours on church business was exhausting, as is the stack of action items I received as I am now the board member overseeing education. I will no doubt be petitioned to attend all these related committee meetings, and the monthly board meetings plus follow up on an ever changing list of action items.

I get to do this and a full time job and nurture my wife back to health after her accident and help my daughter transition from degree to productive employee somewhere and monitor a declining cat who needs regular doses of drugs and special cat foods and all the other stuff in life like finishing painting downstairs. It’s exhausting just thinking about it.

So what’s the point? The point is to change the world for the better, one small step at a time. It takes a lot of energy to heal a broken society, which is the whole purpose of our church. It is made harder when our own church is rife with purely predictable human dramas and institutional malaise. It seems so pointless somehow, until you see the success of the Alternative Gift Market and that realize families in third world countries are getting cows, which means they have a path toward a better life. It seems pointless except a church brings people together who volunteer to help out at the homeless shelter. It seems pointless except for the youth group bonding for life at a weekend at Chincoteague, or the passing out of sandwiches to the homeless on alternate Friday nights. Then you realize there is a point to all of it, exhausting and inefficient though it may be. And you realize that while being on the board of directors is a hassle and our means are far from perfect, there is some value from all these committees, although it is hard to see while you wallow in organizational mess bordering on chaos.

And so you keep pulling at the institutional oars, though you don’t know if you are going in the right direction, though the efforts seem microscopic in comparison to the size of the problems to be addressed. You hope that your unreasonable faith in what you cherish most highly through your church results in outcomes you will mostly not see that matter and that will leave the world a better place.

So you pick up the phone and dial that member and ask them if they are interested in being in the next ministerial search committee. And you find yourself in your off hours looking at the church’s web logs to see what could be done to bring in new members. And you get in email threads with other directors on the minutia of this stuff. And you keep going, despite frequent deficiencies in both interest and energy. You don’t really know why you do it, but you do it. It is both an expression of your faith and absurdity, but you keep going.

 
The Thinker

The Catholic Church is easing toward irrelevancy

Many of us ex-Catholics tend to share a guilty secret: we still keep up on Vatican news. This is because if you are born a Catholic, whether you like it or not it leaves a big imprint on you. You try to tune out Catholic news and pretend the church’s actions don’t matter, or at least doesn’t affect you. But you can’t help yourself and tune into Vatican news stories, such as the first papal tweet. Being such an enormous institution with about a billion members across the planet, what happens in Rome is bound to make news. So it certainly was newsworthy when recently Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, the first pope to do so since 1415. The pope sites his declining health as a reason to resign. Naturally some Vatican watchers expect there are ulterior motives to this resignation, and coincidentally shortly thereafter an Italian newspaper published a lurid article on alleged gay sex scandals within the Vatican.

And so in mid March the College of Cardinals, 57% of who were appointed by Pope Benedict, will meet in Rome to decide who the next pontiff will be. Upon abdication, Benedict promises to disappear and devote himself wholly to prayer. It’s unclear what he has to pray so much about, and some of us would like to know. From recent statements he suggests shenanigans within the Vatican is much on his mind. Maybe its incestuous nature and intrigues became too much for him. Apparently he could not even trust his own butler, who ratted confidential papers to the press.

It’s hard for us on the outside to get a sense of what is going on inside the Vatican.  Depending on whose rumors you give credence to, it’s either nothing at all and business as usual or the Opus Dei clerics are duking it out the modernists. So far Opus Dei has been winning all the papal elections. That may change but Benedict has hardly proven himself to be a moderate. Betters would be wise to bet on more of the same. In an insular institution like the Catholic Church where those who can vote for pontiff have to be appointed by the pope suggest that creeping modernism will have no home in the Vatican, although gay sex within the Vatican may be as old as Opus Dei.

I ask myself increasingly if any of this really matters. In some ways it certainly does matter. The Catholic Church is a Jekyll and Hyde institution, capable of great Christ-worthy deeds while being guilty of unspeakable atrocities. I have witnessed the power of Catholic charities. Specifically back in the 1980s when we had a foster child, she was being managed through Catholic Charities. They did good work and arguably work that no one else would take on. So many religions talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. One cannot say that about the Catholic Church, through affiliates like Catholic Charities and the many Catholic hospitals out there.

Then there is the Edward Hyde part of the Catholic Church, proof positive that absolute power corrupts absolutely: children sexually, emotionally and physically abused, sometimes with the cooperation of the state, such as occurred for decades in Ireland at church run laundries. There wayward or suspected wayward women worked as slaves in cloistered workhouses. The reaction to these decades if not centuries of scandals seems to be a watered down set of apologies, but little in the way of actual recompense. The church seemed much more concerned about covering up these abuses so the institution is not sullied than addressing them and preventing them from recurring. Actual restitution if it comes at all comes from civilian courts, and not from the church. And actual prevention might involve empowering the laity to oversee the clerics, something the church is loath to do.

There are lots of reasons for declining church attendance, at least here in the United States. Surely any parent reading about what the Catholic clergy have inflicted on innocent youth should be reticent to place too much trust in their local priest, particularly where accountability mechanisms are so weak. That should explain some of the drop. But much of it can also be explained as the institution has less to offer people that they find of value. It’s hard to put a premium on genuine salvation, but that does not seem to be on the mind as much of Catholics these days, who seem more concerned about getting through this life than some nebulous promise in the next life.

Increasingly Catholics are simply exercising selective deafness, tuning out those edicts they think are silly (such as on premarital sex, birth control and gay marriage) and tuning in those that feel less ephemeral, such as the church’s charitable institutions like Catholic Charities. The church, like most denominations, preaches a one stop shopping method for living and salvation. For the most part these days the laity seems to want their Catholicism a la carte instead. They figure if it works when they go shopping, why can’t it work with religion as well?

Of course there are plenty of traditional Catholics who like the prepackaged solution that the Catholic Church offers. That is the essence of a faith: to accept aspects of beliefs that a rational person might say are ludicrous. As a percent of total Catholics, these traditional Catholics are a declining share of the whole. This suggests, at least for the foreseeable future, that Catholics are likely to decline as a percent of the religious overall. Over a period of decades, particularly here in the United States, more Catholic churches may close due to lack of adherents. Those who remain are more likely to be orthodox but like Hassidic Jews, appear more bizarre to the rest of society.

One of the selling points of Catholicism is its claim to know eternal truths. It offers moral certainty in an uncertain world. And yet real life keeps crashing down on the Catholic Church, as it is an institution managed by flawed people, made worse in its case in that these flawed people are also highly and haughtily insular. While I am convinced that after two millenniums the Catholic Church will likely be around for another millennium, I am convinced its power is waning. It wanes not so much in the size of its congregants, but in its ability to control the behavior of its congregants. On some level it must change so it becomes more relevant to those it preaches to, or it is doomed to drift toward being a sect instead of a denomination.

I will guiltily watch the color of smoke rising from Vatican chimneys next month, but I am wondering when the next papal election comes around after this whether it simply won’t matter to me anymore. It is already mattering to me less than it did when Pope Benedict was elected.

When I cast around looking for beliefs on which to anchor my life, I see the certainty that Catholicism sells as simply false, and worse, dangerously false. There is no certainty about anything in our universe, with the exception of the laws of nature. I think the Buddhists are the only ones who got it right: everything in impermanent. To the extent that we can live a truly happy life, we first have to accept that.

 
The Thinker

Adrift in the Sea of Relativity

There is lot of twittering among the denizens at DailyKOS over Republicans and their recent convention. Particularly humorous for us was not Mitt Romney, who comes across as a generally decent but vacillating and contradictory buffoon, but his vice presidential pick Paul Ryan. What makes Ryan particularly interesting to us progressives is his ability to hold two completely contradictory notions in his head and pledge fealty to both.

This is hardly news among Republicans, but in Ryan’s case the choice is so stark that it is hard for us Democrats to not feel glee at the resulting contrast. Paul Ryan is simultaneously a big believer in Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism and claims to be a devout Catholic. Anybody with even a surface knowledge of both Objectivism and Catholicism has to ask: WTF?

Long time readers of this blog may remember my little treatise on the ridiculousness of Objectivism. I too was briefly under its spell. Fortunately, I sobered up pretty quick once I realized it was both crazy and unworkable. Yet Objectivism stuck to Ryan like superglue, but of course being conservative and a Catholic he couldn’t just stop going to mass and confessing his devotion to the Catholic faith. And yet Ryan is the same person whose budget plan passed the House in 2011 and consisted chiefly of the cutting the poor off at their kneecaps (well, actually more like the waist) while lavishing tax cuts on the rich.

Wags on DailyKos wondered how a true Objectivist like Ryan could run for office in the first place: politicians are supposed to address issues for the benefit of their constituents, but a real Objectivist would only take an action if it was solely in his selfish interest. Moreover, Ayn Rand was an atheist. The Catholic bishops, hardly examples of shining virtue, quickly cut Ryan down to size, reiterating, among other things, that Catholics must care about the poor and work for social justice. Ryan, of course, remains tone deaf to the church’s criticisms and calls the controversy a mere “difference of opinion”.

Everyone seems to have pillars of truth that they anchor their lives around. In Ryan’s case they are weirdly self-contradictory. Be it Objectivism, or Catholicism, the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths or secular treatises like Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, there is comfort to be had in going with an off the shelf solution. Many, many years back I opined on what it might be like if we all built our own personal philosophy, perhaps by pulling pieces from elsewhere. That appears to be Ryan’s approach. Something about Objectivism he found very appealing, but there must be some nugget of Catholicism that he found appealing as well. Apparently it wasn’t the social justice part. Maybe it was the no divorce ever part. Whatever. Glue them together and with whatever bastardized shape emerges label it “my truth”.

And why not? Because in the end, we all end up dead. So you might as well grab onto some philosophy or religion to get through life. Your life will likely be too short for your tastes anyhow, and you probably don’t want to spend most of it wallowing in an existential angst. We may be compulsively driven toward faith, for the same way we are driven to eat and sleep. We need some faith, even if it is not a religious faith like Communism, to make sense out of a life that would otherwise appear pointless, random and very chaotic.

We get occasional reminders that we keep barking up the wrong trees. Harold Camping’s revelation that the world would end on May 21, 2011 proved incorrect, but at least for a while it got him some attention. When he does pass his fallacious prediction will at least warrant him a real obituary, rather than a death notice. The world will not end this fall when the Mayan calendar resets itself either. One of the reasons I am a Unitarian Universalist is that we don’t profess to a creed and thus we never suffer the shame of looking ridiculous like Harold Camping. If we have a creed, it is that our creed is changeable depending on what science discovers. However, Unitarians are weird. We are like people who never want to get off the roller coaster. Most people prefer the solid feel of terra firma under their feet.

The evidence is overwhelming that our lives are accidental rather than a part of some grand design. In that sense, life really is like riding a roller coaster. So you might as well enjoy your random ride through life for the time that you have. If you get the opportunity to enjoy it, consider yourself fortunate. However, be aware that you probably have this chance only because your parents invested time and money in you, and shepherded you through many obstacles so that you could thrive in the jungle called life. For those of us fortunate to be in the canopy, the view is nice, but down on the jungle floor life is hell. Most people on this planet live lives that, if not in hell, are deep in purgatory. When your life is mostly hell, faith anchored in an afterlife has a lot of appeal, which probably explains why faiths have been so overwhelmingly popular. That religion is diminishing in places like Europe suggests a critical mass there has truly achieved enlightenment. So perhaps their time on earth will be decent overall, but we all share the same fate: death.

What do the faithless like me do? Do we live each day like Hugh Hefner? Do we attempt to alleviate suffering even though such efforts are microscopic in the grand suffering going on around us? Should we feel no sanctions against murder, or fleecing our neighbors, or chasing our neighbors’ wives? Is there a point to anything we do when we die and everything else dies as well, and when a thousand years from now we can infer with great confidence that our lives and times will be wholly forgotten?

For me, despite being over fifty, this reality is still pretty scary. Some part of me still longs for the certainty by which the faithful anchor, or seem to anchor their lives. There are no real guideposts for people like me, only our own confused and flawed consciences. We keep trying to do the best for ourselves and those we live with. We are adrift in a Sea of Relativity, and we know it. We also know why so many of those around us, like the Paul Ryans of the world, prefer the delusion of certainty to the uncomfortable angst of being awake.

 
The Thinker

God is a verb

Those of us who believe in God tend to think of God as a noun. As you may recall from elementary school, a noun is a person, place or thing. God is probably not a person, unless you count Jesus Christ. Nor is God a place, except heaven is assumed to be some physical or ethereal space where God’s presence is overwhelming, sort of God’s home, you might say. Calling God a thing sounds sort of churlish since by definition there can be nothing grandeur or more magnificent than God. Given our poor definition, if we have to define God as a noun, saying God is a thing will have to do.

A sentence is made up of many parts of speech. God cannot be an adjective because adjectives modify nouns. Adverbs modify verbs or adjectives, and since God cannot be an adjective it cannot be an adverb. You can look through all the parts of a sentence and using God for anything other than a noun mostly doesn’t work. God can be part of a word and be something else. Goddamn, for instance, is an adjective and sometimes an adverb. There is only one other part of a sentence where God could work: God could be a verb.

For many of you, you are wondering what the heck I am talking about. A verb expresses action, state or a relationship between things. Dictionary.com defines a verb as:

Any member of a class of words that are formally distinguished in many languages, as in English by taking the past ending in -ed, that function as the main elements of predicates, that typically express action, state, or a relation between two things, and that (when inflected) may be inflected for tense, aspect, voice, mood, and to show agreement with their subject or object.

When you think about it though, using God as a verb makes a lot of sense. Granted it is hard to use God as a verb in a sentence, but what is fundamental about our notion of God is the notion of being in a relationship with God. If there were nothing else sentient in the universe, would God exist? Who can say, since no one would be around to detect the presence of God, but for sure it would not matter. God though only has meaning in the context of a relationship. Many of us seek to find God, and those who believe they have found God then try to understand God. This leads to a lot of confusion, however, because so many people have different interpretations of what God wants from us.

Yet if God is understood as the relationship between people, places and things, i.e. God is a verb, then clarity can emerge. This notion of God though will trouble most of us because we tend to see God as something external, all powerful, all good and unique, i.e. a noun. Saying God is a verb simply suggests it is what holds us in relationship to everything else. In this sense, we are literally part of the mind of God. In this sense, God becomes neither good nor bad, but simply is the relationship between all things, physical and spiritual. God in some sense is energy, or whatever forces exist, whether simple or complex, that hold us together in communion. This notion of God answers the riddle: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, did it make a sound? If God is a verb then the answer is yes. The tree falling in the forest impacts in some measure all of creation because God as a verb posits as an article of faith that everything really is interconnected with everything else. So yes, it made a sound, even if we did not hear it personally.

You will get no argument from scientists and not from quantum mechanics scientists in particular. Certainly no scientist will argue that every action is deterministic. Things are deterministic at the macro level. We know with confidence that our planet will be subsumed into the Red Giant that our sun will become someday, because we understand physics well enough. We also understand physics well enough to know that at the subatomic level outcomes can only be expressed in terms of probability, not certainty. Scientists have yet to find evidence of any phenomenon that can exist independently of anything else. A hurricane, for instance, requires heat and lots of water, so it is in relationship with its environment. Everything is in relation with something else, and the evidence is that every action affects everything else in the universe as well, not instantly, but over long periods of time.

Perhaps expressing a reverence for the relationship between all things is worship, and the relationship itself is God. Perhaps God is not a destination, but experiencing God is simply a matter of tuning into the relationship between all things, seen and unseen. God may feel most God-like when we feel a sense of awe from our interconnectedness. I feel it regularly. I felt it last year when I was traipsing around South Dakota’s Black Hills. I could feel it in the life of the soil at my feet and hear it in the brisk wind whistling through the pine trees. I felt it on Friday at a rest stop between Richmond, Virginia and my home in Northern Virginia when I stepped out of my car into stifling hundred plus degree heat. I feel it when the cat is on my lap, and is purring and looking at me with its adoring eyes. I felt it on Friday when I saw a broke, pregnant and homeless woman with a cardboard sign on the streets of Richmond and I felt a pang of remorse by driving by her without giving her a dollar or helping her to a homeless shelter. I feel it in the life cycle in particular, and my experiences of my encroaching mortality. I felt it when as an infant I was nuzzled up to my mother and drank milk from her breasts.

Perhaps God is simply what is. Perhaps our religious struggle is simply to come to terms with and accept what is, and to magnify and glorify the connections between all things. There are many ways to do it, but the principle method is to practice love as much as you can. This is because love certainly is a verb, and has god-like powers.

Perhaps we just need to accept the truth that God is love, and nothing more than that. Love is about enhancing the connection between all things so we are in greater harmony and understanding with each other. It works for me.

 
The Thinker

Break out the condoms

Miracles do happen in the Catholic Church, but it turns out they are much rarer than even the Catholic Church would acknowledge. I’m not talking about alleged miracles of weeping Madonna statues. I am talking about the unexpected fit of common sense by the Catholic Church this week regarding condoms. What’s next? Women priests?

Not that Pope Benedict is expressly approving use of condoms. They still prevent conception, when used as intended, so using them is still a sinful act. However, according to Pope Benedict, the use of a condom may mean that the person is on a path toward more moral behavior. I’m guessing this means using condoms is now a venial sin, instead of a mortal one.

I figure this fit of common sense from a church doggedly insistent on not using any when it contravenes previous teachings is something of a miracle. For a church that supposedly is all about the sanctity of life, it was hard to square its devotion to life with the ability to take it away by passing a sexually transmitted disease like AIDS through an unprotected sex act. Yet until this week, that was the teaching of the church: do not use any form of artificial contraception ever! It was a policy so bat shit insane that in a matter of just decades, rather than centuries, the Catholic Church actually got it.

It’s like God himself sent a thunderbolt of common sense directly into Pope Benedict’s brain, which is the miracle part. The Catholic Church, after all, is an institution organizationally aligned to tune out all common sense when it contradicts its teachings. I am sure God never swears, but if God were to swear the message to Pope Benedict would be something like this, “You stupid asshole! People are dying needless and painful deaths. They are leaving orphans to fend for themselves by the side of the road. All because you tell them I say that it is sinful to use condoms! And you claim life to be sacred? Don’t you realize this makes no sense whatsoever? Don’t you realize that you are driving away the very pro-life Catholics we are trying to keep? Change this policy and change it now!

The new policy is currently written in pencil rather than into stone, since it was not ex cathedra. At first, the ruling seemed qualified. In an interview for an upcoming book, Pope Benedict gave an example of a male prostitute using a condom, saying using it would be a “first step” toward moral behavior because it shows concern for his sexual partner. (He might also be showing concern for his life, but that’s selfish, so I imagine is not a good reason to use a condom.) Today we learn that the Vatican spokesman (well, obviously not a spokeswoman) Rev. Federico Lombardi personally asked the pope whether condom usage when having sex with a women was also okay. Two thumbs up from the holy pontiff! “This is if you’re a woman, a man, or a transsexual. We’re at the same point. The point is it’s a first step of taking responsibility, of avoiding passing a grave risk onto another,” Lombardi said.

So, just for the heck of it, use a condom tonight, and if you are a Catholic why not break out the champagne as well? Miracles don’t happen every day. Pope Benedict may not be a particularly personable pope, but when his obituary is written, this one act may be the one that is most remembered and celebrated.

Perhaps its popularity will inspire the pope toward even clearer thinking. Maybe miracles can come in clusters. For an ex-Catholic like myself, there are still many things to admire about the Catholic Church. Catholic, after all, means universal. One thing you can truly say about the Catholic Church is that age, income and race don’t seem to matter. Granted, we have not had a black pope yet, but I suspect that is just a matter of time.

I am a Unitarian Universalist and like many denominations, we suffer from the same problem: we are a lot alike. Specifically we are left-brained, predominantly white and predominantly overeducated. The Catholic Church does not have our diversity problem. White, black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian: the Church has all the colors of the rainbow. Their ranks include peasants and presidents. Moreover, it is one of the few Christian denominations left that is insistent about doing unto others, feeding and caring for the poor, as well as working on unsexy things like income equality and health care for all (albeit without abortion services).

With condoms no longer a major moral problem for the Catholic Church, perhaps it could loosen certain other ridiculous practices. Being more expansive with birth control would be nice, but is unlikely to happen. However, the church has a real problem on its hands filling its staff. Its policy of not allowing priests to marry is not only counterproductive; it also goes against most of the church’s history. In addition, of course, there is the church’s policy of allowing only male clergy. Like its now vanquished no condom policy, it is counterproductive and makes no sense. Given how many Catholic congregations no longer have priests, changing this policy may be necessary for the survival of the church in a secular age. As a practicing non-Catholic, I am hoping more miracles like this one quickly follow.

Perhaps I should thank Pope Benedict, but my feelings remain mixed. This policy should have been done away with decades ago. It resulted in many people dying needlessly, although I suspect those who rigorously follow Catholic birth control policies are relatively few. Not only was the policy deadly, it was also sinful, hurtful and generated a lot of pointless guilt. It caused adherents to choose between their faith and their common sense. While condoms will still not come with a seal of Vatican approval, at least their use in some situations is understood to be more moral than not using them at all.

It’s a miracle, all right.

 
The Thinker

The ordination

I always cry at weddings and funerals. Maybe this is not too seemly for a man, but I do. I don’t bawl like a baby but instead I sit there with my handkerchief at the ready to dab away the inevitable tears. How could you not cry at a wedding or funeral? These events are rife with emotion, unless you hardly know the people involved. Unsurprisingly, I cried at my mother’s memorial service five years ago. I cried in September when my father remarried more than sixty years after marrying my mother. And I found myself crying today when our new minister was ordained and installed.

So now, I cry at weddings, funerals and ordinations. There must be something about formal ceremonies that mark major life-changing events that make my tears flow. Crying at wedding and funerals makes a certain amount of sense, but it makes less sense at ordinations. After all, I hardly know our church’s new minister. She arrived in August straight out of seminary, having paid us a whirlwind candidate visit in May. Then we checked her out and found much to like. Aside from her sterling letters of recommendation from various esteemed professors at her seminary, the profound way that she seamlessly integrated with various communities within our Unitarian Universalist church, the powerful services she led, she is also youthful, blonde and attractive. It was no wonder then that ninety eight percent of the congregation voted to call her as our minister. What was there not to like? Over the forty years of our congregation, we’ve had a half dozen ministers or so, including an alleged philanderer. We also had an interim minister so desperate for a settled ministry that he wrote fraudulent recommendations for himself under the guise of our church leaders. We felt entitled to a minister fresh out of seminary who is full of vitality and promise.

Perhaps this ordination would have made less of an impact had not every member at the ordination not actively participated in it. If this been an ordination for a Catholic priest and even if I was still a Catholic, unless I was a friend of the new cleric it’s unlikely that I would have been invited. It’s also likely that my role would not amount to anything more than passive participant. That is because in most faiths some bishop or some other high-church official (often under the sanction of God) usually ordains new ministers. It works differently with Unitarian Universalists. Only a congregation can ordain a minister.

The difference is significant but profound, and was probably the reason that I was crying. A new minister must first pass through a number of tough academic and other hurdles. In this case, it required several years at the Lombard Theological School in Chicago, a year in residency and three months as a chaplain ministering to the dying and infirmed in hospitals and nursing homes. However, all that effort and expense is moot if the candidate cannot find a congregation willing to ordain him or her. Not only did we have to choose to formally ordain this new minister, and she had to take the vow of ministry, we had to make the association real through the laying of hands. If it were a Catholic ordination, I imagine there would have been song, chiming bells and incense. For this ordination, the new minister was first surrounded and touched on the shoulder or arm by family and close friends (an inner circle), then by participating clerics (a second circle, who were touching those in the inner circle), then by the ordaining congregation (who were touching the second circle) and finally by any others at the ceremony.

The effect was amazing and moving. There is something tangible in the act of touching that cannot be replicated by chimes, music or incense. You could feel the energy of our collective body. It surged between all the participants during the ceremony. It felt electric. This simple mass act of laying of hands gave this ordination both extraordinary dimension and meaning.

At its essence, ministry is all about connections between people and helping people surmount the many obstacles that challenge them. This is why an ordination through a mass laying of hands was both a symbolic and a deeply meaningful experience. For many, if not most people, religion is about God and ministers guide us to living according to God’s plan. For Unitarian Universalists, ministry is about relationships between people, some formally in covenant with each other, such as members of the same congregation. However, ministry also expands to the community and world at large. We acknowledge that we are all connected.

In some ways, we are all ministers, helping each other as we find energy and strength. Our minister plays many roles including leadership, acting as a role model, helping forge deeper bonds of fellowship between us and helping us through personal crises. However, she also helps us engage with a larger network of people outside our comfort zone. These latter activities extend to the usual stuff like food drives and helping the homeless to more personal people-to-people connections, such as the English as a Second Language (ESOL) classes that one of our lay ministers took up as her call. Much of her ministry extends to the unlikely community of largely cloistered Muslim women who see much of life behind thick veils.

Ministry must be a calling because, except in a few rare cases, is does not pay very well. Our minister won’t be starving, but she likely will earn half as much this year as I will, and I suspect her work is much harder. Perhaps that was why I was crying. I suspect that her life will be full of very hard but very meaningful work. While she will minister to us, we will minister to her as well, providing her with the support she will need for the very hard and often thankless work ahead of her. She will be engaged in making the world a better and more harmonious place, a seemingly impossible task.

I hope that through our laying of hands during her ordination we have fully charged her battery for the long and Herculean tasks ahead of her.

 

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