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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"Christian Unity is Inconceivable": I Do Not Think That Means What You Think It Means

In just a few short years (2017) Lutherans and many other Protestants will be celebrating the 500 year anniversary of the start of the Reformation. And I will be joining them.

I couldn't have said that even a year ago, and I'm a little surprised to be saying it now. But I've realized "celebrating" is a loose term for something like this. Many Lutherans are wary of rubbing salt in an old Catholic wound. And many Catholics see Luther's nailing of the 95 Theses not as the splintering of a wooden door but as a sad splintering of the Church.

But there is something to celebrate in 500 years of progress and distance from such a chaotic time for Christianity. What literally resulted in countless deaths on both sides - Christian killing Christian - is now a vague memory for most though certainly not all. With the growth of tolerance, dialogue, and ecumenicism, such bitter differences are often forgotten. And for the Global South, the theological debates of 16th century Europe seem more a footnote than a present and divisive reality. These debates are by no means irrelevant but they can be subordinated to the gospel, which I truly believe spans denominations.

The Catholic Church had a schism with the East before all of this, of course. And Protestants have had splits numbering in the thousands since. Rome has made significant progress with the East and Lutherans and Anglicans but significant barriers still remain for all denominational relationships.

So how will Christian Unity be realized? Will it happen in our lifetime? How will Christians come back together after such theological differences? Simple: through you.

The gospel is never a message taught to other people, out there, nameless and faceless potential converts. It's a message for you. Christ's call is directly to you, to care for the poor and the helpless, to take up your cross daily and follow in his path.

There is a long history of seeing Christ's garment at the crucifixion, the one that had lots cast for it, as a symbol of the Christian Church; it can't be divided. In Catholicism we call the Eucharist the Corpus Verum - the Real/True Body of Christ and we call the Church the Corpus Mysticum - the Mystical Body of Christ. But in the Early Church it was exactly the opposite! The Eucharist was called the Mystical Body of Christ and the believers were the Real and True Body of Christ. Isn't that interesting?

Some Christians earnestly believe that in our lifetime Christian denominational differences will melt away or be reconciled. I was speaking with a friend about this recently and she and I both shared an attitude: more power to them! If you believe such unity is on it's way, that is wonderful. I'm afraid that I can hope for that kind of unity but I'm not confident in it. I don't know if it will ever happen.

But there is another church where Christian Unity can not only be realized but can flourish - in you, in your person and body as temple, in your home and community as the "domestic church."

I doubt unity will come through official denominational pronouncements and creeds. The split in churches came from the top down. It came from the clerics and the church hierarchy. I truly believe the healing for the wound will come from the laity.

How? By your life.

When I became Catholic my whole world was already Protestant. Apart from my godfather, I didn't know Catholics. Virtually all of my friends and family were Protestant and that was fine by me. Since moving away from college I have had the chance to determine what community I belong to and where I invest my time and being.

In moving to Wheaton and since I have made conscious choices to invest myself and live in community with people who don't believe the same theology as me. Full disclosure, this hasn't always been easy. But it's no more difficult than realizing that even people who agree with your particular view of Christianity will give you problems.

I am particularly committed to Ecumenicism. Completely. Even this blog doesn't have Catholics as its intended audience. I choose to live in community with great people, to break bread weekly with them, to engage in prayer together, to serve them, and all of this with believers who aren't Catholic.

If we believe Christian Unity is possible, are we waiting for Rome or our church leaders to tell us when we're united? Will your life change after hearing that? I doubt it would. Instead, we can realize such unity right now through our lives with one another.

We are called to image God, who is the diversity of the Trinity and yet the union of One. And we're called to image God with our very lives. Once you realize that, having "Christians not like you" as friends, as confidants, as family, isn't an issue at all. We say "brothers and sisters in Christ", so why not actually live as if that were true? To me that means sharing your life fully with others whether that's community or intimate friendship or even marriage. That would be the ultimate image of unity: the unity of a husband and wife (who are declared "one") who don't agree on theology but still agree on the gospel. I don't think anyone is condemned for not being willing to have a close relationship with a non-'whatever you are' Christian. But I do think if that is your choice, you can't claim that what unites all Christians is more important than denominational theology. What determines your choices is actually what is most important to you, and whatever that is you should be proud of that stance.

According to the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, Catholics and Protestants “have come to acknowledge that more unites than divides them.” More unites us than divides us. That's really the very simple attitude that Christian unity requires.

I think unity means risking ourselves in these ways and it will take on different forms depending on who you are. But I think unity means relationship with one another. It means not saying, "you're the wrong kind of Christian for me to be in relationship with" to our brothers and sisters. And it means taking responsibility for actually living Christian Unity ourselves and not waiting for 'those other Christians' to come around to our own supposedly right way of thinking.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Of Saints and Halos

There was a time when Christians thought that Christ must have been a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, tall and handsome man, easily distinguishable at first glance. His physical appearance must have radiated divinity. There's a strange connection between blonde-haired (blue-eyed) and what Western culture believes is heavenly. In fact, Pope Gregory the Great saw the Angles (as in Anglo-Saxon) with their blond hair for the first time and declared, "non Angli, sed angeli" - "They're not Angles but angels."

In Western art we have tried to distinguish the holy by physical appearance or by some special marker. We make angels blonde and give Jesus blue eyes and a handsome face. Mary is made beautiful and rosy-cheeked (not to mention usually Caucasian). 

At a recent dinner with my roommate and his parents I brought up an article I had just read. In it, researchers  tried to determine what Christ would have realistically looked like. They took skulls from 1st century Galilee and compiled average measurements of the features. They then layered skin and muscle (digitally) over the skulls to create a face. Needless to say, the result does not match up with the long-haired, beautiful Jesus we've been given. Another disappointment? The average height of Galilean men at the time was only 5'1". Not very impressive.

At this dinner the table was split on Jesus' appearance. Some thought he was remarkable in appearance. Maybe not blond haired (which really would have been miraculous in 1st century Palestine) but at least imposing in some sense, a commanding presence. The other half thought that Jesus probably wasn't anything special at first glance. This seems to be the more common opinion today and has as evidence Scripture, for example Jesus' fellow Nazarenes thinking of him as only the "carpenter's son," just another guy. 

Why would a 5 foot, uni-browed, "ugly", or unremarkable Jesus offend our senses? It's probably because we want our own version of an idealized leader in the person of Jesus. As much as the gospels have taught us about Israel's messianic expectations, we're just as susceptible now. We desire and expect a tall and handsome Saul, not a lowly David. Why else would we proclaim that Jesus wants a bold, political, militaristic, and shoved-in-your-face "prayer at secular high school graduations"-type of faith? Why else would we create the doctrine of a "just war", something the pacifistic Christ never wanted?

In art, we paint our ideal. And we come up with other ways to convey uniqueness and holiness, and in Christianity we give these figures halos.

Now, halos aren't unique to Christianity and Christian art nor even to the West. Many cultures use and have used halos (or their equivalent) for millennia. But what is a halo really conveying? Why is it there?

Of course it represents holiness but it's a visual symbol and can we really visually see holiness? Could you have looked at Jesus or Mary or any of the saints throughout the ages and seen by their countenance their holiness? I don't think so. And I think it's precisely because we can't look at someone and naturally tell if they are selfish or unselfish, mature, enlightened, or anything else that halos are used in art.

What halos are really depicting is something palpable about a person but I think it's an energy. It's appropriate that halos are "light" because a brightness of energy fits with holy people.

I recently spent an evening with three Franciscan friars (kind of like monks) at a friary in Chicago. These men opened their home and invited me in. I joined them for evening prayers, for their time of sharing about their day with one another, for dinner, for a stroll through their garden. As I was talking with them at dinner I distinctly thought, "I am in the presence of truly holy men."

They were completely void of what I call "games". They had so little ego and they could speak so honestly with one another about their pains and joys and journeys that you would think there was some secret to life that they'd found, even among Christians. "Enlightened" would not be an inappropriate word. "Holy" is probably a better one.

Their titles and vows didn't even really impress me. It was who they are that was so remarkable. And it was almost a palpable lightness, not visible but detectable.

Jesus was unremarkable physically, and certainly many like the Pharisees didn't see past his exterior. But we have more than enough evidence of his completely disarming presence. His words, his actions, his body language all radiated his complete understanding of Reality, his total communion with the Father. This is the only explanation for why twelve random men would leave their entire lives and follow a stranger. When they met him, they saw something radiating from him. Can we say as Christians that Christ's presence has the same effect on us today? When we meet Christ in the gospel, in the Eucharist, in each other, what do we see?

Christianity has one goal for its adherents: Christians should become saints. The goal of your life is to become a saint yet very few Christians radiate this. Those friars might have been the only ones I've met or at least that I've noticed. 
Religion only does its job when it is transforming its adherents into saints.  Why are so many Christians worried about being informed by religion and so few concerned with being transformed by it? Do our churches even recognize the difference anymore? (Opinions welcome in the comments below.)

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Catholicism 101: What's the Deal with Mary?

I'm hoping this blog not only explores spirituality from one Catholic's perspective but can also inform the mostly non-Catholic audience of Wheaton residents, other Christians, and adherents to other religions or no religion who find their way to these pages. Part of doing that is starting this "Catholicism 101" series, which should be pretty self-explanatory. I'm writing these simply because people have asked me enough.

I would like to note, though, that I will be attempting to keep the tone fairly conversational. I'm not a theologian and this isn't a research paper. While I hope to draw on much better resources than myself, I plan on writing these as if you had just asked me the question while we were at coffee.  It's an informal introduction, which means less work for me and hopefully a more accessible form for most. So...let's talk about Mary

The way I think of Mary is as a completely unique figure in the Bible. She stands apart. Growing up evangelical, I used to list her right alongside any other famous biblical figure: Jacob, Samson, Ruth, Noah, etc. She was interesting in her own right but nothing special. Just a woman.

Even when I became Catholic, though I had something of a Marian vision before my conversion, I still was pretty uncomfortable with the emphasis on Mary. I couldn't understand it, let alone relate to it.

But eventually I picked up a book by Scott Hahn called, Hail, Holy Queen. Hahn does a good job of simply explaining a lot of Catholic beliefs even if his conclusions seem to make significant jumps at times.

If you know anything about Christ you probably know that he existed before everything else. And he was part of a plan conceived long before his birth in 1st century Palestine. "Typology" refers to the study of "types", literal people, things, and events in the Bible that foreshadowed and pointed toward an antitype, Christ himself. We see types of Christ in Moses the deliverer, Isaac who was (almost) the spotless sacrifice, the lamb's blood at Passover, etc. Most of us have heard these often enough.

Adam is another one. Christ is even called the "New Adam" because while sin and death entered the world through Adam, salvation and eternal life entered creation through the New Adam - Christ.

Catholics see Mary in a similar light when it comes to types and foreshadowing. We believe she was such a crucial part to God's plan that God chose her specifically, before she was even born, to be the "mother of God." This is the immaculate conception - Mary's conception without sin in her mother's womb and not Christ's conception. A lot of people mix up the meaning of that term. It's for Mary. We'll come back to that.

There are types for Mary too. We see this in figures like Sarah, Hannah, and Esther. Sarah miraculously conceives of a son (who is blamelessly offered as a sacrifice, remember?). Hannah again conceives miraculously and gives her son back to God. And Esther intercedes with the king on behalf of her people just as Catholics believe Mary intercedes for us with Christ the King, on our behalf. That belief didn't come from wishful thinking; it came from exegesis and Scripture.

And like Christ as the New Adam, Mary is considered the "New Eve". Salvation and the gift of eternal life (read "Christ") entered the world, literally, through her, and so it's a much more elevated picture of Mary than merely another woman in the Bible.

The Ark of the Covenant was a symbol of God's presence with his people, Israel. Inside of it was contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, the priestly rod of Aaron, and manna from Heaven. We could describe these contents also as the Word of God, the symbol of the high priest, and life-giving bread. The Word, High Priest, and the Bread of Life. It's easy to see how these are types of Christ.

But wasn't the ark itself holy? And didn't it too have great significance? If it did not derive significance from what it held, it would merely have been 'some box' and there would have been no effort to dress it up or beautify it, let alone describe it for us in the Old Testament. The ark itself is actually a type for the antitype of Mary. Mary herself, therefore is thought to be exceptionally holy and kept without sin (immaculate conception) by God's grace in order that she might carry and bring forth Jesus, just as the ark was holy because of its contents.

Some other quick things on Mary. Catholics call her the Queen of Heaven. This is modeled on the "queen mother" in the Old Testament. Bathsheba and Solomon are the types here for Mary and Christ. She intercedes with the king on behalf of others.

Catholics believe that not only was she conceived without sin but she remained perpetually a virgin. They believe Christ was her only child ever and because she was free from sin, she did not suffer the wages of sin - death. This is the Assumption. We believe Mary was assumed into heaven. Those references to "brothers and sisters" of Christ or to James as "the brother of Christ" are actually mistranslations of, I believe, the Greek adelphos, which does mean sibling but is used elsewhere in Scripture to mean "cousin." And if Christ had siblings, Catholics hold, why did he entrust Mary to John when he was dying and said, "behold your mother"?

Catholics believe Jesus gave us all his mother with these words. We honor her and never worship her. She's the New Eve, foreshadowed in the Old Testament and even mentioned in Revelation. The theotokos, Queen of Heaven, Our Lady, and our supreme intercessor before the throne of God. We are all brothers and sisters of Christ in faith. And so we're all sons and daughters of Mary in the same way.

The most striking evidence for the truly unique position of Mary for me though is her response to God's plan. She simply says, "Let it be done unto me according to your word." Who among us could say this, ever? Who could so humbly and simply accept God's plan to make us a social outcast? To accept something our religious language never even prepared us to understand, let alone handle such as a virgin birth of God himself? Utterly incomprehensible. Her response isn't just amazing, it's unique. And I don't think anyone else could have done it.

You don't have to believe all of this, of course. But Catholics, Orthodox, and some other Christians do, and it's wise to be sensitive to it. All of this is not to say there aren't critiques even from me on the ways in which Mary has been thought of and used. But you've got the basics now, and that's the point.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

How Should Christians Respond to Pain?

"The Problem of Pain" is more than the title of C. S. Lewis' popular book. It's a complication, both theological and practical, that goes back to the infancy of Christianity. The theological problem of pain is How can an all-loving God allow his creations to suffer? A lot of thought has been expended trying to provide an answer.

But most of us aren't theologians. I'm certainly not (though neither was Lewis). Perhaps the more compelling question for us is How should we, as Christians, respond to pain?

I don't have the definitive answer but I think I'm onto something.

For centuries the Catholic Church emphasized pain as something we, as fallen humans, deserved. This was used as God's defense for very un-Godlike behavior in the Old Testament. A more modern manifestation of this can be found in people like John Piper. "Humans are terrible creatures and we therefore deserve whatever parts of God's wrath reign down on us," so the thinking goes. (Piper basically espoused this view after the recent tornado devastation in Oklahoma.) It's the "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" sermon all over again. Tired. Unsophisticated. And a very low view of God.

Still, other Christians want to ignore the darkness altogether. They pretend it doesn't exist. This is why you get things like "The Prosperity Gospel" and Joel Osteen. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement is another great example. With this mentality, the world always has a rosy glow and everything is upbeat, joyful, and beautiful. They refuse to admit the greater, ugly complexities of reality. If you told them they would eventually have to face their demons they'd answer, "What demons?" Avoiding pain can become more than a habit. It can become your creed.

Luckily a lot of Christian traditions haven't shut out pain. Because of its high emphasis in the past, most Catholics couldn't even if they tried! Unlike Protestants who have the clean, peaceful, and victorious image of the empty cross, Catholics have the bloody, ragged, and defeated image of the crucifix. It's not that either image is better or worse. But the different uses are telling.

I think Catholicism has incorporated pain fairly well (though with probably too high an emphasis at times). It's hard to not acknowledge pain with a bloodied and broken-bodied Christ at the center of your liturgy. Catholics even gave pain a redemptive quality, which is a sort of dark beauty in itself.

But how do we Christians - all of us - respond to pain? We certainly can't run from it or pretend it's not there. The cross has at least taught us at that much. I think, as with the crucifixion in the gospel, we have to face it. We have to look upon pain, both ours and others', and acknowledge its reality. It does no good hiding from it or refusing to name it.

After naming it, the next step is to observe it. This is where deep reflection, solitude, contemplation, and processing it with safe people comes in.

Once we've observed and witnessed fairly to it we can learn from it. I hate to say it, but I know that experientially I've learned much more from my mistakes and the hardships I've faced than from my successes. Facing success and the "perfect" are fairly easy in my opinion. Facing failure and the imperfect is much more difficult, especially when it's found in ourselves.

We all have difficulties and pain events in our life. I faced a good number of them at home growing up. And as a young adult I felt the pain of anxiety and depression and later the death of a friend. One particularly painful event as an adult was breaking off a 3 year relationship after college.

There is obviously a natural desire for justice with pain. When something or someone is taken from us we want whoever is responsible to feel our pain. We want the wrongs to be righted and then some. This is the real meaning behind "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." It wasn't a license to extract severe punishment; it was a limit on the desire to extract even more punishment than was due, which is what we all would really like.

But eventually we do have to say, "It won't change what's happened." What's done is done, and no amount of justice or retribution is going to change the fact that we will have to permanently live with that pain experience. Which leads me to my final step.

The final step for dealing with pain, for me, isn't to overcome or ignore or fight it away; it's to make a space for it. Make a space for the way people hurt you and the wrongs you've suffered.

I've started praying, "God, help me make a space for this," when those moments come. "Help me be able to own it and carry it and include it." Because all the things that have happened to me are me. It's a holistic view precisely because you are a whole person with both good and bad inside you and as part of your story.

The abuse you've suffered, the neglect, the misuse, the rejection may have all been the fault of others but it's now yours to carry because now, you're not really you without it. And we have to find how to do that in a healthy way. I think a real test of faith is to integrate our pain and accept it into our being as part of who we are and not merely as what has happened to us.

We have a perfect and very realistic model for this already in Christ who didn't seek out pain, wished for it to pass him by, but in the end made a space for it. Isn't it interesting that Christ rose from the grave with restored health and body in every sense except one - he still carried the wounds of his pain experience? And isn't it amazing that those wounds were not only what defined him (even Thomas couldn't know him without them!) but were the pain experience through which salvation entered the world and all of creation?

Our individual sufferings can't hope to accomplish as much. But if we make a space for them, as with Christ, they may actually be the part of us that reveal God's saving work the most.