Blog has moved, searching new blog...

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

5 "Truths" You Learned That Are Actually BS

1. "There's someone out there for everyone" 

No, there's not! Statistics alone should give us a wake-up call. I don't believe in a soul mate and luckily that trend is growing. In fact, I read a great blog post just this morning by someone brave enough to say, "my husband is not my soul mate." We put marriage on a pedestal and think not only will it be perfect and fulfilling but that it's the pinnacle of human achievement. (I blame Disney.) But I seem to recall a 1st century Nazarene who did just fine without it.

Thinking there is someone out there for everyone doesn't factor in the experience of millennia of religious orders, priests, saints like Paul or Francis, and countless other normal, celibate and single people who have walked the earth during every age. Marriage is a vocation and it's not for everyone, even today. You may, in fact, be called to live a single life, which is no less fulfilling or meaningful than finding your "someone out there." If we stopped literally romanticizing marriage and the desire for intimacy, we might not have so many failed marriages in the first place. And we'd certainly have fewer people who feel inadequate being single.

2. "Those who would sacrifice security for liberty deserve neither"

This one is Benjamin Franklin's fault. It's a great sentiment, and it certainly gets my patriotic blood a'boilin' over into a volcano of resentment against British imperial tyranny! But a simple application of logic shows that this statement simply isn't true. Political Philosophy 101 is that any form of government necessarily takes away certain freedoms in order to grant security. 

For example, we give up our freedom to shoot in the face whomever we please as we could in an anarchy in order that we can have the security of collective laws and a police force who can do the shooting for us. Voila! More security and less freedom. I agree that there is a balance to be reached between complete freedom (anarchy) on one end and complete security (dictatorship) on the other. But our American ideal that liberty is everything is a crock. But no American wants to hear a figure like Patrick Henry shout, "Give me mostly-reasonable-property-and-expression-rights-with-marginal-concessions-to-security... Or Give Me DEATH!" But nuance has never been popular in American thought.

3. "If you work hard enough, you can be anything you want."

I feel bad knocking this idol down because it's such a nice mentality. But it's also an illusion. Socio-economics alone explain that this isn't true. Simple logic is also helpful. But human experience is perhaps the best teacher.

When I was little there was a time when I straight-up believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would one day be President. Of the United States. Now, being a male WASP, my chances were actually pretty good. But then I became Catholic and undid one of the greatest things going for me.

In reality, we all have different gifts, talents, and cognitive limitations. The Strengthsfinder books are great for pointing this out. Like Rudy at Notre Dame, you can get pretty far with a lot of hard work but you still have limitations (the poor guy only ever made one tackle). Maybe Rudy's efforts would have been better spent training for something he excelled at already. For example, I have great gifts in empathy, in having a safe presence for people to open up to. But that's not the determining factor for who becomes President. Eventually you have to accept reality and realize that reality can make you happier than your dreams can. Work hard in the areas where you shine and don't kill yourself trying to achieve something you were never meant to.

4. "You have the right to marry whomever you please" / "Love knows no bounds"

The first problem is that in English we only have one word for "love." Love of neighbor indeed knows no bounds. But romantic love is entirely bounded.

 Now, hear me out: this isn't directed at gay marriage. I cannot emphasize that strongly enough. Here, I'm not arguing against gay marriage, I'm arguing against bad arguments. Marriage actually has all sorts of limitations and always has, though it's also had limits that have more or less changed. But most of those limitations are so natural yet assumed that we don't even think about them, and they are so myriad that the scope for marriage is incredibly small.

The definition of whom you can marry has always been fairly narrow. That is changing nowadays with regard to marrying a specific gender but even with that change, it's an extremely small window. The truth is, you can't romantically love let alone marry whomever you please. You can't marry a close family relation, for example. You can't marry someone who's already married. You can't marry a child, you can't marry an adult if you are a child, you can't marry someone cognitively impaired (in certain states), someone against their will, an animal, etc. Eventually you'll realize that while there may be many people out there to theoretically love or want to marry, the people you can actually go the whole nine yards with fit a very narrow scope of criteria. This whole notion of "love doesn't recognize societal norms" simply isn't true. We have areas where we're willing to give as a society, like gay marriage, and other areas where we simply can't stomach a change, like despising pedophilia.

5. "S/he means well"

Half the time this is probably true. But half the time the person is probably just being a huge a-hole. Hey, we've all been there but let's not pretend acting out of childishness, racism (see any number of comments following Zimmerman's trial), etc. aren't all ego-trips. We need to stop making excuses for people who persist on operating at such an immature level.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Catholicism 101: Indulgences & Twitter?

This post is the second entry in my newly minted Catholicism 101 series designed to touch on both basic Catholic beliefs/views and common misconceptions. The first series entry, "What's the Deal with Mary?," was posted in June.

Last week the Vatican announced that those attending World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil could receive indulgences. But the juiciness didn't stop there. Rome also said that those who followed along with the events via television, radio, and social media could receive indulgences. The social media even includes Twitter and Pinterest followers. Seriously, an indulgence for reading tweets?

Yes. Indulgences can be obtained for any number of spiritual or physical-spiritual tasks and the first thing to recognize is that the medium through which such a task is done doesn't really matter. It doesn't matter if you're connecting with God via a blog, tv, radio, or even Twitter. The medium is fairly unimportant. The real news story here is "why are we hearing about indulgences in the 21st century?"

There is a lot of nuance here and we should clarify what indulgences are since so much confusion exists even among Catholics.


Aren't indulgences the thing that sparked the whole Catholic/Protestant split with the Reformation? Again, yes. But indulgences are still around and actually never went away. The sale of indulgences was one of the (correct) criticisms Luther had of the Catholic Church in the 16th century. But we need to be clear that it was the selling of indulgences that was the outrage of the time and not the mere existence of indulgences.

I believe it was Luther himself who warned that we should not let the abuse of a thing negate the use of it. Just because prescription drugs can be abused does not mean they are without a legitimate use. Indulgences are the same.

Indulgences are really tied up in (now specifically Catholic) views of both purgatory and salvation.

Let's dive into some very basic theology. Catholics believe when you commit a sin, you not only harm your relationship with God but you also gain an attachment to creatures as opposed to the Creator, the right attachment to have. Creatures include ideas, people, and objects. Indulgences are not grace. Catholics do not believe that grace can be earned or bought and they never have. Instead, grace is a free gift but a punishment is still incurred for sinning. This "punishment" is really just a way of saying "attachment."

When you sin, you become more attached to that sin. People who lie or more likely to find it easier to lie in the future. People who look at pornography once can fall into that habit pretty quickly. The temporal punishment for sin that souls in purgatory are working off before their entry into the perfect state of being in heaven is just a way of undoing all the damage to oneself  that one's sin has done. Purgatory is a way of detaching from what your sin has attached you to.

Now, no one knows how long souls actually spend in purgatory. Some believe it's an instant of purification. Others use the language of "years." But indulgences are a way for the Church to say, "So-and-so has done the hard work of already starting to detach from their former sin by doing X, and the Church recognizes and grants that less time in purgatory will be required." And if you're not really on board with the purgatory train, it's fun to point out that Martin Luther believed in purgatory. So did C. S. Lewis, which is something few Protestants want to talk about (particularly in Wheaton).

The Catechism says this of indulgences:
An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church...
Lots of important stuff there. "Remission," not forgiveness; it applies to "sins whose guilt has already been forgiven"; and a person needs to be "duly disposed." So, sorry twitterverse, but if you're heart isn't right, merely reading tweets won't help you spiritually.

Where is it in the Bible?

If you're wondering about the scriptural basis for all of this (which, let's face it, if you're Protestant that question has probably been burning in your mind this whole time) you can find a belief in purgatory in the Deuterocanonical books in Maccabees.  Protestants hold these as the "Apocrypha."

More importantly for this discussion though is the power to bind and to loose on earth and in heaven given to the Church through Peter in Matthew 16:19. The Catholic Church sees in this the ability to grant indulgences, which is a very logical step if you start with the Catholic interpretation of that verse.

Where does that leave us?

In conclusion, the medium for being granted an indulgence doesn't really matter, and so Twitter, while novel, is a perfectly fine means. More importantly, indulgences are not grace or forgiveness(!) but a remission of temporal punishment in purgatory for the remaining attachments a person might have to sin and creatures (instead of the Creator). Salvation is the verdict while indulgences have to do with the sentence in purgatory, so to speak. If you're already condemned, no indulgence will help you. But if you are assured eternal paradise in heaven, indulgences are a powerful commuting of your sentence based on the hard work you've already done to be in the pure state necessary for true communion with the Divine.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

God in Evolution

I think God is expansive and so is true religion.

Last week a good friend of mine visited the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY as part of a road trip with members of her church, and she found it really informative and, I think it's safe to say, she believes in creationism even more after visiting.

Now, I believe in evolution. 100%. I recognize that it's technically a theory and not a particularly popular one in some Christian circles but it seems to make sense and I trust the consensus of the scientific community that it's by far the best explanation available of how we are here (not why). Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a true religious conservative, said in 2007 that evolution was not contradictory to faith, and that's good enough for me.

The more interesting part of the whole creationism v. evolution debate for me isn't the arguments but the premises. What are our starting points and what do we think is at stake?

On one side is the sovereignty of God and the Bible with evolution being viewed as threatening both. On the other side is a belief that man can know through the natural world our origins and and that humanity is older than the 5000 years claimed by Scripture and many years of Christian tradition. And if you believe that the Bible isn't literal in the creation story, does that open up a Pandora's box for subjective biblical  interpretation?

I don't think so. At all. But I don't condemn those who do. The friend in question is actually one of the most ardent pursuers of truth I know, and very intelligent besides. It ultimately doesn't matter whether I stand with one theory and her another. I think we're united in something more important - that what matters is whether your view of God is expansive or restrictive. And those are categories that can't be tied neatly to either creationism or evolution.

I can only speak from my own perspective here but I grew up in an unhealthy Pentecostal church that imposed all kinds of boundaries and barriers on God. God was a giant put inside a cigar box. The rules, hard-line stances, and simplicity I'm now sure were what we all do - ego games that help us feel in control and powerful. It's a much easier existence when you have absolute certainty that you know.

So many times denominations and individuals (including yours truly) simply have to know. How could we live with uncertainty or with ambiguity otherwise? Outside of the most simplistic forms of Christianity we at least recognize that faith takes an acceptance of Mystery. And faith takes not knowing, not in the sense of "believe what we tell you because you'll never understand it" but in the sense that life and struggle and purity necessarily mean a lack of certitude.

Christianity talks about the "root sin" being Pride. It was Pride that made Lucifer and 1/3 of the heavenly hosts fall. And we even label Adam & Eve's fall as the sin of pride: they wanted to be like God. But do we stop to ask, "How exactly were they trying to be like God?" They ate the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In essence, they committed the sin of wanting to know! They wanted God-like minds, adult minds. Fascinating that Christ implores us to be like children if we want to inherit The Kingdom, isn't it?

We have a closed fist. We need an open palm.

I'm starting to believe that when we can accept an air of mystery and are able to not know (again, not in a heady sense but in a controlling and dualistic sense), then we are really on the right path. And we're open to the infinite possibilities of our Infinite God.

Franciscan Richard Rohr uses the image of the Buddha's hands in his enneagram material. Often one of the hands is literally grounded and the other is a flat palm, raised up, and open to infinity. Grounded and yet infinite, what Rohr calls God as both "abyss" and "utter foundation".

Buddhists say the open palm isn't a symbol of being swallowed into infinity but rather of fearlessness - Abhaya - and of deep security and peace.

I think this kind of expansive God who goes beyond our cultural and human borders is what I stumbled upon in my own spiritual awakening in college. And what I think we keep stumbling upon when we embrace more and more of the Divine Mystery.

I see God in evolution. I don't think there's anything spiritually wrong with believing in a 6 day creation or in a 10,000 year old Earth. But for my part, those categories didn't help me. I found a much more expansive God without them.

If you accept popular scientific consensus that the universe is 14.5 billion years old, our solar system is 4.5 billion, life on earth 4 billion, multi-celled life about 700 million, earth after the dinosaurs about 65 million, and actual human history 200,000 years old, then isn't God even more of an infinite mystery? If you take all of this history, Christ-as-man appears at the last possible moment in the last possible second, in the last scene of the last act of an incredibly elaborate, seemingly infinite story.

That God makes himself/herself known in only the last 5,000 years of this timeline would indeed be a problem. But if we believe that Christ is the Word and that all matter and form were made through him, then Christ is a revelation not 5,000 years in the making but 14.5 billion! Our knowing of God is evolving. If anyone can even begin to wrap their head around that, they should instantly be proclaimed a saint because such knowledge would be absolutely transformative.

I don't hold that everyone needs to believe in evolution. Those either/or categories of "doing it right" just aren't that helpful at the end of the day. It's really about an expansive view of God and God being more than we can ever know and bulging beyond our cigar box. "He's not a tame lion" as C. S. Lewis put it and we need to stop pretending that because we've fashioned a whip, God will jump through our hoops and never stray outside.

Whatever you believe, let's have an expanding view of God and find more room than we can ever hope for in that Vastness.

Related Posts:
The Real and True Enemy
Of Saints and Halos
Where is God, the Right or the Left?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Real and True Enemy

What is "Evil"?

In Christianity alone you will find numerous definitions. For some it is "Satan" or "sin." For others it is defined by its contrast with Good as "what is not God's will" or "what goes against the natural order". Other traditions use other language but I think we're really all talking about the same thing, even if we disagree on which things fall under such a category.

The Latin, diabolicus, from which we get the English"diabolical," is probably one of the best words to use for Evil because it originally meant "to be thrown into two." This fits perfectly within the Christian tradition, as seen in Scripture when we're told the sinner is one who "walks a double path" (Sirach 2:12). I experience a mini-enlightenment when I hear that definition just like I do when I'm reminded that sin in Greek is simply "missing the mark."

A lot of churches don't talk about evil or the Devil these days. And some Christian communities like the one I grew up in talk about them too much. But the worst manner in which to talk about evil is when we apply it to people, something our egos and shadow selves seem to have an insatiable desire to do. Even Christ was accused of being evil and performing miracles by the power of Satan - casting out demons through demons. Anyone who is "other" or against our own ideas of how and who we should be usually gets branded as "evil." Call to mind Indians, papists, Jews, communists, feminists, Muslims, and George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" countries and you'll see it's a pattern in our nation's history. The irony here, though, is that we often try to do exactly what Jesus was accused of doing: we try to cure ourselves and others through "demons", which takes the form of a desire for power, control, security, purity, and "fixing" others. We think if we can achieve one of these things, the world will finally be set aright. That mentality is an illusion and what God calls a "false idol."

So are there any real enemies?

There are three classical enemies of man in Christianity. These are 1) the World, 2) the Flesh or Self, and 3) the Devil. In my very humble opinion, these are wonderfully named! But I've read and experienced enough to suspect they are not well understood.

The second enemy, "the Self," is really the only one I ever grew up knowing and the only one Christianity in America seems to explore at length. If you bring up sin with a Christian they're either going to start thinking of their own personal self-sins or the self-sins of others. Mention the 7 Capital Sins of antiquity - Avarice, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Pride, Sloth, and Wrath - and you can't help but think of how the self is envious, gluttonous, lustful, and so on.

Rarely do we apply sin to our governments or movements or societies, which we would name, the World. And rarer still do we call sinful the supreme systems and power structures that all countries buy into, the things that supremely rule the world's sin. These things we should call the Devil. They are the underlying systems that include us (and necessarily exclude others) and that we need to feel superior.

We are missing something very important when we fail to call our idols of nationalism, "the free market", war, and unjust power structures by their proper name: sin. Pope Leo XIII brought these to light in his encyclical Rerum Novarum and Pope St. John Paul II gave us the language of "structural sin" and "societal sin." That we can sin collectively through the systems and structures we support is a belief not often found outside of pastors blaming natural disasters on homosexuals.

If you lust, God doesn't strike you with unemployment. If you lie, God doesn't remove your sense of sight. The actual punishment is self-inflicted: you become more lustful, more deceitful. And the same is true with our structural sin. The problem is that these structures persist and are reinforced. They become moreThe sooner we learn that we have culpability in these societal sins, the sooner we'll have social justice, equality, and an end to poverty, three things Christ expressly admonished his followers to seek.

Okay, so systems can be evil. But can't people be evil too?

No, I don't think so. People are never the enemy. Jesus said to love your enemies and this shows us not only a way of being that is good and true but also what is real.

People are not evil. People are the image of God! How can we call an image of God evil? If we believe in redemption and God's love for all, then that includes the worst people you could think of. I think the most we can do is call others "diabolical" - people who have been thrown into two. And even then, haven't we all?

We like to personify realities, and that's really the problem. In the history of western art we've seen personifications of traits, the 7 Virtues for example - Prudence, Temperance, Justice, Fortitude, Faith, Hope, and Love. There's a reason these are so often painted as beautiful women. Not only does it reflect what is desirable in a male-dominated society but it's also how we get a handle on them. (Isn't it interesting how often these are names for women and how seldom they are given to men?)

And we do the same with "evil". We personify evil as people groups like minorities and lower classes, or as individuals like Hitler, Stalin, or Osama bin Laden. Dante was a master of this personification but he wasn't the first. It's not that these individuals are great or even good and therefore don't deserve the "evil" label. Saying they are created in the image of God has no bearing on their personal development. But if you believe that all people are created in God's image, do you really think they deserve to be mentally separated from the rest of us? Do they deserve a category that is less than human, that is somehow other?

The hateful deserve our pity, the ignorant our compassion. We are called to love those we think of as enemies. But wouldn't it be beautiful if we could go a step further? Can't we recognize that we don't have any human enemies? "Other People" are not included on our list of 3! Yes, we have sin and sinful individuals. But we need to recognize that personal sin is only 1/3 of what we need to oppose. We need to oppose the World in its unjust structure and societies. And we need to oppose the Devil when he appears to be a supreme "good" that of course runs the world and cannot be altered (capitalism, war, human selfishness). If we can start, as a Christian community, to see the other 2/3 of evil, we might actually experience the Reign of God here and now.

Related Posts:
Timeless Violence
"Revival," "Alive," & "Dead"

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Time Traveling Hell: An Honest Look at Your Relocation to the Past

Have you ever wondered, "What would it really be like to go back in time?" When I was a kid I used to fantasize about time traveling. The middle ages in England have especially held a mystical allure for me, which should be no surprise. But once you have gotten over all your thoughts of adventure and grandeur and glory you'd realize that traveling back like the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court actually presents a large number of problems. This is what you would encounter if you actually traveled back in time. These are true for most time periods and cultures but I’ll use medieval England to bring them to light.

1. Language - You appear in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe the middle of somewhere. Either way it doesn’t really matter because you haven’t studied medieval English and depending on what century it is Shakespeare himself might not even recognize it. Even if you had bothered to learn medieval English, you would’ve had to pick a dialect and hoped you ended up somewhere where the locals could understand you.

2. Avoiding Incarceration - Once you get over language, people will want to know who you are and what you are doing there. Since almost all of the lower classes never ventured further than a 10 mile radius their entire lives, your presence as an odd stranger would be disturbing. Since you’re traveling alone, they’d know you weren't a noble or a merchant. So what are you? You’d better hope they don’t care enough to turn you in to the local authorities.

3. Money - You've got none and the only honest way to get some is to sell your labor. But you’ll need to get to one of the great cities, like London or York. How are you going to get there with no money? If you start working for a local lord there’s a good chance you’ll be contracted to work for a period of years. There was no two weeks’ notice in medieval times. Maybe you’d just be made a serf since you’d have no documentation or way to prove you deserved to be free to roam about.

4. Food - again, no money. If you're another Grizzly Adams, sure, go kill a family of squirrels or gather some disgusting mushrooms from the forest. Let's hope the local lord doesn’t catch you stealing from his forest though. Or worse, have outlaws catch you stealing from their livelihood. But even if you were offered the local fare, it would be terribly bland, full of lots of awful things for your teeth and digestion, and with strange new tastes that would honestly send you to the loo for days. Adjusting to the local diet would be difficult.

5. Conscription - if you’re wandering about the land or just working dutifully for a lord, there’s a good chance you’ll get shoved into service when the lord goes to war. Having no martial skills, let alone knowledge of strategy or tactics since who the devil learns that anymore, you’d be a low ranking soldier. You might be assigned as a crossbowman or a foot soldier or just as a guard for the baggage train. All of these are perilous. And then, once you were confronted with an enemy, what makes you think you know anything about properly wielding a weapon in defense?

6. Disease - I know, I know, let’s say all your dreams come true: you survive on your own, make it to a city, know the language and can be understood, have money, and adjust to the food. You’re still likely to die of a disease at any time, not just because it’s the middle ages with poor hygiene but because your immune system is going to be adapted for a completely different environment than literally everyone else in the country. And if you do get sick, I hope you like being bled and having superstition passed off as expert medical advice. For the record, you would get sick! Seriously.

7. Skill (or lack thereof) - Okay, so add good health to your wish list and let’s say you got it. Hizzah! If you know something of chemistry, physics, engineering, mathematics, music, medieval military tactics, medieval agrarian economies and trade, or advanced theology, you might just have a useful skill. If you know Latin or Greek or the medieval versions of other European languages you might also do well. For me, I’d bank on my knowledge of history and play it off as prophecy because, seriously, how else am I supposed to survive? Your only hope with any of these is to get to the right people and show them your skill. This is a monumental task in itself and I’d guess only 2% of time travelers have ever been successful at it.

Dream scenario - You make it all the way to the top! You’re a successful builder or diplomat or military commander or adviser who pretends to have knowledge of the future through sorcery. You get to do this for a high ranking lord, perhaps an earl or a duke if you’re very lucky. Or the king if you’re just a jackpot winner. These people would accept you and give you a livelihood but it would be conditional. You’d have to perform well and delight them. Lords had very few constraints on their whims and you’d do well to avoid displeasing them and falling out of favor. If you constantly please them, you might have a cozy life. If you want something more secure you could always join a monastery or convent.

9. If you’re a woman, I’m sorry to say that you wouldn’t make it this far. That’s just an acknowledgment of an inherently sexist culture and society. Even if you’re not going to medieval Europe, you’d likely encounter extreme prejudice in almost any culture. Joan of Arc is so inspiring partly because she was a peasant, not unlike an ignorant time traveler, who did accomplish as much and go all the way to the top. But she couldn’t stay in the Dauphin’s good graces, and oh yeah, she had God on her side performing miracles. If you were a woman, you would be seen as property or a prize and not as an independent agent valuable for her personhood. Maybe only if you played my game and pretended to be a prophetess/sorceress.

10. Death. At some point, you would die of course. War would do it or famine or childbirth or maybe just cutting your hand on that rusty nail by the stable. Your chances are terrible! Disease would most likely get you. And even if you lived to be an old age I don’t think we consider how difficult it would be to go back to an era without regular bathing, with serious rotting teeth and halitosis, with buckets for bathrooms, with uncomfortable and ridiculous clothing, with class distinctions in every area of life, and with widespread ignorance. The ignorance alone could drive you mad. And if the chances of survival were slim to none, what would be our chance at happiness? Related posts: 10 Facts You Didn't Know about Medieval English History I Don't Get It 10 Things Not to Do on Facebook