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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Many Ways of Reading Pope Francis

Pope Francis recently gave an interview that has been making the internet rounds. Conservatives & Progressives, Catholics & Protestants, and Christians & non-Christians alike have all taken note. Perhaps its "groundbreaking" nature is largely due the tone and emphasis His Holiness gives to the subjects discussed, which include everything from gay rights and women in the church to community and prayer.

Fr. James Martin, SJ is an editor at America - a national Jesuit Catholic magazine and the publisher of the full English translation of the interview - who stated last week on NPR that the Francis' interview was notable for it's "candor" and its "vulnerability." He's right. In the interview, we find a lot of very human pronouncements that admit fault, sin, and humanity, something many Evangelicals like Christianity Today's Kevin Emmert noted. summarizes the most interesting parts from their perspective from the interview, which seem to be those that admitted too much emphasis on abortion and gay marriage debates and the need for a more "balanced" and welcoming approach by the Church when it comes to social issues. (For various reactions to Pope Francis' interview by religious leaders in the LGBTQ community, click here.)

As a new poll From the Huffington Post describes (decide bias for yourself), reactions to Francis' words have been mostly positive in the general as well as religious public. But it turns out Protestants are twice as likely as Catholics to think that the pope's comments went too far.

In talking with traditional Catholics from my generation (who believe the Magisterium and official teachings of the Church), it's clear that Francis' comments even made some of them nervous. Is he reshaping Church doctrine? Is he rewriting Catholic/Christian theology?

Different Theology? Not Really.

The answer is a clear: No. Unfortunately for the high percentage of American Catholics who think the pope should adopt stances that better reflect the attitudes of the faithful, His Holiness is not reworking the Church's theology. In fact, he even recently defrocked and excommunicated an Australian priest for his overt support of women priests and gays, leading one liberal blog to lament, "Despite all due temptation, he remains a Catholic." (Oh no!...) As R. R. Reno of First Things notes, taking Francis' remarks to constitute new doctrine is "a distorted reading of what he has in mind for the Church."

But I think these conservative voices, both Evangelical and Catholic, also seem to miss the point. While the most liberal wings in these camps may not have reason to rejoice at a reworking of Catholic theology, the most conservative camps cannot simply pass off the pope's comments as a mere misinterpretation. In typical Sam-fashion, I'm choosing a middle way.

The Middle Way

Francis does say some remarkable things. He emphasizes a much more important role for women than perhaps any other pontiff has, and while it's not full and equal ordination it does speak of unique contributions needed from women in a way that doesn't relegate them to subservience, submission, or second-class status, which is something a lot of Evangelicals (and Catholics for that matter) could do with hearing.

Another lesson for Evangelicals would be Francis' emphasis on finding God in all things. There is no distinction between the secular and the holy, the profane and the sacred. Growing up Evangelical, my family's world mirrored but was distinct from the real world as if we were a holier version. We "needed" Christian music, Christian camps, Christian clubs. This left me with a very heavy sense of the fractured nature of reality into good and bad, Christian and secular, black and white. Such dualism doesn't account for the goodness of all God's creation and it doesn't make for a healthy worldview. When you're afraid of dirtying your hands by touching the "unclean," it's very difficult to be Christ's hands in the world.

The real point I want to make is that there are two dangers for those reading Pope Francis' remarks. The first is to think that the Church no longer has an opinion on social issues like gay marriage and abortion. The second is to think that Francis is not trying to fundamentally alter the way all Christians think and act in the world, especially the conservative among us.

His Holiness is making an important case: we think we are helping by advocating so vehemently for certain social issues but we are actually presenting an unbalanced and untrue view of the gospel. Do you get it? Francis is saying that we are hindering people from hearing the gospel! It's not that these issues don't matter but when the world rightly finds Christians to be overly emphasizing opposition to certain social issues, the gospel is diminished. The gospel is about living in a loving way the Divine Mystery of God's love, and that extends well beyond our current focus of a few social issues.

Francis' interview is actually a call to action. It's a call to nonjudgment, something both Catholics and Evangelicals need to internalize. It's a call to moderation so that the gospel is presented holistically. And Francis' words are a call to fundamentally change the way we love so that we're not defined by rants of what we're against but by humility and love in service to what we are for. 

The pope used the analogy of a "field hospital" for the Church. Another one might be a great ship. Francis wants us to be one full to the brim with life preservers, not cannons. And can't we all get on board with that?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Forgiving the Unforgivable: Betrayal, Sept. 11, and a Navy Shipyard

As fate would have it, I have been thinking a lot about forgiveness in the past few months. I finally reached a point where I was ready to write about it, and it was already the subject for this week's post. Then I remembered it was the anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Then tragedy struck yesterday as a shooter went on a rampage in the Washington Navy Shipyard.

I've had to think about forgiveness after quite a rift with a friend in the last year. "Personal betrayal" would not be too harsh a label to put on it. At the time, I was so upset and hurt that I quickly wrote the person off as somehow other - not a rational, normal person like me.

But after a bit of time you wonder about the Christian message of forgiveness. You begin to think that the Seventy times Seven principle doesn't exclude you and your own relationships after all, however unfathomable your situation must have been to Christ at the time he made that ridiculous rule. (Insert sarcastic font here.)

A very natural response is anger. It's so easy. It's easy to feel angry at those who thoughtlessly hurt us or hurt others or at the leaders who refuse to do the hard work of compromise and change so that these tragic events don't continue to happen again and again and again.

And trust me, I have more experience with anger than most. My first experience writing for an audience was authoring letters to the editor and later editorials for my college newspaper. I quickly developed a reputation as the guy who was always going off on something (always for an egocentric worthy cause, of course). This became apparent after my friends starting inquiring what I would write about next by asking me, "So what are you upset about this week?" Play that game long enough and you'll learn - one way or another - that anger is very seldom productive, let alone healthy.

Being the victim is quite nice for your ego. It lets you feel wronged, superior, and untouchable all at the same time. And like me, you may have been genuinely abused by something. But as soon as you realize you sort of like being justified in your anger and your hurt, the game is up; you see your own flawed nature is taking it too far.

The attacks of September 11th certainly warranted a response. But where did we turn? We waged a war in Iraq that did not meet any of the criteria for a Just War by Catholic theological standards. Yet how many Catholics opposed it? How many Christians? It didn't even meet the standards of rational thinking since Iraq had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But we were angry and forgiveness is not the way of a successful political establishment. And if our country weakly forgave our enemies, how could our national pride ever live with that? Anger needs an object. Forgiveness seems to need nothing.

Now we have a fresh tragedy: a gunman shot dozens of people at a naval shipyard. It's unforgivable. Isn't it? What does forgiveness mean?

"Forgiveness" as Not-Caring is Impossible

I've come to think that forgiveness as I was taught forgiveness to be is impossible. If we think of forgiveness as a "forgetting" or "getting over" or "sweeping aside" of something, then who among us can really do that? "Forgive and forget" as the saying goes. But who can forget? Logically, you can't. We humans don't have the capacity to select and delete our memories short of repression. And how do we stop caring?

If there's a way to somehow sweep under the rug what once deeply hurt you, I'm not sure I know it. And that's not forgiveness. Instead, forgiveness must be an expanding of your view to see holistically, to see things and people as they really are, 
to see them as God sees them.

Do you think the victims' families of the shooting yesterday see that young man as Aaron Alexis or as "the shooter"? Does Alexis' family see him as the shooter or as the person they knew and loved? Now, we have stories of the good this man did and also the ways in which he was so troubled. We learn that he was both "sweet" and "angry." He sought out healthy practices like meditation and yet suffered from PTSD and violent outbursts. One acquaintance described, "He’s a 13-year-old stuck in a 34-year-old body." The picture of "the shooter" of our 'enemy' starts to become more recognizable and more human. He shares something with us, and that's a very hard thing to admit. But it's the only way to forgiveness. We have to find acknowledge our shared commonality, even if it's only in relation to the Imago Dei

If you can expand your view from seeing merely this one event at the shipyard to the totality of who this person was, then I think forgiveness is possible. It doesn't make this event any less tragic. It certainly can never excuse what Alexis did. But it also doesn't demonize him as a no-good, evil, unforgivable man. If he is created in God's image like the rest of us, then God doesn't see him through such labels. And though it's tempting, neither should we.

This was the conclusion I finally had to reach for myself concerning my own friend. That person isn't a terrible person (quite the contrary). They don't deserve terrible things or to be written off as something "other", someone less worthy of love or consideration or care. It's not an excuse but it's a way to forgive. Seeing all of this person, their good qualities as well as their shortcomings, gives you a way to understand and to naturally let go. And maybe that's the beauty of it: it's natural and almost effortless. It's a right way of seeing that once you've done it, doesn't demand much work at all, and certainly never an attempt to forget or excuse.

Without condoning or condemning, a holistic view of the depth of any person can help us see them realistically and find a way to forgiveness, a way of letting go. It's the way out, and the way to "love your enemies." And I think we could all use that kind of escape.

Related Posts:
The Real and True Enemy
How Should Christians Respond to Pain?
Two Brothers: On Violence, America, and One Month after Boston

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

When Christian Doctrine Fails Us

The Buddha, the Enlightened One, was once teaching his disciples about his own doctrine. To explain, he gave them a parable of a man with a raft. He said to imagine a man who came to a river too deep to wade and too wide to swim. The man wished to cross the river but, there being no bridge, decided to build a raft in order to cross. He built the raft and exerting himself using his hands and feet crossed to the other side. The Buddha then asked his disciples if the man would be wise to say, "This raft was a good thing. I shall strap it to my back and carry it on my journey so that it may continue to be valuable for me." The disciples heard this and answered, "No, that would be quite foolish."

Then the Buddha asked his disciples to imagine the same man and the same river and the same raft and the same exertion and the same crossing. And upon reaching the opposite shore, this time the man says, "This raft was a good thing. I shall tie it up here and leave it by the shore and continue on my journey." The Buddha asked his disciples if this would be wise, and they answered, "Yes."

The Buddha then gets to the heart of the matter and says, "Like this raft, my doctrine is for crossing over and not for carrying."

Will Assent Save You?

As Christians, what does this mean for us? Can we simply ignore this strange "eastern" teaching as pagan or perhaps even anti-Christian? If it wasn't said by someone from our community, can it still be true?

I worry that Christian doctrine, though by no means untrue, is nevertheless failing our communities when it promises salvation.

The problem isn't that our doctrines are unsound, too few, or too undeveloped. The problem is that we think by assenting to a belief or fact, we will gain salvation. The problem is that we think merely acknowledging doctrine will transform us.

We have entire religious communities - including Evangelical, mainline Protestant, and Catholic - who think that they're going to get to heaven because they have all the correct beliefs and moral purity codes. Belief is not transformation and it's not Christ-likeness. If we're honest, we can admit that most doctrine requires very little of us; someone who goes from disbelieving the Virgin Birth to believing it really doesn't need to undergo any real transformation of the heart and very little of the head.

When we finally die and encounter perfect union with God, S/He isn't going to pull out her/his book and say, "Congratulations! You assented to all 21 of our essential doctrines so come on in!" 

Doctrines are not important for their own sake. We forget that the entire purpose of doctrine is to illuminate, to draw us into deeper layers of the Divine Mystery, which means deeper layers of knowing (and of unknowing). Doctrine is only valuable insofar as it points us toward Truth. It is for crossing over and not for carrying.

That's not to say we can discard doctrine at will. That would be too simplistic. But at some point we should be reminded that though Paul often uses "faith in Christ" as a requisite for salvation, does that merely mean believing in an historical event - that Christ died for the sins of the world, including your own?

Because it is a doctrine. A powerful one that can point you toward a place you should be but not one that will satisfy you if you simply strap it to your back. This is why we have so many Christians who seem eerily reflective of their non-Christian neighbors as if the division were a only a mirror instead of the Divine Love living through them.

Information Instead of Transformation

I worry that the crisis of Christianity isn't a shortage of priests or secularism or issues of sexuality but rather that few of us experience actual transformation. The Church too often informs us (of doctrines) rather than transforms us. And I now believe that the transformation is the much more essential step. The information and the label of "Christian" is still important but secondary in the Kingdom of God.

C. S. Lewis believed this too. How else could he advocate as he did in The Last Battle that those who imitated God's Love but were adherents to the wrong religion were still saved? It seems Lewis took to heart Christ's teaching on the sheep and the goats.

And this emphasis on doctrine leading you to an experience of Truth is all that seems to matter. Perhaps this is why Christ never says, "You must have a personal relationship with me" or "Say the sinner's prayer" but simply, "Follow me." While all of these can belong, a journey with God is much more demanding than signing our names to a statement of belief.

The Buddha knew this too and illustrated it beautifully with the raft. But it's because crossing over is the only way to experience God. Carrying God as a possession isn't enough. 

I wonder if Christ would say to us as the Buddha said to his disciple, 
If you were to follow the Dharma (The Way) purely out of love for me or because you respect me, I would not accept you as disciple. But if you follow the Dharma because you have yourself experienced its truth, because you understand and act accordingly - only under these conditions have you the right to call yourself a disciple of the Exalted One.
If we started emphasizing total transformation as higher than total assent to doctrine, wouldn't we find that we were a people for journeying well instead of a people self-assured with the right answers? Journeying together asks more from us. We should trust that.

Related Posts:
The Spirit of the Law

God in Evolution
When the Church Fails Homosexuals

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Equality in Friendship // Reflections on John 15:12-15

This is the last reflection in a four part series on Friendship. The topics are inspired by each of the four verses in John 15:12-15 addressing friendship but are by no means an exegetical study. Instead, I let each verse serve as a springboard for discussion:
(12) This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (13) No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. (14) You are my friends if you do what I command you. (15) I do not call you servants any longer because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I call you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.

"I do not call you servants any longer because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I call you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father." -- John 15:15

Amazingly, in verse 15 Christ gives us a definition for friendship. God himself defines friendship for us! And it's clear that friendship involves intimate sharing, presence, and humility. Now we see that friendship also involves a sense of equality.

Christ defines friendship in terms of mutuality, revelation, and equality. Because Jesus so openly shared of himself - what he knew and was and did - the disciples are redefined from "servants" to "friends." That's quite a shift.

But it makes perfect sense. Imagine a friendship where one person thought they were better than the other. Or more important. Or had more to say or a greater need. I can't imagine that scenario working because it's very difficult to feel friendly toward someone who would regard you with such self-centered disdain. If you would be loved, be lovable. And friendship is love.

One of the most awe-some aspects of Christ's very person is the way he continually strips away barriers, even the ones we think our religion has given us. He redefines holiness by willingly becoming "unclean" through contact with sinners. He overcomes the dualistic thinking of the religious elite of his day. He regards with humanity and grace those who show God's love but are outside of the 'saved' religious label, which is precisely why telling a parable of a "good" Samaritan was so paradigm-shifting. Could we accept a parable about a "Good Muslim" who shows the love of God in ways many Christians fail to? Somehow I don't think most of our churches could.

Jesus is sending a message of equality, first in personal relationships and then outward. We learn in Philippians 2:6 that Jesus who was God still "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited." Not only does this tell of us the reality of the true inequality of Jesus with his disciples and all of us but it flips the importance of such a claim on its head by saying that Jesus is putting himself on our own level. God comes to us and shows us the model of equality in friendship.

Reuniting the Divided

A sense of equality in friendship does not mean that we forget to acknowledge our unique characters. But it is certainly a shift of focus to what unites rather than what divides us. You cannot have meaningful friendship without a sense of equality, a sense of oneness and mutuality.

Practically, this means not being selfish in our relationships, what you might call, "Friendship 101." The first social lesson we learn as children - to share - points toward this deeper sense of sameness and equality. And it's always tragic to see a friend who hasn't learned this, who dominates a conversation or regards others merely as supporting characters in his/her own life's drama.

Children have to learn that their own self is not the only thing that matters or even the most important. We learn to share, to extend our own desires to others. Once we regard our friends as equals in dignity and worth and need then our thinking starts to change. We forget to rank in importance me v. them or my group v. everyone else. We start to see the connection between everything.

We start to realize that many of the "important" splits we hold aren't even true, let alone helpful. We start to see that there is no split between the mind and the body; we are one in being. We see that life and death are not opposing forces but two sides of one coin. We start to see that our "good selves" and our "bad selves" are also one without a need to destroy our shadow. And finally we see that all of creation is one because it's all part of The One.

Jesus himself regards all of us with equality and levels dividers between God and you and others. He says what you do to others you do to yourself and to God, what you do for God, you do for yourself and others.

I think in friendship this principle of sameness and equality opens up a much bigger way to love one another. We regard someone else not as better or worse but as an equal reflection of God's love and the unity of creation. We can acknowledge our deep, foundational equality as the German poet, Friedrich Schiller, wrote in words now famous in Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" 9th Symphony:

Joy, Bright Spark of Divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Thy heavenly sanctuary! 
Thy mystical power reunites
All that custom has divided;
All men are brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wing.