Friday, January 28, 2011

Envivo De Michoacan III: Before The Next Teardrop Falls

I have wanted to learn Spanish ever since 1975 -- the first time I heard the late great Baldemar Garza Huerta (stage name: Freddy Fender) on my car radio singing “Before The Next Teardrop Falls.” In case you don’t know the song, it is one of those dreadfully sentimental Country Western oldies. Freddy sang the first verse straight and it was as bad as always. I was on the verge of changing the channel when he sang the same verse in Spanish. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard.

Si te quierre de verdad
Y te da felicidad
Te desea lo mas bueno pa’los dos.
Pero si te hace llorar,
A mime puedes hablar
Y estare’ contigo quando trieste estas.

Does it get any better than that? Not in the world of Tex-Mex music. But as the years went by I came upon Neruda:

Inclinada en las tardes iro mis tristes redes
A tus ojos oceanicos.
Alli se estira y arde en la mas atla hoguera . . . .

Whether in print or given voice, this language held a beauty that was inaccessible to me. My upbringing was a bigger trap than my lack of language. I could never bring myself to devote the time and effort to learn Spanish simply because it is lovely and has feelings and ideas embedded in it that cannot be expressed in English. What’s more, I am bad at languages. Just awful really – and afraid of them.

So I feel enormously grateful to the many Latino Episcopalians in Nevada for giving me final push I needed for this experience. The joy and vitality of the worship and community life of our Latino congregations is just too good to miss. I hope I will be of greater service to our fastest growing congregations, but I am sure of this: their spirituality is already an energizing, life-giving blessing to me, and I will be better able to receive that blessing as I understand more of the language of Neruda, Lorca, Marquez, and the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno.

After 2 weeks of living in Morelia, studying Spanish every day, I feel different in more ways than having just learned some verbs. Learning the language while living in its home culture is somehow transformative in a way it will take some time to sort out. Before coming here, I really didn’t know Hidalgo and Morelos from Profiro Diaz. I had no idea that there was a culture in Mexico the Aztecs never conquered, the Purhepecha who still live here and who ruled Michoacan, the place of fishermen, for 1,000 years, that they built pyramids as temples and the people worshiped outside – loudly so their gods could hear them -- or that images of sun and moon flank images of God above church doorways preserving the place of sun and moon in the pre-Hispanic religion of this ancient place.

Despite my weakness in language, all the individual attention from the some of the best teachers I have ever had has made a huge difference. I have learned so much! I am a long, long way from conversant in Spanish. That will take much more than 3 weeks. But I have the foundation now to study at home. Before coming here, the prospect of even starting something like Rosetta Stone was overwhelming. Now I believe I can do it, especially knowing I will have the support of my Latino brothers and sisters.

One of the big surprises here is that there are so few American students. All the violence along the border that is so exhaustively covered on American news has scared the Americans away. My school, the Baden-Powell Institute,, had about 30 Americans at a time until recently. Now you could count us on one hand. This is a long way from Juarez. I feel safer here than in Las Vegas. This is a beautiful city, untouched by urban renewal, full of old style Spanish architecture, no tall buildings, a magnificent Cathedral with the 3rd largest organ in Latin America, good food, and friendly people.

I hope to come back again and again in the years to come.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Secular Humanism Is Impossible: Does The Soul Exist? What's At Stake?

Secular humanism is impossible.

Well maybe not. There may be a way to get there that I don’t know. But I say “it is impossible” to draw attention to a massive contradiction, a huge crack in the foundation, of contemporary atheism.

The problem arises if we start with the amateur philosophy currently being attempted by some biologists. They have presented arguments against the existence of God that I addressed somewhat in my previous post “Belief vs. Unbelief: Cleaning Up the Playing Field.” These biologists are eager to reduce reality to a mechanical material basis as opposed to a personal spiritual basis. That is understandable because they want reality to fit the language they speak, to fit the methods of inquiry they use. It is extremely inconvenient for those whose language has no word for “snow” and whose field of inquiry is the Sahara desert to consider that something such as snow might also be real. To be fair, the biologists’ discipline has been under attack by fundamentalists for decades. The shouts of the fundamentalists echo in biologists’ ears, so they are – perhaps understandably -- responding to those shouts rather than to the softer voices of a reasonable faith.

But here is the contradiction for a secular humanism that relies on the work of these biologists to deny God: the same biologists are equally committed to denying the existence of the human soul. This much is consistent. If the universe is devoid of meaning, value, truth, beauty, goodness, and spirit, then humankind as a part of that universe must be equally worthless. They argue that our religious sentiments, along with our feelings for each other, our appreciation of art, and our moral values are all just bio-chemical processes. They assert that, although I may think that I love my family, my feeling for them is just a set of biochemical processes triggered in my brain when I am with them. It doesn’t really mean anything about our relationship. Philosophers call that kind of argument “reductionism” – saying that something we generally regard as significant is actually insignificant. Please understand, I am not saying all biologists are reductionists. Quite the contrary. Francis Collins, for example, is one of our foremost bio-geneticists and a defender of faith in the midst of science.

The result of reductionist reasoning – which I intend to challenge – is that humanity is no more important than anything else. Consciousness does not matter. Sentience does not matter. Our capacities for philosophical interpretation, artistic expression, and most certainly religious intuition do not matter. The content of our minds – hopes, dreams, aspirations, compassion, etc. – are of no importance since they are just bio-chemical processes. Herein lies the contradiction for secular humanism, which makes an ultimate value of humanity, something science has proven to be worthless.

Do human beings matter? Does life have value? Is our presence on this globe is of any importance? These are large questions. I would hold that we can have value only if value itself is possible. Linguistic philosophers would call that “a necessary truth.” It has its own internal logic. Human life can be meaningful only if the universe as a whole is meaningful. Given that any individual life is brief, and the universe will outlive our species, it is very difficult to make a case that a life has lasting meaning unless it is part of a larger meaning, albeit a mysterious one.

But for now, I will limit this inquiry to the reductionist scientists' main point of attack – the existence or non-existence of the soul – which they rightly see as connected to the existence or non-existence of God. Again, they have found that our thoughts and feelings correspond to demonstrable bio-chemical processes. Therefore, they reason, the soul is a mumbo-jumbo hoax.

Their point calls for two basic responses. The first is to challenge their philosophical interpretation of their findings. (One can be a perfectly adequate scientist without being particularly adept at philosophy of science, just as one can be a fine athlete without being a terribly astute analyst of the sport for TV commentary. The biologists might be as adept at philosophy and theology as philosophers and theologians would be at biology.) The second is to ask what we mean by the “soul” since the thing they claim does not exist may not be what we mean by the “soul” anyway.

First, let’s look at their interpretation of the demonstrable fact that thoughts and feelings correspond to bio-chemical processes. The bias of reductionists is to construe this correspondence in terms of a materialistic (stuff that has a chemical composition is real; things that do not have a chemical composition are not) mechanical (cause and effect relationships like billiard balls or falling dominoes, as opposed to personal interaction like people dancing) explanations.

However, even the staunchest atheist philosopher, David Hume, said that such causation is merely a hypothesis. Mechanistic cause and effect of the sort the reductionists assume is philosophically questionable, to say the least. And the greatest skeptic of all time, Renee Descartes, would have pointed out that the observations of their experiments and certainly the interpretation of their findings are merely descriptions of the bio-chemical processes in the brains of the reductionist scientists. Their own observations and interpretations, are by their own admission, mere bio-chemical processes occuring inside thier own skulls. The biologists have no basis for claiming objective truth for their own biochemical processes that deny the truth of someone else’s experience. (A case of needing to take the plank out of one's own eye.) Everything they observe may well be, as the Vedic philosophers would have put it, “a dream in the mind of God.” I do not accept the views of Hume, Descartes, or the Vedantists. I merely note the huge mountains the reductionists have ignored rather than climbed over.

To put a point on the issue of causation (which is the basis of the reductionist argument): If two things happen together, how are we to say which has caused the other? If I am in a room that is 95 degrees and begin to sweat and so remove my sweater, what would the bio-chemical analysis say? It would say my bio-chemistry caused the room to become hot. Take for example two lovers: did their inner biochemistry cause them to love each other or did their love affect their biochemistry? Is it a new or surprising discovery of science to say that my heart beats faster when I see the one I love? Does my pulse rate cause the feeling of love or did my feeling of love affect my heartbeat?

My challenge to the biologists’ materialist/mechanist leap of faith is this: Suppose two people feel kindly toward each other, admire each other, and remain devoted to each other’s well being. A musical composer might observe them and write a sonata to express the relationship of these two people. That would be a spiritual way of expressing what is happening. The composer would see the dynamic between the two people as essentially personal and relational rather like music. The reductionist scientist would observe the same dynamic and describe it in terms of bio-chemistry, thus reducing their relationship to the material and mechanistic.

Ah and who wins? Obviously the biologist, since scientists are the high priests in our time. (Who ordained them?) They have the greater authority. (Who gave it to them?) But wait. What about the physicists? Are not the very molecules the biologists study made up of atoms and the atoms of sub-atomic particles? According to the physicists, these atoms and sub-atomic particles are not behaving like a material mechanistic reality. Rather, they behave personally and relationally. According to the physicists, these two people, at their most basic “material” level, are quite spiritual, and their connection to each other appears to be an expression of their essentially spiritual nature. (See e.g., Tervethick, “Quantum Spirituality”; Winter, “Paradoxy: Spirituality In A Quantum Universe”; Aaron, “A New Reality: A Wakeup Call To Life’s Mysteries”; Zukov, “The Dancing Wu Li Masters”; Capra, “The Tao Of Physics.”)

It seems that any event may have layers of interpretation: spiritual, then material, then spiritual again, and so on – a vertiable parfait of interpretation -- as if perhaps spirit and matter are inter-related, as the scientist theologian Pierre Teilhard Chardin said and as the doctrines of Incarnation and Sacrament teach.

Events are only what they are. True. But what are they? We cannot perceive an event without interpretation. (See Martin Heidegger & Hans Gadamer.) And we interpret through the lens of our own worldview. There is no way out of that for any of us. We can only try to be aware of the subjectivity of the lens through which we look at things. The reductionists who deny the soul, and with it the meaning of life, are the epitome of Eurocentric rationalist arrogance – not in reaching a facile conclusion but in failing to see the limitation of their perspective. This is the attitude that gave us colonialism, with all its barbarous cultural genocide. It is incongruous to see the surge of such arrogant materialist rationalism in the Post-Modern world, which is supposed to be beyond that kind of pseudo-objectivity.

Now to the second response: what do we mean by “the soul”? The thing the reductionists purport to have disproven is a non-material vaporous entity that can be infused into a body and slip out of the body. It is ostensibly immortal since it does not die but floats away when the body dies. That may in fact be a common idea of the soul, but is it what Christianity means by the word? Is it what our theologians teach?

A bit of history: Various ancient peoples believed similar, though perhaps not identical, things about a life-force that animated living things, especially people. They believed that this life-force came from somewhere before birth and went somewhere after death. We find that belief in ancient Egypt, Greece, India, Ireland, Mesoamerica, and generally around the globe. No one seems to have had a very clear explanation of it, but the belief was important for them.

Plato gave the soul real significance in philosophy. He thought that the material world was real only in a secondary, derivative way. The basic reality was abstract. The soul was an abstraction, a spiritual reality which manifested for a time in material form as the body. Plato’s view of the soul influenced Judaism through Philo and it influenced Christianity through Sts. Justin, Augustine, and others. Was he right? I don’t know. But if he was, then the biochemical processes the scientist observes are not an anomaly. They are precisely what Plato meant by the material manifestation of a spiritual reality.

If the soul as Plato undertood it is too speculative for you, Christians in the Middle Ages felt the same way. They turned away from Plato toward the ideas of his student, Aristotle. For Aristotle, and then for St. Thomas Aquinas, the soul was not in the least bit spooky. The soul was essentially the blueprint for the body. It was the shape of our material selves. To say that emotions have a physical pattern and form -- the form observed by biologists -- is not to deny the existence of the soul as Aristotle and St. Thomas understood it. Quite the contrary, it is to describe the soul. For Plato, their findings would be the footprints of the soul. For Aristotle and Thomas, they would be a description of the soul itself.

There is a third view of the soul, one which I find more helpful than the vague-life force of the Ancients or either Plato’s or Aristotle’s more philosophical descriptions. It is the view we find in several schools of psychology, though it goes by different names. Some psychological schools use the word “soul.” Others call it the Self, the Personal Self, the Core Self, etc. One really needs to have done the exercises of these disciplines -- or even better, to have practiced Buddhist meditation -- to grasp what they mean by Soul or Self. The Soul, in this view, is essentially a capacity to observe the world but more importantly to observe one’s own inner dynamics from an emotionally centered “still point.” UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Daniel J. Siegel describes this capacity in neurological terms that the biologists should be comfortable with. (See Siegel’s books, “Mindsight” and “The Mindful Brain.”) It is this core of our being that does not change. It has the extraordinary capacity to observe the fractured parts of ourselves, each of which has its own neurological hard-wiring. By force of its differentiated observation, it brings compassion and healing. The Soul is not the processes the scientists observe so much as it is another observer of the same processes, but one who watches with a kinder eye.

The interesting claim, which I readily grant partakes of faith, is the transpersonal psychologists’ belief that the universe has a Cosmic Self which underlies all the interpersonal dynamics from nations to quarks – and that the Cosmic Self and Personal Self are inextricably connected. (See e.g. Roberto Assagioli, “Psychosynthesis”; Firman and Gila, “Psychosynthesis: A Psychology of The Spirit.”) This Personal-Self-to-Cosmic-Self connection is perfectly consistent with the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas and directly in line with the mystical insights of Lady Julian of Norwich. How ironic that the reductionist scientists have grasped the same point, the same connection. The soul, if it exists, is of God. They have realized that to effectively deny one, you must also deny the other.

If, indeed the Spirit of God blows across the deep (Genesis I), that divine wind will not be registered by a meteorologist’s instruments but by a harp. The right tool for the right job, after all.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Belief vs Unbelief: Cleaning Up The Playing Field

The revival of atheism these days strikes me as a natural response to religious violence, bigotry, and hatred in the world. But I confess to growing impatient with the current debate between the atheists and the believers. With few exceptions, our contemporary voices are shrill and thin as compared to people who were carrying on the same argument at a deeper level and with greater integrity a few decades ago. Forgive me for sounding like an old fogey, but today’s argument sounds like the religious equivalent of what we might hear on Fox News or MSNBC. It is mostly facile name-calling.

Does it matter? Quite possibly not much. It is unlikely that anyone has ever been argued into believing anything of importance very deeply. Either one experiences God intuitively or one does not. Of course the culture either supports or suppresses experience by shaping its interpretation. Hence, people in 17th Century France were apt to have visions of the Blessed Virgin while in Tibet they would entertain visions of dancing Dakinis. Today the chances of experiencing either are greatly diminished by assumptions about reality that France inherits from left bank existentialism and that Tibet is being force-fed by China. Our world view assumptions are shaped more by artists, scientists, and parents than pop religion or anti-religion pundits. Still, the debate is part of the background noise of our lives and I find its tenor irritating.

Christian, Jewish, and Islamic beliefs are all discredited by violence and bigotry perpetrated in our names. That kind of bad religion led to the anti-religion of Communism and the neo-pagan national religion of the German “Christian [sic]” Church in the 20th Century. In that bloodiest of centuries, atheism proved to be more lethal than religion had ever dreamed of being. See Alistair MacGrath, “The Twilight Of Atheism.” We have learned the hard way that when religion is taken out of the picture, we torture and kill each other over political and ecnonomic ideology. In the absence of religion that admits it is religion, we form secular religions, state-worship with flag rituals, sainted martyrs of the state, holy places (usually battle fields) and temples of the government, and sacred texts that can be viewed in the sacred city by pilgrims. The creed is taught by secular rabbis in public schools. See Robert Bellah, “Habits Of The Heart.” All this is forgotten by the pop atheists. (I do not include in this category one contemporary atheist writer, Jennifer Michael Hecht, whose book, “Doubt: A History,” is nuanced, honest, and decent.) Bad religion is invariably rooted in a bad image of God, which inevitably leads to bad behavior in the name of that bad God. When Christopher Hitchen, et al. attack such bad religion, they are in good company. Our great 1940’s Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said, “If you have the wrong idea of God, better that you were an atheist.” Amen.

So what would I like to see in the debate? I’d like to see Philip Pullman’s straw men pulled from the game so we can speak face to face, not through avatars, seeing each other as we are and not as caricatures. I’d like to see us begin with a definition of terms so we can see what’s truly at stake. I’d like to see a distinction between theism and monotheism. Frankly, I’d like to see the debate between theism and monotheism move to the fore since it is vastly more interesting, albeit admittedly less fundamental.

This is where I would begin. The fundamental question is one of value. Does anything matter? Is one painting more beautiful than another? Is it better to be happy than sad? Is life better than death? Is a forest better than a slum? Or are all things truly equal? Is the field of reality flat? This is absolutely foundational to the discussion, because once one admits value into the field of reality; one is at grave risk of experiencing such things as love, reverence, and awe. Values are fraught with that peril. Hence, the great atheists of yesteryear (Sartre, Camus, Russell) faced the issue head on and insisted that nothing matters. The field is flat. There is no such thing as beauty, meaning, or even truth. They did not prove their claim. They did not even offer warrants or evidence for it, but they asserted it with the seductive smoky-bar cynicism of post-War France and it was persuasive. The world, which once was a lake in which one could dive, became a frozen pond, on which one could only skate. (Camus)

I respect the integrity and the intelligence of those atheists far more than the illogical twists of today’s true believers in unbelief (Eric Hofer, “The True Believer”). See, for example, “Hysterical Scientism: The Ecstasy of Richard Dawkins,” by Marilynne Robinson in the November 2006 issue of Harpers,; or more generally The atheists of the past century began at the honest starting place and they followed their premise to the ultimate and inescapable issue of suicide. If reality is in fact devoid of truth, beauty, and goodness, if there is no meaning to life, is not suicide then the inevitable response, the only authentic response? They argued, again without logic but with a heroic and compelling rhetoric, for a self-made value of the solitary individual shaking his fist at everything. Camus, “The Rebel.”

So let us begin with asking if anything matters. Let us ask if the behavior of some people, say perhaps Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King, Jr., is in some respect better than that of others, say Jeffrey Dahmer or Pol Pot. Let us ask if there is anything worthy of reverence or love? Then if there is, we may ask, “What is the basis for our holding one thing in greater reverence than another? In what value are our values grounded?” At the most basic level, we notice that there is something rather than nothing. The universe is here. It is vast and wonderful. Perhaps we are in awe of it. How could we not be? Then we ponder that if the universe has a source (which, in light of the Big Bang, it apparently does), even, especially, a mysterious source, that thought may evoke our reverence.

If something evokes our love and reverence, then we are, despite ourselves, theists – perhaps not classical theists, but we are people who bend the knee to something of value. Is that the God of monotheism? Not necessarily. But we are theists. As a matter of definition, I would say that if one holds that the value of all things is rooted in one supreme value, one highest good, then one is a monotheist. If one holds that things have independent values that are not bound together (for example that beauty is independent of truth and truth is independent of beauty -- that our source and our destiny are both awesome but are not related to each other) then one is a polytheist.

Some of today’s self-proclaimed atheists elevate various things to the status of an ultimate value. Some, who also call themselves “humanists,” regard the flourishing of our own species as the ultimate value against which everything else must be measured. Naturally, others, such as deep ecologists, find the elevation of our own species as the ultimate value of the cosmos to be arbitrary, illogical, reprehensibly self-serving, and turgid with hubris – a collective self-worship. Some take the“scientific method” to be the ultimate truth, thereby repudiating values grounded in art, literature, and the religious imagination. If you cannot scientifically prove that Beethoven’s sonatas are beautiful, perhaps even better than “The Horse With No Name” or “Achy Break-y Heart,” then in fact Beethoven’s sonatas are not of value. Ironically, these folks are actually monotheists. In an amusing turn of rhetoric, when the greatest true philosophical scientific atheist of our time, Anthony Flew, converted to theism, the pop atheists accused him of “apostasy.” They actually used that word. Flew, a lifelong devotee of the scientific method himself, adamantly denied their accusation that he had departed from the true way of scientism and insisted that his belief in God was just the place he found himself after “following the evidence,” starting with the Big Bang. See Anthony Flew, “There Is A God.” For both Dawkins and Flew, the existence of God is “a scientific question.” (Dawkins actually used those words in his debate with geneticist Francis Collins). Dawkins and Flew just come to different scientific conclusions. Francis Collins says that God’s existence is either true or false, but that does not necessarily mean that it is a “scientific question.” Though Collins is one of the world’s foremost scientists, he has not “drunk the Kool-Aid” of scientism. Different methods of inquiry are better suited for different questions. It’s a matter of the right tool for the right job.

Still, it is a huge leap from polytheism, as I have defined it, to monotheism. It is a huge leap to say that truth, beauty, and goodness are connected. “Beauty is truth; truth, beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” said young John Keats shortly before he died. What a claim! And to say that goodness is inextricably bound to truth and beauty makes the claim even greater. Now add the notion that this sea of truth/beauty/goodness was the spawning ground of all reality, and that changes all our assumptions and our experience of everything. “Surely the strange beauty of the world must rest somewhere on pure joy,” the American poet Louse Bogan wrote. Now add the notion that this “pure joy,” which is born of the truth/beauty/goodness which is our source, is in fact our destiny. Such monotheism is rather overwhelming, at least to me.

Now, the God I have described, you Barthians will be quick to point out, is not necessarily the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; nor have I said a word about Jesus. In fact, my faith does not begin with nor is it rooted in the things I have been saying about value. My faith begins with and is rooted in experience, not one great “see the light” experience but an osmosis experience of God in prayer, worship, and daily life. I worship God because I cannot breathe without God and that experience has taught me far more about the Creator/Redeemer/Sanctifier God than I could know from all of philosophy and science put together.

Since I have tried your patience too long dear reader and have come to the end of my own energy, I will stop here. But I will offer this hint for your own musing. If the reality in which we live partakes of the personal – thinking, feeling, willing – and not merely mechanical processes, then where does the personal come from. What does the presence of the personal tell us about the source and destiny of the universe? What does the presence of the personal tell us about the nature of truth, beauty, and goodness? Think carefully on these things – very carefully -- because they could lead you to consider strange and wonderful things about Jesus.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Envivo De Michoacan II

Every day I forget that my purposes for what I do are only my purposes. God invariably has larger plans. Today I set out to study Spanish, and so I did -- in the morning – more irregular verbs and rules for when to use and when to omit articles. (Those who speak languages are strictly bound to obey the rules; but those who create the rules make up exceptions at will. Where is the justice in that?)

This afternoon, I was supposed to go with the other students on a guided (in Spanish) walking tour of the city. But the tour was cancelled so I walked alone and found myself at the Cathedral – a beautiful old Gothic building. Along with a scattered group of clearly devout people, I spent some time praying in the nave, then went to pray in the Lady Chapel which was crowded with people praying fervently on a Wednesday afternoon. It is a holy thing to be surrounded by so much reverence. As I began to leave, I heard the beginning of mass at the main altar so I stayed for worship. It was an unexpected blessing.

I then walked back to the school for Conversation Club, an informal gathering for casual discourse, the point of which is to practice one’s language. I went to practice Spanish, but found myself at a table of young Mexicans who needed to work on their English. So we spoke English most of the time, as we sat outside on the roof the school, the darkness falling around us.

One of the young men at my table is an artist, a sketch artist who wants to become a “real” artist and his passion is to paint sacred art. He was a bit shy about this since his teachers and fellow students have told him he is in the wrong century for that kind of painting. This issue set me off and I found myself giving a lecture on theology – how religion is a language about the ineffable mystery, it is a set of symbols pointing toward things that cannot be spoken – and art can sometimes suggest the mystery better than words – Caravaggio was the greatest theologian of his day.

Then I rambled on to what we mean by “God” and how for the past few centuries we have identified “God” with dominating power – and if “God” means our highest value and God is defined by such power, then we worship power. The effect on our souls is to make us power mongers and that is the religious root of violence.

But an older view of God as the Supreme Beauty has been reclaimed by contemporary theologians beginning with Hans Urs Von Balthasar. We call to mind the greatest beauty we can imagine. Then we consider that there may be a beauty beyond that, something we cannot touch even with our imaginations, and in that thought we begin to approach God. Such a view of God opens us to pay attention, to apprehend beauty, to be transformed by beauty. The transforming power of spiritual beauty is the meaning of the beatific vision in Dante.

I noticed this group of young people was utterly and completely with me, caught up in my spontaneous sermon on faith and the visual arts. The artist was genuinely inspired. So I said to myself, “And I thought I was just here to study Spanish. Maybe God intended to nurture my soul with the silent reverence of those people praying in the cathedral. And maybe God gave me a message someone needed to hear.” I actually believe God did. Maybe someday someone’s soul will be touched in some blessed way by a painting, and they will be grateful for this work by Rivera (his name, like Diego) but will never know that Rivera’s approach to painting drew in a small way on spiritual guidance he received from a nameless American cleric in Morelia circa 2011 – or that the nameless cleric spoke out of the silence he had just experienced among the nameless faithful gathered to pray on a Wednesday afternoon in the Cathedral, people who prayed for their own purposes, not knowing that God intended their piety to touch a foreigner who would in turn touch a young artist who would someday touch someone not yet born.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Envivo De Michoacan

Of course I am here to learn Spanish in the best way possible, I believe – several hours each day in class – so far my classes are one on one (I may have a classmate soon) -- living with a family that speaks Spanish, and negotiating life in a strange city where it seems no one speaks English at all. It is sink or swim, and since I cannot swim, I am immersed.

But I am learning a lot more than irregular verbs. This is a psycho-spiritual experience and a socio-political eye-opener. The content of all of that is barely beginning to be revealed. So far I can say it changes my dreams. I rarely remember my dreams at home, but here I am dreaming a lot, suenos extranjos, strange dreams with camels and chimpanzees. Something is up deep in my psyche.

On a more conscious level, it is a different experience to hear the word “foreigner” applied to oneself. At home we are citizens. Abroad we are, in our eyes, tourists or pilgrims. But to those around us, we are foreigners, sojourners. The identity of the “foreigner” is at the heart of Jewish spirituality and ethics. “Give shelter to the foreigner for remember you were once foreigners in Egypt.” It actually goes back further to Abram who was sent to wander “in a land you do not know.” As Christians, we inherit that identity. We are citizens of the Heavenly City, not the Worldly City (St. Augustine) “This world is not my home. I’m just a-passin’ through.” Those words caution us against attachment to or identification with worldly pursuits or undue anxiety about worldly problems. But they also remind us that we are never to claim a land as ours so as to say to another, “you are a foreigner while I belong here and (more insidiously) here belongs to me.” Our true rootlessness, our sojournerhood, is so easy to forget in a place where we have a paper that evidences our “right,” our “claim” to land, where we have a driver’s license, and a voter registration card – all to “identify” us and identify us with the place. But when one is called a “foreigner,” it changes the way we look at the sojourner in our midst when we are at that place where “we belong.”

It is hard to be in a different culture, where you cannot assume anything, where nothing can be done by habit, but every step must be thought out so as not to offend or cause some debacle. It is hard to have to struggle to remember even the few words one knows in order to accomplish the simplest exchange like the purchase of a bagel. It is hard to use currency in which the numbers are way out of line with the values in the currency one knows. That is what it is like for the immigrant in the United States. Do they do right or do they do wrong to come to Nevada for work? All I can say is that they do not do it lightly.

Most of our immigrants face larger challenges than these. Most come, not from the northern states, but from far to the South, near Guatemala. It is not an easy walk or a short one. They know that many die in the Arizona desert. Do they do right or wrong? I can only say it is not a choice that they make lightly.

Again, I am receiving remarkable hospitality here. I say this as one who has lived nearly two decades in the cultural capital of the Old South, where hospitality is a matter of pride celebrated in Southern Living Magazine. But the South offers no welcome, no “mi casa es su casa” comparable to the warm hearted caring of the people here in Morelia.

A little about the city: Morelia has been here since the 16th Century. Antiquity and Spanish elegance define the city, patently in the Center City square, but subtly even at the corner Farmacia. It is not a skyscraper city, but it is a huge college town. There are multiple institutions of higher learning including graduate schools in law, medicine, architecture, accounting, etc. There are 100,000 students in Morelia. Like students in the United States, their challenge is employment. They will soon have degrees to prepare them for jobs that do not exist in the present economy.

However, I met an interesting man this morning at the coffee shop. Although from Morelia, he is either an American citizen or permanent resident alien. One way or another, he has a home in Sacramento and the legal right to work and pay taxes in California. But here he is. He came to Mexico from the United States to find work.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Western Spirituality, Aelred, Special Loves and Honoring

What’s Western about Western Spirituality? The key figure, in my judgment, is today’s saint, Aelred of Rievaulx.

Eastern Spirituality, for all its wisdom, troubles me with its tendency to flatten reality, to say things are “just thoughts,” that our preferences are bogus. It tends to dismiss experience and life.

Western Spirituality sets everything in the context of agape, which roughly corresponds to the Sanskrit karuna, an unconditional compassion and appreciation for all reality just for being real. But beyond that “unconditional positive regard,” Western spirituality – at least the best of it – affirms life in its particularity. It says, to quote Fr. Rick Milsap, “things matter, people matter, life matters.”

St. Aelred was a 12th Century Cistercian monk. In the monasteries, there was a ban on “special friendships.” Monks were to appreciate each other all equally and all the same. Very Eastern. Flat. Aelred, when he became abbot, rejected that rule and encouraged “spiritual friendships.” All were to hold each other in agape. But there was also room for particular bonds to particular persons – soul mates so to speak.

Hundreds of years later, in his classic little book, The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis wrote about the spiritual value as well as the perils of romantic love, family love, and friendship all of which needed to be rooted in unconditional love of reality, agape. The point is he valued and affirmed particular exclusive loves as authentic human spirituality. And of course, those are just some broad categories of love. There are as many loves as there are lovers and beloveds.

Western Spirituality does not extinguish desire, but teaches us to have desire without being consumed or controlled by it. Western Spirituality invites us to appreciate things in their own unique being. First Nations peoples call it “honoring.” Native poet Joy Harjo writes:

“We matter to somebody . . . .
I’d rather understand how to sing from a crow
who was never good at singing or much of anything
but finding gold in the trash of humans.”

The trick is to find the gold in each other. The gold we find in another person is always their own unique gold. The joy lies in being the one to find it. A world where things shine is better. Living in such a world is a matter of paying attention to the good – a discipline of honoring.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tying The World Together

Today I have been involved in a mission that felt quite ordinary, humble. But an old friend put a grander label on it this week, a label that is actually true. I had called my friend, a priest in New England, to ask him about a priest who might apply for a job in Nevada. I called him because I trust his judgment. His good words about someone I don’t know allowed me to trust the stranger. My friend also talked about the duties of bishops. One of those duties, he said, is “tying the world together.”

“Tying the world together.” That in fact was what I was doing when I called him on the phone. That is what I have been doing today in Los Angeles. Bishops from the West including the Pacific met here at the Cathedral Center. We spent half the day and some of the night telling each other about our lives and the lives of our dioceses. It was an exercise in knowing each other. We do this every January. Tomorrow, we will talk about loftier matters of polity, liturgy, and theology. But today was not lofty. It was humble (humble from the same root as humus – earthy). It was the ordinary life of Christians today.

Last Saturday, the Deans of the Diocese of Nevada and I met on line and did the same thing. We talked of each other’s lives and the goings on in the parishes so far flung over our high desert. We groaned, laughed, and advised each other. But most importantly, we connected and in connecting, we were tying the world together.

And isn’t that what we do when we eat from one loaf, drink from one cup, celebrate the Holy Communion, when we say “The Lord be with you” -- “And also with you.;” when we confess our sins and our faith alike saying not “I” but “we;” when we pray for each other and this earth we share? Are we not trying the world together?

I exchanged messages tonight with a priest in Reno, a seminarian in Berkeley, a bishop and a community development worker in the Philippines – tying the world together. It isn’t gravity that keeps this orb from flying apart. It’s the act of knowing each other, caring for each other, wishing each other well.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Christian Speech And The Arizona Shootings

Having heard a lot of confessions, some as a priest, some as a lawyer, I am rarely shocked by words. But I was taken aback by something I head in my parents’ living room a few years ago. My background is what sensitized me to this particular statement.

When I was in Junior Hi in Texas, in the early 1960’s, it was not at all unusual to hear the other kids talking about how somebody needed to kill John Kennedy. His murder was a popular fantasy, but one taken lightly – until Nov. 22, 1963. The following days, for those of us who lived them, can never be forgotten. The flag draped casket, the riderless horse, Mike Mansfield’s eulogy “And she took the ring from her finger and placed it in his hand.” It was the first wave of national grief, but not the last in that bloody decade. That time marked me in a way I had not fully grasped until a few years ago.

I was in my parents’ living room when one of my young relatives began talking of how he wanted to assassinate President Clinton. He wasn’t planning it. He didn’t express the intent to actually do it. But he thought it would be highly satisfying. He wanted to do it and said so freely. That is one time, I was truly shocked. Despite all the years that had passed, I felt myself once again to be a Texan, to remember the shame that the President had been murdered in my state, and now to hear this young Texan, my kin, eager to relive that evil day was more than I could grasp. I was not polite.

I don’t know what to make of the murders in Arizona. I don’t know whether there is any direct connection to any ideology or the political rhetoric of our time. But I do turn to my faith and what little I know of human nature to help me reflect.

I start with the premise that God does not make murderers and does not send people out like Manchurian candidates to do evil. And I take to heart the message of Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic, Moral Man, Immoral Society in which he said we are each much better as individuals than we are as a society, that society, though necessary to fully human life, is fallen and makes us do things that are beneath us. Mobs commit atrocities few individuals do. The lone gunman is not lowered by a machine onto the human stage. The lone gunman is formed in a society. The most broken fall prey to our darkest passions and perform the darkest acts on behalf of the worst sentiments in our collective spirit.

My young kinsmen never took at shot at President Clinton but he gave voice to something that we have neither owned nor extinguished. Sometimes a broken person is too weak to resist it and becomes its agent. Language is our best way to know what a society believes, feels, and values. My young kinsman said the murder of a leader is good. The rhetoric of our contemporary politics is violent, murderous – “the second amendment alternative.”

Christianity is, in an important sense, a special language. It is the language we speak to suggest, to hint at, to point toward “things to deep for words.” It is a language of creation, appreciation, mercy, and reconciliation. That makes it a language quite at odds with most contemporary political language. Yet it is not anti-political. Politics is by definition the practice of a common life, a sharing of authority, a caring for each other. It is the so-called “political” rhetoric of our time that is actually anti-political. It is the language of faith that makes an authentic politics possible.

This is why it is absolutely essential that Christians speak on matters of the common good, that we speak in the public square, that we articulate the demands of justice. Christianity is not a political ideology, as much as some on the left and the right alike, have claimed. Christians do not necessarily agree on matters of politics and economics. But Christians speak (or when they are true to Christianity should speak) of these things in a distinctively Christian way – a way that is non-violent, because Christians live in hope, and violence is always an act of despair. (Robert Cover, Violence & The Word, Yale Law Journal).

The voices of violence are shouting in our time. The anger and contempt are in long supply. And we speak too little, far too little. Sometimes, I see people in the church behave as if they were at a town hall meeting spewing hate. I see the ways of the world informing the Body of Christ, while the Body of Christ muzzles itself rather than inform the ways of the world. If Christians speak, and Christians are obliged by our Baptismal Vows to speak, on matters of justice, we speak differently in two ways. First, we speak in prayer – prayer for guidance, prayer of intercession, and prayer of contrition. Second, we speak prophetically – but prophetic speech is not simple or easy.

To speak prophetically is to say what we believe to be God’s will. To speak prophetically, we have to subordinate so much. We have to subordinate our pride, our ego, our self-interest. Above all we have to sacrifice our political and economic ideologies. This is particularly hard for leftists with secularist anti-religious ideologies and for rightist with Darwinian ideologies – both of which are challenged by Christianity. It is hard, hard, hard to resist the temptation to paint the face of Christ on whatever already fits our ideology.

Then, having died to self that we may speak for God, it is incumbent upon us to speak reverently. That means refusing to claim we know God with greater certainty or precision than we really do. We must be able to say “Thus sayeth the Lord – I think.” (Niebuhr, On Christian Tolerance) If we subject all our other beliefs to God, and acknowledge our uncertainty of God’s will, then we will, of necessity, speak more gently and listen more attentively to one another.

Clearly, not all Christians have spoken with the kind of non-violence and humility. We have the regrettable Battle Hymn of the Republic in with “He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword” etc. Christian violence is an oxymoron but one that has too often obscured the light of Christ. Our first duty is to repudiate evil spoken in the name of Jesus and to claim the truth of our tradition.

If we add our voices, along with the voices of peace, wisdom, and hope from other faith traditions, we can, by grace, counter at least some of venomous voices that poison souls, especially the souls of broken, vulnerable people.

In the wake of the Arizona shootings, I hope we will speak to God, to each other, and to the world in an authentically Christian way. I hope we will pray for the victims of violence and the perpetrators of violence who wound themselves most grievously. I hope we will repent of our own violence, our own intemperate words and deeds – knowing that every word and action ripples out into the world in good and evil ways greater than we intend or foresee. I hope we will rededicate ourselves to mercy and the mission to reconcile all people to each and to God in Christ.Dona nobis pacem.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Interpreting Reality As World Making

It is fashionable in some circles to say we make our own lives with our attitudes. Whatever we are like inside manifests in our outer circumstances. This morning it snowed in Las Vegas. I suppose according to the “manifest” theory, it was something in my attitude that caused the snow. Oddly enough, it seems a couple million of us fell into the same mood at the same time since it snowed on all of us, “the just and the unjust alike.” Maybe the notion that we create our own reality is a big of an exaggeration. But there is something to it.

Experiences make up our lives and we are constantly interpreting our experiences. So much depends on interpretation. Suppose for example, I am on a multi-lane highway. I turn on my left blinker signaling my intent to change lanes. The car a little behind me in the lane to my left accelerates and passes me. What happened? I might surmise he was a competitive driver who wanted to get ahead of me before I got ahead of him. Possible. But maybe he was concerned he was in my blind spot and was dashing for safety. Or maybe he figured that if he hung back waiting for me, I would hang back waiting for him, and we would both waste time dilly dallying, and by passing me he was actually allowing me to change lanes quicker and more safely. Or maybe he just noticed he was late and sped up without even noticing my blinker. Which interpretation I put on the anonymous driver’s action is up to me and says more about me than it does about him.

Is everything interpretation? No. Some things are facts, or at least direct experiences. But we interpret all of them and the interpretations we give determine the flavor, the texture, the quality of our lives. All of our interpretations flow from one basic interpretation. It is our comprehensive interpretation of reality itself – our understanding of why there is something instead of nothing, of why it is as it is, moves as it moves. Our belief or disbelief in God is the fundamental interpretation on which everything else depends.

I received an e-mail recently from someone trying to decide whether God exists. She may have been inviting me to try to persuade her of God’s existence. But here’s the kicker. The question is wrong to start with. Christian theologians, going back at least to St. Thomas Aquinas (and really much farther back) have not said that God “exists” – not the way anything else in the universe exists. God is not such a thing. Many Christians never get past the children’s Sunday School picture of God as “the man upstairs.” Even if we aren’t so naively anthropomorphic as to think God is a man, we are apt to think he is a being along with the other beings in the universe, only bigger, stronger, smarter, and older. Like the abominable snowman or intelligent aliens, such a being might or might not exist. However, if such a being does exist, he is not God. Orthodox, traditional theology teaches that God is not a being along with all the other beings, just bigger. Our best contemporary theologians agree. As Kathryn Tanner says, “God is not a kind of thing among other kinds of things.”

God is that out of which all being arises and into which all being sinks when it ceases to be. St. Paul said, “From him and through him and to him are all things,” and “In him we live and move and have our being.” In Christian doctrine, God is the source, the destiny, and the meaning of reality itself. St. Augustine saw God as the ultimate object of all our longings. The 20th Century Roman Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, wrote of God as the source and the destiny of reality, “the whence and the whither” – “whence comest thou? whither goest thou?”

Likewise we believe, or at least hope, that there is some deep sense to reality, some order, some meaning. We believe that there is truth and that the truths we know, and the truths we do not yet know, may be ordered within an overarching, comprehensive structure of Truth which we cannot know. We value things. Indeed, we hold that things actually have intrinsic value. And of all that is valuable, there must be that which is most valuable, ultimately valuable, something that finally matters. Just so, we delight in beauty, believing, or at least hoping, that there may be a greatest beauty beyond the reach even of our imagination.

Each of these things – source, destiny, meaning, sense, order, truth, value, beauty – could be its own object of devotion. Each could be regarded as a god. But monotheism rolls all of this, and much more into the unified concept of the one God. Monotheism teaches that there is no final conflict between truth and beauty, that our source, our destiny, and our purpose are all one. All of this is in God. To put a point on it, God is very big – far too big to fit inside the universe. God does not fit inside anything. Everything must fit inside God. So God is not a being among other beings, a value among other values, a power among other powers.

To believe in God is not to believe that a particular thing exists. It is to believe something about all our experiences, to trust, to hope, to risk our fate on something deeply true in reality. To believe in God is to affirm truth, beauty, goodness, that life has meaning and value.

To believe in God is an act of interpretation. Interpretations are not facts. But that does not make them entirely subjective. Some interpretations may be more reasonable than others, more plausible or probable than others, and certainly some are more helpful than others. Philosophers and theologians rarely offer “proofs of God” anymore. Since interpretation always smacks of mystery and God, as the meta-interpretation of everything, is infinitely mysterious – God is not subject to proofs. Instead, philosophers like Alvin Plantinga now speak of “warrants for faith” – meaning reasons to justify believing in God, lines of thought demonstrating that faith is reasonable.

A wonderful example of such a warrant for faith is Anthony Flew’s book, There Is A God. Flew was the leading atheist philosopher of our time – a real philosopher unlike the pop atheists (Dawkins, et al) on the bookshelves today. But Flew ultimately concluded that God is the best explanation for the existence of this universe we experience.

Now back to the power of interpretation: We control some of our experiences – the things we do. We do not control others – the things that happen to us. But we interpret all of them. My assumptions about human nature, or at least Las Vegas drivers, will determine the motives I attribute to the person who zipped around me when I had my blinker on. That interpretation will shape my mood for awhile. My mood will shape my further interpretations of the next events as well as my behavior and indirectly the way people respond to my behavior and then my interpretation of their responses.

So what did I believe about today when I woke up? Did I believe it would be an episode in a Darwinian power struggle or the closely related Marxist class conflict? Or was it to be a random, meaningless exercise in futility acted out in an existentialist void? Or is it the Day the Lord has made for us to rejoice and be glad in it? And what of these people I encounter? Are they my Darwinian rivals for survival, human commodities to be used for some gain, or brothers and sisters in Christ?

Experience is just raw data until we interpret it, and our interpretation is a matter of will – as William James called it “the will to believe” – guided by reason. So let us ask two questions: First, is it plausible, is it reasonable to believe that the universe has a source and a destiny, that all this actually has a raison d’ĂȘtre? The vast majority of people who have lived on this planet have thought so. The greatest philosophers and theologians have thought so. Second, is it helpful to believe such a thing? How will I experience life with God and how will I experience life without God? What difference might faith in God make to my behavior, to the kind of person I become?

There is an objective world. We live in it every day. I cannot pretend the other cars are not on the road except at my extreme peril. But that world affords me only the raw data for interpretation. After that, I have it in my power to create a godless universe or a godly one in which to live this life, “to make a very hell of heaven or heaven of hell.” Such is the power of faith. “Faith” is the foundational interpretation which can make or break a life. That’s why sometimes Jesus did not just zap people with healing energy but rather told them “your faith has made you whole.”