Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hypothetical Homily for April 25, 2010

Looking at this Sunday's readings, I can see how Paul and John's raging anti-Semitism has perpetuated itself across the centuries in the church. Ironically, the theme of the readings is that God's message transcends national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and generational boundaries. I propose a creative interpretation to uncouple the thematic use of Jews in the readings from the anti-Semitism that has unfortunately stemmed from these readings.

The first reading and the Gospel depict Jews as exclusive and closed-minded as a counter-example to the message of inclusion, universality, and pluralism. In the first reading, we see that Paul is starting his ministry and gathering up a bunch of followers, consisting of Jews, Jewy (recent converts), and goyim (Gentiles or non-Jews). These particular Jews and Jewy get all uppity that Paul is sharing God's message with non-Jews. As God's chosen people from back in the day, it doesn't make sense for God's message to be applicable to non-Jews, too. Paul says that excluding Gentiles from God's message is in itself a rejection of that message of universality. Irony of ironies, Paul's preaching of tolerance leaves no room for another group's intolerance, and he thus excludes the Jews from his ministry and focuses his ministerial energies on the non-Jews who are eager to hear God's message.

Oh, Paul, you really do piss me off sometimes. Can't we all just get along?

The Gospel this week is really short. I read the rest of chapter 10 in John's gospel for context. Jesus and company are in Jerusalem for Hanukkah. The Jews ask him, "Well, are you the Messiah or not?" The Gospel reading is Jesus' answer, with the shepherd metaphor. He says that his followers would truly recognize him for who he is, that they have eternal life through him from the Father, that nothing can take that away, and that he and the Father are one. I think when Jesus says, "The Father and I are one," his meaning is closer to, "God and I are hella tight, yo." After this, the Jews call blasphemy and want to stone Jesus. Jesus answers that a stoning for having demonstrated God's message in good works makes no sense. Even if the Jews don't see that he and God are hella tight, then they should at least recognize the good of Jesus' actions and believe the message of God through the example of those actions.

See, at the time of John's gospel, Jews didn't like Rome. John the evangelist often uses Jews as counter-examples to distinguish Christians from Jews and thus gain favor with Rome.

Yet in the psalm and even in that drug-induced second reading from Revelation, we hear that God's message is available to all and transcends all petty boundaries. The psalm introduces the shepherd metaphor echoed in the Gospel: "Know that the Lord is God; / he made us; his we are; / his people, the flock he tends." We are God's people; we evolved after God set off the Big Bang. As such, God's goodness is available to us all, from all lands and across generations, "from every nation, race, people, and tongue."

To avoid perpetuating the anti-Semitism that the church must have found in the first reading and the Gospel, I propose to pull a Reform Haggadah on this one, that is, a more symbolic reading. If you've ever been to a Passover seder, there's a pervasive subtext of "Egyptians suck! Boo, Egypt!" throughout the story of Exodus presented at the meal. The Hebrew name for Egypt, Mitzrayim, literally means, "the narrow places." Instead of tying slavery and oppression to a geographical and historical Egypt--and thus risking very politically incorrect discrimination today--one could go through the story of Exodus reflecting on the narrowness, constriction, and closed-mindedness in our lives that keeps us from achieving our potential. Similarly, we should see that it is this type of closed-mindedness that the Jews represent in our first reading and Gospel this Sunday. Closed-mindedness and exclusivity are completely out of line with God's universal message of goodness and kindness. The narrowness hinders the spread of God's message.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the narrowness hindering the mission of the church these days. Female? One too many X chromosomes for the priesthood. Separated from Catholicism by Reformation? No communion for you. Jewish? We pray for your conversion. Homosexual? Intrinsically evil. Tradition of secrecy in the hierarchy? That's what keeps pedophile priests in the priesthood, for the good of the church. Has the institution become a lost sheep whose stubbornness muffles Jesus' voice?

We must eschew such narrowness that distances us from God. Jesus calls us all--regardless of nationality, ethnicity, cultural identity, etc.--to recognize his voice and to spread God's message through good works.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Mythology, Physics, Cupcakes, and the Search for Truth

I know a Mormon who says some pretty offensive homophobic things, but always while flashing the biggest and most disarmingly polite smile. When he says such things, I am usually too paralyzed by disbelief that those words actually escaped his otherwise scientifically-educated head, and then I just make a mental note to pick his brain to shreds about his homophobia at a later date.

Mormons frighten me. Homophobic Mormons frighten me. Glenn Beck is Mormon, isn't he? Man, what an asshole. Mormon mythology is seriously fvcked up. I recently watched a cartoon on Mormon mythology that made my head explode at the institutionalized racism and general redonkulousness of it all. Just go to YouTube and search for "banned Mormon cartoon." I refuse to link to it. In contrast, the South Park episode on the Book of Mormon (season 7, episode 12) is absolutely brilliant!

Physicists frighten me, too. Rather, it's their intelligence that intimidates me. I have a respectful fear of physicists, fear with a caramel swirl of admiration. They do cool stuff with math, lasers, and particle accelerators. I just read an NPR blog post by Marcelo Gleiser on the Large Hadron Collider and its most hoped-for discoveries: the Higgs boson particle, supersymmetry, and other dimensions in space. I don't really know what this means, but I take Marcelo's word for it that it all has to do with finding that theory of everything:

For most theorists, finding the Higgs is minor compared to discovering supersymmetry or extra dimensions. That is because proving the existence of a unified field theory would satisfy a need deeper than scientific curiosity. Such a discovery would go right to the heart of our age-old longing for the "final answer," what physicist Stephen Hawking and others call "knowing the mind of God."


Einstein spent the last two decades of his life trying to find this answer. He, and everyone else so far, have failed. The notion that Nature hides some kind of code -- an overarching mathematical structure -- is a scientific version of monotheism, a theme that has dominated philosophy for millennia. Now that the LHC has been turned on, we must ask ourselves if we're pursuing the right questions.

[. . .]

We really have no evidence whatsoever that Nature is unified at its core -- even the unifications that we have achieved to date, such as the famous electromagnetic theory of electricity and magnetism, only work under certain assumptions. If Nature is telling us that it likes imperfections, that our expectations of all-encompassing symmetries are the result of centuries of monotheistic baggage, we should listen. Beauty, it turns out, is not truth.

Perhaps the physical limits of Nature as we can perceive it make this theory of everything unattainable. At the moment, certainly, the LHC generates energies many dozens of orders of magnitude less than those generated at the Big Bang. The research is still worth it, though, because we can still learn some cool stuff from it.

My disarmingly polite, homophobic Mormon friend believes that science and religion are both searching for the truth. Science does tend to supersede mythology when explaining natural phenomena (e.g., evolution vs. creation). Eventually, he says, when time goes to infinity, the searches of both science and religion will converge at the truth.

But what if the truth is an asymptote that we can never quite get to? What if truth is ultimately unknowable?

Let's look at this from the science point of view. If all those ridiculously smart physicists didn't figure out the theory of everything, I'd still go on with my daily life. I'd still run my not-fully-optimized experiments with no thought to the probabilistic, biophysical movements going on in the test tubes. Heck, even if the physicists did elucidate the theory of everything, that awesome feat still wouldn't cure, say, diabetes. Researchers would still have to work on a larger scale (larger compared to subatomic particles, of course) to figure out disease mechanics and cures.

Now let's look at this from the religion point of view. The Catholic church claims to be the keepers of the truth. (Aside: Representatives of the keepers of the truth really should be more careful about disputing HISTORICAL FACT ABOUT GENOCIDE [link], for those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it, and we can't have that.) If we remained lost sheep on Meta-God mountain, would that excuse us from being men and women for others? Would that negate Jesus' message to feed the poor and cure the sick and all that? If the keepers of truth are right, would it then be justified for a believer to eat lots of cupcakes because believers are rewarded in the afterlife, and atherosclerosis gets you there faster? And what if it turns out that the keepers of the truth were wrong? I would stop eating cupcakes continue to ride my bike through dark, rain, and knee pain to keep myself healthy and to live a long life to do good on this earth. That's what I should be doing anyway, right?

I'm OK about unattainable asymptotic truth because to me it does not matter on the love-thy-neighbor scale. Independent of what the truth might be, selfless altruism is still worth doing because it deepens the heart and spreads the love.

Monday, April 19, 2010

News links

Put these in your pipe and smoke 'em. Tomorrow is 4/20, after all.

Holocaust-denying bishop fined by German court. Good riddance. [BBC]

Pope pledges to protect young from abuse. In the words of Elvis, we need "a little less conversation, a little more action." [NPR]

The Vatican's lawyer is based in Berkeley?!?! Can I get a WTF? [NPR]

Theologian Hans Küng writes an open letter to Catholic bishops on the fifth anniversary of Pope Benedict's election to the papacy. Küng even calls for the bishops to act against the institution if/when so doing is for the greater glory of God. Bravo, sir. [Irish Times]

Friday, April 16, 2010

Divine Mercy in secular terms

As an addendum to my last post on divine mercy, I'd like to put those ideas in more secular and universalist terms.

If a person realizes he/she has done wrong, then fixes the wrong, and resolves to do right, doesn't that turnaround come from the person and not necessarily from God? Yeah, I think that God equipped us with the faculties to figure out how to be nice to each other. Right living may not require prayer, per se, but at least some thought as to whether one's actions are good and not hurtful to one's neighbor.

But Jesus said that confession and communion are necessary to receive his mercy. Well, Jesus put his unfathomable message of mercy into accessible terms in the Catholic framework of Sr. Faustina and her peers. In the greater scheme of things, confession might translate to a repentant change of heart, and communion might translate to being a good person for others and ultimately for the greater glory of God (there, I sprinkled in some Jesuit goodness; did you catch it?).

Is belief in God necessary to be a good person? Eh, I wouldn't call those dependent variables. Different religions, different belief systems--even atheism--are just different paths up the same Meta-God mountain. I think that after all is said and done, living ethically and being a good person are what matters to Meta-God. The best we can do on this earth is to live truly to our hearts; leave the rest in Meta-God's hands.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

What is Divine Mercy?

Intro

A good friend of mine called me from her vacation spot in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. She asked me if there had been anything special happening on this past Sunday. She had been stuck in traffic as a huge caravan of tour buses made their way to the National Shrine of Divine Mercy, which is apparently in western Massachusetts. So she asked me, "What IS Divine Mercy?"

"Uh, um. Well, I don't really know, but I should." I've never gotten a good definition of Divine Mercy from anyone. I didn't really know that the Sunday after Easter has been designated Divine Mercy Sunday, either.

So I turned to the internet and a seminarian friend to find the definition and some details. The term Divine Mercy was the tip of a big, theological iceberg that led me to explore the concepts of grace, repentance, prayer, and the general role or non-role of God in this world.

Definitions

Of course, some smart-ass could easily give me the circular definition of Divine Mercy as mercy from God.

THANKS.

Fine, so what is mercy? One applicable definition from Merriam-Webster says that mercy is "a blessing that is an act of divine favor or compassion."

For clarification's sake, compassion is "sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it."

Furthermore, the dictionary lists grace as a synonym for mercy. Grace is "unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification."

Synthesizing these definitions, I think we can say that Divine Mercy is an undeserved favor from God in sympathy for our distress and with a desire to alleviate that distress.

Divine Mercy Sunday

In exploring the feast day and the concepts behind it, I read this article on Divine Mercy Sunday. Back in the day, 1931 in Poland, Sr. Mary Faustina Kowalska kept a diary to document her visions of Jesus. Jesus appeared to Sr. Faustina and detailed the specifics of the feast of Divine Mercy:

[From Diary 965] Souls perish in spite of My bitter Passion. I am giving them ... the Feast of My mercy. If they will not adore My mercy, they will perish for all eternity. Secretary of My mercy, write, tell souls about this great mercy of Mine, because the awful day, the day of My justice is near.

[From Diary 699] My daughter, tell the whole world about My inconceivable mercy. I desire that the Feast of Mercy be a refuge and shelter for all souls, and especially for poor sinners. On that day the very depths of My tender mercy are open. I pour out a whole ocean of graces upon those souls who approach the fount of My mercy. The soul that will go to Confession and receive Holy Communion shall obtain complete forgiveness of sins and punishment. On that day all the divine floodgates through which grace flow are opened. Let no soul fear to draw near to Me, even though its sins be as scarlet. My mercy is so great that no mind, be it of man or of angel, will be able to fathom it throughout all eternity. Everything that exists has come forth from the very depths of My most tender mercy. Every soul in its relation to Me will contemplate My love and mercy throughout eternity. The Feast of Mercy emerged from My very depths of tenderness. It is My desire that it be solemnly celebrated on the First Sunday after Easter. Mankind will not have peace until it turns to the Fount of My Mercy.

OK, let's take these diary excerpts apart.

1. Existence itself is a mercy, so divine mercy is available to everyone.

Everything that exists comes from God. That makes sense; all the matter in the universe comes from the Big Bang and subsequent condensation of stars, with fusion of hydrogen creating heavier elements and then spewing those elements out after going supernova. Fast forward billions of years to the condensation of Earth and the primordial soup giving rise to the evolution of all manner of flora and fauna, including primates capable of contemplating their own existence. Hi, Mom!

So without God, we'd have no Big Bang and no universe and no us. I guess that means that our very existence counts as a divine favor, as a mercy.

Everyone, everyone in existence, can get in on that divine mercy goodness. But at what price?

2. Repentance is necessary for divine mercy and grace. In other words, if you do bad stuff, learn from it and move on to do good stuff instead.

I understand repentance as recognizing the wrong, regretting the wrong, admitting the wrong, and correcting the wrong. I think that repentance is a type of openness to the Holy Spirit. Any subsequent change of heart to make amends and to live a better life could be considered manifestations of divine mercy and grace in that the improvements would be a relief from the suffering of being in a state of sin.

Allow me to explain this openness to the Holy Spirit thing. Some years ago I went to mass with my parents at a Catholic church in Nice, France, the Eglise Notre-Dame, on avenue Jean Médecin. The priest's homily has stuck with me since then. He explained the threefold purpose of prayer: praise, thanksgiving, and openness to the Holy Spirit. This comes from the Jewish concept of prayer as praise, thanksgiving, and petition. The priest modified the petition portion, saying that because God already knows what we need, we don't need to pray to God to ask for stuff. For example, when one prays over a sick person, it shouldn't be a prayer for God to heal the person. God won't heal the person; science and medicine and doctors might. We should pray, then, for openness to the Holy Spirit, so people will be inspired to study science and medicine and develop cures for diseases.

This priest's homily reinforced my usual thinking that, more often than not, God does nothing except be. Just as God doesn't make bad things happen to good people, I don't think God necessarily lifts people out of their own suffering, either. He's just there, all omnipresent like that. All we have to do is be open to God. Openness to the Holy Spirit (repentance), by Trinitarian extension, is openness to God (and to his divine mercy).

Summary

As an undeserved favor from God in sympathy for our distress and with a desire to alleviate that distress, divine mercy manifests itself in the change of heart and subsequent relief that we might experience after realizing that we--accidental creatures of God's work in the Big Bang--have done something wrong.

Current Events Applications

From the BBC, Pope Benedict says Catholics must 'do penance':

Speaking during a homily at a private mass at the Vatican on Thursday, Pope Benedict appeared to make his first reference to the issue since 20 March, when he sent a letter to the Irish people about the abuse scandal in their country [link].

"I must say, we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word 'repent', which seemed too tough," he said.

"But now, under attack from the world which talks to us of our sins, we can see that being able to do penance is a grace and we see how necessary it is to do penance and thus recognise what is wrong in our lives."


The Pope said this involved "opening oneself up to forgiveness, preparing oneself for forgiveness, allowing oneself to be transformed".

The BBC's David Willey in Rome says the words were generic, but his meaning was clear - the gravity of the scandal harms all Christians.


Pope Benedict also used the opportunity to hit back at critics of the Church, portraying them as in the thrall of a conformist dictatorship.


"Conformism which makes it obligatory to think and act like everyone else, and the subtle - or not so subtle - aggression towards the Church, demonstrate how this conformism can really be a true dictatorship," he said.

*cough*

What? I had high hopes for a second there.

I'll leave the question of who's actually a conformist dictatorship for some other post.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Get your act together and repent already, hierarchy.

Read this: Documents Show Future Pope Stalled Pedophile Case, AP via NPR, also on the BBC.

So let me get this straight. The pedophile priest wanted to leave the priesthood. The pedophile priest's bishop agreed and sent the request for defrocking to the Vatican. Then the Vatican, through Cardinal Ratzinger, stalled on defrocking him, citing "the good of the universal church." Even after pedophile's removal from the church, he continued to molest children as a lay youth minister. And now he lives in Walnut Creek.

Are you kidding me?

Fr. James Martin, SJ (see? I told you I like them Jesuits!), wrote a wonderful opinion piece on Good Friday, published on NPR, entitled "This Easter, A Priest Prays For The Church's Rebirth." Do read the whole thing, but here's a handy excerpt:

Good Friday, though, reminds us that Jesus went to his crucifixion freely and surrendered his life for something greater, which came on Easter Sunday. This profound image may help the Catholic Church meditate on what it is invited to do. But that means that something has to die.

What needs to die is a clerical culture that fostered power, privilege and secrecy. An attitude that placed a priest's reputation above a child's welfare. A mindset in which investigations of dissident theologians and American Catholic sisters were more swiftly prosecuted than investigations of abusive priests. What needs to die is a certain pride. All this needs to be surrendered freely.

[. . .]

If we can let those old habits die, the church can be reborn as well. It can be a church more willing to confess its sins, more willing to seek forgiveness, more willing to do penance. Simple, humble, poor — like Jesus.

Amen to that, Fr. Martin! The sketchy secrecy needs to die.

Now, for a hardcore Jew following ~600 commandments (mitzvot, or good deeds), for any given moment, there's an opportunity to do something right. Conversely, Catholic guilt is that nagging feeling that whatever you're doing, you're probably doing something wrong.

Let's simplify all those commandments to the Great Commandment, as did Rabbi Hillel and Jesus: love God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your soul; and love your neighbor as yourself. If the actions of the church hierarchy do not fall in line with the Great Commandment, then there's obviously something wrong.

Come on, now. Do we need a flowchart? When will that Catholic guilt kick in?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Hypothetical Homily for April 11, 2010

Ah, the Easter season, when the liturgy of the word is taken almost exclusively from the New Testament. Hey, at least we don't have an epistle from Paul this week!

The readings for this Second Sunday of Easter have a theme of belief through proof running through them. First, in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we see that Jesus' disciples performed many good works, and many more people came to follow them. Then we harken back to an Old Testament Psalm praising the Lord for his miraculous works. The second reading from Revelation establishes John's credibility as an evangelist and aptly introduces the story of Doubting Thomas, from the Gospel of John.

Thomas, who was absent when Jesus first appeared to the apostles after the resurrection, didn't believe them and therefore required proof.

Honestly, put yourself in Thomas' place. Your teacher and friend has just been executed and buried, and then your friends tell you he's come back. Really? Yeah, sure, dudes.

So then Jesus calls Thomas' bluff and offers crucifixion wounds for the poking. If that isn't adequate proof for Thomas, I don't know what is. Jesus then says, "Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed."

Now, the Gospel of John was written much later than the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, long after any eyewitnesses from Jesus' days had passed. This episode of Doubting Thomas does not appear in the other three gospels, either. John's audience had not seen, and the gospel was written so they would believe.

But is it really so bad to be a Doubting Thomas? Is it really so bad to question, to seek proof? All the other readings for today contain proof: miracles, visions, the stone which the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone (it would take a miracle to get that one past a San Francisco city inspector).

One hallmark of Ignatian sprituality is finding God in all things. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius are instructions for meditation, prayer, and reflection, all for the goal of discerning God in all aspects of one's life. With this openness to the Holy Spirit, the divine becomes apparent everywhere.

I have only once had a taste of that Ignatian awareness of God's presence. Perhaps that's why I hold the Jesuits in high esteem.

These meditations are a form of questioning and seeking. Finding God in all things is the proof. Belief follows.

And, you know, blind faith ain't so bad, either, I guess.

Who am I, and why am I doing this?

I was raised from birth in the Roman Catholic Church, growing up just outside of San Francisco, CA.  My very Catholic parents sent my brothers and me to Catholic grammar school and Catholic high school.  We always went to mass as a family on Sundays.  I have sung in many a church choir, and I was even the choir director at my parents' parish for a couple years.

The Jesuits taught me well in high school.  I value my experience there, even though I felt that I wasn't prepared for the academic rigor of college.  I went to a private university on the East Coast and somehow slogged through well enough to earn my bachelor's degree in biology.  Now I work in an academic research lab in San Francisco.

I lived a pretty sheltered life as a Catholic school kid.  I was always a nerd in school, very math-y and science-y, thanks to my nerdy and supportive parents.  The Big Bang, evolution, and science in general never seemed anti-Bible, anti-God, or anti-Church to me.  The first intellectual challenges to my simple spiritual understanding came in quick succession at the end of high school and the beginning of college.

Spring semester, senior year in high school, I took a World Religions course.  The coursework defined religion as a person's response to the mystery of life.  Yes, that means that atheism is a religion, too.  One day our teacher invited a couple Jehovah's Witnesses to the class so we could learn about their core beliefs.  What did I take away from their visit?  They liked to take a lot of biblical verses (translated into English, of course) wildly out of context.  They also danced around the question, "Do you believe that non-believers are going to hell?" to avoid saying, "Yes."  Crazy talk!  Buddha's going to hell?  Gandhi's going to hell?  Yeah right.  I think that's God's decision, no?

A couple months later, during freshman orientation in college, I decided to audition for the Christian a cappella group on campus.  Why the heck not?  I knew a ton about Catholicism and music, and I was a cantor at my home parish.  They had each prospective singer to fill out a survey first, to see if our beliefs were in line.  The survey questions were statements followed by "agree" and "disagree," and we were to circle as appropriate.  I came to the statement, "Salvation is only attainable by faith in Jesus Christ as one's personal savior."  And I circled "disagree" for a couple reasons.  As a Catholic, I had always been taught that faith alone was not sufficient; that actions must accompany that faith.  Plus, I really didn't think that Buddha or Gandhi's souls were eternally damned (see above).  The audition panel grilled me and didn't even let me sing.  Ever since then, I have always been wary of Hardcore Crazy Christians.  Live and let live, jerks.

Now I am married to a Jew.  He had been baptized in the Episcopal church when he was a baby.  Then he grew up and did some soul-searching and found Judaism.  He has been trying to figure out just what my personal brand of Catholicism means and how to interact with Christianity if we are to raise Christian children.  I find that my personal brand of Catholicism involves various aspects of Bad/Jaded/Recovering Catholic, Good Liturgist, Good Person.

I'm not a theologian.  I don't really follow any other religious blogs because I haven't found any that speak to my intellectual left-leanings.  I'm just trying to articulate why I still identify as Catholic in the midst of all the conflicts between my conscience and the institution.


I welcome any readers to follow me through my ramblings.  I do not welcome jerks, trolls, assholes,  douchebags, or cheesedicks.  So be respectful in the comments or I will delete your ass.