Thomas Carlyle, the Church and the Sacred

An op-ed piece in the New York Times today reminds us of the power of the Church to satisfy the longing to be part of a group–the Sacrament of the Group as I call it in my book.  Writer Margaret Renkl explains that she has periodically given up on the Catholic Church for various reasons I have mentioned in this space in the past, but she is nevertheless still drawn to it.  She misses the congregation, the babies, the prayers for peace, the feeling that you’re on the same track with like-minded people.

She writes:

“I seem to have been born with a constant ache for the sacred, a deep-rooted need to offer thanks, to ask for help, to sing out in fathomless praise to something. In time I found my way back to God, the most familiar and fundamental something I knew, even if by then my conception of the divine had enlarged beyond any church’s ability to define or contain it.”

The sacred can be found all around us, of course.  It doesn’t have to start with the idea of a God, or gods, it’s inevitably part of who we are as human beings.    Divinity is simply in us, in our thoughts and actions and connections to the world.   For example, Renkl notes that she often feels that God is more present when she’s taking a walk in the woods than when she is in the church building itself (the Sacrament of Nature).   She also misses the singing at Sunday mass (the Sacrament of the Arts).  Our connections with nature and with the arts are essential parts of our humanity and bring us closer to a sense of the Divine, as do the other sacramental aspects of our human existence.

Renkl’s observations are an echo of the so-called “Clothes Philosophy” of Thomas Carlyle.  It goes like this: clothes determine the appearance of men and women, yet underneath those clothes is a body–a body much more real than coats and dresses.  In the same way  our institutions like the Church are merely “visible emblems” of the spiritual forces they represent.   Even in his day (early 1800s) Carlyle found the Church was worn out and almost worthless, but the Spirit beneath the Church’s “clothes” was still there and needed to be kept alive at all costs.

Where can we go with these kinds of sacred longings if we’re not happy with the churches we grew up with?  How can we keep the Spirit alive?  There are a few alternatives, and they are growing. Places like the Humanist Hub in Boston offer a regular meeting to the non-theists, the “Nones” out there who want to find like-minded people ready to acknowledge the need for the Sacrament of the Group. To the theists I would say, that a humanist’s conception of the Divine is not far removed from yours–it’s two sides of the same coin, or as  Carlyle put it:  “the name of the Infinite is GOOD, is GOD,” .

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Calling All Exorcists! Demons on the Loose!

The news out of the Vatican this week is that there’s a shortage of exorcists. The answer? A big training program to take place this April in order to bring the supply up to a level with the demand.   Apparently in Italy there are about half a million cases of demonic possession a year and only about 200 priests available to drive those demons out. The number of cases of possession has tripled there recently, according to one exorcist, because of the popularity of fortune tellers, tarot, and witches. The exorcists will learn the Catholic rites and be sent on their way, armed with the cross and holy water to do battle with the forces of evil.

Are you shaking your head at this? Are you thinking what a bunch of silly mumbo-jumbo? You would not be alone in our increasingly secular world. But the interesting thing is the superstition angle.   If you’re not an ardent Catholic, you would look on this whole demonic possession thing as some ancient attempt to account for what we today would attribute to a psychological disorder. The abnormal mind was a mystery back then, so our ancestors pulled a Being out of thin air, fashioned it in their own image, called it the Devil, gave him a mission, and voila, he’s still with us today, living not in in the minds of the mentally ill, but rather, the skeptic would say, in the minds of gullible Catholics.

But if you are a serious Catholic, you would say the superstition works the other way around: it’s the people going to a tarot reading, or an astrologer, or trying to tap into the collective unconscious who are, sadly, being lured into a superstitious swamp, led by none other than the very Devil they claim to scoff at. One German prelate, Helmut Moll, an expert on exorcism, admits the existence of psychological illness, but adamantly insists that possession is just as real. The priest has to work with the doctor to differentiate the two, he says, but each has a different, but important task to do.

Two versions of reality! What’s a confused 21st century seeker to do? Well, if our education system were working properly, you’d hope they’d ask, “Is there any evidence that your view is the correct one?”

The Catholic: (thrilled that he will now win the argument) Oh course there is!   Look at what Jesus did in the Gospels! There it is in black and white! Straight from the pen of unknown scribes who wrote decades after Jesus died and who I’m sure would never make up these stories.

The Astrologer: (equally thrilled)  Of course there is!  My predictions are correct 30% of the time!

The Seeker: (silently places his Bible and his star chart in a box and sends them to the national Museum of Curiosities)

Austrians Giving Up on the Catholic Church

In the second season of The Crown, there’s a scene where Queen Elizabeth is in a factory giving a speech that is being broadcast over the radio.   The speech is poorly written and her delivery is terrible.   A group of patients in a dentist’s waiting room are listening, but as the Queen natters on ineffectually they begin to shake their heads and chuckle at her platitudes and clichés. Finally someone changes the channel to some pop music.   She is a vestigial organ. Irrelevant.

That’s where the Catholic Church often finds itself today.  Take Austria for instance, a very Catholic country where in 2001 73.6% identified as Catholics. By 2016 that had dropped to 58.8 % as reported by the Church itself.  Now a new poll shows that church going has dwindled to just 4.5 times a year on average.   That would probably include the two big holidays of Christmas and Easter, so just two and a half times more a year! On the other hand people reported they got drunk 7.5 times during the year (10 times for men, 5 times for women), and had sex with 2.4 different partners (5 for the 14-19 group) so in the age-old struggle between the Creator and the Prince of Darkness it looks like Satan is doing pretty well for himself in the Alpine Republic.

There are other signs that all is not well with the Church in Austria. Three years ago a priest near the city of Linz wrote a book, complaining that the Catholic Church in Austria had become a complete mess. The word he actually used was Saustall, which literally means a “pig sty”. He noted that the sacrament of confession was dead in some parts of Austria and blames some of the problems on the out-of-touch bureaucracy of the Church. This is supported by a questionnaire from the Vatican in 2014 showing that a majority of Catholics in Austria were greatly disturbed at how distant the teachings of the Church were from the realities of their lives. Many said they wanted an end to celibate men (i.e., priests, bishops, and cardinals) making all the decisions about private family matters. As an example, the Church’s position on birth-control is completely ignored: Austrians, like many other Catholics around the world, are taking the pill and using other forms of prophylaxis, contrary to the Church’s prohibitions. Does this mean they think the Vatican’s teaching is just plain wrong or is it simply that the pleasures of sexual union are worth the risk of damnation? We don’t know, but whatever the reason, the authority of the Church has apparently been reduced to some annoying background noise.

What this means is that Austrians, like most Europeans, have rejected the idea that the Vatican alone knows what God wants. They are turning their backs on the authority of the Church and are following their instincts.   Instinct is powerful, but it can be misleading.  If the Church is no longer holding the moral compass, what’s someone to do?  Here is where the seven universal sacraments come in.  We can find the road to the Divine through profound human experiences that are happening around us all the time.

 

 

Pope Francis and the Lord’s Prayer: The Devil is in the Details

This week Pope Francis made an announcement: the version of the Lord’s Prayer that we all had to learn in our various tongues contained a bad translation of one line: “lead us not into temptation.” It should be don’t let us “fall into” temptation, because God is good, and would not “lead us” into temptation, as if He were engaged in some sting operation for the FBI, just waiting for us to snatch at the bait before leaping out with a big “Ah ha! Just as I suspected!” and consigning us directly to the appropriate level of hell. No, He does not work that way, Francis tells us. Rather it is the Devil who is out there leading us to temptation, working against all that God wants for us, slipping little enticements our way, hoping we will forget the precepts of parent, priest, and parochial school for just one minute of sinful pleasure, whether it be a lurid leer at a coveted co-worker or some private worship of His rival god, Mammon.

For those who suspect that the Devil may be a figment of someone’s imagination rather than an actual intelligent being of some kind, Francis’ textual concerns are somewhat disheartening, playing as they do into the superstitious aspects of religion that get us bogged down in pointless arguments about miracles and other parlor tricks that are reported to have occurred two millennia ago. The reaction to Francis’ pronouncement has already ranged from scorn to puzzlement to thoughtfulness.  Verily, in good sooth, “the devil is in the details” of this prayer, one of the pillars of Christendom.

But if we reframe Francis’ thoughts, it’s not so far out there for someone of a humanist stripe to accept, because what he’s really saying is we can make bad choices and good choices in life, and what we want is to avoid the bad and head toward the good. Whether it’s God helping you to lean in one direction and the Devil prodding you in the other with that infamous pitchfork of his, is something that shouldn’t distract us from the point that we need to exercise some moral judgment in our lives on a daily basis, and the gauge for making those choices has to be the Greater Good, which is rooted inevitably in avoiding hurt to others, and bringing as much joy as possible to those around us.   Old Nick, Beelzebub, and Co. are those selfish genes in us all, the impulse to have it all for ourselves, the bestial instincts that helped us survive the rigors of natural selection as we climbed up through the evolutionary branches.   Once we became self-aware a different ethic arose and God, in the form of the Greater Good, was born, you might say, or we were born again in God, if that is more to your liking.   However you think of it, the result is the same in the end: get out there and spread compassion to make the world a better place.

An interesting side note is that the phrase “The devil is in the details” derives from a much earlier German saying: “Der liebe Gott steckt im Detail”—it is not the Devil, but God who lives in the details.  Focussing on getting the little things right can bring us closer to our higher selves.  It’s the zen of washing dishes, of being mindful in all of our daily tasks and interactions.

 

 

Pope Francis in Myanmar Gets It Right Again

It can drive you crazy how the media takes a story and focuses on the wrong thing.   Take the Pope’s visit to Myanmar, for example.   The headline from all the news outlets was all about how he did not use the word ‘Rohingya” to refer to the Muslim people being ethnically cleansed in that largely Buddhist nation.   The media needs a storyline and they’ve certainly got an important one in the misery of these poor people, now barely surviving in refugee camps.   A solution to the problem is desperately needed, but by focusing on this terminology issue, they diverted us from the most important thing that the Pope said:

“Religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation-building.”

What an earth-shaking statement!  The leader of the Catholic Church wants to find common ground with other religions to build a better, more peaceful, more tolerant, more united world!  What a difference from the bad old days when Protestants and Catholics went to war over an argument about the communion bread and the Faithful slaughtered whole cities in the name of the All-Merciful Creator.  If only today’s fundamentalists around the world could buy in to Francis’ statement we’d be halfway to heaven on earth.

The Pope is essentially signing on to what the Enlightenment was all about back when Voltaire told us it’s so easy to get distracted by unimportant things like how you should dress to please God, or what foods God told us not to eat.   If only we could all latch onto the big things, like we’re all searching for a meaning and purpose in life, and religion is a road that gets us there, each religion a different path to the same ultimate place, a place where we recognize the common humanity in each other while honoring the differences.

The Rohingya crisis is a version of the same problem that the United States is facing on its southern border, where over a period of decades or even centuries, poor families have sought a better life in a neighboring country where they can find work.   Are they citizens or not?  We haven’t figured out how to deal with that yet and neither have they.   How much of what is driving this comes from the difference in religions, and how much from simply being different?   Whatever the answer, as the international community works to try to help the situation, let’s hope that Pope Francis’ appeal to our higher selves will not get lost.

Holy Communion: What Do Catholics Believe?

When ex-Catholics answered a Pew poll two years ago about why they stopped going to church, 41% cited “religious institutions, practices, or people,” for example, they just didn’t like their church, or found it hypocritical. That kind of thing could happen at any church, of course.  But the more interesting figure is the 12% who said that they no longer believed in God, and an additional 6% who said simply “they grew up” or “started thinking for themselves.” This leads us to the Eucharist or as it is also called, Holy Communion and the central Catholic teaching in transubstantiation (that the bread and/or wine actually becomes the flesh and blood of Jesus) and the Real Presence (that Jesus is actually present in the bread after the priest’s sacramental words have been spoken).

Let’s face it:  for anyone who was not raised in this belief, it’s a tall order.   So do Catholics really believe this or what? It turns out that not all do.  Another Pew Forum study from 2010 found that 37% of Catholics rejected the doctrine that Christ is actually present in the communion wafer that they ingest every mass. A more recent study showed that fully half of American Catholics did not even know that was one of the Church’s teachings.   One Catholic blogger, quite rightly, finds this astonishing because Catholic children in the second grade everywhere in America are supposedly taught this important information before their first communion. Why then is this piece missing from the Catholic consciousness?

Perhaps the answer to this conundrum is that the average second grader would be repelled by the idea of actually eating someone’s flesh and drinking their blood, even though it looks like a wafer made from wheat,  especially if that someone were Jesus, who loved little children and healed so many of the sick.   You’ve got to admit that as metaphysical notions go, it’s pretty strange, even repulsive.   I would think it’s very likely that the priests are not hammering home the eating Jesus part in their prep classes, and by soft-pedalling the “This is my body,” they are drifting into the Protestant realms of the ritual as symbol.

The Eucharist is the cornerstone sacrament of the Catholic Church but these numbers show some movement away from this–….well,  the word “medievalism” comes to mind. The Cathars in southern France were on the right track with this back in the 13th century when they tossed this sacrament overboard, but Pope Innocent III and his “crusaders” (with St. Dominic staunchly supporting them) had them wiped out, man, woman, and child.   And so the teachings continue, that Jesus, every molecule of Him, is in each wafer, each drop of communal wine.  But you can’t help thinking that if Innocent and been less Catholic and more humane, the Church would be teaching something much different today.

 

The Unpardonable Sin: Examples from Christianity and Islam

The Bible contains a cryptic passage in Mark 3:28-9 where Jesus tells his disciples that all sins and blasphemies can be forgiven

But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.

There have been a lot of sermons written on this idea of the unpardonable sin, but perhaps what it really means to “blaspheme against the Holy Ghost” is to deny the divine spirit that exists in each of us, that part of us that raises us above the beasts and makes us human.

We have seen examples of what it is to deny our humanity too often recently.   A death cult has grown and spread that under the guise of religion, of serving a deity,  demands that its faithful seek out innocent people and kill them in any manner possible. Blow them up, hack them to death, gun them down—it doesn’t matter.   Men, women, children, Christian, Hindu—it’s all the same if they are infidels. That’s the way to a better world, by starting a war of attrition that will end with a lot of people dead, but remember, the infidels don’t matter, and the faithful die as martyrs and martyrdom is a great blessing. It must be true, that’s what the holy men say, and if I doubt what they say, then perhaps I am an infidel too.

Lest we in the Western World get too righteously indignant, let me remind you of an event that occurred back in the 13th century. At that time in southern France a sect of Christianity spread called Catharism, which among other things, rejected the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, and so, logically, rejected the priest’s power to perform these miraculous rites. Rome got worried about this challenge to its power, and let it be known that if anyone would take up arms against these heretics, all past sins would be pardoned, and not only that, any sins committed in this crusade against the Cathars (Albigensians) would be pardoned too.   That was nothing short of a license to rape, plunder, and murder at will, and there were plenty of knights and desperados kicking around who were just waiting for an opportunity like this.   Led by the newly-formed Inquisition they ravaged, ravished, and burned these unfortunate, good-hearted people, until none of them were left, one of the first recorded genocides.   The crusade succeeded and God smiled once again on his servants in the Vatican. It was just a warm-up for the Inquisition which continued to torture and immolate infidels and apostates for six centuries.

I’ll have more to say about the Cathars later, but the point this time around is that we’re re-living that horrible time in history, where religious leaders utterly distort the central message of the founders of their faith.  It’s no longer “help people who are suffering,” but “believe what I tell you or I will kill you.” The focus should not be on conversion, but compassion.   To twist that around is to forget we are human beings, it’s to become a kind of monster that sees a crowded street full of people, full of life,  as nothing more than a place to spill blood.  That is the unpardonable sin.

Christians Awake Part II: What Do You Believe?

Part I was about a cult begun by an egomaniac, exploiting people in the name of Jesus. Part II asks what is the difference between a cult and a religion? Is it that religions don’t set out to exploit people?  But what about what they say they believe?

Consider three anecdotes about friends who were raised as Catholics:

1) Today some of us were sitting around and the subject of religion, then communion came up. Someone said, “You know, the Catholics believe that when the priest blesses the wafer, it actually turns into the body of Christ—it’s not a symbol for them, it really is His body.” One of my colleagues who was raised Catholic, and had gone through First Communion at the age of 13 was dumbfounded—she didn’t attend services anymore, but somehow she had missed that central tenet of the Roman Church all these years.  Now she just shook her head in disbelief and a pained look crossed her face.

2) A few years ago I was talking with a Catholic friend and the subject of the Immaculate Conception came up.   “That’s the same thing as the Virgin Birth,” he said—that Mary miraculously conceived even though she was a virgin.” I corrected him, reporting that it’s actually the belief that Mary herself was conceived immaculately, that is, free from the taint of Original Sin. Her mother, St. Anne, conceived the normal way, they say, but God acted on Mary in the womb, removing that sin so she would be a proper vessel (if that’s the phrase) for the baby Jesus. My friend stared at me a moment, somewhat shocked, then heaved a big sigh.

3) A friend who went to a Catholic school in a major city told me recently that the moment he became an atheist was when he was 14 and the bishop came to visit their school.   The boys were all lined up in the chapel to honor his visit, and here he came, down the aisle in his robes, his finery, and on his hat, the mitre—or “that pointy hat” as my friend called it. In that moment he said to himself, “How can we take all this seriously? There is no way that God wants him dressed like that.”

It’s presumptuous for a non-Catholic to make these observations, but the point is simply this: if you say you are part of a group, Catholic, Protestant, or anything, shouldn’t you know what that group’s beliefs are? Otherwise, if you can’t buy into those beliefs, or accept the rituals and the dress, shouldn’t you call yourself something else to avoid confusion?   And if you can’t buy into some of those beliefs, which beliefs are you buying into? The ones that seem more reasonable?

Do you get to do that? Pick and choose?

Most church leaders would say no.

The Humanist would say yes, that’s exactly what you should be doing.

A Nation of Ghouls

Folks, we are in a dark place. Exactly how dark came home to me the other night as I sat down to find something to watch  on Netflix. Among the thousands of shows they have on offer is a category called “Netflix Originals” which has been getting a lot of attention for its creativity and success. I’d already watched some episodes of several of them, and as I scrolled through now, I realized that most of them were either murder mysteries or sci-fi heroes fighting evildoers.  The crimes we are watching are no ordinary felonies, they are horrific rapes, tortures, dismemberments, cannibalism….you name it, some writer has come up with a script for our amusement. We are offered deranged cult leaders, serial killers, pedophiles, drooling sadists or megalomaniacs wielding apocalyptic weapons of mass destruction, and the murders are the most gruesome, disgusting, horrifying deaths any demented scriptwriter could ever conceive, with the camera often lingering over mangled corpses, caressing them like a lover for our viewing pleasure.

We have become a nation of ghouls.

Never mind worrying about our kids–this is what we’re feeding ourselves a steady diet of night after night. No wonder people are jumpy, paranoid and mistrustful!

It’s not that some of these shows aren’t well written, it’s not that they don’t raise interesting moral questions or illustrate important aspects of our humanity–they often do.  But, I’m telling you, friends, get away from it! Living with these stories day-in, day-out is making us kind of crazy.   It’s a subtle way for the Dark Side to slip into our very beings and turn us all against each other.

There is one show that consistently takes us along the higher road: Call the Midwife.   In this British import we find a paean to the Sacrament of Birth and its extension, childrearing.   In 1950s London the midwives are the heroines, along with the nuns who in their generous, open-hearted spirits remind us why becoming a bride of Christ has been so appealing for so many through the years. It’s all about compassion, something we all have to offer no matter what our place is in the world.   Perhaps the show is a bit saccharine at times, but a taste of sugar feeds the Spirit a lot better than a mouthful of gore.

So get out of that pool of blood you’ve been wallowing in and get back to normal!  You don’t have to become a Catholic nun,  just look around for the sacred in life.   Go play with your children or your grandchildren.  Celebrate life every day.

Pope Francis on Islam: Is He Delusional?

Pope Francis recently said that he can’t condemn the brutal murder of the Norman priest, Father Jacques, as Islamic terrorism because “It’s not right to identify Islam with violence. It’s not right and it’s not true.”

This unleashed a furor.   On the Daily Express website for example, swarms of furious readers wrote in that the Pope was “blind”, “deluded”, “a nutter”, “an old fool”, “brain-damaged”, “an imposter”, “the antichrist”, “pure evil” “ a “Satinist”… Strong stuff!

So let’s unpack this.

Is it right to “identify” Islam with violence?

Bad choice of words.  What do we mean by “identify with”—that’s a confusing verb for this discussion. Let’s rephrase it:

Do some people who claim to be Muslims resort to violence to enforce their religious views?

Yes, undeniably.

Are they justifying their actions by pointing to what their religion teaches them?

Yes, absolutely.   In the holy books of Islam there are passages that unequivocally support violent acts to further their goals, including killing infidels to spread Islam. See link.

Does that mean that Islam is a religion that encourages violent and terroristic acts? Yes and no.

Yes, if you are someone who believes and teaches others that you must follow every word of the Quran. That is what we mean by fundamentalism: follow the holy text. There are from 1 to 5 % of Muslims in Middle Eastern countries who support the fundamentalism of ISIS.

No, if you believe that you can ignore certain parts of the Quran as outdated. See link.

This brings us to the most important part of the Pope’s recent statements: “Nearly all religions” have a “small group of fundamentalists” so don’t tar Islam with that brush.

Holy Cow! What the Pope is saying here is we have to beware of fundamentalism in any religion, including Roman Catholicism. Wow! What that would mean is exactly what Seven Sacraments for Everyone is getting at: we have to get beyond the slavish adherence to texts written thousands of years ago and to traditional practices that developed over centuries.   What we should be doing is “editing” those texts, looking into our hearts, looking at human experience to search for those transcendent moments that lead us to the Divine, that point us on our way to the Greater Good.   Killing innocent people in cold blood is the antithesis of this path.

Once again, two cheers for Francis!!   But he could have been clearer in his condemnation of terrorism under the guise of religion.