Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My God! I'm Going to Die.

The Flaming Lips' song 'Do You Realize' has a quote that while at worst falls prey to emo-culture is at best the foundational statement of existentialism: "Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die."

I think about this amid the rancor and vitriol which is currently masquerading as a public discourse about health care reform in this country. This goes for both sides; conservatives and liberals.

Apparently, Rush Limbaugh is saying that White House health care reform will 'kill grandma.' And, I really have little interest in that fight. What I find more interesting is that no one seems to realize that grandma, along with everyone else you know will someday die, including me.

Such a blunt proleptic prognosis is sobering. It also elucidates a grim reality about the ultimate efficiency of modern medicine, it always loses. The house, just like death, always wins. Christians may have a rejoinder, but that's another topic. No surgery, vaccine, or rehabilitation program will ever stave off the sting of death forever.

Heath care, no matter the delivery system, is a scarce good confronting an ever increasing need and never satiated demand. Health care 'rationing' seems an uncaring or even crass description of squaring the supply of it with the demand for it. But, it is the reality, and it must be faced.

Peter Singer wrote an editorial for the New York Times a few weeks ago that framed the issue of rationing quite well.

You have advanced kidney cancer. It will kill you, probably in the next year or two. A drug called Sutent slows the spread of the cancer and may give you an extra six months, but at a cost of $54,000. Is a few more months worth that much?

If you can afford it, you probably would pay that much, or more, to live longer, even if your quality of life wasn’t going to be good. But suppose it’s not you with the cancer but a stranger covered by your health-insurance fund. If the insurer provides this man — and everyone else like him — with Sutent, your premiums will increase. Do you still think the drug is a good value? Suppose the treatment cost a million dollars. Would it be worth it then? Ten million? Is there any limit to how much you would want your insurer to pay for a drug that adds six months to someone’s life? If there is any point at which you say, “No, an extra six months isn’t worth that much,” then you think that health care should be rationed.

Yet, Christians, rightly, may not find rationing a theologically, if not pastorally, acceptable. Stewardship, however, I think, offers a refreshing paradigm in understanding healthcare. Stewardship implies limitedness. It helps suggest that while healthcare is a good and is Good, that it cannot overcome death and must be understood in light of this fundamental limitation. After realizing that everyone we know will someday die, we then turn to the task of health care policy. This does not make the task easier, it will probably make it ever the more gripping and painful, but it may also offer a platform for real public discourse.

What do you think? I'm interested to know.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sunday Morning "Worship Center"

Driving back to Chicago, the rain falls stedily on the pavement of Interstate 55 North. On the left, a large building with a large fancy marquee was situated immediately beside an exit ramp. The marquee was not unlike so many other that spelled out the nightly specials for chain motels. This marquee, though, was not for a motel. Intead, above the scrolling electronic marquee the words, “Worship Center” brightly appeared. The same name appeared above the large double doors of the building… “Worship Center”. Christian in essense, no doubt, but what secularly banal, commerically marketed, and theologicall ambigious a place it must be, too.

A worship center, only pushes the question that God, too, is no different than any other consumable good. People consume religious experience on Sunday mornings, and this “Worship Center” provides such an experience. It’s not Church. It’s not the community of Christ, the Body of believers. It is simply a collection of people who want to do some worshipping on Sunday mornings… instead of say, yoga, or running, or drinking at a cafĂ©.

In the blurring rain, the builing flees into the distance. I could almost see the marquee scrolling through a last damning message: Coming Soon! Drive-thru prayer window!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

'Begotten, Not Documented'

The 'birthers' are a pretty easy target. But, hey, what's one more pot-shot at a political movement built on thinly veiled racism?

Slate ran a Doonesbury cartoon yesterday that makes both political and theological points.

The title of the strip, "Begotten, Not Documented."

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Christianity, the Downfall of America?

The liberal leaning Slate asked its readers what will be the downfall of America. Rounding out the top five: Loose nukes, Peak oil, Antibiotic resistance, China unloading US treasury bonds, and Israel-Arab War.

Understanding that this poll is as unscientific as you can get, one of the findings, at least for Christians, should be a little surprising. Of the 144 scenarios that lead to the American apocalypse, both Christianity and Militant Islam made the list.

the surprise? Christianity was voted as more likely to cause the end of America than Militant Islam. Christianity ranked 35th while Militant Islam ranked 52nd. At first glance, this seems unlikely to me, but it gets even more unlikely when you read Slate's given reason for why Christianity may ultimately undermine the United States.
Just as, per Edward Gibbon, the rise of religion killed Rome's fighting spirit, increasing spirituality turns America into a nation of pacifists. We get attacked and don't fight back.

So, here's to hoping that Christianity leads to the end of America.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Questionable Wedding Theology

Last weekend two of my dear friends, Andy and Emily, were married. It was a wonderful service: theological faithful and beautiful, too.

So, it was with horror that I came across a picture of the very antithesis of the wedding I witnessed just last weekend. The picture above, sigh, is both theological skewed and aesthetically disturbing. If you can't see, the picture is of a wedding couple, pouring two differently colored vials of sand into a single jar. The two colors - neon green and pink! - of course, do not mix into one, but like retro-colored water and oil stay separate in their own corners. So much for 'becoming one flesh'!

In many weddings, the couple, each taking a lit candle, light a unity candle. The unity, far from a crass amalgamation, is a sacramental transformation. One can not look at a unity candle and identify where one spouse ends and the other begins. That is the very notion of unity.

Plus, you can also see the couple were married outside; another theological taboo.

In addendum: this is why I left Indiana.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Abraham's Many Sons and Daughters

Before kindergarten, I used to go to Kiddy Bible College. It was a religious day care where we would happily belt out religious songs. Everyone was fond of extolling, “Abraham had many sons, and many sons had father Abraham.” Indeed, how many, many sons and daughters.

Years later, when teaching World History to high schools students, I would often remind them that the three ‘great’ Western religions traced their roots to Abraham. Abraham fathered many sons and many religions, too.

Recently, I visited Columbia, South America with an interfaith group of college students and staff members. The trip moved me deeply, and forced me to reconsider the importance of interfaith dialogue, while at the same time, recommitted my fidelity to the Catholic Church. My theological studies created a religious myopia. For the past few years, I have been content with pondering the internal theological divisiveness, especially of the Protestant variety. I unconsciously eschewed much of the interfaith discussions that were going on. One, though, cannot do everything, and it may be that one needs to get one’s house in order before entering another’s.

Colombia, then, became a place to reacquaint myself with the issue of interfaith dialogue. I began to think in earnest about it when, one night during reflection, someone mentioned that each western religion had one person who acted as iconic figurehead for the religion itself: Judaism has Abraham, Christianity has Jesus, and Islam has Mohammad. This struck me as sentimentally beautifully, but ultimately incongruous. All three religions claim Abraham, and indeed, all claim Moses and Jesus, too. Further, and more importantly for Christians, Jesus was not some mere religious leader whose work pointed to the revelation of God. Jesus wasn’t the figurehead of Christianity, but the second person of the God-head. He was the incarnation of God on earth living alongside humanity. I have no doubt that this statement was to produce a sentiment of affinity, to evoke a feeling of religious solidarity. Yet, it is clear such good intention within interfaith dialogues can so easily rent violence to the particularity of each religions’ theology.

During the trip, I was deeply moved by one of the girls, Sunnah, a practicing Muslim. During a visit to a cathedral, we discussed the misconception of Mary being worshiped rather than venerated. It occurred to me while Jesus and Mohammed are so often paired together – as they were in the nightly reflection – it is, more properly, Mohammed and Mary that share so very much in common. Both are chosen to be the vehicles for God’s special revelation. Neither is considered divine, but both are understood to have an unparalleled importance and holiness. To equate Jesus and Mohammed may always seem a popular and helpful suggestion within interfaith circles, but theologically it can never properly situate and valuate the role of Christ in Christianity as properly the second person of the God-head. No, to do justice to the claimed divinity of Christ, one would have to equate Jesus with Allah, and of course, this too would rent violence to the particular Islamic claim that rejects the divinity of Christ, and the tri-partide nature of God.

D. Stephen Long recounted that because he lived in Skokie he would often have dinner with his neighbors who were invariably Jewish, and that during the evening conversations he would often suggest that when the Messiah came they would ask Him, rather avuncularly, “Is this your first or second visit?”

Islam, too, espouses Jesus will usher in the eschaton. So, to include Muslims, a second question should be posed, “And, are you a prophet or God?

A beautiful friend of mine was once crying with me beside her. She was distraught by how carelessly someone had talked about abortion. She said something so chillingly beautiful and true in that moment: “The most painful part of life is when you realize that your understanding of justice is someone else’s idea of injustice.”

And where does justice matter more than in faith? This is, I believe, where interfaith dialogue is so important, and also, so dangerous. Liberal theologians, like John Hicks for example, suggest such a synchronistic and collectivist religious pluralism that it emasculates the richness and undercuts the particularity of the very religions they are trying to honor.

To paraphrase Dr. Long, “I cannot agree to disagree with you. I simply disagree.”

This statement, while political and social unpalatable, is true candor. The statement does not placate, but rather vindicates the real difference spanning two perspectives. It honors the particularity. It honors the pain that resides in irreconcilable difference.

As mentioned in previous post, the late Pope John Paul II wrote, “Theology is not about a problem to be solved by a mystery to be elucidated. We can speak of this mystery with a humble confidence because of the life, death, and resurrection of the incarnate Word.” Interfaith discussion must always begin with this humble confidence. The humility honors the mystery of all religion and offers openness for new revelation, while it also unequivocally rejects the conservative ‘certainty’ that spews from so many religious zealots. The confidence indicates authenticity, the disposition that one must be true to oneself, while also rejecting the impossible ‘equality’ that liberals demand that in fact rents violence upon the particularity of the varying religions.

These two temperaments – humility and confidence – askew both baseless equality and myopic certainty in order to occupy a middle ground of fidelity.

Interfaith dialogues will end with disagreement; profound, angering, and saddening disagreement. Someone’s justice will inevitably tangle with someone else’s injustice. People will cry.

And yet, the alternatives – equality and certainty – offer either a meaningless pluralism through castrating religious truth claims or an unabashed absolutism that mandates a determinate understanding of the Truth, which, historically, quickly escalates into physical violence. Fidelity, in interfaith dialogue, doesn’t promise perfection, and that’s in fact why it’s so promising.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Estne Nihil Sanctum?

I came across another example of insipid liberalism via the world wide web; a video game called, "Faith Fighters 2."

The game is simple. On the screen are ten or so religious figures: Buddha, Christ, God, Muhammad, Flying Spaghetti Monster, Roswell Alien, etc. These figures slowly become more and more transparent. By placing your cursor over them little hearts start to appear and they once again become opaque. If they disappear, any one of them, the game is over. The stated goal of the game is: "to give love and respect to all the religious entities on the screen." This is liberalism at its finest. It's so over the top in its liberalism that one must suspect that it's satirical (hence the Pastafarian, and alien).

Play Faith Fighter 2 here.

The original "Faith Fighters" was strewn with controversy. Most prominently, it featured the face of the Prophet Mohammad. The game now has a censored version. The game parodied Mortal Combat's 2-D fighting style. Legitimately, it's pretty offensive. This game drowns in a banal nihilism.

Play Faith Fighters 1 here.

So, what fate is worse? The banal, cynical nihilism or the maudlin, naive liberalism?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Christmas-Eve Atheist

My ever present doubt continues to keep me grasping for a palatable label. The term Atheist has always, and unfairly, conjured image of angry, modernist rationalist or it suggests some morose and angst-ridden existentialist unhappily polishing off his third semester while majoring in philosophy.

The unadulterated term 'Atheist' will not do.

While in seminary, I used to say I was the only Calvinist who didn't believe I was part of the elect. That's pretty funny, I guess. But, it didn't actually communicate the salient issue: my lack of faith. And, well, besides, reformed theology is not my denominational cup of tea.

When I started this blog, I thought the term Catholic Atheist was reasonable. It suggested both an affinity for the Church, while also, and ultimately, a profound inability to claim fidelity to it. Later, I found a funny definition for a Catholic Atheist: Someone who does not believe in God, and Mary is His mother.

However, I finally found a term that works. I am a Christmas-Eve Atheist.

See, recently my friend Jimmy Cooper was talking about the movie "Angels and Demons" (don't see it). He mentioned that Tom Hanks is asked, in the movie, if he believes in God. He responds, "Faith is a gift I have not yet received." Jimmy recounted that the phrase reminded him of my struggle – stubbornness – with Christian faith.

So, I am a Christmas-Eve Atheist as faith is a gift I have not yet received. I came up with the Christmas-Eve part, and it works on two levels. The first is more superficial in that Christmas-Eve is the time before receiving gifts. The second, of course, is more theological. Christmas-Eve is, in a very ecclesial sense, the time when everyone is without Christ. It is time of expectation. The whole Advent season is a time of hopeful waiting.

In thinking about this, I think this may also be a term that can be used pastorally. It may be a way for seekers to discuss their lack of belief, and fervent desire to be part of the Church and life of faith. It makes me wonder how I would have responded if someone, earlier in my life, had identified me as a "Christmas-Eve Atheist".

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Commencement Keynotes

Many good friends have or are going to graduate this year. This is a half-hearted way to say congradulations to all of you - a snippet from Robertson Davies short story: "What Will the Age of Aquarius Bring?"

“The usually thing – the statistically normal thing – is for the speaker to tell the graduation class that they are going out into a world torn by dissent, racked by problems of unprecedented knottiness, and difficulty, and headed for the abyss of destruction unless the graduating class shoulders its burden and does something splendid to put everything right. The speaker generally admits that he is at the end of his tether: he is old, and broken on the wheel of Fate; his decrepitude and his wounds have been received in this great battle with the world’s problems. Nothing – absolutely nothing – is to be expected of him in the future. From his failing hands he throws the torch; he plants the task of setting the world right square on the graduating class. He says that he does it with confidence. But he is usually so gloom that one wonders how much his confidence is worth. Sometimes one gets the impression that immediately after Convocation he is going to home to die.”


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Catholic Marriage & Antecedent and Permanent Impotence

My new roommate, Erin, and I were discussing the issue de jour: homosexual marriage. During the conversation, I mentioned how consummation was an imperative for the Sacrament of Marriage in the Roman Catholic Church. Meaning, for a marriage to be valid, the couple must have sex.

She then theologically stumped me: “What if you couldn’t have sex? What if you were a quadriplegic?”

Initially, I thought the Catholic Church would insist on consummation, and hence those unable to have sex would not be able to partake in a Catholic marriage. However, I was far from sure.

The next day, I was talking to my good friend Andy who suggested that maybe the consummation was an ethical suggestion, but not an absolute imperative; something akin to the ethical equation: ought equals must.

A little research, however, provided me with Roman Catholic Canon 1084 §1. It states that “antecedent and permanent impotence” is a diriment impediment. Simply put: if your junk don’t work, you can’t tie the knot. This fascinating little ordinance is found in Book IV, Part I, Title VII, Chapter III of the Roman Catholic Canon.

Of course, this is classical Catholic doctrine. Catholic marriage requires consummation. So, if one cannot commence the marriage through consummation, then the marriage is invalid. The Church is at least consistent.

There is, however, a question of formally granted dispensation. For instance, dispensation is now granted regularly for ‘mixed-marriages’ – meaning marriages between a Catholic and a non-Catholic Christian or Jew (thank you, Vatican II).

I suspect that most bishops would grant special dispensation to those who may have antecedent and permanent impotence, but I myself am confused by what the rationale might be. Canon 90, found in (Book I, Tit. IV, Chp. V) states, “One is not to be dispensed from an ecclesiastical law without a just and reasonable cause…” Of course, it is not clear what a just and reasonable cause may constitute, though.

However, if I were a bishop – and hell, I’m not even really Catholic – the decision would be easy. If I found two people who loved each other and wanted to marry – despite the sobering matrimonial-actuary tables and the reality of a spouse with antecedent and permanent impotence – I wouldn’t just grant dispensation, I would offer blessings.

Addendum: My friend Ramil, made an excellent point. How would a 'good' Catholic even known they had antecedent impotence. Premaritial sex by yourself or with a partner is off limits. Plausibly a good - if not a perhaps somewhat naive - Catholic could never have an erection before marriage and just assume that all the plumbing begins to work when you marry... Anyways, thanks Ramil for the thought.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Agnostic Prayers

Two agonostic prayers from "Death Be Not Proud" and Vonnegut's "Slapstick".

Johnny Gunter's agnostic prayer "Death Be Not Proud"
Almighty God
forgive me for my agnositcism;
For I shall try to keep it gentle, not cynical,
nor a bad influence.

And O!
if thou art truly in heavens,
accept my gratitude
for all Thy gifts
and I shall try
to fight the good fight. Amen.

Kurt Vonnegut's suggestion for agnostic prayer from "Slapstick".
The old man is writing his authobiography. He begins with the words which my Uncle Al told me one time should be used by religious skeptics as a prelude to their nightly prayers.
These are the words: "To whom it may concern."

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Liberalism’s Orthodoxy: Or Why We Should Defend Miss California

Dr. Stephen Long wrote in his book, The Goodness of God, “Liberalism has now become a dogmatic form of orthodoxy incapable of change.” Indeed, consider this for a moment. Theological liberalism seems to have no room in the inn for its own virtue of tolerance, only canonized dogma: God must suffer to love, missiology is eschatology, biblical miracles are literary myths, newer is better, and of course women and homosexuals must be able to be ordained or the Church is both oppressively patriarchal and an apostate.

Indeed, liberal theology has indentified numerous inviolable theological planks, crafting, slowly, a dogmatic platform. It has becomes an ideology demanding capitulation to hold-outs who have not yet converted. Outside of theology, we see that secular liberalism demands this same type of iron-clad orthodoxy. Recently, if not also infamously, Miss California was asked if she supported the recent ruling in Vermont that allowed for same sex marriages. Before answering that she in fact did not agree with same sex marriages, she opined, “Well, I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land where you can choose.” Indeed, while Aquinas thought a democracy was only a moderate well functioning government, as it was slow to act toward the good, and could only be moderately assured to enact the good, it nevertheless, was also slow to enact evil. More importantly, where is the well-spring of tolerance for Miss California that liberals so often demand be extended to everyone (and everything) else. Instead, the reaction was indignation. A particularly – if not peculiarly – urbanized cry of, “she didn’t, did she?!” was heard round the blogosphere.

Of course, the reason for the intolerance was that she was intolerant. And only intolerance can be matched with more intolerance. Here we realize the impossibility of diversity (liberalism). That no political claim can equate to perfect tolerance. That all beliefs – even beliefs in tolerance – are ultimately divisive. Otherness (diversity, liberalism) only identifies by being separate. The problem of perfect liberalism also makes us equally realize the impossibility of unity. No taxonomy will be able to perfectly organize everyone (and everything) into a single category. This is the problem of relationships – and it is also the mystery of Trinity and the Incarnation. We are the same and we are different. Oliver O’Donovan offers the term ‘pluriformity’. It offers to explicate the paradoxical claim that we are all one and all other. We realize that particularity rents violence in its necessary act of exclusion, but our limitedness – our humanness – does not offer recourse. Pluriformity is an anthropology for understanding theology that need not capitulate to late modern liberalism (our difference unites us), or conservative theology (our correct belief unites us), but rather a way to recapture the theology of the Body of Christ as the body of believers that are both diverse and universe.

We live in the tension between diversity and unity. However, I think some of my friends would argue that perfect diversity and unity come under God. And, I hope, they are correct. But it is an eschatological hope. Fidelity may hold more promise than either equality (liberalism) or certainty (conservatism).

Friday, March 6, 2009

Woody Allen on God (aka Mr. Big)

Last night I couldn't sleep so I pick up an old favorite: Woody Allen's Getting Even. It's one of my favorite books of short stories. Anyways, I reread Mr. Big; an over-the-top detective styled story with all the trappings of a Philosophy 101 class. It seemed particularly relevant as Allen takes a swipe at logical positivists!

Here's a taste:

"Well, she's lying. She's a teacher at Radcliffe. She was mixed up with a philosopher for a while."
"No. Empiricist, as I remember. Bad guy. Completely rejected Hegel or any dialectical methodology."
"One of those."
"Yeah. He used to be a drummer with a jazz trio. Then he got hooked on Logical Positivism. When that didn't work, he tried Pragmatism. Last I heard he stole a lot of money to take a course in Schopenhauer at Columbia. The mob would like to find him - or get their hands on his textbooks so they can resell them."
"Take it from me, Kaiser. There's no one out there. It's a void. I couldn't pass all those bad checks or screw society the way I do if for one second I was able to recognize any authentic sense of Being. The universe is strictly phenomenological. Nothing's eternal. It's all meaningless."

Click here for the rest of Mr. Big.
Near the bottom of the page is a button, "Show full text"
9/10ths from the bottom of that page is the story, Mr. Big

Saturday, February 28, 2009

If it's a symbol, to hell with it.

“I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater… She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual…. Toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it. That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.” - Flannery O'Connor

What a joy to read such a statement of faith. And isn't this the statement of faith said when one partakes in the Eucharist?
'The Body of Christ.'

And the Eucharist and the the Resurrection are tied to together.
The real presence of the Eucharist is the parallel claim of the historical resurrection, which is of particular importance during the Lenten season. Both are declaration that God is not silent. That God works with and within the world. It proclaims that God's action are mediated through immediacy.

However, we are incredulous toward the Real. Instead we allow our post-modern sensibility to transfix us in the infinite regression of meaning through symbol and myth. And if this is true, Joseph Campbell is the false savior of our time. He offers a translation of meaning and existence through 'universal' symbols, but which can never answer the metaphysical. Such a project can only defer meaning, which is exactly what philosophers like Derrida would like us have to believe.

What is more troubling are those happy fools in theology who still wittingly align themselves with Tillichian and Bultmannian philosophy. No two theologians have done more theological damage in recent decades, as they have persuaded many that the Eucharist, the Virgin Birth, the miracles, the Resurrection are nothing more than mere symbols. Fantastic, helpful, 'meaningful' symbols, but symbols nonetheless. They are merely powerful earthly representation that help translate the world, but they don't represent the Real. They defer meaning. They merely translate. Tillich and Bultmann were crass logical positivists dressed in theologian garb.

A few months ago a few friends and I were discussing Borg. We decided that Borg’s resurrection was metaphorical. That deeply troubled a friend of mine. Days later he returned to me, and said Jason, you know why a metaphorical resurrection bothers me? He answered his own question, “Because I am not going to metaphorically die! I am going to actually, factually die! And I want a savior who actually saved me from sin and death!” Bultmann seems to be offering something similar, but instead of a metaphor, it’s a myth.

So, if it's only metaphor, if it's only myth, or if it's only symbol then to hell with it. To hell with a religion that is merely 'trying its best' to translate the world. To hell with a religion that can be construed into a spiritual 'preference'.

But, if it is the Eucharist that translates the meaning of the world, and not the world that dictates the meaning of the Eucharist, then perhaps the only word appropriate is 'amen'.