Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Who is a Catholic?

I received an email from someone who asked if they could be pro-choice, pro-contraception, pro-gay marriage, pro-pre-marital sex, and still call themselves a Catholic.

And just about anyone who reads my blog regularly would guess that my answer was yes.

Now, I did point out reasons I am opposed to abortion, and think pre-marital sex can be morally problematic.

And I cautioned that we "liberals" need to give the conservatives a fair hearing, and even when we still disagree, we might want to pick our battles.

But beyond these cautions, I responded that the conservative Catholic who wants to avoid being a "liberal cafeteria Catholic" is sort of stuck with the fact that, as annoying as it may seem, she or he must also answer "yes" if he or she is to avoid denying solemnly defined infallible dogma.

The CCC says it better than I:

1272 Incorporated into Christ by Baptism, the person baptized is configured to Christ. Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ. No sin can erase this mark, even if sin prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation.82 Given once for all, Baptism cannot be repeated.
No sin can erase this mark.

It bears repeating.

No sin can erase this mark.

I think it needs to be said at least one more time to really sink in to the mind and heart.

No sin can erase this mark.

The footnote in the passage (no. 82) is to the dogmatic decress of the Council of Trent, and also sites Denzinger and Rom 8:29.

It is my understanding that this is infallible dogma - meaning it is more authoritive than the teachings on abortion, contraception, pre-marital sex, and gay marriage.

And just to be fair to the conservatives, this teaching about this indelible seal is more authoritive than the very clear authentic doctrine of just war that makes it abundantly obvious that the invasion of Iraq was immoral, or that we have a right to a living wage, etc....

Baptism is THE sacrament of initiation, and it is unrepeateable. Even long before Vatican II, the saying was, "Once a Catholic, always a Catholic."

In conservative theology, it would seem to be metaphysically impossible to be separated from the Roman Catholic Church except perhaps by a formal declaration of excommunication which must be made explicitly using your name by a bishop.

Even then, I'm not sure....

In my response to my reader, I stated that one could murder a person in cold blood, rape the murder victim's children, torture the murder victims' parents, deny Jesus ever lived and swear your undying allegiance to Satan. It doesn't matter. If you were baptized, you are a Catholic in the eyes of God, himself, and in the eyes of the Pope.

We can never say that a validly baptized person who self defines as Catholic is not a Catholic.

We can say the person is a non-practicing or lapsed Catholic. We can perhaps say the person is not a good Catholic. We might say the person appears to be in the state of mortal sin. We can suggest the person holds beliefs that seem heretical.

But we cannot say that a baptized person is not a Catholic.

Indeed, since all Eastern Orthodox and many, if not most Protestants, confer valid baptisms, there would seem to be many Catholics who do not self define as Catholic.

And in light of Vatican II, we can suggest that even some unbaptized folks are Catholics, though they don't know it yet. How else can a non-Catholic be saved as Lumen Gentium says if there is no salvation apart from the Church?

What about excommunication?

I did state to my reader that a formal excommunication declared by a bishop and using your name would probably mean that one cannot call one's self Catholic anymore.

Even then, it seems to me that the indelible seal is present. We do not rebaptize the excommunicated when they reconcile with the Church.

In most cases, you are not excommunicated anyway unless a bishop formally declares it.

There are a very few instances where canon law dictates that excommunication is automatic.

The only one most laity really need to worry about is direct procurement or performance of an abortion.

I also wrote the following to my reader for those who do not like appeals to "infallibility".

I would argue that the Jesus of the Gospels is always going after the "lost sheep" and the "prodigal son". He eats and drinks with prostitutes, treasonous tax collectors for the foreign occupation, lepers and other outcasts.

He is even executed as a criminal, with criminals, by state authority with sanction from religious leaders.

Jesus came to call sinners - not the self righteous. In his entire way of being and living, Jesus is not exclusive in forming a community.

Rather, he is radically inclusive, which includes people like us. It is his unyielding inclusiveness that actually gets him into trouble with the powers that be who enforce the rules of exclusion (who is "in" and who is "out" ).

While I share the conservative impulse to want the Church to stand for something on the issues of the day, it seems that we are doctrinally bound to see our very worst enemy as a fellow member of the body of Christ - especially if baptized!

In other words, the stand the Church has taken - infallibly - is that we are all children of God no matter what leads us to disagreement or how serious and deep the disagreement.

The stand of the Church is for inclusion, and radically against exclusion!


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Has Jesus' Tomb Been Found?

The Washington Post reports that Oscar winning director, James Cameron, has produced a documentary for Discovery Channel.

The film will highlight a 1980 discovery in Jerusalem of 10 caskets (or ossuaries) that supposedly belong to Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and their children.

The article rightly points out that the claims of this discovery do not meet the standards of archeology as a science.

Further, the woman named is not "Mary Magdalene", but "Mariamene".

I just stated yesterday in my lengthy "response" to Sam Harris' challenges to Andrew Sullivan that I would not lose faith in the resurrection if Jesus' body were discovered in a tomb.

That said, I simply do not believe these ossuaries can be definitively proven to be Jesus called the Christ and Mary Magdalene.

There are probably thousands of graves for the family of Jesus y Maria throughout Central America, and none of them are Jesus of Nazareth.

The article in the Post states that the filmakers had some statiticians calculate the probability of there being another Jesus and Mary in first century Jerusalem.

The odds range from 1 in 100 to 1 and 1000 - which really are not bad odds in city that had several thousand inhabitants and visitors.


Monday, February 26, 2007

More Thoughts on Harris and Sullivan Debate

I am trying to think through my "response" to Sam Harris in his debate with Andrew Sullivan linked above, and decided to post some preliminary reflections.

I put "response" in quotations because I doubt Sam Harris reads my blog. Maybe Sullivan, who occassionally stops by, will find something useful here.

Sullivan's gift as a writer, at his best, is that he can describe things so "personally" and draw the reader into his experience even when his experience is different than our own. I cannot rival that (at least not yet).

Right now, I'm trying to articulate a line of thinking to myself, and a "line of thinking" is seldom as "personal" as Sullivan's best essays.

In that sense, I don't expect anyone but the most rationalistic will find this more "convincing" than Sullivan.

But Harris is a bit of such a rationalist, and it is on those terms that I think Harris is currently "ahead" in the debate by a narrow margin.

I am building on groundwork Sullivan has already laid. Nothing Sullivan wrote strikes me as "wrong". It just seems there were a few missed opportunities to flesh out an idea or find common ground with Harris.

In addition to groundwork already laid by Sullivan, I refer to a few other thinkers.

This post uses some technical theological jargon or borrowed ideas that may need explained to the uninitiated.

I think the problem of evil is where Sullivan could have gone deeper, and hasn't. More to the point, it is determining how we know good from evil that needs to be fleshed out.

Both Harris and Sullivan write as though it is obvious how good and evil are discerned, which implies either common ground that needs to be highlighted, or an unstated area of deep disagreement that needs to be surfaced.

Harris states the following very early in the debate in his opening message:

... I think, for instance, that we would both rank the Islamic doctrines of martyrdom and jihad pretty high on our list of humanity's worst ideas.
Right away, I'm thinking to myself a couple of things.

First, it is not the Muslim idea of jihad as inner struggle that is among humanity's worst ideas, and that is how many Muslims understand jihad no matter what Mohammed intended.

Is the martyrdom of a man like Martin Luther King a bad idea? Or, is martyrdom only evil when we force it and/or aim to take others with us?

Second, even when we speak of jihad as a stance of constant external warfare with the world that plays out in physical violence, how do we judge it among the "worst ideas" of humanity?

Where does the notion of good and evil come from whereby we can make such a judgment?

Of course, Harris does hint at answers to this question throughout this debate - and he sounds remarkably religious (or spiritual) to me in the way he attempts an answer.

Yet, he has an axe to grind against all religions as we know them.

At this point, I'm still trying to collect and formulate my thoughts, but I can give a sort of preview where I am headed and allow some critique as a way of trying to purify my thinking.

I find Harris' focus on the claims to miracles by various religions to be a problematic approach for the atheist side, for reasons Sullivan seems not to be picking up.

Harris asked Sullivan what it would take to cast doubt on his faith, and Sullivan basically responded that nothing could cast doubt on his faith.

And it seems that Sullivan specifically means that nothing will convince him Jesus is not risen from the dead.

In fairness to Sullivan, he does not explicitly say this, but it is implied in his highly personal story of "hearing" the voice of Jesus in a manner that might be interpreted differently by a Buddhist.

I suggested on Friday that this response indicating nothing could cause a loss of faith from Sullivan reveals a potential weakness in Sullivan's ability to "meet minds" with Harris.

If Sullivan is referring to the athematic experience of primordial faith - Rahner's supernatural existential - then I get his point.

I think he probably is, because he even hints that Harris is already touched by such an experience.

However, if speaking of fiducial faith in all its specifics, I will answer Harris more directly and explicitly that I would abandon Christianity with all its specific claims if it could be proven beyond doubt that Jesus of Nazareth never existed.

And losing faith in this manner might even lead me to question my experience of primordial faith at the deeper athematic level.

At the level of primordial faith, Harris is not denying the experience of moments of transcendental consciousness - Otto's "idea of the holy".

Harris is denying that we can draw much specific out of these experiences. And Harris is probably correct about that - to a degree.

Further, he is annoyed by specific faith claims that have no evidence.

Thus, his rhetorical mocking of religion focuses on the claims to miracles, and a miracle, by definition, is not open to repeatable and predictive empiricism making it hard to defend against the mockery.

Harris argues we could make a better Bible by just excising the parts he finds irrational.

Yet, by "irrational", he means far more than a claim to a truth that is not empirically verifiable, even as he uses claims to the miraculous as a foil to point to the irrationality of other parts of the Bible.

Where I am thinking of going in my own response to Harris is, first off, to concede that claims to miracles are meaningless to the debate whether God exists or not.

God could exist and never work miracles. Miracles - as unrepeatable phenomenon unexplained by science - might exist if there were no God (i.e. - Maybe magic is real in the alternate universe where unicorns and flying spaggetti monsters are found and pop into our world accessed by some sort of portal through a looking glass).

I don't want to debate whether Jesus was born of a virgin or whether Mohammed flew to heaven on a winged horse or whether Joseph Smith actually saw an angel named Moroni.

Indeed, even Harris' challenge to guess a huge number he wrote in his office is silly, and proves nothing. People guess the winning numbers of lotteries against all odds every week or so, and that is not proof that God helped them do it.

Even atheists win lotteries, and many people who pray for the winning number waste their earnings playing the lottery.

As I've written in the past, I would believe in the resurrection of Jesus even if his body were still in the tomb.

By that, I do not mean that the resurrection is a merely poetic metaphor for the triumph of life over death, though it is that and more.

I mean that I would believe that the resurrection is something that actually happened to Jesus - an event he subjectively experienced after his crucifixion - even if there is no physical evidence available to others that Jesus has had this post mortem experience.

Of course, if Jesus did not exist, then nothing could happen to him post mortem. That is why I say that if Jesus never existed, my fiducial faith with all its specifically Christian content would be undermined.

Thus, in comparing the resurrection of Jesus to the resurrection of the Egyptian god, Osiris, at least one key point of difference is that I have no evidence Osiris ever existed as a real man.

While I've seen some arguments that Jesus did not exist, Harris does not seem to make this case.

A good number of atheists have abandoned this line of argument as silly. Bolstering it too much casts doubt on the methods by which we claim to know much of anything about history. One can accept that Jesus actually existed without believing him to be the Son of God risen from the dead.

Nor must I accept that Jesus was a great teacher who was misunderstood by later disciples who made him into a Son of God. If he claimed a unique relationship with the divine, he may have been a lunatic.

One can even accept that Jesus existed, and believe him to have been known as a miracle worker, and to have been a fraud on that count.

I am not making Lewis' argument that Jesus was either a lunatic, fraud or the Son of God, because there is still another option I can consider.

Maybe Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God, and his disciples put these words in his mouth to convey something they experienced as "true" about him.

And herein lies the bigger problem with claims of the miraculous. Did the originator of the claim even intend me to take it literally in the sense Harris takes it?

If the originator of the story of Mohammed flying to heaven on a winged horse never intended anyone to take his story literally, it is not an indictment against the whole of Islam to suggest that Mohammed never literally flew to heaven on a winged horse.

And even if the originator of the claim was intending to describe a physical event he or she saw that seemed incredible, the miracle is believed by later generations not solely because the witness seemed convinced she or he literally saw something fantastic - but because the miracle conveys something the believer percieves as true beyond the level of the literal.

What Christian believer doesn't hear his or her own story when Jesus reaches out to Peter in the water?

Was the story intended to convey that Jesus literally walked on water?

Or was it intended as a parable to trust that the Lord will reach out his hand to us when we feel ourselves drowning in doubt and anxiety?

Or, could it be both? If so, does the physical really matter except as it functions as a symbol of the latter?

I do not believe in Jesus because there is physical evidence that some law of physics seems to have been abrogated.

Frankly, this is a very foolish reason to believe anything, and opens one to being decieved by all sorts of charlatins, cranks, and lunatics.

If confronted by an event whereby the laws of physics seem abrogated, the best rational explanation of what occurred is "I don't know with any certainty".

I do not believe in Jesus because of the resurrection. Rather, I believe in the resurrection because I believe in Jesus!

Why do I believe in Jesus in a manner that leads me to faith in the resurrection?

This is difficult to answer in purely rationalist terms.

The simplest answer I can provide is that Jesus being raised from the dead seems "in character" with the personality portrayed of Jesus in the New Testament, and this portrayal seems "in character" with my own experience of what I call "God" when I have those moments of transcendental consciousness that even Harris shares.

That's the best I can do with a short answer, and the rest of this post is trying to flesh that out a bit.

I am going to set about trying to describe this approach to faith in a manner that may make some degree of sense to the likes of a Sam Harris.

My first point is that even if I strongly suspect that God is the cause of the apparent abrogation of the laws of physics, it goes too far to claim certainty that what I observed is definitely a miracle.

I cannot know that God is the direct causal agent in the sense of primary causality of any inexplicable event in history - even if the event happened to me, personally.

Maybe I'm just a lucky guy and it has nothing to do with God - even if God is real in the detached deist sense.

The more important question is what such events mean to the observer.

Miracles are not the criterion to judge the truth of faith, and one can believe in magic without believing in one supreme god over everything who created reality as we know it ex nihilo.

According to the Gospels, the Pharisees saw Jesus' miracles and attributed them to Satan. I doubt that theory, but it's at least theoretically possible.

Even in a universe of eternally oscillating matter/energy, it is possible that the current laws of physics leave room for some sort of magic.

Harris mocks the large numbers of Americans who believe that Jesus will return to earth in the next fifty years.

The truth is that Harris has no way of knowing whether Jesus will return or not in the next fifty years, even if I share his doubt that such a thing is likely.

The real question is not whether this belief is "rational".

The real question is "What does it mean to those who believe Jesus will return in the next 50 years to hold such a belief? How does this belief either affirm and express primordial faith and transcendental consciousness, or cause us to act against our capacity for transcendental consciousness? How does this belief square with all that best in the global development of ethical consciousness?"

This presumes that what Harris advocates is our starting point for common ground when he states "Imagine a discourse about ethics and mystical experience that is as contingency-free as the discourse of science already is...".

IMHO, this is actually already taking place within the great religious traditions, and it is "progressive" or "moderate" religious people who are making it happen.

And it is faith that compels us to work for reform within our traditions, as I will try to flesh out.

And we find allies among progressives or moderates in other traditions, because there is common ground to be found.

Harris is troubled by the suggestion that this is already taking place within religious traditions and posits the following:
Science really does transcend the vagaries of culture: there is no such thing as "Japanese" as opposed to "French" science; we don't speak of "Hindu biology" and "Jewish chemistry." Imagine a world that has transcended its tribalism-racism and nationalism, yes, but religious tribalism especially-in which we could have a truly open-ended conversation about our place in the universe and about the possibilities of deepening our experience of love and compassion for one another. Ethics and spirituality do not require faith. One can even achieve utter mystical absorption in the primordial mystery of the present moment without believing anything on insufficient evidence.

You might want to say that every religion offers a guide to doing this. Yes, but they are provisional guides at best.
This is just plain nonsense.

It isn't true. Harris is not so much wrong about religion. He's wrong about science!

Science - empirical natural science like contemporary physics, chemistry, and biology, is provisional and very often biased.

It changes and it is culturally bound.

Western science undergoes tremendous paradigm shifts every few hundred years, and new discoveries within a paradigm are made almost every day.

And there is daily in fighting among scientist even within a single paradigm.

Some paradigms continue to operate millennium after a major shift has occurred elsewhere in the globe.

Chinese medicine is 5,000 years old, and there are people who insist that it explains things that Western medicine cannot explain.

The same can be said of Ayurveda yoga, the practice of African witch doctors and a host of other medical practices that differ from Western medical practice and understanding.

However, if I get his drift, Harris is suggesting that Western science develops faster and discards what does not work faster than Western religion.

In fairness, the slowness of the advances in science are only discerned by examining the development of science over a long enough history to compare with religion.

Aristotle's physics is not Newton's physics, which was not Einstein's, which is not quantum mechanics.

And there were Aristotelian fundamentalists who struggled to appreciate and appropriate Newton. There were Newtonians who did not quite appreciate Einstein at first.

Referring to the speed with which Western science develops, Harris had stated the following earlier in the debate:
It took two centuries of continuous ingenuity to substantially improve upon Newton's work. How difficult would it be to improve the Bible? It would be trivially easy, in fact. You and I could upgrade this "inerrant" text-scientifically, historically, ethically, and yes, spiritually-in this email exchange.
The Bible, as we currently know it, contains texts that are minimally two thousand years old, and some quite older than that. Newton died 280 years ago.

How silly might Newton look in the year 3,734?

Perhaps Harris would concede that the teaching of Jesus is somehow superior to the teaching of Moses as edited and redacted by the priestly composition of the Pentateuch during the age of the Babylonian captivity.

That is a better comparison.

Harris seems to me to be arguing that within 300 years of so of the composition of the New Testament, we should have seen some significant improvement on the teachings of Jesus.

The Council of Nicea occured roughly that time period after Jesus, and we can debate whether it improved or distorted Jesus' teaching.

What we cannot really debate with any intellectual honesty is that Nicea became the prism through which Jesus' teachings came to be understood in later generations by most of the West.

What Harris sees as a lack of development or a distortion, the Roman Catholic would see as a development of doctrine - a deepening of our understanding of Jesus - added clarity regarding this enigmatic man and his teachings.

Harris reveals the difference in perspective between a progressive Roman Catholic and an atheist with regard to Vatican II:
Are you saying that for about 1960 years Christians (including all the popes) were mistaken about the true doctrine of Christianity? Would you have our readers believe that Vatican II represents some kind of epistemological breakthrough?
Was Newton mistaken in his observations? Did his formulas fail to provide predictive outcomes?

Of course not. To say Newton was mistaken in his observations or that his formulas lacked predictive power is to fail to understand Newton's accomplishment.

Yet, we can say that his "unified theory of everything" was not developed enough to account for all that we know today.

His understanding of physics was not entirely accurate. Einstein undermined some of Newton's fundamental assumptions, but this did not make Newtonian physics useless.

Nor did it amount to Newton being entirely wrong, even at the level of his observations.

For that matter, we know that despite his brilliant achievments in physics, Newton was also an alchemist and a believer in esoteric mysticism.

Harris mocks the notion that Vatican II is a real epistemological breakthrough for the Roman Catholic Church, prefering to see it as damage control for the Galileo affair.

My response is that Vatican II is a real epistemological breakthrough for any believing Roman Catholic.

Doctrine does develop - which is the response to Harris' claim that we need a way of viewing faith claims in a provisional manner.

Which brings me to the point that there is a sort of catch-22 in Harris' assault on faith.

If we admit that faith makes provisional judgments, he claims we do not have faith, or are lying to ourselves and others in trying to explain the faith of our ancestors.

This is because he defines faith incorrectly, seeming to think it is intellectual certainty about things that cannot be proven.

If we assert that we are certain of our faith claims, then we are criticized that all certainties are provisional at best - just like the rather provisional certainties of science.

If we admit many claims of faith are provisional, he refuses to admit we are still speaking of faith as he defines faith.

Why should I accept his definition of faith?

Faith is not intellectual certainty. It is personal trust.

It is trust that what Harris himself has glimpsed on the shore of Galilee is real, and is somehow what underlies all that we experience.

If we speak of certain "puddle jumps" leading to the claim that faith is reasonable (such as rejecting syllopsism or believing that our own experience of the numinous is real), we are no different than a fundamentalists.

Yet, he admits that the scientist makes the same "puddle jumps".

My main critique of Harris, therefore, is that he is holding religion up to a standard that he does not hold up for science and other fields of knowledge.

Harris rightly recognizes that treating ancient texts and dogmatic formulas in a wooden literal sense as "magic books" containing unquestionable and timeless truth can lead to beliefs, attitudes, and so forth whereby a person will do evil that they otherwise would not do. He also acknowledges that religion can inspire good, though he points out that humanity is perfectly capable of doing good without reference to specific dogmatic formulas.
As you may know, I've argued that religion gets people to do good things for bad reasons, when good reasons are actually available; I have also argued that it rather often gets people to do very bad things that they would not otherwise do. On the subject of doing good, I ask you, which is more moral, helping people purely out of concern for their suffering, or helping them because you think God wants you to do it? Personally, I'd much prefer that my children acquire the former sensibility.
Let me confess that I am in near total agreement with Harris on child rearing.

I want my daughter and my unborn child (my wife is pregnant) to learn to help others out of pure concern for suffering, rather than thinking that God will reward them in a hereafter if they do, and punish them in a hereafter if they don't.

However, what I really want my daughter and unborn child to learn is to see God in every living creature, and in human beings in a particular way.

It is not the right attitude about the next life that is so important. It is the right attitude about this life that I believe my faith informs.

If it is at all humanly possible to have the experience Harris describes on the shore of Galilee twenty four hours per day seven days a week every day for the length of one's human life, that is what I want for myself and for my children.

And the "disciplines" of faith, such as regular prayer and sacraments and engagement with a faith community, help to support and nurture this way of living in the world.

To the extent that we cannot hold onto such an experience continuously, I want my daughter and unborn child (and myself) to see the human person as the primary "trigger" for such moments.

The language of Christian faith, at its best, and as it has come to be "solemnly defined", does support the cultivation of this way of being in the world.

What Harris objects to seems to be that there are perfectly good ( "rational" in his language) reasons to do good to people, and the religious reasons are not as good ( "rational" in his language).

At the heart of this argument is that the human person can discern good from evil and live it out pretty constantly without assistance.

The "problem" is that this discernment is not at all a purely rational enterprise.

We do not discern good from evil in purely rational ways, though reason may be a part of this discernment.

Indeed, pure rationalism can lead to terror, and Sullivan missed an opportunity to point this out.

The Communists proved that an attempt to create an atheistic society to the very core can lead to atrocities unparralleled by any religious fanatics.

More people were tortured and killed under Stalin than in all the religious wars and inquisitions of Christianity combined.

This is where I think Sullivan came close, but missed the mark just a tad.

In his post about drinking from a dirty glass because we are contingent beings who inherit a dirty glass and there are no clean glasses to be found, Sullivan almost pulled out ahead.

Where Sullivan did not go quite far enough is that the athiest project is subject to the same dangers as religious fanaticism, and this is a demonstrable fact already empirically verified!

Reason, itself, can lead us to do monstrous things to one another when we become Spock like in our worship of logic.

Cold rationality will lead a man to put an axe through the head of another if he rationally believes doing so will serve the wider common good.

The highest virtue in Christianity is not reason and rationality, but love.

The two should never be in conflict, but love can exist where reason is absent. The mentally retarded can love. Children can love.

Thus, the issue is not how we create a society where transcendental consciousness and a consistent development of ethical theory can be achieved by drinking from a clean glass rationally discerned.

Rather, we are in a situation where we are handed a dirty glass, and must learn to appreciate the taste of the pure wine within this dirty glass.

If we are not used to wine, it may be foolish to blame the glass, even if the glass truly is dirty. For many, wine is an aquired taste, and can often be unpleasant, at least at first.

How do we create a society where love and compassion are nurtured?

It does not occur by trying to repress our history and scoffing at the beliefs of our parents unnecessarily.

For example, Harris wants to improve the Bible by excising the entire book of Exodus, among other portions of scripture.

I would argue that the passages describing Moses' intimacy with God and the calling to work to liberate the oppressed are worth keeping.

On the flip side, I am deeply troubled by passages where Moses commands the Levites to kill their own relatives simply because they joined Aaron in revelry before a golden calf (and Aaron somehow seems to get off scott free).

See Ex 32:27 in particular, though the entire chapter helps set the context. I could come up with at least a dozen examples like this.

Am I arguing we excise portions of scripture? Is it, as Harris claims, that we progressives simply do not take scripture seriously?


I am arguing that we can place a giant question mark on Ex 32:27 and say that what is described does not seem to convey our own experience of self transcendance and proper ethical behavior.

I do not want to toss the passage in the dustbin of history.

The passage is part of who we are and where we have been.

Somehow, those who wrote it shared some glimmer of transcendental consciounsness just like Harris, Sullivan, the Buddhist and me. These writers, too, were trying to find the love that God is.

The question we must ask is how they were making breakthroughs in their own historical circumstances. One thing that leaps out at me in simply reading the passage without the aid of scholarship is that we are not there anymore.

Look how far we've come when the Pope can say in 2007 that to kill in God's name is always wrong!

If this passage is to be considered divinely inspired, we must admit that a surface reading of it may be inadequate if we claim any sort of allegiance to the current pope.

(Note that I am not a sola scriptura Protestant in making this sort of argument, but a progressive Protestant can make a similar argument another way).

If a surface reading of Ex 32:27 is to be taken as God's word to us today, it challenges me to imagine a god who appears to be evil. I know this way of imagining God makes God evil intuitively, just as Harris does.

But instead of jettisoning the passage, I am arguing that we must withhold judgment, at least in a sense.

We know that killing in God's name would seem to be evil, and we know this rather intuitively.

We also believe that our intuitive experience of transcendental consciouness and ethics - the same experience Harris had in Galilee - is available to everyone (at least to some degree, even if achieved while meditating in the dental chair, as Harris suggests).

When I say that the scriptures are "divinely inspired", I mean to suggest that the inherited texts give expression to this experience within a historic context when humanity had not developed in its understanding to the level we have today.

The fact that we have developed to the point where the story makes little sense is empiricial proof that collectively, there is ethical advance.

Individual human nature may or may not advance. I'm inclined to think it doesn't.

But the whole human race does advance in fits and starts - not just in the fields of science, but also in ethics and spirituality. Far more people around the globe embrace the notion of human rights today than a century ago.

We have advanced since Ex 32:27 was first penned.

The question then becomes "How did the final editor of this text see this as expressing what Sam Harris and I experience, given the limitations of his or her cultural conditioning?"

In many cases, like Harris, I am unable to formulate an adequate answer that means much to me today. But that simply does not mean that an answer does not exists.

Am I advocating that we engage in all sorts of mental gymnastics whereby we, in effect, lie to ourselves about the intended meaning of the passage for apologetic reasons?

No. I'm perfectly satisfied to simply put a giant question mark on it.

Asked what the passage means for us today, my response is something like this: "I don't know with any certainty. I might hazard a few guesses, none of which are certain. Ultimately, I do know with a reasonably high degree of certitude in light of recent doctrinal developments and my own conscience that it does not justify killing in God's name".

In this response, my very tentative guesses regarding the meaning of Ex 32:27 or similar passages for today would actually simultaneously support and undermine Harris' point of view.

If we presume some sort of history behind the text - that Moses really lived and really gave this sort of order to the Levites - the question becomes how this man named Moses came to see the creation of idols as such a threat to the common good that he believed it demanded the death penalty.

The reason my answers are so tentative is that I am not absolutely sure Moses existed, or that if he did, he gave this command.

This text was probably written about 600 years after the events it portrays, and while oral cultures preserved history better than we can imagine, I simply cannot be certain on this sort of thing.

Assuming history behind the text, Moses may have been wrong about imposing the death penalty, but was he right about some danger in idolatry that we have since forgotten?

Harris mocked the ten commandments precisely on the grounds that the prohibition against idolatry has led to such atrocities - most recently with Muslims threatening lives over a cartoon.

What Harris is ignoring is the culture which Moses or the Jews may have been critiquing.

If we presume there were escaped slaves from Egypt who became staunchly opposed to the creation of religious images, what gave rise to this disdain for such images?

Could it be that their slavery was rationalized by the world's sole superpower at the time because slavery was needed to build the national temples to the gods?

Could it be that what is being conveyed here is that if this new religious expression by and for a community of ex-slaves is to see the human person as the image of the one supreme god, they were to do so precisely in reaction to the evil in the hearts of those people who had previously reduced their own humanity to the service of idols?

Take something as simple as the kosher law that meat and dairy are not to be mixed - which orthodox Jews still practice.

There are references in the Old Testement to avoid the practice of pagans who boiled a kid goat in its own mother's milk as an offering to the gods.

What psychotic impulse in humanity led us to the point where we would imagine doing such a thing, even to an animal?

There is something grossly cruel in the notion of boiling a kid in its own mother's milk. This is on par with a child Jeffrey Dahmer torturing animals as practice for what will come later.

Today, we believers seldom think of serial killers as products of religion (though Harris thinks we should).

There was an age when human sacrifice to the gods and temple prostitution and all sorts of other bizzare behavior was religiously mandated.

The Jewish rejection of other gods may actually have been spurred by the same sort of impulses that lead a man like Sam Harris to wish to purge the world of all religion.

Judaism is a protest against religious nonsense.

I say that passages such as Ex 32:27 both support and undermine Harris' view simultaneously precisely because, if my hypothesis is "true", we see that the god of the Hebrews (the god they imagined) is a god opposed to dehumanizing tendencies in religion, even as they failed to recognized the ways in which purifying religion led to dehumanizing behavior by themselves.

What I am suggesting is that in historic context, perhaps some of the most troublesome passages of the Bible actually represent breakthrough moments whereby dehumanization is being strongly rejected in no uncertain terms.

And the reason to keep telling the story even after this context has been lost is precisely to remind us that we can overeact in the other direction - which is largely what I think Sullivan is trying to warn Harris in his cries of "intolerance".

The Communists tried to erase or rewrite history too!

In Jewish religion, religious rationalizations for evil are mocked by the later prophets, even when it is fellow Jews doing the evil.

In this manner, the prophets are just like Harris mocking today's believers. Purity was sought in effort at reform by the prophets.

Rather than jettisoning the portions of Mosaic law that the prophets critiqued, Jews found ways to hold the two together with a more nuanced sense of priorities.

Christians do the same sort of thing as they try to reconcile Old and New Testament.

And I will point out that one reason I continue to cling to Jesus even when I explore other religions is that Jesus presents fewer big question marks in my conscience than anyone else.

It is up to others to decide if Jesus elicits more big questions marks, or resolves them.

For me, the balance is in favor of resolution, which is why I "trust" Jesus more than I trust Mohammed at present.

But I must admit that I have not studied Mohammed as deeply as Jesus when I make such a claim. I haven't studied Chinese medicine or Ayurveda yoga in great depth either.

All religions, as Sullivan points out, teach a certain degree of humility. We cannot know everything as individuals.

Returning to Jesus, like the Jewish prophets before him, Jesus the good Jew whose first followers were Jewish was a Jewish reformer.

And it is precisely with this hypothesis in mind that I would suggest to Sam Harris that Christianity, or perhaps Judeo-Christian religion is "true", even if I cannot prove all of its claims empirically.

The Bible indicates a history of a religion in a constant state of reform.

As a Roman Catholic born after Vatican II, there is no way I can square some of the stuff written by popes before Vatican II with the Council without admitting the Church is capable of continual reform.

The real issue is not whether the Church can reform. She obviously can. The real question is what rules govern how reform will take shape.

Faith demands that whatever rules we derive from empirical observation of how things have changed in history, the ultimate cause of change is God, Herself.

Can I trust that the direction of reform is humanistic? History says I can.

I cannot speak to all other world religions about whether the same trend of constant renewal and reform could be found or not, because I have not studied all other religions in the depth I have studied Christianity.

I suspect that "progressives" or "moderates" in all of the worlds religions have found a path to a similar insight. If God is truly one, that does not surprise me in the least.

But Christianity and Judaism before it are religions in a state of constant reform and renewal, and I would argue that the direction of this constant reform is the same direction Harris likely wants us to develop.

It is a development that holds the human person in ever higher and higher regard.

Catholicism has gone from supporting slavery to condemning it as intrinsically evil.

We have gone from claiming there is no salvation apart from the Church in a sense that seemed clearly exclusionary to saying that there is no salvation apart from the Church in a manner that includes Muslims and Jews and others among those mysteriously saved by the presence of the Church in history.

Over and over, when I look at Church history, I see this sort of development taking place, and I would argue that we are on the crest of the wave of insights that will lead to women's ordination and acceptance of our gay brothers and sisters.


Friday, February 23, 2007

And the Winner is....

I just finished reading the Sullivan verses Harris debate as it has progressed to date, and I have to say I still give it to Harris on slim margin by points.

Sullivan is quite articulate, and he came very close to a near perfect response most recently - but missed the mark just a tad, IMHO.

I think he exposed his real weakness earlier in his 2/5 post.

It was here that he states that he did not come to faith, but always had it (as given to him). Sullivan never really doubted (other than a spell when he seriously asked if God could be evil - a question that I grappled with as well).

There's much to be said for the point of view that faith is a gift, and it is.

And like Sullivan, I was born and raised Catholic, with memories of Mass going back to before I think I could speak.

But the real issue is that Harris's arguments are all "correct". Where he is arguing from empiricism, he has the weight of evidence on his side. Where arguing from logical principals, his reasoning is flawless.

Even the mocking of religious ideas is effective rhetoric in context, though such rhetoric seldom convinces and often repels.

His arguments are "true". And because they are true, they should cause doubt. Real doubt.

The believer needs to have really grappled with Harris' questions and wrestled with the doubts Harris describes if she or he is going to respond to a guy like Harris.

I would posit that many monks and nuns have wrestled with these doubts. I have share some of Harris' doubts.

I'll give it some thought and make an attempt at a response I would make to Harris at a later point in time. Right now, I have to run....


Andrew Sullivan's Debate With Sam Harris

I just started reading this debate after seeing Father John Garvey's article in Commonweal yesterday. I'm only half way through this so far.

I have to say, both writers are doing a fantastic job.

At the half way point, however, I would call it in favor of Harris on points alone (i.e. - not a T.K.O.).

Yet, I say that as a believer who would share many of Sullivan's religious views, and he is putting up a valiant defense that may still pull ahead.

As a somewhat related aside, it came to my attention gradually that I have picked up a bunch of traffic from Andrew Sullivan's site.

Unfortunately, this seemed to occur just at the time I decided for the first time in four years to exercise a ban on certain commenters (see below).

I'm not going to bother explaining an action that has a two year history.

I will only say that I loathe idea of using a ban, which is why it took so long.

I welcome diversity of points of view among commenters, so long as we show some basic human respect for one another.


A Public Service Announcement

This is a first for me in almost four years of blogging.

The following IP addresses are hereby banned from comment on this blog until further notice due to repeated refusal to comply with the rules very clearly and unambiguously set forth in the sidebar:

This has nothing to do with anyone's political or theologial opinions.

It has to do with the mean spirited manner of conduct demonstrated over a period of two or more years.

Regardless of whether you think me charitable or not, if you want to comment on this blog, you must treat other readers and me with basic human respect.

The users of these IP addresses do not seem to know what that means, and have forfeited the right to participate until further notice.

And I will be watching all other IP addresses for strict adherence to the rules in the sidebar. Mind your P's and Q's.


Thursday, February 22, 2007

John Garvey on Doubt and Faith

Commenting on points made by Andrew Sullivan in a debate between Sullivan and Sam Harris, Orthodox priest, Father John Garvey, writes in Commonweal about the role of doubt and dissent in the Church.

I really like the way he put it:

Rather than say that I know what I believe, I think it is closer to the truth to say that I know the framework within which I believe, and doubt, and wonder. I know the persons who move and compel me - Paul, the saints, people I have known whose lives and witness matter deeply to me, all of them gathered in sometimes complicated ways in an assembly into which we are baptized, and within which we share the Eucharist - a word that means "thanksgiving." This assembly is centered on Jesus, who saves us all, despite us.

All of what we usually see as the church - dogma, the creed, etc. - has to do with the person of Jesus, and unless it is seen always in relation to his person, it is distorted. Christian faith must not be seen as a series of propositions to which one assents. When membership in the church is reduced to this level, it cannot provide us with a community within which people may be transformed. Faith has to do with a relationship with someone, not something. It is not a party line. Seeing who this person is, as clearly as we can, is the reason for dogma.
Amen Father!


If Sex Scandals Were Not Enough

The editors at Commonweal expose the vulnerability of the Church to financial scandals.


The Saint of Worcester

This was a very interesting article from Commonweal. I can't really make much comment on it, but it's worth a read.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Why Do We Fast?

Jesus taught us to call God "Our Father".

The New Testament even uses the more intimate term, "Abba", which would be more like "Papa" or "Daddy".

As a father of two - one born and the other unborn - it struck me today on Ash Wednesday that I would not want my children voluntarily skipping dinner time as some sort of means of pleasing me.

Why do we fast?

I was taught as a child that we needed to do penance for our sins.

It might make sense to skip meals because Dad sent us to bed without supper. But that's involuntary.

If I imposed such a punishment on my daughter one day, I might be a little upset if she decided to voluntarily skip meals the next 40 days even when I did not tell her to do so.

I might see it as an act of rebellion - mocking my punishment, in which case I'd be at least little angry. Or, I might see such behavior by my little girl as neurotic fear, in which case I'd be sad and concerned for her mental health. Either way, I don't want her skipping meals voluntarily.

I once heard somewhere that fasting for Jews is more an act of emptying the self to be filled by God.

That makes a little more sense to me.

Yet, Jesus seems to use table fellowship and the meal as one of his most frequent metaphors and signs of what the inbreaking reign of God is like. It would seem that skipping meals to honor God is a bit like skipping Mass to honor God. Indeed, the Mass is a symbolic meal.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Thoughts on Fathering a Second Child

I am ecstatic that my wife is pregnant with our second child - and my wife is probably more ecstatic than I am.

I am somewhat surprised, however, to feel just a tinge of sadness for my first born daughter, who is two years old right now, and will be three when the new born arrives.

For the last two years, Serafia has been the absolute center of the universe in our home, and in her perception. She has never had to share the spotlight with anyone. My wife and I have found it difficult to conceive, and we considered her a little miracle, and were not sure we would ever conceive again.

I'm not saying that we intentionally spoiled Serafia. We teach her to share her toys with other children and play nice and pray for others. Today, she is helping out in the food pantry.

We try to maintain a structured environment and try to instill some discipline in the home.

Nevertheless, Serafia has absolutely no doubt she is special and loved deeply by the two people she sees every single day. She knows that even if we don't bend to her will at every second, she still has our constant and undivided attention.

I am the oldest of nine children, and my wife is second of eight. We know a little about sibling rivalry and jealousy of young children over the baby. We also know from our own parents and from other couples strategies for mitigating this envy.

It is not really a concern for possible and probable jealousy that I am addressing. Rather, it is that my own relationship with Serafia has to change. I am feeling a bit of sadness over that - a sense of mourning. The center of my own universe can no longer be the absolute center.

Oh. Don't get me wrong. I know that for a Christian, God is always the center of our universe. Yet, Serafia has been the image of God and the channel of God's love to me for the last couple of years.

And she will always be my little girl and a channel of God's love to me. That isn't really changing.

What is changing is that she will not be THE channel.

OK. I know that my wife and my parents and my siblings and many people I met through this earthly pilgrimage have been channels of God's love to me. Even in saying that Serafia has been THE channel for the past couple of years, I do not mean to imply that she was ever the sole channel.

But she has been a special channel.

And while she will always be a special channel, I need to make room for another channel who is equally special - and while I am struggling for the right words to articulate this, that fact changes things between Serafia and I in some way.

I don't know if I am making sense to anyone but myself.

Of course, while I know things are changing, it is good change. My heart will be forced to expand and I will be challenged to grow in love. By God's grace, the growth will occur. I can trust the One who started this process to bring it to completion.

The other thing I am thinking about in the midst of ecstatic joy at the gift of another human life is that my wife and I, and Serafia too, are about to enter a whirlwind.

It seems that the first nine months or so of a child's life after birth turn the life of a family upside down and inside out.

Actually, for my wife, the whirlwind is already beginning as she deals with hormonal changes and her body is undergoing other drastic changes to host this little miracle.

But for us guys, the real whirlwind begins at the hospital, and I know what is coming this time around.

Then again, if I learned anything as the oldest of nine children, it is that we have no clue what is coming, because every child is absolutely unique and has a personality that will never be repeated ever again.

A whirlwind is starting, but I believe that God will be walking with me through it - a rock and a shelter in the storm.

I find myself worrying about things like finances, and that bothers me a little bit for religious and spiritual reasons.

I am trying to strike a balance.

The balance is between the Christian call to humble simplicity, poverty of spirit, generosity and solidarity with the poor without inordinate love of money on the one hand, and meeting my responsibilities as a father to provide for the food, shelter, clothing, medical care and education of my children and the well being of my wife on the other hand.

I know that God cares for the lily of the fields and that worrying about tomorrow will not add a minute to my life. I can cast my cares on God who cares for us. Still, I cannot deny that the worry is there.

And I worry too about the cross. I pray that whatever my cross will be in life, it will not involve harm to my children or my wife.

In writing all of this, I don't want to imply that I am down in the dumps with worry and mourning the loss of things changing.

Overall, I am overwhelmed with the joy and excitement of a new human person entering the world and being an intimate part of this wonder being's life. My wife and I have been telling everyone we can about this second miracle, and asking for prayers on our behalf.

May God grant us the grace to be good parents.


Monday, February 19, 2007


No. I'm not merely getting the "a" word out of my system before Lent begins.

My wife is having another baby!

It's only the fifth week of pregnancy. Thus, we need lots of prayers for the little unborn baby, who is only roughly 23 days old.

The heart will begin to beat perceptibly this week, and the head should be distinguishable from the rest of the body. Here is an ultrasound of someone's twins at the same age.


Thursday, February 15, 2007

Rocking the Boat

I wrote a little more than a week ago that I am not sure anyomre that women's ordination is the most important issue facing the Church today.

Grave offenses against the sanctity of human life and the degradation of extreme poverty, violence, and suffering are more important issues.

That said, I also stated that even if women's ordination is not the most important issue, it is important, and we can spend some of our time discussing issues that are not our highest priority.

The Sojourner's article linked above on the Catholic movements to ordain women is an excellent introduction to the subject that alludes to all of the critical issues, even if not exploring every question in depth.


Thursday, February 08, 2007

Defending Family Values

Initiative 957 was filed by the Washington Defense of Marriage Alliance, which was formed last summer after the state Supreme Court upheld Washington's ban on same-sex marriage. In that 5-4 ruling, the court found that state lawmakers were justified in passing the 1998 Defense of Marriage Act, which restricts marriage to unions between a man and woman.

Under I-957, marriage would be limited to men and women who are able to have children. Couples would be required to prove they can have children to get a marriage license, and if they did not have children within three years, their marriages would be subject to annulment.
I should point out that this initiative was proposed by those who opposed the 1998 Defense of Marriage of Act.


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

My Thoughts on the Most Important Moral Issue in the World

I haven't been blogging much since Thanksgiving. I've been praying over something and thinking about the issues I typically address, and their priority.

I once stated that women's ordination was the most important issue in the Church today.

It is an important theological issue - but I'm beginning to think it's not the most important issue, afterall.

Married priests and gay marriage are not the most important issues.

Abortion is a critically important issue that goes right to the fundamental right to life.

But by itself, it's not the most important moral issue.

The most important moral issue in the world in the world today, IMHO, is that someone is starving to death as I write.

Someone is freezing to death as I type this very sentence.

People are in hospitals suffering great pain. People are being tortured or killed by war or crime or other cruelty.

People are in abusive relationships. Women and children are trafficked like a commodity.

Rape and incest and pedophilia rank close to murder.

The environment is being laid waste.

Active violence and passive acceptance of conditions of deadly injustice and violence are important moral issues.

It can sound overwhelming. It's too much. I feel a bit paralyzed myself.

Where do we begin addressing the evil in the world? What is our priority?

A Catholic social justice advocate came to our parish last Sunday to speak against the death penalty.

I agreed with him on the issue of the death penalty, and he supports a consistent ethic of life, as I do.

Talking to him later after Mass, he was critical of the anti-abortion movement. It's not that he is pro-abortion.

Like me, he'd like to see abortion reduced and addressed as a moral issue by progressives.

Yet, he felt the pro-life movement has its priorities skewed in some ways.

He asked me if a new-born baby and a petri dish containing embryos were in a burning building, which would I rush to save to first?

I did not really answer his question.

To him, it was obvious the new born infant has a greater value than an embryo in a petri dish.

I told him that there are pro-lifers who would argue that either is a valid choice - that the embryo is as much a person as the infant.

I also clarified that I understand that the Church does not officially define when personhood begins.

He claimed that the sort of position that would save a petri dish over a baby is simply too esoteric and discredits the pro-life movement.

Then, he admitted that an elderly gentleman - a man I know personally as a committed member of Project Gabriel and a proud grandfather, answered that he would save the petri dish, and he could not understand placing the death penalty over abortion.

I don't know if I agree with either of these gentleman or not.

What I do know is that the politics of abortion in American have Catholics so divided these days that we're all missing the big picture.

People are dying.

The unborn. A hundred thousand Iraqi civilians. Millions of people in Africa who are victims of AIDs, malaria, war, poverty, and injustice. Prisoners.

What is esoteric is not saving a petri dish over a baby, or a baby over a petri dish.

What is esoteric is trying to rationalize a blatantly unjust war to defend a supposedly pro-life President.

What is esoteric is worrying about whether a gay union should be legally recognized while people are dying.

And both sides are guilty of being too esoteric - those opposed to legal recognition of gay marriage, and those in favor.

I may piss off my gay readers by stating such a thing.

And it's not that I am not very sympathetic to the cause of gays and lesbians.

I am - and I even recognize how standing up for all people who are marginalized is interconnected.

I even recognize that violence against gays is a daily occurrence.

But the violence, itself, is the problem, more than that it is directed at gays.

Generally speaking, people dying is more the more important moral issue.

It is esoteric to argue about women's ordination while people starve.

It's not that I don't believe women should be ordained. They should.

I even think the arguments against their ordination border on formal defined heresy.

And I am aware of the fact of violence against women in patriarchal societies.

As with gay marriage, I do see a strong interconnectedness between this issue and the cause of all the oppressed.

But which oppressed and marginalized do we defend first?

Those opposed to women's ordination are being esoteric to make their opposition more important than social justice aimed at saving lives.

But those in favor of women's ordination are guilty of being too esoteric too by placing this issue above the defense of human life generally considered.

The priority is more glaring on issues like married priests or contraception.

What is the priority?

Defend those who are dying!

Dying right NOW!

Not those who might be killed tommorrow if oppressive systems are not challenged - but those dying in this very instant - the moment I am typing - the very nano-second that you are reading these very words.

There are people unjustly dying NOW!

That is the most important moral issue in the world today.