Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Caught Up in a Web of Desire

Last week, I assigned my sophomore Chistology students an odd assignment: they were to go home and watch commercials. Yep, I risked offending the TiVo generation by suggesting they actually watch (or endure) commercials. You see, I wanted them to see how clever marketing companies were in manipulating them into buying their products.

That marketing agencies are clever in pitching products is nothing new. Yet, what I wanted to reveal to my students is that the very same dynamic that undergirds successful ad campaigns also undergirds the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Come again?

Arguably the most talked-about commercial from this year's Superbowl was the "Imported From Detroit" ad from Chrysler.



What is it that is being sold? If you said a Chrysler 200, you're right...but only in a sense. If they wanted to tell you how great a car it was, they could simply have put up the statistics and done some cross-comparisons between the Chrysler 200 and other models. Yet this is not the strategy employed, for Chrysler is not interested only in selling a product. They are trying to sell you a way of life.


Theorist RenĂ© Girard has dedicated himself to exploring the contours of human desire. His insight is that desire is mimetic or imitative. The handy catch-phrase might be articulated as "I desire according to the desire of another." How is it that a person comes to desire anything at all? By observing what others want.

Quick thought experiment: you know how sometimes you bring home leftovers without any thought of actually eating them? You push the container into the refrigerator and resign yourself to throwing them out in a week...until your spouse or roommate comes by and eats them. "Hey! I wanted that!!" Did you, though? Why is it that you want it now, all of a sudden?

Or imagine a three-year old with 20 toys set out before him. He can have any toy he wants but which one will he want? He will want the very toy that some other baby will choose. From infancy, perhaps, it is true that "I desire according to the desire of another."

Watch the commercial. Look at what Chrysler is really selling. You have Gospel music (music originating in the experiences of slavery, of oppression, and that gives rise to hope) and Eminem juxtaposed: the old and the new. You have gritty images of abandoned buildings, rough edges, yet these are played off against images of real people doing everyday things. You are confronted with a sense that this is a city that has stared into the abyss of nothingness and has, somehow, managed to pull itself back from the brink.

When you buy the Chrysler, you aren't buying just a car. You are buying a lifestyle, a way of "being in the world." By buying the 200, you are buying not just an automobile, but a statement of your life's values.

I will write more on this later, but is Jesus offering us any less as he preaches the Kingdom of God through Word and Deed? Is he simply selling us a product - some promise of salvation - or is he trying to sell us a way of "being in the world" as a Christian, trying to carve out a Christian way of being a human being? Jesus doesn't want you simply to buy a product. He wants you to embrace a style of life, discipleship, and to make his values your values. Christians look to Jesus not as the one who gives us all of the answers at all times but instead as the one who tells us how to desire rightly. I desire according to the desire of another; I make my own the desires of Christ Jesus; I desire the Kingdom...and will not count the cost.

If you don't believe me, start watching commercials. It's funny that marketing agencies know how to influence our way of seeing reality, but too often our preachers neglect this fundamental dimension of being human. The practice of the Christian faith, rather than an escape from the challenges of the world, may actually turn out to be the therapy of our desire that helps to give credibility to the Word of God and its taking root in the Kingdom on earth.

Monday, August 29, 2011

I Thought Jokes Made People Laugh...

I was deeply troubled today when, on Yahoo news, I saw a story about Presidential Candidate Michele Bachmann's supposed "joke" while on the campaign trail. During a campaign stop in Florida, she quipped:
I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’ Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending.
Now, my first reaction was, "Wow, that's really bad theology. It's also kind of twisted: what is this, a joke?" The fact that her press secretary had to clarify that Bachmann had said this "in jest" actually confirmed my initial incredulity: watching the video, one can't fail to notice that no one is laughing. Earthquakes and deadly hurricanes are not areas I would normally mine for comedic material, but that's just me. 

Unfortunately, Ms. Bachmann has given voice to something that we have heard before, something that serves only to corroborate religion's critics in their argument that belief in a god is irrational. The god Bachmann references here is not the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition but, rather, a petty idol that serves to bolster one's own sense of place and self. Funny thing, isn't it, that she seems to think that these natural disasters are actually signs from this 'god' in support of her position! 

The greatest enemy to Christianity is not science or reason or logic. It is Christians who, by word and deed, seem hell-bent to portray Christianity as an irrational superstition. As a registered Republican, it is quotes taken from candidates like Rick Perry that increase my fear that our eventual Presidential nominee will caricature Christianity on the national stage as science-hating and, to be candid, almost idolatrous. It is times like this that I lament that the US Bishops have squandered so much of their credibility over the last decade because I think their voice as a 'teaching authority' is sorely needed. Without firm and reasoned guidance, I fear for the future of our political landscape and the perception of Christianity in America. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

When Jesuits Play...

My brother, Colin, is afraid of clowns. So are a lot of people: there is something totally scary about them, particularly after Stephen King's It transformed, forever, the image of the clown. When we were kids, a hideous painting of a hobo clown hung over my brother's bed in the room we shared and I often wonder if he wasn't so grouchy in those years because he was sleep deprived, fearing to close his eyes lest the clown come down and get him.

Well, the other night a few of us captured a photograph that I thought my brother would like:


I hope my brother sees this. Sweet dreams, Colin!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Is it really only Thursday?

I woke up this morning and felt, momentarily, a surge of joy: it's Friday. Then, rolling over and checking the time on my cell-phone, I noticed that, in fact, it is only Thursday. Two more days to go in this first week of school!

The first week is always tough. Getting to know ~120 new names and faces just in my classes plus other students seen in the corridors is daunting. Three courses, five classes, including two brand-new courses, makes for what seems to be demand for constant preparation. Throw onto this that our major fundraiser is on October 4th and is quickly followed by our Fall Rally on the 7th and Homecoming on the 8th...events, ultimately, I am responsible for planning and executing. Add to this that a number of my students claim that their books are on back order, so I've been delaying any major reading assignments by a few days in order to give the books a chance to arrive. This means both that I am without the security blanket of a text to work off of and that I have to find ways to edutain (educate and entertain) large groups of students for several days.

I feel swamped, a bit overwhelmed, and I couldn't be happier. I hate being idle and I rather like the constant demands that are placed upon me. Granted, I do get tired of the incessant chorus of, "Mr. Duns, hey, Mr. Duns! SJ! SJ! Abba! Abba Duns, I have a question..." I think I know now something of what schizophrenia must feel like, except that I'm pretty certain that the voices I hear really do come from outside of me (I'm pretty clever sometimes, but the insane things students ask me confirms that the voices are external: I couldn't make up some of their questions).

All in all, the year is off to a good start. I'm excited for what is to come and I am grateful that I have a brilliant community situation to come home to each evening. I hold diocesan priests in increasingly high regard because I simply can't imagine working as they do without the support of a supportive community of brothers. While my fellow Companions of Jesus might have different approaches in the classroom or in our various ministries, we are all united by a common mission to 'help souls.' Our shared mission and mutual support provides tremendous grace and consolation in my life, providing me with the strength to cross the classroom's threshold each day to teach for God's Greater Glory.


Monday, August 22, 2011

American Airlines “Flights. Camera. Action. Video Contest.”

Dear Readers,

American Airlines “Flights. Camera. Action. Video Contest.”: Vote for this video and enter for a chance to win 25,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles. Check it out:https://secure.fly.aa.com/flightscameraaction/Vote.aspx?vidID=8




Thursday, August 18, 2011

Crisis of Confidence

On my post entitled "Suffer the Children" a reader left the following comment:

Dear Mr. Dunns:
From time to time I read your blog and now for the first time I'll comment (I don't usually comment on blogs... blog comments usually only rile people up). 
Let me start by saying I am a former priest from Orange County and I still love the Church. While I did not leave the priesthood because of the scandals, the way the Church handled the abuse crisis did make it easier for me to make the decision to leave. Much of me still yearns to be in active ministry as a priest.
Your blog today struck me deeply. The bishops have damaged the Church I (and millions others) so deeply love. Our bishops are completely out of touch with the people of God. While they are busy with new translations, respect for them and the institution they serve is at an all time (and deservedly) low point. They need to listen to the needs of God's people. People are hungry for the Gospel, hungry for leadership and guidance and they offer more malfeasance and new English translations. How do we tell them to listen to the thousands of young people (and the not so young) who leave the Church everyday? How do we tell them to clean up their house before they tell us to clean up ours....?
Enough said, I hope and pray that you persevere in your vocation, the Church needs people like you.
Peace,
Ron (name withheld)
 Ron's comment haunted me for much of this afternoon and, as I cleaned up after today's picnic, I couldn't seem to shake the feeling that he was speaking to something that I have felt in my own heart for quite some time.

I have no question that there is a great hunger in our world today. How many of us spend our lives consuming - technological innovations, food, clothing, sex, drugs, alcohol, money - and it never fills us, never satisfied the deep and gnawing hunger that calls out for 'more'. I see this daily in my own students who demonstrate a tremendous spiritual hunger and they are eager to hear about the Gospel when they see it can bring joy and excitement into a person's life.

My fear, however, is that Ron is only too right when he lays at the feet of the clergy a great deal of the responsibility for the growing disaffection with the Church. While I am in no means opposed to the impending changes in the Roman Rite of the liturgy, it does seem that more energy is spent debating about language than about how we live out that language toward the children of God. That is to say, I fear that more time is spent on whether Credo in the Nicene Creed should be rendered as "I believe" or "We believe" rather than teaching people what shape this belief might take in the lives of those who profess the faith.

I believe fully that the Eucharist is the "source and summit" of a Catholic's life. Furthermore, I believe we should exercise due diligence in ensuring that the ritual we use reflect the solemnity of what we are about. That greater attention is being paid to 'how' we celebrate the Mass doesn't bother me at all: the NFL, after all, reviews yearly its protocols and adjusts accordingly. If we truly believe that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Christ Jesus, then surely we should be equally attentive.

My sense is that Ron's departure, as for very many others, does not originate in a crisis of faith. Rather, it is a crisis of confidence in leadership. I know quite a few former Catholics who, while enraged by the abuse scandal, recognized that our Church is a sinful Church and that some of its members are deeply troubled. Their departure from the Church was hastened, if not precipitated, by the (mis)handling of the abuse cases when they came to light: the sin was one thing, but the (continued) cover-up and deceit was another. Sexual abuse was the trauma; duplicity and mendacity become an insuperable scandal or stumbling-block.

As women and men of the Gospel, we are called upon to be servants of the Truth. This should give us evangelical courage to go to the rooftops to proclaim the Gospel, just as it demands that we look with a self-critical eye at ourselves and own our failures to live fully into the Truth. When we proclaim the Gospel without being humble enough to be self-critical, we bear the marks of arrogance and hypocrisy.

A good teacher is, first and foremost, a good listener who canvasses students and addresses their questions, whether they have been asked or not! I pray that our magisterium will find it within themselves to continue to grow as discerning listeners so that they might hear more clearly how God is moving in and through the People of God. I pray that our bishops will embrace their vocation as teachers and leaders, as shepherds, called to help those entrusted to them to grow in holiness and and enthusiasm for the Gospel.

A Jesuit on Orientation (Day)

I woke up especially early this morning - around 4:30 am - with a lot of nervous excitement: today is Freshmen/Sophomore orientation. This is the day when the U of D Jesuit community greets its newest high school students, introduces them to the school and its culture, and then hosts a picnic (I'm one of the organizers and grill-masters) for them.

With a cup of coffee at my side, I prayed looking out at the rising sun and felt a great sense of gratitude for this opportunity to teach another class of students. This is going to be a wild year for, in addition to my duties as moderator of the Student Senate, I have three course preparations (Latin I, Christology, and Philosophy). In my weak moments, I feel great fear but even when overwhelmed, I cannot help but feel that this is how Jesus has invited me to participate in building the Kingdom...at least this year! For the joy that this brings to my heart, I cannot but be grateful.

Orientation day provides an opportunity to show students a direction, to inculcate a sense of the school's culture and way of doing business. Part of my prayer this morning called me to reflect on this as an important aspect of my own sense of vocation: I feel called not to build God's Kingdom on my own but, rather, to dedicate myself to discerning God's movements so that I can help bring other people to the joy and love that I have found in serving the Crucified One.

It's on days like today that I wish I could allow others to experience the joy I know as a member of the Society of Jesus. As a young person, I knew only that I wanted to be joyful when I grew up: riches and honors weren't nearly as attractive as the sense that I wanted to feel joy and excitement with life. By God's grace, I find myself on the cusp of another school year where I will get to bring the Gospel, in deed and in word, to U of D Jesuit. While some bemoan the poor catechesis of this generation, I take it as a special opportunity to bring to them a non-idolatrous, exciting, and somewhat fun idea of who God is, who Jesus is, and what role each of these young men can play in developing a faith life. I might not be as strident as some would like, but I think sincerity and a good sense of humor go a long way in offering the Gospel to others.

Please say a prayer as we embark on a new year. I remember how nervous I was, 17 years ago, when I was a freshmen and I hope that I can be a comforting presence to the nerves of those students who feel overwhelmed by the transition to high school. Pray, too, that our school's mission to form the hearts and minds of young men always remember that we do this not for success in college admissions but, always, for the greater glory of God. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Suffer the Children

I entitled this post "Suffer the Children" with two thoughts in mind. First, today begins our two-day orientation process: Seniors/Juniors this morning, Academy students this afternoon, and Freshmen/Sophomore classes tomorrow. The halcyon days of summer die upon the cliffs of new courses and colored pencils. I love it.

My second, and more pressing, reason is the great sense of sorrow and anger I have had in light of recent revelations about the Bishop Robert Finn's acknowledged inaction concerning the behavior of Father Shawn Ratigan. As the New York Times piece indicates, the bishop failed to report that, in December 2010, the bishop knew that Ratigan had indecent photographs of children. Between December 2010 and May 2011, Ratigan continued to have access to children. Indeed, he now faces 13 counts of possessing, producing, and attempting to produce child pornography.

I have read Bishop Finn's letter and I am sad to say that it leaves me feeling hollow. A known monster was allowed to prey upon children, to violate the trust and goodwill of families, to exploit a community...and for what? Anger, resentment, and a deeper mistrust of the Church is all that will stand in the wake of Bishop Finn's inaction. The Kingdom of God is no stronger and the lives of countless people have been changed forever. In this instance, I cannot help but to hear the words of the Confiteor ring in my ears:


I confess to almighty God
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,
through my fault, through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;
therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin,
all the Angels and Saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.

I speak only for myself when I say: I believe that all persons involved in this case who knew and failed to act should face prosecution. I consider myself to be a loyal son of the Church and I love my Catholic faith more than I can share...but I cannot brush this off as an "innocent mistake" or "benign neglect." I think the failure to act in these cases is a grave evil - morally and legally - and should be rooted out and dealt with accordingly. 

In the days and weeks ahead, I will keep the victims of sexual abuse in my prayers. Not simply clergy sexual abuse - although that is a topic that strikes close to home - but all forms of abuse where the innocence of a child has been exploited and corrupted for the gratification of a predator. My prayer will be for healing, for forgiveness, and for justice. I should also like to pray that the attention turned to clergy sex abuse will not blind people to the reality of abuse in all walks of life and that, thank to media scrutiny on the clergy, the light shown on these atrocities might illuminate any and all instances of the abuse of children. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

God's Job Makes it to the Small Screen


Scads of my former freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors - were they watching a recent Colbert Report - must have heard Colbert's opening question, "What is God's Job?" only to shout out, "God's Job is to make things to be." Father Martin's response, "Sustaining the universe" is a good answer, although it can give the appearance that there is a universe that God has found and now sustains. The way my students learn it, there is anything at all because God makes it to be (like a musician holding a note - if the musicians stops playing, the notes are no longer).

This clip, to my mind, is great public theology because it gets to the heart of a question that really presses on the minds and hearts of countless individuals. Is there a God and what the heck does God do? Very often, it seems, people think of God as a genie or a capricious parent: if I wish hard enough, or am pleasing enough, God will do what I want. How far this is from the picture of Genesis where God creates and beholds creation as "good." All that is, is good not because of something that it has done, but simply because it is.

My critical question for students is always this: if God's job is to make things to be, what do we do with Jesus? The Incarnation is the bold doctrine that the Holy Creator of the Universe has taken flesh, that the One Who Makes Things to Be has taken a role on the stage of human history. What, then, do we see? We see a man healing the lame, reaching across religious and political boundaries, curing ailments, and permitting people "to be" fully human. Jesus doesn't obliterate our humanity...he shows us what it means to be fully and truly human.

Now almost seven years (August 21, 2004) since entrance and five years (August 13th) after profession of vows in the Society of Jesus, I can say only that my companionship with Jesus has led me to be become more fully human. The evolving narrative of this process has played itself out on these digital pages. I have not put my life and faith in Jesus Christ because an ironclad argument has been shown to me but because this friendship has made me increasingly whole. For this growing wholeness and the joy it has brought to me, I am eternally grateful to the Society of Jesus and, if this joy is able to be poured out to others, that is the other great grace in my life.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

2011-2012 U of D Jesuit High School & Academy Jesuit Community

Back, L-R: Mr. Cyril Pinchak, Fr. Karl Kiser, Br. Jim Boynton, Mr. RJ Fichtinger,
Fr. Brian Lehane, Mr. Ryan Duns
Front: Fr. Jerome Odbert, Fr Patrick Peppard, Br. Denis Weber, Br. Michael O'Grady

So, here's this year's community. Of the group, six of us are teachers in the school, one is the school president, one works in the school, one is the parish administrator of our downtown parish, and one works at Manresa Jesuit Retreat House. We're a motley crew, brothers in the Lord, and excited to be missioned to the city of Detroit this year!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

I was a stranger and you welcomed me...

Over my (almost seven) years of blogging, I have often been critical - either explicitly or implicitly - of what I have felt to be a failing on the part of the United States Bishops to live up fully to their role as teacher. I am extremely proud, therefore, to share with you this link to a very powerful editorial written by Detroit's Archibishop Allen Vigneron.

I found the Archbishop's message to be clear and on-point: he emphasizes that the laws of any government - even our own - must be enforced in a way that treat "migrant peoples with the same dignity as its native-born citizens." Wholly acknowledging the nation's right to protect its borders and to ensure the security of its people, he rightly acknowledges the essential and inviolable dignity of the human person, a dignity that is not erased based on which side of a border one stands, whether legally or illegally.

If ever there has been a good argument for the active role of the devil in the world (Greek: diabolos meaning a 'false accuser) it can be seen in national discussions of immigration. Rather than looking for constructive ways of granting citizenship to the vast majority of immigrants who have contributed so much to the richness of our country, there is a (growing?) hysterical cry to throw them all out. The Archbishop speaks squarely from the midst of Catholic Social Teaching and offers an excellent application of it when he writes:
There must be a concerted effort to find a pathway toward citizenship for undocumented persons who have contributed to the common good. The positive impact migrant communities have made in our country, and especially in our state, should be recognized rather than overshadowed by the small number of those who engage in illicit and unacceptable activities.
Far from being a "bleeding-heart response," the Archbishop has wisely and faithfully reached into the richness of the Catholic intellectual heritage and brought and brought forth an orthodox way of framing our nation's discussion on immigration. For the disciples of Ayn Rand, this sort of orthodox retrieval will sound the notes of heresy and, dare I say, liberation theology. For the disciples of Jesus Christ, however, it will remind us of our call to exercise hospitality to the "widow, the orphan, and the stranger" and reminds us of Jesus' own words that "I was a stranger, and you welcomed me...".

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Bishball?

Almost two weeks ago, I blogged about a quote I found from Archbishop Charles Chaput who quipped, in his usual lapidary way, "If we don't love the poor, and do everything we can to improve their lot, we're going to Hell." I cited this with approval given that I think the physical conditions of our sisters and brothers are of tremendous consequence for salvation. Being given the "Bread of Life" or feasting upon the "Word of God" is far more difficult - if not impossible - when one is watching her baby starve to death.

One comment I received made me laugh at the website that was linked:


Archbishop Chaput is on my "Bishball" team. Fantasybishball.blogspot.com is the site of a Catholic "sport" where teams of 3 bishops are followed by bloggers. Actions are tracked as are the things said about the bishops. This week has left me breathless with all the angst, joy, confusion, misinformation, smack-downs, and hijinks over the Chaput appointment. You're right, Chaput keeps his eyes on Jesus and slaps people back into the reality of our vocation as Christians. He's a dynamic and fascinating man. Were it not for Bishball, I would never have gotten to know his mind so well.

I haven't any idea why, but I do find the idea of having "teams" of bishops kind of funny. My money would be on Archbishop Dolan, since his affability and energy seem to draw the media toward him, but I could see Chaput being an asset as well. Then again, I have played softball with clergy before and if their ability to swing a bat is anything like their ability to swing a loaded incensor, some of these guys could be surprising ringers.

My only observation on the appointment of Archbishop Chaput to Philadelphia is that I'm disappointed with the response on both sides. The reason: neither side sees this as Pope Benedict's discerned choice of a bishop to lead a diocese but, rather, as a victory or a loss for some particular ideology. The guy has yet to take office and bloggers and observers are already calling this a conquest (of orthodoxy) or a catastrophe (of progress). It's sad to me that our Church resembles so much the sorry state of American politics where it's more important to have one's agenda intact than it is to find a way to negotiate in order to achieve the common good. 

A few months ago, I blogged about the distinction between positions and values. If ever you needed two instances of this distinction, so accessible to high school freshmen but apparently lost upon our political and ecclesial leaders, one need look only to the debt negotiations and recent episcopal actions. With such loud voices on the extreme ends of positions drowning out more reasonable voices, it leads me to wonder: for how much longer can the center hold?  

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Theology or Magic

Every now and again, students raise questions that push me to consider issues that had never dawned on me. Earlier this year, several students raised the question of wearing scapulars, so we spent some time thinking through why people wear them and what they "do." Some students had been given the impression that if one were to wear a scapular, he would be saved from hell simply by wearing it. I entered into a discussion with a colleague on this issue and thought that it might be helpful for others to read what I wrote.

Dear X,


Yesterday in class, some of my students raised the question of scapulars. They attributed to you the idea that if one is wearing a scapular that he or she automatically goes to heaven or, at the least, will be saved from hell. One student seemed to recall something about "going to Mass nine Sundays in a row" as part of making this particular devotional operative but, on the whole, they seemed to hold the belief that scapular = salvation. 

I tried to use this as a teaching moment for the guys. A few weeks ago, I introduced the concept of 'real' or 'Cambridge Change" versus "merely Cambridge Change." A distinction used by Peter Geach, it analyzes sentences such as:

1. Today, Bill is taller than Peter.
2. (Fifteen years later) Today, Bill is shorter than Peter. (Bill has become shorter than Peter)

One way of reading this is that there has been a change in Bill: Bill may stand at 5'10 today but, after a terrible encounter with an IED, lost his legs and his now 5'1". This would be a 'real' or 'Cambridge Change' in Bill. There is, however, another way of reading the sentence. Today Bill stands at 5'10. In fifteen years, Bill may still stand at 5'10". Yet Peter has grown tremendously. The change in the subject of the sentence is not is a relational change rather than a real change. We talk as though there is a change in Bill, as in the parenthetical, but the real change is in Peter. This we describe as a 'Merely Cambridge Change' because while we speak of a change in Bill, we are actually predicating the change of Peter. 

I mention this because I take seriously this distinction as introduced in the Summa (1a 13.7). I have a near-allergic reaction to any suggestion that God 'changes' or can be influenced. 

The trouble with what the students are holding at this moment concerning scapulars is what seems to be some totemic belief or magical thinking that a piece of clothing is actually going to affect God. Clearly, if the scapular is emblematic of living a life in response to God's grace and friendship then, surely, this is a good thing! Yet merely donning it as a talisman is certainly of the devotion...devotions, even ones that adorn us, cannot simply be skin deep! 

I say this because they attributed to you the belief that if  a serial killer were wearing a scapular, and if he were to fall into a river, it would happen that the current would wash the scapular away before he drowned, thereby consigning him to the full-force of God's justice. The same, though, might be said of an otherwise-striving-for-holiness victim of a Tsunami who had the misfortune of losing the scapular before taking his last breath. 

Basically, my concern is that the students not be left with superstition or magical thinking. I cannot imagine that "holy bling" makes a difference to God if it does not point toward a converted and open heart that yearns for ever-deeper companionship with the Lord. I don't want our students to be fearful or to resort to talismanic practices because it is going to ward off evil or placate an idolatrous notion of God; I want them to embrace devotionals as a way of deepening their relationship with God. 


This is a live question for me and I welcome feedback from readers. I'm not denying the scapular or ridiculing it as a devotion, but my concern is always to avoid turning religion into magic.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Good Without God

One of the perks of being on vacation is having the luxury of reading the newspaper, or several newspapers, each day. This is a rare occurrence for me: I'm usually so pressed for time each day that I read the New York Times online as I get ready in the morning. This morning, however, I managed to read not only the full print version of the Times but also the USA Today.
I thought this kind of funny. 

I didn't realize that the USA Today carries a Monday "Religion" section, this week's contribution coming from University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne. His piece is entitled "As atheists know, you can be good without God."

This is going to be a longer piece of writing on my part, engaging with Professor Coyne's observations. I should like to say, from the start, that I detect in this piece what the philosopher Michel de Certeau who writes:

...in the Expert, competence is transmuted into social authority; in the Philosopher, ordinary questions become a skeptical principle in a technical field’ experts intervene from outside their practice ‘do it through a curious operation which “converts” competence into authority … ultimately the more authority the Expert has, the less competence he has. (7)
With all due respect to Professor Coyne's work in evolutionary biology, I think that his article is another instance wherein this "conversion" from competence in one field (biology) gets translated into "authority" in another field (religion) is seen. That Coyne is a professor in one of the better known research universities carries with it enormous prestige, but credentials in one area do not, a priori, guarantee that observations in another area of study are equally sound.


On Dissertating

An old acquaintance, seeing my blog post from yesterday, emailed me this morning. He, too, is enrolled in a doctoral program and he was sho...