Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Saint Cecilia's RCIA: Week #4

Last night, the Saint Cecilia's RCIA group met at our usual 6:30 time. Having had three weeks to get to know one another better, we started to move more deeply into discussions of "nuts and bolts" Catholicism. By this I mean, simply, raising and reflecting upon some key questions one must of necessity wrestle with as a believer.

What impresses me most of the group I'm praying with (and for) is their willingness to venture questions. Given their love of questions, I turned to a reliable source - The Teaching of the Catholic Church by Father Herbert McCabe, OP - and raised five questions to the group last night. Thus, after praying from Proverbs 8, we reflected as a group about what it means to call God the creator, what God wants for creatures, and whether evolution/science are hostile to religious belief.

I've attached the schedule from last night in case it is helpful to anyone as a resource.


In addition, I learned that, when I wear the costume wig my parents sent to mock my desire for hair, I bear a resemblance to Radiohead's lead singer Thom Yorke. Given the wonders of technology, I give you side-by-side photos for you to consider. 

Thom Yorke
Ryan Duns, SJ - if his dream of hair did come true!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Birthday Wishes Do Come True!

I came home from playing music at the local pub last night and went to bed, still a little sad: my only wish on my 34th birthday was for hair.

This morning, I woke up!

Yep: after years of asking/begging/praying, the most unlikely source of grace came through with my heart's sole desire: my mom and dad. I have to say, the color works pretty well: it matches my beard. Sadly, it looks like I've a bit of bed-head. All the same, I particularly like being able to run my hands through it, even it's not *quite* my own natural hair.

Thanks Mom! Thanks Dad! Just keep rubbing in the fact that you gave me life and horrific genes leading to baldness. Nope, no resentment there.

Monday, October 21, 2013

A Jesuit's Advice On Classroom Management

Looking back upon my own experiences as a teacher, I can attest without any hesitation that the steepest learning curve to contend with is classroom management. Students I taught as a first-year teacher, now well into college, delight in reminding me of my own trials. Without question, I learned by trial and error.

A new teacher, after reading an essay I wrote called The Jesuit Guide to Teaching, wrote me to ask about advice in managing the classroom. He has been challenged by the administration not to be "too nice" and to "harden his heart" in order to maintain discipline.

I resonated with his initial response to this directive. He writes:
To be honest with you, I have a difficult time discerning when to turn theother cheek and when to flip over the tables and crack the whip in certainsituations. Christ was a man of great kindness, yet he used brutal honestyand even force to make his views known. What should I do? How can I showlove to my students while being firm?
It is, of course, difficult to give truly concrete advice without being present in the classroom to notice the dynamics. That said, let me offer a few limited words of counsel.

  • The classroom is not an inert gathering. Indeed, the idea of an "inert gathering" seems to be something of an oxymoron. Look at each class as a system with many moving parts. As you look at the group, identify the subgroups. If you have a particularly unruly class, some sort of group dynamic is feeding this. You must identify the dynamics of the classroom in order to address the issue head-on. 
  • Once you have identified subgroups - and these take many and various forms - ask yourself, "What is the nature of the disruption?" Farting, in my estimation, tends to be lower on the priority because I had strategically placed air fresheners in the areas I frequented. Thus, when someone let one rip, I didn't feel the need to put energy into the system. My general lack of response didn't feed into their disgusting habits and such practices abated pretty quickly.
  • Here is the key, then: where will you put your energy? My "triggers" tended to be any sort of bullying toward other students and blatant disrespect toward me. Because I strove mightily to show them respect and to treat them like adults, I could expect them to do likewise. When they failed at this, I called them to account for it. 
  • One way of handling this is to be very clear about what is expected in the classroom. Tell them of your expectation and the consequence. One of them will test you, so you must follow through. Failure to do so renders you a doormat: all bark, no bite. 
    • Consider: a parent at the supermarket has a child throwing a tantrum and making a huge scene. The parent issues a threat: "If you don't stop, we're going to leave. You have until the count of three. One...Two...Three. I'm not kidding, you need to be good, okay? I'm not warning you again...". We've all seen a variation on this. Once the child learns that there's no follow-through, no consequence, all bets are off. At some point, you must identify and hold the line 
  • When you do hold a student accountable, do not negotiate with them in the class. This is a waste of time and it threatens to make a spectacle of discipline. Students have an innate sense of Schadenfreude: a curious sense of delight at seeing harm caused to another. You simply cannot put more energy into the system. If they have an issue, curtly inform them that they may see you after school (not after class). 
    • That said, reserve the "See me after class" line for unilateral use. Don't give reasons and don't converse with the student. If there's an issue you feel a need to address, say simply, "X, please see me after class." When you get the "What? What'd I do??" simply say, "As I said, please see me after class and we'll discuss it."
  • As I said in my earlier essay, don't yell. Once you've lost your cool, you have ceded ground you'll never get back. You're a professional. They can't vote, freshmen can't drive, they don't have high school diplomas, they seldom pay taxes, and they can't enlist in the army. Why are you going to give them control over you? 
  • After two months, you may feel as though the battle is over and that you'll have to wait until next year to gain control. You don't. What you do need to do is start implementing rules. Isolate a behavior you must address. When you see it, name it publicly: "So that we are clear, Chris, we do not insult other students in this classroom." If the behavior persists, now that you've named it, follow through with a consequence. "Chris, I warned you already. You have a detention." OR "Sarah, you heard what I said to Chris. You have a detention." The USA doesn't negotiate with terrorists, so don't negotiate with freshmen. Be clear, be fair, and be consistent. 
  • Especially for young teachers, it's okay to make mistakes. No one expects you to have a bag of tricks at the ready. You are expected, however, to have the sense to seek out good mentors. If there's a teacher who has excellent classroom management skills, take the initiative and invite the person to observe you. 
  • A few other things:
    • Don't waste time on taking role. You should know where the students sit by now. If you have a seating chart, do a quick glance up and down the row and make a note of it. 
    • Stand at the front of the class when they enter. You are the boss. When they come in, direct them to their seats and don't let them wander. 
    • Be clear with them, in an ongoing way, of what the immediate expectation is. If they're taking notes, they don't need other books/calculators/etc. on the desk. 
    • Move around. Do you remember, I think Jurassic Park, the idea that T-Rex couldn't see you if you didn't move? Well, it's the opposite: they will only notice you if you move. The more you move, the more on alert they are: they'll focus on you. If you don't move, or get out from behind the podium, they will venture out either by talking or moving about. Your best defense is a mobile offense. Keep them guessing
  • Above all else, show them respect. If you make a bad call, apologize. If you believe what you're doing is the right course of action, stick with it. If necessary, call the parents and get them on your side. They are hearing one, very skewed version of events. You need to be your own PR person. If you have a kid who's being a pain in the rear, call the parents. "Hi Mrs. ______, this is Ryan Duns from _______. I teach ________ in _________ class and I just wanted to share with you some things I've noticed these past few weeks and get a sense of how we could work together to address these issues." If the kid comes in, angry that you called the parents, simply say that your first duty is to their formation as both thinkers and as persons. Personally, I would say something like, "Chris, as your teacher I am here both for your academic and spiritual formation. I would like to have raised this with you man-to-man, but nothing in your behavior has given me any reason to believe that you were mature enough to handle such a conversation. Am I wrong in this? " This way, you've made the kid take ownership of his own actions and you've forced him to give some sort of account. 
Again, I'm no guru and I've made just about every possible mistake. If I was good at anything, I reckon, it was learning from my many mistakes. If you give up on classroom management now, in October, you'll be dead by May/June. It's never to "love them into wholeness" and contribute to their formation. They are forming you into a better teacher and you owe it to them to dedicate all of your personal resources to meeting their needs. As you grow as a competent teacher, so will they grow into more fully formed adults. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Can Atheists Experience Awe?

Chris Stedman, assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard, has a piece over at CNN's Belief Blog entitled "What Oprah gets wrong about atheism." He takes as his point of departure the recent contretemps between Oprah and swimmer Diana Nyad.

In his reflection, Stedman raises this concern:
Winfrey's response may have been well intended, but it erased Nyad's atheist identity and suggested something entirely untrue and, to many atheists like me, offensive: that atheists don't experience awe and wonder. 
Now - and I speak as something of a theist...Jesuits do, in fact, believe in God - I don't get the sense from Oprah that she is erasing Nyad's atheist identity. Instead, what Oprah experiences as a sense of awe, of the mystery of creation, is what she calls an experience of God. In quoting Karl Rahner yesterday, I attempted to shore-up Winfrey's response. Rahner, one of the theological giants of the 20th century, understood the experience of God seldom to come under an explicit label. He was convinced, nevertheless, of everyone having such an experience.

The philosopher William Desmond, whose thought has captivated my imagination for the past year, places at the start of his philosophical system the experience of astonishment. His writing tends to be rather dense and poetic, so let me simplify a beautiful passage from an essay he wrote entitled "Wording the Between."
We do not open ourselves; being opened, we are as an opening. The experience of astonishment awakens the openness of mindfulness to being... 
For Desmond, the experience of "awe at" and "the mystery of" creation, of the cosmos, does not give us some strange idea of a God who is going to intervene in our daily affairs. Nor does it furnish us with proof of Jesus' divinity, the authenticity of the Mandylion of Edessa, the Immaculate Conception, or Transubstantiation. Our experience of being overwhelmed by Awe/Astonishment/Mystery exposes us to our being opened to all of being, the whole of creation.

We are in awe when we marvel when we sense that what is does not have to be. I think Oprah is getting at this impulse: the experience of awe is not merely a feeling, but an address from without. We are overwhelmed by something outside of us, something that penetrates into the depths of our core. The experience of "awe" comes from something "awe-full" washing over us, coming toward us from without, awakening us to our openness toward being.

The theist contends such an experience of awe, of being "rocked back on one's heels" renders us silent, forces us to ask, "Is this just a feeling or am I being addressed, summoned, called from without?" Oprah isn't denying the experience of's just that, as a believer, this primordial experience points back to the God who sings creation into being.

I'm not trying to offer some proof for God's existence. Instead, I'm simply giving Oprah a more generous interpretation than her critics seem to be doing. Just as Stedman advocates reasonable discourse between theists and atheists, so too may we consider Nyad and Winfrey:
Oprah: "Ahhh, Diana, your experience of awe, to my understanding, points back toward a God who sings creation into being...we are joined in this experience of awe, this experience of God!"
Diana: "Ahhh, Oprah, your experience of awe has never spoken to me and I'm not sure that it can speak...we are joined in this experience of awe, this experience of the beauty of creation!" 
The conversation between theists and atheists may need to turn on this very point: from whence our common experience of wonder? What does it mean to experience awe, to feel ourselves overwhelmed from without? Is this simply an oceanic feeling or is it an address from without?

In short, I don't think there's any denial that atheists can experience awe. It'd be equally ludicrous to say that theists have cornered the "awe market." Instead, within the shared feeling of awe, I think a rich conversation about the meaning of awe is possible.

Aristotle contended, in the Peri Hermeneias, "The knowledge of opposites is one." In Latin, eadem est scientia oppositorum. Meaningful discourse between atheists and theists will begin with a discussion of the God one accepts and the other rejects. It may be far more basic than this: is there a common experience between the two which, for one, rests joyfully in the awe of creation that is just there and, for the other, experiences the awe of creation as pointing to a creator, a god, who sings it into being.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

An Atheist in Awe

Apparently Oprah Winfrey has caused some flap amongst atheists in the wake of her recent interview with famed swimmer Diana Nyad. On Sunday's "Super Soul Sunday," Oprah questioned Diana about her religious beliefs. 

The issue, as far as it is an issue, centers on exchange between the two. Nyad asserts herself an atheism, but that she is a person who is deeply in awe.
Nyad: I can stand at the beach's edge with the most devout Christian, Jew, Buddhist...go on down the line, and weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity...all the billions of people who have lived before us, who have loved and hurt...
Oprah: Yeah
Nyad: ...and suffered. So to me, my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity. And as we return to...
Oprah: Well, I don't call you an atheist then! I think if you believe in awe...and the wonder...and the mystery...that is what God is
Critics have been quick to take aim at both personalities. Nyad is critiqued for a rather milquetoast and wishy-washy stance on accepting the beliefs of others; Oprah takes heat because, it is assumed, she is so benighted as to be unable to conceive an atheist standing in a state of awe.

In 1979, an interviewer commented to Karl Rahner, "I have never had an experience of God."

Rahner's response is interesting. He writes:
I don't believe you; I just don't accept that. You have had, perhaps, no experience of God under this precise code-word God but you have had or have now an experience of God - and I am convinced that this is true of every person...
This inner experience of God is naturally (and necessarily) very difficult to describe. What love is, what fidelity is, what longing is, what immediate responsibility is - are all things that are difficult to express and to think about. We start stuttering, and what we say sounds odd, provisional, difficult. But that doesn't prove that a person has not had experiences of fidelity, responsibility, joy, truth, love, and so on. And so it is with experience God. (Karl Rahner in Dialogue, 211)
 I have a sympathy for Oprah's position insofar as I believe the experience of awe, astonishment awakening us to the sheer givenness of creation, throws the thinker off balance. A feeling of the infinitude of the cosmos coupled with shock that I stand here, now, to behold it. Awe at the givenness and fragility of all creation: this, for Oprah and for Rahner, raise the question of God.

To be sure, this does not arrive at the Trinity or Jesus or the Shroud of Turin or Infant of Prague. This awe, however, does stir a question: Why something rather than nothing, why anything at all? The awe we experience of a gift, perhaps?...makes us mindful that it might not just be there after all. The experience of awe draws us out of ourselves and makes us mindful of the whole of creation - so vast and so fragile - and this sense of awe, an awe that brings tears to the eyes or strikes us silence, is the awe that falls over us, forces us to kneel or to bow, and to listen to see if the great silence of the creation may speak to us, may reveal itself to us, not as coldly indifferent to us and our questions but, rather, as a source of love.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Scandal of Poverty in a World of Plenty

In a splendid and deeply challenging article in America Magazine, Bishop Robert McElroy draws upon the Holy Father's call to a mass cultural conversion. Pope Francis, McElroy notes, has exposed "three false cultures that materialism has created in our world:

  1. The Culture of Comfort - we think only of ourselves
  2. The Culture of Waste - we seize the gifts of creation, exhaust what we have seized, and then discard them
  3. The Culture of Indifference - we have become insensitive to the suffering of others. 
The culture of materialism has worked toward the creation of the Anti-Kingdom of God. Rather than being gathered into a New Jerusalem ruled by God, those of us who are able prefer to worship at the altar of capitalism: we are, as a society, an idolatrous people. Gathered around the graven image of wealth and prestige, we become what Pope Benedict XVI lamented in Caritatis in Veritate: a globalized society of neighbors but not sisters and brothers. 

Bishop McElroy prophetically calls for us to rethink and work toward a transformation of the Catholic Church's contribution to political discourse. We need, first, to prioritize the issue of poverty; second, to focus on both intrinsic evil and structural sin; and, third, to recover and more holistically apply the virtue of prudence. 

The article, clear and accessible, raises a number of issues that should give readers pause. Primary among them, at least to my mind, is the claim that in 2002 the richest nations of the world pledged to give 0.7% of their annual GDP toward the alleviation of poverty. The United States has reneged on this promise and gives 0.2%. Our inability to follow through on a pledge has made possible millions of death from malnutrition and disease. 

If your response is, "Well, our country needs to look after our own first!" allow me to say: Welcome to the culture of indifference the Holy Father decries. This is the cry of the Rich Man in Luke 16:19-31 who steps over the dying Lazarus, not giving a damn for his needs, concerning himself only with his need to step over "a neighbor" in order to stock up on cases of fine wine. 

This is one of those must-read articles if only to get a broader sense of issues facing our Church, our nation, and our world. It rightly puts into perspective how our wrangling over medical device taxes pales in comparison to the plight of so many. Each day, the ground of the earth is soaked in the blood of the poor and the oppressed; bodies of water greedily devour the bodies of migrants hopeful for a new life; deserts dry out the bodies of those who seek asylum in other countries. When asked, "Who is responsible for the blood of our brothers and sisters?" will we keep throwing up our hands, crying out "Nobody!"? 

Or will we look down and see how, underneath all of the things we hold, streaks of blood stain our palms? 

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

RCIA: Signs, Symbols, and Sacrament

Last night's RCIA topic was "Sign, Symbol, and Sacrament." My intention for the class was to develop a Catholic way of seeing the world around us. Just as a musician trains to hear the intricacies of music, or a surgeon trains in dexterity and deftness of hand, so must the Catholic train "to see" the world differently, to see how the "Grandeur of God" shines through it.

We live in a world of signs. Signs are objects that point away from themselves and tend to have one, relatively clear meaning. A STOP sign hardly calls for much interpretation; a check mark on an test records approval, a red-x an incorrect answer. Granted, many signs are ones we have, as a society, agreed upon in recognizing: Green means go, Red means stop, and Yellow means either "caution" or "hurry up!" There could have been different colors chosen, but we've settled on these three.

The next level down, symbols are more complex and involved signs. They can have more than one meaning and involve subjective evaluation and meaning. A blue ribbon may be a sign of success but, to a child who has trained and practice at running, it's symbolic of much hard work and effort. An old flower pressed between the pages of a book may be, to anyone else, just a relic of the past; to its owner, however, it's symbolic of a memorable day of first-love.

Within the Church, our Sacraments are symbols whose meaning depend not upon ourselves and our interpretation but on the person who stands at their center: Jesus Christ. Each Sacrament marks a profound way of Jesus entering into our lives. Instead of trying to fit the Sacrament into our conceptual scheme, the Sacrament draws us into the larger story of the Church, the Body of Christ.

I don't decide what a Sacrament means. The Sacrament reveals to me what I mean within the life of the Church, gathered by the Spirit into the Body of Christ.

Tad Guzie offers a lovely definition of Sacrament:
A sacrament is a festive action in which Christians assemble to celebrate their lived experience and to call to heart their common story. The action is a symbol of God's care for us in Christ. Enacting the symbol brings us closer to one another in the Church and to the Lord who is there for us. 
Note the core of his definition is how the Sacrament reveals how God cares for us in Christ. Christ who offers us the rebirth of Baptism, "washing" us into a new life with fellow believers and pilgrims. Christ who anoints us with oil as we Confirm our place with the assembled community. Christ who nourishes each day with his own body and blood in the Eucharist.

For me, the question we must confront always as Catholic believers is: am I weak enough to accept the Sacraments? Am I weak enough to allow the waters of baptism to wash me into a community, to live in a way focused not on myself and my desires but on the mission of the Church to bring good news to the world? Am I weak enough to realize that I cannot stand on my own, that I need support, weak enough to confirm my commitment to seeking my salvation with others? Am I weak enough to admit that I cannot feed myself, that the journey is too daunting even with the companionship of others, and only the "Bread of Angels" offered to me at the Eucharistic table is capable of sustaining my journey?

The Sacraments of the Church aren't talismans or magic rites we have created to make ourselves feel better. Instead, they are the rituals whereby we recognize where we stand in relation to the Holy Trinity who forever calls us into a relationship of love. A sacrament is not merely a symbol; it is the most excellent of symbols because its meaning comes not from us but from the author of all creation. It is through the Sacrament we are given privileged access into the story God is unfolding in history, a story we share as Church, a story we are charged with living out in "festive action" as we bring the Good News to the world.

Here is an outline of last night's presentation for anyone who is interested in how I structured the conversation

Monday, October 07, 2013

Does Jesus Condemn the Rich Man to Hell?

Do you remember the Public Service Announcement, "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk"? I'm enough of a child of the 1980's to recall these billboards. I also remember the "This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?" commercials. The image of a frying egg is indelibly burned into my imagination.

Using a fancy word, these might be called "paraenetic" instructions: they give advice in moral or ethical matters. The nun who taught 4th grade religion was a master of paraenesis: any time a student would lead back in his or her chair, she would admonish us with the story of the student she knew who had tipped the chair back, fell, and had the chair splinter and rupture his spine so he's spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. It was a story told to warn us away from reclining, not to tell us that if we recline, then we will end up with a shard of wood in our spinal column and dreaming of a helper monkey who will do our bidding because we're consigned to a wheelchair.

Paraenesis expresses colorfully the admonition: "Don't let this happen to you!"It's not intended to establish causal linkage - If A, Then B follows - but the potential consequence to a certain course of action.

I mention this because I learned that my post from Saturday did not cite correctly the passage referenced in the interview. Late on Saturday, I was informed that the condemnation arises from Luke 16:19-31. The idea, it is claimed, that in this parable Jesus is condemning a man to hell because he refused to give away his possessions.

This, as you will recall, is the claim made on the (admittedly edited) interview Professor Moss gave with Bill O'Reilly. To be sure: I'd love to see the unedited version of this. All I have to go on, however, is the interview given. "The most consistent social teaching of the New Testament, that the wealthy give away their possessions, in order to help the poor..." (@1:00-1:10). Never mind the centrality of the Kingdom of God animating the word and deed of Jesus, constitutionally expressed in Luke 4:18. The claim Professor Moss makes is that, "In order to go to heaven, they had to give away their possessions."

I get it: the interview is edited. Professor Moss may have defended this point in brilliant points now consigned to the (digital) cutting floor. All I can do, however, is go off of what has been put out into the public sphere. Professor Moss bills herself as a public intellectual and so I do not fear raising a challenge to her in the blogosphere.

The lineaments of the narrative are pretty simple: a poor, afflicted, man named Lazarus lay at the gates of a wealthy, well-dressed man. The wealthy man "dressed in purple and fine linen" and "feasted sumptuously every day." Lazarus would have loved to have eaten the scraps from the man's table, but was given nothing. Lazarus dies and is taken to Abraham's bosom. The rich man dies - we all die sometime, after all - and goes to Hades.

The rich man cries out to Abraham, whom he can see, and begs him to "send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue." Abraham's response is instructive:
Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. (Lk 16:25)
Our question, then, is simple: is Jesus condemning the man to hell for not selling his possessions, for being rich, or is it because he found himself able every day to walk over the body of the inconvenient fellow at his doorstep? Is he condemned because he is rich, because he eats well, or is it because he couldn't give a damn to love his neighbor? In Luke 11:25-37, it would seem that Jesus is more interested in making his audiences - who are themselves poor - attentive to their summons to be neighbor to others. The Samaritan is good, not because he "sold everything" but because he actually took the time to give a damn about the person in front of him.

This parable, to my amateur mind, stands within the paraenetic tradition: Jesus is warning his listeners that their daily actions have consequences. Salvation doesn't come from singular heroic acts but through the daily asceticism of discipleship.

As I said on Saturday, and I say again, I simply do not see the evidence to support the claim that Jesus doesn't condemn the wealthy. If someone is condemned, resigned to his fate, it's actually fairly convenient: if I know the conclusion is predetermined, I've no reason to act any differently. If I know I'm going to get a "C" on a paper regardless of my effort, then why should I bother? Jesus was no fool in this: even skeptics can admit that he spun a good story. His point aims to shock his audience, to cause them to pause and reflect on their lives: "Am I like this rich man or do I take the time to care?"

When the Gospel begins to look more like Obamacare or a platform in the Republican party, I grow extraordinarily suspicious. Perhaps this is the seduction of either the present academy or popular media: we aim at saying sensational things in order to get our names out there. Watching a number of commentators on religion, I'm struck that the Jesus or faith they propound is more redolent of a political party than the Kingdom of God.

What George Tyrell wrote of Adolf von Harnack in 1910 could easily be applied to any number of popular figures offering commentary on Christianity today. Tyrell wrote, "The Christ that Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well."

Judging from the blogs, news reports, and popular media outlets, I must say: there are an awful lot of dark wells out there.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

So...Hell has Frozen Over

Thanks to my friend Brigid for drawing my attention to this clip of a recent interview of Notre Dame theologian Candida Moss (PhD, Yale) with Bill O'Reilly. Taking place on the O'Reilly Factor, the interview's focus is on Killing Jesus: A History co-written by O'Reilly and Martin Dugard.

Rather than attempting to reproduce the transcript of the talk, I've embedded the video:

There is hardly any question that the poor were the main audience of Jesus' preaching. His preaching of God's in-breaking kingdom was directed to them; what Jesus experienced as central to his own life, God's Reign on earth, he preached to listeners. We take for granted how audacious it is to pray "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Thy will (the will of God) is quite hardly ever My will.

Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the architects of modern liberation theology, resists reducing "the poor" to those afflicted only to economic poverty. He writes
From its beginnings the theology of liberation has always borne the different dimensions of poverty in mind. To put it in other terms - as the Bible does - it was careful not to reduce poverty to its economic aspect, a key aspect, to be sure. This led to the affirmation that the poor person is the "insignificant" person, the one thought of like a "non-person," someone whose full complement of rights as a human being are not recognized. People without political or individual influence, who count for little in society and the Church. (Situación y tareas de la teologia de la liberación, 109f.)
Sadly, this temptation to reduce "poverty" to nothing more than an economic concern seems to plague Professor Moss. At 1:48 in the video, she claims, "It's a historical fact that he told people that in order to go to heaven they had to give away their possessions."

After reiterating this at 2:50, she then claims, "A rich man is condemned to hell merely for not giving away his possessions...he keeps the rest of the commandments."

O'Reilly cites, then, Lazarus and Joseph of Arimathea. They were men of means: does this mean they're in hell?

Lazarus, raised by Jesus. Lazarus, with whom Jesus stayed before going to Jerusalem. Joseph, who handed over a burial tomb. Both of them in hell?

Oh my God....I think I'm agreeing with Bill O'Reilly.


Gerhard Lohfink, in his utterly brilliant Jesus of Nazareth, that not everyone was called to discipleship in the same way (91) and what distinguishes discipleship is that they "no longer live for themselves alone but for the people of God" (93). He concludes his chapter "The Many Faces of Being Called" accordingly:
This "wholeness" is different for everyone. For one it can mean abandoning everything. For others it can mean remaining at home and making one's house available to Jesus' messengers. Perhaps for a third it can even mean only giving a fresh cup of water to the disciples as they pass by. Everyone who lives her or his specific calling "entirely" lives "perfectly." 
The perfection of Christian discipleship is located, not in some divestiture of possession as Moss claims, but rather in allowing oneself to be de-centered by Jesus' call to friendship. That call may result in one giving up everything but such an action is not necessitated by all.

I'm embarrassed at her interpretation of Mark 10:17-22 // Matthew 19:16-26. Jesus doesn't "condemn" the man to hell. Indeed, I don't see Jesus doing much condemning in the scriptures! He may convict people, his judgement may be harsh in an effort to elicit conversion, but condemning...I just don't see that.

Jesus calls each person to discipleship as an individual. To be sure, many throughout history have forsaken possessions in order to dedicate themselves to following Jesus. Many more, however, have followed Jesus in other ways, not because they are selfish and don't want to give up their possessions but, because of their having found their new center in their friendship with Jesus, they put what they have at the service of Christ's mission.

When Jesus says, in Matthew 19:24, that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the reign of God" he is not sitting there with an actuarial table or giving some type of statistic. He's using hyperbolic speech to stir his listeners, powerful and vivid images to awaken their imaginations.

Sadly, for a person who specializes in New Testament studies, Professor Moss seems to have been seduced into a form of naive fundamentalism when it comes to interpreting scriptures. When I taught sophomores, I used to ask them to interpret the following passage:
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut if off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go to hell. (Mt 5:29-30) 
So, think for a moment of sophomore boys. Thoroughly disgusted? Yet, I have to say: I didn't see very many maimed students in my classes. So are they all going to hell? Clearly, Jesus is speaking in a provocative way given his experience of God's action in history and the call to find one's center, not in oneself, but in the God revealed in and through Jesus Christ.

I do wish Professor Moss had been given more time to speak and make an argument. I appreciate how gracious she was in her interaction but I'm worried that the thinness of her point, and the potential she had to reawaken Christians to the plight of the poor in the world and our duty toward them, was lost given her benighted interpretation of scripture.

I'm just still in shock that I agree, at least on the level of the aired interview, with Bill O'Reilly!

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Option for the Poor (On Liberation Theology)

Much digital ink has been spent of late trying to sort out the current Pope's relationship to Liberation Theology. Last month, the Holy Father met with Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the architects of 20th century liberation theology. Soon after their meeting, reports of the Pope "distancing himself from liberation theology" began to circulate. Suspicious of certain Marxist tendencies within this mode of theological reflection, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published in 1984 its Instruction on Certain Aspects of the "Theology of Liberation" and, in 1986, its follow-up Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation 

Longtime readers of my blog will know of my...strained relationship with fellow-blogger Joseph Fromm over at GoodJesuitBadJesuit. I use the term "blogger" with reserve, as he's more of an aggregator of various stories about Jesuits to which he affixes labels. His lack of understanding of Liberation Theology is particularly instructive. A quick scan of what he aggregates under the title "liberation theology" reveals a disparate mix of entries. Some may actually be liberation theology, other bits are simply pieces of theology he either dislikes and/or doesn't understand.

In the spirit of fraternal correction, let me gesture toward a resource that may be of service in reflecting upon liberation theology.

In his Bailey Lecture given in 1986 at the American Baptist Seminary of the West, Father Norbert F. Lohfink, S.J. delivered Option for the Poor: The Basic Principle of Liberation Theology In the Light of the Bible. The question he poses: What are the presuppositions, theological and historical, of the biblical talk of God's love for the poor?

Jesus said, in Matthew 26:11, that "you always will have the poor with you." Shouldn't we simply work for the salvation of souls and the promise of eternal reward, regarding our temporal lives as a mere preliminary step toward the glory of heaven?

Lohfink, contrary to this deranged spiritualization of Scripture, proposes five theses with regard to God's special concern for the poor:

  1. God is interested in the here and now: the Lord's Prayer does not ask for God's will to be done at some as-yet undetermined time. It's a bold prayer asking for God's will to be enacted here and now (Mt 6:9-10). We address God in haven and ask for action in this history, in this world. The Resurrection of Christ isn't a confirmation of a future appointment with God; it is, rather, God's acting now in our history. There's no gap between our present world and another world. There's a "leap" from the old age to the new that we as disciples are called to dwell within. 
  2. God is interested in material things. The Exodus is not God's leading a of a people into spiritual succor. God leads them into a land of "milk and honey" (Exodus 3:8), symbolic of prosperity. This is the land where those led will "eat and be full" (Deuteronomy 8:7-10). Jesus, furthermore, healed the sick and gave food to the hungry. 
  3. God is interested in society. Contrary to our individualistic notions of a personal savior, God delivers the people of Israel. It's not "all about me" but about the whole gathering together of God's people (the growing body of the church) and the coming of the New Jerusalem that concludes the Book of Revelation. 
  4. God is interested in plenitude and riches. God, the creator of all, has created "an abundant fullness of reality." We are all aware that the problem of global hunger is a human-made problem: we've plenty of resources but it is economically disadvantageous to the market to give people the food they eat. The harvest of the land rots unused in granaries while children starve. This may be acceptable when you worship at the altar of capitalism, but not at Yahweh's altar. From Mount Zion water flows into the desert and makes it fruitful (Ezekiel 47) and, when glory shines over Zion, the "riches of all nations stream toward Jerusalem" (Isaiah 60). In the New Testament, the river of life flows from the throne of the Lamb (Rev 22:1-2). 
  5. God's interest in the world unleashes a drama. When we dare to pray, "Thy will be done," we mean, really, "Realize the plans You have for this world!" As witnessed in Mark 3:33-35, we see with Lohfink God's will "to call a people together, to transform them, and through them to transform the whole world." God's program of gathering the people must begin somewhere, must start with someone being called, and those called into solidarity is directed to the poor of this world. 
I think it a particularly common, and especially pernicious, to christen many different types of poverty as though the "spiritual poverty" of the bourgeois lifestyle is the same as the crippling material poverty of those ground down by exploitative political and economic machinery. I'm not denying the spiritual poverty afflicted many in developed countries, yet I'd say that such spiritual poverty is a first-world problem. It's one thing to face a crisis of meaning in one's life, to feel hopeless and adrift. It's a wholly different predicament to face a crisis of life, to face the brutal reality that one or more of your children may not eat, that one or more of your children may die because medical and nutritional means are not available. 
Or, as Lohfink puts it succinctly, "when all can call themselves 'poor' before God, the suffering of those who are truly poor is trivialized." 

Do we have the courage to respond to God's grace, to become the "contrast-society" in which we allow God to "lead out" the nations from oppressive regimes and into the paradise of a land flowing with milk and honey? Have the fires that guided Israel during the Exodus been vanquished or can they still inspire us to be the people God calls us to be, a nation "of sisters and brothers in which there will be no more poor" (cf. Deuteronomy 15:4) and where "justice will rule among us, as long as we keep this whole social order before Yahweh our God and put it into action as he commanded us" (Deuteronomy 6:25). 

If this is the God revealed in the Scriptures, if this speaks truly to God's desire for us a human family, I can ask only: is there any theology that is not a liberation theology?  

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Pope Francis Speaks...Again!

Catholic news junkies were abuzz yesterday morning when the Italian newspaper la Republica published an interview between Pope Francis and Eugenio Scalfari. Following less than two weeks after the interview published in America.

There are two quotes I find particularly interesting/moving.
The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the problem is they don't even look for them any more. They have been crushed by the present. You tell me: can you live crushed under the weight of the present? Without a memory of the past and without the desire to look ahead to the future by building something, a future, a family? Can you go on like this? This, to me, is the most urgent problem that the Church is facing.

One detects, immediately, the Pope's empathy within this observation. Last night, as we began our RCIA program at St Cecilia's (you're welcome to join us at 6:30 on Tuesday nights!), we had the opportunity to share a bit of our present journeys in coming to know the Lord. Again and again, I was struck by wonderfully talented women and men who would say things such along the line of, "I just knew there was something more" or, "I felt such gratitude in my life that I wanted to respond." For them, they have glimpsed on the horizon of their lives the light of hope and have begun walking toward it. 

Although they are not the minority of young people, I fear they are far from the majority. How many of our young feel like cogs in the wheel, little disposable bits of a much bigger corporate machine. They go to college in order to get "jobs," not to discover their passions and find their lives' vocation. Matters of consequence grind them down into a fine dust. Their former dreams and aspirations pulverized, they "settle" and grow "content" as they are bricked into some business structure. 

A second, and particularly quotable/Tweet-able line: 
You know what I think about this? Heads of the Church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy.
Anti-institutional Westerners picked up on this immediately. Put into context, however, he's not claiming the Roman Curia or the whole structure to be afflicted with leprosy. Instead, it must be read in the wider context of decrying clericalism and narcissism. 

Even in the Church, the ethos of "I am what I do...and that makes me important" has crept. A sort of professional arrogance, an idea of privilege and "being special," marks some persons in all professions (it's no only bishops: think of some surgeons, lawyers, athletes, and corporate workers!). The key to understanding Francis on this point arises in his decrying the "Vatican-centric" defect: the Church must not focus its energies inward but, rather, "go back to being a community of God's people, and priests, pastors and bishops who have the care of souls, are at the service of the people of God." 


I don't know about anyone else but, for as much as I love the Holy Father, I'm sort of Pope-d out right now. I have enough reading for my five graduate courses to do that his lengthy and interesting interviews are really cutting into my own research schedule! 

Seriously, though, I do have a bit of worry. I can imagine some segments of the Church setting their faces against him. I remarked to a friend yesterday morning, after reading the latest interview, "Sniff. Sniff. Do you smell the odor of singed lace hanging in the air?" I can imagine these interviews being somewhat traumatic for Catholics whose main faith-focus places a particularly high value on the beauty and pageantry of the liturgy. 

An old friend - a young diocesan priest - found yesterday's interview overwhelming. "Ryan," he texted, "it doesn't seem like the Church I joined!" It may have been more emotional than factual, but I am sympathetic. I'd love it if the Pope would continue living the Gospel in his powerful way but would give us a break from the interviews: we need time to digest, and process, and pray. 

Indeed, we need the space to pray. I firmly believe the work of the Spirit is being seen in Francis and I'm overjoyed at the excitement he has wrought. Yet, in the frenzy of the words and gestures, it is easy to lose focus and forget to pray. 

My plea to the Holy Father: give us a few moments, all of us, to have some Catholic quiet, some time to pray. As much as I love the spectacle and find myself greatly excited, I know I need to pray to keep myself in touch with the Risen One who is at the center of my life and faith. Truth be told, the Holy Father is helping to make my Christian faith richer and more exciting, no one can ever take the place of the One in whose name we pray: Jesus Christ. 

After all the excitement of recent weeks and months, I need a bit of quiet to take it all in, to discern, and above all, to pray. 

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame