Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Virgin Birth—Incarnation

Godfrey Diekmann, OSB,  exploded with this statement in the students’ dining hall at St. John’s.
It’s not the Resurrection, dammit! It’s the Incarnation!
An editorial in National Catholic Reporter reminded me of this story in The Monk’s Tale, a biography of Diekmann by Kathleen Hughes. When I was at the School of Theology, she came onto the Collegeville campus to gather stories for her book about our colorful and inspirational professor, Godfrey, as he was known by students and fellow professors. The first-name basis at SOT is one of my fond memories of those years, and I’m proud to have my own memories of Godfrey Diekmann, who played an important role in contemporary Church history.

Godfrey passionately preached the implications of the Mystical Body—that we share divinity. This is the Incarnation, and Christmas is the feast of the Incarnation. In the traditional Christian perspective, God’s entry into time and history happened at the birth of the Nazarene, Jesus. But let’s not worship an external God-image, which is a form of idolatry. We incarnate or embody the Divine. We are the eyes, hands, and feet of Christ, and I don’t mean a man, and by “we” I don’t mean only Christians. Divinity resides in the heart of the Hindu, Inuit, Muslim, Sikh, animist, whatever. Eternity is enfleshed in all creation, and our distinctly human task is to consciously advance this process of Incarnation.

When I said something like this in a blogspot a long time ago, someone commented that non-Christians would object to being called “the eyes, hands, and feet of Christ.” I have to agree. I’m doing my best here to bridge Christian doctrine with other spiritual systems, and I inevitably offend one side or the other. Speaking as a Christian, I’m comfortable with Christian terms, but I have no patience with traditionalists bent on preserving the literal and exclusive understanding of our religious doctrines.

A Buddhist interviewed in Sacred Journey (summer 2009), said of the Dalai Lama,
He feels that even if someone is beating his body, underneath the cells of his body is the realm of pure light that is blissful. . . . welling up from the core of the reality of life, an infinite sustaining energy, which is what I think all highly spiritually developed people tap into, whatever they call it.
How well this captures incarnational possibility!
I think that, if Godfrey were working in this new century with its wealth of alternative spiritual voices, he would have listened. He would have synthesized the Dalai Lama’s view with Paul’s “Christ lives in me.” And he might even have seen the link with secular humanism, which more than religions has advanced human dignity and human rights around the world.

Carl Jung led the way toward integrating Christian doctrine with secular spirituality. He showed that our thinking I, our ego or conscious mind, needs to become aware of our unconscious totality, our Higher Self. And this inner Self “cannot be distinguished from God-images,” Christ, of course, the prominent example. How do we achieve this union of ego with divinity? Jung, the depth psychologist, said, “God becomes manifest in the human act of reflection.” But I like the Christian image of becoming “the eyes, hands, and feet of Christ.”

We are called to become Mothers of God in a Virgin Birth.
****
Now a response to my latest posts that came to me by email. I got permission to quote Ron Ohmann because his comment may help others to understand my message:
Thanks, Jeanette. Although we enjoy the prevailing Catholic/Christian "take" on Christmas, we remind ourselves it is largely mythology. It really is beautiful mythology which is why it has such strong cultural appeal, I suppose. But, as thinking Catholics who read Bp.J.W.Spong, yourself, and others, we are, I believe, more realistic regarding Christmas and other aspects of Christianity. It is, I feel, the only way one can truly grow spiritually as a Christian. Happy New Year, Ron

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Virgin Birth

Mary treasured all these things and reflected on them in her heart.
Lk 2:19

After the Holy Spirit has brought forth something new in us, we have to take time out to contemplate the wonder. When the Divine has fertilized our wombs—male and female—we need to ponder these things in our hearts. The wondrous new thing always is a surprise thought impossible until now.

Here I make a sharp turn. When I saw the title “Surprised by Faith,” I thought it possible that a little book sent to me would convey a helpful message, but it echoes hundreds of other books/articles/tracts/letters written by a reconverted former skeptic who returns to childhood faith. Like the hundreds—no, I’m sure it must be thousands—of other such writers, he assumes that the only alternative to atheism is Christianity, and a specific, getting-smaller-but-louder group of Christians—evangelicals, the Christians who avert their eyes from the wealth of spiritual riches outside the Christian box.

It reminds me of a comment to my Times piece Look outside Christian box. I usually don’t read them—too much dross relative to the kernels of value—but someone who applauded my stepping on sacred cows asked about the response. I found this interesting one:
The opinion writer refers to herself as a fellow Christian and then calls the virgin birth a myth. I fail to see how the two are compatible.
By this standard, the pope is not Christian because his knowledge of biblical scholarship must make literal belief in the virgin birth impossible for him.

May the Holy Spirit fertilize your womb this Christmas in a virgin birth, maybe a surprising and new understanding of Christian myth. May the song, “Jesus, rest your head,” sweetly comfort you because you know it is meant for the child in YOURSELF.

A few hours after I posted this, I received the response:
My ‘beef’ with the virgin birth is that it doesn’t respect the human miracle of conception, and the sacredness of the conjugal act.
Excellent comment.
A day later from another reader:
Oh, that we would all know ourselves to be “Mothers of God”!
Amen.

A reader asked how the Bible disproves the Virgin Birth. It doesn’t prove or disprove anything. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke bestow the title “virgin” on the mother of Jesus but contradict the sexual/biological understanding of the term in their genealogies (see Look outside Christian box). Matthew’s quotation from Isaiah is a Greek mistranslation of the original Hebrew word, which simply meant “maiden.” Matthew 13:55-56 and Mark 6:3 tell us that Jesus had brothers and sisters. Catholic theology used to claim that these passages refer to cousins, but contemporary scholarship has abandoned this lame attempt at upholding the myth. These details illustrate the confusion between literal and symbolic interpretations, and fuller understanding of the Bible’s messages comes from examining the nature of myth.

So what’s the source and meaning of the myth? Pagan Goddesses. Scholars conclude that the virgin designation comes from paganism, where it meant a strong, independent woman. One pagan virgin was Aphrodite, notorious for her lack of sexual/biological virginity. Mythologists give the interpretation of myth that I expressed. It shines forth succinctly and perhaps most beautifully in the last reader comment:
Oh, that we would all know ourselves to be “Mothers of God”!
Getting back to the question of why the pope’s knowledge of biblical study would make literal belief impossible for him, I can’t fully explain here. I refer readers to my writings on myth in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky and in my blogspots as well as my piece in the St.Cloud Times, "Look Outside Christian box." For full understanding, we have to apply the distinction between literal and symbolic language to religious teachings.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why I stay Catholic

I’m often asked why I stay in the Church, and I give answers in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky, but the subject is never exhausted. An article in NCR Reasons to stay renewed the question in me.

Maine’s effort to legislate marriage equality failed recently after Catholic bishops spent thousands of dollars to defeat a bill granting rights to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, despite research showing that 58 percent of Catholics favor acceptance of homosexuals.

A greater rift between hierarchy and most American Catholics exists on the issue of contraception, with most people in the Church ignoring the bishops’ prohibition. That “each sexual act must be open to the possibility of children” violates plain sense, as it would ban sex to all people incapable of having children.

The bishops’ understanding of procreation as the primary purpose of marriage is obsolete by more than 1500 years. When Pope Paul VI imposed the ban on contraception with the encyclical Humanae Vitae, he ignored the majority of moral theologians and the Birth Control Commission advising him. Shortly after the encyclical was issued, over 600 scholars signed a statement dissenting from its ruling. They found the moral arguments against birth control faulty and gave serious reasons for changing the teaching. Widely understood is that the Vatican simply did not want to admit its position was wrong.

Its silly position on contraception robs it of credibility on other issues, including abortion. If the bishops really want to lower the rate of abortions, they will accept the most effective way to accomplish that—contraception—and have the courage to admit faulty judgment in the past.

What keeps me in the Church are the many Catholics who resist official repression and follow their conscience, those who think expansively, give generously, and act hospitably. Most of these broadminded people are not hierarchs. It must be hard to be a clergyman if you really do not agree with the official hard line.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Constantine's Sword

Wow, what a book! I didn’t fully appreciate how pernicious is the only-through-Jesus stance that I critique in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky, until I read Contantine’s Sword. To everyone interested in my writings I enthusiastically recommend this book by James Carroll. I expected to pass on its revelations of the Catholic Church’s war against Jews. But it gets closer to my themes than that.

James Carroll brings us the entire history of Catholics degrading Jews by articulating a theology of the cross that blamed Jews for killing God. The Church herded Jews into ghettoes, stole their children to baptize them, ruthlessly restricted Jewish mobility and commerce, nearly forced them to become moneylenders and then despised them for usury. Carroll shows us canonized saints and revered scholars spewing anti-Semitic venom, with the ever-present undercurrent of conversion to Jesus as the only option for any life. In the words of Thomas Aquinas, Jesus “is the absolutely necessary way of salvation.” [391]

Carroll quotes Rosemary Radford Ruether, who asserts that the religion-based hatred of Jews led to the race-based hatred of blood purity regulations, “the ancestor of the Nazi Nuremberg Laws.” [382]
I was especially interested in the facts finally settling the controversy over whether Pius XII, the pope during my youth, was guilty of cooperating with Hitler. After this book, there can be no doubt.

It started when Eugenio Pacelli, a cardinal and secretary of state for Pius XI, worked out a Reichskonkordat with Hitler in 1933 to advance the political standing of the papacy. This endorsement by the Catholic Church saved Hitler’s reputation from the suspicious eyes of other countries. He had not been shy about expressing his hostility to Jews. When his campaign against them became more apparent months later, Pacelli pleaded for non-Aryans who converted to the Christian religion, but not for non-converted Jews.

The most damning incident happened in the Jewish quarter next to the Vatican and Pope Pius XII, the former Eugenio Pacelli.
The Germans had occupied Rome in September 1943. Until then, Jews had been relatively safe, but at 5:30 A.M. on October 16, the noise of gunfire broke the night silence of the ghetto. By then it was home to about four thousand Jews. The streets leading out of the quarter were blocked. SS officers drove residents from their homes, and in a few hours the Germans had arrested more than twelve hundred people. The Jews were taken to a temporary jail in the Italian Military College, which stood a few hundred yards from Vatican City. Yet from the Vatican, no voice was raised in public support of the Jews.
Two days later, the prisoners were put on trucks, taken to the railroad station, and loaded into boxcars. Again, no voice was raised in protest. The arrested Jews were gone. Five days later, this entry appears in the meticulously kept log at Auschwitz: “Transport, Jews from Rome. After the selection 149 men registered with numbers 158451-158639 and 47 women registered with numbers 66172-66218 have been admitted to the detention camp. The rest have been gassed. [524]
Defenders of Pius XII insist the Holy See intervened with a “dressing down” of the German ambassador the morning after October 16 and stopped deportations, but notes by the Vatican’s own secretary of state reveal anxious hope that the Vatican would not have to publicly condemn the roundup of Jews and bring Nazi hostility onto itself.
The [German] Ambassador after several moments of reflection, asked me: What will the Holy See do if events continue?
I replied: the Holy See would not want to be put into the necessity of uttering a word of disapproval.
The Vatican secretary of state explicitly authorized that this communication be kept private, obviously avoiding any public plea for justice. The German Ambassador wrote Berlin that the pope, “although harassed from various quarter, has not allowed himself to be stampeded into making any demonstrative pronouncement against removal of the Jews from Rome.” [527] Many Jews did find refuge in Catholic homes, religious houses, churches, and the Vatican itself. What Pius XII had to do with the acts of heroism is not known.

I hinted that Constantine’s Sword states themes similar to mine, but I can’t say it mimics my brief, blunt statement, “I don’t believe Jesus is God or that his death saved the world.” Carroll is blunt but never brief. He quotes “the great twentieth-century Catholic theologian” Karl Rahner and informs me of something I hadn’t known. Rahner was silenced by the Vatican under Pius XII for stating that Catholic dogma needs to be reconsidered but, under Pope John XXIII, he was rehabilitated by Vatican II. No theologian had more influence at that council. Rahner wrote:
The West is no longer shut up in itself. . . . it can no longer regard itself simply as the center of the history of this world and as the center of culture, with a religion which . . . could appear as the obvious and indeed sole way of honoring God . . . today everybody is the next-door neighbor and spiritual neighbor of everyone else in the world . . . which puts the absolute claim of our own Christian faith into question. [583]
Carroll added, “The Church’s fixation on the death of Jesus as the universal salvific act must end.” Expressed briefly and bluntly, Jesus’ death did not save the world.
We do not own the truth.

Carroll writes as a laicized Catholic priest committed to the Catholic faith. His challenges to the hierarchy come out of love for Jesus and the Church.

I expected him to at least mention a necessary corollary to his indictment of Catholic crimes against Jews—the Jewish state of Israel now punishes Palestinians for the sins that Europeans committed against Jews.
After the Holocaust, Jews organized a migration of Jews back to the land from which they were purged by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago. Trouble is, the land wasn’t empty. Their ethnic relatives lived there and the Jews moving in were not satisfied with joining their fellow Semites and living peaceably among them.

Palestine had been declared a British protectorate after the Ottoman Empire was defeated in WWI. As tensions between incoming Jews and the indigenous population increased, the British washed their hands of it and turned it over to the U.N., which planned for two separate states, one Jewish, one Palestinian. Without waiting for the plan to take effect, the Jews declared themselves a state and have been steadily encroaching on the land the U.N. had intended for a Palestinian state. Israel has a powerful ally in the U.S., which, no matter which party controls the White House and/or Congress, always thwarts U.N. attempts to bring justice to the Middle East.

A pamphlet given to me recently prompts my writing about this festering issue again. Just a few facts:
• Since the 1950s, Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture has been taking Palestinian land and giving it to Israeli settlers for housing.
• As of July 4, 2009, Israel had demolished 24,145 Palestinian homes.
• From 2000 to 2004, the Israeli Army uprooted 400,000 olive trees causing $60 million in revenue loss.
• Israel’s continued construction of a 30-foot high wall enclosing Palestinians on a small portion of the land the U.N. planned for them prevents Palestinians free access to their farms and orchards, employment, medical care, and commerce of all kinds.
• 80% of Palestinians are unemployed.
• Nearly half of all Palestinian children suffer chronic malnutrition.

Here are links to more information.
If Americans Knew
Jews for peace in Palestine
Jewish voice for peace
Please get more facts regarding this awful tragedy about which Americans know very little. Many Jews in Israel and the U.S. know that only justice for Palestinians can bring peace to Israelis.
To translate your concern for the forgotten people of Palestine into action, visit Churches for Middle East peace. It responded to the temporary freeze announced by the Israeli government on settlement construction in the West Bank . . . but not in East Jerusalem. No freeze in East Jerusalem, which was to be the capital of the Palestinian state! The U.S. government praised this ridiculously inadequate step. Construction on land stolen in the past continues.

This announcement is like the U.S. government saying to Native Americans in the 19th century, "We'll temporarily stop taking some of your land, but we'll take what we really want."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Spinoza

The name Spinoza kept coming up in my readings and I love philosophy, so when James Carroll devoted a chapter to him in Constantine’s Sword, I paid attention. I'm surprised by the similarity between his ideas and trends in spiritual thinking today.

Baruch or Benedict Spinoza was Jewish by birth but branded an atheist, anti-religionist, materialist, and pantheist. He was banned and banished, investigated by the Spanish Inquisition, and excommunicated by an Amsterdam synagogue. He endured abuse from the other side too, as his Jewishness was targeted by non-Jews, a common sport during his lifetime (1632-1677).

He was actually intensely aware of God, a saintly man of whom someone wrote, “one of the most exemplary human beings ever to have lived." He continues to influence discourse about spiritual matters.

Spinoza (1632-1677) synthesized science with the philosophies and corrected Cartesian dualism.
René Descartes (1596-1650) was the first to clearly identify the mind with consciousness and self-awareness and to distinguish this from the physical brain, which produces the kind of intelligence that computers can replicate. His distinction highlighted the mind-body problem that still occupies us today, but it didn’t show how mind and body interact.

Descartes’ Spirit-Matter distinction had the good effect of separating church from state, but it also produced Deism, with its image of the mechanistic clockmaker God who has nothing to do with the world’s affairs. Spirit was relegated to the SUPER natural—separated from the world. The severe separation of God from physical creation, in Carroll’s words, divided “rational from emotional, individual from community, scientific from artistic, pragmatic from moral.”

To counter dualism, we can think of the All or the Absolute, what we call God, as transcending "ordinary, physical reality while at the same time being the most natural reality, not some supernatural, extra-natural, un-natural, external-to-reality being we have to be told to believe in.” I put this in quotes because it’s what I argued in my guest post for ddjango (an assumed name).

Now I find that Spinoza's philosophy predated my thought way back in the 17th century. He thought of God as the dynamic principle of order immanent within nature. He identified God with Nature, seeing them as two names for the same reality:
Nothing exists save the one substance—the self-contained, self-sustaining, and self-explanatory system which constitutes the world.
This reminds me of Andre Comte-Sponville’s words in The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality:
Being? Nature? Becoming? . . . Everyone is free to choose their own vocabulary . . . This is what has traditionally been called the absolute or the unconditioned, that which depends on nothing but itself and exists independently of all relations, conditions and points of view.
The translation of this French atheist’s Little Book came out in 2007. He and Spinoza are two European philosophers separated in time but close in thought, and both echoing the theme of Eastern thought—all things exist in interdependence.

If God is in all, we don’t need religions to mediate God, do we? So Spinoza was considered anti-religion. But he didn’t oppose religions or disrespect them. He did advocate for seeing them, like everything else, sub specie aeternitatis or from the point of view of eternity. In other words, no particular human thought or religion is supreme; there’s always another way of looking at things. He advocated equality of religious sects, another idea ahead of its time.

Whenever I write something this philosophical, I’m afraid that some of my readers get glazed eyes and quit trying to penetrate the abstractions. Let me know if philosophy does that to you.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Trinity by Ken Wilber

Many Christian philosophers, even non-Christians like the Buddhist Thich Nhât Hanh, have described the Trinity. In EnlighenNext (September/November 2009), a magazine for evolutionaries, I read an articulation of Trinity—although he doesn’t call it that—by the contemporary philosopher Ken Wilber that appeals to me. Here’s how Wilber with EnlightenNext editor Andrew Cohen describes three faces of God that easily harmonize with Christian language.

1st person—I.
“First-person Spirit is the great I AM, the pure radical subjectivity or witness in every sentient being.” If you have used Buddhist prompts to meditate, this dimension of Spirit may be familiar to you. As I interpret Wilber’s description, it’s found in the deepest part of our selves, the Higher Self, the Christ.

2nd person—You.
“Spirit in second person is the great Thou,” something immeasurably greater than we can possibly imagine, something before which surrender and devotion and submission and gratitude are the only appropriate responses. This is Transcendence, the Beyond, the great Other, what I’ve called the More. To this Majesty we bend the knee and surrender, utterly.

3rd person—It.
“And Spirit in third person is the great web of life, the Great Perfection of everything that is arising,” the cosmic process.

Wilber and Cohen give the greatest attention to the second dimension which directs our intimate relations with what we call God—our subjective spirituality. They warn that the latest generation of Westerners doesn’t get this one because the last half-century has trained them to seek “my pleasure, my happiness, my success” in self-centered narcissism. Surrender to Thou is mistaken for craven, “slavish, devotional, obsequious slobbering.” The circles I know—family, friends, acquaintances—don’t fit this category but I recognize it in the wider American culture, the consuming, throw-away, acquisitive society.

Wilber and Cohen advise us to embrace “hierarchy,” which can be misunderstood as condoning the tyrannical acts of domineering Catholic bishops, for example. The word has triggered some confusion, frustration and resistance in my circle, which is accustomed to rules from church hierarchs who claim that obedience to “the magisterium” is the same as obeying God. But gurus Wilber and Cohen obviously have in mind a different case than Catholics of my generation when they promote respect for hierarchy. They mean we should recognize higher levels of spiritual perfection and take direction from individuals who have evolved to a higher level.

Wilber explains,
Each higher level doesn’t oppress the previous level—it loves it; it embraces it. Molecules do not go around oppressing atoms! . . .

This hierarchical perspective is not a way to put you down . . . ; it’s a way for me to understand my own unfolding, . . . to help me grow, develop, evolve. . . .

Start this practice by just using a simple phrase like “consent to the presence of God,” just spontaneously letting that phrase go through [your] mind daily. Now of course people are going to respond to the presence of God in the way that corresponds to where their ego is. But if their heart is in the right place . . . some higher, deeper, wider aspects of their awareness will kick in . . . [to recognize] the second face of Spirit.
Without using traditional, patriarchal symbols of trinity or even mentioning the word “trinity,” Ken Wilber gives a satisfying reflection on it entirely consistent with Christian theology. He successfully bridges Christian orthodoxy with post-Christian spirituality.

I take it as more evidence that we can find common ground between widely divergent spiritual beliefs.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Not religious but spiritual

Tom Shepherd writes an excellent column, “That’s a Good Question,” for Unity magazine, which fosters “practical spirituality for daily living.” In the November/December issue, he comments that those who claim to be “spiritual, not religious” disparage organizations dedicated to the Divine. Good point.

But I find the distinction “spiritual, not religious” useful for communicating with persons turned off by religion, atheists, for instance, and some agnostics. To my observation, they can be intensely spiritual but hate religion, seeing nothing good in it and resisting evidence of any good done by it.

Atheists are driven by spiritual conviction. Because of it, they are disgusted by religious corruption and aggression, but they deny that they have spiritual beliefs because they conflate them with religious beliefs. Religions are types or brands of spirituality, in Shepherd’s words, “a trail of settlements along the path to support” our spiritual journey, but I see that atheists practice spirituality without such support.

As I wrote in “Food, shamans, atheists, lesbians” (a few posts down), I can find common ground with atheists when I distinguish between spiritual and religious and when I interpret Christian language non-literally. This is quite an achievement because atheists detest worship of the Christian god that Shepherd rightly says “does not exist.” I cherish the comment of the atheist who said I comforted her and take it as evidence that I showed respect for atheist spirituality.

For more on this subject see my column Does God exist? Wrong question!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Food, shamans, atheists, lesbians

I’m still coming down from this past weekend when I gave two presentations and heard three others. Since 1992 I have not missed the annual Women & Spirituality Conference in Mankato, MN, always a source of sustaining inspiration, and this year was one of the best. Where to start?

The keynoter was Vandana Shiva, a scientist and, in my view, one of the most admirable persons in the world. The outrage of seed patents—the pretense that corporations create seeds—turned her from nuclear science to food activism.

She analyzes the pathology of the Western mindset that thinks conquest of the earth is a good thing, that nature exists only to serve “man,” that animals are only factories to produce goods, that artificial is better than natural, that Monsanto’s genetically altered seeds deserve priority over centuries of indigenous expertise, which had produced drought-resistant, flood-resistant, and pest-resistant seeds. She made us aware of the insanity of industrial agriculture with its reliance on pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and antibiotics controlling the world’s food. She told us of corporate greed inducing a rash of suicides among farmers in India.

Unfortunately, Shiva could not stay to answer questions but went off to another venue in the States and then on to Germany. Her busy schedule of engagements gives me hope that the corporate hold on food production can be overcome. Unless it is freed from obscene profits, world hunger will not diminish.

I learned about and watched a video of shamans healing people in Nepal. It reminded me of the shaman Jesus of Nazareth, apparent in the Gospel of Mark. I absorbed a presentation explaining scientifically that consciousness—our thoughts, beliefs, intentions, desires, and feelings (including those of which we are unaware)—shape our reality. Wow, what a realization that is!

I spoke on “Atheist Spirituality,” bridging Christian language with different spiritual beliefs, including atheism. How can we find common ground between the religion that claims “we are the one, true church” and atheists? By realizing, first, that atheists are driven by spiritual conviction. They are disgusted by religious dishonesty and corruption because of their deep spirituality. Second, by realizing that religious language must not be interpreted literally or taken as fact. Heaven and God are ways of imagining the Invisible, not factual descriptions of the Invisible. Heaven can’t be described in miles or feet. When we die, we’re not going to meet a fellow called “Father” with a man called “Jesus” sitting on his right side.

Much of my talk focused on the The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by André Comte-Sponville, and readers of my blog can find some of his content by poking around in my blog index under “Atheism,” starting with Mystic atheist.

As usual, my presentations ended in participant discussion, which always fills me, gratifies me. It’s so exciting when they get it! From an atheist I received a new compliment I cherish—she said I comforted her. Another atheist who is also a lesbian recounted the time someone learned these facts about her and exclaimed, “You don’t look like that!” We could laugh, but it is sad that the stereotypes exist.

It was good to be among people who have moved out of the box.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was on Kerri Miller’s Midmorning (MN public radio) again but I called too late to get in my comment. He and other atheists say they reject God, but they really reject the Christian god and not what thoughtful religious people think of as God. Misleading Christian language—the monopolistic “Father” and “he/him/his”—gives the impression that God is a humanlike individual.

The atheist André Comte-Sponville in The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality rejects belief in “a God,” in a “subject,” “in something,” “in Someone,” and “in his existence.” And I don’t believe in that god either! Each of his phrases indicates an individual something, an object or subject, something alongside other individual things in the universe, and that’s not God.

One of the foremost theologians of the twentieth century, Karl Rahner, explains that,
the mysterious and the incomprehensible . . . can never be defined by being distinguished from something else. For that would be to objectify it, to understand it as one object among other objects, and to define it conceptually. . . . we do not know God by himself as one individual object alongside others, but only as the term of transcendence.
Despite Rahner's unfortunate use of the male pronoun, he clarifies the mistake of believing in A certain humanlike God. It substitutes a particular God-image for the Divine Mystery beyond anything we can imagine. We must not fall into the idolatry of worshipping a particular God-image—father, mother, bear, sun, moon, turtle, or Jesus—for no image can adequately represent the Transcendent Mystery.

I sympathized with Dawkins this morning when he said it was hard to avoid contempt for people who deny evolution and think the planet is 6,000 years old. I confess I struggle with contempt for people who can’t see that there’s something wrong with always talking about God as if IT were a male individual.

Comte-Sponville gives beautiful and appropriate descriptions of what we call “God” but he calls IT “the All” or “nature”:
• the infinite, the eternal and the absolute.

• . . . what has traditionally been called the absolute or the unconditioned, that which depends on nothing but itself and exists independently of all relations, conditions and points of view.

• It is the silence of that which can be neither explained nor expressed . . . not meaning, but being.
• How can it not exist, given that, without it, nothing could exist?

• . . . the truth of the universe must indeed be mysterious. How can we expect to understand and explain everything, given the fact that the ‘everything’ was here long before we were, and formed us, and permeates our very being, and surpasses us in every direction?
I’m sure he doesn’t know he is describing God as thoughtful Christians would describe IT, and as IT’s described in Exodus 3:14, “I am who I am.” In the original Hebrew this was rendered, YHWH, which derives from the Hebrew word for “being.” And from that we get Yahweh, who degenerates into a god of war and genocide. The atheist Comte-Sponville captures beautifully the true meaning.

Ironic that an atheist does a better job than most Christians would!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Virgin martyr & Lost Christianities

One of several books I’m reading is Bart Ehrmann’s Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Ehrmann presents variant forms of Christianity, showing that this religion could have developed in other ways and that present doctrine was not carved in stone.

Among the book's tantalizing facts is information about the Acts of Thecla, a popular Christian work I’d known about. Ehrmann finds it fascinating and adds it to his list of “forged” Christian documents. He applies the term “forged” to all literary works that are not what they purport to be, a standard that would indict many writings in the Bible. The Acts of Thecla was the equivalent of a novel in a time that did not strictly distinguish fact from fiction.

Thecla was “a household name” in Christian antiquity, the most famous convert of Paul, and the heroine of outlandish miracle stories. Enraptured by Paul’s message of sexual renunciation, she devotes herself to Paul and to chastity, but this distresses her mother and Thecla's fiancé. Ehrmann writes,
Her following was huge. Pilgrims flocked to her shrines in Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt. Devotees committed their lives to her adoration. Revered as a model martyr and worshiped as a saint, in some parts of the Christian world Thecla vied for centuries with Mary, the Mother of Jesus herself, as most important person outside the Trinity.
She would appeal to voyeurs today as well, because she is stripped naked and thrown onto a fire, rescued by God, then stripped naked and thrown to beasts, again rescued and brought through more martyr trials, and the miraculous rescues continue.

We know that the accounts were fabricated but not whether they give any factual information at all, a point debated by scholars, who also wonder how to account for her huge popularity. I suspect that the stories’ similarity with romance novels was one draw, that a female protagonist (rare at the time) was another, and that below-the-surface voyeurism drew people to this virgin martyr, although this story tells us that early Christianity was as fervently anti-sexual as our time is besotted with sex.

Thecla got the attention of Tertullian because she teaches men and apparently baptizes herself, a terrific no-no for Tertullian, who considered women unfit for any sacred function. No one in Christian history surpasses Tertullian for sexism. He is quoted as saying every woman is Eve, the gate of hell, the temptress of the forbidden tree.

Two things draw me to Thecla's story: My grandmother Blonigen’s name was Thekla (spelled this way), and Tertullian is always fun to read about.

While Thecla reigned as the virgin with sex appeal, knock-down, drag-out fights in the form of fierce debates raged in the religion. From the second through fourth centuries, there were many Christianities. The conflict threw orthodox against Gnostics. (This simplifies it almost to distortion, because there were many variations.) Gnostics de-emphasized Jesus’ bodily presence, some to the point of denying that he had a normal body. The orthodox insisted, rightly, that he had a normal body. This they could not relinquish because they believed Jesus’ bodily suffering bought our redemption.

This theory of salvation through Jesus’ death comes from Paul, and it became a central pillar of Christian belief. But very early writings reveal that apparently not all followers of Jesus focused on the redeemer Jesus.

Q and the Gospel of Thomas contain nothing but lists of Jesus’ sayings. Thomas was found many centuries after the New Testament took form, but Q is hidden in plain sight in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. German Lutheran scholars figured out that the authors of these gospels must have been working with the same source document—a list of Jesus’ sayings. Q comes from Quelle, meaning “source” in German. Anyone comparing Matthew and Luke can easily compile a list of nearly identical sayings from these gospels, and scholars debate about the most authentic forms of each saying. Sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are similar to those in Q, and both focus on Jesus’ teachings, not his death.

Gnostics also believed his teachings had paramount importance (“gnosis” means “knowledge” in Greek); they believed Jesus brings salvation with secret knowledge, NOT by dying and rising! But, they believed, only certain select people were privy to this secret knowledge. Their undemocratic selection has no appeal for us today, but their type of knowledge does. "Gnosis" meant, not knowledge of facts, but reflective or insightful knowledge—know thyself. Dig deep below the surface and intuit the wisdom of the ages. Know self, know human nature, and this leads to knowledge of God.

The point is that our religion could have evolved differently; it could have included more symbolic interpretation from Gnosticism and less emphasis on worship of the redeemer god-man.

Few Christians today are aware of these facts, well known by scholars, that subvert the assumptions of the typical Christian today.
• Jesus of Nazareth had no intention of letting people worship himself or starting a new religion. He was a committed Jew, but the New Testament and centuries of teaching have hidden this fact. In my writings I attribute the founding of Christianity to Paul, but he didn’t intend to start a new religion either.

• In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ enemies are Satan (1:23-26), the Scribes (3:22-27), his own family (3:31), and the people of his native place (6:4-6). In Luke his enemies are “the chief priests, officers of the temple guard, and elders” (22:52)—a shift toward marking Jews as bad people.

• “The loaded phrase ‘the Jews’ appears a total of 16 times in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, while in John it appears 71 times.” So writes James Carroll in Constantine’s Sword. He brings to light another unhappy detail. In John 8, Jesus debates the Jews who say, “Our father is Abraham,” and Jesus tells them (8:44), “The father you spring from is the devil.” Scholars today don’t attribute to the historical Jesus these words that build antagonism toward Jews. Carroll's point is the gospels' trashing of Jews. My added point is the gospels' unreliability as history.

• The first followers of Jesus did not think of him as God but, by about 70 years after his death, the messenger was becoming the message in the natural progression of human discourse. Titles implying divinity were applied to Jesus as well as to God.

• Before the 4th century, there was wide divergence of Christian beliefs. Some emphasized Jesus’ humanity; others downplayed it to the extent of denying he was a normal human being. Palestinians, the people of Jesus’ family and native region, did not divinize him.

• Beliefs about Jesus expected of Christians now—that he is one of three persons who make up God—grew from a demand by the Roman Emperor Constantine that bishops get together and decide what Christians should believe. There followed a series of councils called by emperors along with fierce disagreements. Men called “saint” today were among the most vicious contenders, and of course politics entered the discussion.

• As sun gods were popular in ancient religions, Yahweh and Jesus also became sun gods. According to Catholic scholar Hugo Rahner, the Israelites (ancestors of the Jews) worshipped Yahweh as a sun god. The Book of Malachi, which immediately precedes the New Testament, refers to “the sun of righteousness . . . with healing in its wings.” This, writes Rahner, “sounds much like the winged solar disc of Babylon and Egypt,” and the phrase “Sun of Righteousness” was often applied to Jesus by early church fathers. (Chapter 4 of Malachi appears in the RSV translation but does not appear in the NAB approved by Catholic bishops. I wonder why.)

• Jesus was widely perceived as a sun god, as evidenced by the worship day of Christians being called “Sunday,” the birthday of Jesus celebrated on the winter solstice, the sun's birthday, and churches orienting their altars toward the East. A fourth-century calendar entry for December 25 lists the birth of Christ along with the birth of the sun. (A later calendar adjustment accounts for the solstice now occurring earlier.)

These facts suggest that historical circumstances created Christianity, that religious beliefs shift and borrow from competing beliefs, and that New Testament writers contributed to the scapegoating of Jews by Christians.

Ehrmann’s Lost Christianities reminded me about the Didache, a very early church document that also indicates how our religion could have evolved differently. Its style and message differ from all the books that made it into the Bible. It doesn’t preach the message that Jesus Christ died for us, but tells people how to live well. “Lord” and “Spirit” are mentioned more that “Christ.”

A large piece of the Didache gives instructions for treating itinerant prophets and warns against “false prophets” who exploit their hosts by staying too long—freeloaders, as Ehrmann puts it. Apparently walking from town to town to preach was a popular occupation.

The communities are told to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, not on Mondays and Thursdays “like the hypocrites” (we don’t know who those were), and they are to say the Lord’s prayer three times a day. The prayer is surprisingly identical to ours. Of greatest interest are the Didache’s instructions on how to baptize and to have Eucharist. The baptized are to fast two or three days beforehand (Baptism for infants was unknown) and they are baptized with running water.

Eucharist instructions contain only words of thanksgiving—no lengthy Mass—and the words are like nothing we hear at Mass. The words of blessing/thanksgiving over the cup come before those over the bread. To give some background, the first Christians gathered together in houses for meals that included the ritual of Eucharist. This evolved into the Mass known to modern Catholics. The Mass has elements similar to pagan mystery religions, which also had sacred meals in honor of redeemer deities and initiation rites like Baptism.

Many other elements from paganism became part of Christianity. The god Mithra was more popular than Jesus Christ in the early centuries of the new era. There were seven Mithraic sacraments, one of them a meal with bread marked with a cross. It was called mizd, in Latin missa, in English mass. The myth of Mithra included a virgin birth, twelve disciples, Magi, and miracles.

A person, who often submits comments that I don’t publish because of their rudeness and repetitiveness, denied that Mithra had a virgin birth. So I looked for more evidence, and found it from Mia here.
There is reference to Mithra as being born of "Anahita, the Immaculate Virgin Mother of the Lord Mithras." Anahita was said to have conceived the Mithras from the seed of Zarathustra preserved in the waters of Lake Hamun in the Persian province of Sistan. In other contradictory traditions, he is also born without any sex but from the rock wall of a cave. One must know that there were separate Mithra traditions that may have changed and been adapted over time. This information comes from a Temple that bears this inscription dedicated to Anahita and dated to about 200 B.C.E.
Hugo Rahner, brother of theologian Karl Rahner whom I like to quote, admitted that "much of the stock of ideas and verbal images that belonged to the mystery cults found its way into Christianity." Indeed it did.

They used the simple human acts of eating, washing, and anointing as symbols of sacred power. They fasted, made sacrifice, sang hymns, recited litanies, walked in processions, bore sacred vessels, kissed the altar, communed with their God by partaking of a sacred meal, and had a professional priesthood. Their words and phrases endure in our literature: "mystery," "sacrament," “salvation,” “epiphany,” "the handing on of truth," and the good religious life as "victory" in a "war." Every time we recite the Gloria of the Mass with its paeans to the "most High," we revert to Hellenistic piety. From it, likewise, comes our gesture of priestly blessing—thumb and first two fingers raised, the other two bent. And our ideas of hell or Hades. And our saints who took on the traits of their lesser deities. And our halo which first adorned Mithras.

Christian apologists cite Old Testament verses as prophecies of Jesus Christ, proof to them that Christianity was more ancient than paganism. And so, the argument goes, pagans borrowed from Christians instead of the reverse! It’s nonsense. The influence went both ways but mainly from pagan to Christian, because pagan religions existed in the Mediterranean region before the Christians arrived.

Non-evangelical theologians acknowledge our debt to Hellenistic paganism, and it does not necessarily insult Christianity. It can affirm the Christian myth by showing its deep seat in the human psyche.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Responses

A reader put my post “Papal investigation” on Facebook and got this response.
The Catholic Church is one of the longest running soap operas in history. It's got sex, violence, torture and intrigue, all dressed up in costumes that are better than Dynasty. It's also got cover ups, centuries long scandals, inquisitions, cultural genocides by the dozen and a blind eye about dozens of other things besides molestation, genocides and systematic suppression of women.
If we saw it on TV, we'd all say that it can't be true, it's so over the top.
All true, and I’ve written about some of it, but I was delighted when someone corrected my saying in “Spong and more” that my writings point to the worst. He said they point to the best. Yes, I believe that to be true too. I try to portray the religion I happened to be born in honestly, to show both its best and its worst.

Now another follow-up to a previous post. In my first one on Bible study, I was not optimistic about a new law requiring Bible study in Texas, but this is unfolding in ways not foreseen by Bible study advocates. The huge state of Texas undoubtedly has enlightened teachers, and this story suggests that they could turn the mandate into an opportunity to lead students past popular misconceptions. A Texas art and humanities instructor said, “If you're teaching history and literature without the Bible, you're not really teaching it." I expect this person to actually provide an overview of the diverse Judaeo-Christian writings collected into the Bible and their impact on Western culture—the good and the bad. The evolution of enlightened thought cannot be stopped.

I’ve been reading biblical studies for an article I’m writing and learning interesting details that I hope soon to pass on here.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Does God exist? Wrong question!

Here’s the right question: What is your idea of God? If God is an individual distinct from ourselves and the universe, count me among the unbelievers in that idol.

My current definition of God is spiritual reality, and who doesn’t believe in spiritual reality? Who denies the existence of honor and greed, truth and deception, beauty and evil and goodness? These intangibles point to an immaterial universe, a spiritual dimension. That’s God. Of course, there is much more to be said about this ineffable mystery.

In the National Catholic Reporter, Tom Fox quoted S. Elizabeth Johnson as setting three ground rules for the quest to recognize God:
1) God is an ineffable, incomprehensible mystery and we can never wrap our minds around the fullness of who God is.
2) Therefore, every word we use to speak about God is metaphorical, symbolic or analogical. It always means that and more.
3) Therefore, we need many words, many names, many images, many adjectives for God. Each adds to the richness and texture and the greatness of what we mean when we say "God."
I think many who would call themselves unbelievers in God would nonetheless accept this description of spiritual reality.
To a young man deeply wounded by the Christian right and now striking out on a new path, I wrote that he no longer needed to proselytize for atheism as he’d been doing, but in the past he needed to do it to clear his mind of Christian nonsense. Gratefully he saw his situation in a new light and replied, “How deeply indoctrinated into Christianity I had been!!” He added, “Negative voices of hatred and intolerance are damaging to the human condition and that includes atheist intolerance towards healthy spirituality.”

At an arts event someone wanted to know if I believe that a person who rejects God will go to heaven. This question makes no sense in the spiritual paradigm emerging today. The question begs further questions, “What’s God?” and “What’s heaven?”

Some readers will shout, “Who is God?” not “What is God?” to which I reply that both are appropriate + More. God is spiritual reality, much more than any answer to who or what or any other question.

My interlocutor kept referring to God as “Him” but, when I said that was a problem for me, he graciously changed his language. I appreciate that. I prefer “what” and “it” in reference to what we call God, because these non-gendered words free minds from the image of a guy or set of guys that our culture creates with the he-him-his God-talk. When I point out to Christians that God is more than a man or men, they’re not hearing anything they didn’t know before, but religious training prevents their using more freeing language.

A speaker—I forget who—asked the question, "Would we expect that a horse could define a human person?" It’s just as foolish to expect that humans can define the spiritual reality we call God. A strong element in Christianity insists that its definition is correct and superior to any other tradition’s ideas about it—that only Christian ideas come from God. I find this doctrine of revelation small-minded and arrogant.

At the School of Theology many years ago I was introduced to The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous classic of Christian mysticism. To the disapproval of my instructor, I expressed indignation at the author’s consistent use of he/him/his in reference to the mysterious Unknown that so fascinated and enraptured him or her. (It could have been a woman and that would help to explain the author remaining nameless.) She or he, although contemplative, was caught in Christian conceptions, not only the male god but also a preoccupation with sin and judgment. It was disappointing.

It is heavy-handed religionists who restrict the Unseen Order, the Ultimate, and they do it by limiting it to particular images. By trying to foist certain beliefs on others, Christian literalism eliminates the possible good this religion could do. Christianity used to play a positive role in politics—during the civil rights struggles, for instance. Today, it is waning as a positive spiritual force and seems to be losing some of its integrity.

Ex-Catholics, for instance, comprise one-tenth of the U.S. population, many of them specifically identified by Fr. Richard McBrien as women, gays and lesbians, divorced people, and critics of official teachings on sexuality and reproduction. The Vatican's intransigence toward these groups is hastening the exodus of U.S. Catholics from the Church.

Typical headlines in our country read: “Christianity losing ground in U.S,” “Atheism on the Rise in U.S.,” and “We are all Hindus now,” a column by Lisa Miller in Newsweek. She quotes a Pew Forum survey which finds 30 percent of Americans calling themselves “spiritual, not religious,” and 37 percent of white evangelicals (surprising!) saying that “many religions can lead to eternal life.” Miller concludes, “It’s about whatever works.”

I see all this as positive. The evolution of thought on religions and spirituality continues unabated, showing a Larger Purpose in the universe. History’s unfolding directs humanity toward a higher moral consciousness. Humans are both directed by and direct the universe toward this Higher Order.


Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra, & John Adams. (related reflections, June 3, 2008)
Deepak Chopra, himself a spiritual leader, wrote about the Dalai Lama,
The most mystical thing about him is also the most ordinary: . . . He’s happy in the midst of chaos and turmoil.

The most inspiring thing [the Dalai Lama] ever told me was to ignore all organized faiths and keep to the road of higher consciousness. "Without relying on religion, we look to common sense, common experience and the findings of science for understanding," he said.
Yes, but missing here is reference to the reality we call God.

I just finished reading David McCullough’s John Adams. Reading it became a spiritual exercise because the great man’s role in forming our nation was attended by affliction and vicious attacks. It led me to reflect on courage and the surprising ways events can play out for good and bad. McCullough quoted words of Adams that “could have been his epitaph.”
Griefs upon griefs! Disappointments upon disappointments. What then? This is a gay, merry world notwithstanding.
Adams did and the Dalai Lama does what I strive but often fail to do—maintain steadiness and even joy while miserable conditions, my own or the world's, grab my attention. This ability often accompanies the great.

John Adams decried religious conflicts but accepted a “Supreme Being.” He said,
[The universe is] inscrutable and incomprehensible . . . the whole system is under the constant and vigilant direction of a wisdom more discerning than ours.
While Chopra and the Dalai Lama impress me as spiritual models, I am most impressed by Adams’ subordination of human knowledge and wisdom to a higher knowledge and wisdom.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Bible study in schools

Ron wrote this in an email:
The other night, I was at a backyard get-together, and several people were talking about how President Obama will be speaking to school children via the internet on the opening day of school next week. Several of them were pretty upset about this, and phrases like "I don't trust that guy," and "I don't want him to be talking to my kids without me being there..."

After this had gone on for a while, someone said something that reminded me of the recent news from Texas that the Bible will now be taught in all grades starting this year, so I asked, "What if the schools here announced they would start teaching the Bible to your kids, and it was a required course?" Amazing, all of those parents and grandparents thought that would be "just fine..." A teacher, with who-knows-what credentials and religious background, teaching your kids religion at a public school, and that would be ok, but a message from the President of the United States asking kids to stay in school and be a success in life is not.
I’m afraid most of that “Bible study” will wander around in the trees without ever getting a glimpse of the forest. I wish the Bible along with scriptures from other traditions were taught in schools to compare our dominant culture’s beliefs and mores in the context of other religions and cultures. I wish the Bible were taught to examine
• its illustration of evolving morality
• its factual history (the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan)
• its religious myth (the abiding theme of my writing)
• its spiritual power to sustain and uplift—e.g.,
You have been my guide since I was first formed,
my security at my mother’s breast . . .” (Psalm 22:11)
• its figurative poetry—e.g.,
Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together
with a little child to guide them. (Isaiah 11: 6)
Few teachers understand these things, much less are able to teach them. How many, for instance, are aware that the Israelites of 3,000 years ago committed acts of genocide with no moral reservations and, indeed, attributed them to commands from God?
In Joshua 8:24-27 we read,
[Israel] put to the sword . . . a total of twelve thousand men and women, the entire population of Ai . . . and took for themselves as booty the livestock and the spoil of that city, according to the command of the Lord . . .
Similar accounts can be found in Joshua 10:17-26, Deuteronomy 3:3-7, Deuteronomy 20: 16-18, Numbers 31, and many more passages. Numbers 33: 51-52 reveals "the Lord's" reason for commanding genocide is god-jealousy:
When you go across the Jordan into the land of Canaan, drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you; destroy all their stone figures and molten images and demolish all their high places.
The "high places" were sacred worship sites for the indigenous people of Canaan.
Deuteronomy 22: 13-29 explicates the treatment of women. If a bride accused of not being a virgin cannot prove her virginity she is stoned to death. A woman has to marry her rapist “because he has deflowered her” but her father gets paid by the rapist for the crime. Pro-lifers who find feminist acceptance of abortion unfathomable should read the Hebrew Scriptures to understand deep-seated resentment against women being treated as property, as tools used for propagation.

The wrath of “the Lord” (his payback for disobedience) comes clear in Deuteronomy 28: 58-62:
“he will smite you and your descendants with severe and lasting blows . . . any kind of sickness or calamity . . . the Lord will bring upon you until you are destroyed.” Only the most reactionary moralist approves of such a God or of the Israelites’ violent, despoiling conquest of a native people. Such has been our evolution in morality and in our religious myth.

Well. I have to correct myself. I wrote the previous sentence yesterday, and today I realize that “the Israelites’ violent, despoiling conquest of a native people” comes painfully close to describing the events in Palestine during the past 40 years. Still, relative to Old Testament morality, we can say unequivocally that humans have evolved in moral sensitivity.

Would that Bible study included these elements.

Tom Stavros emailed this excellent response:
Bible study in schools has been proposed many times. It must include study of other religions as you state. And the instruction has to be impartial and not be part of the science curriculum. To find competent teachers and materials and monitor the process becomes difficult (and usually objectionable to those who are afraid of exposing children to other ideas and/or critique of their infallible bible).

Factual history is minimal in the bible. Religious myth as long as it is clearly identified as myth along with other religions' myths in non-judgmental ways is OK. Figurative poetry again should be taught in a literature class along with other poetry (i.e.—Omar Khayyam, etc.).

Spiritual power should not be expected of the teachers. Just presenting the material should be adequate. Spiritual power should be left to the student. Byron has spiritual power to uplift some but not everyone. This is true of all authors and writing (i.e.—Emily Dickenson, Rudyard Kipling, etc.).

Friday, September 4, 2009

Health justice

Today I diverge from the subject of religions, but not spirituality. I am inspired by the life of Ted Kennedy as a story of redemption, specifically his collaboration with persons who disagreed with him and his personal journey of righting his wrongs by helping the poor and disadvantaged. He wrote in his letter to the pope, “I know that I have been an imperfect human being, but with the help of my faith I have tried to right my path."

He said giving everyone in the country access to health care was the political cause of his life. Right now that also is my cause and I’m delighted that 40 plus people demonstrated in St. Cloud to say we need more, not less, government involvement in health care.

Competing for profits works fine for selling stuff, but it doesn’t take care of sick people. We can shop for refrigerators and cars, but nobody shops for health care because we don’t know “the product.” In times of need, doctors don't shop for health care, they rely on the expertise of other trusted doctors.

Our profit-driven system results in 60% of surgeries being unjustified. Among the most frequently performed unnecessary surgeries are hysterectomies, Cesarean sections, coronary artery bypass surgeries, and mastectomies. Conservatives call for tort reform but that wouldn’t address the motive of simple greed in surgeons and hospitals.

While encouraging unnecessary procedures, our profit system denies procedures that are needed. To satisfy stockholders, insurance companies find 1400 ways to “rescind” the policies of people needing care—they simply cancel their policies. Katha Pollitt reports in The Nation that Assurant Health, UnitedHealth and WellPoint saved $300 million between 2003 and 2007 by rescinding at least 19,776 policies. If an insurance company doesn’t dump enough sick people, its stock falls on Wall Street. So says Wendell Potter, who converted from a propagandist for private insurance to testifying in Congress as a whistleblower.

And for-profit companies deny coverage in the beginning. A friend of mine in good health was rejected by three insurance companies. She’s over 60. Was this the reason? What good is health insurance for people who don’t need it?

Then there’s the wasted time and cost of begging insurance companies to pay up. Doctors and nurses spend hours on the phone and in writing trying to get compensation for necessary procedures. While only 3% of Medicare’s premiums go for administrative costs, 10 to 20% of private insurance premiums go for such costs.

In funding efficiency, wait times, rationing, life expectancy, infant mortality, treatment of chronic disease, and use of technology, the World Health Organization ranks our country 37th in the whole world. But we rank first in the amount of money expended. Only in the U. S. can you go bankrupt because you got sick. Over half of our personal bankruptcies result from medical costs.

Loudly-trumpeted are examples of Canadians coming across the border for treatment, but it should be coupled with this fact—the U.S. excels in offering elective surgery for those who can afford it. We lack BASIC, PRIMARY care. We don’t have enough primary-care doctors in the U.S. because specialists earn a lot more. Here we are back to profits again.

This is what our private insurance system has wrought. All systems better than ours have some form of government care. Opponents of proposed reforms like to say we have the best health care in the world. That’s true for the privileged few. Ted Kennedy was one, and the unfairness of that motivated his decades of work to expand care.

One more fact—Minnesota’s health care system really is superb, among the very best in the world. It may be that I’m alive only because of MinnesotaCare—a government system.

What would Jesus say?

Both developed and developing countries around the world grant every human being the moral right to basic health care. Not America, the richest country.

18,000 Americans die yearly because they lack health insurance, reported USA in 2007. A 2009 figure raises that number to 22,000. No other industrialized country lets that happen. Our health care mess accounts for more than half of personal bankruptcies in our country. No other industrialized country lets that happen. Only in America do you go bankrupt because you got sick.

Are Americans crueler than people in other countries?

T.R. Reid, foreign correspondent for the Washington Post and writer about health care, thinks Americans just don’t know how cruel our system is. We in Minnesota don’t know because our system is excellent, among the very best in the world. I may be alive because I live in Minnesota, a state with the "socialist" program of MinnesotaCare.

But thousands elsewhere in our country die for lack of care, when the models of good care exist, some in our own country. What’s the matter?

Certainly Americans in part hesitate to learn from government programs in other countries because opponents of change shout loud lies and use words designed to trigger irrational fears—“socialism,” “euthanasia,” “rationing,” “abortion.” Certainly money from private industries that profit from our dysfunctional system plays a role.

I’m afraid part of our reluctance to learn from other systems is American exceptionalism—the belief that we are best in everything, that we always teach other countries, help other countries, that we have nothing important to learn from them. I’d love to be shown wrong.

Here’s how our profit-driven system rations care:
• It denies insurance to people who obviously need care.
• It cancels the policies of people who, despite a former “clean” bill of health, turn out to need care.
• It wastes hours of caregivers’ time as they beg insurance companies to pay for necessary procedures.
• It focuses on making money. This fundamental law of capitalism works for selling things like cars and mousetraps. But the drive toward CEO and stockholder profits demands culling the expensive unhealthy people.

• It kills 18,000 to 22,000 Americans yearly and accounts for over half of our personal bankruptcies.

I used to think we had to get rid of private health insurance entirely, but T.R. Reid is giving me second thoughts. He points out that some wealthy countries with systems far more effective and efficient than ours have private insurance companies. But they also have strict government regulation.

Kathleen commented,
There is so much misinformation and outright lies being spread about health care. The talk radio "commentators" as well as those with their own TV shows are fomenting such rage in people who think their rights or health care will be impacted. These public figures have a political agenda and get paid millions to promote it. Unfortunately, the health care industry is also spending millions to kill the Obama health plan. Betsy McCaughey of the Hudson Institute, the expert rumor starter, thought up the euthanasia to seniors scenario, which is a total fabrication. But it's working because people believe her after her multi-media blitz! She was also this busy defeating the Clinton health plan.

However, today, I worry about the consequences of the constant barrage of malicious invective by the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity and Beck. Fox News even published the locations of Democratic (not Republican) Town Hall Meetings. They seem to be encouraging these mob scenes. I worry about assassinations. If a tragedy should occur, will these "entertainers" and their sponsors claim responsibility? No.
Bottom line—we need more government involvement, not less.

For information on better health care, read the findings of T.R. Reid and facts from the World Health Organization.

September 20, 2009
Here’s a correction on health care facts just released by Harvard researchers. The number of people who die annually for lack of health insurance is not only around 20,000, it’s 45,000! A co-author and professor of medicine wrote, "We're losing more Americans every day because of inaction ... than drunk driving and homicide combined."
This certainly is a pro-life issue.

"Anonymous" commented:
45,000 is still a small number compared to the million abortions per year which kill unborn persons DELIBERATELY, not simply by inaction. Now THAT is a pro-life issue.
Do you believe in a consistent ethic of life? When was the last time you Pax Christi people protested abortion in front of an abortion clinic?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Death leads to Other Side

It’s been a while since I posted any paranormal stories, the real-life experiences ordinary people have with the Other Side. To me they demonstrate the existence of spiritual reality—what we call “God”—and they demonstrate its independence from religions. So, more stories:

Mary and her sister took turns staying with her mother during the last weeks of her life. After she died, Mary woke up to her mom’s voice saying, “Mary” just like she always did when she needed me for something.”

Mindy, whose dad passed over years ago:
Just recently I was in a terrible dream in which I was in a woods, lost and hungry. I was crying. Suddenly, quite serenely, my dad walked out of the woods, wearing the khaki pants and flannel shirt I remember him wearing. He held out his arms and hugged me. Then we walked into an adjacent room and we danced. It happened to be Father's Day eve! I woke up happy and nothing that day could have changed my happy, calm, peaceful mood, even though the weather was dreary. It's given me pause to think about him and feel his love for me in strong ways I never felt before.

About three months after her father’s death, Faye was sitting on her couch, grieving his passing, and thinking, “How can we go on? All the ways he helped us—what will happen now?”

A bright light enveloped her, not like the shining sun, but pulsing. It was beautiful and she immediately felt her dad’s presence. Without hearing words she felt the message, “All will be all right. You are strong.”

She sent the message, “We love you. Goodbye.” And it was goodbye. Nothing similar has happened again. She knows that this, not his funeral, was the real goodbye.

Cindy:
Mom was very ill with breast cancer and died November 2005. She knew she was dying but wanted absolutely no one to know about it, including her doctor. She dealt with it all alone and in silence. Before Mom died she had some visitors. She told me these stories ten days before she died, and they are shocking to all of us. She said she was lying in bed when Dad, who had died in 1994, lay down next to her.

"Did he say anything?” I asked. “What did you do?"
"He didn't talk, he just lay there. I didn't talk to him either. I just worried about what I was going to make him for breakfast. I had nothing in the house."

Another time she was in bed and at the foot of it stood her father with a very young child. They smiled at her and left. She said he really was there, but she didn't know who the child was. She thought it was a girl because the child was wearing a white long dress. My cousin assured me it was no girl. She is more into the paranormal than I, someone I need to introduce you to someday. She said she was sure Pa brought Mom's older brother to meet her. This almost-two-year-old had died from some childhood disease.

Bob’s mom was an immigrant. Approaching her room in ER, he heard her having a conversation in her childhood language, but when he got to the room, no one was there but she. Several times during the last weeks of her life, she communicated with her deceased sister and other relatives. Asked how that could happen, she said, “They come to me,” and added, “I do not have a fear of death.”

Her doctor said many patients are able to cross over before their bodies finally let go of this life. On one of those last days, Mom saw a shining golden light with angels inside it. “Do you not see that?” she asked.

Bob tried many medical avenues to save her life, and she fought to stay alive for him and his wife. But then he heard her praying to be taken. Two weeks before she died, he had a fruitful conversation with her and said, “It’s OK to go.” His wife noticed that she seemed more at peace after that—her face had lost its anxious look. When she passed, her face became a visage of joy.

Hospice workers tell people to give their loved ones permission to leave, and there are many stories of dying persons waiting until they have that permission, then dying in peace.

One more story, this one by professional writer Linda Marie, after the loss of a valued friend:
It was July and we were planning a get-together for several mutual “city” friends to be held on my deck. I talked to Coleen one morning, firming up the details, and that night she was gone.
One day the next spring, I was leaning on the railing of my deck, just sort of reflecting on the lake and life and nature.
I looked down and saw a turtle climbing out of the lake onto the sand. It was the first one I had seen that year. Thoughts of Coleen, her massive turtle collection and her unusual intrigue for the shelled species came immediately to mind.
The turtle, just a few feet in front of me, stayed very still, with its neck stretched farther out of its shell than I could recall ever seeing, and it was turned directly toward me for—oh—for a very long time . . .

A friend placed a book into my hands that perfectly accompanies my paranormal posts. I use “paranormal” not only in reference to events that seem to defy the laws of physics but also in reference to events that happen just when we need them or can use them. They are synchronistic. They startle us with their strange, inexplicable fittingness. And they signal inner, deeper, hidden, secret meaning.

Synchronistic is this book coming to me: The Secret Language of Waking Dreams by Michael Avery. His “waking dreams” are my “paranormal” events: the cup falling into my hands, pelicans flying in unusual formation, Julia Bergman’s helicopter stopping right where Mortenson had built his first school (See Synchronistic & paranormal ).

The incidents in my posts stand out in their novelty, but not all nudges from the inner world come through uncommon events. Avery shows us how to read everyday happenings for daily guidance, because each individual has to find her or his own significance in them.

The rationalist will say, “It’s all in your head.” Yes, it is. If my head says I never get inner promptings, I won’t get them, but if I’m open to discerning subtle direction coming from inside, I’ll find such prompts to guide me. If my head says I must obey the bishop, I’ll live according to the bishop’s word. Looking for inner direction requires harder work than obeying outer commands, but it leads to serene confidence, the surety of knowing I’m doing what’s right for me, because the feeling of having been touched by “God” is unmistakable.

An incident in my life many years ago illustrates. I was somewhat frantically looking for a direction in life, doubting myself and down on myself for not having a plan when others seemed to know just what they should do. I opened the Bible for solace and guidance. Out from the pages jumped the verse in John 15: 16: “It was not you who chose me, it was I who chose you.” It assured me, affirmed me as a person, and dispelled my fretfulness. It told me that my unconventional path is not random and that Something guides me.

This or any Bible verse, or any words anywhere, will not have the same meaning and effect on everyone. The nudges, the waking dreams, the awakenings can be—usually ARE—subtle and individual. We have to be alert and receptive.

Stay awake to keep the nudges coming!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Common ground, please

I live a divided life, friend and companion to groups with contrasting beliefs among religious and non-religious, including atheists. I can see that they agree on how life should be lived but disagree on the value of religion. Many in both groups have no idea how much common ground they share with the opposite group.

I’m saddened when I hear one group maligning or misunderstanding the other. Often I say, “I wish you knew the beautiful people I know,” in the group just disparaged. From my conversations with both, I see how much they agree.

The common ground is morality because all of us have a space inside that tells us what is good, true, and beautiful. This space is imagined in various ways—Christians, for instance, personify this mysterious Something as Jesus or Father. We run into trouble if persons in contrasting systems think their way of imagining is the one true right way.

Dogmatism exists in atheism as well as in all the religions, but similar intolerance exists in persons who have no definite beliefs about the spiritual world, persons who don’t care to think about spirituality. In fact, some of them are dogmatic about discounting spirituality, but I think it’s because they conflate it with religion and hate the whole religious scene.

Here’s what atheists don’t know about educated and thoughtful Christians:
• They are faithful to our Christian tradition without claiming exclusive access to the Author of morality we call “God.”

• They are well aware that Christianity began as a Jewish sect and became powerful because the Roman emperor Constantine embraced it.

• They know about parallels between pagan deities and Jesus Christ but, I admit, most still view our God images as superior. But not all. Many stay faithful to our tradition because they recognize its value in their lives—Christian practices satisfy their spiritual needs, despite their awareness of the tradition’s shortcomings. What keeps me in is the good people and the sacred places.

Here’s what Christians don’t know about atheists:
• Their moral standards exceed those of most Christians. I know and know of many corrupt Christians, but I don’t know any corrupt atheists.

• They tend to lump Christians into one common brand—ignorant fundamentalists.

• They are spiritual, although few of them would admit it. It is precisely their integrity that drives their atheism, and they have little tolerance for pretense or compromise.

I’m sure both groups will find fault with my simplistic characterizations, but I hope to draw both closer to the common ground they share with the other. Deep down we are all pursuing truth, beauty, and goodness. That’s easier for religious people because they have the support of their tradition and most don’t have the probing questions of atheism. On the other hand, mature spirituality ALWAYS includes probing questions.

Click around in my index for more on this.
Again I quote an atheist whose name I need to protect from the consequences of being known as one. What does that say about our supposedly Christian society?
The words of an atheist:
Since serious scholars acknowledge that we don't know what a putative historical Jesus said or did, it is hard for me to find inspiration in the constructed character. Some boneheaded things were put into his mouth, so making that character inspirational would, for me, be a matter of constructing my picture of him out of values I already have--sort of like inventing my own superhero and then trying to be inspired by him.
Serious scholars agree enough on what the historical Jesus said to strike down claims that he never existed. I was attracted to atheism upon learning that much of the New Testament is not factual, and I see the atheist argument as an over-reaction. It seems clear to me that, once atheists discovered false Christian claims about Jesus—once they discovered the myth—they leaped to the conclusion that the man never existed. It’s an understandable leap, but lacks discrimination.

My conviction that a Jewish mystic named Jesus wandered in Palestine 2,000 years ago, teaching enduring spiritual truth, rests on his teachings. They are consistent with values everyone already has, yes. That is part of their beauty; it is one way we know he was authentic. More pertinent to the question of his existence is the distinctiveness of his preaching—his extraordinary verbal attributes and his centering on “the Reign of God,” which I detail in more than one chapter of God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky. Now a comment about “boneheaded things put into his mouth.” I’m puzzled. If it refers to self-exalting claims, that’s my whole point. The man was turned into a myth. But, readers, please also read what I say about the dignity and value of religious myth.

Now more about the values everyone has. I’m reading a lovely book by Quaker author/educator Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey toward an Undivided Life. Palmer describes the source of the values everyone has. He himself calls it “this core of our humanity” and continues:
Thomas Merton called it true self. Buddhists call it original nature or big self. Quakers call it the inner teacher or the inner light. Hasidic Jews call it a spark of the divine. Humanists call it identity and integrity. In popular parlance, people often call it soul.
I, following Jesus of Nazareth, call it the Reign of God.
Kathleen comments,
This is an interesting discussion that needs to continue. We can learn only when we are willing to listen and understand each other.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Man vs. myth 3

I promised to post email comments I’ve received. A beautiful one came from Joy:
“Belief is very personal and developed by each individual through many different avenues of education, experience and reflection. A Sufi master once commented to me that there are as many religions as there are people in the world.”

Joy disapproves of religious faith if it unquestioningly accepts doctrine or dogma. Orthodoxy, she wrote,
“discourages independent thinking and often leads to extremes. There is fear of any outside influence or exposure to differing views. I believe all orthodoxy, and to a lesser degree, all specific religious faith, is harmful.

“I loved an article by Karen Anderson wherein she promoted the Golden Rule as the only spiritual guideline needed in the world....just think how different the world could be if all the "scripture studies" might be how to apply the Golden Rule in every situation in life rather than memorizing verses and words that often have little meaning to many (especially children) and are often interpreted and used to rationalize all kinds of harmful behavior.

“Could we learn to truly understand and respect one another? Could we learn how to resolve personal, individual differences? Could we eliminate war? I don't know, but I do believe that religion is not needed to resolve the problems of our world and oftentimes gets in the way. I also believe in the inherent goodness of humanity.”

Lance asked,
“What do you mean by ‘Jesus’ suffering and death contributed to universal salvation’? Salvation from what? Will that ever be universal?”

And Laura asked, “What the heck is salvation anyway?”

Jeanette again:
Great questions! The word "salvation" and the concept of hell come from pagan religions, but I don’t accept the belief that Jesus’ death saves us from going to hell. Often hell is experienced in this life. It can be an inner journey and we need salvation from personal demons.

I believe everything in the universe is so interconnected that every individual act has an effect on the whole. We can easily see the beneficial effects of heroic acts on society, but I take it further. When Socrates remained true to his beliefs by drinking the cup of poison hemlock, he advanced the whole evolution of human consciousness in an indefinable way. So it was a salvific death. In the same way, I believe, our individual acts of goodness promote the goodness and welfare—the salvation—of all.

But Jesus’ suffering and death attained mythic proportion in Western consciousness. The myth of Jesus Christ adds significance to his actions, a good example of the power of myth that Joseph Campbell was teaching us. As I explain in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky, religious myths have real effects. I think they are mostly beneficial, but I know many would disagree.

A quotation Laura saw in a nursing home provides a thought-provoking conclusion to this discussion:
"Religion is for those who are afraid to go to hell.
Spirituality is for those who have been there
."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Man vs. myth 2

My disagreements with conventional Christian theology clarified these distinctions I have worked out for myself:
• Yes, God walked on earth two thousand years ago, but God walks on earth no less today.

• Yes, Jesus was an incarnation of God. No, he was not the ONLY incarnation in human history, not the once-and-for-all event changing everything for all time.

• Yes, Jesus had a particular mission. No, he did not found Christianity.

• Yes, Jesus had an intimate relationship with the Mystery we call God. No, the universe was not qualitatively changed at his conception.

• Yes, Jesus’ suffering and death contributed to universal salvation. No, his was not the ONLY salvific suffering and death.

• Yes, Jesus had uncommon wisdom, strength, and character. No, his perfection did not exceed human perfection.

• Yes, it is possible and helpful to relate to a living Jesus. No, he is not the only door to salvation and not the final, definitive revelation of God for all time.

I can go along with J.D Crossan's description of Christian belief: It is 1) an act of faith 2) in the historical Jesus 3) as the manifestation of God. To the question, "Was Jesus really divine?" Crossan answers, Yes in a "relational and intersubjective" sense, because people relate to Jesus as such. Crossan rejects an "essential or substantive" sense, and so do I.

Was Jesus the most perfect human being who ever lived? What does it matter? This is another empty claim to supremacy that can never be supported. Let us give up this triumphalist attitude. It is enough that in the West he is the most accessible great figure of antiquity to inspire right living for us. I revere him; I do not worship him. Instead of clinging to the dogma limiting the Incarnation to one specific man, we have a much better chance of explaining the Incarnation by using a phrase that comes out of scripture--the Body of Christ.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Prairie Home in Avon

You can listen to Garrison Keillor's interview of me on the 35th anniversary Prairie Home Companion show on July 4, 2009 here

And plan on a diversion from my usual earnestness. It was fun! and too short.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Paranormal & Garrison

I wrote a while ago that some of my own encounters with the other side are too personal to share, and that’s what I find to be true for others. Not surprising. I don’t think it’s only wariness of skeptics; it’s the sacredness of the incidents. When the holy mystery touches us, we must not sully this precious encounter by splatting it to the world. On the other hand, visiting about it with someone who doesn’t scoff brings satisfaction and deeper appreciation of the holy touch.

Recently I got a story so startling that I’d love to tell the whole story for the sake of the skeptics. But I don’t have permission. I can only mention an unusual swooping and gliding dance of pelicans flying in bands of three and four. These numbers accurately represent a certain group of deceased persons. Remarkable. As usual when these things happen, the witnesses to this phenomenon arrived at its significance with some hesitation and then a sense of wonder.

The word “paranormal” means beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation. Such phenomena manifest pattern and meaning emanating from the inner world—it knows things before we see them happening in the external world. This explains precognition, extraordinary animal behavior before natural catastrophes, and encounters with the other side at death. They lack scientific explanation—YET. I expect science in the future to find some answers.

I believe they come from what we call God, but not the theistic/deistic idol that atheists rightly reject. I maintain that this spiritual reality is normal, not abnormal or extra-natural. God is not an individual separate from nature; it’s not a humanlike being or set of humanlike personalities. It’s embedded in and part of nature, surrounding us always yet always transcendent of nature. One of the terms I like to substitute for the word “God” is “the More.”

Paranormal happenings give evidence of this More—more than common sense can explain. But I don’t accept the view that it violates science. So far science has not figured it out yet, but I believe it’s getting closer, and quantum physics is the avenue opening up new understandings, as I state in my section on “Miracles” in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky. Still, we will never figure it out completely because there is always more, more, MORE.

Different subject:
This evening I’ll be on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion 4th of July show in Avon. It’s in connection with my Avon centennial history book, Nestled between Lakes and Wooded Hills.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Eckhart's Trinity

The nexus of divinity and humanity lies not in one man but in the inner core of all creation . . . The only-through-Jesus stance violates the Nazarene’s message, but the image of Jesus Christ helps our human minds to recognize the divine-human connection.
God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky

Language about the Trinity confuses people because meanings of words change. “Hypostatic union” is indeed defined as two natures, divine and human, in one person—Florian was correct about that. And “Trinity” refers to three persons in one God.

The center of confusion is the word “person.” We moderns envision persons as individuals, but that’s not what the theologians who formulated the doctrine of the Trinity had in mind.

When the word "person" first entered the doctrinal debate, it meant a mask or role—what an actor on the Greek stage put on—and it did not mean a distinct personality or a separate "I" as it does today. Persona may be closer to the original meaning than “person.” Theologians use the words “aspects” or “modes” or “personalities” to stand for “persons” of the Trinity, but what most Christians have in mind is closer to “gods” than “aspects” or “modes.”

When we think of “three Persons in one God” we have in mind more individuality and less unity than the council formulators intended. They, for instance, declared that every divine action in the material world is done by all three Persons together. This would put the Father on the cross, as Trinitarian theologians have stated.

The three gods of popular imagination clash with theologizing on the Trinity. Augustine created an analogy using the psychology of human persons, saying each personal self performs three actions—memory, knowing, and loving. Richard of St. Victor saw the First Person as Lover, which needs a Second Person, the Beloved, as the object of its love. Their mutual love spills over and is shared by a Third Person. Another theologian saw the three as the I, Thou, and We of love. This idea has also been expressed as self, other, and community.

These appealing explanations lend energy to the symbol and reflect the dynamic, interrelating universe. They are closer to the Trinity described by the original formulators of the doctrine than to the trinity imagined by most Christians today.

As these examples show, the Trinity in its orthodox understanding refers, not to three male individuals, but to concepts and relationships. All Trinitarian theologies stress the folly of reading the symbol literally as three distinct human-like persons, but this is what the exclusively male language perpetuates. It stunts the Trinity's potential for meaning.

A writer in my Catholic Dictionary of Theology asserts that the influence of Greek theology on Christian theology "is undeniable." Many writers today acknowledge that the doctrine reflects a particular time and place, as Kathleen did in her comment here. Dualism in the fourth century imagined a vast gulf separating divinity from humanity so that the god-man Jesus became a GREAT BIG DEAL. Traditional Christians like to ask rhetorically, “How could a mere man be divine?” applying the mystery to one single man.

But a new wind blows today and it comes from the insights of mystics, helped by Buddhist and Hindu spirituality. Today we stress the divinity within all human beings and in all of creation. In that light we see that the hypostatic union refers to us all. The great mystic and Dominican preacher Meister Eckhart preceded us by 700 years when he said boldly,
The just person is the Son himself.
The Father gives birth to his Son without cease, and I say more: he gives birth to me his Son and the same Son.
God and I we are one.
Here is food for meditation.

COMMENTS
I got overwhelmingly affirmative email responses to this post. They highlight the contrast between inclusive and exclusive, one accepting truth in all its rich, variegated forms, the other rejecting stories different from our own. But the narrow, constricting view limits Divinity, which reveals Itself in many forms—the very point of the Trinity.

A religious sister who asked about Diekmann’s comment and wanted to hear more about the Trinity (June 14 post) wrote:
I really appreciated your explanation of trinity to me. I especially like how you describe the resurrection and ascension, as well as the relationships we have. . . . Joseph Campbell says God is not a person.
I appreciate her reference to Joseph Campbell because no one has done more to help cradle Christians out of narrow literalism while directing them toward a deeper spirituality. I’m sure Campbell meant that God is not a humanlike individual. Sister threw in a significant reminder:
You probably know that Campbell was a consultant to the Star Wars movie writer.
I wonder if Campbell is the one who supplied the word “Force” for the movie. I think terms like Life Force, Higher Power, and Energy should be used more and that the pronoun It should be used more often than either He or She. He and She tend to conjure up idols.

Some people who hear the objection to God/He, immediately assume the only alternative is God/She. But the reason for introducing God/She is to mix the images. We need to use all genders—She/It/He—to jolt us into awareness that our familiar God-images vastly underrate Infinity. It’s Something much larger than our puny human reasoning can fathom.

Thank you to all who respond to my writings. Now information to show that a divine trinity is not unique to Christianity.

Buddhism has Three Jewels; Hinduism has the gods Shiva, Vishnu, and Shakti. Gnostic Christians included the feminine in their Trinity—Father, Mother, and Son. Female-centered religions honored maiden, mother, and crone as together making up the triune Goddess they worshipped.

Anthropologist Robert Briffault reports that the Arabian Goddess was triune and known as three Holy Virgins. Ishtar, the Babylonian and Assyrian Goddess known as “Queen of Heaven,” was triune. The Celtic Goddess Brigit was triune, represented either as sisters or daughters. She ruled the British Isles, France, and Spain.

Augustine of Hippo taunted "his pagan countrymen with the absurdity of the notion that the goddess could be one person and at the same time three persons." As Briffault noted, this was a bit of "scathing irony," because Augustine's contribution to Christian trinitarian theology is well-known.

More startling examples of trinities in pre-Christian religions come from Briffault:
Countless triads of Greek goddesses, such as the three Charities, the three Horai, the three Syrens, the three Hesperides, the three Gorgons, the three Erinyes, are primitively scarcely distinguishable from one another....

The Muses were originally also three in number, and were deities of the night heavens, governing the stars. . . . triads of Hellenic goddesses were regarded at will as one or three. They were triune, or three in one.
Like them, the great goddess of the Semites was worshipped at Mecca in threefold form as three sacred trees, and was spoken of as the Three Virgins.
In Phoenicia and Carthage, as in Krete and ancient Greece, the great goddess was represented by three pillars. . .

Threefold deities are prominent among the races of Northern Europe and among the Celts. Thus Brigit, the Norns, the Walkyries had the threefold character. . . . Similarly the ancient Mexicans worshipped their gods as a trinity denoted by three crosses. The heathen Slavs similarly represented their deity with three heads. The Nordic gods were worshipped at Upsala as a trinity.
Christians liked to blame the devil when they encountered facts that challenged their beliefs. Faced with a ritual in the mysteries of Mithra similar to the Christian Eucharist, Justin Martyr in the second century blamed demons, saying they knew of Jesus’ coming and set up copies ahead of time. He had to make the claim this way because the Christian rite developed after the pagan rite. In like fashion, later Christian missionaries faced with non-Christian trinities blamed the devil. These are the words of one incensed because his charges already worshipped a trinity:
. . . the Indians did worship an idoll called Tangatanga, which they saide was one in three, and three in one. . . . I saide that the Divell by his infernall and obstinate pride (whereby he alwayes pretendes to make himself God) did steale all that he could from the trueth to imploy it in his lyings and deceits.
I find similar befuddlement yet today. Blaming the devil has come out of fashion, but I see strict Christian believers avoiding, disbelieving, explaining away disconcerting facts about other religions. As I stated in Trinity, the universe expresses a three-foldedness in its structures, and I’m thrilled that many religions reflect this holy mystery. Sharing the Mystery is something to cherish, not avoid. We Christians have gotta stop claiming to be Number 1.