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


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.