Showing posts from 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

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

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

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 salv


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 co

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 appropriat

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 s

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 rel

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 un

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 dis


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 r

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 ri

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 Pr

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 expert

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 drea

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

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 mea

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 C

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.

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 norm

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.” T