Friday, January 28, 2011


A previous Trialogue event found us exploring the issue of extremism.  In our Christian-Jewish-Muslim conversations this topic has been called "the elephant in the room."  How do we face extremism in our own religious traditions (never minding, for the time being, identifying extremism in others' faiths)?

To that end, and to further the table discussion on this topic, I offered a series of questions for consideration.  In the light of the recent unrest in Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon and Yemen (the the implications of this unrest for the world); and in the light of the terrorist attacks on Chaldean Christians in the last months in Iraq and Coptic Christians Egypt, I think these questions are worth pondering even if not in dialogue with others.  And so I offer them for your reflection.

1.  Does my conviction with regard to my own beliefs sometimes lead to my intolerance of others' beliefs?
2.  Must mutually exclusive beliefs always lead to conflict?
3.  Can freedom and conviction be successfully juxtaposed in my life?
4.  Does my intolerance of others' views stem from my unconscious doubts about my own views?  Are doubts what lead me to be 'triumphalistic'?
5.  C. S. Lewis referred to a practice he called 'Bulverism,' whereby one makes statements like, "The reason you think like that is because you're a [X]" (fill in the blank with an insulting term).  Why do we resort to insults and name-calling?
6.  Is fear the basis for all intolerance?  If so, how can I overcome it in my own life?

I will only observe, in conclusion, that some of these issues have been 'burning issues' for Pope Benedict in his papacy, including most recently in his Message for the World Day of Peace (1 January 2011). 


Today’s (28 Jan) memorial of St Thomas Aquinas fits well into this week for me personally: on Wed (26 Jan) I gave a talk to the Mobile Kiwanis Club about inter-faith dialogue, and for part of it I used a brief essay that I made part of a Trialogue (“Christians, Jews & Muslims Together”) event in the recent past. Coincidentally, this past Thurs evening (27 Jan) we had another Trialogue event, with the topic of “Peace: what does this look like for people of faith?” All this leads me to do a “re-print” of sorts—in slightly edited form, what follows below is my reflection.


In many ways I think the faith of Rabbi Silberman, Mr Ashraf Sayyad and myself is derivative. The rabbi’s belief in the Master of the Universe is transmitted through Moses. Mr Sayyad’s belief in Allah is the result of the witness of Muhammad. My belief in God is derivative from my belief in the Resurrection of Jesus. My own study leads me to conclude, in the phraseology of John Henry Cardinal Newman, that there is a ‘convergence of probabilities’ that makes an act of faith in Jesus, in virtue of the Resurrection, a reasonable thing to do. This leads me to my belief in His being Messiah and Son of God. While Jews and Muslims agree that God must never be represented or imaged, I confess that I hold Jesus as the image of the invisible God, the form of God I can see, leading me to love of the God I cannot see.

I am aware that this ‘convergence’ doesn’t have to lead to such a belief: the Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide, for example, could accept the historicity of the Resurrection while still rejecting the idea of the Messiahship (to say nothing of the divinity) of Jesus. But I, personally, do come to this conclusion.

It means for me that the proclamation of Jesus is at once and eternally a genuine insight into the nature of God, and that this insight is into the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whom Jesus called Abba. It is through this lens that I come to my understanding of God.

There is a song popular in Christian “Praise and Worship” circles called Our God Is An Awesome God. Its refrain is: Our God is an awesome God/He reigns from heaven above/With wisdom, power and love/Our God is an awesome God. To be able to sing this with full conviction is surely a joyful, energizing and (if I may say it) triumphalistic celebration of the God of presence.

For me, though, all too often, it seems that “My God is a silent God” (a Deus absconditus, a “hidden God”). Some mystics have glorious visions of the Deity; I am more at home with writings like The Cloud of Unknowing or The Dark Night of the Soul. I resonate with the poetry of St Thomas Aquinas, celebrating the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, when he writes (in the Holy Week hymn Pange, Lingua): Et si sensus deficit/Ad firmandum cor sincerum/Sola fides sufficit… Praestet fides supplementum/ Sensuum defectui [And if senses finally fail us/For to strengthen hearts that trust/Faith alone is what one needs… Faith stands ready to assist us/When our senses fail to see.] And so you can see that slogans like the mediaeval cry Deus vult! [God wills it!] are foreign to my experience—I am simply not so sure I know God’s will for someone else that I am able to lead any Crusades. I only want to bear witness, to “cry the Gospel with my life” (as Bl Charles de Foucauld expressed it). This is the form of evangelization that I choose to embrace, one that can lead others to an attractive confrontation with my Faith based upon its realization in my life.

And so I am very uncomfortable with those (especially on TV) who seem to have 14 conversations with God every day, when they are told specific things to say or do—quite specific things. This is not my experience.

And yet, I do have (beyond my trust in the Resurrection) what the poet William Wordsworth called “Intimations” of God’s presence—the quality of the answer to certain prayers (including those that led me to seminary, or at the times of my Dad’s and my Mom’s deaths): intimations that force nothing yet invite and hint at everything. I trust them; I choose to remember them, I embrace them. It my hope they are (it all is) true.

St Paul (Rom 8:24) tells us that hope is not hope if we in fact already see. My faith, then, my hope, is to be able one day to see, to know even as I am known (I Cor 13:12). What supports and sustains this hope, for me?

Two things lead me to trust in God’s existence and love: to return to the beginning, my trust is in the reality of the Resurrection and the proclamation of God as a loving Father of forgiveness and healing—the God that Jesus announced as the Good News of the Kingdom. Second is the community of the faithful of which I wish to be a part: the people like Francis of Assisi and Ignatius Loyola; Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Teresa of Avila; Cardinal Newman and Cardinal Bernardin; Bl Pope John XXIII and Bl Charles de Foucauld. These people knew all too intimately themselves the ‘dark night’; all followed Jesus to the cross and (in the words of the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner) looked down from the cross into the abyss of darkness, entering into it with Jesus, trusting that at the bottom they would find Abba-Love. I want to join them in this journey.

The Jews (I defer to Rabbi Silberman) have a story that when a rabbi dies, it is because there is a tremendous debate going on in heaven over some point of Torah, and another voice is needed. I believe that this debate is real, even if I cannot hear the voices and the arguments right now, and I am excited about the possibility of getting the chance to have my say.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


(MOBILE, Ala.)- While nationally Gov. Robert Bentley's remarks are creating controversy, among some in local churches the reaction is much different.

Moments after his inauguration Bentley said, "Anyone here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be you're brother."
"When you accept Jesus as your savior you become a child of God that means we are all brothers and sisters in Christ," said Myra Barton a member of the congregation.
Barton says Bentley is speaking a language that Christians will fully understand, what she says she understand is the controversy being created.
Pastor Aaron McKinnis of Fresh Fire on the Mount Ministries agreed, "When you are talking about being an earthly and a Christian brother those are two different things, he said he is everyone's Governor."

Now ignoring the grammatical errors of the report above, we need to break down both Gov Bentley’s remark (in King Memorial Dexter Av Baptist Church, perhaps 2 blocks from the State Capitol) and the comment of Myra Barton. Both are theologically inaccurate.

Christians understand that we all, no matter our beliefs, are in fact brothers and sisters. Since this is the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” it is good to refer to a classic passage of the New Testament proclaimed during these days: the Letter to the Ephesians 4:1-6: “…one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” So regardless of anyone’s feelings or faith, Christians believe that we in fact do have the same “daddy,” as Gov Bentley so colloquially put it. And therefore we are brothers and sisters in fact.

If Gov Bentley or Myra Barton or any other Christian has a special relationship with another because of mutual belief in Jesus as the Messiah, that’s fine and important, just as a faithful Muslim has a unique relationship with other Muslims in the Ummah, the world-wide community of Islam, or just as faithful Jews have a special relationship to one another as children of the original covenant (which God has not, and will not, revoke—see Romans 11:29).

But we need not (and in fact must not) pretend that this somehow makes us all unrelated to one another; we must see each other as brothers and sisters. When we fail to do so, it is the first of a series of steps that can lead to seeing each other as alien, dehumanized, so utterly “other” that things like violations of rights, or torture, or war, or liquidations, become tolerable and even sensible.

We must say NO to this. We are family.  Below is a clip from the final movement of Beethoven's great Ninth Symphony.  Enjoy it, and know that the words sung by the soloists at about 1'30" are: 
Alle menschen werden bruder (All mankind shall be brothers...)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Today's Gospel at Mass was the healing by Jesus of a man with a withered hand.  It was in a synagogue on a Sabbath; the Pharisees were not pleased.  Nevertheless, Jesus healed the man.

An extraordinarily touching evocation of this scene (Mark 3:1-6) comes from the American composer John Adams.  He is one of a series of composers known for "minimalism," in which patterns are repeated multiple times.  It takes great concentration to play his music since it's easy to lose track of how many times a pattern has been played, thus missing the time for changing it!  Still, this piece presents a gentle introduction both to faith and to "minimalism"--Christian Zeal and Activity.  Enjoy!

Sunday, January 16, 2011


I intended to write this blog-post last Tuesday, but I was overtaken by events: specifically, the deaths of 3 members of the parish, which cut short my time at the computer. There is still one funeral (on Monday, Martin Luther King Day), but I have a bit of a breather to put these thoughts down.
The news is encouraging in a recent USA Today feature: “Youths prefer praise to sex, booze. Study: Self-esteem takes precedence.” This study was also featured recently on Chicago’s WGN News at Nine.

Read the item for yourselves, but surely there can be no easier way to strengthen teens’ self-esteem than authentic (not fake) affirmation. In the long run, though, youths/teens are no different from the rest of humanity: we like to know (and be told) that we have done well, that we are good, that we make a meaningful and positive difference—in short, that we are valued and loved.

Our Savior is blessed with a remarkable youth group of teens who are generous, sensitive, loving and positive. I have no doubts they receive oceans of affirmation: from our youth minister, from me, and from their families. Sometimes our young people don’t feel good about themselves or approved by others (especially the significant other adults in their lives). But a hug or a compliment from the heart can go a long, long way toward undoing their doubts.

After all, what is the bottom line attraction of sex, drugs and alcohol? It’s in the first place to make a substitute for self-worth, and in the second place to anesthetize the feelings of worthlessness. If one knows one’s worth and knows that others approve of it, so many other things are simply not necessary…

We are coming near to Catholic Schools Week in the Archdiocese of Mobile. Let’s do the real education that teaches our teens their dignity and value. Especially when our young people are in fact so wonderful, we need to let them know it.

Saturday, January 8, 2011


Our theology of the waters of baptism dove-tails (pun intended!) nicely with that of the Greek Orthodox as presented in today’s Mobile Press-Register, in its feature on Fr Elias Stevens of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church here. His blessings of homes in this Epiphany season involves holy water—“When [Jesus] was baptized…he sanctified all waters,” he said.

Our liturgy proclaims the same thing. When we use the Asperges or sprinkling-rite in place of a penitential rite at the beginning of Mass (typically in Easter season), the prayer of blessing also says: “You made the water of baptism holy by Christ’s baptism in the Jordan: by it you give us a new birth and renew us in holiness.”

How many of us remember that when we come to church and dip our hands into the holy water stoups we are re-claiming our baptism? Here at Our Savior there is no other stoup except the font itself, the more easily to remind folks of this fact. We are in effect taking Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior every time we enter the church and make a bodily YES to our commitment to Him. In the same way, when we process forward to receive the Eucharist during Mass, we say AMEN to the declaration “The Body/Blood of Christ.” Once again, we make our personal YES…

Our action at the font is additionally mirrored in two complementary ways: the action of the Sign of the Cross is our affirmation that we are saved by (and wish to embrace) the Cross of Jesus Christ. And our words (an echo of Matthew 28:19) proclaim our faith in the One Triune God—Father, Son, Spirit. It’s a superb renewal of our personal YES.

All this we celebrate in origin today with the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord. He is Lord (and He is our Lord) forever and ever!

Today’s illustration is from a 5th century baptistery in Ravenna, Italy.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


The men pictured here both lived in the 19th century, both were members of the hierarchy, both passionately were interested in Catholic education, and both are “raised to the altar.” But they are not the same person, even though there is often enough confusion about them.

Today’s Memorial is of St John Neumann, an immigrant from Bohemia who became a Redemptorist priest and ultimately the bishop of Philadelphia. He was dedicated to building a Catholic school system suited especially to children of immigrant families. He was beatified in 1963 and canonized in 1977, both by Pope Paul VI.

Bl John Henry (Cardinal) Newman, formerly a tutor at Oriel College, Oxford and effectively the “campus minister” for the University, lived all his life in England. His efforts in conjunction with the beginnings of a Catholic university in Ireland led to the publication of one of his most famous books, The Idea of a University. Pope Benedict XVI beatified him this past September 2010. We are waiting for official acceptance of a 2nd miracle which would allow him to be formally canonized.

One peculiar difference between these two men is the state of their remains. Bp Neumann’s body is preserved in glass under an altar in the lower crypt of St Peter’s church in Philadelphia (see the picture above); when Cardinal Newman’s grave was opened preparatory to the beatification, virtually no remains were found inside it.

But their legacy of support for Catholic education survives, both in England and in the United States. Though they are not the same man, they shared the same vision of the importance of an educated laity for fostering the work and growth of the Church.

Though the excerpt below is from the good Cardinal and not the saintly bishop, let it be a word on the value of education in the Faith (what these days is most often referred to as ‘apologetics,’ but which perhaps more correctly should be named ‘fundamental theology’):

…I think that incalculable benefits may ensue to the Catholic cause, greater almost than that which even singularly gifted theologians or controversialists could effect, if a body of [lay] men in your station of life shall be found in the great towns of Ireland, not disputatious, contentious, loquacious, presumptuous…but gravely and solidly educated in Catholic knowledge, intelligent, acute, versed in their religion, sensitive of its beauty and majesty, alive to the arguments in its behalf, and aware both of its difficulties and of the mode of treating them. …my own reason for rejoicing in the establishment of your classes is the same as that which led me to take part in the establishment of the University itself, viz., the wish, by increasing the intellectual force of Ireland, to strengthen the defenses, in a day of great danger, of the Christian religion. (The Idea of a University)

So whether it is Newman or Neumann, cardinal or bishop, blessed or sainted, I say thank you both for your vision of the importance of learning!

Sunday, January 2, 2011


There are numerous references/allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures buried in today’s Gospel of the Magi’s visit to the Holy Family. They can be found in Psalm 72 and Isaiah (which feature dominantly in the Scriptures of the liturgy of this day), to say nothing of Numbers 24.

One reference that you won’t find (seemingly) is from my favorite book of the “Deutero-Canonical Writings,” Tobit. This is a marvelous story that deserves to be read and savored for its impact and its delight (and for its happy ending). It has angels, it has good people rewarded, it has magical deliverance from demons, it has macabre graveyard humor, and it even has the Old Testament equivalent of “Old Yeller.”

But for our purposes it also has an image directly applicable to today’s Gospel scene:

A bright light will shine to all parts of the earth; many nations will come to you from afar, and the inhabitants of all the limits of the earth, drawn to you by the name of the Lord God, bearing in their hand their gifts for the King of heaven. (Tobit 13:11a, emphasis added)

Not even the original Jerusalem Bible (with its 300 cross-references for every verse) makes this connection. Perhaps I should simply shut up and admit that the scholars and Biblical translators know far more than I do.

But I offer the passage to anyway, and I hope that it invites you to enter into a world of story that is delightful and profound and important.

Whether or not you (or the scholars) agree with me on this point, I do hope you will read this (extra-)Biblical book and have a blessed Epiphany!

PS—“Bonus points” if you can identify the reference in the title of this post…