Thursday, April 14, 2011

Life, Spirituality and Religion

A reader wrote the following in response to my last post, "Delivery Salvation." I thought his comments touch on several important points, and so I have decided to respond in this format.

"Father Geoff,

Your anecdote illustrates one of the fundamental differences b/t Catholicism & Protestantism - as you surely know, the former believes that faith + good works leads to salvation, whereas the latter believes that faith alone is enough. Perhaps I'm biased, being a Cradle Catholic, but I always found the latter's approach to be empty, as well as intellectually & most importantly, morally lazy.

Unfortunately, our own church hierarchy has done very little if anything in the way of good works. Sure, there are lay people & religious who are doing so, but I don't see the institutional Church tackling poverty, injustice, etc. with nowhere near the same vigor as it does with opposing LGBT rights."

My response,

The differences you cite between Catholic theology and Reformation [Protestant] theology have their foundation in the sixteenth century grace controversies. Essentially, those controversies sought to resolve the apparent contradiction of God’s omnipotence and simultaneously, humanity’s freedom. A more contemporary treatment of this question (1981) and its implications can be found a book by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”

In fairness, the thrust of the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke, is not addressing that particular theological question, since it would still be fifteen centuries before it arose. Moreover, neither Catholicism nor Protestantism existed formally as we now know them today. Christianity at that time bore little resemblance to the post Pauline and Constantinian Christianity that developed between the forth century and the present. Luke is addressing the question of personal spirituality.

While I agree with your assertion regarding the contemporary hierarchy of the Catholic Church. The most scandalous and egregious of these faults has been the implication of the Pope and bishops in the Pedophilia Cover-Up Scandal. Not only was this cover-up a deliberate obstruction of justice, it also created new incidences of abuse by priests who were transferred from assignment to assignment by their bishops.

Additionally, the focusing of material resources, social and political influence to prevent and strip LGBTQ people of fundamental civil rights and human dignity; constitutes a betrayal of the people that the hierarchy is supposed to serve. Not only LGBTQ people and their loved ones, but also workers who attempt to organize to protect themselves and their families well being, and the many people in our society who suffer unnecessary illness and death due to a lack of universal health care. Since these, other pressing issues of social justice have been ignored to advance social injustice towards LGBTQ persons.

That was not the question addressed by Jesus in the passage cited from Luke. In that particular passage, the question is not “collective,” that is, “What must we do to inherit everlasting life?” It is personal, “What must I do to inherit everlasting life?”

Luke who cites the exchange between Jesus and the lawyer treats that particular question. The question treated by Luke also incorporates various other subtleties of the ancient world, specifically juxtaposition between the Semitic and Hellenistic understanding of the person. The word “Amen” is one of the few Hebrew words to survive in the contemporary Christian vocabulary. Its basic translation from the Hebrew is, “I believe this and I live it.” Most contemporary Christians, since ours is a Hellenistic culture believe “Amen” means, I intellectually accept a set of propositions, e.g., The Holy Trinity, the Hypostatic Union (Jesus is fully human & Divine), etc.

Spirituality in the Semitic understanding was the assent of the entire person, mind and life, to a truth that was not a concept, but a living reality, “Truth” is not a concept but “God.” Hellenistic thought differentiated between an intellectual understanding/agreement and one’s life. For example, I can read Marx and Lenin and agree with them on various points, I can be illuminated on various questions by them, and yet not be a Marxist-Leninist.

As written in Luke the question, “What must I do to inherit everlasting life?” Translates as, “How must I live my life?” That question is still valid twenty centuries later. It touches on the personal quest for meaning and purpose in life. Dr. Viktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s search for Meaning” addresses this existential question specifically, as does Maslow’s work.

The inherent spiritual danger of a fundamentalist/traditionalist (Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or other) approach to religion is that it separates the believer from dealing with this core issue. The believer is simply told how to live and in exchange promised everlasting life. This is a seductive trap both for the believer and for those in positions of religious authority, since neither is authentically engaged in the spiritual life. The former is placed in spiritual stasis (autopilot) and the latter make an idol of the text/institution, of which they become the official custodians. The religious text/institution rather than being an aid to spiritual development becomes a substitute for such development. Hence, the importance of Jesus’ question, “How do you read it?”

Regardless of one’s intellectual understandings/beliefs, each of us must live our lives. Although we may elect to live without reflection on life and its ultimate meaning, Socrates wrote long ago that, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates made that assertion, because it was true then and sadly, there are many today who still prefer to live an unexamined life, hence the ageless popularity of wine, drugs and gluttony, to name but a few.

Even so, life continually taps each of us on the shoulder and attempts to move us to consider its (and our) greater meaning. The death of a loved one, the loss of material wealth or of our health, the betrayal of a friend, spouse, or lover; all of these create a tectonic spiritual crisis in our life. Each such crisis is an opportunity to reassess, or to borrow from Socrates, to examine our life.

1 comment:

Tal said...

Fr. Geoff, you alluded to a key point that I think could bear its own post. As you noted, Plato aptly said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Perhaps a tad less metaphysical, I would suggest that the unexamined idea is not worth holding.

However one phrases it, the point remains that honesty with oneself and one's beliefs remains critical to the formation of a just society and sound theology. If you believe something, the question is "why"? What are the assumptions upon which you rely, and are those assumptions reasonable and defensible? These simple and foundational requirements of logic are not suspended simply because the issue is God and His commandments. Indeed, this issue would seem to demand a more rigorous logic, not less.

Yet less is what the Church demands, with tragic results especially for the young. The Church's position on LGBTQ people is typical of the dishonesty in which the hierarchy indulges, ultimately enforced with the same abuses of Magesterium that resulted in Galileo dying under house arrest because he dared to say the planets revolved round the sun. (As though by fiat the Church could change the order of Creation! Instead, Galileo's ordeal showed that Biblical interpretation and Church teachings--even the Magisterium--had to yield to observable, objective truth and reality.)

I believe the hierarchy's interpretation of ancient Biblical texts (today largely accepted as inapplicable to modern life, even in Judaism) to justify its naked and irrational hatred of LGBTQ people has evolved to the point that it now flirts with heresy (always a danger with results oriented, circular reasoning).

Thus the Church's position that LGBTQ as manifesting a "strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil" would seem merely a flavor of Jansenism/predestination theology. In other words, our fundamental natures draw us strongly away from God and salvation and towards damnation. This notion of the "lessening of free will" seems indistinguishable from Jansenism/predestination, except perhaps by degree (it's not that we have absolutely no choice, just not much of one, which in quality makes us both less and inferior to heterosexuals--yet another untenable result of the Church's position).

I am loath to call the Pope a heretic (as tempting as it might be to do so), but truly we live in an absurd time as Catholics.

Contrary to the Church's greatest traditions, the hierarchy has stifled the intellectual freedom that characterized those greatest periods in Church history, and promised the faithful easy answers bound up in overbearing rules that any objective observer would have to say can have no qualitative affect on one's salvation (as though the condom were the equivalent of Hitler's gas chambers or Stalin's gulags). All the while, the Church permits and even blesses grave offenses against the human body and spirit, including its friendly attitude to regimes that execute, torture and imprison LGBTQ people.

The Church has devolved into a sick parody of itself, increasingly at odds with the injunctions of Jesus. I hope and pray that result changes as a younger generation eventually assumes the leadership, but the damage by then may be too great to reverse the Church's inexorable decline.