Wednesday, April 30, 2008

All of our language about God is metaphorical. We use finite human words and concepts to try to capture something of our experience of the infinite and incomprehensible mystery of God. Theology has different ways of talking about this process. Aquinas used the idea of analogy to deal with this issue, in which we say, God is 'a', but God is not 'a' in any way we experience or understand 'a', God surpasses all human comprehension of 'a'. In other words, we say, God is love, but God is not love in the way we experience human love because God far surpasses any human way of understanding love. Other theologians will talk about dialectical theology (Barth) or the coincidence of opposites (Bonaventure), in a way that recognizes contradictions in our experience of God that simply cannot be reconciled by our human minds. Christian theology has a long-standing tradition of what we call cataphatic and apophatic theology. Cataphatic theology is all of the things we affirm about God. Apophatic theology is the theology of silence and darkness, the theology that says ultimately before the mystery of God we can say nothing because any word we utter ends up being false in some way, because the most intimate experience of God is an experience that can never be put into words. Nonetheless, because we are human and we do have a need to communicate, we must struggle to put our experience of God into words, even while acknowledging that those words and concepts will always fall short.

We run into trouble when we start to take our words and concepts too literally. We run into trouble when we do not adequately understand the historical context of certain images. I want to use two examples of this issue. The first is the statement in our creed that Jesus "is seated at the right hand of the Father." For much of my life I had a mental image of two thrones in heaven with God the Father in one and Jesus in the other (probably with a dove flying overhead). The problem with this image is that it is di- or tritheistic - it is an image of two (three, if you count the bird) gods. We profess a belief in one God. So what is behind this image? Only when I started to study Scripture more in depth did this image become clear to me. As I became more familiar with the imagery used in the Hebrew Scriptures to talk about God, I learned that the right hand of God is a reference to the saving power of God. The psalms are filled with references to this image. Just yesterday the psalm for daily mass used it:
Though I walk in the midst of dangers, you guard my life when my enemies rage. You stretch out your hand; your right hand saves me. -Psalm 138:7
God's "right hand" saves us, delivers us, upholds us, sustains us. (For references to God's right hand, click here!) One of my favorite references to this concept is in the Book of Job. When Job is questioning God, God responds by questioning him. God basically asks Job, "Are you God?" Did you create the earth? Can you command the morning or bring the rain? God says, if so, if you are God,
"then will I too acknowledge that your own right hand can save you." Job 40:14
In other words, if you are not God, then you are dependent on God's right hand to save you. So what does all of this have to do with the Creed? To say that Jesus is seated "at the right hand of God" is simply a metaphorical way of professing that Jesus is the saving power of God. It is Jesus who saves us, delivers us, upholds us, and sustains us. Like Job, we cannot save ourselves, but are utterly dependent on the saving power of God in Christ to save us. By taking that line of the Creed literally, we not only fall into heresy by imagining Jesus to be separate from God, we also miss the very power the image is meant to convey!

The other example I want to use is the image of God that Jesus gives us, the image of God as Abba. We translate this image as father, a word that in our usage often conveys a very formal parent-child relationship. The tragedy of that translation is that the power of Jesus' calling God Abba was precisely in the fact that it shattered that formality in the relationship between us and God. Abba cries out to God with a child's familiarity, trust, and affection. To refer to God as a father would not have been shocking in Jesus' time as the Hebrew Scriptures use such imagery to talk about God. The informal and affectionate relationship with God is the legacy Jesus was giving to his disciples and to all of us. We also miss the point if we focus on the fact that Abba is a masculine term. God is not male or female. To try to categorize God as either becomes heresy and idolatry. We use personal pronouns (which in our language are gendered) to refer to God because our relationship with God is personal, not because we take literally the gender of the pronoun. Therefore it makes no sense to get upset when people use either male or female terms to refer to God, because neither one should be taken literally and Scripture uses both (for feminine imagery, see for example the beautiful passages in the book of Wisdom or Proverbs!)

Language is one of our greatest gifts and biggest frustrations as human beings. Just think about your human relationships to know the truth of this statement. How marvelous that we have been created with this gift of the ability to communicate, and yet, how often our words fail to capture our intention. So much human misunderstanding is based on the fact that we struggle to capture our feelings and experiences with language. Our relationship with God is not only no different, the disconnect between our language and concepts and the reality of God is that much greater because of God is ultimately infinite and beyond our comprehension. Nonetheless, because we are in relationship with God and do experience God, we continue to use our words and concepts, no matter how fallible they are, to try to articulate and communicate the relationship that makes us who we are.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A couple of weeks ago a friend emailed me the following question, so I thought I would use it, along with my response, in my blog this week:
Does our soul have a beginning? I know once created (at conception?) we have eternal life which I presume to mean our souls of course. But I have been having a conversation with someone that thinks "we have no beginning, we are eternal". That is not my understanding. Would you enlighten me or perhaps you could blog on this?
Souls are created and so do have a beginning. Only God is without beginning. When we use the phrase "eternal soul," what is meant is that our souls are everlasting, that they have a beginning, but not an end. Thus we also talk about eternal life, that is, life without end (not without beginning). In theology the soul is considered the principle of life, and so would be understood to be created by God at the moment of conception giving life to the baby. For Thomas Aquinas all living things had souls - so plants have vegetative souls that enable the plant to process nourishment, etc., animals have sensitive souls which include the elements of nourishment, etc., but also basic feelings (e.g., an animal can be afraid), and humans have intellectual or rational souls which include all of the above but also intellect and will. For Aquinas, however, only the human soul was immortal. (Interestingly enough, Aquinas thought the human soul was given at the moment of "quickening," which made sense from his perspective in an age before modern science. Quickening was the moment when the woman first physically felt the baby move, and thus at that point the baby must have life, hence a soul.)

The idea of a soul with no beginning is a very dualistic idea popular in the gnostic (from the Greek for knowledge) understanding in which the souls were thought to have pre-existed and that they "fell" into matter which was evil. Thus the goal of life was to find the proper knowledge (gnosis) that enabled the soul to be liberated from the body and return to the spirit world. Gnostic Christianity (combining Gnostic beliefs and Christian beliefs) was very popular in the first centuries of the Church. This way of thinking was condemned by the Church. Nonetheless, the dualistic tendency persists to this day and was especially exacerbated by the dualistic philosophy of Descartes in the 1600s.

Today we try to move away from a dualistic understanding of body and soul to understand the human person as embodied spirit or enspirited/ensouled body. The spiritual aspect of the human person is only lived out in and through our bodies. The unity rather than the distinction is primary. The role of the body is so central to what it means to be a human person that we profess our belief in the resurrection of the body, though we don't know what that looks like or precisely what that means after death.

This is a great question, and I think a lot of people don't understand this, as I have heard of people refer to it as if our souls are waiting around up in heaven until a point where they choose or are assigned to "enter" a person and "come down" to earth. I blame that somewhat on Hollywood as well as the persistance of an underlying gnosticism! On a related note, people often refer to humans who have died as angels, and theologically speaking, angels are a completely different creature from humans. When humans die they are saints, not angels (and in fact while living we are also part of the communion of saints)! Angels, by the way, are also created, and while immortal also have a beginning. Only God is without beginning.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Not too long ago I watched the movie Freedom Writers and truly my eyes were opened. I consider myself to be pretty aware of many of the tragic circumstances in the world, but I was shocked at the words of teens who live in our very own country and describe themselves as living in an "undeclared warzone." Certainly I have read about and even talked about the problem of violence in the US, especially in our cities, in a concerned but rather detached way. The violence in our cities, for the most part, does not directly touch my life. Something about the direct honesty of the teens in this movie profoundly shook me up and made me aware of the the problem in a new way.

The movie is based on the true story of a teacher who inspires her students to write journals about their own experiences of violence and racism, which they ultimately end up publishing as a book, The Freedom Writers Diary. Needless to say, I bought the book after watching the movie. Erin Gruwell was a new teacher in a "rough" school who was shocked to learn that while most of her students had never heard of the holocaust, the majority of them had experienced being shot or having someone shoot at them. In an environment that was deeply divided between racial gangs, she set out to teach them the dangers of intolerance by helping them to understand the holocaust through the eyes of another teenager, Anne Frank. Inspired by Anne Frank and Zlata Filipovic (Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo), the students realized that by telling their own stories, they could make an impact on the world. In one passage a student tells of getting jumped on the first day of school. She goes on to explain to the reader that the schools are just like the city:
All of them are divided into separate sections, depending on race. On the streets, you kick it in different 'hoods, depending on your race, or where you're from. And at school, we separate ourselves from people who are different from us. That's just the way it is, and we all respect that. So when the Asians started trying to claim parts of the 'hood, we had to set them straight. . . . Latinos killing Asians. Asians killing Latinos. They declared war on the wrong people. Now it all comes down to what you look like. If you look Asian or Latino, you're going to get blasted on or at least jumped. The war has been declared, now it's a fight for power, money, and territory; we are killing each other over race, pride, and respect (10).
In writing about the experience of losing a friend, another of the students says:

I've lost many friends, friends who have died in an undeclared war. A war that has been here for years, but has never been recognized. A war between color and race. A war that will never end. A war that has left family and friends crying for loved ones who have perished. To society, they're just another dead person on the street corner; just another statistic. But to the mothers of all those other statistics, they're more than simple numbers. They represent lives cut short, like more cut flowers. Like the ones placed on their graves (16).

The students write of their experiences of sexual and physical abuse, of being "jumped" into the gang, of buying a gun and shooting someone for the first time, of addiction to drugs, of being evicted from their homes, of being in prison, of not thinking about graduation because they do not know if they will even still be alive then. I realized that I listen to stories on NPR everyday about people living in Iraq in fear for their lives, afraid to walk down their streets, and I fail to have an awareness that people in my own country live in the same kind of pervasive violence and fear.

The story has a "resurrection" ending in that these students did survive. They did live and graduate and even went on to college because someone took the time and effort to believe in them, to invest in them, and to challenge them. Back in 1979 our bishops wrote Brothers and Sisters to Us, a pastoral letter on racism. In it they state:

In response to this mood, we wish to call attention to the persistent presence of racism and in particular to the relationship between racial and economic justice. Racism and economic oppression are distinct but interrelated forces which dehumanize our society. Movement toward authentic justice demands a simultaneous attack on both evils. . . . Major segments of the population are being pushed to the margins of society in our nation. As economic pressures tighten, those people who are often black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian -- and always poor -- slip further into the unending cycle of poverty, deprivation, ignorance, disease, and crime. Racial identity is for them an iron curtain barring the way to a decent life and livelihood.
The bishops call all of us to accountability:

Today in our country men, women, and children are being denied opportunities for full participation and advancement in our society because of their race. The educational, legal, and financial systems, along with other structures and sectors of our society, impede people's progress and narrow their access because they are black, Hispanic, Native American or Asian. The structures of our society are subtly racist, for these structures reflect the values which society upholds. They are geared to the success of the majority and the failure of the minority. Members of both groups give unwitting approval by accepting things as they are. Perhaps no single individual is to blame. The sinfulness is often anonymous but nonetheless real. The sin is social in nature in that each of us, in varying degrees, is responsible. All of us in some measure are accomplices. As our recent pastoral letter on moral values states: "The absence of personal fault for an evil does not absolve one of all responsibility. We must seek to resist and undo injustices we have not ceased, least we become bystanders who tacitly endorse evil and so share in guilt in it."(8)

It is sad to see that after almost 30 years we are still facing the same problems. This past September Catholic Charities published a report entitled, "Poverty and Racism: Overlapping Threats to the Common Good." The report concludes:

What motivates our concern about racism is our faith conviction that this is a “radical evil” which is not only absolutely incompatible with Christian faith and belief, but also a dire threat to our nation’s future. A new way of understanding what it means to be “American,” and who is included in that self-understanding, is urgently needed for both the integrity of our faith and our survival as a nation. Given the momentous shift occurring in our racial demographics, tolerating racial injustice and economic deprivation are realities we can no longer afford to indulge. We offer to both our church and society the following affirmations and convictions:
• Poverty and racial injustice are deeply intertwined and demand a simultaneous engagement if effective progress is to be made against either.
• Poverty and racial injustice are moral scandals that betray our national ideals of “liberty and justice for all.”
• Poverty and racial injustice are the results of human agency. They need not exist. This means that social reality can be other than the way it is. “Social life is created by human beings, by human choices and decisions. This means that human beings can change things. And therein lies the hope (Massingale, "About Katrina," 61).”

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

What does it mean to be Church? The Church is the sacrament of salvation. Sacraments are tangible realities that mediate intangible realities. So when people encounter the Church, they should experience a concrete tangible encounter with the love and mercy of God. The Church, however, is not the buildings in which we worship nor is it the hierarchy, though those pieces are certainly part of the Church. First and foremost the Church is all of us, those gathered in the name of Jesus Christ, baptized into his death and resurrection. It is not up to the cardinals and bishops to be signs of God's love in the world (though hopefully they are), it is up to us! At Easter we renew our baptismal vows. We recall that we have been chosen by God to be Church, to mediate God's compassion and love to the world. As baptized members of the Church, we are the body of Christ. We have been chosen to be members of the body of Christ, the tangible ongoing presence of Christ to all those we encounter. As I frequently remind those who are being Confirmed, the sacrament of Confirmation is not about you confirming your faith, it is God who confirms you, confirms that you have been called and chosen to be a disciple of Christ. The question is do you accept? The acceptance proclaimed in the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation must be lived out in our daily lives. The Amen we say to the Body of Christ each time we go to mass is our commitment to be that body of Christ for others.

What a tall order! I am frequently overwhelmed to think that ideally when people enounter me, they are supposed to be encountering a concrete expression of God's love for them. How often I fall incredibly short of that, or even give the opposite impression. The good news is that we are not called to fulfill this vocation through our own efforts. We are called to be open to God working within us. We are called to be open to the gift of grace that enables us to mediate God's love and forgiveness to others. So often we fall into the trap of thinking we have to do everything on our own, and yet when we depend on our own resources is usually the time we end up in the most trouble! I do not mean, however, that we are not meant to make use of the gifts and talents that God has given us. Of course we should be using those gifts, but always with a sense of humilty, acknowleding that just because we think we are doing right, just because we think we are on the right side, does not necessarily make it so. Luckily we do not simply mediate God's love and forgiveness, we experience it ourselves and in fact can only be sacraments of that love and forgiveness because we have already received it ourselves. We love because God first loved us (1 Jn. 4:19)!

We are also not called to this mission individually, but communally. Being Church emphasizes our interconnectedness with one another. We do not exist in isolation. In fact, we cannot exist in isolation. Humans are social creatures. We need one another. We depend on one another. We have been created to be in relation, in the image and likeness of our God who is Trinity, who is by definition relatedness. We come together because no one of us can possibly express the infinite love and mercy of God. We come together to experience the love and mercy of God in and through one another, to be community for one another and to accept the loving support of the community ourselves. Only in that way can we go out to the world and hope to share some glimmer of what we ourselves have been given.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Doubt goes hand in hand with faith. Faith, in many respects, is believing in spite of one's doubt, not in a irrational way, but in a way that accepts the doubt as part of the faith. I am not talking about blind faith where you simply close your ears to any contrary opinions, but a faith that is strengthened by engaging your own doubts and fears, facing them and confronting them. All relationships involve risk, and our relationship with God is no different in that respect. All relationships at times involve doubt, questioning the reality and strength of that relationship, especially in difficult times. Will the relationship hold? Does the other person truly care? The same questions can arise with God, especially when the circumstances of life lead us to a place where we feel most alone.

Our Sunday gospels of last week and this week enfold us between two stories of disciples experiencing doubt. Last week we had Thomas who needed that concrete, physical reassurance that Jesus had not abandoned him. This week we hear the wonderful story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. The disciples, Cleopas and most likely his wife Mary (cf. John 19:25), had given up and were going home. They were discouraged and beaten. They had lost. They thought Israel was going to be redeemed, but instead the one they believed was Messiah had been crucified. Both Thomas and Cleopas and Mary doubted that Jesus was really who they had thought him to be. When things did not turn out as they had hoped and expected, they gave up. In many ways doubt is often a failure of imagination, an inability to envision possibility.

One of my favorite things about both of these stories is that Jesus specifically reaches out to the ones who are doubting. He deliberately addresses Thomas' concerns and invites him to "not be unbelieving, but believe." Luke's gospel tells us that Jesus "drew near and walked with" Cleopas and Mary on their journey of doubt. The doubt in both of these stories becomes the catalyst for a much deeper faith and a deeper relationship. Thomas cries out, "My Lord and my God." Cleopas and Mary come to understand the Scriptures in a new way, their eyes are opened, their hearts are burning, and they immediately set out to share their experience with the others. Those who doubted now become the proclaimers of the gospel.

In our own lives doubt can also lead us to a stronger, deeper faith and relationship. Coming through the times of our lives that challenge our belief that God is with us, that sometimes challenge our very image and understanding of who God is, can lead us to a place of deeper, intuitive trust in the fidelity of God, an experiential knowing that God is always with us even in our moments of doubt and dispair, and a place of letting God be God in all the mystery that entails.