Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Continuing my use of past "Theological Thoughts," the doctrinal points addressed in this reflection follow a theme I have written about often, one that is probably quite familiar to you by now, namely that God desires our salvation and that through grace we respond to God’s call to us. These themes recur frequently in our Catholic theology. What connects these two points is the middle one, “God alone satisfies us (CCC 1718).” Part of the way that God calls all of us to eternal life and salvation is through the gift of our restlessness. It is what theologians and philosophers would call our human transcendence. In other words, the dynamism of our spirit eventually transcends or surpasses every finite thing in our life. Whatever we have or achieve is never enough. When we complete one task, we move on to another. Have you ever worked on a really big project at work or in school? Often when we have been putting a lot of our time and energy into something, there is an incredible relief when it is completed, but along with that relief comes a sense of restlessness. It is as if we don’t know what to do with ourselves all of the sudden. That feeling is an example of our transcendence. In theological terms, that restlessness is a gift from God. No finite thing or project or even person completely satisfies and fulfills us because only the infinite God can satisfy that longing. Only the One whom we can never transcend or surpass can fulfill that yearning. Oftentimes our relationships suffer because we place expectations on another human being that only God can realize. A spouse is someone who can be a companion and a partner on that mutual journey to fulfillment in God, but even a spouse cannot be God for us. We are finite beings, but we have been created with a capacity for the infinite, a capacity for God. Only the inexhaustible mystery of God can fill that capacity. God is a mystery that we cannot ever totally grasp or comprehend. If we could comprehend God, God would be a finite object like all of the others we are able to move beyond. We can never move beyond God. Furthermore when we let ourselves go and surrender into the abyss that is the infinite God, we discover that we have fallen into an abyss of love. Thus St. Augustine says, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O Lord.”

The desire for God is placed in our hearts by the God who desires our salvation. By that gift of God’s grace, we are drawn relentlessly toward God. At the same time we must consent to God’s gift. Often human beings try to fill that restlessness with material things or power or other finite things that they make into false gods or idols. However, it is important to note here that I am not saying that the things of this world are bad. In fact, it is only through the things and people of this world that we experience God. It is only through the things and people in this world that we can accept God’s call to us. We do so by actualizing the gifts God has given us: freedom, a conscience, the ability to love. Every time one acts in love, freedom, or truth, every time one recognizes beauty and goodness, one affirms the presence of our God who is love, freedom, truth, beauty, goodness, etc. Our movement toward God is always a movement that is acted out in the midst of our world. In doing so, we do not make the things of this world into gods, but we see the presence of God being mediated through the people and events of our lives.

We see the perfect actualization of God’s call and the human response in Jesus Christ. Christ is God’s offer to us and our response to God. Christ has enabled us to respond, so that through the power of the Holy Spirit, we say ‘yes’ to God in and through the ‘yes’ of Jesus Christ. Jesus lived a fully human life, a life of love, freedom and truth, and he calls us to imitate him. We see his ‘yes’ acted out in the events of his life, in his preaching, in his love for all people, and finally in his crucifixion. And in the resurrection, we see God’s ‘Amen’ to the life and death of Jesus, as well as God’s ‘Amen’ to our lives lived fully in freedom and love.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I apologize for not being as good about staying on top of writing these entries as I had hoped! How is it that summer always ends up being such a busy time? I have also been working on preparing the courses I am teaching this fall, so I admit, I am going to take the easy way out! During my first years at St. Monica, I wrote reflections each week on the doctrinal points given in Celebrating the Lectionary, the program we were using in the Sunday School at that time, and sent them home to parents. Over the next few weeks I am simply going to share some of those reflections with you, so here is the first of them! The doctrinal points in this reflection dealt with the fact that God is creator, that creation is good, and that the Christian community has been tragically divided, so those are the points I address in what follows. I hope you are all having a good summer!

We believe that God is creator, and as such, all that God created is good. This is the message of the story in Genesis, in which God creates and then God proclaims that what has been created is good. Theologically, the Catholic Church teaches that creation proclaims the presence of God. Even without revelation, one would be able to come to a natural knowledge of God as creator through contemplating the beauty and the wonder of the created world. St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan friar who lived in the 13th century, wrote The Soul’s Journey Into God in which he reflected that creation is a book that has been written by God. The first movement of the soul toward God is the ladder of creation. For Bonaventure, in nature we see the footprints of God. To say that the world is sacramental is to say that it is a visible way in which God is present to us – if we know how to look at it.

When God creates the humans, he gives them dominion over creation. Dominion, when used in this way is not understood as domination, but rather as stewardship. God has given us the gift of creation, but has also entrusted it to our care. We are the stewards of the earth and its resources. Part of our job as stewards is to protect the earth and to make sure the resources are sustained. Part of our job as stewards is to make sure those resources are used justly and responsibly. To lose parts of the natural world through extinction or destruction is to lose part of God’s revelation to us.

In the creation account in Genesis, we also learn that God made human beings in the likeness and image of God. The fact that all human beings are created in God’s image means that all human life is sacred. All human life has dignity, not because of anything a human being does, but simply by the fact that he or she is created by God as an image of God, regardless of race, religion, gender or any other ways we categorize human beings. Such dignity is called inherent dignity in moral theology, because it is given to us as part of who we are, as opposed to ascribed dignity, which we grant to people on the basis of things they do or how they act. The inherent dignity and sacredness of human life means that as Christians we must protect all lives and make sure people live in conditions that are worthy of their dignity as images of God. We use the language of the seamless garment to talk about issues of life, which means that all of the issues around protecting and sustaining life are connected in such an integral way that you cannot stand for one and not the other. Many Catholics are familiar with the concept of pro-life in terms of being anti-abortion, but in Catholic teaching pro-life also means that one should stand against capital punishment, against war unless there is absolutely no other way to defend oneself, against assisted suicide. It also means that we must stand for life-giving and sustaining issues – making sure that people have proper food, clothing, and shelter, making sure children are being nourished and nurtured, making sure neighborhoods are places of safety instead of violence. As Christians, we must be scandalized that people still starve to death every day in our world. As stewards, especially stewards that live in the wealthiest nation in the world, we must work to see that the resources we have, resources that have been given to us by God, are distributed in a just manner.

It is especially important these days to remember that as Christians we also called to be peace-makers. We strive for peace both because war violates the sacredness of human life and because we have been given the peace of Christ and are compelled to share it with others. We believe that the reign of God is both already here, having broken through in Christ, and not yet fully here. Thus we work with God to give hope to the world that peace is possible, to keep alive the vision of Micah and Isaiah who looked to the day when the nations will “beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks;” a vision of a world in which “one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again (Is. 2:3-4, Micah 4:3).”

In a world seeking peace, we also must face the fact that the Christian community has been tragically divided. We have come a long way in our relations with our brothers and sisters of different Christian denominations. Unfortunately we also have a long way to go. How can we be true symbols of peace in the world when our own community stands divided? We look to the witness of those who are in mixed marriages, i.e., a Catholic Christian and a non-Catholic Christian (of course, marriages between Christians and those of other religious traditions also witness to us about dialogue between religious traditions!), and hold them up as examples of how love conquers the divisions between us. We stay in dialogue with one another, and we pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in continuing to heal past hurts and to move toward a future that celebrates all of our unity in the midst of our diversity.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

As we celebrate the birth of our nation on this upcoming 4th of July, we must think about what it means to be America - who we are as a country and who we want to be. This is a question we have faced since the founding of our country and is intimately connected to the issue of religion. Without a doubt our country was founded on Christian principles (along with principles from Greek philosophy and the Enlightenment). What is interesting is to look at the fact that those very Christian principles were used to to espouse freedom from and for religion, though not without controversy. I am currently reading Diana Eck's book, A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation. I highly recommend this book as a way to understand both where we have come from, what our country actually looks like today, and the choices we will have to make about who we are in the future. For a great overview of her research project, go to her website, The Pluralism Project.

In the book Eck talks about the history of the colonies and the different approaches they took to the issue of religious tolerance or exclusion, from colonies that had an established religion to those that did not, and that both sides argued their case on biblical grounds. In seventeenth century Boston, "an anti-Catholic law was enacted stating, 'that no Jesuit or ecclesiasticall person ordained by the authoritie of the pope shall henceforth come within our jurisdiction" (Eck, 36). Eck also points out that

while the Catholic founders of Maryland passed a Toleration Act in 1649, when Protestants came to power in the following decades, Jesuits were banished from the colony and Catholics were denied the right to hold office. Harsh anti-Catholic laws were passed, such as the 1704 law straightforwardly titled An Act to Prevent the Growth of Popery Within This Province. (Eck, 38)
We all know (I hope) that the issue of "establishment" and "toleration" was dealt with in the First Amendment to the Constitution that both prevented the establishment of a state religion and protected the freedom to exercise one's own religion. Of course, no problem is so easily settled.

Today we live in the most religiously diverse country in the world, and the challenge of diversity is always whether we will view it as a gift or an obstacle. Issues of religious diversity often intersect with issues of immigration. Eck cites the following example:

The vast alien immigration is, at the root, an attack upon Protestant religion with its freedom of conscience, and is therefore a menace to American liberties. . . . For forty years the alien, unassimilable masses have been de-Americanizing America. . . . A few more years of our present sentimental, irrational hospitality will reduce the American people to a hopeless minority. (Eck, 27)
That passage could be read today on many websites or heard on talk radio shows referring to Muslims or even to Spanish speaking Christians. It was not directed to either of those groups however. The statement was written in a publication of the Ku Klux Klan in 1924 and was referring to Catholics and Jews. In a post 911 world, unfortunately too many people react to people of other religious traditions with suspicion and hostility. Fortunately, for as many acts of hatred and violence that have been committed, there have also been efforts to reach out to other religious communities and learn more about one another. Just as the founders of our country had to make choices about how to deal with religious diversity and as Americans in the the 1920s and post-war Civil Rights period had to make choices about how to deal with religious diversity, today we are once again faced with this question of who we are, who we are referring to when we say "We the people." Eck points out that

America's response to this question is important, perhaps not only for America but also for the world. Building a multireligious society seems to be increasingly difficult in a world in which religious markers of identity are often presumed to be the most divisive of all differences. (Eck, 66)
Drawing on the sentiment of the American Catholic theologian John Courtney Murray that pluralism requires that we engage one another in dialogue, Eck proposes that such engagement
is vital also to the health of religious faith so that we appropriate our faith not by habit or heritage alone, but by making it our own within the context of dialogue with people of other faiths. Such dialogue is not aimed at achieving agreement, but at achieving relationship. (Eck, 71-72)
This Fourth of July, let us look around at "we the people," people of all different faiths - Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Christians, etc. (and if you doubt that this is the reality that exists today, use the The Pluralism Project directory to look up the communities of these different faiths that are active your own community) and choose to celebrate the gift and opportunity we have been given to engage others and come to mutual understanding through openness and friendship rather than reacting with hostility and fear.