Dec 9, 2009

Depression 6: Calm with a chance of waves

Sorry I haven't been blogging every day, though that's actually back to normal for me so it's probably a good sign.

I started taking some anti-depressants this weekend, and I think they, and/or other things, are starting to have good effects. I know I didn't want to take them, but Saturday I talked to my doc(s) who agreed my symptoms match chemical depression exactly. I'm taking only half of a low dosage thinking I might as well treat the chemical aspects of this. I also saw a psychiatrist (long-time family friend) on Monday, and he really helped me to understand how my mind and emotions are interconnected; that when our minds go too fast for too long, they can seize up and we lose that emotional regulator.

So, I probably won't read quite so much philosophy and/or theology for a while - I was reading Greatest Marvel of Nature (Philosophy of the Human Person), New Seeds of Contemplation, my Old Testament book, and about a dozen theology blogs every day; and feeling guilty that I couldn't read more. All of this on top of solving abstract and complex computer programming problems in my day job. So cutting back from abstraction and introspection for a while will help until the motor's back in alignment.

My mood swings aren't as wild anymore and my lows aren't as low and aren't lasting as long. Things are somewhat reversed now in that evenings are more calm and relaxed, and mornings are more anxious, but not nearly so bad as last week. I seem to hit a pretty steady calm around noon, with just some mild waves of anxiety in the evenings.

I have some freaking amazing friends and family. My wife especially, who has to put up with my weird moody and emotional swings. All of you reading my blog has helped. And getting together with family on Saturday was good therapy, as is hanging out with friends to play some video games or watch some college basketball in the evenings. Anything and everything to distract my mind and emotions from themselves.

I had a better night of sleep last night - from midnight to 4am when Clover woke up, and then back to sleep until about 6am. Then another good hour from 7am to 8am on the dog bed with the dogs. ;) Almost back up to my full 8 hours. My appetite is still wonky - only ate a little bit of lunch around noon. That's been really strange to experience - the sensation of simultaneously being really hungry but not wanting to eat anything. And I haven't done any more exercise since Thursday since I'm not eating a full amount. If I get a good dinner in tonight I'll try to jog tomorrow morning. But probably won't go for any 4-mile "Guinness Challenge" runs for a while. ;)

I feel like the flow of this is going from existential crisis -> depression -> (hopefully) simpler awareness. I'm not even going to think about what God might be revealing to me in all this. I'm sure it's like most of his revelation - we can't really understand it while we're in the midst of it. Will probably take some time and distance from the flash to see the light for whatever it might be.

Dec 3, 2009

Depression 5 > Indention

I think I'm starting to turn a corner on this. Last night I had a great class with my instructors who were both really supportive. Hot Chocolate from the kitchen helped too. It's rare to find such people who are veritable scholars AND compassionate friends.

In fact, one event was a poignant salve for my soul.

I don't usually like taking verses out of context, but the juxtaposition of our study of Amos and my context was just too meaningful. My faith crisis began Thanksgiving night when we were driving between relatives' houses. I looked up at the sky and saw ORION and one of those "I wonder if there really is a God who made all this?" thoughts leaped into me and wouldn't shake loose. As much as I can tell, I think that really might have been THE instigation of all this existential crisis and depression. So when I heard Mark read this:

"He who made the Pleiades and ORION, who turns darkness into dawn, and darkens day into night ..." Am. 5:8

I couldn't help but get a little emotional. As far as I'm concerned, God spoke straight to me last night, and He did it thru my instructors. Our studies at PSI are so much more than just great intellectual pursuit - they are a steady comfort for me. I was made acutely aware of it again when we walked into the library with Joey. Just being in the presence of so much great Godly knowledge was soothing.

After class I felt great and stayed up for a while writing, then praying for some people who have shared some of their own depression stories with me. I fell asleep around 12:30 pretty easily.

I woke up a bit too early (6am) and in a bit of the familiar funk, though not as anxious, which was good. I let the dogs out and fed them. I got on facebook and emails a bit. I decided to go do a weight workout. I could tell I'm not as strong as I was last time - probably the lack of sleep and nutrition.

After the workout, I went home to shower, but instead I bawled my eyes out like I've never cried before. It was loud and messy crying, for no particular reason. I'm talking crying that scared my dogs. For a good 5 minutes or so. I finally pulled myself into the shower and headed out to the appointment. On the way there, I did something I never normally do: I turned on "Christian" radio. Immediately, this song started: Rediscover You by Starfield. It made me feel better and made me keep the station on for a good part of the day.

My appointment went well. I'm a model of health, physically, except for the funky appetite and sleeping, which is messing up my metabolism a bit. The doc asked if I wanted to try anti-depressants and I said I'd rather not if I can help it. But I did take a prescription for sleeping medicine in case I have more rough nights in the future. Just explaining my symptoms helped. I'm looking forward to my psychiatric appointment on Monday. Looking forward to things helps, so here's an exercise one of my instructors suggested ...

10 things that bring me joy:

  1. When my wife touches me because she knows I need it.

  2. When Clover laughs at me; also when she poops while looking at me.

  3. Talking openly and honestly to friends and family

  4. Having people over to the house

  5. Hot Chocolate

  6. Sharing good beer

  7. Buying things for others

  8. Peaceful sleep

  9. A good workout

  10. Knowing that the whole world doesn't feel bad when I do

  11. (BONUS) Productive work

I really feel like my spiritual and mental anxiety are passing. I still feel emotionally down, but this feels more like previous "downs" I've had. I can remember the deeper painful thoughts and feelings, but they don't send me into despair anymore. They've left an impression on me, but I don't feel them depressing me now.

Going to do dinner, a party, and some gaming tonight with friends and family, and planning on getting some good sleep too, one way or another! ;)

Dec 2, 2009

Depression 4 - help from my friends

This post is pretty much a "Dear Diary" post. If you read this blog for the (amateur) theological musings, you can probably skip this one.

I had kind of a weird day today.

This morning's "run" back-fired. I woke up at 5am (yeah, that's part of all this) and my mind was doing its anxiety thing, so I decided to head out. I hardly ate at all yesterday and I had no energy, so I decided I'd just "walk" to the gym and maybe weigh myself to find out if I've been losing weight. It was still so early that I was pretty much walking alone in the dark. I got so shaky and tired on my walk that I seriously considered stopping and napping on some random neighbor's porch chairs. After I shook off that idea, I went into a mild panic about whether or not I could actually make it home or if I'd collapse in the street. Took lots of willpower to get back home, where I collapsed into the bed next to Tiffany to try to soothe my mind some more. Finally got back to some sleep from 7-8, woke up hungry and ate, then tried to sleep again until about 9:30.

Tiff asked me if I wanted to go out with her and Clover today to childrens' story time at the library and errands. My first inclination was to just sit and mope some more at home, but somewhat inexplicably, I decided at the last minute to go. After story time, a co-worker good friend called me with some profound verses that really helped me a lot, though they turned me into an emotional mess. :)

"Adam fell that men might be; and men care, that they might have joy."

"And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God."

"And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God.
And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.
And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me."

These are really things that I needed to hear. They are from the book of Mormon! That just makes me appreciate God can He expresses Himself in the different stripes of Christianity (and even other religions!) God has a big paintbrush and many colors I think. I'm not saying I'm ready to become a Mormon, but if I believe God can reveal Himself thru areligious "spiritual" songs, surely His Truth can be found in these other ways His people seek Him. For now I need to defer the subjects of apostasy or scriptural cannon and just appreciate what I believe is a real way of God trying to reach me.

Right after that call emotionally pried me open, we walked into Agora and I talked to pastor Jeff a bit. A random coffee-house patron came over to see our baby and when she found out her name was Clover she got really excited. She explained her cats names are Shamrock and Clover and she's writing an article on the shamrock as a Christian symbol of the Trinity and St. Patrick and everything (part of the reason we named Clover). She said she had gone thru some depression in the past and needed God to reveal Himself to her in a big way. She had 5 customers that day walk in with clovers on their clothing and that just meant something to her. When I told her I've been feeling depressed lately too and have been needing God to reveal Himself to me, she got really excited, said our meeting was no coincidence, and wanted to pray with me. So we did. She prayed an eager and zealous Oral Roberts style prayer for me, and it helped. Like I said, big paintbrush and many colors - from the book of Joseph Smith to a KJV-quotin' Bible-belt evangelical.

Right on the heels of that, we went to lunch with a couple of other really good friends. I knew one of them has struggled with depression before, and I feel awful that I was ever skeptical of this person! (Note to self: apologize.) Lunch was good and I had a bit more of an appetite so I wolfed down some Chik-Fil-A nuggets and fruit. Our other friend there has a little boy and I got to go into the play area with him for a while, which helped. After lunch, we went back to our house for something called "Parents as Teachers" which is a cool program where someone from Tulsa Public Schools comes to your house to talk about your baby/child and their early learning.

During most of the session though, I was reading an encouraging message from my sister on facebook and that really helped. I think our family has been close for so long that we sometimes take our love for granted and don't bring it up to the surface in our every-day conversations and interactions. We all love one another deeply, but we don't talk about it all the time. And I would normally be the last member of the clan to ask for direct emotional support, so it was such a relief that she gave it so quickly and abundantly. She said God gives us our spouses for a reason, and I would add that He also gives us our families AND our friends for these kinds of times.

After the session, we talked with our friend for a bit and came to find out this friend took anti-depressants for a time too! And we talked a bit about some other mutual friends who have gone thru depressions before. It's re-assuring to know I'm not alone in this, and I'm not losing my mind! (I mean, considering sleeping on a strange neighbor's porch? I really thought that was an inevitable step to institutionalization.)

Having our friends in the house really helped and I think helps. Can't say why, but I know I'm like my dad in that I just enjoy having people over. (Oh, and my dad helped me set up appointments with a family medical doctor and with a psychiatric doctor. Turns out another of my siblings has been thru something like this and went to these doctors and took anti-depressants for a while too! And yet another sibling went thru it and did some cognitive therapy, and a couple of our grandparents have been thru it! It was reassuring to me to know that there is indeed a physiological, probably genetic, aspect to it and it can be treated in a number of ways.)

I felt much better after our friends left and my appetite returned with a vengeance. Slammed down some carrots, humus, crackers, cheese, ham, and peaches. Then I started writing this blog post. I think I'm coming thru the despair now and just need to shake some more emotional funk. Talking about it candidly and honestly really, REALLY helps - thank you to all of you who are reading thru this with me, it helps a bunch! And I'm sure I'll talk about it more tonight with my instructors and students at school. I'm actually excited to go! I'm also still starving, and I hear Tiffany making Chicken-and-Dumplings in the kitchen ...

(Interesting tidbit: while looking for the picture, I discovered that Chicken and Dumplings originated during the Great Depression! Whoa.)

Dec 1, 2009

Depression 3; See also: Existential Crisis

Need to write this while I'm on my exercise high.

This morning when I woke up early in my funk, I started working and also looking at some more articles about depression and stuff. I googled 'personal mortality crisis' and got back Existential crisis. (I can already feel the sting of the realization hitting me again, but not quite as strongly or hopelessly now.) It looked appropriate because in its "See also" section it listed Dark Night of the Soul which Saint mentioned in a comment, and Alan mentioned in a personal message.

One of the things that struck me from the wikipedia article was the bit that an existential crisis may result from "a new found grasp or appreciation of one's mortality." Uh, yes!! That's me! I think some of that comes from the birth of Clover. Something odd about seeing new life come into the world that makes you appreciate the flip-side, I guess. The article went on "... it provokes the sufferer's introspection about personal mortality, thus revealing the psychological repression of said awareness." Uh, yes again! Whoa.

Now maybe it's arrogance, but the first "External articles" link that I clicked on was Existential depression in gifted individuals. Since I've already got that much arrogance, I may as well note that I grew up in the "gifted" track all thru school, and people do often make comments about my "smarts" or "intelligence" or whatever. In any case, knowing that this is a common deal stemming from the mind and intellect is comforting; more on that later. On my run this morning, I considered it could be important for me to be dealing with this, since gifted children can experience it as young as 12! If Clover were to go thru this before I did, it would be terrible.

The other great link I clicked was on handling existential crisis. It seems like a good post-modern approach for coping with the mind's anxiety and the body's emotional depression. Just being able to think in those terms helps me, as I've attached to the idea that "faith is not the absence of doubt, but the perseverance of the will thru doubt." I don't know if I got that from Lewis or somewhere else, but it's helping.

Like I said, this whole thing has blown away whatever misconceptions I ever had about a strong distinction of body, mind, and soul. My morning run invigorated my body, which got my mind out of its funk. I kept that idea of "perseverance of the will" with me and towards the end of my run my will just had to impose itself. I imagine the scenario something like my mind and emotions are going childishly insane in the living room, and my will finally wakes up, walks calmly into the room and just gives a stern "Alright, that's enough now kids. Just shut the fuck up, alright?" ;)

I don't know if it's "over" or whatever or if it ever will be completely. But I feel like I'm coping now and can at least get back to some normalcy of life. Need to keep at the running though, that's for sure.

Nov 30, 2009

Depression 2

Like I said, blogging helps, so I'm doing some more now to try to keep this upward trend going.

This morning I decided to get out and run for the first time in a over 2 weeks. I know exercise releases endorphins that help, and I'm using them. Running in the morning felt better. It's nice to see the buzz and activity of the neighborhood getting off to work. I also saw some birds flying around in the cold morning air; reminded me of:

"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." (Mt. 10:29-31)

My depression has revolved around thoughts of my own smallness and insignificance, and Jesus speaks straight at that. I just need to remember that, even though my part in the whole scheme of things may be small, God's will is still at work in it.

Nov 29, 2009


A week ago I was a depression skeptic - I thought people with "depression" were just grumpy or sad people who couldn't deal with life. Today I'm a believer; I feel like I'm getting just a taste of depression for the last few days. Not even real "clinical" depression - the debilitating kind that prevents someone from working or really doing anything. I'm just having a mild case of "postpartum" fatherhood anxiety - some "baby blues" maybe? Still, it's been enough to make me a believer. I'm feeling knots in my stomach, and in my soul - my spirit even. The experience has shattered any conceptions I had about distinctions between body, mind, and soul.

The thing about it is that there's no real reason for it? My baby is the perfect baby - she hardly cries, she's happy and healthy, she wakes up once per night, and even then mom usually takes care of her without even waking me up! My company recently made lay-off's, but my job is secure. (Though maybe I have some survivor's guilt?) We don't have any money troubles. There's been no recent death in the family or anything. But I'm still anxious for no reason. And I think this is a symptom? Feeling without reason? Or is that a symptom of womanhood? Maybe I'm turning into a woman. Frak.

As a former skeptic, I'm totally unprepared for what these feelings are doing to my faith. I know this depression is in my mind and body, but I can also feel it spilling over into my soul and spirit. I'm avoiding my daily office prayers, I'm avoiding even looking at crosses, crucifixes, and my other Catholic "bling." I don't think I'm losing faith, but there are certainly moments where I feel like it's hidden from me.

While reading Merton, I thought 'contemplation' could be my vocation. But in one of his chapters, Merton describes the path to contemplation as winding thru a desert with no clear evidence of a destination; rather accidental and occasional encounters with an "oasis" of God. I think I may have read just enough Merton to be dangerous - I intellectually wandered out into the desert without emotionally preparing for it. I'm suffering for it now.

If anyone reading this has real depression and especially if you've felt it creep into your spirit, I'll pray with you for God's healing to reach into that special place in your body, your mind, and your soul that needs to feel him so desperately.

Nov 19, 2009

Contemplating Merton

I almost can't believe I'm saying this, but I may have found a Christian writer who has supplanted C.S. Lewis as my all-time favorite! (And he's another Thomas, like my patron saint.)

He's Thomas Merton. He was actually a contemporary of C.S. Lewis, though I don't know if either ever wrote about the other. He was a Trappist monk, so his Order makes great beers too!

As with Lewis, I feel a strong connection to him after reading just one of his books - New Seeds of Contemplation. I think 'contemplation' is a vocation I could embrace; fueled by study and knowledge but also by prayer and meditation, but transcending it all. I've recently felt some tension inside myself between my academic studies and my spiritual livelihood. Getting back into a college curriculum has been great for my mind, but has also somewhat reset my attitude towards an (over-?)emphasis on intellectual activity. By contrast,

Contemplation is the highest expression of man's intellectual and spiritual life. ... a kind of spiritual vision to which both reason and faith aspire, by their very nature, because without it they must always remain incomplete. ...
Hence contemplation is more than a consideration of abstract truths about God, more even than affective meditation on the things we believe. It is awakening, enlightenment, and the amazing intuitive grasp by which love gains certitude of God's creative and dynamic intervention in our daily life. Hence contemplation does not simply 'find' a clear idea of God and confine Him within the limits of that idea, and hold Him there as a prisoner to Whom it can always return. On the contrary, contemplation is carried away by Him into His own realm, His own mystery and His own freedom. It is a pure and virginal knowledge, poor in concepts, poorer still in reasoning, but able, by its very poverty and purity, to follow the Word 'wherever He may go.'

Reading through this book is like seeing myself better than a reflection in a mirror. It's both familiar and strange - like when you see a picture of yourself and realize the part in your hair is actually on that other side and your smile slants to the right not the left. I'll have to buy my own copy (if the library hasn't already charged me for this one), and I'll probably refer to it more in blog posts like I do with Lewis quotes.

The above quote screams at me. In my RCIA and my academic studies, I notice myself falling into that trap of 'finding a clear idea of God and confining Him within the limits of that idea' - especially because my excellent teachers and academic studies are presenting me with so many good clear ideas! But my conversion started with that 'virginal knowledge' - a dry sponge soaking up anything and everything I saw God revealing. I was letting myself be 'carried away by Him into His own realm' - straight into the Catholic Church.

As I've lived in the Church, I've been developing convert syndrome, and I think it wasn't until I really got into the academics that I started noticing how far advanced I was in the "disease." Merton's writings are helping me restore some of that intellectual and spiritual poverty and purity that led me into my fuller faith in the first place, and for that I consider him every bit as important to me as Lewis.

Nov 17, 2009

Amos' Parade of Nations

The first part of Amos is a series of oracles against the nations surrounding Israel. My professor asked me this follow-up question on my previous post summarizing Amos: What is the significance of the geographical ordering of the nations mentioned in the prologue of Amos? I've been doing some research, but couldn't find any straight-forward answer in wikipedia's article on Amos, nor the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Amos, nor a lengthy commentary on Amos. So I'm going with my own crazy(?) idea ...

Amos first mentions Aram, a name also given to a grandson of Noah. He then mentions Gaza and Tyre. Next is Edom, a name also given to Esau - Jacob's twin brother. He finally mentions Ammon and Moab which are also names of descendants of Lot - Abraham's newphew. So, with the exception(?) of Gaza and Tyre, all of the nations Amos mentions are etiologically related to Israel. It makes for a powerful rhetoric to draw his audience into the saga and drama of their own "relatives." Or, it might just be a simple effect of writing the patriarchal history from the context of the lands and peoples of Palestine, if that's indeed what happened.

Another idea I couldn't verify from research is that the order of the nations may be the order in which Assyria conquered them? If that's the case, it would support the idea that Amos may have been a post-exilic writing. Although, Assyria conquered Israel before Judah.

Anyone else have an idea? I'm dying to know ...

Nov 9, 2009


I'm going to jump-start mixing blogging and theology by doing this week's Old Testament homework in a blog post. We're reading Amos, and tonight I'm specifically re-reading Amos to summarize three portions of Amos - his judgement of Israel, his three woes, and his vision. First a little context ...

Amos was not a professional prophet. He was a farmer from Judah in the south, called to prophecy in Israel in the north. He was active in the 8th century BC, probably around 760-745. All around Israel, Assyria was the world super-power - gaining land and tributaries all over Mesopotamia from Babylon to Syria. (I know, Assyria vs. Syria is confusing.) Amos preached when a "weak" king ruled Assyria, so Israel still enjoyed independence and prosperity and did not face immediate threat of invasion. As such, Israel (and Judah) fell into a listless lifestyle and culture that ignored or forgot Yahweh and the responsibilities of His covenant.

Into this, Amos starts his preaching in a formula on the evils of the other nations around them - Aram, Philistia, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab. "Thus says the LORD: For three crimes of _____, and for four, I will not revoke my word;" In the blank, he names the nation or its capital city. After this, he names specific evil of the nation - e.g., "Because they threshed Gilead with sledges of iron" or "Because they took captive whole groups to hand over to Edom" etc. He then pronounces the punishment of each in the form "I will ... (send fire, root them out, turn my hand against them, etc.)" You can almost hear the shouts of "Amen!" and "Preach it!" and "Glory to God!" from his audience like you might hear in a contemporary fiery sermon of judgement.

Then he throws a curve ball. He continues right on in the formula judging against Judah! Of course his audience is in Israel, so they probably gave some mild awkward applause for his judgment against Judah: "Because they spurned the law of the LORD, and did not keep his statutes; Because the lies which their fathers followed have led them astray." (2:4) Well sure - the Davidic monarchy was known to be in error, right? So of course Judah's fathers led them astray. Okay then, getting too close to home, probably about time to wrap it up, right?

Then he blows their minds; hammers into Israel with his most scathing judgement: "Because they sell the just man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals. They trample the heads of the weak into the dust of the earth, and force the lowly out of the way. Son and father go to the same prostitute, profaning my holy name. Upon garments taken in pledge, they recline beside any altar; And the wine of those who have been fined they drink in the house of their god." (2:7-8) Ouch. Say what now?

The first major theme of Amos's judgement against Israel is perfectly summarized by our textbook: "He [Amos] connects the injustice he sees around him to a society bent on wealth and prosperity and forgetful of the true worship of God." Ouch again - sound familiar?

Secondly, Amos, like all the prophets, condemns Israel's idolatry to "any altar" - referring to the widespread worship of the gods of Canaan by the Israelites. This offense is compounded with mistreatment of the poor, who would give their cloaks as pledges to their creditors, who were supposed to return them before nightfall ("If you take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body. What else has he to sleep in? If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate." Ex 22:25-26, also Dt 24:12) Amos goes on to reiterate Yahweh's supremacy over Israel as opposed to other gods, and gives a strong premonition of military defeat.

Another major part of Amos's preaching are three woes. I had to look up the biblical meaning of 'woe' and I think it roughly means the opposite of blessings - i.e., disasters. Amos speaks a first woe - that Israel will not live in its houses nor drink of its vineyards because they "turn judgment to wormwood and cast justice to the ground." The second woe is, ironically, to those who long for "the day of the LORD" - Amos preaches it will be a day of darkness for Israel and not light, because Israel makes empty offerings and songs. For this, Amos preaches that Yahweh will "exile [them] beyond Damascus." Finally, Amos decrees the woe that a nation (Assyria) will oppress Israel for its complacency in trusting in its wealth and military might and not in Yahweh.

Amos also relates symbolic visions - threats and promises - to Israel. First a vision of locusts and then of fire (burning drought) destroying Israel, at each of which Amos intercedes for Israel and Yahweh repents of it. Then he has a vision of a plummet - specifically, of God using one to judge the uprightness of Israel. Against this Amos does not intercede. Amos also has a vision of a basket of ripe fruit, which I'll admit completely dumbfounds me as to its meaning. Finally, Amos has a vision of the destruction and total ruin of an altar and temple killing those inside; symbolizing that no-one escapes God's punishment.

That's all the homework I'll post for now. I also picked out three instances of three kinds of parallelism found in Amos, but that would take this post into Hebrew poetry which is way to deep to cover fairly. :)

Hitting the wall

Today I ran four miles. First time in years I've run more than three. Today I actually, finally, did some prayer while I ran. I think I need to do more of each and especially of both together.

I have to make a confession. I have already made a confession to a priest, and I want to make one here too. It's been going on for months - too many months. I've been too consumed by (my) theology and (my) life. It's wearing me out, I've hit the wall, I'm trying to get through it, and I'm hoping this post will help.

I've thought of myself before others.
I've considered myself better than others.
I've met others with skepticism.
I've engaged others with pretense.
I've thought judgment upon others.
I've spoken platitudes at others.
I've been insincere with others.
I've ignored the life of God in others.
I've ignored the love of God in others.
I've withheld myself from others.

I am sorry for these sins with all my heart. I have chosen to do wrong, and failed to do good. If I have made these sins against you, I ask your forgiveness. These sins have sneaked into me slowly, but they are real and clear - like worn stains under a full Light.

I'm assigning myself a personal penance - to resume the Daily Office. It's really amazing how much ten minutes of prayer twice a day can change the way I live and love.

Oct 28, 2009

Theological Blogging

This semester I've been struggling to finish my Old Testament essay, "Themes and Theologies from Primeval Myths of the Ancient Near East." Partly, I think I'm just bad at traditional academic writing. So, I'm going to try to mix a couple of my passions - my blogging and my theological study. But I need some reader participation for this ...

I spoke to my professor about writing some academic-flavored blog posts in lieu of writing a term paper for next semester's New Testament class. He and I will determine an assignment of blog posts to write on the topics we'll cover in the New Testament. When I blog them, I will need at least some readers to ask me some follow-up questions in the comments, and that will instigate me into further research and response. I think it can work really well, based on my previous post on Genesis which got a good 16 comments.

So, how many of you could help me out with comments on some academic posts next semester? The number of comments to this post could serve as something of a trial figure, so please leave a comment here so I can show my instructor that this could work. Thanks.

Oct 22, 2009

whoa. whoa. WHOA!

Okay, this is exciting. The Vatican has approved an Apostolic Constitution for the purpose of bringing Anglicans into the Roman Catholic Church! Very roughly, this means there will be something like an 'Anglican Rite' of the Roman Catholic Church, and as I understand it, Anglican congregations can be corporately brought into full communion with Rome.

As I understand it, married priests will retain their clerical status and responsibilities, but cannot be bishops. Celibate Anglican bishops can become bishops in the Roman church, and some celibate priests may be ordained as new bishops in the Anglican "rite" of the Church.

This is meaningful to me for a couple reasons.

First and foremost, one of my good friends is Episcopalian - the province of the Anglican Communion in the US. I know he's very warm to the Roman tradition. He is actually one of the main reasons I became Roman Catholic. and he turned me on to liturgical tradition by introducing me to the daily office. I haven't talked to him about this yet, but just the fact that this avenue exists between the two churches gives me new hope as I reflect on how much our friendship has meant to me.

Another reason I'm excited is I think this sets a positive precedent for the Church. I think this is a good experiment for the Church to see how it can open up new avenues to receive established Christian communities into its fold. I don't think I'll offend any of my Protestant readers if I say that there's something of a trend of dissatisfaction fomenting in the ranks of mainline Protestantism. I think the 'Emerging' movement, with which I heavily identify, is a result of it. With this precedent in place, is it really far fetched to consider the possibility of a Lutheran or Methodist rite? Though I won't hold out too much hope for an Emerging rite. ;)

It's still early in the process, and there may only be a small proportion of Anglicans who will embrace this opportunity, but I still think this will only be good for our Christian ecclesiology and ecumenism.

Oct 12, 2009

contemporary mythologies

Is it just me, or are TV series better these days about accurately and intelligently broaching some deep and important topics? Well, okay I know it's not just me, because Speaking of Faith ran a program on TV and Parables of Our Time which was really cool. And their mention of Battlestar Galactica was the last push I needed to check it out; a few of my friends also said I would enjoy the mix of SciFi story and Religion.

The series presents a story of war between humans and machines set, presumably, in the far future and in a distant part of the galaxy. The humans live in colonies named for (and presumably located within?) Zodiac constellations - Caprica, Gemini, etc. The humans create a race of cybernetic machines as tools to improve their lives. The machines - cylons - rebel against the humans. There's a long war between them, but they declare an armistice. After 40 years though, the cylons return to destroy all of humanity. That's where the series starts.

An interesting twist of the series is that the cylons are more religiously zealous than the humans. The humans somewhat superficially maintain a "pagan" religious tradition that resembles the mythologies of ancient Rome and Greece; by contrast the cylons are deeply devoted to their faith in the "One True God" that's apparently inspired by monotheistic fundamentalism.

I have to say so far I've thought the religious themes and concepts explored by the series have been pretty average. There's nothing grossly inaccurate nor offensive, but the writers lack some of the subtlety and nuance of fuller religious reflection. A few episodes I watched last night raised the bar a bit, and I'm hoping it continues to improve in season 3.

One of the episodes depicted a scene with a human priest counseling one of the characters after they've done something, uh ... really bad.

(Priest) Cavill: Chief Tyrol, I am Brother Cavill. I understand you've asked for religious counseling.
Tyrol: I never really believed in psych therapy. My father was a priest.
Cavill: I see. You thought you'd have an easier time with a priest than a real doctor.
Tyrol: Okay. I pray to the gods every night. But I don't think they listen to me.
Cavill: Do you know how useless prayer is? Chanting and singing and mucking about with old half-remembered lines of bad poetry. And you know what it gets you? Exactly nothing.
Tyrol: Are you sure you're a priest?
Cavill: I've been preaching longer than you've been sucking down oxygen. And in that time, I've learned enough to know that the gods don't answer prayers. We're here o­n our own. That's the way they set things up. We have to find our own answers, our own way out of the wilderness without a nice little sunny path all laid out in front of us in advance.
Tyrol: That's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to find my way.
Cavill: Well, it's not going to get better until you see what the problem is. And the problem is, you're screwed up, heart and mind. You. Not the gods or fate or the universe. You.
Tyrol: Thanks for the pep talk.

I had to pause the DVD at this point. This is a perfect example of a big distinction between Abrahamic and most pagan theologies. Judaism was the first major religion (of which we know) to espouse the idea of a god who was compassionately oriented towards humanity. By contrast, the pagan gods of Assyria, Babylon, Canaan, Egypt and Greece were only superficially interested in the well-being of mankind. By and large, pagan peoples offered sacrifice and prayer to the gods of nature in an attempt to barter favor from those who would really rather pursue their own interests. The pagan gods viewed humanity the way we might view a hive of bees - good when they give us honey, but also annoying when they sting us; insignificant creatures to be merely used or swatted.

Of course the exchange hints at other theological ideas - deism vs. theism, fate vs. free will, etc. But this is was, in my opinion, the meatiest theological material in this particular episode. It inspired me to include some ancient Greek mythology in my essay, "Themes and Theologies from Primeval Myths of the Ancient Near East and Today." The myths I'll explore in the essay ...
From the Ancient Near East:

  • Hebrew Genesis

  • Babylonian Enûma Eliš

  • Babylonian Legend of Adapa

  • Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh

  • Ugaritic Baal Epic

  • Egyptian Nu and benben Myths

  • Greek Theogony


  • J.R.R. Tolkien's Silmarilion

  • C.S. Lewis's Narnia

  • George Lucas's Star Wars

  • Battlestar Galactica

I'm sure I'm missing some obvious or important contemporary "mythologies" ... ?

Sep 28, 2009

(optional) contextivism !== relativism

Hypocrisy, thy name is Luke. Here's some of my own theological activism/contextivism not an hour after I wrote about disliking it. This is an optional rant post. I've tried to stay away from ranting on this blog, but in this case I just need to vent. Feel free to skip this ...

Remember I said one of the theological discussions/debates to which I'm drawn is the whole evolution/creation/Genesis thing? Well, I had been in just such a discussion over on imonk with this "Will" guy. I brought up the parallel to the Galileo affair, and he wanted to take that on.

The main meat of our exchange starts here. I'll wait while you catch up on at least that much.

Done? Good. Normally I would have commented back again, but imonk very smartly closes comments on posts older than 6 days, and I was too busy bringing my newborn daughter home from the hospital to comment in that time. That's mostly why we're getting into it here.

His last comment is the worst offense, and I really hate that it will be the last word in the dialog for anyone who stumbles onto it later. Oh well. Here's what he said:

Where does it stop Luke? What if science one day provides evidence that resurrections don’t happen. Do we need to stop with the black and white thinking that requires a literal resurrection?

Oh….wait. Science does show clearly (one heck of a lot clearer than it does show evolution) that humans that are truly dead for 3 days don’t come back to life. How can we reconcile this without becoming the closed minded church of Galileo? Maybe the resurrection was metaphor. Maybe the ancients didn’t really care about a real literal resurrection. Maybe they just cared about hope coming out of disappointment.

What? Are you arguing with me? Why are you being so closed minded about things. We all know that the dead don’t literally rise. Don’t we? The sooner Christians stop clinging to silly notions such as this the sooner we can have a genuine faith.

Or…..we could believe what scripture says and let science catch up later. Your choice my friend.

This is a classic slippery slope fallacy. It seems common among scientists, engineers (like me), and fatalists. Basically, Will is saying that if we reason that Genesis 1-3 is myth rather than literal Truth, we will inevitably be forced into sacrificing our faith in Jesus Christ to reason. It just doesn't work that way for me. Maybe it works that way for Bill G (if he's still reading this blog)? It's a similar string of logic: observe that the authorship or accuracy of text in the Bible is uncertain, and be inevitably forced to conclude that the whole Bible is myth. I just can't connect all those dots.

Back to Will's particular statement about resurrection. A similar thought came up in class as well, and I'll ask it here: is there any way science (archaeology was the science in question) could void your faith?

In that particular discussion, I had to admit yes. If I'm someday convinced that we have uncovered the tomb and remains of Jesus, that would shake and uproot my faith. I would have to more seriously consider Judaic and/or Islamic traditions. It's somewhat unpleasant thought, but I have to admit it to myself out of intellectual honesty.

So here's the point: I used to feel that way about evolution, but I don't anymore. And the key for me is context. The context of Genesis 1-3 within the Pentateuch, the Old Testament, the Jewish and Christian traditions - means evolution just doesn't amount to a faith-changing notion for me. But I understand completely where Will is at right now. When my faith was "the entire Bible is literally true as read in my own interpretation," then believing evolution would have been a faith-changing event for me. But when I rejected sola (my) scriptura, it suddenly became a non-issue.

But the key for me has always been about context. I just get really irked when people confuse contextualization with total relativism - i.e., either you ignore all context and take everything directly at face value, or else you have to concede everything you think to be True is totally relative.

Sep 10, 2009

Theological Activism

I recently called a good friend a "theological bulldozer." Let's use that conversation as a starting point, but this a great friend of mine, so don't get the idea that I'm dissing them or whatever. They read this blog; if they want to make themself known in the comments, they can.

I've talked about theology, a couple times. I'm actually very positive on theology; I'm studying for a theology degree, and hoping to get a MTS from the University of Dallas. But where I draw back is from "theological activism" - a more accurate(?) term for what I meant by "theological bulldozing." I like 'activism' terminology better because it can carry a positive context (like this), and it's more open to analogies and metaphors - my intellectual meat and drink. :)

There's areas of activism about which I'm largely apathetic. Not that I don't have my own ideas or beliefs, but there are a good many things where I indulge in some rational ignorance, and so I'm not particularly passionate about them ... at least not right now. The more I specialize my knowledge into certain things - computer programming, studying theology, brewing beer, or whatever - the less I'm willing to hold onto a strong opinion about the other things I don't know as well. And in studying theology, I find the breadth and depth of the subject so massive that I hesitate to act on my still tiny knowledge.

Though as I was writing this post, I caught myself engaging in some of my own theological activism. Specifically, I find myself drawn to discussions/debates about evolution and Genesis. I personally don't see the conflict between them as other people do, because I'm more and more interested in the mythology of Genesis in its proper context and unwrapping what Truth that implies.

I try not to nit-pick theology. So if someone is communicating a general message about how God and humans relate to one another, I won't pick out a single sentence or a single word choice on their part and blow it out of context. I love context and bigger-picture stuff. Maybe I'm into "theological contextivism" ? I wonder if that's any better?

Sep 9, 2009


I just got home from my 3rd class of Old Testament Literature. I'm loving the class - great textbook, great teacher, great school and setting (we have our classes at the chancery of the Tulsa Diocese).

I've always struggled with reading the Old Testament; I don't think I've ever approached it with a good context. And the first couple of classes did precisely that - focused on history, geography, languages, and cultures of the ancient near east. It's incredibly helpful to know the setting - it's the difference between watching a movie from the beginning and catching it anachronistically in 10- or 15-minute clips.

Here's some general ideas about the Old Testament, stop to think how controversial they seem to you. (I'm not going to say if I believe all of these or not, just think about them.)

  • There are many passages that copy older religious texts from Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, and other ancient near eastern cultures.

  • The Pentateuch (first 5 books) was NOT written down by Moses.

  • There are duplications and contradictions in the text.

  • Genesis is a mix of myth, legend, and saga - not literal history.

Let me talk just a bit about that last one, since that's what we talked most about tonight.

So, jumping right in, Genesis can be roughly divided into Genesis 1-11 and Genesis 12-50. Gen 1-11 is "primeval" history; the story of what happened before history - before people began recording what was happening. This seems to be a spot where lots of Christians get themselves into trouble. This isn't an historical record nor a science textbook; it wasn't written as such, and I don't believe it should be received as such.

Does that mean it isn't true? No, of course not. But it's like Tolkien says:
There are truths that are beyond us, transcendent truths, about beauty, truth [itself], honor, etc. There are truths that man knows exist, but they cannot be seen - they are immaterial, but no less real, to us. It is only through the language of myth that we can speak of these truths.

In light of this, the Truth of Genesis 1-11 may not be that a talking snake seduced a man and woman in a Utopian garden, nor that a global flood killed every creature on the earth except for those which were loaded in pairs (or 7 pairs?) onto a big boat. Because similar myths are in fact prevalent in Babylonian and Assyrian texts which pre-date Genesis by a long time. God uses the myths of Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, Noah & the Ark, and the Tower of Babylon to speak the Truth of His preeminence and creativity, His transcendence and intimacy, His righteousness, justice, and mercy. These attributes of God are altogether unique to Genesis in contrast to the chaotic, superficial, very human-like gods of the other ancient near eastern cultures.

And that's the Truth you have to establish if you're going to tell the Patriarch sagas in Genesis 12-50. God picks Abram, seemingly at random, from among the Hebrews and calls him especially out - to depart from Ur and the rest of his people. He promises land and progeny.

Abraham answers God's call, but that's about as much as you can say for him - he offers his wife on 2 separate occassions to be had by a foreign king, he doubts God's promise and impregnates a slave girl, he exiles his own son by that slave girl. Of course, to his ultimate credit and at the pinnacle of his story, he is faithfully willing to offer his son Isaac to God.

Isaac is a pretty small character in Genesis; he seems to mainly serve as an eponymous bridge from Abraham to Jacob. Though he does manage the same trick of offering his wife to the same foreign king to whom his father did.

Jacob is a freaking mess. He tricks his brother out of his birthright, then tricks his father and his brother out of the patriarchal blessing. For his trouble, he has a personal exile back to distant family and falls in love with a young daughter, the father of whom demands, as payment, 7 years of service and then tricks Jacob into marrying the older daughter instead and demands ANOTHER 7 years of service for the younger daughter. He stays for a while, tricks his father-in-law into giving him a large number of his livestock, then decides to sneak back to his home land with his wives and their children. The younger wife steals some possessions of her father and conceals them when he catches up with them to demand them back. They make a pact and go their separate ways.

I had to ask my teacher about all this because honestly, the patriarchs are really quite shifty relative to our idea of 'Godly' people. Without naming names, I'll just mention that the 'heroes' of the sagas of Israel, at various times engage in or attempt: fratricide, sex outside of marriage, polygamy, incest, deception and fraud ... the list goes on.

Eventually Jacob is renamed Israel by God, and his, really all the Patriarchs', story is redeemed by his son Joseph - really the only character in all of Genesis whom I can personally admire and would seek to imitate. He's the one with the fancy coat and the interpretation of dreams; sold into slavery, taken to Egypt, rises to become Pharoah's right-hand-man and eventually uses his position to enact a grandiose scheme of reconciliation with his brothers and father, thru which he coincidentally brings all the 12 brothers - whose names just happen to be the names of the 12 tribes of Israel - down from Palestine into Egypt under the Pharoah.

Curtain. End of Act 1. Act 2 is Exodus.

Seriously, if the primeval history of Genesis (1-11) speaks the transcendent Truth of God's divine nature, the patriarchal history of Genesis (12-50) speaks, very loudly, the very imminent truth of a very flawed human nature living out under that divinity.

Taken in context, it seems obvious that Genesis is meant largely as a preamble to Exodus. So, here's my question that my instructor intentionally left open to me:

How much, and which parts, of Genesis is myth, legend, saga, and/or historical fact?

Aug 26, 2009

Fr. James Martin

I really like this Fr. James Martin. Maybe as much as I like Fr. Barron. I first saw him in this:

And now I hear him in this:

He's also the "Colber Report Chaplain" and has made a number of funny appearances on the show. (Incidentally, Stephen Colbert is a practicing Catholic and teaches Sunday School.)

I like humor - the coming together of opposites; the meeting of incongruous things. In Spring of 2008 I was making frequent flights (once or twice a month) to California for my work. In all my travels, I packed 2 books to read and re-read: The Bible, and C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity. I read thru the entire New Testament without any commentaries or study guides at all. I found myself laughing out loud at some of Jesus's comments. I can't recall the verse right now, but it's the one where he says, "Who among you, if their child asks for food, gives him scorpions and bricks?" If you read the whole passage together at once, the statement has a bold levity with which he contrasts the religious rigamarole of the times with a simple lesson in love and relationship. It's classic, and classy, humor.

We often think of Jesus's power, his divinity, his love and compassion. We revere him as a great prophet and a great philosopher. We don't as often stop to recognize that Jesus was incredibly smart. Not just knowledge (all-knowing) smart, but clever - i.e., he knew how and when to apply that knowledge in situations. He was not just omniscient, but omni-witty.

He revealed God's Personality as much as God's Truth, and we find that God has a great sense of humor.

Aug 24, 2009


I have quite a few souvenirs from various places, trips, and experiences. Some of the ones in the picture are: a walking kiwi toy from my wife and I's honeymoon in New Zealand, a samovar from my study-abroad trip to Russia, a little jewelry box/container from our trip to Brazil where I spoke at a tech conference, a funny Irish doll from a trip we made with my brother and his wife to Ireland+Scotland+England, and a pointless Eiffel Tower-shaped container of some kind of bath salts I got for Tiffany when I visited my sister in Paris.

Most of them aren't functional - we've obviously never used those bath salts, nor is there anything in any of the containers, and the walking Kiwi got kinda busted on the flight back. We mainly keep them as mementos - objects that remind us of travels and stories that have affected us; they're personal artifacts. Looking at them, I recall those experiences and how they've shaped our lives.

In a similar manner, I appreciate all the symbols and signs we use in the Catholic Tradition to recall to our minds the way God affects us in our faith. From personal signs like the Sign of the Cross to the myriad of symbols we find in a Cathedral and other Christian artifacts.

Sometimes, a personal artifact is so significant and profound that it stands the test of time, affecting the Christian community for generations. These are relics. The Church has a robust appreciation, and even a systematic doctrine, for relics. Read up if you like.

I'll just write about my own small experience.

Every Catholic church contains a relic within its altar. It is also (always?) a relic of the church's patron saint. My parish is the Church of Saint Benedict; we have a small bone fragment of Saint Benedict contained in the altar at the front of the sanctuary. And in many (all?) churches, there is also a relic contained in the altar of the chapel.

This is one of the reasons Catholics bow towards the altar. I didn't even learn this until I had been in RCIA for a few weeks - and had been doing it that whole time! Though the layout of some churches might make it appear we're bowing to the priest, it isn't necessarily the case. Ideally, we're recalling to mind the patron saint(s) of the church and venerating them with the honor that is due to a Christian servant who stands in full communion with God. Of course, as with any ritual, there's a chance the act loses its meaning; just as there's a chance I frequently see my own souvenirs without pausing to contemplate them. But that's no reason to throw away my souvenirs, and no reason to belittle the value of relics.

One last note I should make before I sign off for the day.

In addition to bowing towards the altar, Catholics genuflect and make the Sign of the Cross to the tabernacle. It's a different motion with a different intention and it stems from understanding the different honor that is due to a Saint than is due to God Himself. When you are in a Catholic church, you will see a candle next to His tabernacle. If the candle is lit, it contains the Blessed Sacrament - Christ Himself. In this case, it's appropriate to forgo a bow to offer the deeper honor due to Christ. The saints themselves intend this - their lives serve to introduce, reveal, guide towards, and defer to, Christ. This is how they're blessed with sainthood, and how they're personal artifacts are meant to inspire and affect us.

Their relics are entwined with the meaning of their lives - mirrors reflecting the light, life, and love of God. So it seems kinda cool to keep them around.

Aug 20, 2009

On Control

"Religion is set up not to help people, but to control people."
I read this recently, and it's a pretty serious, and in many ways very accurate, challenge to all religious systems. Of course, I'm going to offer a dissenting opinion.

Firstly, invoking any term as broad as 'Religion' forces us to define the term before any constructive dialog can take place. Personally, I define religion the way I define many things - with metaphor. Specifically, the C.S. Lewis metaphor in which religion is analogous to a map.

Most interestingly to me - maps should be "set up" with no purpose. They are simply an accessible, navigable depiction of the real world. The closest thing I can think of to a map with a purpose would be a "treasure map"; it's probably accurate to say this describes some religions, or certain corruptions of some religions.

But to speak of a map being "set up" with a purpose doesn't make much sense, and so it is with religion. By and large, with maybe some notable exceptions, religions are developed not by a single intention, but over time by the accumulated wisdom of many people navigating the real world - both natural and supernatural (topic for further discussion elsewhere).

I think the crux of the misunderstanding of religion as a tool for control lies in a person's trust in the 'cartographers of religion' and their purposes. Let me explain with a few stories.

When my wife and I traveled to Brazil, we relied on taxi's to get around Sao Paulo. My iPhone data plan doesn't work overseas, so I was without my trusty Google Maps and GPS. :( When we arrived at the airport (after 16 hours of bus travel, mind you), we grabbed the closest taxi driver - trusting him to get us to our hotel. It was soon painfully obvious the driver didn't really know the geography or where he was going, and he made 3 stops to ask for directions at our expense. But we had no car, no map, no knowledge of the language; he had our luggage and our persons in his car with no other taxi's around, so what could we do? He was intentionally controlling us for his own benefit. Then to top it all off he over-charged (scammed) us for something we were sure we didn't owe. Our trust was mis-placed, and I would never trust him to drive me again, so I threw away his card. He didn't have a map, nor did he have his own knowledge of the area, and his intentions were bad! Sound like some peoples' encounters with religion?

Later on the same day, we were running low on Reals (Brazilian currency) and needed to find a currency exchange for travelers' checks. We talked to the hotel receptionists (who spoke English very well, despite how many times they apologized for their "poor English"), who arranged for another taxi to take us to a mall where there was a currency exchange. So we got in the taxi and the driver took us to the mall. But, once there, the driver (we don't speak any Portuguese and no-one else spoke English outside the hotel) found out the exchange place didn't exchange travelers' checks and we would need to go to a different mall. So again we trusted the driver and we set out to the next mall, but again no luck. At this point our taxi fare is well above the amount of Brazilian money we have, and we've been wandering around Sao Paulo aimlessly for over an hour and a half. We finally have the driver take us back to the hotel, where the receptionists arrange to lower the fare and put it on our hotel room so we don't need cash. On this little quest we had trusted the receptionists and the cab driver, and their intentions were good, but circumstance and a communication barrier meant we still didn't get where we wanted to go. Hmm ...

So, then they explain that the exchange market is down the road just over a mile - within walking distance from the hotel. They give us a map of the area, draw the path, and give us a landmark to look for - it's next to a Walmart - which means our American blood will be irresistibly drawn towards it. ;) We set out on foot, and I make the observation to Tiffany, "I like not having to rely on someone else to travel. I like being in control of ourselves." We easily find the mall with the exchange counter, we get the cash, are able to shop around and eat before we leave, and we even found a Catholic book store on the way back to the hotel!

Now what does this have to do with religion and control?

I think many or most people confuse religion - the map - with the individuals espousing a religion - the 'cartographers'. Some people, like our first cab driver, are out to use what they can to control others for their benefit. Some others, like our second cab driver, are well-meaning, but just fumble things up. Some few, like our receptionists, have just enough mix of good intentions and knowledge that they can use an existing map and add their own contribution to it to help us in our journey.

So, to say that religion is set up to control people is like saying the map of Osasco was set up to control my wife and I - to prevent us from getting to our destination. It wasn't. In fact, it was only in trusting the map, our guides, and ourselves that we were free to travel around town as we wanted to. So it is with religion(s). The good ones are maps to life; built out of the accumulated knowledge of trustworthy guides for us to navigate the journey of life. When you approach and understand them correctly, they are far from controlling - they offer us freedom to explore without getting lost.

Aug 17, 2009

Christ in the Common

Ah, now here is the kind of Emerging theology that floors me in a way I've never experienced from other Protestant circles. Admittedly, any Christian - Protestant or Catholic - can fall into the trap of dividing the Sacred from the Common. ("The Christ in the Common" link)

At our parish, we begin Mass with a moment of quiet reflection, "to remind ourselves we are in the Holy Presence of God." I've always thought of it this way - not that God is confined to church, but that we gather together as a church especially to remind ourselves of, and re-awaken ourselves to, His presence. So then we can more easily recognize Him in our everyday common lives.

Emerging Exegesis

When I told my dad I'm doing a Catholic "theology" degree, he said that I should make sure not to sleight Protestant theology. My favorite theologian (so far?) is C.S. Lewis; though not Protestant, he wasn't Catholic, and shares a lot of theology with Protestantism. Dad would probably like that, but I don't think he'd like the other Protestant theologians in whom I'm interested. One is Reinhold Niebuhr, who has been called "Obama's Theologian." I'm not really a fan of Obama, but Niebuhr has some really interesting thoughts on how we mix Christianity, social justice (including war), and government.

The other Protestant "theologians" I'm following are maybe not quite "theologians" but are basically the whole community of the Emerging church. I've been drawn towards the Emerging movement by the influence of post-modern philosophy and the whole "multiple-lens" perspective.

So, I heard about this book on "Community-based Biblical exploration" while listening to an Emergent Podcast. The idea intrigues me, because I've been reading about Biblical Criticism in my book for my Old Testament class, and I've always liked the notion of the Wisdom of Crowds (e.g., wikipedia).

But something in the podcast leaped out at me while I was listening, aside from the fact that the author loves the word 'dynamic' way too much, and I think it summarizes one of the only things I have against the emerging movement.

What we're trying to do is create an additional space for the Bible as a living and embodied word, rather than a static text. ... We really craft what we think are issues that challenge a conservative reading of the Bible where the Bible, in many ways, replaces the Christ. ... Or, in terms of the whole mainline movement where social sensitivity or sentimentality became the basis of faith - so what the Scripture said, if you didn't like, you could dismiss. And we're trying to move beyond that dynamic, and offer space for a living text. And then we circle back to humanity and say we are all deeply flawed people - we've got all kinds of biases and all kinds of problems; but ironically it's when we come together in community that those flaws can become a dynamic of redemption. Because there's no authority out there. If you think about the 11 o'clock hour on Sunday mornings in America and you have millions of authoritative sermons being preached by men and women who like and respect each other but disagree with each other decisively. So if you walked in the wrong door you would hear something entirely different. It's only when community comes together then that our differences become something that's redemptive.

In my not-so-humble opinion, Protestant theology will always have this crisis of authority, though it's especially apparent in post-modern Emerging schools of thought. The first Catholic apologetic book I read - By What Authority - dealt with this issue head on. A return to Catholic theology was the only thing that resolved the crisis for me. In the confines of Sola Scriptura, Protestants are helpless against doubts about the Bible - criticisms, translations, interpretations, rhetoric, application - all must be deferred to faith in the Holy Spirit as preserving the meaning and intent of God's Word in the world. That's a good faith to have - faith in the authority of the Holy Spirit.

Catholics have the same faith and more - we have faith in the authority of Christ who established His Apostolic Church. The Church itself is exactly that community which comes together, in whose differences we develop a deeper understanding of Christ's "good news" of redemption as it lives out in the world. Our Tradition - Scriptural interpretations, liturgy, dogma, disciplines, etc. - have developed over the centuries, also under the guidance and authority of the Holy Spirit, because our individual lives have revealed more fully the collective precepts of the faith. It's the same way this Emerging community is seeking a corporeal development of Biblical understanding, but the Catholic Church has been at it for two thousand years already! (Not to mention this same Tradition gave Protestants the Bible in the first place!)

This authority of Tradition gives rise to some very practical benefits too! Contrasted to the observation on Protestant services above, the Catholic Church maintains a universally consistent 3-year cycle of Scriptural liturgy. So, I can go to Mass in any parish in any diocese on any given Sunday and I will hear the same 3 readings of Scripture because there is authority in the Church liturgy. I will receive the same basic theological instruction from the homilies because there is authority in the Church dogmas and doctrines. It's the authority of the Holy Spirit - breathed on the Apostles by Christ - to establish one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church that has lived redemption in community for a couple of millennium already!

So when I read or hear stuff like this, it seems to me like the Emerging movement is trying to recreate Sacred Tradition - the Church coming together as community to live and embody the faith. I think the longing for it is good, but why try to recreate what's already with us? So I decided to join into that community and I find its Tradition to be exactly what I need! It's just one of the areas in which I see the Emerging movement as a stepping stone for Evangelicals back across the Tiber. Come on over! We even have wine! :)

Aug 11, 2009

That They May Be One

Another great iMonk post - about theology changing relationships - got me thinking, commenting, and reading, as often happens. Michael's wife is Catholic, and I get the feeling it's caused some issues in their relationship. Thankfully, I've not had much of that ... yet?

Really though, I've been very blessed in this area - all of my family and friends have been supportive thru my conversion. Every once in a while one of my Catholic theological buttons might be pressed, but it's usually in good fun, or mild. From the iMonk posts, I've decided to keep my theological mouth shut, unless prompted, for the first three years of my Catholic journey ... which is coincidentally just enough time to complete that Pastoral Ministry bachelor's degree; hopefully it will help when I do finally open my mouth. ;)

For now, I'm reading this Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One) article on ecumenism by Pope John Paul II. In a way, I think of myself as doing some grassroots ecumenism in my Protestant relationships. I find that some Protestants dislike their perception of the Catholic Church, but when they hear a doctrine or discipline of the Church explained in a different way - especially by a former Protestant - they find out how much it rings True - i.e., fundamental Christian Truth.

Here's part of one of Jesus's prayers from John:
I pray not only for them [those whom you gave me out of the world], but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them, and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.

I believe the Roman Catholic Church is Apostolic - the visible lasting Church established and ordained by the Apostles - those whom God gave Jesus out of the world. I believe the entire Christian Church is those who believe in Jesus through the word of the Apostles. I believe Jesus longed for us all to be one; so I have to be honest - I want all of my non-Catholic friends to come to Rome. But, more strongly I want all Christians to live in and with each other in the love of Christ.

Jul 30, 2009

Back to school

Yup, after taking eight years to get my first degree, I'm enrolling to get another. And what's more - it's another bachelor's degree! Not even a graduate degree! I looked around for an IT Master's program that interests me, but there aren't any in the area. But there's a bachelor's degree in the area that interests me ...

The Diocese of Tulsa runs a Pastoral Studies Institute. They offer all kinds of Catholic classes and training; including credit courses to get a degree in Pastoral Ministry thru Newman University. If you already have an undergraduate degree, like me, then you only have to take 30 credit hours of theology courses to earn the Pastoral Ministry degree. And the classes are extremely cheap - $50 per credit hour! So the entire degree is $1,500 ... compared to a Theology Masters degree I looked at that cost $25,000!!

I'm pretty excited because I seem to spend lots of time studying theology anyway, so now I can earn a degree with it. The only down-side is I have limited time and I can't take as many classes as I want. :( Some classes this semester are:

  • Sacramental Theology

  • Gospel of St. John, Read Through Fathers of the Church and St. Thomas Aquinas

  • Old Testament Literature

  • Philosophical Foundations for Theology

Sadly I'm only able to enroll in Old Testament Literature this semester. I so want to take Philosophical Foundations for Theology. There's even a Lectio Divina class! Anyway, hopefully next semester I can take at least two classes. I'm also hoping they come up with some kind of Master's program during the 5 semesters I'll be doing the Bachelor's. ;)

Jul 28, 2009

understanding Baptism

I was out having breakfast with my parents the other day; we talked about our upcoming trip to Dallas for my nephews' (Catholic) baptisms. At some point, it came up that none of us are really sure if my oldest brother has been baptized or not. I said half-jokingly, "See this is why we Catholics just do it when they're babies!" To which my mom replied, also semi-jokingly, "Right, as if babies understand what's happening."

It's a pretty common Protestant position on infant baptism, and I can totally understand the reasoning - infants aren't capable of repentance or faith so baptism is really just meaningless for them, right?


As usual, there's a full theological survey out there for whoever is interested. (Here again, I'm compelled and persuaded by Dave Armstrong's Biblical evidence). When asking if infants should be baptized, keep in mind:
The two different answers to this question do not, by themselves, shed much light on the nature of the dispute between paedobaptists and credobaptists. To grasp the disagreement over infant baptism fully one needs to understand the roots of the disagreement.

The disagreement about infant baptism is grounded in differing theological views at a more basic level. Christians disagree about infant baptism because they disagree about the nature of faith, the role of baptism, the means of salvation, the nature of grace, and the function of the sacraments. Pedobaptism and credobaptism are positions which bubble up from theological views at a more fundamental level of one's theological system. --wikipedia

Since that full theological survey of "the nature of faith, the means of salvation, the nature of grace, and the function of the sacraments" is too big of a question for my 2 little lbs of gray matter and this little blog post, let's use some safer experimental evidence.

I was baptized on June 8 2008 by pastor Jeff from Agora. By this time I had been reading Catholic theology for a while and was about 50/50 on deciding to become Catholic. My belief in Sola Scriptura was gone, and my belief in Sola Fide was being refined. At the very least, I recognized how important the early Church considered baptism. In a way, my baptism was my first real step into the Catholic Church; and in a way, I'm glad it was Jeff who ministered. From that point on, we talked about Catholicism and my potential (inevitable?) conversion regularly and openly. A kind of grassroots micro-ecumenism that we continue today.

While the minister of my baptism was exceptional, the matter was not so much. A heated baptismal pool with plain ol' water in a church I had never attended. But both matter and form was 'valid' in the rules of the Church. So here comes the point ...

Truth be told, I never felt a big emotional or sentimental transcendence during my baptism. In fact, it wasn't until later, after I was able to reflect on it, that the full force of it hit me - and continues to hit me. I now share in a Tradition of Christianity dating all the way back to the first Christian church, to Christ himself. (And even further back into Jewish traditions too!) The odd thing is, with all the Catholic theology regarding the necessity of baptism, combined with all my Protestant inhibitions to avoid a "works-based" salvation ... I actually feel my faith grow as a result of my baptism. There's no way I could understand why God commanded us to be baptized or how baptism works. But that didn't matter. The point is that God commands it, and we act on faith in that command. As a result, my faith grew all the more.

This was the start of my new understanding of faith. It was exactly how James described it:
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works.

I believe God uses matter, form, and minister to convey his Grace. Whether the matter is His Incarnation or the water of baptism; whether the form is His sacrifice or the submission of baptism; whether the minister is Christ or Jeff. I believe we can work with God in His sacraments as he justifies and sanctifies us.

I intend to tap into that real power of Baptism for my daughter as early as possible. I don't know how, but I'll act on my faith that she will receive real Grace from it. Of course she doesn't understand how God's Grace works on us; but honestly, neither do I. The question isn't whether an infant understands baptism, it's whether any of us do? And if we don't, is it really necessary to understand, or is it enough to act on our faith?

Jul 14, 2009

What does Jesus taste like?

While Communion is fresh on my mind, I wanted to share some more thoughts on it. Back when I first decided to convert, one of my friends half-jokingly (I assume ... it was an email and it's hard to pick up on sarcasm and seriousness in emails) asked me, "What does Jesus taste like?"

At the time I had no idea how to answer because I had not completed my initiation and Confirmation, so I had never received Communion at a Catholic church. But I really did (no sarcasm) love that question - I love when huge theological topics can be accurately summed up in a few words. (Probably because I tend to ramble and so I'm bad at doing that myself.) And these days I'm much more comfortable with Christian mystery and generally not-knowing things about the Faith. Of course, now I've received Communion. And I have an honest, safe, truthful, and theologically sound answer ...

Jesus tastes like bread and wine.

Yup, you heard me. And no, I'm not a heretic. Underwhelming? Maybe.

There's already a bunch of great material out there on the whole transubstantiation thing. One of my favorites is from Dave Armstrong who even includes a fancy chart in his book! I think the most appealing language I read on it was this:
Indeed, transubstantiation is difficult for the natural mind (especially with its modern excessively skeptical bent) to grasp and clearly requires a great deal of faith. Yet many aspects of Christianity which conservative, evangelical, orthodox Christians have no difficulty believing transcend reason and must ultimately be accepted on faith, such as: the Incarnation (in which a helpless infant in Bethlehem is God!), the Resurrection, ... and the Virgin Birth, among many other beliefs. Transubstantiation may be considered beyond reason, yet it is not opposed to reason; suprarational, but not irrational, much like Christian theology in general.

I think of it like this - the notion that God can be present in bread and wine is no more absurd than the idea that God can be present in a man named Jesus, right? Now of course, even if it's possible that God *can* do it, there's still the whole question as to whether God *does* do it. Again there's a bunch of material out there, but I don't want to get into the whole Scriptural arguments for or against. Instead I want to think of this:
This presence of Christ in the Eucharist is called "real" not to exclude other types of his presence as if they could not be understood as real (cf. Catechism, no. 1374). The risen Christ is present to his Church in many ways, but most especially through the sacrament of his Body and Blood.

I believe God *does* give us His presence in many ways. I believe He loves us enough to try to get into us every way imaginable. I have felt Him in Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris, and also sitting at home on the couch with my wife; during Midnight Mass at Christmas, and playing Flashy Keeper (long story) with family and friends. I know what Jesus sounds like in our Gospel readings at Saint Benedict (which, btw, is why we stand for the Gospel reading during Mass), and in the worship music at Agora. I know what He looks like when I see Him hanging on a cross that should be mine. I smell His prayers in the incense of the Eucharist, and smell His love over a hot meal shared with friends.

I believe if God offers us His real presence in all these ways, He also offers it to us in Communion - the most physical way in which we can receive Him. He changes the substance of the host for us, we receive Him, and He changes our substance when He enters us so that we will share that love with our lives. I think Jesus tastes like Love.