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.