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Sacraments and Silliness

I have been mulling something my daughter said recently. She told me that it was hard to describe her parents to her friends, because on the one hand, we are very religious, but on the other hand, we liked the profane and sacrilegious musical “The Book of Mormon.” I guess she has a point. I didn’t have a chance to answer at the time, which is just as well, because I needed to think about it. Here’s what I would say.

  1. There’s a difference between the structures of religion and the heart of experience of God. Those structures can be conduits for building our relationship with You, O God, but there’s a tendency to equate the structure with the experience, or, worse yet, forget about our relationship with you and focus solely on the mechanics and rituals of a faith tradition, or the words of a holy book, rather than the God who inspires them. I took “The Book of Mormon” as poking holes in the structure of religion while affirming the power of religious belief. The interviews with the writers indicate as much.
  2. We conflate religious belief with propriety. I would say that this is mostly a bad idea; certainly Jesus was ridiculed by his culture for crossing all sorts of contemporary bounds of propriety. While on the whole, loving God and neighbor with all you have is more likely to lead you to act in socially approved ways than in improper ones, just as in 1, we cut ourselves off from the real heart of faith if we think of the bounds of good manners as the point of it all. The language and actions in the show are definitely boundary crossing, to the point of shocking, sometimes gratuitously. But some of the most shocking songs in the show reflect real experiences of God or God’s absence, and while the language is far coarser than what you find in the Bible, the experiences of protest, anger, and even disgust at God are real and human and have Biblical precedents. I can appreciate that.
  3. While the show pokes fun at some of the seemingly foolish tenets of the Latter Day Saint faith, those of us in other religious traditions pick up pretty quickly that we also believe some things that, from the outside, sound weird and unlikely. I can only speak for myself on this. I am “bought in” on my Catholic faith, even with the knowledge that it and I could be wrong. I hope that that gives me some humility and I know that it gives me respect for others who are similarly “bought in” to what they believe. I also recognize that some of what we profess is mystery and metaphor that can’t be proven and may not have happened exactly as those who chronicled it tried to describe it. And some of it, honestly, I don’t fully believe, but I’m willing to hold space for You, God, to convince me of those things down the road.

Those are the responses I would offer. That and the show is really well done.

 

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Love and Our Common Life

What does a world look like, if it’s organized around love and not power?

Many would argue that it’s not worth trying to envision that. Whether it’s expressed as the will to power or original sin, the tendency of humans to push their individual, selfish wills onto others runs deep, so deep that it’s assumed to be an essential part of who we are. But we mark stages of moral and social development that move infants, children, teens and adults to a growing awareness of and empathy toward the needs of others. Why do we limit our expectations of society to merely constraining our worst impulses rather than organizing around calling out our best impulses?

It begins with an understanding that love is what we are most essentially called to. Not power. Not achievement. Not consumption. Love. Willing the good of the other. That is where, in our individual charisma, we most feel fulfillment, we most meet our need of living on purpose.

So I’ve said earlier that we need health, security, connection, purpose and play. The assumption I start from is that we optimally meet those needs through interdependence, by working together to help others meet those needs. Historically, Catholic social thought has upheld the dignity of work and articulated twin principles of solidarity (being for the other) and subsidiarity (working through the most intimate institutional structures possible) in developing a vision for our world. Those work, and here’s why: solidarity focuses us on providing those five basic needs for those around us, and subsidiarity ensures that we each have an active role to play that empowers us with purpose in helping others meet those needs.

The road to ruin is littered with “third way” approaches. I know. But a state-focused political model will fail to be love-centered, because it is focused on the accumulation and use of power. And a market-focused economic model will fail to be love-centered, because it is focused on stoking the selfishness of consumers and the accumulation and use of capital. So, though you may groan, we need to find a third way.

Just as we found a new way to see God by flipping the model of love and power, maybe we can find a new way to order the world by flipping the twin principles of subsidiarity and solidarity and the taxonomy of economics and politics. A world ordered around love is first and foremost a small and intimate world, where families and neighborhoods matter, where local isn’t just a geographic descriptor but an operating model. Subsidiarity calls for an economic and political world in which most of life happens within the bounds of people you can meet on the street. Whether that happens through economic democracy, neomercantilist import-substitution economics, direct democracy, or other channels, I don’t know.

This seems like folly in the face of our technology. We can now easily bond with people on literally the other side of the world; in fact we often find it easier to connect with people far away from us than with our neighbor. And maybe this is a trajectory we have to struggle to reverse, even in small ways. But we cannot abandon those who we are called to love throughout the world, even as we renew a culture of encountering our physical neighbors.

The risk in shrinking our worlds is allowing the need to bond together in tribes to create artificial animosities with distant brothers and sisters. So solidarity remains important.

The earliest church we know about, the church of St. Paul, has some lessons for us. Paul’s letters are above all artifacts of the struggle to be a close-knit, intimate community, a spiritual family under one roof. At the same time that Paul was encouraging the believers in Corinth, or Thessalonica, or Ephesus to be that non-kin family, he was calling them to contribute to the good of their counterparts in other communities. That was the solidarity across communities that complemented the loving community.

So as we regenerate that subsidiarized community in which we all can live on purpose in daily connection, we need to create models of solidarity that ensure that our tightness with neighbors doesn’t preclude connections of distance. I have hope that others brighter than I can create structures and habits to encourage this. But more than that, I have faith in you, O Love, to spark us to return to you.

Who is the Church?

This is a hard time to be a Christian, and a harder time to be a Catholic. Within the Christian tradition, institutional churches are all, to various degree, dealing with a schism between conservatives and progressives. The Catholic Church most dramatically, but many others more quietly, are being tormented by sexual abuse crises that have exposed leaders at all levels as rapists, molesters, and complicit enablers. As younger generations flee institutional membership of all kinds, there are as many “nones” – people of no religious tradition or credal faith – as there are of any strand of believers.

Let me suggest that this is the inexcusable but perhaps inevitable fruit of promoting a vision of God based on power instead of a vision of God based on love. At the root of many of the crises above is what in Catholic circles is labeled clericalism. It exists unnamed in lower church traditions, though – the unchecked power of religious leaders, particularly institutional leaders like pastors and bishops. The model of power-first brings in those who crave power and brings out the worst of those who may have entered ministry with the best of intentions. And like almost all institutions, the culture of self-protection has overcome the original vision and mission that brought it into being.

In a podcast on the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, “Deliver Us,” the host spoke with an ecclesiologist who made a point that wasn’t entirely unfurled. He said that in the history of the Church, reform had seldom successfully taken the form of a direct assault on the powers that be; what succeeded in reforming the Church was popular movements of laity who, rather than attack the institutional powers, offered a living witness to a more fundamental embrace of living the Gospel. What wasn’t said directly was this: what beats power is not power; what beats power is love.

The Franciscan and Jesuit traditions are both telling examples. Both were founded by young men who initially sought fame, glory and power as warriors, but came to realize that allegiance to God called for a different approach: a radical obedience to follow the Spirit wherever She led. Francis’ radical movement, especially in its poverty, is a movement of love. Ignatius’ Jesuits may be seen as more cerebral, even calculating, but their approach is to adapt the Gospel of love to have the most impact in the world. What is a more loving motto, really, than to be “a man for others?”

Our sense of justice resists this approach. It feels like surrender to say “don’t focus on toppling the Tower of Babel; build a better model of loving community instead.” But the reality is that in small and unnoticed ways, those who pursue the Gospel of love radically have always been the animating force of the Christian tradition. We don’t notice those who live Matthew 25, in large part because they seldom become the pastor, the bishop, the preacher at the front of the room. But they have always been there, and our best response to the evils and injustices wrought by a power-centric view of God is to join the ranks of those who would rather feed the poor than rule them.

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There is a separate element to the alleged undoing of the Church today that is so commonplace and accepted (unlike the abuse crisis and clericalism) that we often don’t notice it. It is the eliding of Christianity and Christendom. While it may be complete folly to suggest that our faith would have been better had we remained in the shadows of persecution rather than becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire and the unofficial religion of the Western World, Christianity has suffered from trying to live a paradox. We were founded on a rejected stone, a crucified messiah, an embrace of the untouchable. We grew through an unfathomable path – a Jewish sect embraced more by Gentiles than Jews. Our God is love, not power, and points to eternity, not this world.

And yet now, and for the last 16 or 17 centuries, we are also the power, if not overtly and officially, then subtly and culturally. While we Americans celebrate a First Amendment’s freedom of religion, we are perhaps more prone than any other Christian country to forget the otherness of our faith. Even as our founding was by and for persecuted, outcast Christians, we have come to create a uniquely American Christianity that is idolatrous at its core. We believe that to be most American is to be Christian and to be Christian is most American. We are the Rome at the heart of modern Christendom.

In the process, we have made our country our God. Actually, O love, we displace you with a lot of things: with country, with politics, with prosperity and profit, with achievement. And the consistency with which I see my fellow citizens put move who God is to fit their national, political, and economic allegiances, it makes me wish we were underdogs again, as we were in that upper room. The number of professed Christians continues to shrink, and I know I should mourn that loss. But I can’t help but wonder if the members we’ve lost were seed planted on the path; if the people who don’t show up in the pews on Sunday reflect an unveiling of the farce that a religion of love worshiping a God who picks losers could be anything but a small, poor church for the poor. It is painful, but if our journey of diminishment leaves us with only the people who really ache for your love, it may perhaps create an opening for a witness powerful enough to actually spread the Gospel rather than spread the brand.

The Nature of Man*

*I am using the masculine term intentionally. Hang with me and you’ll see.

So, God who is Love, what of us? Who are we, and why does it so often seem as though we are so far from love, so far from you?

I believe you have made us with some essential needs that you intend to draw us closer to our purpose. We need health, security, connection, purpose and play. And we best achieve all of those in a web of loving relationships. But this isn’t the world we live in, mostly.

We are organized around the premise that power is the central dynamic of our life. Whether it’s political, economic, military, institutional, or interpersonal, our world holds up as most important being powerful. This is in most respects the opposite of love.

A lot of our discussion in today’s culture has to do with addressing the inequality of power, with acknolwedging and correcting for the historical systems of power that gave advantages to one gender, race, creed, sexual orientation, class, etc., at the expense of others. It’s a cause that can be pursued in the interest of justice and the interest of love. But it presupposes that power is our highest good and aim.

Men, particularly straight, white, American men, are in trouble. Not because they are being besieged by those over whom they have historically held privilege, primarily, but because they are finally reaping the fruits of a “king of the mountain” game fought on the wrong mountain. They are, to at lease some degree, on top. But from where they stand, they are unwittingly bearing witness to the reality that the hierarchies of power on which they stand are ultimately without purpose and ultimately unable to meet the needs of human flourishing.

The model of masculinity we hold up in our culture is a self-destructive contradiction that, sadly, is being proven so by the waves of male depression, drug abuse and violence that fill our news. We try to identify the next potential terrorist, be it white nationalist or religious extremist. We fret about the lost generation of young men who seem devoid of ambition and unable to grow into full adulthood. We mourn the loss of so many who have succumbed to drug abuse, addiction, mental illness and despair.

But we aren’t asking why this is happening, and we should. I believe these problems are rooted in a false understanding of humanity is designed to be, which correlates to a false understanding of who men should be.

Because we prioritize power as the be-all, end-all, we inculcate boys to seek power. Some use outdated or limited concepts of physical power; in truth, in very few instances does our economic, political and cultural system bestow power on those who are physically strong.

We prioritize other, more modern forms of power – economic power, sexual prowess, even intellect. But what we tell boys who want to pursue this mirage of manhood is that to be truly masculine, truly powerful, truly successful, you have to bury your emotions. Keep connections at a safe distance. Show no vulnerability. And all of that is the opposite of love.

So our model of masculinity prevents connection, which is the ultimate source of security, and the absence of which undermines physical, mental and spiritual health. It requires the creation of idolatrous purposes we were not made for. And we wonder why men are so messed up.

A true sense of who we are starts with love. To be truly human is to be interconnected and mutually vulnerable. To live “on purpose” is to live for others as others live for you. Together we create security and together we spark health of all sorts. And in that vulnerability we create space for a truly renewing form of play.

We live in the absence of those things because the price of the capacity for love is the capacity to choose otherwise, and our finitude, paired with our transcendent awareness of our finitude, creates an anxiety that causes us to sell love and others short and choose power and self instead.

And that is what is messed up about men today.

Saved?

As we misjudge You, Love, projecting a regal warrior upon your name, so we misjudge our lives. We have this framework of salvation: we were made good but chose bad, because You are just, we must pay with our lives, You offer yourself, your son, as sacrifice for that sin, and if we accept that, recognizing both our sin and your grace, we have the promise of salvation.

If that’s the deal, OK. But that’s not where my heart is at.

You saved me when you delivered me from the womb. You saved me when the birth parents that did not want me and could not easily abort me gave me up for adoption. You saved me in every day after that, and I am grateful that it included adoption by such a phenomenal family. If this is all there is, if after this life ends there is nothing, or even if there is some hell of my making, then you are still all Love and all Generosity and though a wimp, I will not argue it unjust.

But I don’t think Jesus is Isaac, an obedient son that a dutiful father offered on an altar because justice demanded it. That’s a crappy, cold, capriciously unloving model, and I think that’s the opposite of you. I think Jesus died because he crossed the status quo and offered a new way of living that the authorities couldn’t control, because all-love and choosing losers undoes control by lifting up the downtrodden. And I think the resurrection was your final answer that, no, there really isn’t any damn thing we can do that is powerful enough to make you stop loving us.

The sooner we realize that and start loving you back, and loving yours back, the better, sure. I met my earthly love young, at 19, and I still wish we’d met earlier. Love is insatiable that way. But that’s not about a transactional service to you in exchange for a deferred compensation of heaven’s glory. That’s just love meeting love.

If I had to guess, I’d say that when we die, what lives after us is our love. I’ll go back to that freshman “Faith and Imagination” proposition: You are the source and sum of all love, and what there is of us that is love returns to you. What there is of us that is not love goes away. If it goes away painfully through purgatory or casts us into the inferno or just melts right off, I mean, I don’t know. I guess we’ll all find out.

But in the meantime, let’s not spend today pining for tomorrow. Let’s love the heck out of each other and out of You today. Because to the limited extent that I have done that, I suspect I have glimpsed heaven, right now.

What of Evil?

I have written plenty before about how I don’t think God is a vending machine, where if you ask hard enough for the pony you get one. Even if the pony is, say, saving your child from a dread disease.

I don’t see God as a master puppeteer, with hands on strings over all of us and the creation around us, such that any sense of free will is illusory, and everything unfolds in a master plan. That’s an image you only have to own if God is above all powerful.

My God is above all love. So I see God as eternally improvising a backup plan for us to get us back toward on track. This is the God the Prodigal Father who lets his younger son run off and waste half his fortune, and then throws a feast for him when he drags his sorry ass back.

You gave me a model of who you are. I grew up with much older sisters (said that way to see if any of them read this, of course), so I was still a kid in the house with mom and dad while they were teens and young adults. I had four great sisters, and I still have three great sisters today.

From home, I saw the toll Sharon had on mom and dad. Alcohol, drugs, jail, bad men, disappearance, all in a swirl. For longer than I think my heart could stand, were I them. They tried all the things: treatment centers and tough love and whatever else they could think of, to help her find her way back to herself. It was decades-long, with these horribly precarious spells of seeming return, swooped away by the next wave of chemicals. It tore them up in ways they kept quiet about but could not possibly hide. How could you possibly hide that kind of hurt?

She did find her way back, and was in a good place when she died, and or a long time before she died. But in the tumult of watching my parents at the door waiting for prodigal Sharon, I saw what divine love looks like. If that’s who you are, Love, I get it. In fact I can’t imagine you are anything other than that.

So, evil. I know the schoolbook answers as well as I know they are insufficient. I know that without Sharon’s fall I would not know that side of parental love…but I also know that the one does not justify the other. All I can tell you, fully aware of how unsatisfactory it is, is that if you really want to dwell on the question of evil, you need to be tolerant of ambiguity and unknowing. I find it easier to stomach evil when I see how it calls out love. That’s really all I can say.

How do I know?

I wrote a long post on revelation in my first go-round. Ain’t nobody got time for that. But how do I know?

I can’t say it’s because I see you in Nature, in the World. I mean, I do, but I also see a LOT of messed up stuff that isn’t at all love. There are places in the world where I feel closer to you, sure, but I’m not one who can argue from the masterpiece to the master, in part because my claim about you isn’t that you’re a master. It’s that you are a lover.

I do see you in Scripture, but it’s complicated. Luke Johnson taught me in seminary that the New Testament, pretty much all of it, was a set of attempts to explain what the heck happened when people encountered the resurrected Jesus. And, I would add, when the people who fell into the group of believers tended to be Gentiles, even though Jesus was a Jewish rabbi. And the Old Testament is even more contingent on the culture; it is, at its heart, the story of a relatively inconsequential people that encountered your love in unusual ways. So both parts of the Christian Bible say way more about the people who wrote them and the people who they were written for than they say about you, which we should keep in mind when we are tempted to go literalist.

I do see you there, though. Not in a particular prooftext, but in the themes that keep coming back up. And those themes are these: self-sacrificial virtues and choosing the losers.

Yeah, there’s a lot more in the Bible than those two themes. But those are the ones that keep bubbling up, in part because they run counter to the narrative of God being the mighty warrior. God loves a rebellious people throughout the whole dang thing; he is absolutely the prodigal father who keeps making absurdly bad choices to give us another chance we don’t deserve and will surely blow. He is even willing to come walk with us to get us back to loving Him. And when push comes to shove, he suffers and dies, not to pay some sort of debt to himself for our sins, but to show us, look, see, there is not a damn thing you can do that is so awful that it can overpower how much I love you. The resurrection is the final word, not of atonement, but of love winning out. So can we just give up on the calculus of divine justice and love back, for gosh sake?

You see throughout the two testaments that God isn’t the only self-sacrificial one. From the Patriarchs to the Prophets to Jesus to the Apostles, what defines God’s people as different, besides being loved, is when they give themselves up for others. That’s what I learn about you from Scripture.

That and You pick the losers. It helps hammer home the theme that you are not at all oriented around power and majesty that you pick outcasts, almost every time. Look it up; in my days of leisure I hope to trace that theme throughout the Bible, but until the you can do your own homework. From Abram to David to Jeremiah to the women around Jesus to Peter to Paul to, really, all the rest of them, the people who get featured in God’s story aren’t the rich and powerful; they are the ones who would still be standing after the teams get picked for pickup ball. I may come back to that, because it says more about who we should be than directly who you are.

I don’t just see this through Scriptures. As far back as we have stories about saints, we see the virtues of love shine out in the people who reflect Your love. The same is true today; there are people that I just know get you, because of the way they love your people, especially the losers. There is something deep within me that sees those examples and says, involuntarily like a gasp of ecstasy, “Yesss!”

When that happens, whether it’s reading a passage in Paul or watching a servant of yours at work, I see who you are. If that’s ultimately post-modernist relativism rooted in a privileging of individual experience over objective truth, well, whatever. I know what my heart knows. And it is You, Love.