Sunday, June 20, 2010

'I no longer wish that individual things were better' - St. Augustine

The American idea of progress is that we are getting better at understanding everything.

However, reading the classics, I wonder if when trying to comprehend nature, we are actually getting worse.

Since at least the beginning of the Industrial Age people have been "improving" nature, which often means exploiting it -- clear cutting forests and strip mining come to mind.

Water is taken from Colorado to turn the desert around Los Angeles into suburbs with green lawns that try to make the Mojave look like New England.

Viewing almost everything as an us-versus-them struggle for dominance, we have also been at war with nature. Creatures that got in our way, most notably the buffalo, are virtually eradicated.

We fight floods and resist hurricanes that inconveniently interrupt our pursuit of the good life.

However, reading St. Augustine's Confessions in a new translation by Garry Wills the reader finds a classic viewpoint that is in sharp contrast with our modern perspective.

If St. Augustine were today "alive as you or me," it seems likely that both our political institutions and media would shun if not condemn his point of view. He accepts what we condemn and praises what we often disdain.

As Augustine tells the classic story of his progress from pagan to Catholic bishop, one of the things he gains is an acceptance and reverence for what he quaintly sees as God's creation. And the old bishop isn't just praising the Lord for a sunny day at the beach, he also accepts all the yucky nature that we are working so hard to fix up, change and correct.

"I am far from saying that anything that exists should not do so," Augustine writes, although he acknowledges this is a new and hard won point of view that comes as he moves away from materialism toward God.

In his ongoing conversation with God, Augustine writes: "'There is no soundness' in the person who disapproves of anything you made -- as I once disapproved of many of them."

Then Augustine goes off the charts: "Taken individually, I might prefer something different about them. But in the present argument I acknowledge the duty to praise each item individually. On earth everything shows that you should be praised -- even 'monsters and abysses, as well as fire, hail, snow, sleet, hurricane. All act on your command, as do mountains and every hill, trees with their fruit, every cedar, wild animals, and all cattle, serpents, and flying things.'"

He praises everything, even hurricanes and monsters?

You can almost hear the TV talking head: "This religious nut, this so-called St. Augustine, is praising monsters. How crazy is that?"

Augustine might get some support from one of those shaved head Zen monks who might support his "radical acceptance" of the world as it is rather than as he wants it to be.

But how many Zen monks get on TV?

So what would happen to the hapless Augustine when he tells a cable interviewer: "When I look on all things taken together, I no longer wish that individual things were better."

First, they would cut to a commercial where a coal mining company would extol the virtues of strip mining America's biggest source of clean energy. That would be followed with ads for cosmetics to help you be a better younger-looking you. And if that doesn't work, there's always beer, wine, whiskey and a new truck with a Hemi engine that sucks gas the way Dracula sucksblood.

This being the era of reality TV, when we get back from the commercial break, we would see security guards leading the old bishop off the set where a team of psychiatrists wait to take him in hand.

Electroshock will eventually get him to see things right.

If that doesn't work there's always pills and injections.

One way or another they'll teach him to wish that things were better.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Original Sin and Its Discontents

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation ...
-- T.S. Eliot

G.K. Chesterton used to say that he found it odd that people deny original sin because it is the one Christian doctrine that is verifiable just by looking around at what is happening on the streets.

But the very thought that we live not only in an imperfect world but in an imperfectable world seems too dreadful for most people, whether they are religious or not.

The media constantly reports on the obvious failures of humankind to live up to anything like a vision of a perfect world, and yet immediately commentators demand solutions.

So we are constantly looking for a politician who will rid government of its tendencies toward inefficiency and corruption, even though we have no evidence that any government ever came close to this ideal.

This leaves the media, barflies, and most of the general public asking a series of questions that the history of the human race indicates are just plain silly.

Why are business executives so greedy? Why do politicians lie so much? Why are entertainers so prone to bad behavior? Why do people who drink get drunk? Why do 17-year-olds want to have sex?

When will all this end?

Who is going to fix these people and rid us of these problems?

Generations raised on TV sitcoms where all family problems could be solved in 30 minutes seem not to grasp that this only works in popular fiction.

Generations numbed by commercials believe the classic sales pitch: "You've got a problem and we have the solution." (And by the time the problem reasserts itself, the seller will have another solution.)

So, voters continually vote for candidates who promise to fix up all their troubles, and then are surprised when things get worse instead of better. Next election, they cast their vote for another politician, who promises to do better than the last one, to say nothing of the one before that.

Self-help addicts are sure the next book or tape or weekend seminar will change their lives for the better. This week's prosperity gospel may not work but there's always another Sunday and another sermon.

Shoppers are sure that if they buy a new gadget it will make them cool. And when they lose their cool, there will be another gadget on sale.

Sufferers from restless leg syndrome are only a pill away from a cure. And when the first pill makes them larger, they'll get a script for another pill to make them small. Until they catch the sickness unto death for which there isn't any pill at all.

These things are obvious cons believed by people who don't believe in original sin even though confirmation of St. Augustine's teaching is available 24-hours-a-day on the cable news channels.

Chesterton, up in Heaven now, may find this amusing although not surprising.

For as Eliot observed:

... human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

American Religion

As Harold Bloom pointed out in The American Religion, our fellow Americans make up a theologically inventive group.

What other country has created so many new religions ranging from the not successful Shakers to the very robust Mormons and Pentecostals? Plus Unitarians and Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, Unitarians and others.

Bloom, who is a non-observant Jew, says Marx was wrong because in America, religion is not the opiate of the masses, it is the poetry of the people.

And it appears that people are writing their own poetry in the individualistic way that Americans approach almost everything.

This has a bearing on "churchless Christians" that many standard brand denominations are trying without much success to lure back.

There are two reasons for polling data indicating that a majority of Americans believe in God but fewer and fewer are attending churches.

First, there is the hodge-podge lodge of pick and choose beliefs, most notably found among the so-called cafeteria Catholics. But there may be a lot of cafeteria Protestants as well. There is also cross-cultural mix and match going on among different religions, such as Zen Catholics. It may drive purists nuts but welcome to the American religion.

Second, those of folks in congregations may be underestimating how difficult it is for an outsider to visit their church. A standard-brand Protestant church I visited earlier this year has a form visitors need to fill out during the service: name, phone, address, email etc., which in my humble opinion is a lot of data to collect on someone who is just visiting. There was also a microphone passed around where visitors were pressed to stand up and introduce themselves. I found this very over-the-top intimidating. To say the least I never went back. I don't know if this is common practice in standard brand denominations but it felt like a marriage proposal on a first date: "While we wait for our entree would you like to marry me?'

So while churches may believe they are inviting us "churchless Christians" back into their homes, they may not be making us feel all that comfortable. Beyond that, some churchless Christians may never fit into an existing church structure because they are inventing their own unique American religion, and that is just a fact of life in these United States.

Monday, May 31, 2010


Thoughts on reading TESTAMENT by Nino Ricci, which is a re-working of the Jesus story that restores his humanity and separates his true teaching from the pious and church-serving official Gospels.

Here is a human Jesus with moods and foibles and sorrows along with the wisdom of his teaching. Here is a Jesus who is not perfect and does not try to put on a pious perfectionist persona. In other words, this is a Jesus who is not a phony Christian. He is not caught in the trap Eckhart Tolle talks about of trying not to have angers or other feelings that might be considered non-Christian. This is what leads so many pious Christians into denial of their humanity and eventually denial of the humanity of others by holding themselves and everybody else up to a standard of perfection that no human can achieve, not even Jesus.

It also supports my belief that God is not a perfectionist. Perfectionism is a disease of the egoic mind. God does not make his forests into perfectly pruned English gardens and yet there is great beauty there.

The importance of discovering the humanity and fallibility of Jesus is that it allows me to be human and fallible, too. The true teaching of Jesus is acceptance and forgiveness, not human perfection and not hellfire and damnation, which was added later by small-minded clerics and preachers seeking to frighten people into joining their church so they could be “saved” from an imaginary hell.

But this isn’t a fault only found in Christianity. Both Hinduism and Buddhism are based on the concept of human perfectibility and it is basically impossible, as Huston Smith points out, to achieve that kind of perfectibility in this human body.

The ultimate strength of Christianity when it is practiced in the spirit of Jesus is that it does not demand perfection. Jesus simply asks for acceptance and forgiveness and allows people to be human beings.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Luther's lost teachings: 'Christ Present in Faith'

Has anyone read "Christ Present in Faith: Luther's View of Justification" by Tuomo Mannermass and Kirsi Irmeli Stierna?

They are Lutheran theologians from Finland who are working to get back to Luther's original -- and it would appear mystical view -- that Christ enters the believer through faith.

Here are a couple quotes from the book that capsulize the theology:

"...according to the Reformer [Luther], the union between the believer and Christ is so complete that these two become 'one person.'

"'Christ,' he [Luther] says, 'is fixed and cemented to me and abides in me. The life that I now live, He lives in me. Indeed, Christ Himself is the life that I now live. In this way, therefore, Christ and I are one.'

"Christ is freedom, righteousness, and life, and by his presence he drives sin, death, and curse away from the believer, making these 'disappear.'"

"God is seen in this view as an incessant movement toward transcendence -- that is, toward God, who nevertheless remains in 'heaven.' According to Luther, however, the true faith unites the Christian with God who in God's agape-love has 'descended' to us and who is present in the sinner by being present in faith in all God's fullness. Faith is 'heaven.'"

Finally, and this is pretty much the summation and conclusion of the book, the authors argue: "Luther does not hesitate to conclude that in faith the human being becomes 'God,' not in substance but through participation. This notion, which has been forgotten in Protestant theology, is an integral part of Luther's theology of faith, if interpreted correctly.”

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Listening to Richard Rohr

I've been listening today to audio lectures Richard Rohr gave on The True and False Self. Here are some of the key points that struck me in his teaching:

1. The False Self, which Merton wrote about, is the personal ego and body consciousness so glorified in our popular culture. The True Self is God in us or Christ in us, also known as God Consciousness or Christ consciousness. This is mystical religion that is free of all church rituals and legalisms, which are necessarily aimed at the False Self.

2. Speaking of the legalisms of churchianity, Rohr points out that the orthodox Catholic and fundamentalist protestant obsession with birth control, abortion, and gays, which as he points out Jesus never talked about, is that they are aimed at the shame involved in egoic body consciousness. It is a way church law is used to shame people. So this is church law aimed at the False Self, having nothing to do with Jesus but having a lot to do with keeping people in line and creating an us versus them paradigm where "we are the good Christians following the church rules as opposed to all those worthless horrible sinners out there."

3. Rohr points out that preaching the Gospel to the False Self is a lose-lose proposition because the personal egoic consciousness will never be able to live up to all the rules and eventually the fundamentalist preacher men are caught with male prostitutes and priests are found to be abusing children. So preaching the Gospel to the False Self rather than encouraging people to get in touch with their True Self amounts to pastoral malpractice.

4. From Rohr's Franciscan/universalistic (not sure if he or his superiors would be happy with the latter label) perspective the only goal of religion based on Jesus Christ is to help people find Christ within themselves thus helping to liberate them from the personal egoic mind of the False Self.

5. What's wrong with the personal ego so lauded and catered to in popular culture and pop psychology? Rohr used a metaphor borrowed (as much of this is) from Merton. Merton said people driven by ego climb the ladder of success, fame and fortune, only to find at the end of their lives that the ladder was up against the wrong wall. Because of the reality of death and the inability of mortals to take their precious stuff with them, sooner or later the path of the egoic mind leads to Nowhere Land.

6. And along the way up the ladder of success evidence gathers that it's not only lonely but empty at the top, which leads to depression, now epidemic in the middle ages of the middle class and often in the upper class, too. This recalls Tolstoy's version of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says: "But woe to the rich, for they have already got what they wanted, and will get nothing more. Now they are satisfied, but they too will be hungry. Now they rejoice, but they too will be sad."

7. Hope lies in the realization that your False Self is leading you nowhere and that it is time to sit down quietly and let God into your life.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Law versus mysticism

Listening to an excerpt of a Richard Rohr talk on Audible this morning I got a clear sense that I'm on the right track with my Outlaw Christian stance. Rohr, who is a Franiscan priest explains that the church that developed in Rome stressed laws over a mystical union with Christ. So the church focused on rules and rituals and the importance of belonging to the church. Jesus Christ's message of peace, love and forgiveness took a back seat to requiring everybody to attend mass regularly and rigidly control their sex lives.

Here endth my quest for church membership.

I feel I am a confirmed Outlaw Christian.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


Chirst cannot be held responsible for the monstorous tradition that has been interwoven with his teaching and presented as Christianity.

... while preaching doctrines quite alien to Christ's teaching [church leaders] affirm that their doctrine was taught by Christ. So that according to their teaching Jesus declared that by his blood he had redeemed the human race ruined by Adam's sins; that God is three persons; that the Holy Ghost descended on the apostles and was transmitted to the priesthood by the laying on of hands; that the seven sacraments are necessary for salvation; that communion should be received in two kinds and so on. They would have us believe that all this is the teaching of Jesus whereas there is not a word of any of it in his teaching. Those false teachers should call their teaching and religion the teaching and religion of the Holy Ghost but not of Christ; for only that faith can be called Christian which recognizes the revelation of Christ reaching us in the Gospels as the final revelation. -- Tolstoy

I get caught up in the beautiy of Catholic Churches and the ideas of Catholic intellectuals like Merton, and I forget what a repressive and backwards hierarachy controls the church.

As happened when today I read this on Daily Beast:

This week, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix announced the excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride for the crime of approving an abortion necessary to save a woman’s life. The patient, a 27-year-old who was 11 weeks pregnant, had pulmonary hypertension, which interferes with the functioning of the heart and lungs. Pregnancy exacerbates the condition, and doctors at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center determined that she would die without an abortion. St. Joseph’s is Catholic, so an ethics committee meeting was convened. As part of the committee, Sister McBride opted to save the patient’s life. For that, she’s been rebuked, transferred, and essentially barred from participating in Catholic life.

The bad crazyness in the Catholic Church over abortion never ceases to amaze and dismay me.

Here we have an all male power structure, headed by an 80-year-old elected monarch influencing medical decisions for young women. It's just crazy and I can't see myself being part of that despite whatever other good the church may be doing.

So I end up back with Tolstoy, who was a Christian but despised the established churches for the ways they controlled and lied to their people.

It does not seem to be possible to have a church without corruption -- paranoia, homophobia, etc. -- so it seems my best course is to be a Christian outlaw avoding any ties with any church.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Some Merton Quotes

All quotes are from No Man Is an Island

In order to find God in ourselves, we must stop looking at ourselves, stop checking and verifying ourselves in the mirror of our own futility, and be content to be in Him and to do whatever He wills, according to our limitations, judging our acts not in the light of our own illusions, but in the light of His reality which is all around us in the things and people we live with. p.120

If I do not know who I am, it is because I think I am the sort of person everyone around me wants to be. Perhaps I have never asked myself whether I really wanted to become what everybody else seems to want to become. Perhaps if I only realized that I do not admire what everybody seems to admire, I would really begin to live after all. I would be liberated from the painful duty of saying what I really do not think and of acting in a way that betrays God's truth and the integrity of my own soul.

Why do we have to spend our lives striving to be something that we would never want to be, if we only knew what we wanted. pp125-26