March 2013

Time's Up! Law, Morality and Religion

It seems as though every aspect of life has been partitioned into an “us” v. “them” mentality. The most obvious example is black v. white--most obvious because it is so visually demonstrative. It has become the absolute metaphor for good versus evil, and right versus wrong. This is fine as far as it goes, but most of us do not live in an absolute world. Our lives are tinted by shades of gray.

The problem intensifies when we start applying that analogy to the real world, assigning goodness and evil to other people simply because they are different from us. This is particularly odious in the areas of morality and religion. And, no. They are not the same.

Moral values transcend religion in the same way that God transcends religion. To some that may seem incongruous, but the simple truth is that both God and morality existed prior to any concept of religion. Wrapping morality into one’s religious ideas, at least trying to make them synonymous, is an exercise in futility. It is certainly futile when one is in search of truth. At the same time, it is quite successful in creating a simplistic view for the simple-minded. But that has its own drastic consequences.

Several generations of white people believed that blacks were inferior. Some ignorant people still do. Who knows the actual root of such prejudice? Perhaps it was rooted in the economic and structural development of the Western world. But did such advances make the West more civilized? I suppose it depends on how one defines civilization. One thing is clear: The resulting prejudice defiled religion as believers sought to justify their bigotry in their faith.

A similar kind of discrimination occurred with women. In fact, choose your group and there is a prejudice to match. Many people of faith have continually twisted their thinking into knots to justify bigotry that has no rational foundation. And they have managed to complicate the matter even further.

Recently, people of religion have been making louder and louder claims to be the guardians of morality. Almost without exception, these claims to moral superiority are rooted in their religious values--values that are neither absolute nor universal.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for and against same-sex marriage. There is nothing inherently immoral about same-sex marriage, nor about homosexuality itself. The morality exists only by way of social construct. And those constructs, like all moral values, differ from one society to the next and are always in a state of flux or evolution between generations.

To claim that religion determines morality is like saying religion determines God. Wait a minute. That is exactly what many believers do! They can only accept and believe in a God who conforms to beliefs they already hold. They are not about to be challenged by God. By extension, they can only accept people who believe and act the same way they do.

How else to explain the absurd refusal of some fundamentalist Jews to recognize a non-Orthodox marriage? How else to explain the absurd claim by Christian fundamentalists that non-Baptized people are going to hell? How else to explain the absurdity of Muslim fundamentalists who say that a person who converts from Islam should be put to death? How else to explain the religious belief that same sex couples cannot marry—a religious belief with a very uncertain ground in truth and no claim on the mind or heart?

Enter the law. One of the beauties of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are that they are not based in any religious tradition. The Declaration transcends faith, at least beyond the general acknowledgment that certain unalienable rights are bestowed by God. The Constitution transcends the contextual limitation of social morality, at least insofar as those same unalienable rights are inherent in being human.

The result of the American experiment in democracy is that law is the all important and ultimate measure of our society. Neither morality nor religion can make that same claim. A certain credit must be given to those who vociferously claim that God is being pushed out of public life, schools, etc. They have managed to distract many people from the truth. Many people, but not the courts. So a certain gratitude also must be expressed to those judges that have consistently held that God does not belong in public life and schools. The United States is not run on Christian or any other religious principles.

In this country the law is the foundation of our society. It should not be capricious, nor should it be dictated to by religious whim. Our Declaration of Independence states that all are created equal and endowed with rights. The rights mentioned are not meant to be all-inclusive. What is all-inclusive is the all people have these rights.

I disagree with the religious position of the anti-gay movement. It is a skewed and false reading of the Bible. But it does not matter. The United States is not a country based on the Bible, and that is a good thing. It is a country based on the law.

All people have a right to marry, black and white, gay and straight. I would like to believe that anti-gay is the last great prejudice to be overcome by our society. History suggests that as soon as we succeed, something else will spring up in its place. There will always be those people who seek to cast a black
v. white, a good v. wrong pall over the world of gray that is human life.

For now, times up! In the United States of America, law, justice and equality trump religion. Thank God! And thank the Founding Fathers!
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Obama and Satan

It seems that every time a ray of hope dares to break the distant horizon, storm clouds sweep along and darken the landscape. Case in point: Just as every thoughtful person began to believe that not one more wasteful word of nonsense would escape the lips and empty mind of Glenn Beck, along comes the History Channel.

The History Channel? That bulwark of cable networks that proffers programs ranging from ancient civilizations to modern scientific advances? The network that investigates mysteries from Stonehenge to the Great Pyramid? That treks along the Great Wall of China and ascends the mountains of Machu Pichu? The very same. The History Channel.

A casual reader might think that I have abandoned myself to hyperbole. But no. The History Channel has broadcast a program entitled “The Bible”. Sounds innocuous enough. Except that Glenn Beck, among other ignoramuses, claims that the Moroccan actor who plays the role of the devil, Mohamen Mehdi Ouazzani, looks like President Barack Obama.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the fact that both the History Channel, as well as the program’s producer, calls the claim absurd. There is no resemblance, intended or otherwise. Still, there is a problem. And it does begin with the History Channel.

A program entitled “The Bible” can be elegantly produced, well cast and exceptionally directed. But it has no place on the History Channel. Even if only by implication, one is led to believe that the Bible is history. At the risk of alienating ill-informed and uneducated believers, the Bible is
not history. It is a book of faith, filled with truth and many inspiring stories. But it is not history.

A second problem occurs with the program’s script. As good as it may be, in terms of filmmaking, it neglects the reality that the devil—even within the Bible itself—is mere mythology. This may be difficult to grasp. Evil is very real and its effects are experienced daily by millions of people. Take violence, for example. We are a world of, and at, war. But the concept of a Satan is merely an oratorical tool to explain the existence of evil.

Thirdly, it is unfortunate that a dark-skinned actor, particularly one from North Africa, would agree to play the role of the mythical Satan. That decision perpetuates the stereotypes of good and evil as white and black. Further, it fuels a regrettably ignorant prejudice against Muslims, and Africans in general.

Having said all this, I realize that intelligent people will give no weight to Glenn Beck’s ramblings. I even have to admit an embarrassment at giving him more attention than he deserves. Beck refuses even to acknowledge President Obama by name, choosing instead “that guy”. And certainly, there is no way that my reflections can seep inside his ever-shrinking brain. He has already made a commitment to serve up stupidity on a regular basis. He cannot be taken seriously.

My concern is with those people who simply do not know better, and whose ignorance may not be their own fault. To them I say, read the Bible, watch the movie. Just remember. It is not history.
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Francis I--Could He Have Said NO?

Almost as soon as Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was announced as Pope Francis I, the speculation began. There was some knowledge of who he was. After all, he placed second in the last conclave, behind Cardinal Ratzinger who became Pope Benedict XVI. But what kind of Pope Francis will be, remains unknown. Still, this has not prevented the Papal watchers and pundits from filling the airwaves with predictions, most of which will almost certainly be proved false, for once elected, the Pope is beholden to no man. The ability to alter Church teaching, and, consequently history, resides uniquely with him.

I thought it would be a nice break to step back from speculation and discuss what we know. Let’s start with the question, “Could Bergoglio have said no?” This is not an idle query. It originates from a conversation I once had with another bishop. He was lamenting that the job of being bishop was not what he expected. He felt that the administrative demands of his office removed him too far from pastoral ministry to the people of God. He felt disconnected from the priestly work that he so loved.

In our conversation, I asked why he did not say no. His response? He was not given the opportunity. Of course, such a response is nonsense. No one can force another to become a bishop. And yet, as difficult as it might be to understand, there is a theological concept at work here. In Catholic belief, the selection of bishops (and popes) is guided by the Holy Spirit.

When one looks back over Church history, it is difficult not to conclude that the Holy Spirit has made some mistakes. I do not speak merely as a liberal unhappy with the conservative appointments that have dominated the hierarchy in recent years. There simply have been bad choices over the centuries, e.g. Urban VI. Still, I admit that the word “mistake” might be too harsh. Perhaps an analogy would be better.

The Holy Spirit is probably the hardest working person of the Blessed Trinity. As such, she deserves an occasional vacation. If the selection of a bishop or pope occurs during that respite, so be it. But really. I don’t care how hard the Holy Spirit works. Isn’t 35 years a long enough vacation? She should get back to work. Anyway, it seems that whether or not the Holy Spirit guides papal conclaves, Cardinal Bergoglio could have said, “No”. And yet…

There is another side to this question. 77 votes were required to elect a pope at this conclave. If Bergoglio had said no, his supporters would have lined up behind someone else, probably pushing the man with the next highest number of votes over the top. Who was that runner up? Who else might have been elected?

Since the Sistine Chapel was sealed off last week, after having been swept for any kind of electronic bugs, no 47% video will be surfacing. But is anything ever secret anymore? One piece of information has seeped from behind the walls of that ancient edifice. A block of cardinals numbering a mere 25 (22%) had banded together to re-elect Benedict XVI. Although 25 is far short of the required 77, it is possible that Bergoglio’s refusal would have shifted some of his supporters to the 25? That 22% might have become 47%, then 50% + 1. That alone is reason to rejoice in Bergoglio’s acceptance.

Benedict’s resignation was an unexpected step forward. His re-election would have been an unwelcome step backward. If the Holy Spirit does, indeed, guide papal elections, then I want to be among the first to welcome her back to work. I am in no position to advise the Holy Spirit, but as many cardinals and bishops approach retirement and death, they will need to be replaced. I humbly want to suggest that she not take any more of these long vacations. The Catholic Church has need for forward looking and theologically liberated bishops.

Let’s hope we have reason to rally around Pope Francis I.

Let’s hope we have reason to celebrate that Bergoglio did not say no!
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The Great Southwest Book Festival

Shattered Triangle receives its third honorable mention. This time the award comes from the Great Southwest Book Festival in the category of General Fiction.

Check out the
Great Southwest Book Festival website to learn about the many other winners and discover new reading material.

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The Great Southeast Book Festival

The Great Southeast Festival has just announced its winners. In the category of General Fiction, Shattered Triangle picked up an honorable mention. This is the second book festival to recognize Shattered Triangle!

There are many good books that won honors. Check out the festival website for new reading materials. Congratulations to all the authors who won awards at this year's festival!

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We Have a Pope!

In Latin, “Habemus Papam”. These are the words the whole Catholic world has been waiting to hear. But hold on. This is not a futuristic blog. As of this hour, the conclave has not yet convened; the new pope has not been elected. And, no. I do not know who he will be. However, this much is clear. When the world hears those two Latin words proclaimed from the Vatican, the Catholic Church will either change, or die.

Much has been written (including by this author) about the regression of the church under the leadership of the last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The issue, though, is not whether the church continues its backward movement. The real question is whether or not the institutional church still has vision; whether or not the new pope has the ability to see. Period.

There is a common misperception, particularly among Catholics, that the church never changes--that it has been the same for more than two thousand years, and that this is reflected in its teachings. This contributed to the difficulty many people had with accepting the Second Vatican Council. The truth, however, is that the church is like the rest of life, at least in this regard: Change is the only constant.

Even in the last 30 years, the church has been changing, albeit in a reversal of the classic two-step dance. The Catholic version has been two steps backward, one step forward. That dance has been inching the Catholic Church into irrelevance, and the proclamation of the Gospel has suffered. A sober judgement is that John Paul II and Benedict XVI failed in their efforts to lead. At least in sum. On individual issues, they succeeded, sometimes even advancing cogent arguments, most notably on issues of social justice.

They also attempted to distinguish the Christian Faith--specifically the Catholic Church--from other religions, contending against a relativistic attitude toward religion and arguing that all religions are not equal; that they are not merely different pathways to the same goal. That position is debatable, but both popes presented sustainable arguments for discussion.

Their failure occurred primarily in the internal structure of the Church and in their inability to recognize the overlap of that structure with the reality of the outside world. In an ongoing attempt to shore up papal power they entrenched themselves in authoritarianism. In the process they sought to stifle discussion and creative thought. The role of women serves as example.

At a Wednesday audience, John Paul II made the declaration that the question of women priests was decided. Therefore, further discussion was to end. That was a stroke of arrogance that made even this writer blush. No one, not even the Pope, has the authority to tell people what they can and cannot talk about and certainly not what they can or cannot think. That is a viewpoint more becoming of dictators and despots than of popes.

A second example is homosexuality and the turning of a blind eye to science. The overwhelming scientific evidence supports the idea that homosexuality is part of God’s creative process, not a moral choice. The Catholic Church possesses a rich and unequaled heritage in scriptural scholarship and biblical interpretation. Yet sadly, the area of sexuality (both hetero and homo) is an aberrant example of literalism. Particularly on the issue of gay rights, the church’s arguments are not supportable. Although many people are uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality, that bias is rooted primarily in prejudice and ignorance. Not to mention resistance to the Holy Spirit.

The world as a whole is moving toward more democracy and greater transparency. The Catholic Church must embrace elements of both if it wants to continue being a voice for truth; if it wants to continue to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a divided world. So...

Habemus Papam. Maybe. The words themselves will mean nothing if the new pope cannot see--an ability that should be a pre-requisite for electing anyone pope.

Habemus Papam. If. The new pope no longer ignores one half of the world’s population--women.

Habemus Papam. If. The new pope recognizes the hand of God in all elements of creation.

Habemus Papam. If. The new pope recognizes the presence of Jesus in every human being.

Habemus Papam. If. The new pope does not attempt to control everyone’s life--especially in the bedroom.

Habemus Papam? Maybe.
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