“Whatever You Bind….”

The other day, I went to confession for the first time in about seventeen years. Confession is more formally known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation; it’s sometimes also called penance, even though that more accurately refers to the small gestures of restitution (such as prayers or good deeds) that the penitent makes after confession. This is done both in repentance and in gratitude for God’s mercy. In Catholic theology, even though God is believed to forgive a person as soon as he/she is sorry for whatever wrong was committed and seeks forgiveness, the act of confessing those sins to God’s minister, and hearing the words of absolution — which is the assurance of God’s forgiveness — is considered eminently useful for the penitent’s psychology. Confession can be done either face-to-face or with the anonymity of a confessional booth, and in either case, the priest is bound by the sacred seal of confession, which he cannot break under any circumstances. He may reveal neither the identity of the penitent (if he knows it) nor the sins confessed, nor may he ever use anything said in the confessional for any reason, because he is witness to internal matters of conscience. The seal of confession is respected by United States law.

For part of the seventeen years before my recent celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I didn’t see the point. Why bother with the potentially uncomfortable and likely unnecessary step of confessing one’s sins to a minister of the Church when those sins were forgiven by God anyway? Shouldn’t they just stay between me, my conscience, and God? What business were they of anybody else anyhow?

The first small chink in my armor here was benignly inflicted by a professor of Russian literature, from Eastern Europe, who I (very) slowly came to realize was one of the most intelligent people I’d ever encountered. He commented one day during a discussion of Chekhov that the idea of confession/penance and the Sacrament of Reconciliation was one of the most useful ideas the Catholics had ever had, and one of the least useful ideas the Protestants had ever had was to get rid of it. Naturally, my youthfully self-satisfied mind wanted to know why such an otherwise intelligent person would say such a thing. I expected him to answer with theology, but got basic human psychology instead. He said that on a basic human level, just feeling sorry for things you’d thought or done, and hoping that God heard you and forgave you when you said so, wasn’t enough. Humans need concrete, external feedback, or validation, or whatever you’d like to call it, because we are concrete beings. It is useful for us to heave heavy burdens off our consciences to another human being on a regular basis, to hear that God has forgiven those very burdens, and to do some small penance as a way of showing restitution, expressing humility and gratitude, and starting on a fresh path. And it is very useful indeed to have that other human being be an impartial and pastoral third party, who doesn’t even need to know your name unless you want him to know.

The theological basis for confession and Reconciliation comes in large part from Jesus’ statements to Simon Peter. The Gospel of Matthew 16:15-19 relays a scene in which Jesus talks with his disciples about the public confusion over his identity; Simon, the uneducated fisherman, is the first person to get it right, and he is given the new name Peter. Here I translate from the Greek. “He said to them, ‘But who do you [plural] say that I am?’ And Simon Peter answered and said to him: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered and said to him: ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in Heaven. And so I say to you that you are Peter [Petros: Greek for “Rock”], and upon this Rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not overcome it. I will give you [singular] the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on Earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth will be loosed in Heaven.’”

One wishes that this language of binding and loosing would be a bit less esoteric to the modern ear, but most theologians and scholars (and certainly the early and modern Church as well) think it refers to sins and forgiveness. Jesus gave to Peter, the Rock, an extraordinary power. This power was not intrinsic to Peter, but was given to him by Christ, and given by proxy to Christ’s church to carry on after Peter’s death (indeed, the binding and loosing language is used again in Matthew 18:18 in the plural form, to the disciples). From the practical standpoint of an everyday Catholic, what this means is that you can confess what is weighing you down, hear the consoling words of the prayer of absolution, and go your way feeling renewed and relieved. Absolution, which is the assurance of God’s forgiveness, cannot be denied unless it is painfully obvious that the penitent is not sorry at all — in which case, he/she would probably not be at confession in the first place.

At the conclusion of my run of seventeen or so years, I was interested to see how I would feel going into it. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that I nearly cut and run while sitting in the parking lot. In the end, though, my sense of curiosity — and my desire for that concreteness that my very intelligent Chekhov professor had talked about — got the better of me. After celebrating the sacrament, I left the church wondering whether I would again feel that lightness and freedom of conscience soon, as the Catechism says usually happens. It didn’t take long.

Copyright © 2012 Elizabeth Keck

The Rosary Mantra and the Saint Bodhisattvas

In Buddhism, mantras are words or groups of words believed capable of creating transformation. They are repeated many times with the assistance of prayer beads, which serve to keep track of the repetitions so that the person saying the mantras can meditate upon them more easily, rather than allocate mental space to counting. Prayer beads are used for similar purposes in many of the world’s religions.

In the Catholic faith, the rosary is not unlike a mantra, and praying the rosary also involves prayer beads to assist the person praying. The rosary begins with the Apostles’ Creed, which is followed by one Lord’s Prayer (Our Father), three Hail Marys, one Glory Be, and one Lord’s Prayer. After this initial part of the rosary comes the main portion, known as the “five decades” of the rosary. This consists of ten Hail Marys, followed by a Glory Be and a Lord’s Prayer. That set is prayed five times, which completes the rosary. When praying the rosary, a person may meditate upon what are known as the Mysteries; in addition, the person may meditate upon a special intention for which he or she is praying.

The rosary, in addition to being a prayer and meditation aid, can also be a sacrifice or an offering, made on behalf of a loved one or in the service of a certain goal. A rosary can be dedicated, for example, to a loved one in particular need of help, or said on behalf of world peace. This is not unlike the concept of the Mass as a sacrifice or an offering to God, in addition to its role as the community’s worship service. In the same spiritual vein is the Catholic practice of lighting a candle for a special prayer or in memory of someone; the candle burns as an ongoing representation of the prayer before God, long after the person who lit it has left the church or indoor/outdoor shrine and returned home. If the candle is lit at home, it burns as an ongoing symbol of the prayer until blown out. Candles are also lit for this purpose in Buddhism, Shintoism, and many other religions.

I recently visited a place called St. Anne’s Shrine in Sturbridge, central Massachusetts. St. Anne’s Shrine is a 35-acre plot of land that is largely woodland, but also hosts a full church, as well as a small St. Anne chapel — in which one can light candles — attached to the church. There is also a separate votive chapel called the Hall of Saints, and a small icon museum attached to a gift shop. The 35-acre grounds are consecrated to St. Anne, mother of Mary, and 10 of these acres hold walking trails. In various places are outdoor shrines and grottoes to Mary and to Anne (as well as a few other saints), and one can walk through outdoor Stations of the Cross. In one place, at the top of a giant stone staircase, stands a life-size white cross with a bronze Christ, overlooking all. The entire area is sacred ground.
Mary of Fatima

St. Anne, as I mentioned, is remembered in tradition as the mother of Mary, and is also my spiritual namesake; at Confirmation, I chose her as a personal saint and assumed the spiritual name Anne. Her daughter Mary, Jesus’ mother, is venerated in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy as the Blessed Mother, the spiritual mother of us all, in accordance with Jesus’ words on the Cross to the apostle John, who stood beside Mary: “Behold, your mother.” When I visited the grounds of St. Anne’s Shrine, I felt a kind of sacred communion as I walked a very small portion of the grounds. The experience set me thinking more about saints, and who they are, and what made them who they are.

St. Anne with Mary

In another interesting confluence between the two religions, Catholic saints are not entirely unlike Buddhist bodhisattvas. In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a person who is actively on the path to enlightenment, to buddhahood, and who has the enlightenment of all sentient beings as his or her goal. A bodhisattva is not content with only reaching buddhahood by him or herself; a bodhisattva chooses to devote his life to helping others reach it too. Likewise, a saint is not content with private spiritual exercises alone, but is always involved in the betterment of the condition of their fellow human beings, through constant prayer and work with the poor, the ill, the spiritually needy, the average person, or all of the above. In fact, there are three states prior to sainthood: Servant of God, Venerable, Blessed, and finally Saint. Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II, for example, are both currently Blessed, and on the way to sainthood. In terms of the way a saint-to-be lives his or her life, it is telling that so many poor people around Calcutta, India became Catholic, not because Mother Theresa ever tried to convert them (that was never the focus of her work), but because she and her sisters devoted their lives to helping them — in what was one of India’s most desperate population centers — when even their own countrymen would not.

I can’t be completely sure, in a purely intellectual sense, whether the saints (or the bodhisattvas) can hear what we ask or act upon it; whether they can hear the offerings-up of our rosaries or our mantras; whether they know when we are standing before an outdoor shrine in a woodland of God’s creation, thinking a prayer and trying just to do the best that we can. I cannot be completely sure; but the breeze that passes over my face as I stand there, on its way to places I cannot know, and the giant Crucifix that stands at the top of the staircase and embodies the God who made that breeze possible, make me want to think so.

Crucifix Staircase

Copyright © 2012 Elizabeth Keck

The Wisdom of the Simple

Recently, I watched a PBS documentary on the tiny country of Bhutan, which is south of Tibet. The people of Bhutan live by the philosophy espoused by their leader, who, incredible as it might sound, seems to be the embodiment of Plato’s “enlightened philosopher-king.” He frequently moves among the poor and is transitioning the country to democracy. The philosophy in which he guides his people is known as “gross national happiness,” meaning that policies enacted in Bhutan should always be enacted with the goal of happiness for all the country’s inhabitants — and not just the human ones, but also the animals and the environs. This will in turn lead to greater human happiness.

Until only a couple of decades ago, Bhutan had no real interaction with the outside world. They also had very low crime, practically no drug use, and a population who overwhelmingly categorized themselves as “happy.” They were happy even though they were mostly subsistence farmers with no extra money to speak of. Then, with the opening of Bhutan to the global world, televisions and the Internet arrived — and with them, advertising. While most of the countryside population still does not have televisions or computers, many of the city folk do, and have begun to report a major decline in happiness. Crime has risen, as has drug use. Fast food joints — though no McDonald’s yet — have cropped up, and there is a higher rate of depression. This seems to be partially the fault of exposure to advertising, and to Western ideals of the “perfect” body and the “perfect” life. Bhutanese women, who previously measured themselves according to the traditional notion of the ideal woman — the strong, capable, wise person who holds her household together — now report feeling ugly as they compare themselves to sleek fashion models with perpetual hunger pains and thousands of dollars of product in their surreal hair. Ads for all the new “must-have” products can be seen anywhere in the urban areas, urging viewers to evaluate the material quality of their lives and find it lacking.

Now you might say: surely the subsistence farmers would be happier with these extra things and the money to go with them, since their lives are filled with backbreaking work and very little formal education. How could they truly be happy under those conditions? However, when the documentarist went to the countryside to interview these farmers who lived in huts with their families, the response seemed universal. They were happy. And they weren’t just saying it; you could see it on their faces. These were people with very little (if any) extra cash, with no modern gadgets or even running water, who spent entire days in rice paddies with yaks. Surprising, then, was their seemingly universal answer to the question: “Would you want more things if you could have them, and more money?” They answered no, as long as they continued to have their necessities and just a bit more for comfortable leeway. They did not want any excess.

More astonishing was their answer to the follow-up question: “Why do you not want more?” Seemingly as one, these simple Buddhist farmers responded, “Because if you have too many things, you’re not happy anymore. Instead you’re always worried about people coming and stealing your money or your things, and you want more. You think you don’t have enough and you become very attached to these things. So then you are not happy; it causes suffering.”

These were not people who had attended some local Buddhist seminary for graduate training. Yet there they were, espousing the quintessential Buddhist philosophy, which as a way of life frequently eludes scholars of religion, and being quite happy about it. They were espousing the philosophy that so many of their urban compatriots had perhaps unconsciously let slip away. Yet this philosophy is by no means limited to Buddhism. It can be found in most religions of which I am aware, including Christianity — or at least Christianity in its purer form, one not watered down by its affiliation with the majority culture in the West.

The farmers’ statements are also backed up by a major recent study showing that people, worldwide, report being at their happiest when they have enough to cover their basic needs, plus a little more for comfort. In one of the greatest paradoxes, people from all over the globe report that the more excess they have, the unhappier they are. The wealthiest nations have the highest suicide rates.

I believe that all this says much less about Buddhist philosophy than it does about the fundamentals of humankind. One does not need to be Buddhist to experience what these Bhutanese farmers are talking about. My Catholic grandparents experienced it, living out their lives in their small, but very solid, household. I experience it when I don’t feel the need to buy the latest gadget and throw out the earlier version that I only got last year, which still works perfectly. I experience it when I know that I really don’t want a bigger house — even if I could afford one — or a bigger widescreen TV that would mount on my wall, or even cable. (With that last one, I’m often met with incredulity). It is true that in our modern society, one cannot disengage from everything unless one enters a cloistered religious order. I do have my computer, my iPod, my cell phone, and a TV. But we can be content with what we have, and not think we need more because someone we know has a fancy car or an Internet TV. Let’s distinguish between what we want and what we need.

So there is wisdom in simple things. There is also wisdom in a simple approach to life and faith. When we become caught up in ourselves, things go from simple to complicated to a hopeless mess in quite a hurry. Pope Benedict XVI, in Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two, writes of St. Paul’s statement that even though he was an expert in the Law, he was ignorant of how God truly worked:

In view of his earlier self-assurance as a perfect disciple of the Law who knew and lived by the Scriptures, these are strong words; he who had studied under the best masters and who might reasonably have considered himself a real expert on the Scriptures, has to acknowledge, in retrospect, that he was ignorant…This combination of expert knowledge and deep ignorance certainly causes us to ponder….Clearly this mixture of knowledge and ignorance, of material expertise and deep incomprehension, occurs in every period of history….Are we not blind precisely as people with knowledge? Is it not on account of our knowledge that we are incapable of recognizing Truth itself, which tries to reach us through what we know? (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two, pp. 206-207)

How we work all this out in modern society is anyone’s guess. Certainly no one is advocating that we renounce education. But as we educate ourselves, as we learn and as we seem to acquire more and more things — including, perhaps, a deceptive sense of our own self-sufficiency — we need to remember humility, simplicity, and happiness.

Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth Keck

Marias and Mysteries

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of genealogical research into my ancestry. Just over a hundred years ago, eight foreigners (six of them miserable for weeks in steerage) on different ships sailed past the Statue of Liberty and started the American branch of their family trees. Six of them were from southern Italy and two were from northern England. They were all my great-grandparents. Some of them brought over some of their siblings and cousins; many more family members forever remained in the Old Countries. In the course of my research, I’ve also managed to reach back a couple of generations into those Old Countries, and have been delighted to uncover the names of many of my ancestors. As I uncovered those names, I was astonished to see just how many of the Italian women – on both sides of the Atlantic – were named Maria. In one branch of the family, all the females carried Maria as their first name, but each was called by her middle name, to distinguish among them: Maria Francesca (the mother), Maria Giuseppa, Maria Concetta, Maria Letizia, and Maria Rosa (all her female children).

Of course, Maria is for Mary the mother of Jesus (Miriam in Hebrew), who is revered and emulated – but not worshiped – in Roman Catholicism, as well as in Eastern Orthodoxy. My survey of all the Marias in my family caused me to wonder about the source of widespread devotion to Mary, when we know so little about her. One aspect of it is surely that Mary offers a genuinely needed feminine presence in a religion that, from its origins, inherited male terminology for its triune God. The three manifestations or forms – or perhaps avatars is an effective word to use in this wired age – of the one Christian God are termed the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The first, even though Catholicism and many other branches of Christianity happily acknowledge that God has no real gender, is termed Father instead of Mother because he is Yahweh, who was male in the Hebrew Bible. The second became incarnate in the form of a male human being, Jesus, so there’s not much option for terminology there. The third, even though the term “Holy Spirit” conjures neither male nor female associations, assumed male pronouns out of convention, and probably also because Yahweh (as I mentioned already) was always thought of as male.

The need for a female presence in the religion is not a need felt by women alone, as evidenced by the large number of men who revere Mary. Pope John Paul II was famous for his Marian devotions. It stems, rather, from a sense of the balance in life that is experienced by men and women alike. A triune God with all male terms – even if that God’s intrinsic lack of gender is acknowledged in the theology – is not in balance. This, I believe, is one reason that Christians find themselves drawn to Mary, not as a type of goddess, but as the female balance that she is by nature as Jesus’ mother. It is this maternal aspect that draws mothers and women hoping to be mothers, men young and old alike, to the mother of Jesus in their religious lives. There is a sense that by virtue of being Jesus’ mother, Mary is in some way a symbolic mother to us all.

But it also seems to me that another source for the attraction to Mary is the very lack of information about her that I mentioned earlier – the reason I wondered about the reverence in the first place. She is a mystery. Beyond the birth narratives, especially the one in Luke, we hear almost nothing from her. Mystics, saints, clergy, and ordinary people across the ages have spoken of revelations of her or from her, but such things only increase the mystery surrounding Mary, rather than diminish it. This could be part of the reason that Mary finds herself with billions of people down through the ages thinking about her, sending prayers to her, turning to her for maternal help, and giving their children her name. Mysteries allow us to imagine, to dream, to search for what we need and find it. Beyond being Jesus’ mother, Mary is a page waiting to be filled in. Thus, those who have Mary as part of their religious lives invest in her their hopes, their sorrows – and perhaps, everything they need in a mother.

Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth Keck

Ascension Day

For Christians, yesterday was Ascension Day — the day in which the bodily ascension of Jesus Christ to Heaven is commemorated. Some churches offer special services on this day because of its solemnity, and certainly Catholic churches, for whom the Ascension is a holy day of obligation (although some dioceses transfer it to the nearest Sunday so that more people can celebrate it). I had already planned to attend one of these services with my daughter, but felt even more so after the area in Massachusetts where I live was hit with multiple destructive tornadoes and severe lightening storms for a stretch of hours the day before. Parts of my state were devastated – even parts of surrounding towns relatively close by – and my town had been listed as one of those that could very well be in a certain tornado’s path. As it turned out, my town escaped, but so many others did not. For our family, it was a terrifying near-miss. In Massachusetts, tornadoes touching down is a surreal experience.

I woke up the morning of the Ascension with profound sadness for those who had lost their homes, but also with profound relief and gratitude that my home and my family had been spared. This happy relief felt as if someone had infused a shot of extra, fresh oxygen directly into my lungs, and I wanted to give expression to it. My daughter and I arrived for a noon Mass.

As I mentioned before, it was a holy day of obligation; so naturally I assumed no one would be there. I was surprised, though, to find quite a few people there – perhaps others had woken up that morning sharing my thoughts. The readings for the day centered on Jesus’ ascension skyward in the sight of his disciples, including Acts 1:1-11, in which the disciples cannot stop themselves from continuing to gaze upward where he had gone. The text then says that two men in white (these would be angels) appeared beside them and asked why they continued to stand there and look upward, since “this Jesus will return in the same way” that they had seen him go. The Gospel reading concluded with what Matthew presented as Jesus’ last words before the ascension, telling his disciples, “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).

It was this last reading that factored most heavily into the priest’s homily, which, as I had hoped, centered on the upheaval of the preceding day and its psychological aftermath. His message concerned the presence of God with us through such disasters, pointing out that while we all felt for those whose lives had been upended by storms in the Midwest, having a natural disaster hit geographically so close to home gives it a different meaning entirely. So, quite rightly I think, he connected Jesus’ words in Matthew to current events, noting that they apply to us just as much as the early disciples.

I did go to church because it was Ascension Day, but I also went to give expression of my thankfulness that my family and my house were preserved from the worst of the storms. I am aware that expressing my thanks to God also raises questions theologically. I know that weather is random and its own beast (I explored this in an early post,”The Fall-Guy for the Weather?”), and it is not God choosing to smite certain innocent homes with tornadoes and spare others. So I knew that expressing my gratitude to God might be inherently illogical. After all, I knew there was nothing special about me or my house that God would actively spare it while ignoring other homes that ended up destroyed. That is also why I hesitate to say that I feel blessed, because does that imply that God has blessed me but not others? That he has intentionally withheld blessing from others? I’m not comfortable believing that, and it seems arrogant to do so. In fact, I believe that God does not cause destruction but is very present with those who suffer from it, because I believe my faith when it tells me that God, in Christ, suffered both with and on behalf of humanity.

So if I believe that God did not choose some houses to be destroyed by the tornadoes and others to be spared, what is the logical basis for my thanks? To me, the answer is that there is none. But perhaps strangely, I am mostly comfortable with that. That knowledge will not prevent me from thanking God that I and mine were spared from a deadly natural disaster. It will not prevent me from praying that my house will still be there (as I did on Wednesday evening), nor prevent me from feeling profound gratitude to God afterward. I cannot identify any rhyme or reason to the destruction of June 1 in Massachusetts (or, for that matter, natural disasters elsewhere). But I will still be thankful. And I still believe that God is very much present with the suffering of those who have lost homes and even loved ones. If there is one thing about which Christianity is unshakably clear, it is that ours is a God who is acquainted with suffering, and who does not shy away from it.

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

Unraveling the Complications of Things

Lately I have been reading Pope Benedict’s book, “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week.” I find it to be a humble and well-reasoned work of fine theology. Just the other day, I thought about a certain passage, in light of the non-ending of the world that was just witnessed on May 21. For those who might have spent the better part of a month either out in a boat in the North Atlantic or frolicking on a beach with pina coladas in Bora Bora, and who thereby might somehow have missed the much-fanfared non-Rapture, here is what happened. One Harold Camping predicted the “Rapture” (an event anticipated mostly by evangelical Protestants; believers will be bodily caught up to Heaven and non-believers will face terrible tribulations before the Last Judgment), for May 21. He did this based on his own calculations that the Rapture should happen exactly 7,000 years after Noah’s Flood. Setting aside for a moment the fact that not even the Bible purports to be exact about when the Flood occurred, and setting aside for a moment the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any prediction of 7,000 years involved, many of Camping’s followers quit their jobs and spent most of their savings traveling to proclaim this Rapture, so that more might be saved. The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus stating that of the end of the world, “no one will know the day or hour,” and it will come “like a thief in the night”; but never mind. The reason I’m writing about it relates to the central premise that Camping’s followers (and others) espoused: Christian believers will be “saved,” non-Christian believers (or non-believers in general) will not be saved.

Presumably, some of the folks advocating this model include Jews among the unsaved non-believers. In any case, the deplorable ways in which so many Christians have treated Jews — even coining the degrading epithet “Christ-killers” — are not secret. Nor is it secret that even today, some Christians look unfavorably upon Jews, or at least consider them part of the unsaved group. So, the passage that I came across in “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week” talks a bit about the origin of this tragic animosity: the misperception that “the Jews” demanded Jesus’ death. Even on the face of it, it is a ridiculous statement: all of Christ’s original disciples were Jews, and Christ in his human nature was himself a Jew. Benedict notes that the Gospels do not indict “the Jews” as a whole, but imply that persons in power desired Jesus’ death. That said, he then notes the verse that probably takes the lion’s share of blame for historical Christian animosity to Jews: Matt 27:25, which states that the crowd shouted, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.”

Of this “blood be upon us” statement, Benedict offers a theological reinterpretation. He reminds us, “the Christian will remember that Jesus’ blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all….These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation. Only when understood in terms of the theology of the Last Supper and the Cross, drawn from the whole of the New Testament, does this verse from Matthew’s Gospel take on its correct meaning.”

While this interpretation comes from Benedict, its spirit is inspired by a Vatican II document called Nostra Aetate, which describes the Church’s relationship with non-Christians. Of religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc., Nostra Aetate says, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men…Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture…The Church also has a high regard for the Muslims….Over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding.”

After a section discussing that it is from the Jewish faith that the Christian faith sprang, Nostra Aetate states, “Remembering, then, her common heritage with the Jews and moved not by any political consideration, but solely by religious motivation of Christian charity, she deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of antisemitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews.”

Regardless of what one thinks of Nostra Aetate (personally, I like it very much), one must be struck by Benedict’s interpretation of what Christ’s blood signifies, and how incompatible that is with any poorly-reasoned theology that damns all unbelievers with black-and-white simplicity. At the very least, one must acknowledge a proper humility that we are bound to leave these things in the hands of God, who is the only Judge of anyone. In the words of Lao Tzu, “We should blunt our sharp points, and unravel the complications of things.”

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

He Who Lives By The Sword

Of the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Dalai Lama, always the voice of ultimate compassion, said that while bin Laden might have deserved forgiveness as a human being, “forgiveness doesn’t mean forget what happened…. If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures.” The Vatican, expressing what was likely a similar sentiment, noted that bin Laden was responsible for the destruction of countless lives, spreading division and hatred, and manipulating religions to that end. The statement concluded: “In the face of a person’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before humanity, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.” Explicit in this statement is the lack of condemnation of the manner of bin Laden’s death. These statements from these respective religious leaders are striking, because both the Dalai Lama and the Vatican can usually be expected to make statements affirming life in all forms and disapproving of actions that lead to another’s death.

In the last several days, religious people of different traditions have struggled with conflicting responses within themselves to the news, and have sought whether their responses are in accordance with their faith. Thousands of people Sunday night rushed the streets, cheered, waved flags, sang, and chanted “USA!” Reactions against this jubilation have come from some quarters since, declaring it uncivilized or ignorant. Others refrain from judging that jubilation, but express concern that we should not celebrate or feel satisfaction at the killing of even someone as heinous as bin Laden, even though we are all better off with him out of commission, and even though he received every bit the justice he deserved.

But I think the tempered responses of the Dalai Lama and the Vatican speak to the reality that even if we know our noblest selves might refrain from taking satisfaction from this event, this was a man who, together with his associates, murdered innocent people. And not just our people, but many others across the globe, including Muslims. This was a man who spread hate like a bacterium. He needed to be dispatched from this world for a functional reason – that is, so that he could no longer plot murders and motivate new followers with his charismatic presence. But on a more emotional level, we do feel gladness that he was taken down, and taken down by one of our own warriors. Surely his followers do not see this as our victory, but that is irrelevant to the emotional release of a nation whose citizens were murdered merely because they went to work one day 10 years ago, or boarded a plane that one day — a nation whose psyche and daily reality were suddenly and permanently changed by the act of savagery that was 9/11.

From a Christian perspective, the New Testament teaches that we do best when we emulate Christ, who exhorts us to be peaceful, longsuffering, compassionate, forgiving, non-violent, and non-vengeful. The central message of Christ’s journey to the Cross, after all, was his willing endurance of a grave injustice and grave suffering when he was innocent of any wrongdoing, thus revealing God’s solidarity with suffering, and the glorification that ensued. But even the New Testament – even some of the words attributed to Jesus – recognize that we are still living in a broken world that harbors both chaos and evil, and people who choose evil. We strive toward the divine world, but it is still “not yet.” Sometimes, in this world, we are left with no realistic choice besides what happened Sunday night. Bin Laden chose his fate years ago, and went into it with eyes wide open. As the Vatican spokesman noted, we all bear a responsibility before God, and bin Laden reaped what he sowed.

Jesus did teach and demonstrate love, compassion, and forgiveness. But the New Testament also observes that  “he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.” As humans, we should reflect soberly and sadly on the chain of events that led here, and that stretches back more than a decade. There is an Old Testament scripture that states, “Vengeance is mine – so says the Lord.” So it is. And we will leave such matters in his hands.

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

The Cosmic Breach

Most religions and philosophies over the course of human history have understood that human actions often fall short of — and sometimes run directly counter to — what is good, generous, loving, humble, and in line with the desires of an infinitely good God. Different systems place differing levels of emphasis on the problem of this disparity between human behavior and divine example; in Christianity, it is certainly one of the most central concerns of the faith. Those of us familiar with Christianity have often heard the phrase, “Jesus Christ died for our sins.” But what does that mean? It can almost become one of those phrases that loses its meaning; it is heard often but is hardly self-explanatory. It invites the questions, “Why? What for? And in what way?”

Christian faith holds that Jesus’ voluntary death on the cross and subsequent Resurrection was necessary to mend the divide between humanity and God, to step into the cosmic breach that sin tore open between them, to bring humankind back into right relationship with its — and the world’s — Creator. Christianity holds that this was necessary because of the gaping distance that sin creates between humans, who are so often willful, selfish, vindictive, cruel, unthinking, and hypocritical, and God, who is none of those things. Hence, according to Christian faith, God united with human flesh, becoming one of us in what Christians call the Second Person of the Trinity: Jesus Christ. In so doing, God and humanity became united in that person in the Incarnation, in a profound act when Christ-God “emptied himself” (Greek, heauton ekenosen) to take on servant form, says Paul in his letter to the Phillippians. Self-emptying, indeed, for a God to come to the level of a human, submit Godself to human needs, limitations, and struggles, and then to humiliation in a grisly and eminently unjust death. Why, in the Christian worldview, was this necessary to permanently heal the breach between humanity and God and bestow grace for sin?

Just how Christ’s death functioned to forever absolve human beings from sin and heal the cosmic breach between God and humanity has been a subject for theologians from the earliest Christians onward. In ancient Israel, the sacrificial system provided a way to make reparation for sin. The Hebrew Bible describes two types of sacrifice that were made for sin: the hatta’t and the asham. It seems that the first type was made on behalf of “unintentional” sin, while the second type was performed to make reparation for intentional sin that incurred guilt. Just how the Israelites understood the efficacy and symbolism of the sacrificial system is a massive question in biblical scholarship, since the Bible itself says several things on the matter — not mutually exclusive things, but things that emphasize different aspects of the meaning of sacrifice. Further, there is no systematic explanation of how sacrifice was understood to “work,” probably because the ancient Israelites had no need to explain it systematically, and were not writing for our benefit. Complicating matters even further is the fact that there were several different types of sacrifice that served clearly different purposes, having nothing to do with sin. There were thanksgiving offerings, for example, and whole burnt-offerings, and offerings of peace and well-being. In any case, some of the Church Fathers in the first centuries after Christ concluded that Christ’s atonement on the cross was sacrificial in nature in the way that the hatta’t or the asham was — Christ effected the ultimate sacrifice to dispense forever with the pernicious effects of sin upon the soul and separation from God, and he could only do this because he came from God.

There are a couple of verses in the New Testament that hint at this interpretation, but in many of the earliest New Testament writings (the first three, or “Synoptic” Gospels, and some of the letters of Paul), there is not a clear indication that this was a predominant early interpretation for how Christ’s death and Resurrection worked. More often, we find either ambiguity, or the idea that Christ’s death and Resurrection served as a reconciling event. That is, it was a demonstration of God’s solidarity with and love for humankind, and victory over death, that proclaimed God’s healing of the breach that sin causes between humans and God. In other words, not a required blood atonement under a sacrificial system, but a demonstrative act that effected reconciliation through its power. We see this interpretation in Paul, in one of the earliest-dated writings in the New Testament (Paul wrote his letters and died before the Gospels as we know them were circulating):

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation….All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)

In her book Joy to the World! Mission in the Age of Global Christianity, Dr. Dana Robert, expert in world Christianity and mission history, describes it this way: “For his followers, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate sign that God loves the world. In becoming human, God identified with our sufferings, failures, and weaknesses. In dying on the cross, he chose to take on the pain of human vulnerability rather than commit violence by fighting or by seizing earthly power. In the resurrection, he promised us life over death. Just as God became one with us through becoming human in Jesus Christ, so is humanity united with God. The resurrection of Jesus carries in it the assurance of humanity’s permanent reconciliation with its Creator.”

There is probably more than one way for a Christian to interpret the significance and purpose of the Christ event. But for Paul, one early and influential Christian who wrote roughly between 50-60 CE, the theology of reconciliation of humanity with God — and thus, crucially, the divine invitation for the reconciliation of human beings with one another — was at the very heart of it.

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

My God, Your God, or the Unmoved Mover?

In ancient times, people didn’t have the religious wars that we have today and have had over the centuries in the Common Era. There was no such thing as one religion warring against another. The closest anybody got to that were the frequent wars that petty kingdoms waged against one another, usually over territory, and the wars that a stronger nation waged against weaker nations in the endless pursuit of empire-building. In both types of conflict, the nations’ gods were perceived as essential to the outcome. (We see this in the Hebrew Bible numerous times.) The winning nation would usually proclaim its high god’s superiority over the losing nation’s high god; sometimes, as in the case of Cyrus of Persia in his victory over Babylon, the winner claimed that the loser’s god voluntarily handed over his own nation in anger against them. The losing nation would usually conclude something similar — typically not thinking that its god was simply weaker, but more that the people had angered the god in some way and were now facing consequences.

This idea appears a number of times in the Bible. One major example is 2 Kings 17, which offers that explanation for why Samaria (Northern Israel) suffered bitter defeat at the hands of Assyria in the eighth century BCE. Another is 2 Kings 24-25, which describes why Jerusalem and Judah fell to the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE. The prophets, such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel (to name only two!), also teem with the idea that Yahweh will hand over — or has already handed over — his people to foreign nations if they do not clean up their act. The Bible does not countenance any idea that Yahweh was ever defeated by some other nation’s god — for the Israelites, Yahweh was the only one who made the real decisions. Eventually, Yahweh was conceived as the only real god at all; this formation of thoroughgoing monotheism seems to have developed in the sixth century BCE, judging by its strong formulations in Second Isaiah (Is 40-55) and Ezekiel.

In any case, all that was as close as you got to a religiously-based conflict. Not very close at all. This is because people in ancient times typically did not have a problem with the idea that different people had different gods — even to the proliferation of thousands of gods. Even within one nation, where the people typically all shared a number of high-level national gods, it was quite common for individuals to cultivate special personal relationships with one god or two, often even with lower-ranking gods. We see this in ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Assyria, Babylonia, Ugarit, Greece, and Rome; we know it from the texts these peoples left behind. A person’s devotion to one god on a personal level did not lead to that person’s dismissal of other people’s personal gods; it was more an acceptance of the actions of multiple deities among different spheres. (The brief and infamous reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten was a notable exception to this, but let’s not go there.) You even find it in ancient Israel. Archeologists have uncovered countless female “pillar figurines” from individual homes; these were likely representations of a fertility goddess to whom women would pray about reproductive and maternal concerns. Yet it’s improbable that such practitioners would have denied that Yahweh was the shared national high god.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, however, waved aside traditional ideas that cast gods in the behavior of people. But they also went further and abandoned the idea of a personal god with whom one had a real relationship, with whom one could communicate. For them, particularly Plato and Aristotle, there was only one real God (although Plato referred not to “God” but to an inscrutable entity he called the Good), and that Being was so high that it was by definition beyond human knowledge or reach. They reasoned that a God so vast would likely exist beyond human capacity to influence through prayer, since such a God would operate on the scale of the entire universe. Aristotle famously dubbed this Being the “Unmoved Mover.” Nothing could act upon or influence the Unmoved Mover; but the Unmoved Mover had set the universe in motion. This is similar to the approach of Thomas Jefferson and others of the Founding Fathers, who practiced Deism — not, contrary to what the Tea Party convinces itself, an especially pious form of evangelical Christianity.

The great monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — did something remarkable and combined the above understandings. Similar to Plato and Aristotle, they conceive of one pristine ultimate Being, to the exclusion of others, who operates on a universal scale. But similar to older notions, they also conceive of this Being as a personal God with whom one can communicate, have a relationship, and to whom one can actually pray. Christianity went a step further along these lines and conceived this singular, ultimate God of the universe to incarnate as a human within history. All three of these religions understand the one God to act in the lives of created beings in an ongoing way, and to take an active individual interest in them.

Personally, I prefer that model, though at times I think that Aristotle’s seems the more logical one. Then again, even in Aristotle’s model, if the ultimate God is so far beyond our understanding, who is to say what is logical? I once knew someone in graduate school who, as we walked back to the halls of the ivory tower from Taco Bell one lunchtime, informed me that he was perfectly unperturbed by the idea of a vast God-beyond-reach, an Unmoved Mover. I, by contrast, flailed against the possibility of a removed God who was unlikely to talk to me, hear me, or relate to me; for me, this was unacceptable. For him, it failed to shake his unflappable calm that God was God, God knew all, and why be flustered over the details? I think he found me vaguely amusing.

Ultimately, on this matter we have no course but to embrace humility and lack of knowledge, accept uncertainty, and follow where our inner self urges us. On that score, I am reminded of that romp of a movie, “The 13th Warrior,” set in the middle ages. There is a point when an Arab Muslim protagonist calls out to his close friend, a Viking warrior, that he will pray to the one God for him. His Viking friend responds, “In your country, you may have need of only one God. But in my country, we have need of many! I will pray to all of them for you.”

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

Advent, Thor’s Hammer, and Cosmic Mystery

So instead of walking into our church to participate in Advent Lessons and Carols this past Sunday, I found myself standing at that very time in a Scandinavian gift shop buying the Hammer of Thor. All right, not an actual hammer, but a necklace and earrings shaped like the Hammer of Thor. Thor is the pre-Christian Norse storm god, the blow from whose mighty hammer was said to create thunder. Thor was also respected for his strength and for his ability to endure pain without complaint. I purchased the representations of Thor’s Hammer primarily because of my interest in ancient religions, and particularly ones that involve such fantastic mythology. But I also gravitate toward a broad personal theology that I indulge from time to time, although I identify as Christian.

We didn’t skip Lessons and Carols on purpose; it was just one of those things that sneak up on you. But the incongruity of the situation — getting waylaid on one’s way to Advent service by a Scandinavian shop selling the Hammer of Thor — prompted me to think, as I often do, about the confluence of certain religious tenets and how my own “personal theology” fits into both Christianity and the broader world of spirituality. I’m not the sort who will say that all religions are essentially the same — because, really, they are not. It is not even the case that all religions believe in a Creator (Buddhism, for example, does not, but instead holds that the universe has been eternally existing). Different religions emphasize different things, and they cannot be easily mashed together without overlooking and even disrespecting these things. However, it does seem clear that each religion is pointing toward something “else,” something more, something greater than what we can see with our immediate eyes in our immediate physical surroundings. It is for that reason that I tend to augment my Christian practice with contributions from other philosophies, which often are not contradictory in any case.

Each Advent, I am compelled to think about the mystery, and the apparent lunacy, of the idea that the Creator God decided at some point in history to enter human flesh and become one of us, in a profound and world-altering act to demonstrate God’s love for his creation and his identification with us. It must be a ridiculous idea that a being whose breadth and depth are so far beyond our own that we are hopeless ever to comprehend it decided to become one of us for a time. It must be ludicrous that in that “becoming,” this cosmic being intended to free his creatures from the shackles of their ongoing misdeeds, to offer redemption from those misdeeds, and in so doing to effect a cosmic demonstration both of love and the inherent sanctity of our created bodies. Inherently sanctified because, so Christians believe, God saw fit to “become” into one of those bodies, and our flesh can receive no higher recognition, no higher gift.

All these things sound preposterous. But they also possess (to borrow the now famous phrase) the “audacity of hope.” The truly bold, outrageous, no-holds-barred kind of hope that might just have a chance at success, by sheer virtue of its audacity. Such is the mystery that Christianity proclaims, and to which it joyously holds on with both hands. This, despite the fact that the biggest mistake Christian churches often make is to forget that what lies at their heart is not a carefully sorted-out array of systematic rules and provisions, but is essentially cosmic mystery.

One can believe in the truth of Christianity as itself; but of course, that is necessarily different from the system that developed around it, since finite humans need finite and inadequate ways to assimilate the infinite divine. Thus, “Christianity” as it is practiced, systematized, and understood by finite creatures is necessarily different from the cosmic truth upon which Christians believe their religion is based, and which it tries to express, and which only God can fully understand.

So that brings me back to Thor’s Hammer. I wear it as a symbol of strength, confidence, and endurance, which are traits that I value and try to emulate (not always successfully, but that is the nature of our imperfect being). Mystery is that wearing it can help me foster those traits within myself and express them outside myself. Mystery is that, according to our best astrophysicists, our entire universe — all the energy and matter that it now contains — existed as a superdense spot much smaller than an ordinary pearl about 14 billion years ago, and in response to some action that we do not understand, instantaneously exploded in an event we call the Big Bang, and has been expanding ever since. Mystery is that all the elements on the Periodic Table are, without exception, forged within stars like our Sun, and that our bodies are therefore quite literally made from stars. Mystery is that for its first billion years, Earth was a nightmarish, volatile place, home only to constantly erupting volcanoes, lava oceans, a constant barrage of meteors, and an atmosphere toxic to life as we know it. Mystery is that, by means we still do not understand, the amino acids and proteins of life found their quickening, and a bunch of cyanobacteria over millions of years became responsible for an atmospheric oxygen content that would allow larger life forms to come to exist. Mystery is that we know of over 100 billion galaxies, and each galaxy has about 100 billion stars.

Mystery is that we as a species feel an ongoing pull toward and connection with some greater world not entirely visible to our physical eyes, but known so ineffably to our hearts. Mystery is that we could be loved by a cosmic being who could have set all of the above into motion; that we can love other people as wholly, as beautifully, and as inexplicably as we often do; and even that we have come to know what love is.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010