Saturday, December 2, 2023

You're Under Arrest by the Fashion Police

If you're trying to dress to get some of that long overdue respect, here are some pointers for a Roman prelate under the gun.

Oh Dear Cardinal Burke, Down in the dumps are you? I know you’re about to lose your papal stipend and get kicked out of your groovy Roman digs, but this looks like you decamped to Motel 6. Going on social media to create some sympathy as the beleaguered ecclesiastic sad face of the ancient Knights of Malta and whip up your equally dubious supporters? This will never do. Here are some tips from the Vatican’s fashion police.

Try to look the part. 

Gather around you bright young people who seem enthusiastic about the message of the Lord. 

Make sure your acolytes have had proper sleep and can pay attention to what they’re doing instead of making sure that all their pleats line up correctly. 

Let them look you in the face instead trying to avoid eye contact as if they spent all night playing with themselves, alone or with others.

You’ve included hats for any eventuality. I count three. They’re all terrible.

Be color coordinated, but that green has got to go. And what’s with mother’s mittens?

If you were a posing for Gary Larson’s Farside instead of filing dubia in favor of the deposit of faith this might pass, but let’s face it honey, go back to 1869 and play kissy face with Pius 9. You need cheering up.

Respectfully submitted, your faithful Fashion Police

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Let's go back to calling it heresy

This is going to get me into trouble. Reflections on a certain kind of theological reflection that inevitably leads to trouble.

My friend the Zen teacher John Tarrant once had dinner with renowned poet Czeslaw Milosz at his house on Grizzly Peak in Berkeley. Among the tales of a fine dinner conversation was this tidbit--Milosz was very interested in studying the various heresies and heretics that have run afoul of the institutional church over the years, even back in the days when the cost of thinking outside the norm could cost your life. Or perhaps the connection between controversy and rigid thinking might be part of his Polish dissident psyche.

But there is another side to heresy that interests me. What happens when your own personal belief system just drives your mind into a wall and there is no escape? We’ve set the fires aside, thankfully, though we still have religious wars that seem as senseless as ever to the unbeliever, but heresy still reeks havoc.

Last night my newsfeed pictured Mgr Jean-Louis Balsa who was just appointed to the post of archeveque of Albi in southern France. Balsa seems to be very likable fellow, with a jolly smile, but I have really no idea why Google choose this clip other than I follow the comings and goings of Pope Francis and his response to the dubia that several recalcitrant cardinals throw out as taunts, trying to alter the direction of (in their view) an errant magisterium. I remembered that Albi had been the hotbed of a very bloody heresy a millennium ago, but it seemed implausible that Google’s algorithm reached back to 1163. The Albigensian heresy held a rather gnostic view of man’s fate, caught in a fierce battle between the forces of pitch black darkness and glorious light of an afterlife. 

So much passes as religion in this day of political and spiritual correctness. The same news feed informs me that Mormonism is the 9th richest religion in the world, just ahead of Scientology. Then they proceed to describe the LDS as a Christian sect. Not since 1896 when Mormons renounced polygamy as the price for admission of Utah to the Union has anyone dared call Joseph Smith a heretic, but I will, at least from any accepted understanding of Christianity. At least L Ron Hubbard was honest enough not to label his sect a Hollywood version of Dale Carnegie’s self-improvement courses or tell us that Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem told his followers to sell everything they owned so that he could buy a private jet or pay an astronomical price for “going clear.” But my reading of the assassination of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum in 1844 was precisely because of objections to his 40 wives, some as young as 14. This was not a practice that led the early martyrs to death in the Coliseum. (I am not saying that there are many upright god-fearing Mormons who love their children and pay their taxes, but Mormonism is a cult with very strange connections to the life and teaching of Jesus).

Returning to 10th century Albi, the Cathars held certain beliefs about Jesus and the doctrine of the Incarnation that were outside long held institutional beliefs, but there were also beliefs about human nature that the established Roman church found threatening. They held that humans were spirits trapped in fleshly bodies engaged in a conflict between the forces of Light and Darkness. The consequences of that battle were all that mattered. The institutional church of Pope Innocent III aligned with the French House of Caput found this belief so threatening that they redirected the armies of the Crusades from retaking Jerusalem from the Muslims to southern France where they slaughtered thousands of people and destroyed the remnants of these Manichean believers. Religious wars were bloody in olden times though humans still engage in this kind of doctrinal war gauging from the reported number of casualties in Gaza since October 7th

In New Age California, among the Light and Love crowd, there is a lot of uncritical talk about the body being some kind of learning vehicle for the soul. We are spirits having a learning experience by being incarnated in bodies, or some such bullshit. Bob Hoffman even goes so far as to try to give trapped souls an emotional component which he called the Quadrinity--the body, spirit, intellect and emotional self, each separate and distinct and operating at less than optimal capacity. I am not out to ignite a religious war to engulf Berkeley and other hotspots around the world, but this is complete nonsense springing from the supernatural understandings of the Spiritualist Church movement. 

I am going to try to resurrect “heresy” and simply define it as adherence to a particular school of thought and separate it from bloody crusades or burning at the stake. What are other heresies floating around today that pretend to be Christian?

Heresy: The Prosperity Gospel from Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich” to the predatory Rev. Ike and Rev. Creflo Dollar. (That can’t be his real name, but I admit that it has a kind of ring to it). Motivational speaking has been developed and honed, particularly in the United States, but it is not Christianity. 

Heresy: I have to include dear well intentioned Mary Baker Eddy and her Christian Science. Bows to Mind over Matter, elevating this prattle to a higher level, but it is not Christianity even though my Irish mother thought that Mind over Matter was the underlying rationale of the Sermon on the Mount. 

Heresy: The Westboro Baptist “Kill the Fags” cult is high on my list of perverted religious ideologies. Another cult. The leaders rely on a very selective reading of selected passages from the corpus of Christian texts. The problematic texts do exist, however the condemnation is a bit extreme and the reading very literal. God apparently abhors metaphor or analogy.

Anathema: Franklin Graham et al. Liberty University and the Empire of the Self Righteous. They just seem to be self-serving greedy pricks. I know it is the same kind of language that they hurl against the libtards, but what the hell, if we are throwing all the use of language and critical thinking to the dogs, I have chosen not to waste words. Go take care of your pool boy toy Franklin and try to keep his mouth shut. And just shut up.

The Narcissistic Heresy: There may be something about the positive psychology of Norman Vincent Peal other than to have trained Donald Trump in doublespeak, but looking at what was preached from the Marble Collegiate Church, it is nothing more than a sanctification of American greed. That he was honored by Ronald Reagan with the Presidential Medal of Freedom speaks volumes. It may be hard to really trace the lineage of Trump’s assault on the rule of law, but there is nothing positive in this line of  thinking. It is narcissism. God did not create other people for our individual abuse and exploitation. 

Enough. You get my point. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

When the Sirens of Holy Hill called to me

Blue Cliff Record, Case 34: Yangshan’s No Visit to the Mountain 

Yangshan asked a monk, “Where have you come from?” 

“Lu Mountain,” replied the monk. “

Did you go to Wulao Peak?” asked Yangshan.

“I didn’t,” answered the monk. 

“Then you don’t know about mountains at all,” said Yangshan. 

Yunmen commented, “These words were spoken out of benevolence, but the conversation fell into the weeds.” 

When I start to riff on a Zen koan that I'm working on with my teacher, I can sense my listener’s eyes glaze over. Don’t worry that is part of meditation too, but perhaps I am jumping the gun. First let’s talk about dreams.

There were certain conversational conventions between student and teacher back in the good old days of Zen a thousand or more years ago in China. The question “Where have you come from?” was a catchall for Who have you worked with? What are you up to? What interests you and how much progress have you been making? If you gave a truly enlightened answer, it might survive a millennia and puzzle future students.

A few days after I began work on this “conversation in the weeds”  I woke up very early with a dream fresh in my mind. It was not a nightmare of the terribly frightening order but still unsettling. I had been posed a question that I was expected to answer: What Jesuit theologates should be saved and which put on the chopping block? Apparently as in the dream context, my answer had consequences though part of the anxiety was that I could not put my finger on the reason why.

One thing that the dream made clear is that Jesuits have this conversation about visiting famous monasteries and working with great teachers all the time. I’d almost missed it. When we Jesuits and former Jesuits meet each other, among the “get to know you” questions are “Where did you do your theology? Did you ever work with Father so and so at Alma, or JSTB or Woodstock?” “Our mutual friend Father FX came back from Louvain a changed man, don’t you think? His French sucks but at least you can talk to him.” “ I’m sorry that I had to leave Regis before I was able to finish the series that Lonergan was giving.” (Of course now in the days of jet travel, professional Jesuit schools share their talent. I spent a summer with Lonergan at Boston College in 1968 and didn’t really understand a thing. I was so taxed trying to distinguish his work from the rote scholasticism that was still lingering after Vatican 2, I barely passed the oral exam). 

When I applied for theology I chose Woodstock. Just 6 years after the closing of Vatican 2, there was still a mystique about it. More than any other American Jesuit theological institution, it had deeply influenced John 23’s vision. John Courtney Murray had almost single handedly persuaded the assembly to adopt the ground-breaking Declaration on Religious Liberty Dignitatis humanae  which he pretty much authored. Gus Weigel died before the Council ended but, for this young Jesuit he was as important as Rahner and several people on the Woodstock faculty had been close to him. I wanted to really understand the backstory of Lumen gentium. Moving to the Upper West Side to join a consortium that included Hebrew Union and Union Theological was very exciting. When Father Minister assigned me to the small community on West 102nd Street where Avery Dulles would be our mentor, I jumped at the chance.

I was only at Mount Woodstock a little more than a year before the Sirens of New Age theology called me to Holy Hill, JSTB, Bob Ochs, Claudio Naranjo, Master CM Chen, Tarthang Tulku and the Nyingma Institute. The work was obviously very different from Woodstock. Far more introspective. By the end of that year, I’d sat a long retreat with Dhiravamsa and studied Luke’s Gospel narrative with John McKenzie. If I were a name-dropping monk, I'd hit the jackpot. 

But Yangshan and Yunmen won’t let me get away with it. What drags this conversation out of the weeds and fills it with compassion? I will go back to the meditation hall once again.

Jesuit School of Theology, 1735 Le Roy Ave, Berkeley, CA, Schools &  Educational Services NEC - MapQuest

533 × 400

Saturday, November 18, 2023

I feel like my hands are tied and I’ve been gagged.

We are watching incredible carnage, forced to watch what is presented on the TV. No matter what channel I choose, MSNBC or Al Jazerra, it is horrific. I want to say something. I have to say something. I can’t stand on the silent side of history like the Germans, Spaniards and Italians, including the Pope, who thought that Hitler was going to win the war he started. They played it safe to save their skin which cost millions of lives. They chose the wrong side of history. It’s easy to see in hindsight. Many of them have tried to defend themselves by saying that they didn’t have accurate information. There might have been a suspicion that the Final Solution was underway but only later was the true horror of the Holocaust revealed. Their self-justification follows something along this line of reasoning: the Germans had been crushed in the first world conflict and the sanctions imposed at Versailles had also crushed any possible recovery. Hitler’s fascism was a perfect fit for a wound that wouldn’t heal. The harsh vindictiveness of Wilson, Lloyd, Clermenceau and Orlando did not include a Marshall Plan.

I’m horrified to see Jews murdered at music events, kibbutznik driven from their homes. I can’t watch grandmothers and children taken hostage. I have many Jewish friends and I sense the pain and frustration of not being heard or misunderstood as they defend Israel’s military response. But neither can I stand by and watch hospitals cut off from electricity and medicine while babies die and innocent civilians caught in the crossfire are not able to receive the life saving care they need.

I ask myself why I feel helpless and tongue tied? Who has tied my hands and gagged my mouth? I feel loyalty to my Jewish friends, but I also have numerous Muslim friends, mostly in India, who feel marginalized and excluded. Bibi Netanyahu didn’t sell me his justification for invasion. I’ve never believed one word out of his mouth. I don’t buy into Hamas’s propaganda either, but something in me is screaming that no amount of past harm justifies barbarism in the present. This seems to apply equally to both sides. 

Why am I feeling pressure to take sides? I know that I could just lie low, not offend anyone and see what happens. Why does anyone think that he or she can really know what’s going on in Gaza? Did we learn anything from the American involvement in the War in Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers? Did we imagine that once we’d uncovered massive criminal lying on the part of any state, it would magically disappear? I just listened to a podcast by Edward Snowden. He highlighted that the sheer amount and complexity of the information that governments now collect and analyze make it even harder to detect the gross distortion of information. He contends that it is going on, and not in plain sight. I have no confidence that I have all the facts. That is really the only certainty that I have. My inability to trust reporting slanted by either side ironically strengthens my inner resolve to speak up. 

Having said all that one might think that I’ve left myself very little room to solve my own dilemma. Both sides have tried to take me as their prisoner. However, I am going break free--just sticking to what can be said with any certainty, Hamas committed a grave offense with their unprovoked attack. That alone justifies Israel’s right to self-defense. I condemn Hamas but not the Palestinian people. I support Israel's right to defend themselves but cannot not extend that to justify the continuing settlement of occupied territories nor their almost messianic drive to expand their footprint. Hamas may have provoked Israel to incite worldwide condemnation of the expected massive attack. There can hardly be another possible motive, but as Israel’s far superior IDF or Tzahal swings into action, I hope they act with restraint that wins the world’s approval. That would be a difficult task even for King David’s armies. Nevertheless that is my prayer, or just as in the past, there will be no winner.