Thursday, January 27, 2011

Following The Rocky Road

I didn't know, when I decided to follow Jesus, what a rocky road it would be.

According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus "saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, 'Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.' Then they left their nets and followed him' (cf. 1:16-18).

If you take Mark at his word, you have to wonder what happened to Simon's fishing business. When Jesus called James and John, "they left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him" (cf. 1:19-20). I wonder how Zebedee felt about that.

When the blind Bartimaeus received his sight (cf. Mk 10:52), he too followed Jesus and his entourage up the road.

And when Saul was stopped on the road to Damascus, his decision to follow Jesus took him to Greece and Rome and death.

The origins of the popular Gospel song I Have Decided To Follow Jesus are lost in history. We do not know who wrote the lyrics, but song historians think the music is a folk melody from India.

I have decided to follow Jesus;
I have decided to follow Jesus;
I have decided to follow Jesus;
No turning back, no turning back.

Though I may wonder, I still will follow;
Though I may wonder, I still will follow;
Though I may wonder, I still will follow;
No turning back, no turning back.

The world behind me, the cross before me;
The world behind me, the cross before me;
The world behind me, the cross before me;
No turning back, no turning back.

Though none go with me, still I will follow;
Though none go with me, still I will follow;
Though none go with me, still I will follow;
No turning back, no turning back.

Will you decide now to follow Jesus?
Will you decide now to follow Jesus?
Will you decide now to follow Jesus?
No turning back, no turning back.

No turning back! I made the choice, and I must persevere.

Mark does offer some consolation. Jesus sent his apostles out on the road, and when they returned from their trip, he welcomed them with compassion, "Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest awhile" (6:31).

And just what are the consequences of following Jesus?

When two of John the Baptist's followers were tempted to follow Jesus, they asked rather sheepishly, "Rabbi, where do you stay?" and he gave them a less than precise answer: "Come and see!"

Following Jesus is by its very nature an adventure. You just do not, indeed cannot, know where the road will lead nor what you may encounter along the way. But you do have this assurance from him, "I am the way. I will be with you. Follow me."

As comforting as these assurances are, it soon dawns on those who follow, "His way is the way of the cross. His presence with us is mediated through faith. His itinerary leads us through death to life."

Jesus never twisted anybody's arm. He issued an invitation. The response is up to those who follow.

Most of us find it intimidating and tiring to follow the leader. And yet we have the best GPS (God Positioning System) anyone could possibly want.

If Dorothy had to follow the yellow brick road, and Moses had to cross a hostile desert, I suppose I can follow Jesus with even greater assurance that I shall find my home in the promised land.

It's just that once in awhile there's something within me that wants to complain, to examine again whether this trip is really necessary, to be assured that though I once was lost now I am found.

Happily, when I complain about the rocky road, Jesus smiles and reminds me, "It's ice cream, my friend. It's ice cream." Amen!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Problem of Truth

I took offense at something someone said to me recently.

Instead of humbly accepting his remark, I let resentment dictate my response. I told him I did not like what he said.

He replied that he meant no offense, but I let him know that his words were indeed offensive.

I thought of him as a man with a gun who, shooting randomly and without aim, hits someone and then apologizes, "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to shoot you. That was never my intention."

Whether he intended it or not, he fired and his bullet struck me in a fleshy, weak, too-sensitive part of my being, and I challenged the shot.

Later I was upset, not so much by being hit, but for my making an issue of the pain. Jesus' words in the sermon on the mount kept coming to mind: Offer no resistance...Turn the other cheek...Love your enemies...Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Once again I failed to respond with Gospel values.

Finally in prayer I asked first to forgive and be forgiven, and then to discover the lesson I was to learn from this incident.

God took me at my word. Within hours of my prayer, while I was reading Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, I had to pause over what I take to be God's advice.

In the novel the holy man Father Zossima explains how important it is for people to be honest with themselves, "The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others."

He goes on, "The man who lies to himself can be more easily offended than any one. You know it is sometimes very pleasant to take offense, isn't it? A man may know that nobody has insulted him, but that he has invented the insult for himself, has lied and exaggerated to make it picturesque, has caught at a word and made a mountain out of molehill --he knows that himself, yet he will be the first to take offense, and will revel in his resentment till he feels great pleasure in it, and so pass to genuine vindictiveness" (Book II, chapter 2).

I just hate it when God answers prayer.

So then, the lesson of my incident returns me to the problem of truth.

The advice of Polonius to his son Laertes comes to mind, "This above all: to thine ownself be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man."

There I have it. Three rather significant witnesses: Jesus, Dostoyevsky, and Shakespeare!

In today's political climate, too many public servants are eager to take offense, or at least make offensive something their opponents have said or done. The culture of political correctness has run amok.

But I must be careful not to become distracted by the sensitivities, vindictiveness, and pleasure of resentment prevalent today in politicians, pundits, and members of the press. The lesson of my incident is a lesson for me.

So Jesus and I are going to have to put our heads together and formulate for me, again, his sage observation of 2000 years ago, "I am the way and the truth and the life."

If the truth will set us free, maybe it will free me from taking offense at the words of even random shooters.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Faith and Logic

Post hoc ergo propter hoc arguments are invalid.

Part of the formal study of philosophy is the science of logic. Logic results from our applying reason to argument and making correct or reliable inference. Logic is sound judgment.

It is logical to draw the conclusion that "John is mortal" when we propose this argument: "All men are mortal; John is a man; therefore John is mortal."

This syllogism, made up of a major premise ("All men are mortal") and a minor premise ("John is a man"), leads to the logical (reasonable, reliable) conclusion that "John is mortal."

Not every appeal to logic, that is, to a reasonable, reliable conclusion, is valid. A post hoc argument is contrary to reason.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc reasoning argues that one event ("B") happened after another event ("A"), and therefore "A" must have caused "B" to happen.

For example, "I washed my car on Monday, that's why it rained on Tuesday." This kind of argumentation is logical fallacy, also known as false cause or correlation but not causation.

Just because something happened after something else, does not mean that the something else caused the something to happen. Nor can we conclude that avoiding "A" will prevent "B."

If you are still with me, I hasten to add that my reason for all this philosophizing is to debunk the arguments that the troubles we are now experiencing in the Church are caused by the Second Vatican Council.

I've heard it said that the reason we have a scarcity of priests is because of Vatican II. I've heard it said that the reason we have fewer Catholics going to Mass on Sunday is Vatican II. I've even heard it said that the reason for the pedophilia scandal in the Church is Vatican II.

These are examples of post hoc ergo propter hoc thinking, and the conclusions are illogical and invalid.

Long before Pope John XXIII was elected pope (1958) and called for an ecumenical council (1962-65), the Church was showing signs of a decline in priestly vocations. For example, Archbishop Karl J. Alter of Cincinnati in the 1950s noted "a threatening shortage of priests for the immediate future" in his diocese. The same situation was more obvious throughout Europe.

Those who propose that decline in Mass attendance is the result of Vatican II liturgical changes forget to factor in what Michael Casey, OCSO, a monk and prolific writer in Australia, calls "the movement of secularisation that swept through the West in the 1960s." He points to the social changes of that decade which "resulted both from the technological advances and as reaction to the serial horrors of the twentieth century."

You cannot blame Vatican II nor logically connect changes in the Church with the rebellion of the beatnik generation, the atrocities of the war in Viet Nam, the technological exploration of space, the struggle for racial equality, or the mind-numbing drugs and free-love of Woodstock.

And for decades before Vatican II the problem of pedophilia by priests was known and quietly, secretly, and ineffectively managed by bishops in dioceses around the world.

These and other forces were already at work changing people and cultures prior to Vatican II. Among those forces were new means of social communication, yearning for freedom by those under despotic governments, the threat and fears of nuclear annihilation, re-discovery of liturgical practices of an earlier age. Catholics were not unaffected by these cultural influences.

Blaming Vatican II for these current problems is an example of logical fallacy, even if we acknowledge that some of the things done in the Council's name were ill-considered and poorly implemented.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc arguments are not valid.

What is valid is the recognition that we cannot go back to an idealized past. All the Latin and cassocks and novenas we can muster will never bring the Church back to what it was in the 1950s. The nostalgia is understandable, but it lacks logic.

No, Vatican II set a course for the Church, and our best bet is to respond wholeheartedly to its direction.

In the area of liturgy Vatican II encouraged us to participate actively, to return to a noble simplicity in ritual, to think of liturgy as the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed.

In relating to others, we were urged to enter into ecumenical dialogue with people of other religions, to use the medicine of mercy rather than of condemnation, to promote religious freedom, to be of service to all mankind.

In our personal and communal spirituality, we were advised to read and pray with the Bible, to evangelize, to reflect the ideals of marriage and family life, to think of the Eucharist as the source and summit of the Christian life.

Pardon me if you think I am pre-occupied with the Second Vatican Council. I think and write of it often. My repetitive referrals to that Council are prompted by my conviction that the Council has pointed us in the right direction. I have a 20-year old sweatshirt imprinted with these words: "Join the revolution! Support Vatican II!"

My faith and logic tell me it is still the way to go.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Words Fail Us

It should be self-evident that we can never fully capture in human words the divine reality.

Whatever we say about God falls short. The human mind and the words we formulate to capture truth are too small to embrace the Supreme Being.

Whatever we say about God we say by way of analogy. For this reason human beings use a variety of literary forms to speak about God. The Sacred Scriptures use poetry, song, folklore, myth, history, Gospel, letters, etc. to express what we perceive to be the truth.

The Bible is the result of our Jewish ancestors' struggle to understand their experience of divinity. Consequently we employ a variety of traditions and theologies to organize the complexity and superority of God.

The first chapter of Genesis emphasizes the transcendence of God; the second chapter presents God's immanence. Is God above and beyond us? Or is God truly with us? The answer to both questions is "Yes." God is transcendent and immanent.

The Bible is trying to express the inexpressible, often by formulating or borrowing traditions. It is a compilation of these traditions. Sometimes the stories have similar incidents but different characters. Sometimes elements of the stories contradict each other.

If you ask most Bible readers, "Who killed Goliath?" their answer is "David," and they may refer you to 1 Samuel 17 to verify it. Some others may give a different answer, and refer you to 2 Samuel 21:19: "There was another battle with the Philistines in Gob, in which Elhanan, son of Jair from Bethlehem, killed Goliath of Gath..." Two traditions, two heroes.

Acts 9:7 says that those with Paul on the road to Damascus "heard the voice but could see no one," while Acts 22:9, referring to the same incident, says they "saw the light but did not hear the voice." Two traditions, differing details.

These discrepancies do not invalidate the effort to understand and verbalize our perception of God's revelation. They do point, however, to the differing ways we experience God, to the variations in how we express that experience.

Theologians have long held that there is greater accuracy in saying what God is not than in saying what God is. In a sense, everything we say about God borders on heresy.

If we acknowledge that there are variations in the experience and that it is impossible to fully understand and verbalize those experiences, are we to conclude that all our theologizing is in vain and that religion is by its nature unreliable speculation?

No, not at all. Would it make sense to refuse to eat a meal because all the food groups are not represented on the table? No, we will eat what is there. Would it make sense to refuse to have a relationship with some people because we cannot meet and know all people? No, we relate to those we can.

In similar fashion, though we cannot know everything about God, we will not for that reason refuse to know anything about the divine. And we can even allow the probability that others may have an insight or a word that expresses the truth better than we do.

In an earlier age Church leaders argued over how best to express the truth that Jesus is divine. The expression "consubstantial with the Father" was chosen to express Jesus' divinity, but that same expression was understood by some to mean that Jesus and the Father are one and the same. Words sometimes fail us.

John the evangelist faced the challenge of capturing the truth: Jesus said, "I and the Father are one" (Jn 10:30) and "I am leaving the world to go to the Father" (Jn 16:28) ---one in being but distinct.

Despite our deficiencies, it remains possible for us to develop theologies, to reject statements which contradict what we know, to explore better ways of formulating our understanding.

At the same time we must acknowledge that we never fully capture God in human language. Good theologizing always requires a dose of humility.