The Ignorance of Some Scientists

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

evolution religionOk, it’s been a while since I’ve been as worked up as I am about a scientist who publicly ridicules religion and dismisses out of hand the possibility that women and men of faith — particularly Christian faith — can hold both their beliefs and solid scientific truths at the same time. The most recent instance of what I am calling “the ignorance of some scientists” appeared in the New York Times this weekend in an article titled, “God, Darwin, and my College Biology Class,” by the University of Washington evolutionary biologist David Barash.

Professor Barash tells the story of his routine introductory lecture given to students early in each new semester. He makes it clear that if one is uncomfortable with the concept of biological evolution on account of religious beliefs, they would do well to suspend those convictions or at least not allow them to get in the way of adequately and accurately learning biology. Up to this point, I am essentially in agreement with Barash. Those who are often loosely grouped into some general category called “fundamentalist” or “biblicist” who believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old or that the universe was created in a literal week are certainly entitled to hold such theologically empty, historically unsound, and biblical unsubstantiated views. However, they will undoubtedly cause problems when those who hold such views attempt to study the natural sciences.

Where I depart from Barash’s view is when he takes a further step to claim that evolution has essentially demolished fundamental religious beliefs. He writes about his talk to his students:

I conclude The Talk by saying that, although they don’t have to discard their religion in order to inform themselves about biology (or even to pass my course), if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines. And while I respect their beliefs, the entire point of The Talk is to make clear that, at least for this biologist, it is no longer acceptable for science to be the one doing those routines, as Professor Gould and noma have insisted we do.

That reference to Professor Stephen Jay Gould has to do with Gould’s proposal that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria,” which means that one can hold both world views because they deal with totally different material and fields. This is popularly referred to at times as the different foundational questions of “how” and “why,” proponents of Gould’s way of thinking argue that science seeks to address the former and religion the latter.

Barash disagrees — vehemently, by his own admittance — with Gould. Barash does not believe that science and religion are ultimately compatible, but rather present an irreconcilable tension.

I actually agree with Barash in his distaste for the “Non-overlapping magisteria” argument. While I do believe natural sciences and religion are concerned with essentially different questions, they in fact overlap quite a bit.  So we may agree on that point.

The problem, though, in Barash’s easily perceptible theological ignorance. His laboratory pontification exceeds his areas of competence and his ostensible unfamiliarity with the work of those who are both scientists and theologians haunts his own fundamentalist presuppositions.

I would love for him to sit down with Ilia Delio or Alister McGrath or John Polkinghorne or any other scholar who holds doctorates in both scientific fields and theology. Even those who haven’t earned advance degrees in both areas, those like John Haught or Elizabeth Johnson, have gone far out of their ways to not only take the natural sciences seriously, but to engage in complex and rigorous research that correlates the depth of the Christian theological tradition with the scientific discoveries Barash thinks “demolish” religious belief.

Barash argues that there are three critical “strikes” to religious belief that evolution blows. The first is the defeat of “what modern creationists call the argument from complexity.” I actually don’t have any problem with that. Arguments from complexity are not seriously considered by real theologians who study creation or theological anthropology, not at least in terms of the caricature he presents (which is probably more closely connected to the beliefs of the pedestrian biblicist).

The second is what he calls the “illusion of centrality.” Here’s what he says:

Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. The most potent take-home message of evolution is the not-so-simple fact that, even though species are identifiable (just as individuals generally are), there is an underlying linkage among them — literally and phylogenetically, via traceable historical connectedness. Moreover, no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.

And this is where I get really worked up!

I agree completely with the contention that human beings are not above and against, nor entirely distinct from the rest of nonhuman creation. As do many other theologians, as does the scriptural tradition. In fact, I’m proposing to write a dissertation that seeks to advance precisely this line of thought, critiquing among other things models of creation and theological anthropology that are typically presented in terms of both dominion and stewardship. Much of my own theological research in recent years has been working in this area and following the leads of theologians — I’m even presenting a research paper directly related to this question in November at the American Academy of Religion annual conference in San Diego. This idea is not entirely new.

While I agree with Barash that evolution has helped us to see many of the problems and pitfalls of anthropocentric theologies, he is very wrong to talk about there being “no literally supernatural trait” to be found in Homo sapiens. Yes, we are perfectly good animals, maybe even the cleverest, but returning to the distinctive foundational questions of both fields — how vs. why — there is, by definition, now way for biology to uncover anything “supernatural!”

It would be like an astronomer claiming that whales do not exist because there has been “literally no whales  ever found in space.” Though natural science and religion are not “non-overlapping magisteria,” they are also not the same thing. This is where the groundbreaking work of people like Karl Rahner (“supernatural existential”) and Teilhard de Chardin (on evolution and theology) is especially instructive.

Likewise, just because one is learned in one field of research and scholarship (biology) does not mean that she or he is qualified to so definitively proclaim apodictic truths in another field (theology). If the theologians I named above, including myself, take seriously the work of biologists like Barash in his field, he should do likewise and take seriously our work. He might actually learn something.

Barash’s last “blow to religion” is with regard to theodicy. He writes that, “The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.” This is hardly worth comment other than to say that this line of reasoning is easily contestable given that it is an interpretation that borders very closely to the land of opinion. One can affirm the veracity of evolution (as I certainly do), but disagree about the moral quality of that process.

To conclude, I want to say that the way Barash comes across is not unlike the scientifically ignorant religious fundamentalists he critiques. Their childish and literal interpretations of complex scriptural narratives are to science what Barash’s absolutist and incontrovertible interpretations of evolution are to theology.

This irony hasn’t been lost on me. And I hope that Barash may also realize this discovery. Maybe then his way of thinking could evolve just as the species have, though I hope it doesn’t take as long.

Photo: Stock

What We See, What God Sees: On Fairness and Judgment

Posted in Homilies, Prayer, Scripture with tags , , , , , , , on September 27, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

ripe cabernet grapes ready for harvestThe readings this weekend pick up almost exactly where we left off last sunday. In the book of the Prophet Ezekiel, we are told:

You say, “The LORD’s way is not fair!”
Hear now, house of Israel:
Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?

This brings us back to the grumbling day laborers from the vineyard in last Sunday’s Gospel. Those who were hired early in the morning and agreed to a full days wage were given exactly that when quitting time came around. Yet, those hired later in the day received exactly the same renumeration, sending the ones who worked longer to be outraged.

“That’s not fair!” Shouted the laborers, clearly feeling entitled to more money though they were indeed paid fairly. It was not injustice that they encountered and had upset them, but rather the generosity of the landowner (i.e., “God”) that they came to resent.

The cries of unfairness continue this weekend. At the heart of these passages from Scripture stand the proclamation made in last Sunday’s first reading: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.” God’s sense of justice and generosity is far more capacious and inclusive than ours usually is, and while there is oftentimes a lot of grumbling and talk of “fear” of God’s justice, the truth is that we much more often resent God’s generosity.

Our Gospel this Sunday comes from the next chapter in Matthew’s account, and it is short enough to recount here.

Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people:
“What is your opinion?
A man had two sons.
He came to the first and said,
‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’
He said in reply, ‘I will not, ‘
but afterwards changed his mind and went.
The man came to the other son and gave the same order.
He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir, ‘but did not go.
Which of the two did his father’s will?”
They answered, “The first.”
Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you,
tax collectors and prostitutes
are entering the kingdom of God before you.
When John came to you in the way of righteousness,
you did not believe him;
but tax collectors and prostitutes did.
Yet even when you saw that,
you did not later change your minds and believe him.”

Again, we have a crowd of the righteous, the “church goers,” the religious leaders, the ones who are always seen in the right places and saying, thinking, doing the “right things.” Jesus confronts them with this question about what it means to truly do “the right thing.” And the response is pretty straightforward, regardless of what one of the sons says, it’s the one who does the will of the father.

There are many dimensions to this Gospel that speak to us today. I want to address only one today: I believe that today’s Gospel challenges us to reconsider how we understand judgement.

On the subject of judgment, we return back to the insights of the Prophet Ezekiel, who calls us to task for thinking that God sees, hears, and judges in the same ways that we do. God does not. And that is, like last Sunday’s Gospel, a good thing. God’s mercy and justice are not opposed, but two sides of the very same coin.

Likewise, God is able to be merciful and judges differently than we do because God sees and knows everything. God knows our hearts and our actions, our thoughts and our desires, our fears and our loves far better than even we do. God takes the whole story into consideration and reserves judgement for the end, when a whole life has reached completion.

We should recall the Gospel parable from earlier this summer when Jesus talks about the zealous land workers who want to pull the weeds from the wheat. The master tells them not to, that he would take care of separating these things at the end of the harvest, when the plant is fully grown. The reason the workers aren’t permitted to pull the weeds has everything to do with the fact that they can’t distinguish between the good plants and the weeds at that point in their growth — they look the same from the outside.

With that parable from the same Gospel account in mind, if we look at today’s reading we see an echo of how God sees us and judges us. If one stops the story immediately after the point when the two sons respond to their dad, one seemingly obedient and the other ostensibly disobedient, then we’d likely be compelled to say that the son who said “yes,” only to not follow through later, was the obedient son and the reverse true for the other. But when we play the whole story forward, it’s a very different account.

Perhaps this is why the very last parable in Matthew’s Gospel is the one concerning the “sheep” and the “goats,” in Chapter 25.

Not only does this parable and account of the coming judgment take place at the end of the Gospel, but it is set at the end of time “when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.” Then he separates those who are destined for eternal life from those who will go into “the eternal fire prepare for the devil and his angels.”

What is curious about this parable is how few people pay attention to precisely why the “goats” go into the fire, why there are any goats in the first place!

See, when it comes to doing the will of God, which is loving and caring for one another in mutual harmony, you don’t need to know precisely that you’re doing it. These “sheep” in the parable are shocked to discover the reason for their favorable positioning.

The “goats,” on the other hand, are perhaps given one last time to repent, to apologize, to have a conversion and admit that, perhaps unwittingly even, they screwed up big time in life: they didn’t do what was expected of each and every human person. But what happens instead? The “goats,” start coming up with excuses: “when did we see you, lord? hungry, thirsty, etc. etc.?” We might image in them saying to Christ, “If only we knew that’s what we were to do, if only we knew it was you, etc. etc.” they would have experienced then and there the mercy of God that Ezekiel reveals to us and that Jesus demonstrates in his own words and deeds.

Instead of admitting their faults and failures, they blame others and stand stubbornly before their savior having learned absolutely nothing in life.

As we go forth today to begin another week, may we find ourselves more aware of our own tendency to judge without knowing the whole story, without giving other people a chance. May we be encouraged by the mercy of God and, as St. Paul exhorts us, encourage others to be more and more human by being more and more people for others.

Rather than believing we know better than God, judging and casting judgment on others, let us be supporters, lovers, peacemakers, and reconcilers — let all of us go out into the vineyard of the world to do the father’s will, even if at first we said no.

Photo: Stock

Paradise Lost?

Posted in America Magazine with tags , , , , , , on September 26, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

THE GIVERThis is my latest column for America magazine, which appears in the October 6, 2014, issue.

Dystopian films based on dystopian books have been all the rage recently. Hits like “The Hunger Games” and the “Divergent” series have sparked interest in the darker side of futuristic imagination. Perhaps for this reason Lois Lowry’s 1993 book, The Giver, has finally been adapted for the big screen after 20 years.

But The Giver is not actually about a dystopian world. It is, ironically, about a utopian paradise.

The film adaptation may be one of the rare instances in which the visualization of a powerful story enhances the narrative rather than disappointing the audience. It opens with a world of sameness, reason, order, “precision of language” and black and white. All difference, creativity, passion and emotion have been removed from human existence. There is no violence, no dispute, no variation—and it seems to be the perfect society in action. And as far as any citizen knows, this is the way it always has been and ought to be.

This is true for everybody except a community elder known as “The Receiver,” whose responsibility it is to keep safe the memory of what the world was once like, the world of diversity, passion, creativity, emotion, confusion, grays and colors. The Receiver is occasionally consulted for advice by the other elders, who watch constantly over the community, make pronouncements from speakers above, establish laws and decide which persons (especially the newborn and elderly) are “released,” a euphemism for homicide. The Receiver, who is getting up in age, knows how things once were and therefore is aware of how things could be.

The story’s protagonist is a young man named Jonas, who is selected to be the next Receiver. His responsibility is to receive the collective memory from the old Receiver, who by virtue of his instructive role now becomes “The Giver.” Over time the Giver passes this memory to Jonas, and Jonas begins to see color and nuance, to know suffering and happiness, to appreciate that things have been and could be another way.

Lowry’s story is very creative, but the allegory isn’t very original.

It goes back at least to St. Augustine, from whose commentaries on Genesis we get a depiction of paradise, a prelapsarian world in which human beings do not act according to emotion, do not experience passion and do not disobey the Creator. So they live in perfect freedom (libertas), by which Augustine means obedience to God’s will as opposed to being governed by disordered desires, what Augustine calls concupiscence. In paradise human beings acted with complete rationality, which meant the absence of sexual desire and pleasure, as well as much of what we associate with everyday human emotions, including pain and happiness.

Augustine’s vision of human life before the Fall looks a lot like the world in which “The Giver” opens. The focus on rationality and absence of emotions suggests that harmony and concord once ruled, but that a single act of human disobedience—think apples and snakes—set everything on a dangerous trajectory.

This is the trajectory the elders in “The Giver” wished to reverse in creating their own version of rational paradise. However, as Jonas sees both the potential for good and ill that arises from a complex and colorful world in which humanity exercises free will (liberum arbitrium), he realizes that the risk of suffering and the messiness of life are necessary if one wishes to experience love and happiness, even if they are at times fleeting.

“The Giver” puts into stark relief an uncomfortable truth that human freedom comes at a cost, and the cost is the risk of abuse and misuse of that very same freedom. Some people, like Augustine and the elders, believe that the solution to suffering and pain is the elimination of choice and complexity. Perhaps some people, like Augustine and the elders, while well meaning, are wrong. If we all thought, spoke and acted alike, things might be better—maybe even perfect. Things might be simpler, more black and white. Yet they would not be authentically human. The truth is we are all givers and receivers of memory, inheritors of the history of salvation that beckons us to exercise our freedom for the common good. Paradise is not found in restricting freedom and suppressing emotion; it is found in following in the footprints of the most human (and divine) of all, Jesus Christ.

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton: A New Look at the Spiritual Inspiration of His Life, Thought, and Writing (2014).’

Photo: “The Giver” film 2014

Burke, The Media, and the Development of Theology

Posted in Pope Francis, Vatican II with tags , , , , , , on September 25, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

816242-raymond-burkeIt is difficult to discern which public-relations spin is correct when it comes to the public and well-publicized disagreements among the college of cardinals about the nature, scope, hopes, and fears of the upcoming Synod on the Family. Some commentators have suggested that this is an example of infighting and ecclesiastical politics playing out, while others have suggested that this is an important dialogue reminiscent of the early church debates among bishops on matters of doctrine and morality.

While I would like to believe that the latter scenario is true, thereby evoking a time and experience of serious debate in theological reflection  along the lines of Nicaea or even the Council of Trent (in which theologians debated at the request of participating bishops to help shape the doctrinal and disciplinary pronouncements), I fear that a great deal of what is currently unfolding fits the bill of the former scenario — some cardinals just cannot accept the truth that fides quaerens intellectum means that we come to a fuller understanding of the so-called “content of the faith” over time and with serious and faithful research, reflection, and dialogue.

Case in point: Cardinal Raymond Burke’s latest rantings.

I don’t like to use such unfavorable descriptors as “ranting” to describe what my brother Christians and priests are doing, but there is really no other way around it in this particular case. Clearly unhappy with the change in pontificate, something about which he’s has not remained shy, and ostensibly threatened by the possibility that scripturally based mercy and social justice might inform the forthcoming proceedings of the October Synod, Burke has lately suggested that “the media” is responsible for “hijacking” the discussion in preparation for the Synod. Originally reported by the Catholic News Agency and picked up elsewhere, the Cardinal is reported to have said:

I don’t think you have to be brilliant to see that the media has, for months, been trying to hijack this Synod…he media has created a situation in which people expect that there are going to be these major changes which would, in fact, constitute a change in Church teaching, which is impossible. That’s why it’s very important for those who are in charge to be very clear.

So, what’s the problem? “Church teaching,” in the broad sense in which Burke evokes it here, does in fact change and change more regularly than one in his reactionary shoes might imagine.

Unfortunately, the good cardinal and canonist makes for a very inaccurate theologian and historian: changes in “church teaching” are in fact very possible and recognizable.

There are the classic examples of usury, slavery, interfaith marriage, and the like. But there are also more subtle ways in which “church teaching” has changed even within my admittedly short lifetime. Teaching pertaining to morality of all things. Take, for example, the way that magisterial teaching on capital punishment has shifted over the last thirty years, but in the exercise of papal teaching authority as well as on the more regional and local levels with bishops conferences and synodal statements. Also, the Code of Canon Law, that governing document so precious to Burke personally, continues to be a living document that is amended (Benedict XVI made changes, to the status of authority for the order of deacons, for example) and had in 1983 after the mandate of Vatican II significantly revised the Code.

On the more pertinent topic of the Sacrament of Marriage, both Vatican II (see Gaudium et Spes) and subsequent encyclicals (e.g., Humanae Vitae) significantly changed the “Church’s Teaching” on the natural “ends” of marriage, expanding that category from just procreative ends to include the role of mutuality and love between the spouses.

Unfortunately for Cardinal Burke, his personal opinion (which is what is expressed here) is not supported by the tradition, neither historically nor theologically. In truth, even his canonical field has to admit to change and with good reason. Regarding questions of the family, the meaning and practice of marriage in particular, these are things that certainly fall within (to put it simply) the extended category of church teaching and are not, as the Creed is for example, “impossible to change.” So much of what is billed by Burke and his likeminded fellows as essential to the faith is really a reliant, not simply on teaching constituting dogma (e.g., Scripture, the Creed, etc.) but the result of centuries of theological reflection and growing in the understanding of our shared faith. Additionally, so much of what is perceived as “unchangeable,” is reliant on medieval fundamental theology that does not always hold up to the natural and social scientific and philosophical discoveries we’ve made over the last millennium.

It is indeed time for conversation, and people like Burke are certainly welcome to oppose the work of other bishops and theologians, but don’t blame this on the “bogeymen” of “the media” and “culture.” Each should take responsibility for their own views and enter the dialogue with respect.

Photo: File

The Feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis

Posted in Franciscan Spirituality with tags , , , , , on September 17, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

stigmata of francisToday is the Feast of St. Robert Bellarmine (d. 1621), the important Jesuit bishop and theologian. Or is it?

With all respect to my Jesuit brothers and the universal church, for whom today is the memorial of St. Robert Bellarmine, the worldwide Franciscan family celebrates the Feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis each September 17. It has always struck me as an awkward celebration, at least after first glance. It would appear that Franciscans the world over are celebrating five wounds, celebrating the pain and suffering the we know accompanies what is sometimes billed as a great grace or gift from Christ. And it remains awkward and even weird if we remain fixated on the crucifixion wounds that appeared on Francis’s body.

But this feast day actually has little to do with these wounds as such.

Rather, the Feast of the Stigmata, at least theologically, is a much more complex and robust celebration. What we see when we take a closer look beyond the disputed history of hagiography and medical inquiry (numerous studies have been written about the veracity of the Stigmata accounts, most recently Solanus Benfatti’s book, The Five Wounds of Saint Francis [2011]), is not a question of what appeared on the outside of the Poverello, the poor man from Assisi. Instead, we are invited to look more carefully inside, to the interior life of a Christian disciple who wished nothing more than to follow in the footprints of Christ.

In his conclusion, Benfatti writes:

It is essential to comprehend that Francis had never thought to pick and choose aspects of the life of Christ to dress himself up in, but rather had chosen something that I would say is much harder because there is far less control in it: he had chosen, simply, to follow. Francis chose to move forward step-by-step in the footprints of the Lord, which I say is dangerous, because who can know where it will lead? (236, emphasis original).

This is at the heart of the Feast — a recognition that what appeared externally on Francis’s body was reflective of his interior conformity to the lived example of Jesus Christ.

So often we are people who judge from the exterior — how someone dresses, how or what someone speaks, where someone lives, what someone does, and so on. Yet, as the Scriptures continually remind us, God judges what is inside and in our hearts. The Feast of the Stigmata is a celebration of a Christian life lived as fully and authentically as possible. The ‘grace’ that was given to Francis was not some random burden or some freak sideshow illness, it is a visual and corporeal representation of what only God can typically see — a baptized man who lived as fully as he could bearing the resemblance of Christ.

On this feast day, I invite all people — Franciscans and others alike — to look within, see how each of us does or does not bear the marks of Christ in our thoughts, words, and deeds. Perhaps we won’t receive the marks of Christ in the form of five wounds, but we could certainly — and should certainly — make visible the presence of Christ in every other way.

Happy Feast Day!

Photo: File

The Memory of 9/11: An Anniversary Reflection and Christian Response

Posted in Franciscan Spirituality, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

The following is an excerpt from my essay, “A Franciscan Millennial and the Memory of 9/11,” which appears in the book, Franciscan Voices on 9/11 (Franciscan Media, 2011), and is now available for the Amazon Kindle. The book also includes essays from Richard Rohr OFM, Joe Nangle OFM, Mike Guinan OFM, and others.

Approaching the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we are called to remember, commemorate and mourn. Each of these practices is an engagement with memory. The first (remember) is to “call to mind,” to “bring forward” a concept or experience. This “thing-to-call-to-mind” can be positive or negative, but it remains in the past or in the realm of the imagination. The second (commemorate) is a communal engagement, to remember with others usually in a public way. The third (mourn) is to bring to mind in order to let go or reconcile. But what is this memory that we are asked to engage?

In one sense it is a very subjective reality. So much of my memory is cast, edited, recast, forgotten and so on by “me.” Yet, there remain public or shared factors that inform much of a memory I claim as my own. The constant repetition of “the story of 9/11” in the news, in political-campaign speeches, from sermon pulpits and around the patriotic hearth of American households seems to convey a sense of objective truth that “this story” is “the story.” However, this is not the case.

So much of the shaping of this memory has been done by language that is constricted by the discourse of American nationalism and vengeance. It is a memory of attack and violence that has been crafted to justify the retributive action of the United States across the globe. Two wars, thousands of deaths, trillions of dollars and lost civil liberties later, one must only allude to 9/11 to justify violence, discrimination and abuse. As such, the memory of 9/11 becomes not a token of solemn reflection fit for remembrance, commemoration or mourning, but a pawn in the game of global power.

Recently I was eating lunch with some other Franciscan friars and two employees who work for the friars in Albany. Having just returned from an academic conference in another part of the country, I shared my frustration about the loss of civil liberties exemplified in the highly invasive procedures of airport security. One of the employees said she would rather feel violated (as I had that week) and be open to further restrictions in order to “be safe.” When I and some others at the table explained that studies often show such actions are simply theatrical and reactionary and in fact were not making anybody safer, she admitted that either way she would support the surrender of her rights. Her memory has been so shaped by the popular language of the possible and the collective narratives of violence that she could not see the contradiction inherent in sacrificing one’s rights to “protect” these very same rights.

This memory is highly selective. The images and emotions evoked by the way people discuss 9/11 perpetuates the belief that “justice” means vengeance and “peace” is attainable only by a war on terror. This sort of rhetoric draws on religious symbolism, blatantly contradicting the core of Christian belief, which so many of those who willingly capitulate to this narrative claim as their own. If the memory of 9/11 were not limited to the language of the possible, more people might see that what we passed off as “the memory of 9/11” is really just a tiny sliver of the fuller story. Its use has not been to authentically remember, commemorate or mourn a tragedy, but to perpetuate injustice and violence in our world.

The 13th-century Franciscan saint, theologian and doctor of the church, St. Bonaventure, explains that memory is not only shaped by our own experience and the influences of the community, but it can be informed and shaped “from above” by those things that cannot be perceived through our senses. In other words, our memory also can be affected by the divine light of God, illuminated and made clear through the Spirit. What the selective memory of 9/11 has done is preclude the memory of the tragedy from receiving the light of God. Instead, it remains in the shadow of worldly wisdom. St. Paul reminds us how Christians are to approach the wisdom of the world.

Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demanded signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:20-25, NRSV).

A Christian response to worldly wisdom, to the factors of popular, civil and political influence on memory, is to question what at first might seem wise and appropriate in order to allow God to illuminate the true wisdom.

St. Paul and St. Bonaventure challenge the conventional notion of the memory of 9/11 by reminding us to examine what has shaped and informed it. Is this how God sees what happened on 9/11? Is this how Jesus Christ would respond after such an event?

To speak with a Franciscan voice, to remember, commemorate and mourn as one who lives the gospel would, we must be willing to step back and challenge the individual and collective memory of that fateful day ten years ago. We must be willing to ask about what factors have come together to produce the story that is passed along as the memory, challenging the conventional wisdom as Jesus himself had. “You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). Though to many a Franciscan voice will sound foolish, it is nevertheless rooted in the wisdom of God.

To read the full text and other essays on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, read Franciscan Voices on 9/11 (Franciscan Media, 2011).

Photo: Stock

The Prophetic Burden

Posted in Homilies, Scripture, Uncategorized with tags , , , on August 31, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

seeking godJeremiah never wanted to be a prophet. That much he makes very clear. From the opening scene in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah onward, this young man does his best — as do the prophets that came before and would come after him — to avoid the responsibility and call that God has placed before him. What we get in this short snippet in today’s first reading (Jer 20:7-9) is just one reminder of the fact that this guy did not ‘sign up’ for the job.

What we encounter at the beginning of the passage is Jeremiah in the middle of a serious lament. He is upset, which might be an understatement, that his preaching has led to personal ridicule, no one will take him seriously, and that those he has been sent to call out — those who abuse power and others, for example — want him gone. He is now fearing for his safety and life, concerned that those who want to silence him will do precisely that. He feels in over his head, lost without direction, upset that his life had to take this turn.

And, in this moment, he blames God.

You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped;
you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.
All the day I am an object of laughter;
everyone mocks me.

Who else should shoulder the blame? It was, after all, God who in the beginning of the Book of Jeremiah, insists that the young would-be prophet doesn’t know better than God and that God has destined him for this mission from before he was born. Jeremiah feels betrayed by his creator.

But what should he expect?

Those who bear the name ‘Christ’ as Christians should be able to relate well to our predecessor Jeremiah. In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that to follow him is no easy task. Jesus is not a sadist, nor is he encouraging masochism among his flock. Those who interpret the “denial” and the “taking up of crosses” as signs that Jesus wants nothing more from his followers than abject self-punishment are missing the point.

The denial of oneself here refers to the situation that we, like Jeremiah before us, often face in our lives of faith. When the going gets tough, we’d rather get going back to our own plans with us as number one. We are hesitant or, more likely, completely unwilling to surrender the possibility that the world revolves around us and that I should first take care to be sure I’m secure or comfortable or whatever before bothering to do God’s will or help others. Instead, the denial has to do with our desire to place ourselves first. Placing God first instead shifts our outlook away from our own navels and out toward the rest of the world right in front of us.

In the end, like a good prophet, Jeremiah anticipates Jesus’s message in the Gospel of Matthew. He understandably and rightly offers his cry of lament to God, embracing the suffering, fear, disappointment, and embarrassment that he experiences as a result of his carrying the cross of following God’s will. But his exclamation doesn’t stop there. Jeremiah says:

I say to myself, I will not mention him,
I will speak in his name no more.
But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart,
imprisoned in my bones;
I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.

He at first considers a plan of his own devising — yes, he’ll stop doing what God desires, no longer risk preaching and proclaiming the word of God. Instead he will be silent and enjoy the peace and comfort he once had.

Except, he can’t do that. He realizes that he has a burning desire to proclaim God’s word, to announce the dissatisfaction that God has with the ways in which we human beings treat one another and the rest of creation. Though he tries to be silent, tries to enjoy a ‘normal’ life, he grows “weary holding it in” and must continue with the proclamation. And this is what some scripture commentators refer to as the “prophetic burden,” the drive and fervor the prophet has to proclaim the word of God.

May we find ourselves, even in the midst of frustration, embarrassment, discomfort, and doubt, with the word of God burning like a fire in our hearts. May we grow weary of trying to keep that held in and instead, dare to pick up our crosses, deny ourselves, and be the prophets the world so desperately needs. May we all share in the prophetic burden.

Photo: Stock
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