Monthly Archives: February 2011

Religion Isn’t the Problem

Charles Taylor in the recent issue of Commonweal Magazine (February 25, 2011) wrote an article called “Religion is Not the Problem: Secularism and Democracy.” He’s the author of a previous, highly-praised book called “A Secular Age” which examines the process of secularization at the heart of so many of the disputes today between religion, the churches and society.

Taylor addresses the judgment of some today who hold religion responsible for many of the problems of our times, and so society is better off without it and the churches that profess it. Religion should have no voice in public affairs; it’s a private matter that shouldn’t enter any public debates. This view is found particularly in the western world.

Those against giving religion a public voice in the world argue that when you see a transcendent world linked to this world–which is what religion does– you see reality through a distorting lens of superstition. You can’t build society on insights that come from religion; it can only be built on what human reason and experience knows, they say.

The denial of a role for religion in society and its displacement by human reason is a modern development, Taylor writes. The view didn’t exist in societies of the past; it’s a creation of the western world and develops from the time of the Reformation.

A crucial step occurred in the 18th century with the rise of Deism, a philosophy that saw human reason as the dynamo behind human progress. The Deists acknowledged God as the Great Architect, but human beings are the builders who take up the task. For them, religion has a place, but it’s like a cop on the beat. Religion keeps things in order with its code of ethics.  For Deism, “some religion, or at least some piety, is a necessary condition of good order.”

I think of the 18th century Anglican Chapel of St. Paul in downtown New York, still standing among the great skyscrapers, where George Washington and the city’s leading figures worshipped. Before the recent renovations in the church (a mistake, in my mind) the focus in the old church sanctuary was a list of the Ten Commandments spelled out large over a modest table. That corresponded to what, in the eyes of the Deists, was the church’s function– to produce honest, law-abiding citizens.

On the brink of converting to Catholicism in the early 19th century, Elizabeth Seton, now a Catholic saint, sat in that church and thought of the Catholic Church of St. Peter,  a short distance away, where Jesus Christ was honored in the Blessed Sacrament and scenes of his saving life and death were prominently  displayed in its decoration.  She wanted a religion that was more than an ethical code.

I think also of St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists and a saint of the 18th century, who had a vivid sense of a world beyond this one, which could be known through prayer. He preached that life here on earth was a preparation for a future life, won by us through Jesus Christ, who died and rose again.

Taylor describes the process of secularization nourished by the Enlightenment reaching a radical stage with the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century when reason was exalted as the only tool of human progress and religion was banished from society.

The denial of a role for religion in modern western society, particularly in the modern state, creates a severe problem today. For one thing, it sees no place for any Moslem society, with its laws and customs based on a religious faith.

Can a society exist that is not simply secular? This is an important issue today.

Taylor argues for this possibility. It would involve a separation of church and state, “meaning that the state can’t be officially linked to a religious confession except in a vestigial and largely symbolic sense, as in England and Scandanavia.” It would also require

  1. No one must be forced in the domain of religion, or basic belief. This is what is often defined as religious liberty–or the ‘free exercise’ of religion…
  2. There must be equality between people of different faiths or basic beliefs; no religious (or areligious) Weltanschuung can enjoy a privileged status, let along be adopted as the official state view.
  3. All spiritual families must be heard and included in the ongoing process of determining what the society is about and how to realize these goals. And I believe that we might add a fourth requirement: that of maintaining harmony and comity among the supporters of different religions and views. “

Taylor offers a way into the future, I think. In a global society, the state must respond to an increasing diversity in an even-handed way, protecting people with their differences, treating them equally and giving everybody a hearing. He does not conceive of secularism as an evil, but as a challenge brought about by new times. He calls for “a revisionary understanding of secularism.”

“In order to merit the name ‘secularist,’ regimes in contemporary societies must be conceived, not primarily as bulwarks against religion, but as good faith attempts to secure a few basic goals. They must protect people in what religion or outlook they choose. They must treat people equally. And they must give all people a hearing. As our modern democracies attempt to shape their institutional arrangements to a remarkable diversity of beliefs, we must not be afraid to adjust our hallowed democratic traditions in pursuit of liberty and equality for all.”


Following Jesus, our Teacher

Jesus Christ is the teacher of the ages. His Sermon on the Mount offers a lasting wisdom,  and so he speaks to us as well as to the people of his time. It’s up to us to listen to him and keep our eyes on him, even as others vie for our attention with their wisdom and their wishes. Like sheep, our eyes and our attention are on the next step we take; we have to listen for the Shepherd’s voice and turn to see where he is leading us;

Here’s a selection from St. Gregory of Nyssa in the Office of Readings for today:


“We shall be blessed with clear vision if we keep our eyes fixed on Christ, for he, as Paul teaches, is our head, and there is in him no shadow of evil. Saint Paul himself and all who have reached the same heights of sanctity had their eyes fixed on Christ, and so have all who live and move and have their being in him.

As no darkness can be seen by anyone surrounded by light, so no trivialities can capture the attention of anyone who has his eyes on Christ. The one who keeps his eyes upon the head and origin of the whole universe has them on virtue in all its perfection; he has them on truth, on justice, on immortality and on everything else that is good, for Christ is goodness itself.

The wise, then, turn their eyes toward the One who is their head, but the fool gropes in darkness. No one who puts his lamp under a bed instead of on a lamp-stand will receive any light from it. People are often considered blind and useless when they make the supreme Good their aim and give themselves up to the contemplation of God, but Paul made a boast of this and proclaimed himself a fool for Christ’s sake. The reason he said, We are fools for Christ’s sake was that his mind was free from all earthly preoccupations. It was as though he said, ‘We are blind to the life here below because our eyes are raised toward the One who is our head.’”


Loving Enemies

Jesus is our Teacher in this Sunday’s gospel selection: Matthew 5,38-48.  He goes up a mountain, gathers disciples around him and teaches them.

His teaching about loving our enemies is hard to understand and hard to follow. Does he want us to like everyone we meet? Pretty hard to do that.  Does he want us to let people walk all over us? Is that what “turning the other cheek” and “going the other mile” mean?

In this, as in other things he taught, we look to Jesus’ own example for guidance, because he lived what he taught. He did not like some people’s narrowness and pride. He did not let others walk over him or stop him from fulfilling his mission. He spoke the truth and brought his blessings to others, even when powerful enemies tried to prevent him. His death on the cross witnesses his life of  fearless commitment.

Loving our enemies does not mean liking everyone or condoning their faults. It does not mean shrinking from our call to do good. It’s about ridding ourselves of  the pessimism that leads to condemning someone or some groups absolutely. It’s about a patience that’s like God’s patience. If we see no possible goodness or possible change in people, only intractable evil, then we don’t see as God sees.

This is a love we must grow into. We can’t reason our way into it, we need God’s grace to attain it. We grow to it through prayer, and so we need to rest in a loving God who loves us all this way.

We know we are growing in this kind of love when we see ourselves doing what St. Paul describes in his Letter to the Romans. Some  say  his words are the earliest commentary on the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. Never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God. If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12,17-21

The prayer for today’s Mass asks for this kind of love:


keep before us the wisdom and love

you revealed in your Son.

Help us to be like him in word and in deed.

Desiring God

Here’s a wonderful reflection from St. Augustine on desiring God, from today’s Office of Readings:

“The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise of holy desire. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.
“Suppose you are going to fill some holder or container, and you know you will be given a large amount. Then you set about stretching your sack or wineskin or whatever it is. Why? Because you know the quantity you will have to put in it and your eyes tell you there is not enough room. By stretching it, therefore, you increase the capacity of the sack, and this is how God deals with us. Simply by making us wait he increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us.
“So, my brethren, let us continue to desire, for we shall be filled. Take note of Saint Paul stretching as it were his ability to receive what is to come: Not that I have already obtained this, he said, or am made perfect. Brethren, I do not consider that I have already obtained it. We might ask him, “If you have not yet obtained it, what are you doing in this life?” This one thing I do, answers Paul, forgetting what lies behind, and stretching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the prize to which I am called in the life above. Not only did Paul say he stretched forward, but he also declared that he pressed on toward a chosen goal. He realised in fact that he was still short of receiving what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived.”
I’m reading “The Education of Henry Adams”  now, by one of the great observers of our time. Adams was overwhelmed by the complexity of life brought about by the machine and rapid industrialization he experienced in the latter part of the 19th century. Though seen as progress, the changes caused a loss of a unified vision of life. There were too many things going on; too many facts to evaluate, too much happening to look ahead to the future. The world was entering a dizzying stage. 

We are still in that stage.

How does our time affect the way we desire God? In a more settled time, God had a recognized place. Not so now. Augustine speaks of desire as a container, a sack that we must enlarge to be filled. We might  use the image today of a shopping cart that’s filled to the brim with stuff, and there’s still more to come.

How can we make room for desiring God?

St. Procopius of Gaza

Saint Procopious of Gaza. He’s the saint who offers a beautiful reflection on wisdom in the Office of Readings today. But from Gaza, that poor broken place of violence today? He wrote long ago when Gaza was a thriving Christian center, of course.  But still, as we see in broken places like Egypt and Iran, wisdom still builds a house, even in the midst of destruction. As we listen to his words, can we hope for renewal in Gaza and Egypt,  and also in our own land?

Wisdom has built herself a house. God the Father’s Power, himself a person, has fashioned as his dwelling-place the whole world, in which he lives by his activity; and has fashioned humanity, created to resemble God’s own image and likeness and with a nature which is partly seen and partly hidden from our eyes.

And she has set up seven pillars. For humanity, which was made in the image of Christ when the rest of creation was completed, Wisdom gave the seven gifts of the Spirit to enable us to believe in Christ and to keep his commandments. By means of these gifts, strength is stimulated by knowledge and knowledge is reflected in strength until the spiritual person is brought to completion, solidly founded on firm faith and on the supernatural graces in which he shares.

“Our nature is made more glorious by strength, by good counsel, and by prudence. Strength brings a desire to seek out all manifestations of the divine will through which all things were made. Good counsel distinguishes what is God’s will from what is not and leads us to ponder, to proclaim and to fulfil the will of God. Prudence, finally, leads us to turn towards the will of God and not to other things.”

God’s Wisdom is at work everywhere, even in Gaza.


Thou shalt not kill

The Gospel of Matthew presents Jesus as a Teacher as well as a healer. He fulfills this role in a particular way in the 5th to the 8th chapters of the gospel, which describe him going up a mountain, sitting down and calling his followers to come around him, and then beginning to teach them. We know this lengthy part of the Matthew’s Gospel as the Sermon on the Mount.

His teachings begin with the promise that those who listen and follow what he has to say will be blessed. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, those who suffer persecution…” There are blessings, beatitudes, that we receive by following his teaching.

Now, the values he teaches not only make us better people, but they make the world better.  “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world,” Jesus says.  The world is better when we act his way,  he says; it’s filled with light and more alive.

Jesus says his teaching is not totally new. In his Sermon on the Mount he assures his followers that he’s following teachers and prophets before him.  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Mt 5, 17)

Yet, he says he understands the law better than the teachers before him understood it. He will also fulfill that law better than the prophets before him did.

The first law he comments on in the Sermon on the Mount is one we might not expect. “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,

You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.” That’s a basic commandment:  “Don’t kill people.” “You shall not kill.”  Life is God’s first gift. God gives life, God nourishes and sustains life, and it’s for God to take life away.

People through history have recognized the great value of life itself. It’s wrong to take the life of another human being by murder or violence. The reason it’s wrong is because murder and violence destroy what God has made and what God cares for and what God loves. Murder is a capital offense in our system of justice; the murderer has to be brought to justice.

We rejoiced this week when we saw violence avoided in Egypt;  thousands of lives could have been lost in that volatile situation. If that country evolves in a non-violent way–we pray it does– it will be a wonderful sign to the rest of the world that war and violence are not the only way to bring about change.

Yet Jesus did not stop with the command not to kill.  “I say to you, whoever is angry with a brother or sister will be liable to judgment.”  Murder and violence are not the only ways that take away life. Anger also does it.

What does Jesus mean when he condemns anger against others? He certainly does not mean that anger itself is wrong. He was angry at times, the gospels report. Anger is a neutral emotion which often provides the impetus to confront evil and to do something hard that has to be done.

The scenes from Egypt this week showed us angry crowds taking to the streets to overthrow an unjust government. Anger gave them the power to resist before the prospects of a harsh suppression.

Yet, when they succeeded, their anger turned to joy and celebration. They had won.

The anger Jesus condemns is an anger that continues and does not end. It’s an anger that doesn’t forgive, that lasts, poisoning the one who holds on to it and killing the one it’s directed at.

It’s an anger without patience or respect. It refuses to leave anything to God. We must beware of an anger like that.

Pilate’s Wife

Daniel Harrington, SJ, in an article I’ve been reading in Bible Today on the Gospel of Matthew has an interesting comment on Matthew’s narrative of the passion of Jesus. He sees the narrative framed to absolve the Romans of their role in the death of Jesus and shift the blame to the Jews. The Jewish  Christian community around 90 AD, about the time the gospel was written, lived in a Roman world and wanted to be seen by the Romans, not as revolutionaries ready to topple their rulers, but as people interested only in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew is the only gospel reporting the dream of Pilate’s wife, who pronounces Jesus innocent. Like the dreams of Joseph, also recorded by Matthew,  her dream is important. Her judgment is followed by the Jewish crowd, prompted by their leaders, shouting out before Pilate: “His blood be on us and on our children.”  Matthew 27,15-25

Matthew’s community would see the punishment for their complicity in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. They wanted to minimise Roman responsibility. Unfortunately, Christians  throughout history reading Matthew continued to place the guilt for the death of Jesus on the  Jewish people, resulting in dire consequences.

Today in the Office of Readings I’m reminded of the true key to understanding the scriptures, however:

“The stream of holy Scripture flows not from human research but from revelation by God. It springs from the Father of lights, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth takes its name. From him, through his Son Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit flows into us; and through the Holy Spirit, giving, at will, different gifts to different people, comes the gift of faith, and through faith Jesus Christ has his dwelling in our hearts. This is the knowledge of Jesus Christ which is the ultimate basis of the solidity and wisdom of the whole of holy Scripture.

“From all this it follows that it is impossible for anyone to start to recognise Scripture for what it is if he does not already have faith in Christ infused into him. Christ is the lamp that illuminates the whole of Scripture: he is its gateway and its foundation. For this faith is behind all the supernatural enlightenments that we receive while we are still separated from the Lord and on our pilgrimage. It makes our foundation firm, it directs the light of the lamp, it leads us in through the gateway. It is the standard against which the wisdom that God has given us should be measured, so that no-one should exaggerate his real importance, but everyone must judge himself soberly by the standard of the faith God has given him.”

St Bonaventure, Breviloquium

Salt of the Earth

The latest issue of Bible Today, published by the Benedictines of St. John’s Abbey and edited by Fr. Donald Senior, CP is devoted to the Gospel of Matthew, which is read at Sunday Mass this year.

Matthew’s Gospel depends on Mark’s Gospel, the first of the four gospels to be written. One question the writers in Bible Today try to answer is: Why did the community represented in Matthew’s gospel look for the Good News in another form? Why didn’t they simply use what was written in Mark?

Obviously, there were needs in Matthew’s community that called for something else about Jesus to be told. Mark’s gospel sees Jesus as a powerful worker of miracles and cures. Matthew’s gospel sees him as a powerful teacher. As he begins his ministry, he goes up a mountain and gathers disciples around him and begins to teach them.

His “Sermon on the Mount” doesn’t take place in the synagogues of Galilee. In the church Matthew represents, the disciples of Jesus are being driven out of the synagogues, as the temple officials, the pharisees and other Jewish authorities have come to Galilee to reconstitute traditional Judaism after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD.

By the year 90 AD, about when Matthew is written, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth seem to be losing the battle in the villages and cities of the area to a strong smart opposition who are questioning the credentials of a carpenter from Nazareth and of a movement led by fishermen and tax-collectors.

Matthew’s gospel sees Jesus “in the chair of Moses,” on a mountainside, and his disciples are to look to him as their teacher.

“You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world,” Jesus says to these disciples. Perhaps we can hear those words directed to disciples who are questioning whether they’re in the right place as they experience diminishment and power slipping away. The old leaders are gone; their “golden age” is over.

Still, “you are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.”

Not a bad message for us today.