Jesus, the Easter Bunny, and My Friend, the Atheist

So, while I wasn’t looking, a friend of mine has become a somewhat notable neo-atheist (I’m not sure if it’s fair to call him that, but that’s how he’s being perceived, at least).  He’s a philosopher, and we both met while teaching philosophy, and sharing an office.  We live on opposite coasts now, so I don’t see him very much.  I don’t think he was exactly a believer when we were in the same city (New Orleans), but his ideas have certainly gotten more radical—and more public—since then.  He’s always been a provocative teacher, and that’s one of the things that I like about him.  I like that he challenges students to make reasonable arguments.  After all, in many ways that’s what philosophy is all about.  And I know from my own teaching how hard it can be to get students to risk making any argument sometimes!

From what he’s been saying lately, it seems he’s coming down quite hard on students who make arguments based on faith (though precisely what he means by faith, I can’t be sure).  I don’t object to that.  I have done the same myself, not in a dismissive way, but in a way that I hope helps them make more coherent arguments.  After all, Christianity has long held that faith and reason are by no means incompatible.  I suspect my friend would agree (or at least he would have in the past).  What I fear, though, is that those who listen to him will get the impression that this is not the case.  And that is a disservice to them.  The Letter to the Hebrews says that faith is “the substance of things hoped for.”  Do we really want to rob people of hope, in the name of truth?  And, can I really rid my life of what might be called “reason informed by faith”?  It would certainly make life more difficult.

I would have to stop introducing my parents as my mother and father, since I have never seen a DNA test proving that I’m even related to them.  Barring that, I can only offer faith-based arguments that they are, indeed, my biological parents.  Indeed, I might need to go so far as the philosopher David Hume to contend that I really have no way of knowing, despite the fact that it has always been my experience, that if I drop something heavy it will fall down instead of up.  For isn’t there a “faith” involved in assuming things simply because we have never experienced things otherwise?  Yes, we might find ourselves escaping Plato’s cave one day and finding that things are far different than we ever thought.  But does that mean that I should live my life in constant anxiety that my experience of it may not be what it seems to be?

But one might object.  That after all is “trust,” not faith.  A rose by any other name?  And, besides, what is objectionable is not that kind of faith (if you want to call it that), but religious faith.  How is it different, as my friend put it in a recent talk, than believing in the Easter Bunny?  Well, for one thing, I know now that the things the Easter Bunny was once credited with doing were actually being done by the people I call my parents.  But were they?  Why should I believe that what they have told me is true, and that they are not just trying to protect me from the reality that there is indeed an Easter Bunny?  But I have never seen the Easter Bunny, and I have seen and learned to trust those who claim to be my parents, so the truth of their assertion is at least more probable.

But here’s where they’ve got me!  Since I have never seen God, isn’t he just as ridiculous a notion as the Easter Bunny.  Well, it depends again whether you are willing to trust what people have told you.  I come from a tradition that descends from the historical encounter of a people called Israel with a real God.  I come from a tradition that believes that God also entered history in another way in the person of Jesus Christ, a human person who lived, whom other people experienced, who died, and who, according to their accounts, visited some of those very same people after his death and rising from the dead.  I have to take their word for it.  I also have to take the word of the millions of people who have also experienced God in a variety of ways over the centuries.  Sure, some of them were probably crazy.  But even crazy people can argue from experience.  I may be one of them.

But I don’t just have to take their word for it.  I have experienced God for myself.  Anyone can say that I’m just making it all up, that I’m delusional.  Certainly, if there is no God, I have made a joke of my life.  I can say that.  But, interestingly, I’m pretty sure that’s something my friend would never say to me, or even believe of me.  He has experienced the concrete effect that my belief in God has on who I am, what I do and why I do it.  He knows that much of my life is based on reason, informed by faith, and that some of my life rests on faith alone.  He objects to what a lot of “faithful” people do—and so do I.  But that doesn’t make faith objectionable to me, it just means that people can mistaken conclusions based on faith, as they can commensurately so based on reason.  And life is a mixture of mistakes and successes based on both.

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It’s Holy Week.  And this week that is the story we remember.  A story of mistakes and successes, of friendship and betrayal, and a love that expresses itself in a way that is both reasonable and which transcends reason.  It’s a story that we know really happened—people experienced it, history records it.  Yet it is also a story that for those of us who believe, who have faith in Jesus Christ, happened once and for all time.  It is no less real today than it was on the historical date that it happened.  And it demands something of us that is not reasonable.  It demands that we give our lives to over to the mission and the person of Jesus Christ—completely.  In doing this, we do not ignore the fact that people have and continue to do hateful things in the name of Jesus Christ (which is one of the atheists’ favorite bludgeons), or that peopledo amazing, loving and heroic things also in the name of Jesus Christ.  Or that people do both, without believing in Jesus or God.  They can be as heroic or fallible as those of us who do have faith.

I’m not offended by the offense they take at my faith.  I am, however, concerned that in championing the truth, they might, even if unwittingly, take people’s hope away.  Especially because I suspect that, ultimately, they are looking for “the substance of things hoped for” too.  Their substance is just different than mine.  Mine is Jesus Christ, who I have experienced, and who calls me, guides me, lives in me and loves through me.  Theirs is, well, I’m not sure.  Hope in Jesus may be as ridiculous to some as the Easter Bunny, but it is everything to me, and the community of faith to which I belong.  It’s just how we roll . . . (if we can say for sure that anything, in fact, rolls.)

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Seeking What’s Next

For the last three years, including last weekend, August 3-5, I’ve had the privilege of helping lead a young adult Charis retreat weekend called “What’s Next?: Finding Answers With Faith” at the Jesuits’ Ignatius House Retreat Center in Atlanta, GA.  This year, I put my admittedly amateur video skills to work in order to make a “highlight reel” of the weekend.  If you want to get a sense of what some young adults are looking for, and what our retreat was like, have a look at our video!:

Osama Bin Laden & A Child’s Question

I must admit to feeling at once relieved, inspired, and disturbed by news of Osama Bin Laden’s death last night.  I saw the images of crowds celebrating outside the White House, heard some fireworks and sirens joining the celebratory chorus nearby, and watched as a student walked past my window on campus, playing the bagpipes.  I found myself laughing uncomfortably.  Clearly, I didn’t know how to feel.

Yesterday, interestingly, had begun with me questioning, in response to a New York Times article announcing the death of Gaddafi’s son and grandchildren: Is this article suggesting I should be happy at this news?  I was disturbed at the thought of celebrating anyone’s killing.  The same question came back to me again shortly before midnight as I listened to the President speak in ways that inspired in me a sense of pride.  When he referred to Bin Laden as a “mass murderer,” I was kind of shocked by the words, but also had to acknowledge their truth.  Later, someone being interviewed said, claiming he was not only speaking for himself, but for many: “I hope he rots in Hell.”  Despite my mixed feelings about the matter, I resented the fact that this man might think he was speaking for me.  No matter my relief at an evil man being prevented from doing further evil, I realized at least that I could not bring myself to wish this for him, or anybody.

Some of my friends are thinking about similar things, and asking important questions.  Fr. Jim Martin is asking: What is the Christian Response?, and Mike Hayes asks: Can We Forgive Bin Laden?

As for me, I’ll add to what I’ve said above something I wrote for America Magazine almost nine years ago in their “Of Many Things” column about my challenges teaching CCD in the Bronx that year.  Here’s an excerpt:

One day, for instance, they were challenged by the notion that God loves us, whether we want God to or not. Can’t God, some of them suggested, choose who to love and who not to? No, I insisted, God cannot not love any person; God loves everyone, unconditionally. To this came the astute and timely response of one student: “Does that mean God loves Osama bin Laden?”

Read the whole article here.

Approaching Easter

As we get closer to Easter, I’m reminded of a post I wrote about two years ago, on my previous blog.  I thought I’d share it with you as we look forward to this Easter.

When I think of Easter, I remember Mayo Kikel.
Mayo was one of the first teachers I met when I visited Jesuit High in Tampa the Spring prior to starting work there in 2002.  She impressed me with her conviction that God wanted her there.  She could easily have worked at a school closer to where she lived, but instead she made the extra long trek to our school each day.  I have only met a few teachers like her, so convinced that they were fulfilling a mission.  When I began work at the school the next Fall, she quickly became one of my favorite colleagues.
This made it all the more difficult when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  We were already to chip in and fill in for her wherever needed.  But, amazingly, even after she started the cancer treatments, she never missed a single day of work.  It was what she lived for.  And though it left her with little energy to do much else, she came back day after day.  None of us would have faulted her for taking a day off, much less complaining, but she rarely did.
As Easter approached, she came to ask me a favor.  I was the Director of Campus Ministry and was in charge of the program for our once-a-week morning convocations, when the whole school gathered in the chapel to begin the day.  She told me how good the boys at the school had been to her, and she wanted to use the convocation just before the Easter break to thank them.  What she wanted to do, she explained, was to sing a song, an Easter song.  Now this was not without its risks.  Such an endeavor at a school of some 650 boys was just as likely to invite ridicule, as it was reverence.  We talked about this, but she was determined.  So we made plans.
When the day came, I stood up at the podium and said, “Mrs. Kikel has told me how wonderful you all have been to her during her illness, and she asked if she could do something to thank you.”  The music began.
The song she sang was told from the perspective of Peter, beginning with a Peter all too aware of how he had failed Jesus.  And, now that Jesus was dead, there would be no opportunity to make amends.  Then it took up where our Easter Gospel reading began, with Mary come to announce that Jesus had been taken from the tomb.  Peter runs to the tomb, John running up ahead.  They find the burial cloths set aside, and Jesus missing, and they begin to realize what has happened.  In the song Peter exclaims, “He’s alive!”  “He’s alive!”  “He’s alive and I’m forgiven.  Heaven’s gates are open wide!”  “He’s alive!”  “He’s alive!”  The song built until Mayo sang out the final, “He’s aaaalive!”  And then something happened which even now when I think about it inspires tears.  Immediately and without hesitation, every boy in that chapel stood up and applauded.
We speak a lot in our Jesuit boys’ schools about being “men for others,” and I have yet to see a better example of that than I did on that day.  When we speak about Easter, we speak about everything being made new because of what Jesus did for us, and because God raised him from the dead.  Things were made new for me that day.  No matter what they did after that day, I could never quite see those boys in the same way again.  They had stepped up when it was most important.  And I can never think of Easter without thinking of Mayo Kikel who because of her humility, faith and courage was able to inspire such a moment.
Mayo beat the cancer, but was stricken just a couple years later with a rare disease which took her from us.  But I will never forget her.  Few people in my life have exemplified as well as her what Easter is all about.

Listen, Jesus Doesn’t Have To Be Nice

At the beginning of one semester as we were going over the requirements for my course, one of my students said excitedly to me, “you’re a Jesuit, that means you have to be nice.”  I immediately took the opportunity to relieve him, and the entire class of this notion, explaining that there was nothing in my job description as a teacher or as a Jesuit that required me to be nice, fair and just perhaps, but not “nice.”  If they didn’t believe me then, I think a number of them changed their mind when they got their first paper back!

Many of us, though perhaps we don’t come right out and say it, often approach Jesus in the same way, “You’re Jesus, so you have to be nice!”  And many people persist in this idea, even though it seems that we have plenty of evidence to the contrary.  Jesus wasn’t very nice to the Pharisees, and he’s not being particularly nice in our Gospel reading today.  In fact, if anything he appears to be cruel, and downright unreasonable.

Nevertheless, I think we have to avoid the temptation to dismiss this Gospel story by saying something like, “I don’t believe in that Jesus.”  If we only listened to the stories of Jesus in which we liked Jesus, or thought he was being nice, we would have to throw out or ignore a good portion of the Gospel.  But I think we can—and should—ask the question, “Why is Jesus being so unreasonable?”

It hardly seems fair the way he’s treating these people, turning his back on them, claiming he never knew them, and telling them to go away!  After all, the evidence seems to be in their favor.  They say, and we have no reason to believe they are lying: We have prophesied in your name, we have driven out demons in your name, we have done mighty deeds in your name.  We might expect Jesus to say “thank you,” not “depart from me, you evildoers.”  Why is Jesus being so unreasonable?

What seems to be the problem is that Jesus’ standard of judgment in this case is not simply concerned with what they have done, or even in whose name, but why they have done it.  Jesus is challenging the “all I have to do is be a good person” approach to life.  He is trying to cure us of the approach to life in which we really expect little of ourselves, because we are confident that in the end, Jesus will be nice to us.  Just because God is a God of love, compassion and mercy, he might be saying, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t expect much of us.  We make a mistake if we think that our life with God comes with such low expectations.

What was expected of the people that Jesus rejects?  And what is expected of us?  Jesus makes this pretty clear: that we do God’s will.  It’s not enough to just do things, even if they seem to be good things.  As Christians, we are held to a higher standard because we love God and because God loves us.  And it’s important that we listen to what Jesus is saying today, because he is explaining that following God’s will isn’t about simply “doing,” but is first about “listening.”  Those who follow God’s will, he explains, are those who “listen to these words of mine, and act on them.”  Jesus’ problem with those that have come to him is not with what they have done so much as it is the fact, as his parable suggests, that what they have done has no foundation.  They have not listened to the voice of God telling them what to do.  It may be that God did not want them to prophesy, cast out demons, or do mighty deeds.  It may be that this was someone else’s job, that God had something else in mind for them, but they never asked, and didn’t listen.

Jesus is warning against the life of “just being a good person,” a life in which we are relatively nice to others, mostly stay out of trouble, but more or less just do what we want, confident that the nice Jesus won’t hold our mistakes against us.  He is also warning against a life in which we do all kinds of “flashy” God stuff like prophesying and casting out demons without ever paying attention to what God really wants for our lives.  We can live our lives doing the kind of things God might want us to do.  Or we can instead listen to what God is asking us to do.  The challenge, of course, is that the God we are now paying attention to is going to expect a lot more of us than the God we were just counting on being nice to us in the end.  But, why, anyway, would we want to follow a God with such low expectations?

Instead, each of us needs to answer Jesus’ call today to listen and to act.  To listen to the voice of God which may be inviting us to do something extraordinary, or even, to the disappointment of some, something quite ordinary.  To risk doing great things for God, and in doing so, sometimes failing quite spectacularly, as many of the disciples did before us.  To make us of the unique gifts, talents and quirks which God has given us, and which God desires us to use for God’s glory and the good of others.

To do this we must all take the opportunity, like the one we have today in our worship, to stop our doing and start listening to what God’s desires are for our lives.  If we listen for God’s will, we will see that what God invites us to do is to become most fully what God intends us to be, as we deepen our relationship with God.  When we discover the confidence that what we are doing is not just something God might like, but something God wills, our lives are transformed.  We become more accustomed to hearing God’s voice guiding us in times of trial and decision, hope and joy.  And though our lives don’t become free of mistakes or sin, we won’t find ourselves in the end hoping for a Jesus we don’t really know to be nice to us, but we’ll be looking forward to belonging more completely to the God we’ve been listening to for so long.

The Cause of Christ

What’s your cause?

It seems like more and more these days Christians are becoming identified with their causes, instead of with Christ.  Sure, we can put some of the blame on the media, and those who don’t like us, but I think we also have to accept some of the blame ourselves.  I know some Christians–and you probably do too–whose Christian commitment seems all about commitment to a single cause, whether that is opposing abortion, promoting traditional marriage or trying to convince everyone they should be “real Catholics,” like them (whatever they take that to mean).  And then there are those who use causes to promote an unChristian agenda, pretending they are motivated by Christian morality, when really they are motivated by something else.  This usually manifests itself in a certain selectivity as to who they go after.  They raise the alarm about someone’s shortcomings, criticizing them for failing to sufficiently follow the Church’s teaching, or failure to support a given cause.  But often such failings are only evident in those who don’t agree with them politically or ideologically, while those who do get a pass for the same failures.  Take, for example, those on either side of the debates about whether President Obama (with his problematic views on abortion) or President Bush (with his endorsement of torture and the death penalty) should be allowed to speak at a Catholic university.  It seems to me you can only go one way or the other on this subject.  Either both should be allowed, or both should not.  Frankly, I find myself more inclined to the latter these days.  At least that would speak of some consistent Christian outlook, rather than picking and choosing based on one’s political convictions.  Sure, we can argue the relative merits of various pro-life positions, but personally I think that obscures our belief that all life is sacred, which I believe is the Christian position, no matter how you parse it.

This is not to say that Christians should not be involved in what are worthwhile causes.  And it also doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize that one can only put one’s energy into a limited number of causes despite their support for and belief in various others.  Indeed, I believe that some people are especially called to be proponents of certain causes.  I’ve seen this happen with a number of my students over the years.  It’s when people start to believe that those who are dedicated to a cause other than their own cannot have a legitimate calling from God that things get out of whack, and uncharitable and even hateful behavior can ensue.  When those, for example, who are dedicated to the causes of social justice look askance at and even speak ill of those dedicated to pro-life causes, and vice-versa (and many of us know this is happening), the fabric of the Christian faith starts to tear, and suddenly Christians both answering the call of God see themselves to be on different “sides.”  And the battle is on to be the winner of the title “real Christian.”

I have found myself examining a lot lately the extent to which my causes can get in the way of my commitment to my calling.  As I interact pastorally with all varieties of people, I realize that as much as I would like them to see things as I do, to adopt my causes, the more important thing is that I help them to discover the unique vocation that God is calling them to.  And I am urged to remember that their calling and mine all find their foundation, measure and answer in our common, ultimate and most important cause–the cause of Christ.  When any cause starts to seem more important than this one, that’s when I hope with God’s help, that I can step back and reassess my priorities, so as not to lose sight of Jesus, even if that means climbing a sycamore tree like Zaccheus, or like Peter stepping out of the boat and into the sea.

Letting Love Find You

The best reviews are the ones that make it clear that what you’ve written has given somebody the opportunity to reflect on something in their own lives.  My friend Mike Hayes offered just such a “review” this week, by using my book as a jumping off point for a reflection of his own.  It’s a good one!:

” . . . As I look back on my life, I often see myself searching for love and occasionally finding someone to love. At times, I’m afraid, I didn’t find that love returned. Was love unable to find me?

As I searched more deeply, I realized a stark truth: Quite often in my life, I was too afraid to be found by love.

Have you ever found a person who just takes your breath away? Dennis Miller, the brilliant comic, said of the first time he saw his wife, “I’ll pass out if that woman comes anywhere near me.” Apparently, he conquered that fear. But often it’s not fear of approaching love, but fear of not being good enough to deserve the love of someone else. Perhaps even when love is found, fear keeps the revelation of self that we all have to offer back to our love from really happening. What if she doesn’t love that part of me? What if she doesn’t agree with my opinion? We act like addicts afraid of being unable to get our next fix. What if the love runs out?

Marion, my wife, helped me get over that. I think I fell more deeply in love with Marion when we had our first fight. Now that sounds completely ludicrous, but in fact it’s true . . . “

Mike has much more to say, and it’s worth reading the whole thing.  Check it out here.

Listen In

I had a wonderful interview today on the Catholic Radio network, Relevant Radio.  Wendy Wiese was a gracious an enthusiastic host, and even gave me a little assist with my first radio blessing!

You can listen to the show on their website archive.  Go to the September calendar, and click on my name which appears on September 30.  You can stream it, or download the mp3 to your computer (takes about 3 minutes).  If you have a chance to listen, I’d love to have you post your thoughts or questions in the comments for this post!

Pretty Good Advice, or Did I Really Write That?

For the past three years I have helped to lead a retreat for young adults at our Jesuit Retreat House in Atlanta.  The last one was about a month ago. The other day, the woman who works at our retreat house (who really does the bulk of the work for the retreat) wrote me, sending along an attachment.  You wrote this really nice letter last year, she wrote, and I’d like to send it out again.  At first, I didn’t even remember having written the letter!  Then, I opened it, and started to wonder anew if I had even written it!  It was a really nice letter!  Thoughtful, well-written and offering some pretty good advice.  Some advice, I thought, that I could do well to remember myself!  Here I am, I thought with a smile, giving myself some well-needed advice!  It was a great grace.  And even though by then I had remembered writing the letter, I still found myself a bit incredulous: did I really write that?

Here’s an excerpt from that letter that perhaps you might find helpful, especially if you need to be reminded of a good experience you had with God, and the people that were there with you:

” . . . I know that your choice to come on retreat was only one of many you have yet to make.  I invite you to let one of those be to be deliberate about remembering the graces of your retreat experience.  Many of you expressed the desire to hold onto the consolations of the weekend, but you also shared your fear that the many cares of your lives might make this difficult.  So, let this letter serve as a reminder to set aside some time to reflect, to journal, and to speak with others about what this weekend meant to you.  Pay attention to what struck you the most, and begin to ask: Why?  What is God trying to tell me?

This process of discovery will be helped by such things as attending mass more regularly, and finding a group of peers also seeking what God desires for their lives.  I also encourage you to find a spiritual director whom you can meet with on a regular basis.  The spiritual director won’t tell you what to do, but will help you to see the direction in which God is leading you.  You might also try to make a silent retreat of 3 to 5 days.  Silence makes room for God like nothing else.  Ignatius House can provide you assistance with both these things.

If you made a friend this weekend—or a few—do more than just Facebook each other.  Get together, and get to know each other better.  Do the same with God.  Get out of the house, and meet God away from your everyday distractions!  You’ve undoubtedly found that upon returning home from the retreat, your life hasn’t changed as much as you’d hoped.  There are still many of the same challenges.  But there is also something new happening.  This is the beginning, as the prophet Jeremiah speaks about, of “a future full of hope.”  That hope lies in your choice to let this be not just a pleasant weekend, but one of your life’s turning points.  Trust that God, with your help, will make the change you need happen.  But pray also for patience with the fact that this may happen in God’s time, and not as immediately as you would like . . .”

This was something that I know I need to hear right now, and there are things here which I know I need to continually remind myself of.  And just leave it to God, that infinite trickster, to send me a reminder, using my own words!  God is good, and doesn’t have a half-bad sense of humor.

Why “GODsTALKed”?

A while back I was listening to Death Cab for Cutie’s song, “I will possess your heart.” One of the verses goes like this:

How I wish you could see the potential/The potential between you and me/Like a book elegantly bound/But in a language that you can’t read, just yet . . . The refrain continues: You’ve got to take some time, love/You’ve got to take some time, with me/And I know that you’ll find, love/I will possess your heart.

In my typical fashion, I started to think what it might be like if God were saying this. What if we saw this as an invitation from God? From that perspective, it is quite a moving invitation. God is inviting us to something “elegant,” even if we can’t understand it, just yet.Of course, if you go deeper, you become aware that this probably isn’t what the song is really talking about. Indeed, it’s most certainly meant to be the words of a man obsessed with a woman. From that perspective, things are a little different. In fact, it gets kind of creepy. This is the song of a stalker!

But, as strange as this suddenly becomes, I also find I quite like the image of God as someone who is stalking us, as someone who watches us lovingly, and longs to possess our heart. When it’s God that has that depth of passion, it’s pretty awesome! Even though, if it were anybody else, it would probably just be creepy.

But I think we are all God-stalked, and that we all long to hear God talk to us. But it may be in a language we can’t read–just yet.

This blog is about what happens when we start to learn the language of GODsTALK.