Orbiting Dicta

Category Archives: Religion

God’s Love

A few months ago, Cardinal Francis George stirred up a few feathers when he wrote in his column that we should not be upset by the fact that God loves some people more than others.  As fate would have it, I came across this passage in Meister Eckhart’s sermons the other day, and it reminded me of the discussion.  Today, as Protestants and Catholics try to keep the lid on in Belfast and the usual mayhem is afoot in other parts of the world, it seems like a helpful point of departure for reconciliation.

…among all creatures He does not love one more than another: for as each is wide enough to receive, in the same measure He pours Himself into it. If my soul were as capacious and as roomy as the angel of the Seraphim, who has nothing in him, God would pour Himself out into me as perfectly as into the angel of the Seraphim.

… God as being pours Himself out into all creatures, to each as much as it can take. This is a good lesson to us to love all creatures equally with all that we have received from God, and if some are by nature nearer to us by kinship or friendship, that we should still favour them equally out of divine love in regard to the same good. I sometimes seem to like one person better than another; but yet I have the same goodwill towards another whom I have never seen, but this one is more present to me, and on that account I am better able to give myself to him. Thus God loves all creatures equally and fills them with His being. And thus too, we should pour forth ourselves in love over all creatures. We often find the heathen arriving at this loving peace by their natural understanding, for a pagan teacher [Aristotle] says ‘Man is an animal kindly by nature’.

Sermon 75 in the Stuttgart edition (No. 88 in Walshe’s English translation [1987], II, 279-80).

The Longest Day

Here in Ireland, the sun sets late – about two hours later than it does in the US. And it rises earlier, as well, especially at the solstice.  But it’s this mid-summer night that will seem long.  Wimbledon aside, it is tonight’s vote of confidence in the Greek parliament that has European eyes fixed on the news channels.  If Prime Minister Papandreou loses the vote, Greece may well be headed toward an inevitable default on its massive debts, and the European Union has based its offer of a second bailout on the stern austerity budget and increased taxes that are the burr under the saddle of popular resistance in Athens and elsewhere.

Should Greece default, economists are wary that Spain, Portugal, and Ireland will head in the same direction as the monetary house of euro-cards begins to totter.  France, Germany, and England will be adversely affected as well, despite some evident whistling in the dark.

The back-story is worth exploring.  Volumes will be written about it in years to come.  For now, the simplest explanation gets down to a familiar refrain: irresponsible financial policies, dodgy bank loans, lack of regulation, and a massive failure of accountability.  Call it “2008, the Sequel.”

As the cost of living goes up and the standard of living goes down here in Ireland as elsewhere, it’s difficult to resist citing an ancient adage that sophisticated financiers (and politicians) might well consider: “the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs” [1 Timothy 6:10].

If that seems naïve, here’s another more homely version: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Stay tuned.

The Dogs of War

Last week, U.S. press agencies, usually alert to anything incendiary enough to garner media attention, virtually ignored the act of outrageous bigotry and ignorance perpetrated by Florida pastor Terry Jones and his miniscule congregation against the sacred text of a billion Muslims throughout the world by holding a trial and “convicting” the Qu’ran of heresy then “executing” it by burning.  Like many papers, the Chicago Tribune devoted about a column inch to the story, which was buried deep within the paper.   But several days later, the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, decided for his own unfathomable purposes to bring the deed to prominence, igniting a predictable conflagration among highly-sensitive Muslims in his own country and Pakistan.

The outcome was an attack on the UN compound that left seven deaths.  Predictably, Jones finally obtained his prize of media attention by being interviewed on national television.  He failed, predictably, to express either regret or repentance, claiming that his innocent gesture was merely a pretext for Muslim violence.   And so it goes.  Mission accomplished. 

As with the horrendous antics of members of the equally tiny Westboro Baptist church of Topeka, the combination of egregious ignorance, hate-driven intolerance, and a desperate need for attention, aided by the media that inexorably feeds  the fires of sectarianism, has illuminated the fact that fundamentalist extremism is hardly confined to Islam.  Terrorism takes many forms.  And in the United States, the Supreme Court seems intent to guarantee that it remains a sacred and protected right.

You might wonder, What would Jesus do?  Up against the hate-mongering Joneses and Phelpses of this world, he would simply be crucified.  Again.

Walking Like an Egyptian

Never mind that the Egyptian political and social earthquake was largely unforeseen by both reporters and political pundits, at least until shock waves from the Tunisian revolt began to spread through the Arab world, creating shudders even in relatively far-off and clamped-down Iran.  Hosni Mubarak may have been a dictator, despot, and possibly a crook (how much money went missing into Swiss bank accounts??).  But he was, in no small way, “our” dictator, despot, and (possible) crook.  He kept the lid on.  He didn’t bother the Israelis.  He happily accepted billions in equipment from the US military-industrial complex.  It isn’t entirely clear what Mubarak did with all that stuff, but it helped create jobs here. End of story.

As the Egyptian people celebrate what we can only hope will be a lasting leap forward into the difficult if liberating waters of democracy, observers have cast around for similar examples – if not too far back.  It is unlikely that radio demagogues will recall the popular democratic revolutions over the past century and a half that ended in the imposition of new dictatorial regimes because of US interference.  Cuba and Panama immediately come to mind, but Chile and the Iranian revolution that originally ousted the Shah should not be forgotten. A very helpful primer in this regard is Stephen Kinzer’s eyebrow-raising historical account, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (New York: Times Books, 2007).

But an even better example of a popular democratic uprising, a peaceful protest that ended in the flight of a dynastic tyrant and his entourage occurred in 1986 in the Philippines – one of those countries the US complicitly handed over to a friendly dictator after their struggle for independence – in this case first from Spain then from the US – as with Cuba.  Ferdinand Marcos and his compulsively shoe-buying first lady not only fled to Hawaii thanks to the US, but almost managed to hang onto the billions of dollars they had siphoned out of the country into secret Swiss coffers and US banks.

I knew many Filipinos and Filipinas who participated in the revolution, which at the time was dubbed “People Power.”  Almost unanimously, they agreed that the long vigils in the dark hours of the night, as thousands of citizens surrounded Radio Veritas and the free TV station, then carrying only their rosaries for protection confronted tanks and soldiers, was the greatest spiritual adventure of their lives.  Here, too, faith played a leading role in the non-violent revolt, which was set in motion by the words of Cardinal Jaime Sin, who called on ordinary citizens to position themselves between the army and the radio and TV stations.  Many of the subsequent non-violent revolutions in Eastern Europe that eventually brought down the Iron Curtain drew hope from the “People Power” Revolution.

At this point, it seems to me that in regard to Egypt, the freedom-loving world has less to fear from the Muslim Brotherhood than from the forces of reaction that prefer an accommodation with the wealthy and powerful.   The Philippines has clung to its democratic victory against great odds.  May Egypt do likewise.

Food for Thought

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

 The Treaty of Tripoli, 3 January 1797.

 Authored by American diplomat Joel Barlow in 1796, the …treaty was sent to the floor of the Senate, June 7, 1797, where it was read aloud in its entirety and unanimously approved. John Adams, having seen the treaty, signed it and proudly proclaimed it to the Nation.


The Death of a Great Scientist

On 13 Nov., Dr. Allan Sandage died.  One of the great astronomers of our era, indeed of all time, Sandage was a man of deep faith as well as profound wisdom who famously cited Thomas Aquinas in his case for the existence of God.  He said in an interview some years ago,

“There need be no conflict between science and religion if each appreciates its own boundaries and if each takes seriously the claims of the other. The proven success of science simply cannot be ignored by the church. But neither can the church’s claim to explain the world at the very deepest level be dismissed. If God did not exist, science would have to (and indeed has) invent the concept to explain what it is discovering at its core.  Abelard’s 12th century dictum “Truth cannot be contrary to truth. The findings of reason must agree with the truths of scripture, else the God who gave us both has deceived us with one or the other” still rings true.

“If there is no God, nothing makes sense. The atheist’s case is based on a deception they wish to play upon themselves that follows already from their initial premise. And if there is a God, he must be true both to science and religion. If it seems not so, then one’s hermeneutics (either the pastor’s or the scientist’s) must wrong.”

May he rest in peace.

For an appreciative essay on Sandage and an illuminating interview (from which the citation above was taken), see the sites indicated below:

Allan R. Sandage dies at 84; cosmologist focused on the age of the universe

November 17, 2010

By Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times


Dr. Allan Sandage, “A Scientist Reflects on Religious Belief,” Truth Journal.


Death of a Jesuit Zen Master

Earlier this week I noted with sadness that William Johnston, the wonderful Irish Jesuit and long-time resident of Japan, died on October 12th in Tokyo at the age of 85.  Bill was a pioneer of inter-religious dialogue and the author of a number of superb books on Christian mysticism, especially the interplay of Christian spirituality and Zen.  His 1971 book Silent Music became and remains a classic in the field, not least because of his discussion of the scientific study of meditation comparing Zen and yoga practitioners with Christian adepts.

I was privileged to make a retreat with Bill early in my professional career and in 1985 met him again in Tokyo, where we spent a delightful afternoon and evening together touring the city and exchanging insights.  I was especially happy to share a birth date with him.

He will be greatly missed, but his accomplishments will endure and his memory will be blessed around the world.

Here are some links about the life and death of this wonderful man:



The View from here: “Would You Believe?”

Reek Sunday this year was, as usual, a misty day on the heights of County Mayo as some 20,000 pilgrims made their way up the treacherous scree, many of them barefoot, to the summit of the 2,500 foot peak. An annual event on the last Sunday of July for some 1500 years, ascending Croagh Patrick has pre-Christian origins.  But it is now identified with Ireland’s patron saint who fasted there for 40 days before hurling a silver bell off the peak and, so it is said, banishing all the snakes and serpents from the island.  Only 40 people fell off the track this year, and of that number only 2 were seriously injured. It was a better year than many.

This year, Reek Sunday was also notable for its conclusion, an hour-long talk show hosted by Mick Peelo on RTE One, the principal national television channel.  “Would You Believe” is a regular religious feature and on Sunday the topic was “The Crisis in the Church,” which might be taken as an understatement.  Traditionally Catholic Ireland has been especially devastated by the sex-abuse scandals tormenting the Church in the United States, Germany, Belgium, and elsewhere.  But the appalling extent of the abuse and the following cover-up by many bishops, including the Cardinal Primate, which has led to over a half-dozen episcopal resignations and a forthcoming visitation by a special papal envoy, is only one of a host of problems racking the Church here.  And all that was the focus of the lively if regrettably scattered discussion on Sunday night.

Among the dozen or so “guests” offering live and taped views before a live audience (who also got into the act) were two bishops (the retired but still outspoken bishop of Kerry, Willie Walsh, being especially noteworthy), Dom Mark Hederman, the abbot of Glenstal, several priests, sisters, a young Dominican student, and a number of prominent lay people, including Baroness Nuala O’Loan, the former police omsbudsman from Northern Ireland, Mary O’Rourke, a member of the Irish parliament, and Prof. James Mackay, a theologian from the University of Edinburgh.  (The list may be read in either ascending or descending order, depending on one’s hierarchical preference.)  Fr. Enda McDonagh, the esteemed theologian from Maynooth, was not surprisingly both eloquent and incisive.

The conversation dashed from topic to topic, rushed, it seemed, by the moderator, Mr. Peelo, who seemed at times to want to squeeze as many opinions as possible into the segments conveniently divided by advertisements.  But it was not all a 3-ring sound-bite circus – Mackay, Hederman, and O’Loan provided a number of telling observations, mainly calling for greater transparency (or at least some) in church procedures, as well as greater lay participation, especially on the part of women, and a willingness to listen to the voice of the faithful.  Not exactly revolutionary, but Ireland’s bishops have only recently and reluctantly begun to admit permanent lay deacons into ministry.

More telling was Professor Mackay’s observation that every pope since John XXIII has backed away from the vision of the great pontiff who threw open the windows of the Church to the modern world.  The reigning pope did not come off well at all in that regard. Bishop Walsh’s lament that there are no real structures of accountability between individual bishops and Rome identified one of the chief areas of muddle. The clear call was for a thorough reform of policies, not belief, if the Church in Ireland and elsewhere is to regain the moral credibility it has squandered over the last decade.  Apparently not a few of the snakes have come slithering back.

In the end, the daring-enough program was frustrating for lack of deeper penetration and discussion in regard to any of the many issues brought forward.  Despite several moments of remarkable insight by Walsh, McDonagh, O’Loan, and others, Peelo’s prodding mainly resulted in a venting session.  Still, it was a pretty amazing event for Catholic Ireland. Now to see who will lead up the mountain of reform.

Saving the Tiger

As Christians the world over are about to begin the first full week of Lent, a period of forty days (and, yes, nights) of penitential preparation for the coming feast of Easter, the matters of sin, contrition, confession, absolution, and reconciliation come easily enough to the Catholic mind.  So Tiger Woods’ public admission of sin, guilt, remorse, and apology – his search for forgiveness  (even though a Buddhist) — could hardly been timed more appropriately.

The hoots of derision and skepticism that greeted his confession seemed less so and disturbingly hard-hearted for a reputedly “Christian nation” – as we are led to believe we are by the Tea Party folks, the Moral Majority, and other nativists.

The unwillingness of many Americans to grant absolution, much less forgiveness, for admitted wrong-doing and apology has a depressingly long history.  If TV talk shows and morning news specials are any guide, there is still a stack of unused scarlet letters out there just waiting for the Puritan needle and thread.

Public confession, penance, and absolution fell out of practice pretty early in Christian history, first in the Irish church in the sixth century and for Latin Christendom in the thirteenth, when private confession became the norm.  In a world dominated by “news” of the antics of media celebrities it now bids fair to return in force.  One recent national news report even ran a montage of famous, sometimes tearful public confessions, from Bakker and Clinton to Haggard and Swaggart, including Michael Jordan and possibly Magic Johnson (I didn’t catch them all).  Americans appear to delight in public humiliation and a bit of groveling (Bernie Madoff being a cruel disappointment).  However we are curiously reluctant to grant forgiveness, which means, quite simply, let the repentant sinner off the hook now.  It’s a perilous stance, though, if we take Jesus’ injunction into account:

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven….” (Luke 6:37)

Or even old St. Paul’s warning:

“…you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”  (Romans 2:1)

That hurts.  OK, Tiger, it’s enough.  Pay no attention to all those folks standing around with stones in their itchy palms.  Go now in peace.  And, to be on the safe side, don’t do it again….

Haiti and Rev. Robertson

As the death toll of Christian missionaries, many of them evangelicals, as well as the native Christians of Haiti continues to rise, the remarks of televangelist and multi-millionaire Pat Robertson are being met with widespread repugnance.  Other evangelicals, let it be said, have been quick to respond with assistance, contributions, and prayers.

Robertson seems to think that the people of Haiti made some kind of collective pact with Satan 200 years ago for which, at least by implication, Jehovah has cursed them far beyond the seven generations sanctioned by the Bible.  Even  the Chicago Tribune’s John Kass, in whose veins the milk of human kindness does not usually bubble merrily, found Robertson’s verdict well over the top.  Like Sweeney Todd, the famous preacher seems to worship a dark and vengeful god, one that delights in visiting ancient wrath on the poor and defenseless people of New Orleans, the Indian Ocean, and unwary astronauts.  The wealthy evangelist does not seem to sense the irony in declaring that the poorest of the poor are made to bear the weight of the sins of the rich.

The righteous TV mogul ended his tirade by advising the people of Haiti to turn to God.  He might well consider practicing what he preaches.