Sunday, April 24, 2011

Religious beliefs are a journey.

It is Easter Morning 2011. My lovely wife, RoseMary has just left for Easter Morning Mass. She asked if I wanted to come celebrate this most Holy day of the Christian calendar. I decided not to. I am just not in the mood to ponder the infinite this morning. She understands.

RoseMary is Catholic. She was raised in a devoutly Catholic country. Attended Catholic school as a child. Graduated from a college owned and administered by the Catholic Church. Then she worked at another school that was also owned and administered by the Catholic Church. All her relatives were Catholic. All her friends were Catholic. I truly do not think she ever knowingly met a single non-Catholic person before she moved to the United States at about the age of 28.

Then she met me. A Protestant. Somebody she was taught to believe was ‘of another religion’. I was attending a liberal Baptist church at the time, but she knew nothing of denominational markers. She was taught that all people who claimed to be Christians, but were not Catholics were of a different religion called ‘Protestant’. She was taught to be wary of such characters. I was a refugee from Calvary Chapel, a church that does not officially have members, and I held on to that tradition. I never considered myself a Baptist, nor officially joined that Church, although I was asked to by the Baptist clergy numerous times.

We wed in the Baptist Church against her family’s wishes. I left the Christian Faith about a year after we wed. RoseMary still struggles with the fact that I left, but she has gradually become more and more understanding as time goes by. We are madly in love with each other, despite our different approaches to life.

I have influenced her thinking. I speak openly about my lack of Faith without evangelizing. I just don’t feel the need to keep it a secret anymore. It takes too much energy to keep these things secret. I did not keep the fact that I was a Christian a secret, even long after my street evangelizing days were over, so similarly I do not keep the fact that I am a non-believer a secret. Because of this, all our church friends from the old Baptist church have gradually left us one by one. We still have many friends in the Catholic church, but we have come to understand that many of the nuns that we run into from Annunciation House and similar Catholic groups view us with suspicion.

Over time, RoseMary has found herself drifting further and further away from her Catholic friends. Not completely. We are having a celebration with several friends later today, and I am happy to spend time with them. But she is finding that she needs to be choosy with her friends whether or not they are Catholic. I have taught her that religion does not make people good or bad. It does little to change attitudes. She has come to understand that, and views many of her old Catholic friends as sneaky hypocrites and back-biters. She had let them go as friends.

At the same time, she has been making more friends at her work who are either agnostic or a-religious. She told me that she is finding a new community of people that she really relates to, and it has nothing to do with religion. Unlike everything she grew up with, unlike everything she knew before coming to this country, she is spending time with people and basing friendships with people in a way that is completely unrelated to the Catholic Church.

She has revealed to me, slowly and over time, all the things she does not believe about the Catholic Church. She does not believe ‘Sin’ exists. She does believe in Heaven but not a literal Hell of eternal fire. She hates how the Catholic church manipulates with guilt. She adores Pope John Paul II, but does not like Pope Benedict XVI, and even thinks he should do a bit of jail time. She understands that such beliefs are heresy, but she does not care. She believes as she sees fit, but does not share those heretical beliefs with her Catholic friends (at least not often), and still considers herself Catholic. Which is fine by me.

A few weeks ago, RoseMary was engaged in one of her favorite pastimes - keeping up with her old classmates on FaceBook. After the Earthquake/Tsunami disaster in Japan, many of her old friends were petitioning for prayer for those Japanese people. I stood with her, as she scrolled through page after page of her old classmates Thanking God, Asking for Prayer for God, saying the Loved God, God is Good, Love God, Thank God, Help us God, GOD GOD GOD GOD GOD…

…and RoseMary told me, “you know I am tired of this. All this religious God talk about Japan and nobody is linking to the Red Cross or talking about how they can donate. It is all GOD GOD GOD. How I wish I could tell them that there is no God. That there is no God who is going to look out for them.

then we talked about something else unrelated. I did not pursue the subject. I just let it stay where it was.

No God? Really, RoseMary?

Last weekend we had friends over for tacos and beer (an El Paso staple). They were all a-religious friends from RoseMary’s office whom I do not know well and had only met a few times previous. After loading up on pork asado tacos and a few beers we started to loosen up, and RoseMary shared a story about a religious office-mate of hers that tried to pass off a religious tract to her. We all laughed a bit at that. RoseMary said she should have tried to shock her religious office-mate by saying that both she and her husband were atheists! Uproarious Laughter.

Excuse me, RoseMary? Atheists? Perhaps that was the taco and beer talking, and again, I saw no need to pursue the subject when the friends left. But did I just hear RoseMary identify herself as an atheist?

I do not usually identify myself as an atheist. Just as I did not join a church as a Christian, I don’t now feel like sticking an identifying tag onto my beliefs. But when pressed, I confess that the tag ‘atheist’ does fit me. So should I be rejoicing that my wife RoseMary is gradually leaving the religious mindset and rejecting her traditional god? Should I be happy that I and her secular friends are undoubtedly influencing her thinking?

Funny, but I am not rejoicing. She is the same person, perhaps a little less naïve about the world, perhaps more practical, but the same person I met and married as a devout believer. Maybe I am a little intimidated by the influence I know I have put into her. Perhaps I am a little sad that she is slowly leaving her native culture, the Catholic Church being a huge part of that. Maybe it is the same feeling I feel when I consider anybody’s loss of innocence. A maturing and loss of innocence is a reflective transition in anybody’s life, but in that transition, we must let some cherished, but childish things go. I think back to our time of dating, when I would watch her sing joyously in the church choir, a smile as large as could be, and compare that to now with those innocent days of belief shattered, that joyful choir singing is gone as well. RoseMary is a naturally joyful person and is still joyful in life, but I confess, I sometimes miss watching her sing in the choir, smiling and carefree. We are not there yet. Since I don’t label myself with a belief and never really have, I feel free to call this whole religious outlook on life a journey. I think RoseMary would too, but she is stuck with the label ‘Catholic’ which was branded on her by her native culture.

RoseMary will be back from Mass soon, and we will be going to a party after that, so I should wrap this article up. Another rambling, pointless and aimless article by me. I fear getting too personal sometimes, but that is the advantage of keeping my name an anonymous and ambiguous ‘HeIsSailing’.

Until next time, Dear Reader.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Richard Bauckham ItunesU Lectures 2 and 3– The Gospels as History from Below

I admit that I am new to the world of ItunesU, and there are probably plenty of interesting audio lectures and courses out there, but this four part lecture series by Richard Bauckham is probably not the best introduction to Audio Lectures that I could have had. I have listened to all the audio lectures, and have really struggled on how to write this review or response. It is not necessarily a matter of whether or not I agree with Bauckham's historical analysis and methodology, it is not even that his presentation style is unengaging (heck – some of my favorite professors were terrible speakers), it is rather the whole thesis, or lack thereof, of his presentation.

Simply put, I don’t know what point the man is presenting. Is he arguing a case? Is he stating mere facts? Is he trying to convince us of some new way to view things? I can find no central theme, no focal point, to this series of lectures. Maybe I am too dense to see it – I grant that. This is a series for graduate studies at Reformed Theological Seminary – Orlando, to an audience who has studied this sort of thing, I assume, full-time for at least a few years. Me? I am a mere layman in the area of historical methodology. So I grant that he may be just talking over my head. But with that said, since I could find no central theme to his lectures, this article, which I am writing in response, is as random and disjointed as I found Bauckham’s lectures to be.

Lectures 2 and 3 were on the same theme, so I shall review them together. Bauckham’s stated purpose to the lectures was “reconstructing the social world of the Gospels” by using the Gospels. Bauckham feels confident in doing this, since he considers the Gospels to be “A people’s history” or what he calls “A History from Below”, that is, one viewed from the perspective of the common person. He believes that the Gospels contain characters of all social strata and in a representative distribution to that actually in place in Palestine at that time, so he is able to derive a history of the social strata represented by the Gospels - of the person who lived off the land, e.g. a fisherman or a farmer.

How is Bauckham able to do this? He has written down a list of all the persons who appear in the Gospels along with their assumed social position. Sometimes Bauckham has to infer this, as in the case of Simon the Leper (Mark 14:3-9). Simon may have been of the wealthy class, Bauckham argues, since he was able to host a meal for Jesus. The woman who anointed Jesus may have been using very expensive ointment, and Bauckham uses this as further evidence to place Simon the Leper in the elite category. If I remember correctly, these or similar arguments are made in his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

The social classifications of some of the other characters in the Gospels are derived less rigorously. Consider Jesus’ family. According to Bauckham, Eusebius (early 4th century) records traditions from one Hegesippus (c 2nd century) regarding the grandsons of Jesus’ brothers. The beauty of the Internet means that all these citations of the “early church fathers”, references which only a few short years ago could only be found in reference libraries and seminaries, are now readily available to us commoners at the click of a mouse. Here is what Hegesippus, cited by Eusebius, has to say on the matter:

There still survived of the kindred of the Lord the grandsons of Judas, who according to the flesh was called his brother. These were informed against, as belonging to the family of David, and Evocatus brought them before Domitian Caesar: for that emperor dreaded the advent of Christ, as Herod had done.
So he asked them whether they were of the family of David; and they confessed they were. Next he asked them what property they had, or how much money they possessed. They both replied that they had only 9000 denaria between them, each of them owning half that sum; but even this they said they did not possess in cash, but as the estimated value of some land, consisting of thirty-nine plethra only, out of which they had to pay the dues, and that they supported themselves by their own labour. And then they began to hold out their hands, exhibiting, as proof of their manual labour, the roughness of their skin, and the corns raised on their hands by constant work.

I don’t find anything particularly implausible in this story, but Bauckham uses this citation to infer that Jesus himself was also a farmer, but that he was called a tekton (Matt 13:55, Mark 6:3) because this was a supplemental occupation that also gave uniqueness to his name. Bauckham also states that the citation of Hegesippus may imply that the family farm of Jesus may have been one of some distinction. I don’t see that at all – the addition of “they did not possess cash”, “thirty-nine plethora only” and the fact that Domitian later releases them as being of little consequence, as “too mean for notice”, seems to me to imply that the family of Jesus was in debt, owned only a small plot of land with no cash, and were of no distinction.

It is not that I necessarily agree or disagree with Bauckham concerning the family of Jesus, nor do I really care. But the historical methodology which he employs, to derive the conclusions that he does, seem to me to be really slipshod. It seems to me like deriving history from these sources is using a methodology that can be better described as “anybody’s guess”. Especially ironic is when Bauckham leans on such methodology, yet considers using this derived social status to infer the audience of Mark’s Gospel as “a move frought with such methodological hazards, it should simply not be attempted, I think. I think we are on much firmer ground by supposing Mark’s narrative represents with some accuracy the social world from which these traditions come, that is, the world of Jesus himself and his disciples.”

WHAT? How I wish Dr Bauckham would, at this point, distinguish between the methodology which he is using, that is, of using 4th century citations from an historian of dubious reputation, of a 2nd century writer who’s works are lost to us, to determine the social stratification and main occupation of Jesus and his family, and a methodology “fraught with … hazards”. In addition, when Bauckham compares the results of the social make-up of 1st century Palestine which he derives from the Gospels, to that which actually existed at that time, I assume he is doing this, not to add additional data to what we know of 1st century Palestine, but to vindicate what he considers the historical accuracy of the Gospels. Perhaps I am wrong in this, I admit, but his point of comparison is against a model of an “advanced agrarian society” Which is? Bauckham never explains this model, or even what it is (other than that it supposes 70-80% of common people lived directly off the land) or how it was derived. But wouldn’t you know it, the social world he derives from the Gospels matches up very well with his “advanced agrarian society” model. Whatever that is.

Bauckham moves on to compare the Gospels with three other works of the ancient world which can be compared to the Gospels, Philostratus’ Apollonius of Tyana, and the biographies of Homer and Aesop. I was most excited to listen to his analysis of Apollonius, since I am more familiar with that work than I am with Homer or Aesop. While I think Bauckham was correct in his description of Apollonius, I think he was incomplete. But I also, again, am at a loss for how to respond, since he never states his purpose in the comparison. Is he comparing Apollonius to the Gospels to show how the differences make Apollonius unhistorical? Is he just showing that Apollonius, with its huge cast of philosophers, sages and royalty, does not accurately represent the social strata of the ancient world, and thus cannot be used for the type of analysis? I can list off a number of attributes which Apollonius has that might give it a more historical basis than the Gospels, such as that it includes dozens of letters attributed to the hand of Apollonius himself, but I don’t even know if that is Bauckham’s point in comparison! I honestly have no idea, and that is why I have struggled with this response.

That is my review of Lectures 2 and 3. At this point, I feel like bailing on this listening project. I did listen to Lecture 4, but I found it to be the most disjointed of all the four lectures, and despite listening intently, I honestly cannot remember a thing about it. Perhaps that is more a comment on my listening than on Dr Bauckham’s lecture, but it just seemed to me so random, so pointless, without any central theme, unity, or focal point that I just drifted.

But with that, let me at least give my general impression of the entire lecture series. I do not necessarily agree nor disagree with anything Dr Bauckham has said. I found this series so unfocused that I do not know if there is anything to agree or disagree with! To me, it is more a matter of his completeness and methodology. If the methodology that Dr Bauckham employed in this lecture is an example of how history is derived from the Gospels, well, forgive me if I am unimpressed. I believe history, or something close to it, can be derived, but it must come from a variety of sources – Religious and secular writings of the period and archeology. Having derived this history, can one special group of writings be held separate and compared against the bulk of the rest? I think so, but only if the comparison is complete. For example, how I wish Dr Bauckham would have extracted other kinds of history from the Gospels for comparison. Perhaps the Slaughter of the Innocents, inflicted on the infants of the town of Bethlehem at the hands of Herod the Great (Matt 2:16-18). If history can be derived from the Gospel, this is surely one example to be used in comparison – but since there is no outside verification of this story in any ancient source, and it is only found in the Gospel of Matthew, is Dr Bauckham willing to discard it as unhistorical? Will he do the same for the census of Ceasar Agustus imposed on the “entire Roman World” (Luke 2:1), even though there is no record in the entire Roman World of any such census taking place? I seriously doubt it. So, again I ask, what is the point of comparing a social world, derived from the Gospels with dubious methodology, to that of an undescribed “advanced agrarian model”, if more emphatic historical claims from the Gospels are not given similar comparison?

I am left with this – perhaps the whole reason that this lecture series seemed to me to be unfocused and disjointed, is because any actual history that can be inferred from the Gospels, seems as forced out of the Gospels as water sucked out from a rock. If this is the only history that can be pulled from the Gospels, perhaps the only history that actually exists in the Gospels is too sparse to allow for a central theme or focus. I do hope that my next ItunesU listen is a better experience.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

My review of Bauckham's 'The Gospels as History' Part 1

I just returned from a long walk in the desert with my dogs, and while I should have devoted my attention to watching out for rattlesnakes, my attention was instead focused on some downloaded audio lectures. Yes, it was time to join the rest of the 21st century world, shove crappy white plugs in my ears, and take my ipod out on a walk with me with part 1 of Richard Bauckham’s lecture series ‘The Gospels as History'. So why not listen along, write your own review, tell me what you learned, or comment back to my own review!

Not sure who to thank for this idea – LikeAChild, DMA, DaGoodS, but DaGoodS has written his review here. I will read what others have to say when I am finished writing my own review.

Before I begin my review, I think it is fair to give my own attitude to the whole subject and study of ‘The Historical Jesus’. The subject, no matter what theological perspective the student of the subject holds, is tainted. It carries historical, philosophical and emotional baggage. Many historians attempt to pull the “Jesus of History” from the Gospels, which portray a “Christ of Faith”, and various methods of filtration are used. The Gospels are not long. It takes a few of hours to read through the four canonical Gospels. But these sparse sources have yielded countless pages of attempted historical reconstruction. I suppose the fact that the Gospels are such a puzzle is what gives them their allure.

The only “Lives of Jesus” that I find satisfactory are those that are de-constructive. I have read my fair share of “Historical Jesus” books, including Bauckham’s own Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and each time a book attempts to construct a historical Jesus, I come away more confused than enlightened. The only ones that I can personally make sense out of are those that show what we cannot know. My thinking is most influenced by David Friedrich Strauss’ Life of Jesus, and Charles Guignebert’s Jesus, both of which deconstruct the Gospels into historically unworkable minutia, and demonstrate that the True History of Jesus is hopelessly buried under heavy accretions of myth and legend. As frustrating as this conclusion may be to the historian, this is the only view that I find personally satisfying. I do think that the Gospels do contain history, but the history it does contain is locked away and hidden between the lines.

I want to state this upfront to place my initial view of the subject in contrast with the more conservative view of Bauckham. To my surprise Bauckham does not devote time in his lecture to arguments or evidences for considering the Gospels as History. That the Gospels are history, or at least some kind of history or historiography, is a given. Bauckham wishes, rather, to consider what kind of historiography the Gospels are. I wish to read any book on Jesus assuming the same bedrock foundation that the author lays, so I will do so with Bauckham. Let us then assume, with him, that the Gospels are indeed history of some kind, and let us see what conclusions we can come up with. He asks, under what genre of ancient history can the Gospels then be categorized?

I think Bauckham is correct to ask this interesting question, and it is something I also often think about. I also think the Gospels are a history of some sort. Perhaps historiography is a better term for what needs to be considered. Historiography, as Bauckham explains it, is ‘literature about what happened in the past’. I think Bauckham makes a great observation here, and I agree with this distinction. The problem from here is categorizing these types of historiography or ‘literature about what happened in the past’, or even defining what is meant by ‘historiography’ as opposed to strict history. ‘History’ in the sense of historiography can be gleaned from nearly anything, an extreme example perhaps being the apocalypses of the Old Testament. No, the stars did not fall, and the world did not shake on its foundations, but history can be gathered behind the veil of this fantastic language. Does this make most anything open to the genre of historiography? Perhaps so. However, as the lecture continued, Bauckham seemed to back away from this initial view of ‘historiography’ or ‘literature about what happened in the past’ to trying to justify the Gospels as strict ancient biography. The question of historiography, then, I think was not addressed. Rather, I think Bauckham was trying, in his lecture, to see how far he could move the Gospels away from mere ‘historiography’ and into the more solid ground of Biography and History.

Bauckham compares the Gospels to the various forms of histories found in ancient history and biography. In doing so, I can’t help but think that Bauckham narrows the criterion for History just enough to include the Gospels in that genre, then once included, he widens the gap again by claiming that the Gospels are biography, but of an extraordinary type. For instance, he lists the various genres of biography used in the Greek and Roman world, and compares those descriptions against the Gospels as ancient biography. In comparing the Gospels with these other ancient biographies, Bauckham notes the similiarites as justification for placing the Gospels in the genre of ancient Biography – opening prologue, narrative length, an active object of the narrative or subject of the biography, formal structure, etc. But once fitted narrowly in, Bauckham then widens the criteria by claiming that genres of history and biography are malleable, flexable, and change over time.

Bauckham pulls this trick a few times. He variously states that the Gospels fit in the genre of history, yet they have unique traits, yet they are biography, yet not like the biographies of the philosophers or sages. It seems a case of fitting the argument to match the conclusion. Bauckham goes on to talk about the different criteria that the ancients used when considering the validity of their biographies. He claimed that biographers were considered more reliable when they were near their sources. I don’t really know about this, but this seems more of a modern idea of history. Do we know anything about what the ancients considered as criteria for sound historicity? Perhaps there are plenty that I am just unaware of, but I am aware that even contemporary history was not unaffected by fantastic hagiography. For instance, just off the top of my head, I can think of one of Plato’s contemporary biographers, his own nephew Pseusippos, who studded Plato’s life with the fantastic, such as that he was the son of Apollo.

When Bauckham stated that histories were generally considered more reliable if they were written by eye-witnesses or a source close to an eye-witness, I confess that I said aloud “Oh boy, here we go…” knowing that the implication was towards the traditional authors of the Gospels. Does Buackham have a statement from an ancient philosopher or historian that states these criteria, or is Bauckham extrapolating our criteria back onto the ancients? And if so, why extrapolate this particular criteria if he did not have an end in mind – that of vindicating the historicity of the Gospels?

Bauckham makes some interesting claims about the Gospels to demonstrate their uniqueness as Biographies, and Jesus as a unique biographical figure. Bauckham states that the uniqueness of Jesus should not prove difficult to consider as history, if we consider the uniqueness say, of the biography of an ancient athlete, should one be found. A biography of an athlete would surely be unique, but historical, so why not a unique biography Jesus? Do I really need to state what is obviously wrong with this analogy? The baggage that the study of Jesus brings, is the baggage of his miraculous deeds, divine birth and his claims concerning the divine. This is the problem of historicizing this figure, and mere analogies like this almost never work. Jesus is unique, because he is portrayed as unique, and the problems of historicizing such a fantastic, divine character are not the same problems of historicizing a mere athlete. This almost seems to be trivializing the whole approach – as if the history of Jesus were really that easy. Bauckham as much as admits this when he considers the type of person that, he says, the Gospels present Jesus as. Jesus was not merely a sage, not merely a wise teacher – Bauckham claims that Jesus of all the Gospels is portrayed as the unique Messiah and the Son of God. He is certainly a national Messiah, but is also portrayed as a salvific figure for the whole world. While I think there are problems in the Gospels with all these claims, I will ignore that for now and move on to where I think Bauckham really derails his own approach to the study of the Gospels as merely history.

The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy which demonstrates Jesus is of the heritage of David, the national Messiah of Israel, and Abraham, the Messiah of the Gentiles – so that Jesus represents both Israel and the World. (Abraham as Messiah of the Gentiles??? Did I hear that right?) The Gospel of Luke is more interested in Ceasar Agustus, via his order of a census, while the Gospel of Matthew is more interested in the local ruler Herod, and his order to Slaughter the Innocent. This contrasting reach of Jesus between the two Gospels, Bauckham says, also demonstrates the uniqueness of the Gospels of History – and at this point I think that Bauckham has left the world of history and entered the world of Supernatural Design. Describing the irony between the two Gospels, the one focused locally, the other focused globally, as evidence that the Gospels are each individually unique biographical documents, is really a more sophisticated way of describing the four Gospels as “each true, but each miraculously designed by The Holy Spirit to focus on one particular aspect of Jesus” – an approach that I do not think anybody would claim is historical.

I think I have typed enough on this, and I have some house chores I must get to. In summary, an interesting listen, and I will listen to the remaining three lectures, but I can’t help but think that my initial categorization is correct. The Gospels are indeed unique literary creations, and were probably unprecedented when they were written. They fit in the literary genre of, not biography, not history, not sage wisdom, not philosophy, not apocalypse, not hagiography, not mythology, but a jumbled combination of each. A genre called …


Thursday, April 14, 2011

Voice for the Voiceless – a critique

Last Saturday evening, RoseMary (my wife) and I were invited by a very dear friend of ours to attend the Voice of the Voiceless Dinner 2011, which was a fundraiser for Annunciation House. Annunciation House is a shelter, owned, I believe, by the Catholic Diocese of El Paso, and staffed by volunteers.

Annunciation House is a hospitality shelter for undocumented migrants in El Paso. From their website

The undocumented are the heart and soul of the work of Annunciation House. It is a conscientious decision to see in them the Gospel call of treating the “least among us” as we would the Christ. Nobel Peace laureate and poet, Elie Wiesel, while addressing a group working with refugees said, “There is no such thing as an illegal human being!” If there be truth to that statement, if the Gospel be heard, then volunteers coming to Annunciation House must be willing to say to those who come to the door, “Bienvenidos! Mi casa es su casa.”

Our friend who invited us to this dinner, whom I will call R----, was also a volunteer at this dinner, and is heavily involved with the local Catholic activist community. R---- considers all her work for the undocumented migrant as a calling from God and a witness to her Catholic Faith.

‘Atheist’ is not a word I typically use to identify myself, but it is an accurate label. R---- knows I am a non-believer, but she does think that I do secretly believe, and that someday I will again proclaim the Faith. She has also told me that she believes that without God, she would have no focus or moral direction in her life. Also, based on everything I have seen, Annunciation House believes in the same source of morality. The application to volunteer at Annunciation House asks specifically for the applicant’s religious beliefs and backgrounds. The assumption is made that without religious beliefs, the applicant is not qualified to serve the poor, needy and destitute.

I mention all this because I want to write this article as a review of the Fundraiser, and my experiences attending as a non-believing outsider of a strictly religious function, not as a review of a political function. Here in El Paso, border security, immigration and the ongoing war just across the border in Ciudad Juarez are all very sensitive and controversial topics, and discussions surrounding these topics can get very heated. Most everybody has family on both sides of the border, so it is a moral, humanitarian and family concern just as much a political one. And in many ways, I agree and sympathize with the work done at Annunciation House, and I admire R---- along with the many priests and nuns who have dedicated their lives to these humanitarian efforts. It takes courage, commitment and bravery to work in a place that shelters people, some of whom are, for example, victims of kidnap-for-ransom gangs.

But for this article, I want to distance myself from the humanitarian and political issues surrounding Annunciation House, the Catholic Church, border security and immigration, and just focus this review on one thing: my perspective as an atheist attending a strictly religious fundraiser. I did not attend thinking I was an outsider, but as the fundraiser activities progressed, I could sense that my lack of religious belief was making the entire effort very distasteful for me. Even my Catholic wife, RoseMary, felt uneasy by the end of the function.

Rosemary and I arrived a little early at the Amistad Center of Santa Lucia Parish, here in El Paso, where the Fundraiser was held. Lining the walkway leading up to the parish were the Catholic ‘Stations of the Cross’, handmade by volunteers to represent the ‘Immigrant who is being crucified as Jesus was’.

Many of the Stations were made out of items found out in the desert: scraps of clothing, barbed wire and empty canteens. Some contained cartoons of brown immigrants being stopped by white border patrol agents. Some of them contained vague charges of racism. From the fundraiser program:

Upon entering the hall this evening, you walked through a Migrant Stations of the Cross. Each station’s cross was adorned by a parish group as a part of its Lenten reflection. The adornment of each of these crosses reflects a unique theme, a particular way in which today’s immigrant is placed on the cross. Parish groups have committed to taking these crosses back to their communities for further reflection and discussion during Lent.

Each station was annotated, in English and Spanish, with its religious meaning, and its extrapolated meaning for the undocumented immigrant. For instance:

First Station - Jesus Condemned to Death; Lack of Land, Food, and Word Force Migration.

Segunda Estacion - Jesus Acepta su Cruz; Los Inmigrantes y los pobres cargan el costo de bienes y servicios baratos y globalizados.

and the like. People were standing around and admiring these stations, so it was not always easy to take clean photographs of them – but here are some:

RoseMary and I sat down at the table reserved for us by R---- in the name of St Pius X Parish. RoseMary and I were the only people at this table who were not regular members of this parish, although we had both previously attended Mass there many times. Still, we did not recognize anybody there, and there were several curious nuns who approached us. I was afraid they would ask us which parish we were from and, not wanting to make a scene, I promised RoseMary to simply tell them that we were there as guests of R----. To our relief, everybody we met was very pleasant and did not pump us for details about our church attendance.

The Catholic church relies on ritual and emotion to convey any message it may have, and this was especially apparent during the opening ceremony. I cannot think of any other organization that would include a dramatic musical parade to open a fundraiser, but I consider that as evidence of the Church’s reliance on emotional spectacle. Just as the priest and his entourage parades up the center aisle of the congregation to begin the ceremony of the Mass, so in this fundraiser, the rear doors opened to allow the Stations of the Cross to be paraded up the center aisle to be displayed in front of the stage. The doors opened, the stations were solemnly displayed, the guitar slowly strummed and the chorus sang in woeful, morose, gloomy tones:

Were you there when they crucified my people?
Were you there when they fled to save their lives?
Were you there when they knocked upon your door?
Were you there when they thirsted in the desert?
Were you there when they put them behind bars?
Were you thee when they turned them into scapegoats?
Were you there when they tortured them for money?

This was sung once, very, very slowly, to allow time for fourteen handmade stations to parade up the center aisle. As each station made its way up the aisle, and as the song droned on, the theme of each station was read aloud:

“…Sexta Estacion: Veronica Limpia el Rostro de Jesus; Las polizas Injustas de Immigracion Perjudican y Humillan al Migrante…”

The final station was then followed by a giant wooden cross, which was also marched up the center of the aisle to the depressing musical strains, and planted as a centerpiece for the display of Stations of the Cross.

This whole sentimental display was a classic example of the Catholic tradition of burdening its participants with guilt. The ceremony is designed to make the Christian think of the Savior, crucified on the cross, dying to bare the burden for their sins. These particular crosses, however, were also carrying the immigrant, our fellow human being, who is being crucified on that cross along with Christ himself! The words of the opening song, told from the point of view of Jesus to his Christian followers, dictate how the Christian is to emotionally grasp these symbols:

“Were you there when they crucified my people (the immigrants)? Were you there when they fled to save their lives?…”

I can think of no other purpose for this whole mock Passion Play, the crosses, the singing, the parade, than to instill some kind of survivor’s guilt into each of us in attendance.

The Christian is to think, “What am I to do when I see people tortured for money, when I see them behind bars, when I see them thirsting in the desert? I live a good life at home with my spouse, kids and creature comforts, but alas, these poor have nothing! They are dying on the cross! They are the Others, marginalized by those of us Fortunates who hold the bulk of the wealth”.

Then the Survivor’s guilt sets in. This is what the Catholic Church, and the organizers of this event thrive on. Is there a proper and non-emotional response to this guilt?

After the opening ceremony, our meal began. It was a simple and delicious meal of beans, rice, jalapeños and corn tortillas – peasant food that I still love to eat. I quietly whispered to RoseMary that I was surprised they did not do a mock torture on the giant cross with a church volunteer to represent a crucified immigrant. RoseMary looked at me aghast like I told a bad joke, but I was not kidding. The center of Catholicism is the worship of one who was tortured and killed, and the continued reverence of those who are tortured for their Faith. Some of the Stations of the Cross featured political cartoons involving border patrol agents along with charges of racism. It would not have surprised me if the opening ceremony included a Mexican being tied to the Cross by other volunteers playing border agents and wearing Border Patrol uniforms instead of Roman togas.

After the meal, it was time to listen to the guest speakers. The first two were a reporter and a librarian, both of whom risk a great deal in their own personal lives to document the epidemic of murder in Juarez, and the corruption of the Mexican government. Both told many stories of the horrors they had witnessed, and I am awed by the courage of these brave people.

Next came the keynote speaker, the Bishop of the Diocese of Saltillio, Coahuila, Mexico, the “Most Reverend Bishop” José Raúl Vera López. The Bishop’s passionate delivery was heartfelt and emotionally urgent, in fact, his Spanish was so powerful and fast that I could only catch about every other sentence with the aid of an interpreter. He also spoke of the abuses of the governments on both sides of the border, of the dangers of hiding immigrants sought by Mexican gangs, and some of the trials faced by Annunciation House.

Again, I do not doubt the courage of these men and women, and I marvel at their dedication towards the cause of social justice. I agree with much, but not all, of what they stand for politically and morally, and I am convinced that they are sincerely seeking justice for their exploited and abused brothers and sisters. But like all who look to the authority of Jesus to justify their actions, they select Bible passages to pass their agenda and make Jesus whom they wish him to be. The Catholics who advocate border justice desire the Jesus who ministered to the poor and who cared for the sick. They have little use for the miracle worker, the judge of the world or the apocalypic prophet. The Bishop cited a portion from Matthew 25:35-40, one of the flagship Scriptures for the Jesus of the Social Gospel:

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

The bishop, somewhere in his talk, arbitrarily inserted the word “immigrant” into the scriptural citation, as in “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these immigrants, ye have done it to me”. “Immigrant?” I don’t recall Jesus ever saying anything about immigrants. I know that most Catholics understand the point Jesus is making – that immigrants are among the least of the brethren of Jesus, so they feel free to insert that word into Scripture. This should not bother me, but I confess that it does, just because I have seen, over the years, the Bible and Jesus used to support every cause, to justify every position, to enforce every action imaginable. I do not believe the Bible has any “authority”, but those who do view it as having some authority, and to those who traditionally do not read it (like Catholics), do not understand that. I do think, they are being lied to in a very unconscious and subtle way. I do think that when a person of unquestionable authority, like Bishop José Raúl Vera López cites a quotation from Jesus regarding “Immigrants”, they will believe it – and that is just a recipe for abuse. Just as those same Catholics likely do not know the whole context that Matthew 25:35-40 is pulled out of, and not cited – the entire harangue of Jesus regarding the judgment of the saved sheep and the damned goats. These particular Christians of Social Justice want Jesus to be the caretaker of immigrants, but they do not want Jesus to be the judge of the damned – so they will pull words out of Scripture and insert words into Scripture to give themselves the authority they desire.

Again – I am not bothered by their own interpretations of Scripture. I am not a Christian. I do not care. But I do care when authority figures blatantly misread authoritative texts to an unquestioning crowd. It is a quick and easy way to exercise power over crowds and to make them act in the way the authorities wish. It is a power that is too easy to abuse. And I have seen it over and over and over again in my own life, and in my reading of history.

Here is my secular reaction to this tactic. If we must continually hunt and peck for the appropriate Scriptures to create the Jesus we wish, and leave all other Scriptures out, I say “What is the point?” The Bible and Jesus can be, and has been, made to say absolutely anything! So what is the point of using it as an authority? If these people have an argument to make in favor of Border Immigration, in favor of Social Justice, then I wish they could just make their arguments intelligently and factually, instead of resorting to manipulating Holy Books and claiming that as their unquestionable authority!

I do believe that sound arguments can be made for all these emotionally sensitive concerns, but I did not hear a single one during the entire Fundraiser. Instead of argumentation, instead of direction, instead of agendas and courses for action, we got high-strung emotion, guilt-laden ceremonies and meaningless slogans. The fact that no solutions to the Immigrant problem were proposed or offered left me wondering what I was being asked to do by the organizers of the Fundraiser! I could give money to help fund Annunciation House, but that was done at the door before we even entered the building. So what, during the ceremony, during the dinner, during the speeches, was I, personally, being asked to do to alleviate the problem of migrant abuse?

What solutions or proposals for action did the Bishop, the volunteers at Annunciation House, or the many priests and nuns involved with the Fundraiser have to offer for us in attendance? The only thing nearing a call to action was contained in the opening ceremonial song:

Were you there when they thirsted in the desert?
Were you there when they put them behind bars?

… and this is telling us to do… what? I know this sounds heartless on my part, but this is a serious question the more I think about it. I truly do not know what they were asking of us, beyond feel guilty about our own comfortable situations. Annunciation House has strict eligibility rules for volunteers, and working there is a lifestyle commitment that few of us can make. What were they asking us to do? Nothing that I could tell, except be aware, and be guilty. RoseMary understands this as another Catholic tradition. Even the most secular of concerns are wrapped in emotionally exhausting cermonies, pageants, and in this case, reminders of the “crucifiction of the immigrant”, with no plan to improve the situation, and no agenda items to actually alleviate the suffering of the dispossessed immigrant. The genuinely interested and concerned person who wishes to help is left with no direction on how to actually do so.

I thought, okay, we feed and care for the destitute immigrant. Then what? They keep coming. Did anybody at this fundraiser have any ideas about how to actually solve the problem from the root? Beyond vague references to “an equitable society” I heard nothing. RoseMary has told me many times that the Catholic Church is good at feeding people, caring for the poor and the sick, and ministering to the most needy. What they are not good at is actually solving problems from the core, actually dispensing medication before the sickness takes its toll, or advocating a political agenda to solve the immigration crisis. The Catholic Church views poverty, suffering and sickness as a virtue. Catholics believe that God allows suffering to occur so that he can allow his followers the privilege to be caring and compassionate through him. This is evident to me in one of the favorite slogans of the Border Justice Catholic, “No Human is Illegal”. The common use of those who cross the border illegally is “illegal immigrant”, but the Border Justice Catholic is loathe to use that term. In addition, immigrants are collectively and reverently depicted by the Border Justice Catholic as abused, despised and hiding in the shadows. In one broad brush, this crowd views all immigrants as despised. When I hear such broad generalizations and slogans, my critical mind starts to dissect them. I assume that immigrants are despised by those that are legal, but if no humans are illegal, does that mean that all humans are, instead, legal? What about the criminals, drug lords and thugs who actually commit the crimes of murder, torture and kidnapping? Are they legal or illegal? Or do they believe that “legal” and “illegal” are terms that do not apply to anybody? And if that is the case, why does the application form for Annunciation House commit the height of irony in requiring each applicant to disclose information for a criminal background check? In addition, RoseMary is an immigrant from The Philippines, so does that mean that she is abused, despised and hiding in the shadows? Is she hanging on the cross with Jesus and the rest of the suffering? Of course, I am being absurd in this wordplay, but I do it to make a point. The vagueness of the slogans that we were offered are actually as meaningless and emotionally charged as the speeches and ceremonies. Blame was quickly pointed in the direction of political authorities, the Border Patrol, and apathetic Christian, but nobody placed a word of blame on actual, drug smuggling, kidnapping, murdering, gun-toting criminals!

I do believe that this reliance on emotionalism and the vague reverence of the suffering is one of the reasons why no solutions to the immigration problem were offered. The suffering immigrant is revered as Jesus on the Cross is revered, and Catholics will see Jesus in the suffering, and will minister to their needs while they are suffering, but I do not think they have any intention to actually solve the problem at the root of the suffering. As I once heard Christopher Hithens say of Mother Teresa, “She was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of Poverty”.

After the speaking, there was a closing ceremony. We were asked to sing along to another slow, depressing dirge:

For the dream I have today, I say yes my Lord, I say yes my Lord
To be a healer of the pain, I say yes my Lord, I say yes my Lord
Soy un serviente del Señor, Digo Sí, Señor, Digo Sí Señor
Y trabajo en los campos, Digo Sí, Señor, Digo Sí Señor

RoseMary and I left as everybody stood to sing along, in order to beat the traffic out. We were both emotionally drained.

Again, it pains me in a certain sense to write this critical article. But I looked online, and although I did see plenty of political critiques, I saw no religiously themed critiques. I do not believe that social causes done in the name of religion are above scrutiny, so I have sought to do so here. It has been difficult to put some of this into words. I love and admire these people and their social causes. We all have family across the border, and most of my friends are of the Catholic Faith, and I am lucky to have them in my life. I want to emphasize again, that I admire the courage of many of these Catholic believers, including our dear friend R----, who have dedicated their lives to this important cause. They have a spine that I will never have. I agree with many of their viewpoints regarding immigration. But I hope I have emphasized why I cannot agree with their strictly religious motivation.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Learning of wisdom.

Years ago, back in the early ‘90s, I was attending Calvary Chapel in Albuqerque. I still have loads of sermons on cassette from those years, and because of those cassettes, I am able to remember, very clearly, many of the things that Pastor Skip said.

I remember how he would slam Psychiatry, particulary “Christian Psychiatry” which would look to sources outside the Bible for wisdom. “The Bible is the only source of wisdom that a Christian needs! The Wisdom of the World is foolishness” he would say with earnest shock.

That was my religious mentality. This was the background I came from.

By the mid-90’s, while still a Christian, I began dating a young woman who was quite a bit more worldly and educated than myself. She got me interested in enrolling in college. She took me to one of the University of New Mexico’s many libraries. I have since seen much larger university libraries, but back then I felt dwarfed – an ignorant, uneducated, naïve country hick standing amongst shelf after shelf after shelf of bound research journals.

“There is so much here!” I said.

I will never forget her reply.

“There sure is. This is the Wisdom of the World”

Since I have started blogging about apostasy, religion and de-conversion, a lot of people have asked that I write my own de-conversion story. I have thought about it, but I don’t know how to do it. The task of writing all that down seems impossible for me. Because the story of my de-conversion, necessarily is the story of my entire life. My de-conversion began when I was a child, and continues to unfold to this day. That day in the university research library, standing amongst the Widsom of the World, with the chastising words of Pastor Skip fading further and further back into the shadows of my mind, was a defining moment in my de-conversion, nearly 12 years before I declared myself a non-Christian.

Thank you, B----, wherever you are. Thank you for introducing me to The Wisdom of the World.

Also, thank you DMA, for inspiration