Saturday, June 30, 2012

Responses to 'Atheism'

My last post has produced some fantastic responses via facebook that I would like to share here.

First, Grant Kaplan, one of my professors and mentors from Loyola (now at SLU) writes:
 Hey Andy... I'm glad that you're blogging, and it appears that some people read it. Second, if you're interested in atheism, you should read the work of Michael Buckley. For Buckley, the term "atheist" is one that gets its meaning from its opponents. So Christians were atheists, before Spinoza was an atheist, although neither claimed to be atheists anywhere. They were against "the God of their day." What you see recently is an owning of the term by atheists and making it positive. You seem to contrast Gen-X and Millennials. I'm not sure the generational breakdown works like that. Plenty of Gen-X people are "spiritual" but feel no institutional religious loyalty. Also, by talking about "perfect" atheists, you are using a value term. I'm not sure that's helpful if you're just trying to describe. 

One anomaly you seem to overlook is that the term "atheist" emerged in early modernity before the term "theist" ever did. Aquinas would have never called himself a theist. The older distinction is between "theoretical" and "militant" atheism, the latter being a 19th century thing. For people like Nietzsche and Freud, religion is harmful to humanity. So too, Dawkins. If you think something's harmful and potentially death-dealing, then by all means you should oppose it fanatically. This is of course a very different argument from those who say that religion is a myth, but a good one, because it makes people more loving. In the end my preference is for Nietzsche over the Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett crowd because none of the latter seem to have anything more than a rudimentary understanding of religion, or Christianity, whereas Nietzsche actually tried to understand Christianity, and came up with some very penetrating insights. To conclude, keep blogging.

And Chris Lirette, whose opinion I've highly respected for years, writes: 
I too think Dawkins style atheism is ridiculous for more or less the same reasons. But I think that "perfect atheism" is also like religious faith because it is still a misprision (Bloom's use) of empirical reality. Whether or not God or gods are involved, we create narratives for ourselves to make cogent our experience of life. Both worlds with gods and worlds without gods come from our imagination and that unified, unspoken theory forms the basis of our ideologies, ethics, etc. And of course our supreme fictions can be influenced by others, culture, political fads, etc. I think the strongest argument you have against Dawkins, et al, is the number two, because resting so much of the argument as an activism against an interpretation of reality you don't agree with forms pretty weak misprision, existing only as criticism and not as a reimagining. In either case, with or without a god, there's so much mystery in the world and life that imagination is not only awesome but necessary. And that's something I think is worth living for.
Also, I have no idea what Dark Theology is, but I'm guessing it's apophatic theology? If not, I want to know what it is because IT SOUNDS AWESOME.
Chris, it is awesome.

This article was an experiment using the Policymic website, balancing accessibility and brevity with systematic integrity. From the friendly discussion here to the 20 not so friendly comments there, I see I could have done a better job on the integrity end. Mea culpa.

I hope that the studied advice of my friends Grant and Chris help round out my last article.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Perfect Atheism

Atheism has received a lot of press this weekend, but what we saw was only a Gen X rebellion. We millennials have discovered a more perfect breed of atheism that is simultaneously much less scary and much more threatening to religious institutions.

Traditional atheism defines itself in contrast to theistic belief. Richard Dawkins, for example, campaigned against the God Delusion, making wild money based on people's dissatisfaction with their own religious conviction coupled with people's desire to rebel from the faith of their fathers. But there are three big holes in traditional, Christopher Hitchens-style atheism:

The Sweater Delusion
 1) It has been institutionalized. By being defined as a category alongside Christian or Hindu, traditional atheism has become a religious institution with orthodoxy, venerated leaders, prescribed practices, and even some rituals. This is great for atheists who want to be atheist with others, in a community, which leads to...

2) The word "atheist" can only be defined using the word "god." The word "god" is inseparable from theism - it has no other meaning. Any discussion of god, including the contradiction of god, necessarily uses the word "god" and promotes a theistic mindset.

3) Being atheist is a pretty new thing. All religious traditions include mystical testimonies to the mysteriousness of the divine, like Sufism in Islam or Dark Theology in Christianity. Religious institutions and communities make God more approachable and easy to understand. It seems like, if you follow these instructions, BAM! There's God. But just scratching the surface of theology reveals the deep cloud of unknowing present within the religion. Even St. Paul hungers after the unattainable knowledge of god in 1 Corinthians 14:12, "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." So doubting god or imagining a god-free world did not make one an atheist in the past.

Perfect atheism cures these ills, and it's increasingly popular with millennials. A perfect atheist is one for whom god never comes up. They never talk about it, they don't go to meetings or read books about it, they never use the word "atheist" to describe themselves, and they aren't rebelling against anything.
They just live their lives guided by internal and external morals and desires, directing themselves towards tangible, terrestrial goals. They find community in friends in their daily lives and online. The big spiritual questions are simply not relevant - they aren't interested in being a soldier in the war between Dawkins and god. These are the millennial Nones.

Religious institutions will have a harder time recruiting Millennials later in life because the institution has very little to offer. Millennial atheists don't need the parish for community, they aren't looking for orthodoxy, and they're skeptical of tradition and hierarchy. Rituals are still an important part of our lives, but religious institutions don't have a monopoly on those.

Religious institutions should recognize that they will be competing with a new atheism this millennium and seriously consider what they offer to our generation.

Monday, June 18, 2012

5 Movies for Millennial Religion

A few recent polls have confirmed that millennials (born after 1982) have a much different religious life than their parents. In the last decade, the number of ‘nones’ – people who claim no religious affiliation, but who aren’t atheist – under 29 has risen from 12% to 30%.  After the endless religious scandals of the last decade, Millennials are overwhelmingly rejecting typical religious communities. Instead, some people form new communities online, others simply experience the spiritual without churches.

‘Nones’ no longer limit their source of wisdom to holy books and ministers, they look to media, art, and even the news for spiritual inspiration. For example, here are five movies for Millennials and religion.

Toy Story

Now we can watch our favorite movies as adults, and appreciate the deeper lessons Pixar was trying to teach us. Through the interaction of Andy, Woody, and Buzz, Toy Story deals with adult, human relationships. In particular, Andy and Buzz struggle for acceptance from the god figure of Andy, in a system they don’t fully understand.  That’s the root of a lot of the comedy: the toys don’t get what’s going on at the gas station or in the pizzeria.

In a sense, that’s what we feel in our spiritual lives. We are in a system – a universe, an institution – that we don’t fully understand, and we are looking to each to each other to confirm our acceptance. Are you saved? I’m totally saved, aren’t I?  Plus the sense of separation from the god figure, chasing after it, seeking its approval.

The major lesson comes from Woody and Buzz’s transformation. When we work together we are better, but when we cut each other we always fail, we can never connect with the mysterious universe and toy-loving god.

Chronicles of Narnia and The Golden Compass

These books and movies are famous for their religious content, and they should be consumed together. They both deal with a religious institution that may or may not serve its purpose.

In Narnia, the reign of the humans is the religious institution since they are chosen by Aslan, the god-figure, and since they seem to resolve all problems. When the kids arrive everyone fills with inspiration, the cellos and timpani swell, and all heads bow. No problem is too big. In Compass, the Magisterium (referring to Roman Catholic bureaucracy) oppresses creativity and the soul.

We feel one of the same ways with our religious institutions. Either churches and communities inspire us, make us feel strong, hopeful, and connected, or they sap our vitality and crush our personalities.

I Heart Huckabees

This is the most explicit film on the list. Huckabees follows a handful of Americans as they come into contact with existentialism and nihilism via Dustin Hoffman’s surreal existentialist investigation agency.

I like this film because it doesn’t feature any religious organizations, but people still search for some answers and find each other.


This is the least accessible film on the list, this sci-fi thriller deals up close with loneliness, relationships, identity, and purpose. Sam has been mining on the moon by himself, with only the AI on the base for company. He misses communicating authentically, with his pregnant wife on Earth, or with any other human. And he wonders why he would be doing what he’s doing.

I think of every terrible job when I see this movie. There is no resolution, no easy lesson, which cements the sense of isolation, ambivalence, and exhaustion. How do religions help us overcome these?

The Hunger Games

These books and movie examine the place of rituals in our society, from the preparation of a simple meal and the exchange of token gifts to a complex, lavish death match. Rituals can sometimes increase relationships of love, but the more unnatural the ritual, the more likely it will interrupt any real connections.  

Luckily, we can free ourselves from rituals we don’t approve of, and create new rituals with our loved ones without the help of an authoritarian state.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


losing team
Now I can no longer ignore the stories of abuse at the hands of priests, the criminal misconduct of church leaders, and the stony response from the top. So today I will write on my own reactions to this ongoing tragedy, and some positive responses that it could eventuate.

Sometimes I feel like I play for a losing team. That is to say, when talking about my place in the Church (and church) I use a lot of underdog rhetoric. A friend taught me how to talk in reference to Christian environmentalism - namely, that Christians are blindly anthropocentric in ways that ignore major elements of Christ's message, the Old Testament histories, Christian metaphysics, and reality. She has said that she no longer identifies with the institution that has failed so miserably, so consistently, so perennially. Now I know exactly how she feels. It is hard to make excuses for this institution that has regularly promoted injustice, inequality, ignorance, and evil since the time of ancient Rome. To zoom out, the ancient monotheist traditions all have more blood on their hands than purification clothes.

Unique, new evil.
But our disaster is unique. Our religion's evil is intimate, personal, and sexual. This evil is in our bedroom, in the sheets next to us. This evil contradicts our last ounce of hope in personal, inexplicable trust. Oh, but this evil is not just localized or singular, it is also systemic and global. Today's religious evil is the worst of both worlds - personal and universal violation.

Overshadowing my sympathy for the abused, my reaction has been vocational, challenging my assumptions about what I want to do with my life, and what I think is important in this world. I have lived on certain premises since middle-school, when I wanted to be a priest, to graduate school in theology, to currently searching for work in churches. But now - what the hell am I doing with this organization!? I am pro-women to the point of philogyny, very pro-queer, sexually liberated, environmentally aware, postmodern, and democratic. Sure I fancy some aspects of traditionalism, but that's mostly in the menswear department, not in theological sensibilities.

Lets see. I appreciate the way tradition, connects us with ancestors (philanderous racists that they were) and with a global community (millions of whom are caught in mortal power struggles in which religious institutions are almost uniformly in the pocket of the persecuted). I deeply appreciate ritual, as this blog exhibits. The Eucharist is occasionally a powerful action. Um....

Whenever I 'do theology', whenever I talk or read about religion and spirituality, or whenever I take part in rituals, I do not focus on the positive. I see myself as an agent of change within a dilapidated ship. And I am not alone - a dozen or more weekly magazines, and countless academic journals, are following the Catholic response with rabid criticism. Respected theologians across the globe (but overwhelmingly in NATO member countries) are being equally aggressive. Leuven taught me that that the movers and shakers in theology are pushing the boulder with me.

What comes next.
So what do we want? This dramatic evil could stoke two centuries-old fights. First, the sexual identity of priests as celibate men. It has been thoroughly shown that married priests are 1)more aligned with the tradition; 2) one of the endearing aspects of the Orthodox and Protestant churches; 3) practically unassailable. Female priests is a fight I see for another 150 years, but this fight might be won in a decade. Assuming, that is, the pope wants it.

Which brings us to the second front - hierarchy. Papal primacy (the Pope having unique and superlative powers compared to other bishops, contrasted with 'collegiality') is a tack on everyone's ass. It is THE impasse of EVERY ecumenical dialogue (that is, the big reason that Anglicans and Lutherans and Catholics and Orthodox aren't one big church with a lot of imaginative parts is almost entirely because of the Vatican's immovable and very Italian position on the role of the pope. yeah really). Papal primacy is also a major blindspot for Christian metaphysics, which had to invent and prop up a ridiculous notion of Truth that allowed Truth to be known specially and infallibly by one person. The pastoral management of parishes, dioceses, regions, countries, and continental churches is sometimes coordinated by, sometimes hindered by, Rome's interference. And, as the Old Catholic Church in the Netherlands demonstrates, even when the ritual and theology are entirely intact, the centralization of authority on Rome is the sole reason we do not have married and female Bishops in every dioceses that wants them. Hans Kung Hans Kung Hans Kung.

B16 has taken some unique steps to deal with the situation - the unprecedented, intensive visit of the Irish bishops, the pastoral letter to Ireland - so there is some hope that he recognizes this as a watershed. And, encouragingly, even uber-Catholic Ireland is not taking shit from Rome anymore, and will civilly prosecute priests as sex offenders, extraditing them from wherever they are transferred to as if they were criminals on the lamb (which they are) (AWESOME PUN!) I hope this spark for Vatican III, the type of council that reinforces VII and dusts off the explicitly unfinished agenda of Church reform that has haunted us since 1965. Well, since 0035.

Monday, June 11, 2012

My Story pt. 2: Catholic 3-way

(continued from here)

I'm stuck in a Catholic 3-way
After years of serious study and research, I see that Roman Catholicism is stuck in a non-sexy three-way, which is at the heart of my unhappiness and disappointment with Christian churches.

non-sexy three-way between Academic Church, Local Church, and Vatican

 On the one hand, the Academic Church - universities, theology scholars, publishing groups, conferences and organizations - is trying to understand every aspect of religious life with full freedom. From them you can read about feminist interpretations of scripture, efforts to re-join denominations, and even visions of the Christ of the Cosmos. This church proposes all sorts of bold visions for the future of Christianity. Many members would classify themselves as progressive, but overall you have practicing Christians. Many are ordained men and women.

Then you have the Local Church - local parishes, pastors, weekly bible study - which tries to respond to the needs of \individuals and families. Parish priests are stretched to the limit, so today we don't see our friendly country priest like previous generations. The gap is filled with over-worked under-paid un-trained lay ministers, or permanent deacons (also volunteer), or retired-in-residence pastors (who are retirees).
pressure on all sides

The local church has intense challenges on all sides - competition from other churches that are more *something*, pressures to be orthodox from the Bishop or other national organizations, the needs of diverse individual members, severe budget shortfalls, and the pastor's vision. It's impossible to hold these in balance. If the pastor gets his way and they, say, switch to old-fashioned services, many members will go to other congregations and the budget will fall out, cutting off lay-ministers and any parish services. If a church competes with other congregations by using youth-services or more contemporary approaches, the Bishop could gut-punch them by removing funds or replacing the pastor. Managing all this takes a professional team, which many parishes cannot afford, or they afford at the expense of other services like outreach to the poor or mission trips or education.

Finally, we talk a lot about the Vatican - we mean the Pope himself, the college of cardinals, the host of administrative organizations like the orthodoxy watchdog CDF, and their worldwide network of Bishops (like the USCCB). They are very Roman, in the sense of maddening bureaucracy and corruption, entrenched machismo and anti-feminism, and a weird sense of budgetary priorities. They are also firmly (proudly?) undemocratic, closed, and secretive.

Anyone who has traveled to Italy knows exactly what I'm talking about. Visiting Rome and dealing once or twice with government there taught me more about why the Vatican is how it is than years of education. It is dysfunctional as an organization. This bureaucracy - really more of a medieval court - 'serves' about 1 billion people, but I wouldn't wanting them running the Louisiana DMV.  This has been highlighted by the recent scandals.

But this organization has placed itself into a facist position when it comes to truth and practice in the whole Church. Bishops, instead of ministering to their regions intelligently, have been chosen based on their ability to follow the Vatican. The Vatican shuts down universities for teaching or researching things that aren't orthodox. And you better believe that local pastors, or individual scholars, aren't interested in fighting this (literally) byzantine system.

What happens?
Universities stop calling themselves 'Catholic' and cut ties to the church. Local parishes shrink and collapse, or just start over. Individual families stop participating, or change congregations. The Vatican gets busted by scandal after scandal, faces shrinking popularity, and ignores talk of reform or schism.

In the next ten years I think we'll see a breaking point, a reformation moment. A few things are happening: Benedict will be replaced so we'll have a new figurehead; a critical mass of families will leave the church and parishes will collapse; the scandals will be overpowering in their trauma (as in Ireland). We will recognize our common dissatisfacion, and hopefully new leadership will bring us up to speed in the new millennium (or at least back to 1965).

What will I do? What will Millennials do? That's part 3, the Manifesto.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Imagination (Ray Bradbury)

“May you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”
—Ray Bradbury, (August 22, 1920 - June 5, 2012). (via

I read Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes hiking on the Appalachian Trail six summers ago. It was brilliant, dark, the setting was totally immerse, the action was immediate, and the ending was positive and loving.

Positive imagination.
Many of Brabury's works feature sinister contexts and ruthless challenges. The antagonist of Something Wicked was death itself as a carnival barker, with a tattoo for each soul he had snatched. The protagonists, fourteen year old boys playing in an otherwise idyllic summer, must overcome their dread of death and the father's obsession with mortality. In the end, laughter and joy destroys the carnival's illusions.

I think Bradbury was on to something. The world is a dark, sinister place, oftentimes: death is trying to snatch us up; adults and authorities are often blinded, the stakes really are very high.

And we children can defeat these things with our imagination. If, instead of imagining the decline of our world through environmental collapse or exchanged destruction, we imagine a peaceful future of plenty, we start making it so. Positive imagination  - believing that our carnival can be more than a hideout for death -  is the first step to making our world a better place.

Do not be ashamed to use your imagination like a fourteen year old! Let us share a vision of the world.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What's the Plan Here?

 Yesterday the Vatican gave notice to Mercy Sr. Margeret Farley for her forward thinking book on Sexual Ethics as rooted in Justice (a book which just shot up on Amazon's #1 for religion/theology). In their reprimand the Vatican cites traditional ethical standards and weak biblical sources instead of ethical arguments.

Add this to the US Bishop's (USCCB) public investigation of Girl Scouts and the Vatican's very public confrontation with US women religious, and I wonder: What's the plan here?

Confrontation with modernity.
As the progressive National Catholic Reporter reports, the goal of these forays into progressive Christianity in America is to beat back modern culture during the 'year of faith'. This means embracing the traditional aspects of Vatican II while denying it the ability to speak of mission in a real way. Benedict considers tradition to be sacrosanct, untouchable.

Progressive voices, especially modern women, are not welcome.

So what's next? 
People are leaving the Church in droves, that's what's next. People buying Farley's excellent book by the thousands. People listening to the institutional leaders even less than before, and participating even less in their own parish.

Today we have global communities with diverse voices who seek to solve problems, give thanks, or just enjoy a good song together. This is the new Church - the new community of the Spirit. Let us build it up, not tear it down. Don't build a fence to keep those damn kids off your lawn, with their stinkin Elvis music and long hairdos. The kids are all right!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

It's the Parish, stupid

Today I enjoyed mass at Holy Name Church here in New Orleans. It was the first mass presided over by my old friend, who was just ordained yesterday. It was a beautiful service, with well-selected music, a thoughtful homily on the Trinity, and some old friends praying with me. Plus, HNJ is an active, vibrant church attached to my alma mater. So I had a thought about what keeps people attached to their church.

church vs Church.
The local pastor of a church often finds himself or herself at odds with the institutional Church's current path. In a sense, that's how it has always been. Bishops are like the CEOs of their local area, and in the early history of Christianity they were the only disciplinarians. The priests in the village or throughout the city were just slightly elevated members of the community, often with minimal education, and often married and holding down a normal job (like permanent deacons today).

And the Pope didn't really exist. the Bishops of rather important places formed a sort of club due to their influence. By 900 the Bishop of Rome exerted more power than the others. Then the great schism led us to forget the Bishops of Alexandria, Constantinople, the ancient cities of the East. Rome was the gateway to Western Europe, so the Bishop of Rome had a lot of power over the creation of medieval Europe, and the development of the modern world. That's why the Pope is important.

But the Bishops try their best to maintain some power, with chess moves that take generations. Events like Vatican II in the 1960s re-establish conciliar power (the power of the council of bishops), which is to say the role of locals. But John Paul II and Benedict XVI are into centralized control, and over the last thirty years they have elevated more conservative, centralized bishops across the globe.

This places pastors of each individual parish into a tough spot. On the one had their rome-picked bishop pushes them to tow the party line. On the other hand, they need to be able to minister to a diverse community with its own problems. Which is why youth group on wednesdays might rock and totally speak to you, but mass on sunday messes up your groove.

Local community keeps folks attached.
The local community - the parish and the church - is what attracts people to the Church, and once joined it  will keep them attached over generations. That means that a good pastor with a warm personality and good management skills, or an active youth group, or well-executed music, or any other of the dozens of aspects that people relate with 'going to church' mean more to people than hierarchical decisions or orthodoxy when choosing a religious affiliation (or even deciding whether to be affiliated).

This theory of mine is based on my experience today, other anecdotal evidence, and real data. The US Christian churches had their biggest participation numbers in the post-war Eisenhower era. At that time, most survey participants ranked community (non-theological) factors far ahead of theological factors as reasons why they attended a church, or in particular why they changed churches. 

In my own experience, the times when I went to church as an adult were related to my friends going to church, or feeling a particular connection to the church. Even though I study theology and take it very seriously, I have not invested myself in a church unless it really connects with me. And every time I have stopped attending, it was because of some local problem, not because of my (many serious) disagreements with the Vatican, or with the local hierarchy.

That's just a little big surprising. The truth is that a good homily and a warm pastor goes further than all the bombastic posturing of the USCCB or the Vatican. That's good news. But a cold pastor can turn people away, even people who deeply love and respect the institution.