Monday, January 9, 2017

A Pro-Wealth Buddhist Temple in Thailand and Pro-Wealth Christianity: Is Religion Inherently Weak?

In Thailand, Phra Dhammachayo, the head of the Wat Dhammakaya Buddhist Temple—Thailand’s largest—could be heard, as of 2016 at least, exhorting non-monk meditators, “Be rich, be rich, be rich!”[1] This pro-wealth message, with its “endorsement of worldly comforts,” has attracted worshippers even as it has “unsettled the government and the Buddhist hierarchy.”[2] Indeed, the top body of Buddhism accused him of heresy—a charge you don’t typically hear in that religion—and stripped him of his religious title. Yet his popularity at Wat Dhammakaya was undiminished. It is no wonder the Temple’s popularity continued to grow, with cash machines placed near a meditation room—the machines’ screens declaring, “Shortcut to making merit.” By giving money, and even credit-card points, to the temple, a Buddhist’s merit can be enhanced. Other things equal, the additional good karma results in a better reincarnation in the next life. The worshippers, or more strictly speaking, meditators, at the temple could presumably be rich in this life and be born into a better life next time around simply by practicing Buddhism.

Of course, the Buddha taught that desire is the source of suffering. Clinging to things, such as wealth, can thus be expected to lead to unhappiness. In Christianity, suffering itself is not necessarily to be avoided, as “picking up your Cross” in following Christ involves voluntary suffering. This in turn is based on agape, or self-emptying, love. Were Phra Dhammachayo a Christian rather than Buddhist priest, his vulnerability would be lapsing adherents into the sin of greed. Indeed, as the Christian attitude toward riches swung from anti-wealth to pro-wealth from the Commercial Revolution in the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, the risk was precisely that the religion would redeem the sin of greed itself, essentially incorporating it as a virtue.[3] One priest and theologian in the Italian Renaissance explicitly wrote that love of gain is good. Lest that be thought to be the high-water mark of the pro-wealth position in Christianity, the Prosperity Gospel, which teaches that God rewards true belief (i.e., that Jesus Christ is the redeeming Son of God) with material wealth rather than salvation alone, became popular in pockets of evangelical Christianity in the twentieth century and into the next. Norman Vincent Peale and Joel Osteen are two cases in point; no hint of the camel that could not get through the eye of the needle.

Certainly religions must contend with external, worldly pressures to conform to the convenient in the here and now. Whether a religion’s life-cycle necessarily involves caving into the pressure is a question worthy of scholarly attention. In the case of Thailand’s largest temple, the “economic boom of the 1980s created a well-to-do middle class for whom moneymaking rivaled Buddhist tradition as a core value.”[4] Something was needed to bring the two together. However, the craving for money that moneymaking tends to involve is inimical to the Buddha’s diagnosis of suffering and his prescription—enlightenment. So bringing the proverbial oil and water together can be regarded as an oxymoron at best. Perhaps it can be said that holding a religion to its intrinsic otherness is fraught with human nature.

[1] Seth Mydans, “Parsing Buddhism in a Shrine to Abundance,” The New York Times, December 21, 2016.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Skip Worden, God’s Gold (Seattle, WA: Amazon, 2016).
[4] Seth Mydans, “Parsing Buddhism in a Shrine to Abundance,” The New York Times, December 21, 2016.

Friday, December 30, 2016

A Self-Governing Chinese Catholic Church: Conflating Statecraft and Religious Authority

In late December, 2016, as the Chinese government was negotiating a deal to improve relations with the Vatican, Yu Zhengsheng, a senior Communist Party leader, “endorsed the notion of a self-governed Chinese Catholic church.”[1] The key point, I submit, hinges on governance. In what sense does governance apply rightfully (or fittingly) to a religious organization? This is a question to be put both to the Chinese government and the Vatican.
Yu Zhengsheng meeting Chinese Catholic religious authorities (Source: Yao Dawei/Xinhua)
From one standpoint, the sort of governance that naturally applies to states seems less than fitting applied to religious organizations. Most obviously, a religious organization and a nation-state are of two distinct domains. More subtly, the sort of authority wielded by a government can, if applied within a religious organization, undercut spiritual authority and spirituality itself among the faithful. Rendering the governance of a religious organization as including that of a state, such as the Vatican is, naturally incurs the sibling rivalry with other countries. Put another way, were the Roman Catholic Pope not a head of state, Chinese officials might have felt less need of a self-governed Chinese Catholic Church. Yu Zhengsheng would have been less likely to urge that spiritual leaders in China “adhere to the principles of independence and self-management.”[2] Put another way, a more spiritual and less political church would be less of a threat to any government, including that of China. Spiritual leadership from the Pope would be more likely to pass as if through a semi-permeable membrane into China.
From the other standpoint, the sort of governance that naturally goes with religions is less than fitting applied to governments of countries. Yu Zhengsheng’s claim that spiritual leaders should work to promote the “good virtue of patriotism” crosses a line because religious organizations are not in the domain in which patriotism exists. For Catholic priests to urge patriotism would undermine the credibility of their spiritual guidance. Given the Vatican’s own status as a nation-state, the question could be raised: Which patriotism—of China or the Vatican? Hence the Vatican’s involvement in governmental governance naturally invites jealousy in other governments.
Perhaps both statecraft and religious authority are vulnerable to overreaching. Perhaps problems would be simpler were people to apply self-discipline to keeping within their respective domains. The Chinese government should not ask Catholic clerics in China to advance Chinese patriotism and the Vatican should get out of the nation-state business. Keeping to two very different sorts of authority can go a long way to minimizing conflict and category-mistakes.

[1] Javier C. Hernandez, “Catholic Churches in China Should Be Independent of Vatican, Official Says,” The New York Times, December 30, 2016.
[2] Ibid.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Revolution and Religion: A Necessary Dichotomy?

Even the very concept of revolution may be extrinsic to religious organizations. Why? Perhaps this speaks to the emphasis on power/control in religious institutions. Moreover, maybe the status quo has a firm grasp in any organization, including those of religions and sects thereof. As a consequence, pressure from the deviance between cultural changes both temporally and in changing contexts and the organizational norms/assumptions mounts. Revolution can be said to be when the accumulated pressure finally bursts such that the organization itself is rent asunder. The question is perhaps whether religious institutions must come to such a fracture, as opposed to accommodating small changes incrementally. Can organizational power tolerate even such slow movement? If not, we have the dichotomy between revolution and organization. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Christian Leadership in Pope Francis’s Naming of Cardinals

In naming 17 new cardinals in October, 2016, Pope Francis moved closer to putting his stamp on the sort of cleric who would follow him as pontiff. Similar to a U.S. president’s power to nominate justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, a pope’s power to appoint cardinals who presumably can vote in the next concave is decisive in terms of leaving a legacy. With the additional cardinals, Francis had appointed 40 percent of the cardinals who could vote in the next conclave. The fact that cardinals tend to be old suggests, however, that any lasting legacy would not be long lasting. I submit that the cardinals’ typical age and even other qualities suggest that the rubric a pope uses in selecting clerics for the red hat says a lot about how the pope approaches Christianity.

Among the 17 future cardinals were three Americans. Interestingly, all three had “indicated they support Francis’ efforts to set a tone that is more pastoral than judgmental toward women, gays and Catholics who have divorced and remarried.”[1] Significantly, the pope passed over Charles Chaput, the archbishop of Philadelphia, who had been “an uninhibited critic of Francis on doctrinal matters, expressing concern that his leadership has confused the church by leaving open the prospect that priests may give communion to divorced and remarried Catholics.”[2] In making his picks, the pope was discounting such confusion and highlighting pastoral outreach, and therein putting his mark on the Roman Catholic Church as its leader.

The pope’s mark thus goes further than “making sure that his successor follows his line of thought.”[3] Yet even as much as Francis’s picks highlight pastoral work over ideological differences during Francis’s pontificate, the nature of the picks goes further in terms of what they mean for how leadership itself is to be understood in a distinctively Christian way. Specifically, in bypassing large archdiocese including Venice, Philadelphia and Los Angeles that are accustomed to having cardinals eligible to vote in a conclave, the pope was turning the ways of worldly power upside-down, hence maybe in line with Jesus’s conception of the Kingdom of God. Similarly, in “promoting prelates from many smaller dioceses—not only in the United States, but also in Venezuela and Mexico—who are ‘the classic Pope Francis-type of bishops’” (i.e., more interested in doing pastoral work than influencing cultural battles)—the pope was saying something not only about his pastoral priority and even about the universality of the Church; he was recognizing value in small places. Faith the size of a mustard seed can indeed come from a small place, whereas big places can be overwhelmed by the temptations that go with having the sort of power that the world recognizes, values, and rewards.

In short, Pope Francis was demonstrating a Christian sort of leadership, wherein the last are first and many of the first are, well, lost, even as they suppose otherwise. Reaching outside the power-centers of the Roman Catholic Church, into dimmer corners where the work of the Church was being waged in the streets rather than political debates, says something much more than where the pope stood ideologically and even in terms of the Church being worldwide rather than European- or Italian-centric; the use of power to uplift leaders from meeker circumstances and hopefully attitudes is distinctively Christian, and hence totally in keeping with being applied within the Church itself. Being oriented to eternal spiritual verities is superior to trying to be everlasting via successors.

1. Laurie Goodsetin, “Francis Names Cardinals, Including 3 Americans,” The New York Times, October 10, 2016.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Theology Applied to Evolution: An Overreaching Category Mistake

I think there's a danger in applying theology to evolution (and

the formation of the Milky Way). Namely, the application can be

viewed as an overreach of theology onto another domain. Rather 

than overreaching, theologians might try to focus on what is

distinctly theological (rather than extending it onto other domains). 

I submit that a better question is: How is theology/religion distinct 

from other realms of human experience and the world? Ethically, 

over-reaching is not a good thing because it involves encroaching 

and a category mistake. At the very least, the practice dilutes the

theological by infusing it in other domains--often times at the 

expense of what is unique to those domains and theology itself!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Politics over Finance at the Vatican: The Status Quo Vanquishes a Reformer

Late in 2015, Cardinal Pell hired PricewaterhouseCoupers to conduct a comprehensive audit of the Vatican’s finances. Beforehand, he had hired McKinsey to do a review of assets; that company found a total of €1.4 billion (about $1.6 billion) “tucked away” off the books.[1] Other church officials, led by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, let Pell know that the audit wouldn’t happen. This was a setback for the financial overhaul that Pope Francis had charged Pell with wide authority to do a thorough job. That pope had been given the mandate to clean up the Curia, as the last pope had resigned amid allegations of “cronyism, inefficiency and corruption.”[2] So why did Pope Francis take Parolin’s side in scrapping any audit even though that pope had given Pell the o.k. to have it done?

Additionally, in July, 2014, Pope Francis had given Pell authority over the properties managed by the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See (or APSA), which at the time managed most of the Vatican’s mammoth real-estate portfolio, valued at €1 billion or more.[3] Pell found substantial mismanagement in that department. As APSA’s president, Cardinal Domenico Calcagno, “developed a strong relationship with Francis, however, the pope stripped Pell of control over APSA’s real-estate holdings.”[4] The pope also declined to approve Pell’s recommendations to reorganize the management of the financial portfolio.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke tried to play down the demise of Francis’s mandate to reform the Curia. “When a new administrative body is created, it always takes a while until it fits into the broader organization. . . . We shouldn’t be distracted by the noise.”[5] Burke’s take seems euphemistic to me. The pope charged with fixing the financial mismanagement and corruption in the Vatican strangely backed down on the authority he had given to his principal reformer, Cardinal Pell. The man must surely have felt betrayed.

My question is this: Francis is no dummy; he no doubt knew his mandate. At the very least, he appointed Pell to reform the Vatican’s finances. Francis had been in church administration long enough to know that in siding with the men opposing the audit and new management procedures (even outsourcing the investment portfolio to money managers in Luxemburg), he was going against his own efforts at reform (i.e., appointing Pell with sweeping powers to clean the place up). All of a sudden, Pope Francis looks like a Vatican conservative rather than a reformer. The cardinals who voted for Francis and gave him his mandate must also have felt betrayed. What was going on in Francis’s head requires more explanation. Crucially, he did not have to take back the powers he had granted to Pell, yet he did so anyway.

Interestingly, as in the film, The Shoes of the Fisherman, Francis could have really reformed the Vatican by announcing that many of the properties would be sold and most (but not all) of the financial instruments cashed in, and the resulting money would be given to the poor as rent assistance and food. Catholic social services would be invigorated. That the Vatican spent €550,000 on a manger scene for St. Peter’s Square suggests that priorities were at odds with the religion itself, certainly not in line with what Jesus would do with the money.

Moreover, in spite of taking in millions from parishes and more from investments, the Vatican had a deficit of e26 million in 2014 (and a larger one the next year). This indicates that dealing with lots of money is not what the Vatican is good at—so why not give much of the money away?

In short, I contend that Francis didn’t go far enough in his conception of reform, which is ironic given all his preachments on helping the poor. Had his notion of reform been consistent with his view of the mission of the Church, Francis would have been more motivated to stave off the pushback from the status-quo conservatives in the Holy See. In fact, they may not have had so much power to obstruct real change that would fundamentally change many Vatican departments because wholesale reform is more difficult to pick apart. It is time, perhaps, to ask, just what kind of business lies within the Vatican’s forte? I submit that banking and investment management (and even just dealing with so much money) is beyond the Vatican's ability, whereas helping the poor is not. I suspect that Jesus’s answer would likewise shock many in the Curia—and, incredibly, maybe even the pope who made Mother Teresa a saint after caving in on financial reform of the Curia.

[1] Francis Rocca, “Vatican Finance Chief Runs into Resistance,” The Wall Street Journal, September 8, 2016.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Biblical Positive-Thinking Applied to Leadership

“I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”[1] This biblical verse captures the extraordinary optimism of Norman Vincent Peale. Belief, expectation, and faith—his pillars of the Christian religion—are internals that can move mountains and thus get results. This biblically-based recipe for positive thinking can be applied to leadership, which, after all, is results-oriented. Its desired objective is of course the realization of a vision. Simply put, if religion can be used to do better in a job as Peale insists,[2] this holds for the task of leading other people, which consists of formulating and selling a vision.

The essay is at "Biblical Positive-Thinking." A fuller version is a chapter of Christianized Ethical Leadership. 

1. Phil. 4:13. Cited from Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking (New York: Touchstone, 2015), p. 3.

2. Norman Peale, Power of Positive Thinking, p. 48