Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Pentecostal Pastor Fights the Enemy in Ukraine

Is religion so pliable that it can be contorted against itself “with a straight face?” That is to say, does the human mind lack the machinery necessary to recognize contradiction in religious matters?  I submit that the answer is yes. This is not necessarily to be “anti-religion;” rather, the implication is that acting from a religious motive ought not to be done without critical self-examination and care. The case of a Christian minister fighting in the Ukrainian army provides a useful case study of the vulnerability.

In 2014, Sergei Reuta “set aside his work as a Pentecostal pastor to put on camouflage and pick up a Kalashnikov rifle.”[1] He treated his decision as a seamless move. “I understand that as a Christian I should defend the land where God put me,” he said in an interview.[2] Actually, his justification sounds more Jewish than Christian. To my knowledge, nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus preach defending land; rather, “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” seems a closer fit to what Jesus might say. Reuta’s distance from Jesus does not stop here. The Ukrainian pastor went on to say, “And I understand there was no escape from armed conflict.”[3] This understanding ignores Jesus’s teaching to do good to those who prosecute you, and, moreover, to turn the other cheek. Holding a rifle, Reuta was not about to do that.

Strangely, the contradiction seems to have eluded the Christian minister. First, he assumes a rationale that is not in the Gospels, and then he contradicts relevant teachings that are in the Scripture. He seems oblivious to this—even stating that the army “is morally strong because of” him and other ministers fighting alongside the other troops.[4] That is to say, not only does he fail to recognize even the possibility that he has been acting contrary to how lambs are to be among wolves—even being a wolf himself—he also claims to be a positive moral role-model. He is two degrees of separation away from being the sort of disciple that Jesus describes as carrying on his work.

I suspect that the underlying culprit here is a short-circuiting in the brain’s thought process, perhaps backed up by pride. In reasoning through his rationale, he missed key checks that might have debunked his conclusion. For example, he omitted relevant preachments from Jesus, likely going instead to the Old Testament. Additionally, I suspect that he assumed that he could not be wrong regarding his conclusion. To the extent that people assume that their religious claims have a sort of de facto validity, our construal of religion itself is blameworthy too. This sort of “anything goes” pertains to political assertions, as evidenced by some of the more implausible conspiracy theories. The human brain appears to have difficulty assessing whether its own theory has crossed the line in terms of being reasonable. The same lapse in the thought process takes place in the religious domain, where the presence of an otherwise-obvious contradiction renders the thought process there particularly flawed. Unfortunately, the assumption of not being capable of being wrong in even a contradictory religious assertion enables the defense mechanism of denial to circumvent any internal check from kicking in.

If my analysis is correct, more attention should be paid to both internal and external checks. Internally, the cognitive lapse and airs of pride would need not only to be kept in mind, but linked with motivation to critique the person’s own conclusion. External critique should come from both coreligionists and people from other religions and non-religionists (as neutral and even oppositional stances can be quite helpful in punching through contradictions standing as though on stilts during a flood). This extra effort is justified on account of the brain’s “looseness” when it comes to religious matters. In fact, even after the proposed assertion seems to survive the fortified efforts to shoot holes in it, making the claim should not be done with the tone of certainty, for it is still possible that the claim survives on the strength of an organizational or societal blind-spot. If this methodology were to become the norm, then religion itself would be recalibrated more in sync with the limitations of the human brain and our presumption of pride.

1. Andrew E. Kramer, “A Pastor’s Turn Fighting for Ukraine,” The New York Times, December 14, 2014.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Hardness of Heart vs. Being Unethical: Which Is Less Christian?

In in a religion in which God is love, hardness in place of brotherly love is without any legitimacy whatsoever; it is worse than unethical conduct. This is one way of saying that religion does not reduce to ethics because more important things are involved. This is not to excuse corruption in the Vatican; the hypocrisy alone is repugnant to anyone who takes the clerics in the Curia at their word that they are following Christ in their living out of the Gospel. Even so, going after such hypocrisy without even sympathy for the human nature, which we all share, evokes the Pharisees whom Jesus goes after in the Gospels. A Church run by Pharisees does more than unethical conduct to undercut the faith espoused by Jesus because matters of the heart are more deeply rooted than conduct as far as Jesus’s preaching is concerned.

From the essay on the film, "Monsignor"

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Heaven Is For Real: Applying Kierkegaard to a Film

In Heaven Is For Real (2014), a film based on Todd Burpo’s best-selling non-fiction book of the same title, the evangelical Christian minister becomes convinced that his son, Colton, actually visited heaven while in surgery. Todd cannot make his faith-held belief intelligible to even his wife, Sonja. She misunderstands her husband and questions his obsession and even his sanity until Colton tells her something about heaven that applies to her uniquely. Then both parents are uniquely related in an absolute way through faith to the absolute—to the absurd, in Kierkegaard’s parlance. How Todd deals with his realization can be unpacked by applying the work of the nineteenth-century European philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard.

The full essay is at “Heaven Is For Real

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Faith Leadership Over Ethical Leadership

Leadership under religious auspices can be distinguished from ethical leadership. The shift from ethical to religious principles is more involved than merely swapping one kind for another. The dynamics pertaining to faith are distinct. Kierkegaard makes this point very well in his text, Fear and Trembling. In short, an individual of faith must go it alone when the paradox of faith violates ethical principles.

The full essay is at “Faith Leadership and Ethical Leadership

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Pope Francis Goes on the Offensive against Conservatives: Credible Christian Leadership?

Credibility is absolutely essential to viable leadership, whether in religion, politics, or business. A leader who undercuts one of his or her promises effectively expunges it of any worth and is essentially a “lame-duck” leader thereafter unless he or she puts difficult effort into becoming worthy of being trusted again. It does not take long for followers to get the message if one of them who relied on the promise is punished for doing so. Chairman Mao is infamous for having made such a promise in the Hundred Flowers movement. Unfortunately, he killed many Chinese who relied on Mao’s word. A similar dynamic, though much less extreme, occurred just after a synod in 2014 called by Pope Francis, who in this respect can be likened to Mao. Fortunately for the Catholic pope, his own religion offers him a way out.
In the Hundred Flowers Campaign, which began in May 1956 under Mao Zedong, the Chinese government permitted, and even encouraged, intellectuals greater freedom of thought and speech. Mao used a famous line from Chinese classical history as the campaign’s slogan. “Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend.”[1] It was not long, however, until Mao came down harshly against those intellectuals who had used their new freedom to criticize the Communist Party. Had another opening been made and free discourse encouraged, doubtless few intellectuals would have been critical of the party under Mao.
Similarly, Pope Francis presided over a synod of bishops on whether the Roman Catholic Church should relax its stances on divorced and gay Catholics. Debate at the 2014 meetings was indeed open, with both liberal and conservative bishops making their arguments. The pope came out in favor of allowing divorced and remarried church members to receive Communion and of welcoming gay Catholics back. Among the more vocal conservative bishops was Cardinal Raymond Burke. He was instrumental in watering down the synod’s concluding summary statement. Before the synod, the pope had removed him from a position that had given him substantial influence in appointing new American bishops. In the wake of the synod, the pope removed Burke from being the head of the Vatican’s highest judicial authority, the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura; the Cardinal found himself appointed instead to the ceremonial position of chaplain for the Knights of Malta, a charity group.[2]
The problem with the demotion is that the pope had called another synod for 2015 in which the bishops will make final recommendations on the same topics. Any conservative bishop wanting to climb the Vatican hierarchy would of course remember Burke’s fate and either adopt the Pope’s reforms or remain silent at the second synod. In other words, Francis undercut his own claim that the bishops should feel free to express whatever view they have rather than be sycophantic.
In Kantian terms, the demotion makes the Pope’s maxim of tolerance self-contradictory, and thus the demotion is unethical. To be sure, religion does not reduce to ethics, and the history of religion is replete with gravely unethical acts. Theologically, both the Pope and Burke could truly reform their Church by applying benevolentia universalis (universal benevolence, or neighbor-love) to the other. Pray for those who persecute you. Do not do anything that would cause your brother or sister to stumble. Practice agape, which is self-emptying love. Presumably a person’s ideology is among the first things to be poured out. Viewing the matter of Church reform as a distant second to the spiritual value of aiding those persons who attempt to prevent your ideology from becoming actualized is, I submit, more important than whether a religious is a reformer or a conserver.

1. Enclyclopedia Britannica, “Hundred Flowers Campaign.” (Accessed November 8, 2014).
2. Jim Yardley, “Pope Demotes U.S. Cardinal Critical of His Reform Agenda,” The New York Times, November 8, 2014.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Gandhi's Philosophy of Nonviolent Defiance

Film is indeed an art form, but the medium can also function as a teacher in how it conveys values and wisdom. Both of these features of film are salient in Gandhi (1982), whose director, Richard Attenborough, says in his audio commentary that the film has done much keep Gandhi’s philosophy alive in the world. In using the film’s star protagonist to explain what is behind his approach, viewers become, in effect, students. The strength of film here lies in its use of both audio and visual means to engrave the lessons in memories. In Gandhi, the main concept to be explained and illustrated is nonviolent active non-cooperation or defiance of unjust laws or regimes.

The full essay is at “Gandhi

Friday, October 3, 2014

Religion and Business Clash at a Church’s Food Pantry

The sacred and the profane are like oil and water—oil for anointing and water for cleaning. The viability or value of the sacred does not depend on denigrating that which is exogenous to it. In other words, praising the sacred does not require trashing the world. Being in the world but not of it does not imply that the world is necessarily bad. From this perspective, the sacred and profane can both be viewed as viable in their own rights, respectively. The inevitable distance that distinguishes them so starkly is breached only with great difficulty, even if pressed out of sheer practicality. For example, a theological interpretation undergirding a religious organization’s food pantry can clash with a business calculus such as would be held by an auditor pouring over the numbers and procedures. As theology and business enjoy their own, sui generis (i.e., of its own genus or type) bases of justifications or rationales, unraveling a clash can be notoriously difficult for want of a common denominator.

The full essay is at "Religion and Business Clash."

Monday, September 29, 2014

Steward Leadership: Duty-Based Fidelity

In the ancient Middle East, “steward” (oikonomos) most often applied to the position of household manager.[1] Economics in the ancient context, such as is described in Aristotle’s Oeconomica, concerned the household, which extended beyond familial relations, as the unit of production and managed by the head of household. According to Higginson, Jesus had this role in mind.[2] “Steward” may thus apply in a Christian sense more appropriately to managers than leaders, and more particularly to ethical leaders.

The full essay is at “Steward Leadership

[1] Richard Higginson, Transforming Leadership: A Christian Approach to Management (SPEK: London, 1996), p. 50.
[2] Ibid.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Son of God

The 2014 film, Son of God, follows a familiar trajectory well-known to viewers who had seen films such as George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Watching the Passion story yet again, I could not help but take note of the repetitiveness from sheer likeness. Yet one scene sticks out among the usual denouement—that scene in which Jesus in the wilderness, the high priest in the Temple, and the Roman Pontius Pilate with his wife in their chambers pray in their own ways and with differing assumptions about divine intent toward a petitioner. The interplay of petitions plays like a tutorial for the ears and eyes on comparative religion, found here even within a religion.

The entire essay is at “Son of God.” 

Shepherd Leadership: Protective Caring Beyond Profit

Unlike the word servant, which has been so much applied to business leadership, shepherd is used in the New Testament exclusively in reference to leaders.[1]  Jesus is described as both “the great shepherd” and “the good shepherd.”[2] This is not to say that the analogy applied only to Jesus himself. After his resurrection, for example, Jesus tells Peter to do the work of a shepherd.[3] Peter in turn urges church elders to be shepherds of God’s flock.[4] So too does Paul at Ephesus.[5] Can a Christian CEO apply the attributes of being a shepherd to leading a business organization? I contend that such a fit can indeed be made.

The complete essay is at “Shepherd Leadership.”

[1] Richard Higginson, Transforming Leadership: A Christian Approach to Management (SPEK: London, 1996), p. 48.
[2] Hebrews 13:20; John 10:11.
[3] John 21:15-19.
[4] 1 Peter 5:2.
[5] Acts 20:28; See Higginson, Transforming Leadership, p. 48.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Servant Leadership Christianized

Although servanthood is a very important biblical concept for leadership, according to Richard Higginson, the role of servant “is not reserved only for those who are leaders. Christians in general are “servants of God” and are expected to serve other people.”[1] Moreover, to be ethical in a servant style is not distinctly Christian; leaders who are not Christian can nonetheless operate as servants. The term servant does not in itself have a religious connotation. Yet under theological auspices, a distinctly theological sense of servant leadership can be understood and practiced. I contend that such servant leadership is something more than the notion that has been popularized.

The complete essay is at “Servant Leadership Christianized

[1] Richard Higginson, Transforming Leadership: A Christian Approach to Management (SPEK: London, 1996), p. 48.

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Biblical Basis for Integrity in a Business Leader

For Christian and Jewish business leaders, integrity can have considerably more depth than merely consistency between word and deed. In the Bible, a sustained adherence to substantive ethical principles is part of integrity. To be sure, this could be said of integrity from a non-religious, or secular, standpoint. The Bible adds a consistency whose nature transcends ethics, and thus adds a deeper dimension available to those leaders who are people of the book.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Religion in Ethical Leadership in the Secular Context of Business

In Peter Berger's terms, the sacred and the profane are like oil and water. In Augustine's terms, the heavenly and earthly kingdoms are two distinct realms, a Christian being only a pilgrim passing through the latter, hence not to be "of it" while in it. I contend that such "white and black" dichotomies are artificial, and thus ill-fitting as paradigms in which to situate religion and ethical business leadership. Perhaps a devoutly religious CEO can unabashedly apply ethical elements of his or her religion without severing them from their theological underpinnings, and therefore without the need for subterfuge. I suspect that the legions of the CEO's subordinates would feel more, rather than less, respected. 

I bristle at the notion that Servant Leadership is distinctly or uniquely Christian. Gandhi, for example, intentionally borrowed from Jesus's teachings as well as Jain ethics to forge active non-violent protest. A leader of a business can genuinely be a servant, internally as well as in his or her conduct, without connecting the ethics to the distinctly Christian theological concept of agape--self-emptying love even unto the Cross. By the way, John D. Rockefeller viewed himself as a Christ figure in saving refiners from the destructive competition that had so ravaged the industry in the 1860s and early 1870s. He also likened himself to Noah--his Standard Oil being like an ark. Yet neither Noah nor Jesus killed the people (or animals) unwilling to be saved. "Save me from the followers of the Redeemer!" Nietzsche exclaims.

Interestingly, employees of a business leader who feels deeply the call of his or her faith on Monday rather than merely on Sunday may actually urge the CEO to apply his faith at full-throttle, rather than selectively as Rockefeller did. As distinctively Christian (meaning shaped by distinct theological concepts), though still respecting the otherness of the others rather than trying to convert them, Christian ethics at the helm need not be a threat, whether implicitly or in practice. A well-grounded, distinctive ethics can actually protect rather than threaten secular followers. In other words, I don't think Greenleaf's wan notion of servant leadership goes far enough because the secular exterior is in want of its native theological content. Ironically, the restoration of a vertical alignment would render the ethics stronger, and thus more rather than less in the interest of followers and even exterior stakeholder groups. 

Perhaps the optimal recipe consists of integration not only of word and deed and of interior and exterior, but also of ethics and the undergirding theology (which gives the ethical edifice a more refined shape). Pitfalls do indeed exist; but with respect for both the religious and secular integrities of followers, tension can be obviated. "Be whom you are," similar to the Buddhist preachment of being in the moment, is inherently respect-gathering, I submit, as long as the personal space of others is respected unconditionally too. 

caritas naturalis (seu agape), seu benevolentia universalis

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Religious Sources of Business Ethics: How Far Along Are We?

If Business Ethics for Dummies is any indication, the topic of religious sources for business ethics must have gained steam through the first decade of the twenty-first century. Increasing interest in such a topic in the midst of modernity is ironic, or counter-intuitive. For philosophers without any degrees in religion, the temptation might be to dilettante over to this topic in order to proffer an opinion. The result for the rest of us could well be a false sense of the extent of knowledge on the topic.

In Business Ethics for Dummies, Norman Bowie—a philosopher assisted by a journalist who has written other for Dummies books—discusses topics in several religions to demonstrate how they can be relevant to business ethics. With regard to Christianity, Bowie starts out on most solid ground in pointing to how Goldman Sachs has violated the Golden Rule. Specifically, the bank sold mortgage-based bonds (e.g. Timberwolf) that the bankers admitted internally were “crap” and shorted in proprietary trading even as Goldman sales people were selling the securities to clients. It is unlikely that the people at Goldman would have relished being misled on something they were sold.

In terms of the Ten Commandments, Bowie wonders whether it is for Jews only. He concludes that not stealing, lying, or envying others’ possessions is consistent with business ethics. It is questionable how useful such a platitude might be to actual business practitioners.

On the topic of Biblical teachings on wealth, Bowie opines that “the ethical teachings in the [Bible] can and should be consistent with normal business practices” (p. 27). To get to this conclusion, he suggests that Abraham established the concept of private property by purchasing a burial site for his wife, Sarah. Bowie even suggests that the exchanged evinces the essence of all business transactions.

Regarding the rich man getting through the eye of the needle, Bowie discounts the typical conclusion that Jesus was pointing to a dichotomy between being wealthy and being saved by interpreting Jesus’ statement—“With God all things are possible”—as meaning that the rich can indeed enter the Kingdom of God. Bowie will only admit that the Bible “discourages greed and the excessive accumulation of wealth and encourages generosity” (p. 28). The philosopher sidesteps the tension or outright contradiction between the rich man getting through the eye of the needle (a view that was salient in early Christianity) and the virtues of liberality and magnificence (which were salient in the Renaissance). Such tension, which is discussed in my published treatise, Godliness & Greed (for academic readers), assumes that the two virtues require continued wealth (to be given away in on-going philanthropy) rather than simply involving a once-and-for-all getting rid of all of one’s possessions before following Christ. That the “eye of the needle” story and the Christian virtues requiring wealth have each been dominant at different points in the history of Christian thought is missed by Bowie’s blanket statement on a definitive Biblical position on greed, excessive wealth, and generosity.

With regard to polytheistic religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism, Bowie claims that because they “believe in more than one god,” they “place more emphasis on individual actions and thoughts in the quest for enlightenment or elevation to the next plane of existence” (p. 32). Would not having more gods to call on reduce the reliance on the human’s actions and thoughts? I can find no credible basis for Bowie’s assertion.

In terms of Buddhism in particular, Bowie brackets Theravada Buddhism wherein only poor monks can be enlightened and concludes that for the lay Buddhists having wealth sans attachment is consistent with enlightenment. However, by including hoarding in attachment, Bowie implicates wealth itself.

Turning to Hinduism, Bowie contends that the religion is relevant in being reduced to its non-dualist (i.e., monist) Advaita Vedanta school’s “all in one, one in all” principle.  “Hinduism teaches that all beings and things are both themselves and all other beings and things. Thus, the rationale for treating others well is really one of self-interest; if you hurt someone else, you hurt yourself. Because everything is made of the same essence, you are everything in the world and everything in the world is you” (p. 33). Bowie concludes that business and profit-making are not considered bad according to Hindu teachings.

Bowie succumbs to a fallacy, however, in assuming that something else is me just because it has the same substance. A cat and I am both made out of Brahman, but this is not to say that I am the cat or that I’m hurt when the cat is hurt. In other words, everything in the world is made of the same stuff, but that does not mean that the specific entity that is me extends to the world. There is a difference between saying that everything is made of the same thing and that everything is me. Compassion in Hinduism stems from the former rather than the latter. Furthermore, Bowie over-extends the business term of self-interest in applying it to his misconception of the Hindu monist teaching that Atman (soul) is Brahman.

Generally speaking, uncovering possible religious sources of business ethics cannot be made easier by re-casting those sources in business terms, nor should the task be compromised by glossing over religious teachings from the exterior vantage-point of philosophy.

To be sure, dilettantism is not unusual in the field of business ethics. Management scholars tend to become philosophers (sometimes even without a single course in ethical theory) and both management and philosophy scholars may become political scientists as the field of business & government (e.g. regulation) is typically lumped in with business ethics. Furthermore, sociology is often “picked up” on the cuff as social norms are salient in the field of business & society (e.g., CSR), which is also lumped in with business ethics. It is as if getting a doctorate in management, philosophy, political science, or sociology (and now religious studies) gives the holder a pass in any of these other disciplines under the cover of “multidisciplinary.” The proof is in the pudding, however, as evinced in the shoddy writing of “scholars” who venture too far from their native fauna. Perhaps even more than intelligence, self-restraint is necessary for solid scholarship.


Norman Bowie and Meg Schneider, Business Ethics for Dummies (New York: Wiley, 2011).

I am currently writing a non-fiction book on this topic because my academic text, "Godliness and Greed," is oriented to scholars and students of Christian as well as business ethics. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Philomena: A Religious Critique of Christianity

In the film, Philomena (2013), the audience is confronted with the spectacle of unjustifiable cruelty committed under religious auspices. Philomena is this victim, and she must struggle to come to terms with her past ordeal as a young mother at an Abbey as she goes on a search for her son in America. Her traveling companion, Martin, is a journalist writing the story from his perspective as an ex-Catholic. Philomena defends her faith against Martin’s sarcasm even as she comes to terms with just how cruel the nuns had been to her. In the end, she and Martin confront the nuns. The question is how, by which I mean, from what direction? The answer has value in demonstrating how outwardly religious hypocrites can be put in their place.  

The entire essay is at "Philomena"

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Hobby Lobby: On the Significance of the Case

For all the controversy stirred up by the case of Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius on whether an employer must comply with the mandate for contraceptives coverage in the Affordable Care Act, the significance of the decision handed down in a 5-4 majority opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court may be less than some commentators were predicting.

From: “Hobby Lobby: On the Significance of the Case

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Pope Francis Excommunicates the Italian Mafia: How Tight is Christianity?

As though a lamb going into a lion’s den, Pope Francis journeyed to Sibari in southern Italy on the Summer Solstice of 2014 to castigate the Italian mafia, and more specifically the Ndrangheta crime group, as an example of “the adoration of evil.”  He added that “(t)hose who in their lives follow this path of evil, as mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated.”[1] Presumably so too are the mafia families in other European states, and in the American states as well. As laudable as such excommunicating is, the fact that such murderous thugs have regarded themselves as Catholics, and, more generally as Christian, points to a more profound need for reform within the religion itself. In this essay, I draw on The Godfather saga to present this argument.

[1] Reuters, “Pope Excommunicates Mafiosi,” The Huffington Post, June 21, 2014.

A Ukrainian Priest’s Divisive Politics: At What Religious Cost?

In Lviv, Ukraine, Rev. Addriy, a priest of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church rather than the Ukrainian affiliate of the Russian Orthodox Church, said after a Mass in June 2014 that the European Union is an “empire of evil” defying the Word of God and spreading sins including homosexuality and pedophilia. The priest went on to characterize the Ukrainians who toppled President Viktor Yanukovych as “Godless deviants” and “fools . . . in the pay of hostile foreign powers.”[1] Being in the western part of the state, the eastern-looking priest was not exactly “preaching to the choir”—meaning he must have known that his message would not be well-received by his congregation. This disjunction illustrates a distinctly religious problem that can arise when clerics fly too far afield from the religious domain onto those of politics, economics, or even social problems.

The problem is multi-level. On the surface, attention to non-religious matters carries with it the opportunity cost of foregone attention to religion. To be sure, the priest spoke outside of Mass, and thus he did not detract from it directly. However, at a deeper level, he did diminish the religious value of his Masses. His own diminished stature or credibility in the political matter at hand put his religious role at risk as well.

Anger at an opposing political view inexorably puts distance in a religious relationship. The latter is not limited to new-found suspicion regarding sermons or homilies. The transcendent religious experience—communion with God in Christian terms—involves shifting attention from the external environment (i.e., what is going on around you) to an “inward” orientation to a reference point that inherently transcends the limits of cognition and perception. Feeling “safe” enough to risk shifting attention off what is going on in the worship context (e.g., the church) is essential to being wholly invested in the experience itself of yearning for that which is yearned for beyond the particular mask of eternity. Feeling that the person in the room who is in charge is in any sense a threat, or even just disliking him or her, thus detracts from the religious experience, and thus from the religion itself as an instrument thereof.

So, beyond the point that political ideology is of another domain than religion, the over-reaching can inadvertently sabotage or at least diminish the intensity of the religious experience possible in a given worship context. In other words, a dedicated context, sui generis to religious experience, is compromised as soon as stuff from other domains is brought in. The inherent sensitivity of religious experience, owing both to the intimacy in yearning for “the wholly other” that lies inherently beyond our reach and the giving up of attention to one’s immediate surroundings (i.e., what is going on in the church), is violated by the breaking in of stuff from our realm (e.g., politics, and even church business!).

In the case of Roman Catholicism, for example, the “presence” of the sacrificed or consecrated Christ in the Tabernacle on the altar sets a sanctuary apart as sacred space from the rest of the world. Whether or not such a presence is actually in the bread in the enclosure is not the point; rather, that Catholics treat the sanctuary as perpetually dedicated to religious activity facilitates their entering into religious experience as in communing with God after ingesting Christ in the Eucharist. A priest or lectern making announcements from the weekly bulletin, for example, as the congregants are intensely focused in transcendent yearning disturbs the sensitivity of the experience itself.

Interestingly, the “pure” or rarified sensitivity that is in religious experience intentionally devoid of stimuli that can dilute the sensitivity itself can carry over onto ensuing experience back in a person’s daily world of quotidian stimuli. That is the religious experience is in one sense a “sharpener” of a person’s sensitivity, which on return to the world can “carry over.” Although the heightened sensitivity to the ordinary doubtlessly fades as a person’s ordinary sensitivity level kicks back in amid its customary context, regular “religious exercise” may give its more finely-tuned sensitivity greater staying power, such that the “sensitivity weight-lifting” sessions may eventually not be necessary for this purpose.

Applied interpersonally in a person’s daily life, the greater, “microscopic” sensitivity gained through religious experience is commonly known as compassion. In fact, this byproduct is typically misclassified as religious rather than ethical in nature, and this error in turn can invite or provide an opening for interlarding content from the world such as social issues (e.g. abortion, poverty, social justice) into the worship context. In the case of Unitarian Universalism, especially when its humanist movement reached its zenith in the 1970s in the United States, social structures based on the ideology of egalitarianism are regarded as sacred. Such self-ideology as sacred can be interpreted in religious terms as a manifestation of self-idolatry, which snuffs out or blocks outright transcendent spiritual or religious experience.

Therefore, sensitivity not only pertains to transcendent religious experience devoid of interfering external stimuli, but is a byproduct known as compassion that is of value in the world. Though not religious itself, the ethical principle of what Adam Smith calls “fellow-feeling” in his Theory of Moral Sentiments can itself thwart the sort of invective inflicted by the Ukrainian priest on his disheartened flock. “Do not cause your brother to stumble,” Paul advises in one of his letters to a congregation just a few decades after his Lord’s crucifixion.  If a cleric is not sufficiently careful in this regard, we can assume that he or she has little regard for the value of others’ religious experience, and even such experience itself, relative to more “worldly” agendas.

It is ironic, to say the least, to find religious functionaries and even institutions oblivious to what is conducive to a religious experience that is transcendent in nature. Both in being of value in itself and for one of its byproducts, intense dedicated yearning for that which inherently lies beyond the limits of human perception and cognition may actually receive scant attention in most religious services. Even where the rites are conducive to such experience, clerics may tend to treat the ritual as an end in itself rather than as preparatory. In how many Masses, for example, is the experience of communing with God after the Eucharistic ritual treated as the high point, or core, of the Mass? 

In this photo, furnished by the U.S. Defense Department, a bishop consecrates the bread into the body of Christ. Is this moment of the sacrifice of Christ in the Mass its high point even if so in terms of the Eucharistic rite? Behind the priest is the tabernacle, in which previously consecrated pieces are stored. They make the room into "sacred space" continuously rather than merely during a Mass. 

Instead, the priest-centric consecration of the bread and wine is said to by the pinnacle, and the Mass itself is typically quickly ended as soon as the priest finishes washing the dishes. Unlike any experience oriented to the external stimuli of a priest holding up the consecrated species, which admittedly can be quite meaningful to a Catholic, the communing experience following the ritual transcends even the worshipper’s immediate environment and thus is more conducive to isolating the eternal (by transcending the external) and then sensing that of the eternal back in the person’s daily life, including in other people. This sensitivity is more finely tuned to them, and thus to the subtle indications of their suffering; and I suppose the experience of yearning transfers over in a way in the motivation to relieve the suffering. However, the heightened sensitivity itself may also furnish the motivation. 

In terms of liturgy generally, religious ritual can be thought of as preparation, rather than as the whole of a religious service—distinctly religious experience being the immediate objective; as the referent is both by definition and experientially inherently “beyond,” the intensity can be put on the yearning itself, especially if the religionist is willing in true humility to transcend even the given mask of eternity to the raw numinous experience itself. Put another way, the yearning itself, or communing, can extend beyond the human reception of divine revelation into our familiar categories of thoughts and images. To the detriment of such "pure" religious experience wherein the immanence of transcendence demands a heightened sensitivity, the divisive Ukrainian priest had other treasures in mind, and therein in all probability his heart and god could also be found.

[1] Andrew Higgins, “Ukrainian Church Faces Obscure Pro-Russia Revolt in its Own Ranks,” The New York Times, June 21, 2014.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

On the Theology of the Eucharist: Beyond Historical Divisions

According to a survey led by a sociologist at Catholic University and published in The National Catholic Reporter, forty percent of 1,442 American Catholic adults said "you can be a good Catholic without believing that in Mass, the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Christ—a core doctrine of Catholicism.” A reporter opines that this “could reflect the decline in Mass attendance. The survey finds it’s fallen from 44% attending at least once a week in 1987 to 31% in 2011, while those who attend less than monthly rose from 26% to 47%. When asked why they don’t go to Mass more often, 40% say they are simply not very religious.”[1] What does it mean to say that someone is or is not religious? Looking back at the history of religion, a neutral party might half-joke that the adjective refers to the proclivity to spar over puerile theological distinctions as if Creation itself hung in the balance. In this essay, I illustrate how such a distinction bearing on the Eucharist (i.e., Holy Communion) can be diffused of its alleged historical significance as warranting Christian division under the taskmaster of (cognitive) uniformity as a placeholder for unity.

The Catholic doctrine of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist is called transubstantiation. It is the belief that the substance, or essence, of the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ. The term “substance” can be misleading. It does not refer to what we moderns understand as chemical or physical material or matter; rather, the notion of substance here is that of Aristotle, who distinguishes it from accidents, or the qualities/attributes of something. The accidents include something’s physical or chemical material as well as other qualities. The real presence in transubstantiation is the Aristotelian notion of “substance” (or essence) applied theologically rather than metaphysically. The body and blood having a real (theologically!) presence in the Eucharist are of Christ’s post-ascension, resurrected body.

Lest one object that Jesus resurrected asks for a fish and thus has a physical dimension, it is the post-ascension resurrected body and applied theologically. In other words, the real presence is real theologically. We tend to think of “real” metaphysically as in terms of reality, and this in turn in terms of real substance as matter. We have almost lost the ability to think in terms of theological essence. I contend that the theological essence from applying the Aristotelian notion of substance (or essence) theologically to the Eucharist as real presence is virtually the same as the Reformed spiritual presence. The Lutheran consubstantiation—that the Aristotelian substance or essence applied theologically is real presence coheres with the “substance” or essence of bread and wine remaining. My point is that all three views contain a spiritual (or “real” theologically) presence, in contrast to Zwingli’s view of communion as a symbol.

To grasp Aristotle’s notion of substance and how it may apply to theological concepts, consider the following analogy. For a person to say that the house (or apartment) he or she grew up in was his or her home is to say that the “substance” or essence of the house changed to, or included, being home. It makes no sense to say that the presence of home is a material substance even though home is really present as felt. Materially, the house may be made of wood and/or brick, but this is almost beside the point. At some point after a couple moves into a physical house, it becomes home. The “substance” or essence changes (or is added to)—the difference with respect to whether the essence changes or is added to doesn’t really matter if one’s focus is on home. So what it is also still a house? My point is that home has its own sort of real presence, and it doesn’t make any sense to speak of it in terms of other domains, such as materials science. This doesn’t mean that the presence of home is any less real. Anyone who has had one's house or apartment broken into and trashed knows that the "substance/essence" or real presence of home can be wiped out in a day. The difference between the house being one's home and being the house in which one lives is unmistakeable and thus the distinction is taken as real in a certain, non-metaphysical sense. So too, the presence of the body and blood of Christ is taken as real in a spiritual or religious sense.

I suspect that real presence and spiritual presence refer essentially to the same thing, given that Christ is present “bodily” in a distinctly religious or theological sense, rather than in a metaphysical or empirical sense. The bottom line may be that for a disciple of Jesus, home is really (i.e., religious sense) present at the table. In other words, the essence is that of being home, just as Jesus feels at home going alone to pray on a mountain. Being a child of God is to be home where God is felt to be. Religious, or transcendent, experience is really present for such a person. Ultimately, I think the real presence at the Eucharist is precisely such an experience. In it, the Kingdom of God within is experienced as truly present. One is part of the body of Christ. In other words, the body that is ingested is distinctly (and delimited as) theological in nature, and thus spiritually present—and no less real (in a religious rather than metaphysical sense). Ultimately, home is felt as really present as a matter of the heart, rather than being a place or material substance that could be bottled.

If I am on the right track in tracing the distinctly spiritual real presence of the body of Christ to its roots in a distinctly religious experience, then at least some of the arguments or fighting between the Reformed, Catholic and Lutheran sects historically was based on  mere misunderstandings. Take, as another example, the doctrine of justification by faith (solo fides). The Catholic position does not deny this, or interlard works or the efficacy of the sacraments as additional requirements for justification. Rather, taking communion is part of the process of sanctification, which follows justification.

Also, the Catholic position does not maintain that the sacrifice of the Mass substitutes for Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, as one Reformed historical document claims. Indeed, Catholic priests say that their ordination enables them to share in Christ’s sacrifice, rather than substitute for it. After centuries of misunderstanding rolling over the division from generation to generation without any thought or reflection, perhaps we can finally step back and marvel: So much for the vanity that presumes human disagreements to have any real significance!

Perhaps most unfortunate of all, the sheer intransigence of apparent historical differences can block perceptual opportunities. For example, given their doctrine of spiritual presence, which at the very least is a presence in a religious sense, Reformed churches could conceivably have provide the spiritual presence of Christ in chapels to be adored under the specie of consecrated bread. The assumed spiritual presence could serve as an anchor making possible a sustained presence of intense religious or transcendent experience isolated as though a precipitate of ongoing practice. Out of such practice naturally comes a distinctly spiritual sensitivity, which in relation to other people we feel as compassion. In the context of such a religious core, theological disagreement itself is naturally relegated or sidelined as extraneous just as one does not pay so much attention to the materials of one’s house if it is also one’s home.

Who would willingly go from the warmth of a hearth into a cold room unless to pick a fight? And what does it matter anyway what the fight is about to the persons staying near the hearth? I suspect that the Catholics who view themselves as “not very religious” have simply not been shown to the hearth, even in Church; to them, it is a cold room guarded by too many control-freaks (who themselves know not the hearth). Who could blame people for resisting the cold—yet if they are given a taste of warmth would they want it? I think this depends on the person. Perhaps a church is in essence (or ought to be in practice) delimited by experiencing a distinctive warmth.

1. Cathy L. Grossman, “Survey: U.S. Catholics’ Religious Identity Slips,” USA Today, October 25, 2011. 

The Eucharist as Transcendent Experience

Taking a swipe at a core tenet of Catholicism, Bill Keller of the New York Times writes, “Every faith has its baggage, and every faith holds beliefs that will seem bizarre to outsiders. I grew up believing that a priest could turn a bread wafer into the actual flesh of Christ.” I contend that the editor’s characterization of consecration represents a misunderstanding of the Eucharist. Such misunderstandings have been worse; in the early years of the Church, some pagans were under the impression that the Christians were meeting on Sundays to eat babies. Indeed, phrases such as “eat my body” may in fact be inherently prone to being misunderstood.

Generally speaking, religion may have a tendency to flirt with the literal, or empirical, even at the expense of that which is distinctly religious in nature. Hence Keller’s point that every institutional religion has baggage may be correct even if his interpretation of the Eucharist is erroneous. It should be of no surprise that religion is hardly immune to the vaunted pretentions of the human mind even to that which is beyond the limits of its cognition and perception. Under the circumstances, we would be well-advised to be relatively circumspect in how firmly we impose our religious beliefs as if they were established knowledge.

Regarding the Eucharist, Keller’s use of “actual flesh” is misleading, for both actual and flesh point to an empirical basis or connotation. When we moderns typically say actual, we mean that something actually exists, which is to say that it is the case empirically in the world in which we live (i.e., based in the human domain). Keller’s use of flesh confirms his usage of actual, for flesh is indeed found descriptively in the world, as in, The wolf ate the lamb’s flesh. In German, the word for meat is Fleisch. To be blunt, a priest does not turn a wafer into meat. I’m not sure whether changing something from one food group to another would constitute a miracle anyway. This allusion to food groups is apt, for my approach stresses the utility of delimiting categories. I assume that the various realms, such empirical, metaphysical, and theological, are qualitatively different and distinct.

I contend that the Eucharist involves the application of a theological concept through social contract as pertaining to an empirical object. This is not to say that the empirical realm is that of theology.  Van Rad makes this point in his text, History of Israel. A faith narrative, such as the covenantal relationship between Jehovah and the Hebrews is not comprised of bare historical facts, even if Biblical allusions to history are used for theological purposes and given a theological meaning. The meaning gleaned from the faith narrative does not establish or confirm historical facts. Nor are theological meanings scientific concepts; the two domains are distinct, and thus have their own respective criteria. Whereas history and science are confined within the empirical domain, which is in principle within the limits of human cognition and perception, theological meaning is transcendent in nature, meaning that our ideas and sensual impressions fail inherently to go the distance with respect to religion.

Neither is theology essentially metaphysics, for otherwise, religion would be none other than philosophy. Put another way, meaning is not reality itself. People who characterize the Trinity as real are making a metaphysical rather than a religious claim. The latter has to do with the unfathomable mystery behind the notion of a triune god, rather than any metaphysical claim that the three persons exist in reality itself. Put another way, if God is the condition or source of existence, then God cannot be existence itself—much less some empirical object existing. Neither does God as conceived theologically reduce to Kant’s “things in themselves.” God is not “the Real.” Yet neither is the transcendent limited to Kant’s phenomenal realm of appearances. Religious meaning is of its own, distinct, realm—yet how elusive it must truly be, for all the rush to cover it over with leaves from other fields. If I am indeed on to something here, we would hardly recognize the distinctly religious terrain for all we have interlarded on top of it. Put another way, our theological gardens tend to end up looking a lot like ourselves.

In terms of the Eucharist, Catholics maintain that the body and blood of Christ are really present theologically under the empirical “species” of bread and wine. In Catholicism, the real presence is a theological concept called transubstantiation. That it is applied to empirical objects—bread and wine—does not mean that the religious meaning is empirical in nature. The religious term refers to another theological concept—that of resurrected body—rather than to the empirical concept of “actual flesh.”

In a nutshell, Bill Keller has Jesus’ earthly body rather than his resurrected body in mind. To think of a resurrected body on the basis of a physical body is to reduce theology to physiology or biology. The resurrected Jesus walking through a door and asking for something to eat anticipates the tendency to liken what we don’t understand to things that are familiar. Theological meaning is distinct, rather than reducing to any of the empirical sciences, yet for centuries Christians insisted on being buried so their physical bones would be available to be resurrected.

Augustine writes that the relation between the Father and the Son should not be thought of in terms of the relationship between dads and sons. By implication, the Son as a theological concept is qualitatively different—meaning not just in degree—from what we know of what it means to be a son from our observations of sons in our midst. Christians forget Jesus’s reminder, “no one knows the Son except the Father” (Mt 11:27). It is all too natural to reduce begotten to made by clothing the transcendent in familiar clothes.

Resurrected body does not apply empirically; rather, it is a theological meaning that is situated in a faith narrative rather than a historical account. This is the point that Keller so vitally misses in his essay. The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not actual flesh. Nor is the real presence metaphysical in nature. The empirical species of bread and wine as like posts around which the Catholic believer can swing around, as it were, in the transition from the empirical realm of the everyday to a distinctly transcendental experience that transcends even the posts themselves. A major pitfall to watch out for is slighting the experience in favor of holding onto the posts. There is even a risk that some of the unsatisfied religious meaning gets transferred onto the empirical signs themselves, thus making them into idols without realizing it. The mistaken assumption is then that a sustained, intense focus on the empirical objects enhances rather than takes away from religious experience. In actuality, the religious domain, which is inherently transcendental, has been confiscated with more familiar experience within the limits of human cognition and perception. All the while, the Kingdom of God is within, as though smiling at these artificial edifices we create to edify and bemuse ourselves.

I contend that the bottom line on the real presence is the theologically-felt experience of transformation or sanctification that can be induced by applying the theological concept to the bread and wine via ritual. The religious experience is not exhausted by the symbols on the surface; religionists merely use them, and the associated ritual, as prep. Crassly put, they put people in the mood. Sustained, concentrated transcending as an experience that is really present (though not reality!) does not just happen after a person steps into a church from a busy day, hence the rites and posts to follow along the way. The point is the experience, felt as really present (and thus eternal rather than of time and space)—the artifices along the way are just so, rather than religious objects to be held as though they were ends in themselves, which is to say, idols.


Bill Keller, “Asking Candidates Tougher Questions About Faith,” New York Times, August 25, 2011.

Pope Francis on Youth Unemployment, War, and the Idolatry of Money

It is not often that the global economy’s military-industrial complex is tied to youth unemployment and, moreover, to the idolatry of money. Yet this is precisely the thread woven by the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church. While the pope’s comments risk a certain overreach from the theological to the terrain of international political economy, which proffers its own body of knowledge, it can also be said that having a transcendent referent as one’s focus enables a person to make subtle taken-for-granted assumptions in our economic, social, and political systems transparent. In articulating an economic (and related political) center and giving it a distinctly theological interpretation stemming from the Biblical passage, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,”[1] the Roman pope provides the world with a way to do political economy from a distinctly religious vantage-point.

“At the center of all economic systems must be man, man and woman,” the pope asserts; “everything else must be in service to this man.[2] In itself, this claim is not religious in nature. Rather, the tone is philosophical, reminiscent perhaps of Kant’s “kingdom of ends” in which morality means respecting rational beings as objective ends in themselves, rather than only using them as means. For Kant, a lack of goodwill, due to pathology, lies behind the lack of adequate respect that would otherwise put people first—hence the need for public legal justice. This is not to say that Kant secularizes the matter completely; any rational creature is an end in itself “by virtue of the autonomy of his freedom he is the subject of the moral law, which is holy.”[3]  Using reason, the rational being is an assigner of value; such a being thus has absolute value (hence deserving to be treated as an end in itself, rather than merely a means to someone else’s agenda). Now a rational being is uniquely free to subject himself to his own law, which, given the necessity that lies in reason itself, binds him.  “The moral law is holy (inviolable),” Kant writes; “the humanity in his person must be holy to him.”[4] For Kant, the humanity is the rational nature, which makes the moral law sacred because reason cannot be bent out of sheer caprice. Put another way, rational beings have absolute value in that we use reason to hold ourselves as if by necessity (though freely) to that which we assign value to.

Pope Francis can be read as substituting love for reason—that men and women are made out of love, and thus inherently to be loved rather than used as mere means. Here we can discern glimpses of Leibniz’s claim that human beings are due love as a matter of justice as per the extent of being or existence that we have, and Augustine’s emphasis on caritas, or human love that can be sublimated to love of God.

Whereas Kant points to pathological self-love as thwarting the respect due beings of love, Pope Francis argues in terms similar to Aquina’s misordered concupiscence—placing a lower good above a higher one. “(W)e have put money at the center, the god of money,” the pope claims. “We have fallen into a sin of idolatry, the idolatry of money.”[5] Where your treasure is, there may be found your heart. In this case, money, which Aristotle calls barren metal, has come to be loved rather than other people, not to mention God, which as Augustine stresses, is love itself. The basic problem, in other words, is warped priorities.

Not surprisingly, greed is not far away, lying behind money as a god at the center of all. “The economy is moved by the ambition of having more.”[6] That ambition is an end in itself, so no amount of money is ever enough. Interestingly, we can distinguish ever-lasting here from the eternal; whereas love cuts through time in having value, greed is of infinite, or unlimited, desire. Value that cuts through time, such as holds with love, gets expunged by the all-consuming god of money. Put in Kantian terms, people are treated as mere means rather than also as ends in themselves.

It is no wonder that the young and old are tossed to the wayside because of their relatively low utility. Regarding youth unemployment, the pope had this to say. “(W)e are discarding an entire generation to maintain an economic system that can’t hold up anymore, a system that to survive must make war, as the great empires have always done.”[7] The system, being designed to funnel money, must be protected, and it is no accident that the people-as-means, or human resources, attribute so easily translates into an economy of war. Rather than being at the center, the human being is reduced to collateral damage, or targeted outright.

Because “a Third World War can’t be done, they make [regional] wars,” the pope explains.[8] This involves the production and sale of weapons, which sorts out “the balance sheets of the idolatrous economies, the great world economies that sacrifice man at the feet of the idol of money.”[9] Here the pope explicitly relates making money an idol of inviolable worth and sacrificing people as if they are worthless. Barren metal, in other words, is put over beings capable of holding themselves to a moral law and of loving themselves and others—even those who would sacrifice them on an altar of gold. Not unexpectedly, an international political economy oriented to sustaining an arms trade divides economies—even sorting them reductively along the lines of weapons production and consumption. The United States is a “superpower,” whereas Africa has value only in as much as it has the wherewithal to purchase weapons and sustain its intestine squabbles.

Once held up as a coming cacophony of diversity “like a polyhedron, all united but each preserving its particularity, its wealth, its identity,” globalization has become impoverished, “a sphere in which all points are equidistant from the center” whose sheer gravity “takes away the wealth of diversity of thought and therefore the wealth of a dialogue between peoples.”[10] That is to say, the reductionistic, weapons-oriented organizing principle of the global military-industrial complex saps globalization of its many differences, essentially nullifying this sort of wealth in favor of a more banal form in which the dark hole of a bank vault functions as a god with a suffocating embrace.

Beware the military industrial complex. U.S. President Eisenhower delivered this starkly public warning as he embraced some free speech in his farewell address in 1960. It is dangerous to have so much financial and related political interest lined up on the side of war. This is hardly unknown, yet we tolerate it because the interests of capital have beguiled us into supposing that they have labor’s back. In other words, we have been made to fear the onslaught of mass unemployment that would ensue from a structural realignment off the weapons trade. 

In his interview in 2014, Pope Francis takes a more subtler look at what is really at stake. Whereas historically religion and then morality operated as viable constraints on the profit motive, the god of money seems to have a relatively free hand as of the early twenty-first century at least; correspondingly, people are secondary, and thus expendable, in the system designed and inhabited by the same. Money has come to be regarded as an absolute, with the worth of persons being defined exclusively according to its measure. Put another way, the unit of measurement has become an end in itself—inviolable, and thus an idol—while the measurers—the assigners of value—have come to accept their place as mere means, or human resources. 

Living in the “system”— an artifice entirely changeable even in its basic contours—many people just assume that the constantly-felt subterranean, subtly existential instability or uncertainty is a necessary part of life. Life means being expendable. Life means that money rules. From a transcendental referent point, a spiritual person can see the world differently—atypically—and thus make transparent our systems’ basic premises. Once recognized, they can be changed; the changers can take back their innate power to set the priorities for the systems, whether they are social, economic, or political in nature, and to see to it that the designs are in sync with those priorities. Where our treasures are, there too are our gods.

[1] Luke 12:34; Matthew 6:21. Not being in Mark, the source is likely the book of Q (which stands for Quelle, or “source” in German), a book of Jesus sayings hypothesized to have been a source used by the writers of Luke and Matthew.
[3] Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (1788)
[4] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.