Sunday, November 24, 2019

American religion and politics: A Propensity to Overreach

Even though they are formally separated in the U.S. under the constitutional rubric that the federal government cannot lawfully establish a religion and infringe on the free exercise of religion, religion has ventured into politics and vice versa. Valued ideals pertain to both even though the highest in religion are transcendent, meaning that they extend beyond the limits of human cognition, perception, and sensibility, according to St. Denis (aka Pseudo-Dionysius) in the sixth century. So far is the political variety from such ideals as being in heaven! Yet the political sort has enjoyed a near monopoly in the world, including its public discourse. At least as 2019 was giving way to a new decade, captivation on President Trump’s tweets (i.e., brief statements made on the internet’s social media) and the process of impeaching him in the U.S. House of Representatives was strangely devoid of any religious discussion in the public square. This is all the more extraordinary because of the significant role that religion had played historically in presidential politics.

The full essay is at "American Religion and Politics."

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Financial Scandal in the Vatican: A Historical Perspective on Christian Economic Ethics

In the history of Christian economic thought, theologians, with the exception of Clement of Alexandria, interpreted the biblical story of the rich man who refuses to part with his wealth in order to follow Jesus as meaning that having wealth is itself indicative of the presence of the underlying sin of greed. The dominance of this anti-wealth paradigm only began to give way during the Commercial Revolution in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when the expansion of trading made it possible for ordinary people to save, and thus hold wealth without any sense of an underlying sin. Hence, Aquinas differed from Aristotle in allowing for moderate profit without the assumption of any underlying greed. In the Renaissance, theologians generally agreed that the Christian virtues of liberality and munificence could justify even being rich. Even Cosimo de Medici, who made his fortune from the sin of usury (i.e., interest on loans), gained the approval of the Pope in Rome by donating a fraction of the fortune to the Church. Under the dominance of the pro-wealth paradigm, Christians could be wealthy without being assumed to be greedy.[1] As for the Church itself being able to hold wealth, the collective wealth, gained from donations and selling goods, of monasteries in the Middle Ages was the door-opener. It was not as if a greedy individual could be said to exist if a religious organization owned the wealth. Aquinas approved of such wealth, a stance that, with his approval of moderate profit earned (and held as wealth) by individual Christians, began the shift that would result in the hegemony of the pro-wealth paradigm.[2] Unlike individual Christians holding coin without being presumed greedy, monasteries owning substantial wealth could be subject to a critique based on Jesus’ objection to money-changers in the Temple. When I visited a convent in Tucson, Arizona once, a sister rebuffed my request to pick a couple of oranges from the trees behind the building. “We make juice that we sell,” she replied. I had the impression that I had witnessed greed over charity in a religious vocation. Such hypocrisy, enabled by the allowance for collective monastic wealth, rivals Pope Eugene IV’s absolution of Cosimo de Medici, in spite of his fortune having been gained entirely from usury, because he renovated a monastery in Florence. This historical background can help us situate the Vatican’s financial scandal that culminated in five Vatican officials being suspended in 2019.
The scandal centered “on a large building in Chelsea [an upscale area of London] that was co-owned by the Vatican and an Italian business partner, London-based financier Raffaele Mincione,” who said “that the Chelsea investment had been highly profitable for the Vatican, which he said bought out his share [in 2018]. Mr. Mincione said the Vatican had invested a total of €320 million ($353 million), including the assumption of a €130 million mortgage, but that the building, at 60 Sloane Avenue, [was] worth €390 million” in 2019.[3] Complaints from the Vatican Bank itself and the office of the Vatican’s auditor general led Vatican investigators to raid and seize documents and electronic devices “from the offices of the Vatican’s powerful executive, the Secretariat of State, as well as the Vatican financial watchdog that monitors the long scandal-plagued Vatican Bank.”[4] The scandal was thus hardly the first for the Church’s bank. Even the Vatican’s financial watchdog had become culpable. The suspended employees “include Tommaso Di Ruzza, the number-two official of the financial watchdog,” as well as “Msgr. Mauro Carlino, a former aide to then-Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu, one of the highest officials at the Secretariat of State [the Vatican’s executive office] until 2018, when Pope Francis made him a cardinal and put him in charge of the office for the canonization of saints.”[5]
Besides a possible unethical collusion between the Vatican’s executive’s office and the financial watchdog, the connection between Carlino and Becciu may mean that Becciu was ethically compromised even when he served as head of the office of the saints. That office may have been ethically compromised before Becciu, when Pope John Paul II, who had kept Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston in office there and then promoted him all while knowing that Law had knowingly moved rapist priests around rather than defrocking them and handing them over to the local police, was made a saint regardless. The corruption in the Vatican was thus not limited to financial scandals. Greed and ideological favoritism are arguably both species of self-aggrandizement, or self-idolatry in religious terms.
From an institutional perspective, the suspension of Di Ruzza, the number-two official of the financial watchdog founded by Pope Benedict in 2010, implicates the functioning of the department itself as a check on financial wrongdoing. Fortunately, “Pope Francis established the office of auditor general in 2014.” However, the auditor general position was still vacant since 2017, when the occupant “resigned and accused powerful officials of obstructing him.”[6] Given Di Ruzza’s suspension, as well as that of Carlino of the Secretariat of State office, perhaps powerful officials involved in the London real-estate scandal captured the financial watchdog. In short, the Vatican’s internal firewalls had likely failed completely, meaning that the Vatican could not hold itself accountable. This was readily observable to the public in the Vatican’s cover-ups protecting clergy, whether high officials such as Cardinal Law, or the rapist priests themselves, during the sex-abuse scandal.
Finally, in historical perspective, the unbridled greed even at the highest staff levels in the Vatican can be said to have been not sufficiently constrained by Christian economic ethics. In decoupling wealth from the stain of greed, the pro-wealth paradigm is susceptible to wealth from greed. This is not to suggest that a return to the hegemony of the anti-wealth paradigm, which held sway for at least the Christianity’s first millennium (with a last stance amid Europe’s economic (and population) contraction during the plague-infested mid-fourteenth century, after the Commercial Revolution). To say that virtually any profit-seeking and wealth must invariably involve the sin of greed is to make an overgeneralization, but so too is the claim that wealth itself is devoid of greed. I submit that given the power of the Roman Catholic Church due to its membership-size and sheer wealth, even high-ranking clergy are subject to a significant temptation of greed both personally and for their institution. Wealth held collectively is not immune from the greed of members whether religious or not. With the pro-wealth paradigm as a floor, Christianity itself may not be able to proffer a sufficient constraint, especially on the money-changers in the Temple—the Vatican Bank, whose existence itself may instantiate hypocrisy. This may be why the auditor general and the financial watchdog failed as checks.

1. Skip Worden, God’s Gold: Beneath the Shifting Sands of Christian Thought on Profit-seeking and Wealth, available at Amazon. The related academic treatise, Godliness and Greed, is also available at Amazon.
2. Ibid.
3. Francis Rocca, “A Top Vatican Official Resigns Amid London Real Estate Scandal,” The Wall Street Journal, October 14, 2019.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Religious Violence as Hypocritical

In the movie, Boy Erased (2018), the director of a church’s conversion therapy program invites the immediate family members of one gay boy to hit him with a bible to drive out the underlying demon. The boy subsequently commits suicide. Lest this notion of using violence to remove a sin in the twenty-first century is assumed to lie in the realm of fiction, John Smyth, an Anglican, was accused in 2017 “of subjecting at least 22 teenage boys to savage beatings in his garden shed” at “an elite Christian camp for boys. His intent was “purging them of perceived sins such as masturbation and pride”[1] A Christian charity group oversaw the camp, yet I contend that the camp was not Christian.
The Latin root of charity is caritas, which means human love raised up to loving God, which as Augustine writes, is love. Whereas human love of God is caritas, God’s love is agape, which is self-emptying love. Some theologians have claimed that humans are capable of this selfless love, but Augustine says the taint of original sin is too great for divine love. John Smyth is a poster child for Augustine’s point, even though he doubtlessly thought that he was being pious in purging sins in others (it is doubtful that he savagely beat himself to purge his own sins).
If God is full or perfect being as Aquinas and Leibniz assert in their respective writings, then sin represents less than full or perfect being. Smyth’s claim then is that beating someone is a way of adding more existence to the person, which I submit does not make sense. Moreover, the beatings violate Jesus’ teaching, let the person without sin throw the first stone. Also, being focused on purging the sins of other people overlooks the plank in one’s own eye. Is masturbation such an awful sin, if the instinctual behavior is indeed sin (rather than a matter for biology). So Smyth was not acting as a follower of Christ, and thus as a Christian, even if he believed that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior.
Nevertheless, the Prosperity Gospel holds that a Christian having true belief (i.e., that Jesus is the Savoir) will receive not only soteriological benefits, but also earthly wealth from God. This relatively recent belief comes from Judaism, in which Yahweh promises to make Israel prosperous if it keeps to the covenant. At least through the first millennium of Christianity, the dominant theological attitude toward earthly wealth was negative.[2] The Prosperity Gospel could only take on after centuries in which a pro-wealth paradigm dominated Christianity. At any rate, Smyth’s abhorrent attitude and behavior suggests that having true belief counts for naught if the Christian is acting contrary to Jesus’ preachments and example. This suggests that the person who does not help a detractor or foe when he or she is in need is not a Christian even if the true belief is intact. Allowing help to flow over old and even new wounds, essentially relativizing them, is two degrees of separation from violently going after sins of others.

[1] Ceylon Yoginsu, “Doubt Cast on When the Archbishop Knew of Abuse,” The New York Times, October 15, 2017.
[2] Skip Worden, Godliness and Greed: Shifting Christian Thought on Profit-Seeking and Wealth (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2010). As this text is an academic treatise, and thus difficult for non-theologians and expensive, the same idea is in the nonfiction book, God’s Gold: Beneath the Shifting Sands of Christian Thought on Profit-Seeking and Wealth, available at Amazon.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Boy Erased

The film, Boy Erased (2018), is a drama that deals in a serious  way with the question of whether homosexuality is a choice, and thus whether conversion therapy is effective or an ideological ruse under the subterfuge of psychology and religion. Directed and adapted to the screen by Joel Edgerton, he could have dived deeper in writing the screenplay by making explicit the contending assumptions and ideas. Surprisingly, nowhere in the film do any of the biblically-oriented religionists quote the applicable verses in the Old Testament or in Paul's letters, or engage in a theological debate. The film could have gone further intellectually than the relatively superficial emphasis on the dramatic narrative. 

The full essay is at "Boy Erased."

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Political Ideology and Religious Doctrine: Pope Francis and His American Critics

Political ideology and religious doctrine are distinct, yet confusion can justifiably exist because ideology can seep into doctrine or be claimed to be such when it is not. This interlarding of political ideology into religious doctrine, or theology, is perhaps best demonstrated in Christian liberation theology, which includes political (e.g., justice) and economic (e.g., equality of income or wealth) prescriptions in the future Kingdom of God manifest on Earth. Generally speaking, political (and economic) ideology can legitimately be viewed as being human, all too human, and thus as fundamentally distinct from religious revelation and even doctrine (though even these may be influenced and even distorted on our end by the taint of human nature). Put another way, the source of revelation and even doctrine comes from “above,” whereas political (and economic) ideology are human artifacts. Therefore to infuse such artifacts into religious doctrine risks polluting it such that the religious or spiritual auspices are impaired. David Hume suggests in his Natural History of Religion that the human mind cannot long hold onto the divine idea manifesting purely as simplicity, so we attach other ideas—anthropomorphic ones—to our conceptions of the divine. Such ideas are of human traits or characteristics, hence “from below.” Sadly, we rarely recognize this human activity; rather, we take God to have such characteristics.[1] The criticism of Pope Francis by “ultraconservative” American Catholics, including some notable clergy, illustrates just how problematic the admixture of political ideology and religious doctrine can be.
“Faced with sustained opposition from Catholic conservatives in the United States who accuse him of driving traditionalists to break with the church, Pope Francis said on [September 9, 2019] that he hopes it doesn’t come to that, but isn’t afraid of it either.”[2] He said he was praying that there would not be any schisms, but he was not afraid. With the priorities of his papacy including “reaching out to the poor, advocating justice for migrants and other marginalized people and protecting the environment from capitalism run amok,” the pope had “alienated some conservatives—especially in the United States—who [were saying that he was] promoting an anti-American, anticapitalist agenda and drifting from the core teachings of the Church.”[3] Interestingly, both the papal priorities and the criticism contain both doctrine and ideology. Regarding the priorities, reaching out to the marginalized resonates with Jesus’ preaching and example, whereas protecting the environment from harmful economic externalities fits squarely with a political ideology. If religious doctrine is indeed distinct from the domain of political ideology, the pope had gone overstepped from his basis in the distinctly religious domain. Yet so too had his critics who criticized not just the pope’s handling of religious doctrine—especially the doctrines on marriage and homosexuality—but also his “anti-American, anticapitalist agenda.” The pope “lamented that politicized ideology had seeped into doctrine and driven some of the critiques in the American church and beyond.”[4] I wonder if the pope included his own doctrine! The plank is always bigger in the other person’s eye than one’s own.
Even so, the pope’s pastoral care of divorced and gay Catholics was part of his effort to emulate Jesus with regard to the marginalized; it was thus doctrinal rather than part of the pro-gay political agenda. In fact, the pope also emulated Jesus in helping enemies—a Commandment rarely seen in operation even in the religion of love founded by Jesus. In the interview on September 9, 2019, the pope “suggested that some of his most ardent critics were working out their own problems by lashing out. ‘We have to be gentle, gentle with the people tempted by these attacks, by these things,’ he said. ‘Because they are going through problems and we should accompany them with gentleness.”[5] This pastoral care extended even to enemies lies at the core of Jesus’ preaching and example—far more important than getting into the Kingdom of God than any immigration position or economic ideology. Francis’s critics in the American clergy could have responded by stepping into the religious domain by offering pastoral care to the pope. Instead, Cardinal Raymond Burke criticized the pope’s “emphasis on inclusiveness” for confusing Catholics on doctrine.[6] Carlo Vigano, a bishop, went so far as to blame Pope Francis for the child sex-abuse scandal because of the pope’s pastoral care of gays, even though the sainted Pope John Paul II ignored the problem and his fellow conservative Pope Benedict actually was part of the scandal.[7]
It is admittedly tempting to anthropomorphise religion by including political ideology; holding onto the idea of God as transcending what we can think of and perceive (and feel) is difficult.[8] It is easy, in other words, to craft the Kingdom of God on Earth as distinctly like they ways of our world, rather than turning those ways upside-down as in caring for a detractor or even enemy (without giving in). Both Pope Francis and his American detractors have treated political ideology and religious doctrine as if they were closely related and in the religious domain where the Church has a nativist legitimacy. I submit, therefore, that both sides would have done better by first willowing down the papal priorities and content of the criticism to religious doctrine. Besides realizing that the papacy sets the Church’s priorities, the critics could have followed their pope by emulating Jesus too.   

[1] Pseudo-Dionysus, or St. Denis, of the 6th century argued that because God transcends the limits of human cognition and perception, characteristics of this world, including human attributes, do not go far enough.
[2] Jason Horowitz, “Pope Francis: ‘I Pray There Are No Schisms,” The New York Times, September 10, 2019.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] As archbishop of Munich, that pope urged in a letter (published by the New York Times) that a pedophile priest be transferred to another parish (where he would work as a youth minister!) because the taint of defrocking that priest would harm the reputation of the universal Church. American conservative Catholic clergy and laity were silent in response. One volunteer at a Catholic church in Illinois told me she thought the newspaper had fabricated the letter.
[8] I suggest in Spiritual Leadership in Business that focusing on religious experience that transcends is something that we can hold onto, although the requisite intensity of concentration delimits the amount of time per session.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Bahá’i Religion: Theological Problems

The Bahá’i religion is based on the monotheistic teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, the nineteenth-century prophet whom Bahá’i’s maintain is the prophet even for the twenty-first century. The monotheism dovetails with the religion’s earthly goal of unity even in diversity.[1] At the same time, the religion is universalistic in that it holds that truth can come out of various religions, including non-deism Buddhism and polytheistic Hinduism. Bahá’i aims to be a tolerant religion in principle, although it seems to me that the monotheistic religions would naturally be favored. Although Hindu and Buddhist teachings and prayers are incorporated, Bahá’i does seem to emphasize Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Yet this does not absolve Bahá’iism from the tension in being both monotheist and inclusive of truth from non-monotheist religions. Even within Bahá’i’s grasp of the three monotheist religions an underlying tension can be found. Specifically, although Bahá’iism aims to accurately represent all three of the Abrahamic religions, the desire to emphasize what those religions have in common comes at the expense of taking each in its own, distinct terms. In particular, Bahá’i teaching treats Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed similarly even though they are different types in their respective religions. The imposed isomorphism enables Bahá’iism to claim Bahá’u’lláh as the fourth is a series of the same prophet-type. This type stresses the divine-connection of the prophet at the expense of his human nature. Meanwhile, the goal of unity—the Kingdom of God—is also portrayed in distinctly earthly terms, albeit idealized, as the unity possible around the world of different peoples in “a civilization founded on justice, equality and unity in diversity.”[2] Viewing the Kingdom of God in such concrete, even partisan terms can arbitrarily narrow and even skew the divine into terms that are human, even all too human.
According to Bahá’i teaching, a series of prophets has provided mankind with God’s teachings on how to take the next step as religion has progressed through human history.[3] Although the progression has been toward monotheism, a non-deity religious sect such as Theravada Buddhism and a polytheistic religion such as Hinduism are still drawn on in Bahá’i prayer, given the religion’s belief that truth can come from many religions.
Looking back, we see a line of prophets ending with Bahá’u’lláh. “In every era of history, God has opened the gates of grace to the world by providing us with one of His Manifestations charged with providing the moral and spiritual stimulus that human beings need to cooperate and advance.”[4] Although Bahá’u’lláh is “the One Whose teachings will bring the maturation of humanity, ushering in the long-promised time when all the peoples of the world will live side by side in peace and unity,”[5] all of the previous prophets, or Manifestations, are of the same type; or, more to the point, the claim is that Bahá’u’lláh is on par with Krishna, Siddhartha, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, but is Moses on par with Jesus?—the former being a man asked by Yahweh to lead God’s people out of Egypt and the latter being the Son of God, fully human and fully divine. Is Siddhartha, the Buddha (enlightened one), on par with Krishna, a Hindu God? The Buddha insists he is not a deity, or even a prophet; he teaches his insight as a way to end suffering. What exactly is Bahá’u’lláh on par with? The capitalization of Manifestation connotes a unique relation to God. In Christianity, the Son of God is qualitatively different that the sons or children of God. What, then, of Siddhatha, Moses, and Mohammed who do not claim to be more than human beings? Is Bahá’u’lláh like them, or is he like the divine Krishna and Jesus Christ? The reference to Manifestations may suggest that every figure in the line is sinless—more divine than merely human.
The 2019 Grassroots Teaching Conference of the Four Corners Region in the U.S. states that the prophets were “social visionaries, stainless mirrors of virtue” who “set out teachings and truth that answered the urgent needs of the age,”[6] which could last hundreds of years until the next prophet comes along even if the teachings have to cover very different contexts from that in which they sprouted. This raises the question of whether teachings from the nineteenth century are readily translatable in even the first two decades of the twenty-first century, which, like the preceding century, was so transformed by technology. If not, then Bahá’u’lláh would not be the final, definitive prophet.
Even the contention of a line of prophets is controversial. To label a Hindu deity as a prophet or even manifestation of God is project the Abrahamic religions onto Hinduism rather than be faithful to the distinctiveness of the latter. So too, the prophet figure is foreign to Buddhism. Even within the Abrahamic line, the claim of a future prophet after Jesus would not be accepted in Christianity, and likewise after Muhammed in Islam. The Bahá’i claim that Bahá’u’lláh is the last of the prophets thus conflicts with the claim that the religion is consistent with Christianity and Islam.
The prophet figure is based in Judaism, where the prophets speak truth to power used as a vice. How well does the Bahá’i notion of prophet fit with the original? Moses is not even considered a prophet in Judaism, though he is portrayed as a social visionary—but his role in freeing the Hebrews is preeminent. Does not a religious vision transcend society? Is it not rather presumptuous to claim that certain social structures are sacred? Also, is Moses a stainless mirror of virtue? Yahweh bars Moses (not a prophet anyway) from entering the promised land for having taken credit for water coming out of a rock even though Yahweh has accomplished the miracle, yet Moses is heroic in going back to Egypt to free the Hebrews enslaved there. In regard to the Hebrew prophets, they are usually pointing out God’s displeasure at another person for not being virtuous rather than being virtuous themselves. When David displays a lack of virtue with regard to Bathsheba and her husband, Nathan, a prophet, informs David that Yahweh is not pleased with David’s lack of virtue. Does this imply or necessitate that the prophet is himself (or must be) virtuous? 
Moreover, are all of the prophets recognized by the Bahá’i religion perfect reflections of virtue? Would they not have to be divine in some special way (e.g., Krishna and Jesus)? The extinct Greek deities show us, however, that to be divine is not necessarily to be virtuous. Siddhartha, Moses and Mohammed do not even consider themselves divine. Is Mohammed virtuous? If so, should we apply the standards of his own time, when he was regarded as quite progressive, or ours?
Five of the Ten Commandments are moral or normative, and God as omnipotent (all-powerful) cannot, by definition, be limited to human moral principles. Can we know that the moral commandments are divine commands rather than projections of a culture’s normativity? Bahá’iism holds that “God is unknowable in His essence and that we cannot understand the nature of God.”[7] If God is unknowable, then how can we be certain that a virtue is divine-sourced and revealed as such? Faith is of belief, and thus falls short of the certainty of knowledge. Moreover, if we cannot understand God, how can we be sure that we understand God’s message in its pristine form? The messenger and subsequent copy-editors, being human, may have their own perspectives and agendas.
God transcends the limit of human cognition (and perception), and thus human concepts, according to pseudo-Dionysus, a Christian theologian and saint of the sixth century. Even the concept of the Trinity is to be transcended. As the twentieth-century religious scholar, Joseph Campbell said, the mask of eternity becomes the final obstruction to the religious experience.[8] The message that reaches us mere mortals may, in Nietzschean coinage, be human, all too human. In David Hume’s theory, the message could be said to be so anthropomorphic (misapplying human characteristics to non-human objects) that the quality of divine simplicity is obscured like a black hole in the middle of a galaxy.
As with the kingdom of God in Christian liberation theology, the societal ending point in Bahá’i can be criticized for being human, all too human, albeit in a good way as far as ideals go. Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation “contains laws, principles and truths which make possible the unification of the human family and the construction of a world which is both materially and spiritually prosperous.”[9] The promise of material riches is rather earthly (as opposed to heavenly). Although Yahweh promises the Hebrews that Israel will have material wealth if the they faithfully keep the Covenant and the Christian Prosperity Gospel maintains that God will reward people who have true belief (i.e., that Jesus Christ is the Son of God) with material (and spiritual) wealth, treasure on Earth has generally been contrasted with spiritual wealth by religions, including Christianity.[10]
Encroachments of religion onto other domains has been endemic since antiquity; bolstering particular political and economic theories, structures, and related ethical principles by christening them in a Kingdom of God can be thought of as self-idolatrous in that certain human artifacts are deemed sacred. A religion espousing such a kingdom can actually exacerbate divisions at the expense of unity because the selection of particular artifacts can have a partisan, or partial, quality. In contrast, a Kingdom of God not of things from our world—an other-worldly Kingdom—can more easily be associated with a divine source.
The Bahá’i goal is a Kingdom of God on Earth that includes a relatively equal distribution of wealth. Both the degree of politico-economic specification and the “leftward” ideological tilt render that Kingdom much like that in Liberation Theology, and thus vulnerable to the same criticism. Although unity is highly valued in the Bahá’i teachings, the religion fails to eschew political partisanship in rendering the religion’s ideal society wherein people can be transformed such that religion is fulfilled. Interestingly, members of the religion are discouraged from discussing and participating in partisan politics because doing so is divisive rather than unifying, whereas discussion of political and economic ideals is actually encouraged under the rubric of a Kingdom of God.
Generally speaking, when a religion extends to other (related?) domains, the unique or distinctive native fauna in the religious garden can easily be overlooked. For example, transcendent experience, which transcends the limits of our concepts, thinking, perceiving and even emotions, can be clouded over by concerns that are properly of other domains, grabbed by religion as if the distinctive element of religion—transcendent experience—were not legitimate or worthy enough in itself.[11] Even within religion, fights about whether a religious founder or prophet is divine or merely human or over the nature of the divine entity, being, or object (which transcends our cognition anyway) can keep us from stepping into religious experience—beyond even the divine masks—even during worship services!

For more, see: God's Gold: Beneath the Shifting Sands of Christian Thought on Profit-Seeking and Wealth and Spiritual Leadership in Business: Transcending the Ethical. Both are available at Amazon.

1. This is similar to Schopenhauer’s ethical theory of compassion being based on Plotinus’s (a second-century Christian philosopher) notion of the One.
2. From the 2019 Grassroots Teaching Conference of the Four Corners Region.
3. This notion of religion progressing through history is close to David Hume’s theory in The Natural History of Religion. Yet for Hume, the human brain can only go so far in holding onto the pristine, uncorrupted idea of divine simplicity (i.e., pure monotheism) without projecting more comfortable human attributes. Friedrich Nietzsche found a vice—that of vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord—among the other anthropomorphic divine attributes. He argues that vengeance is in conflict with omnibenevolence (perfect goodness), thus the concept of God has been discredited even as news of this has not reached the culprits and their enablers yet. Bahá’iism maintains in contrast to Hume that the last prophet’s teachings can bring mankind to construct the Kingdom of God on Earth, completing the world-historical progression of religion. I contend that even Hume underestimated the ways in which the human brain is incompatible with a fruition of religion here on Earth. Denial, for instance, is a strong force holding internal contradictions within a given religion in place—even hiding them from the culprits themselves!
4. Universal House of Justice, October 2017.
5. Ibid.
6. From the 2019 Grassroots Teaching Conference of the Four Corners Region.
7. Ibid.
8. Campbell makes this statement in the PBS miniseries, The Power of Myth (episode Masks of Eternity).
9. Ibid.
10. On the shift toward accepting wealth in Christianity, I have written the academic treatise, Godliness and Greed, published by Lexington, following which I wrote the non-fiction (i.e., dictionaries not needed) book, God’s Gold. I argue that the Commercial Revolution and the Italian Renaissance as being bench-marks for the transition from a dominant anti-wealth stance to a pro-wealth stance—the latter making the Prosperity Gospel possible. In other words, Christian social ethics were pro-wealth before the Calvinist work ethic came around in the Reformation.
11. On distinguishing the religious domain from stuff grounded in other domains, and on the primacy of transcendent experience, see my book, Spiritual Leadership in Business: Transcending the Ethical. Available at Amazon.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

On the Pull of Religious Belief

John Blake of CNN asks, “Have you ‘walked the aisle’ to ‘pray the prayer?’ Did you ever ‘name and claim’ something and, after getting it, announce, ‘I’m highly blessed and favored?’ . . . If this is you, some Christian pastors and scholars have some bad news: You may not know what you’re talking about. They say that many contemporary Christians have become pious parrots. They constantly repeat Christian phrases that they don’t understand or distort.”[1] Making matters worse, such Christians treat their religious beliefs as if they constitute knowledge. This, as well as the presumed wherewithal to claim anything due from God, is highly impious and yet the claimers are certain that they have true belief.
For example, some Christians refer to “the rapture” without realizing that it is out of sync with historical Christian theology before 1850. Marcus Borg, a theologian, makes the point. “’People who speak Christian aren’t just mangling religious terminology’, he says. ‘They’re also inventing counterfeit Christian terms such as ‘the rapture’ as if they were a part of essential church teaching.’ The rapture, a phrase used to describe the sudden transport of true Christians to heaven while the rest of humanity is left behind to suffer, actually contradicts historic Christian teaching, Borg says. ‘The rapture is a recent invention. Nobody had thought of what is now known as the rapture until about 1850,’” Borg says.[2] Representing something as a part of essential church teaching without knowing what one is talking about evinces the “I can’t be wrong” attitude that goes with the de facto presumption, even if implicit, of infallibility. Conveniently, the Christians who evoke the rapture tend overwhelmingly to take it for granted that they will be going to heaven rather than staying around to suffer, but is not the presumption of omniscience worthy of impiety, which, along with greed, is one of the foremost sins?
Many Christians are not aware of the effect that the pull of greed has had through the centuries in decoupling greed from wealth—even from being rich and yet presumed saved. For someone to say, “I name and claim this house as mine" is really just a desire to possess it; the expression "name and claim" is simply a subterfuge for greed (i.e., an instinctual, basic desire for more).  The prosperity gospel, for example, facilitates or enables greed, rather than constraining it. According to Blake, prosperity Christians, who believe that God rewards true belief with material wealth, “don’t say ‘I want that new Mercedes.’ They say they are going to ‘believe for a new Mercedes.’ They don’t say ‘I want a promotion.’ They say I ‘name and claim’ a promotion.”[3] However, it is impious to claim anything, not to mention something as profane as a job promotion. This claim itself reflects a vaunted self-importance that does not account for the flawed nature of man.
Even rational thought, which is typically assumed to be objective, is distorted by ideology and even religious belief. The brain is weak in holding itself accountable, such as in adequately checking its own assumptions (which are subjective).
Perhaps anger (i.e., emotions) can preempt the brain from performing a check-and-balance function on its own products (i.e., assumptions), or, as I believe, the brain has a very weak self-corrective feature, though higher education can strengthen it. If nothing else, in being told, incorrect!, enough, a student can realize just how fallible the mind is. Put another way, the ideational products of the human mind are not as foolproof as we tend to assume. This holds when the mind enters the religious domain too; beliefs are almost always assumed to be facts, and thus knowledge. If this were so, what use would faith be? The religious scholar Joseph Campbell once asked a priest this question only to find the conversation instantly over.
Euthyphro suddenly realizes he had an appointment so he scurries away from Socrates, who has just demonstrated that Euthyphro’s certainty regarding the ethics of turning in his own father for killing a slave is erroneous; Euthyphro does not know what he thinks he knows. Each of us should internalize Socratic questions, as Socrates’ goal in his dialogues is to convince his interlocutors that they really don’t know what they assume they know. We can impose our respective wills on our own minds to prune off branches that claim to be alive but are actually dead, for our brains do not contain enough machinery on their own.
Unfortunately, the defense mechanisms of ideology (e.g., political and economic) and religious belief tend to block any real self-Socratic dialogue from occurring. I suppose this is similar to the denial in an addiction. Are we addicted to our political ideologies and religious beliefs? Do the beliefs we value so have too much pull in the human brain? If so, it seems to me that we could consciously recognize this and fortify checks to counter the defense mechanism. It is so very hard, admittedly, to keep in mind the faith-belief dynamic as distinct when the beliefs feel like empirical facts or facts of reason (i.e., knowledge). It is also difficult to remember to circumscribe assumptions as they are made, for we naturally tend to overestimate what we know and thus can assume.  Of course I’m going to heaven.

[1] John Blake, “Do You Speak Christian?” CNN, July 31, 2011.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Buddhist Mindfulness and the Self: Milton's Secret

On the surface, Milton's Secret (2016) is a story about a financially-stressed family getting a visit from grandpa, who brings something unusual with him (besides his tea). Because Donald Sutherland really liked the character,  he agreed to play Grandpa Howard. Grandpa has a secret, which he shares with his grandson, Milton. It fundamentally changes not only him, but also his parents. Howard brings Zen Buddhism and alchemy to his family.  That the fictional (narrative) film explains and relates the two and renders both so transparent for the audience says something about the potential of the medium itself to handle abstractions and relate them to life.

The full essay is at "Milton's Secret."

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Behind the Prejudice Against Educated Clergy

Among Quakers (many congregations of which refuse to record ministers), some evangelical congregations, and other faiths such as Baha'i (which does not have a clergy), there seems to be an underlying anti-intellectual bias regarding ministers educated in theology and ministry. I think the prejudice is out of anger, whose root is the errant assumption that knowledge, even in faith seeking understanding, causes the educated person to think he or she is better than others. Relatedly, expertise is assumed, falsely again, to bring with it a more general elitism.These flawed assumptions give rise to the prejudice that being educated in theology and ministry are not of much value, as being uneducated or self-educated in the field are actually preferred qualities in cases in which ministers are used (e.g., many evangelical congregations). All this is a slap on the face to those of faith who have spent years of their lives in seminary or university, and such passive aggression goes against Jesus's message on how to treat others.

The full essay is at "Prejudice against Educated Clergy

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Christianity and the Non-Affiliated in America: A Changing Mix

The 2018 General Social Survey found the proportions of Roman Catholics, Evangelical Christians, and people not affiliated with any institutional religion to each being within the margin of error around 23 percent of the American population.[1] To be sure, to claim no institutional religion does not necessarily mean not being religious, or at least spiritual. Where the heart is concerned, religious institutions, or organizations, do not monopolize religious or spiritual sensibilities or sensitivities. In fact, I contend that a spiritual or even religious instinct exists in humans that can differ among individuals in salience or force. To be sure, people in whom the instinct is pressing may tend to belong to religious organizations, but this is not to say that the latter are necessary for feeling and manifesting the instinct. This is particularly true, I submit, where programmed worship is unwittingly formulated in a way that actually interrupts or thwarts outright the experience of transcendence, whether in sustained prayer, worship, communion, or meditation.
In regard to the Christian rites of Communion, the laity's experience after the Body and Blood are ingested is typically attenuated, especially when the Eucharist comes at the end of the liturgy. In Roman Catholic churches, for instance, the time for transcendent experience while the congregations are kneeling in the pews is typically just long enough for the “dishes” to be done at the table. Some priests give more significance to the washing itself than to the laity’s spiritual urge for a transcendent experience found in yearning for communion with the unknown divine, which, according to St. Denis, is beyond the limits of human cognition, perception, and emotion. It is understandable, therefore, that people can be seen heading straight for the doors once they have received Communion. While I have not observed this "walking out" tendency in Protestant sects that regularly include a Eucharistic rite, the same holds concerning the lack of emphasis on the experience of transcendence after the two species are consumed. Excepting "high church" Episcopalian (e.g., the Oxford Movement) and Lutheran congregations, perhaps the laity sitting rather than less ordinary kneeling, and less ritualistic emphasis on the sacrality of the consecrated Body and Blood themselves (i.e., the species) by the clergy conducting the rites reduces the efficacy of ritual as a prep for religious experience. 
To be sure, the reverence paid to the two species themselves may have become overdone, and even invented. One early Christian book, the Didache, reports that crumbs of the concentrated bread could be found on the floor after Sunday liturgies in halls. Whether in sermons or ritual, the increasing focus on the sacredness of the species could divert attention from the experience following the ingesting of them. Hence, once the species are gone, the presumed high point of the liturgy can be assumed to have passed; the experience of transcendence can thus be treated as an after-thought, practically speaking. Of course, adoration of the Host (i.e., the consecrated bread) does not include ingestion; the experience of transcendence lies in yearning for the divine essence through focusing on the specie. Both in this respect and in offering a sustained experience following the Eucharistic rite, Roman Catholicism and "high church" Protestant congregations have the potential to more fully satisfy the urge for transcendence. 
It would be highly reductionistic to suggest that the percentage of Catholics in the U.S. falling 3% from 2014 to 2018 was exclusively due to expedited Communion, and that the percentage of mainline Protestants (excepting Black churches) falling 10% from 1991 to 2016 was exclusively due to watered-down (i.e., less sacred), truncated Communion. I contend that in all of those sects, the programming, even including announcements before (or during!) the service/Mass, breaks up a sustained buildup for and experience of transcendence. The latter is not something that can be quickly turned on and off like a light switch, and yet this is precisely the operative assumption in a typical Christian service or Mass.

Of course, other factors doubtless apply to the respective percentage losses, which, by the way, do not necessarily mean fewer people as the U.S. population was increasing during the respective periods. Generally speaking, the extant secular societal cultures in the West could have provided for a softer landing on the non-affiliated turf. Less shame or defensiveness could have been felt in "coming out" as, or becoming a humanist or other sort of atheist. Atheists could more easily find each other through social media on the internet while the presumed default for being a theist continued to be belief in an intelligent being based outside of the material realm (i.e., Creation).[2] 
Indeed, the sex-abuse by Catholic priests and related cover-ups by bishops, cardinals, and even popes may have sullied the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church and even institutional religion itself. In the cases of the 3% drop in the percentage of Catholics from 2014 and another 3% drop before that, from 2007 to 2014,[3] it is probably no coincidence that reports of child-rapes by priests and related cover-ups by bishops and even at least one cardinal were hitting the press. The film, Spotlight, which centered on the reporting by the Boston Globe on over 90 priests who had molested children, came out in 2015. Bernard Law, an American cardinal in Boston, with other local church officials, had moved one priest around rather than going to the authorities even though that priest had raped or molested 130 children over decades. Weeks after Law resigned in Boston, he went to Rome, where Pope John Paul II appointed Law as Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, a sinecure with only ceremonial duties. The post conveyed citizenship in Vatican City, so it may have been made to shield Law from the law. As if this were ironic, a cardinal claiming to be a believer in the teachings and way of Jesus moving a child-rapist around rather than reporting him is a far deeper irony. Any Catholics who subsequently left their Church out of a sense of disgust even at the lack of justice in the Vatican, not to mention the heinous acts themselves, could be thought to have gained divine favor, and the Church to have earned divine disapprobation and in the future perhaps divine retribution. In 2014, 13% of all U.S. adults were former Catholics. No other religious institution in America experienced a greater net loss due to religious switching.[4] In retrospect, given the gravity of the crimes and the hypocritical leadership, that the percentage drops (and switching) were not greater may be perplexing in its own right.
Given the 10% drop in the percentage of Americans who identified as mainline Protestants from 1991 to 2016, the Catholic switching seems pale. Apparently a duty-felt urge to make a change on principle or faith (i.e., as a disciple or follower of Christ) is not as strong as the inertia of convenience in human nature.  
At any rate, it doesn’t seem much of the Catholic "switching" landed in mainline Protestant sects. The elephant in the room both concerning the Catholic and mainline drops was non-denominational evangelical Christianity. The percentage of mainline Protestants had dropped appreciably in the first half of the 1980’s just as the percentage of evangelical Christians was increasing. In 1979, Ronald Reagan had boosted the societal footprint of Evangelical Christianity by highlighting that segment in his base as he campaigned for the U.S. presidency. This only made the novel form of Christianity more visible, however.
In terms of liturgical expression, whereas the Catholic Mass and mainline services had become (or always were) rather sober (except for the wine) and staid, an evangelical service, such as those in the emerging megachurches, sported rock bands and emotional sermons that could energize Christians in their faith. More importantly, the instrumentals and even vocal repetitions that often extended beyond a song’s regular length provided a platform for sustained transcendent experience. It was not only possible, but encouraged. 
On Easter 2019, for instance, I visited a small evangelical church to observe external indications of sustained transcendent experience. Above and beyond the congregants who were standing and waving their arms (and in two instances, flags) in the air as the instrumentals and repetitioned vocals continued, a 21 year-old man at the front near one of the side walls caught my attention, for the indicators of sustained transcendent experience were "off the charts." That is, I had the impression that I was observing a considerably more intense and sustained experience of transcendence. In this case, it was through worshiping and praying seamlessly and thus in a temporally sustained manner. The man's experience was not short, as it could have been from being interrupted by programming that did not give adequate time for such sustained experience (e.g., by an organized prayer, a sermon, or even announcements!). 
Regarding the empirically observable indicators themselves, his eyes were closed except for when he was singing from the monitor directly in front of him. Even then, he seemed to be looking beyond, upward. This looking beyond is a good indicator of transcendence beyond this realm (i.e., beyond our "world"). He held his arms up above him or put his hands in a prayer pose directly below his chin while he was singing or praying. Most of the time, his eyes were closed. Occasionally he would dance, but more often rock from the leg in front to the one behind. Most interesting of all, he would periodically pray in a pose known as child's pose in yoga. His face was against the carpet while he held his arms back along the floor. His back faced up like a turtle's shell. The position alone, which Muslims and Sikhs use in prayer, intimated the subservience of a creature to the Creator. That the man's eyes looked as if he had cried or been sweating suggested to me that he had put intensity into the experience. This was how he differed so much from his co-congregants who were sitting at tables or standing (even those standing who held their arms up and closed their eyes). Yet even such a sustained experience could explain the draw from Catholicism and the mainline sects. In any event, the young man's sustained and intense experience would not have been possible in a Mass or mainline service (although toward the end of the 2010's, some mainline congregations were adding services akin to the modern evangelical ones). 
Whereas the Catholic Church and mainline Protestant organizations were truncating and even eclipsing transcendent experience, evangelical Christianity was providing an opening. This is not to say that the opening was sufficiently open to take in morally or liturgically dissatisfied Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants.
The doctrinal and moral rigidity, for instance, considerably narrowed the gate—unnecessarily so if transcendent experience is the litmus test. For example, it is typically expected in evangelical churches that a Christian has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Catholicism does not make this assumption, and in fact tries to avoid it. This is not to say that rigidity does not apply to Roman Catholicism. For instance, even a pope, Francis, urged the priests and bishops to stop obsessing on the moral issues of abortion and homosexuality. After all, Jesus in the Gospels is silent on both. In fact, the obsession as a point of attention may have come at the expense of an alternative focus on sustained transcendent experience as facilitated by liturgy. In the liturgy itself, considering the consecration of the bread and wine to be the cleric's high point, and that of the Mass itself comes at the expense of the communing experience as the high point. 
I suspect that the non-affiliated category benefited most from the moral obsession spread across several Christian sects, such that institutional religion itself could come to be associated with a "holier than thou" attitude and even moral hatred. Hate the sin, love the sinner may be too much to ask even of clergy who preach love thy neighborThe hypocrisy alone from this and the raping of children (as well as the cover-ups) has a bad odor, which likely prompted some Catholics to find higher ground even as the herd animals used to the stench continued to graze; hence the percentage drop was not greater. Interestingly, the clergy including those in the Vatican did not seem to realize the depth to which their religious institution was losing credibility, and yet they themselves, as if with the blood still on their hands, had committed the act! Like the light from a distant star that has not reached Earth, news of the act had not yet reached them. Nevertheless, priests stressed loyalty to the church hierarchy no matter what. Observing a Mass in 2018, I heard a priest say this to a congregation during his homily: "You must obey the hierarchy!" When credibility is finally seen to be crumbling, the weak who seek to dominate by  Thou Shalt Nots instinctively do not stop at moral interdiction, for they are desperate.[5]
Generalizing beyond Catholicism exclusively, other factors probably played into the percentage changes for the three religious segments. Perhaps it can be concluded that people affiliated with religious institutions tend to walk more to something exciting than away from something sordid. Moreover, self-interest, whether moving to or staying with something deemed beneficial (or convenient), has a greater instinctual force than does moving on principle, whether moral or religious. As for the astounding rise in the percentage of Americans who did not identify with any religious institution or group, I suspect that the way in which Christian sects have gotten caught in the controversial thicket of social ethics even at the expense of an alternative focus on transcendent experience, the many scandals regarding ministers and priests, whether in terms of personal hypocrisy or criminal acts, and the bad way in which liturgies have treated or accommodated transcendent experience are relevant. To be sure, different liturgical styles are natural, given all the different propensities of the faithful. Even so, the liturgical programming has in many cases come at the expense of religious experience, so it makes sense that even people with a spiritual or religious propensity would not affiliate themselves. 
Indeed, if humanists had cause to look at the distant planet of religion with disgust, it may have been from that planet’s own doing rather than just an inactive religious instinct or, in contrast, a lack of desire for transcendent experience. For enough cleric inhabitants of that planet had committed (and were still committing) atrocities as if with impunity from human law and even divine judgment, and/or had desiccated  liturgies  while enough of the laity stood by, hence enabling the culprits or the incompetent, that the planet's luster diminished. In other words, the planet itself had gained a reputation for being human, all too human, and thus with such a thick, darkened atmosphere that sustained experiences of transcendence came to be stifled rather than facilitated.  

On transcendent experience, even as impacting work, see my book, Spiritual Leadership in Business: Transcending the Ethical, available at Amazon.    

2. Prof. Louis Dupre of Yale suggested in a lecture in the mid 1990's that, based on St. Denis's writings, it is enough for a theist to believe that God transcends the limits of human cognition and perception rather than going further to say that God is an intelligent being. If so, the commonly held view that a theist must believe the latter too be one reason that people identify themselves as humanists or atheists more generally.
3. “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” The Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015.
4. Ibid.
5. In this paragraph, I am applying Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy regarding the "new bird of prey," the ascetic (i.e., weakened) priests who nonetheless have a relentless urge to dominate even the strong. See Nietzsche's text, On the Genealogy of Morals. The second essay is on the ascetic priest figure. I have written a book applying this figure to business ethicists and managers. See On the Arrogance of False Entitlement.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Fire in Notre Dame Cathedral during Holy Week: Divine Retribution?

Just in terms of how the business and political elites reacted to the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the want of a distinctly religious explanation reflected the hegemony of the secular culture in the E.U. at the time. How the incident, which occurred on April 15, 2019, might fit into an established religious narrative was largely ignored, at least by the media reporting on the fire and its aftermath. Instead, the focus was on the impact on French politics and the donations being made to repair the damage. In particular, the matter of billionaires donating a hundred or two hundred euros fueled a debate on the morality of giving so much when giving to the poor could ease economic inequality, rather than on the religious legitimacy of being rich even with the good use in rebuilding a cathedral. The media at least was silent on the question of whether God had exacted divine retribution against the Roman Catholic Church for having pedophile priests and high-ranked clerics covering them up to safeguard the reputation of the universal Church. That the fire occurred during Holy Week makes the lack of any application of the faith narratives particularly striking, for what if a fire in a gem of the Roman Catholic Church during Holy Week was aimed at getting the attention of the clergy and laity?

(source: The New York Times)
Just three days after the fire, even as the state of France was paying tribute to the firefighters who had saved the building’s structure, “a growing debate about how the gothic landmark should be rebuilt” was brewing.[1] On the previous day, the state, which owned the cathedral at the time, laid out a five-year reconstruction goal” after donations of €845 million had already poured in.”[2] François Pinault gave €100 million and Bernard Arnault then gave €200 million.[3] The billionaires’ huge donations gave rise in turn to a debate on the extent of economic inequality in the state, one of the E.U.’s wealthiest. 
In terms of Christian ethics, the virtue of munificence, which had been especially esteemed during the Renaissance, involves large gifts, such as to build a church, and thus necessitated being rich. The virtue of liberality involves smaller donations and thus did not require riches. The rich man could get into heaven after all, as long as good uses are made of munificence. Serving God rather than greed could be inferred from the desire to spend at least a significant portion of a fortune on good uses, such as in funding a church or founding an organization to help the poor. The link between being rich and being greedy had been loosened if not broken by the Christian Renaissance theologians.[4] A person could be rich and yet not be presumed to be motivated by serving money rather than God. This assumption contradicts the assumption that seldom can a person become wealthy without having acted unethically in business. Forget morality; that a rich person could be motivated to serve God rather than money may seem astoundingly naïve to people in a secularized world.
Just in how quickly thoughts turned to the reconstruction in France, and, in President Macron’s words, the “resurrection,” of Notre Dame suggests that, outside of the investigation of whether the cause had been an electrical short-circuit, the question of the religious significance of the destruction was largely missed. Even as some onlookers prayed during the fire presumably for it to miraculously stop, the mere possibility that the fire was divine retribution directed to the Catholic Church because of its child-raping priests and the enabling bishops and cardinals who covered up the rapists within. Such a thought was simply too far from even twenty-first religious thought, not to mention secular thought, to be entertained.
In the Old Testament, Samuel tells King Saul that God is no longer with him; the prophet then anoints David, whom the prophet Nathan will castigate for adultery (and killing the husband). In a prophet role, Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the Temple priests even as he stays away from speaking truth to the Roman rulers. It could be expected, therefore, that followers of Jesus would speak up to ostensibly Christian clerics and even their religious organization. God is no longer with youYour church (or you) can expect divine retribution for what it (you) has/have done, for no man or organization is above divine judgment. It would have been strange to hear Catholics in St. Peter's Square shouting Repent! to their Church. 
What if God damaged a gem of the Roman Catholic Church, even though the cathedral was owned at the time by the state of France? What if France itself was besides the point? The issue would not have been whether an electrical short-circuit caused the blaze; this type of causation reflects empirical science rather than religious causation, which can be something external or in terms of meaning in the human mind. Nor would the immediate focus have been on reconstruction and the need for “French Unity” as if the destruction were a political matter. The absence of religious debate attests to how far removed secular Europe was from its Christian past. Perhaps that past had never taken root. 
Had the debate been religious, questions would have included whether divine decrees could still happen, and could a religion continue to be viable whose deity does not punish a Church for having prioritized saving its own reputation over justice and the protection of innocents from acts as heinous as child-rape. 
Joe Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI, had written a letter as the archbishop of Munich urging that a pedophile priest not be defrocked because of the damage the scandal would do to the reputation of the universal church. The priest in question was transferred to another parish, where his roles included youth ministry. In September, 2011, two American advocacy groups filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court in the Hague. The complaint points to the pope and three other top clerics in the Vatican as having engaged in crimes against humanity for having abetted and covered up the rapes of children by priests. After the pope resigned and agreed to stay within the Vatican in 2013, the complaint was dropped. This is why the conservative pope resigned. Yet he got away with his crimes. "The high-level officials of the Catholic church who failed to prevent and punish these criminal actions," the complaint says, "have, to date, enjoyed absolute impunity."[5] Powerful enough to make a deal with the court's prosecutors, the Roman Catholic Church was able to protect itself (i.e., it's elite), but it may have lost God in the process. Given the lack of self-imposed justice in the Vatican itself, God may have sought to get the Church's attention, including its laity, by means of a fire at Notre Dame during Holy Week in 2019, or the thought of which may have religious significance, or meaning. 
Such meaning transcends satisfaction from moral justice. As Kierkegaard points out in Fear and Trembling, a divine decree may contradict our sense of morality, as it does when God decrees that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, which in a moral sense is murder. As immoral as raping a child is, divine judgment and retribution concerns breaking faith with God (i.e., sin). Too often, sin is reduced to "immoral," even though more is involved that transcends our notions of moral and immoral conduct. 
Religion can be very problematic precisely because religious people believe decrees that contradict morality are nonetheless valid. I write elsewhere that the element of transcendence transcends morality and makes religion distinctively religious.  A belief (not knowledge!) in divine decrees satisfies the transcendent core of religion, yet how many Christians in Paris at the time of the fire entertained the mere possibility that God may have been reacting to the unaccountable acts committed by clergy in the Roman Catholic Church? The ICC couldn't touch the former living pope and three others, but God could touch a gem of the Church, perhaps meant as a wake-up call as the fire during in Holy Week would surely get attention, even just in symbolic terms. Even just in enabling the men in the Church's clerical hierarchy by continuing to attend Mass and tithe, the laity may have been stepping away from God without realizing it. Perhaps God acted to get their attention because they had been so ensconced by the status quo or, frankly, too selfish to give up their local churches. 
To be sure, Isiah claims that God’s ways are not our ways and Jesus preaches that the Kingdom of God is not of this world, so would it be impious even questioning whether a fire at Notre Dame Cathedral is enough punishment for a hypocritical Christian Church that had strayed so, as if with impunity, from Jesus’ preaching on how to enter the Kingdom of God? Because God goes beyond the limits of human cognition and perception, according to St. Denis, we mere mortals can not know whether an event has the divine will behind it. Even the assumption that an event deemed supernatural is religious, or that the validity of religion depends on supernatural events, is problematic. So by asking whether the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral can be characterized as divine retribution, I am not necessarily suggesting the possibility of a supernatural act. I contend that the resonance of the religious meaning could have been felt or at least realized. 
Even if the belief in ongoing divine decrees had largely been vanquished by the time of the fire, whether due to encroachments by secular culture that privileges knowledge over belief, or by the related empirical science, the meaning of outside retribution against otherwise unaccountable crimes of power can still have resonance, even beyond moral agreement. The meaning could be informed by religious stories in the Bible known from childhood, and perhaps even fueled by a human instinctual urge for justice to be applied to power especially in cases in which it resists so. God has left you, Samuel said to Saul. 
It makes sense that the spirit of Christ has left the Vatican and priests if enough of the individuals acted in contradistinction to Jesus' preaching. Whether the intent of those clerics in the church hierarchy who covered up the sexual abuse was to protect the reputation of “the universal Church” or more personally to stay in office, power, like greed, can be at odds with the desire to serve God rather than oneself.
Christian leadership can be in the style of shepherd.[6] What good shepherd would rape a small sheep, or look away in protecting the rapists? Such a shepherd would hardly be a servant of the sheep. Such a shepherd would hardly evince Christian leadership, as such leadership must be consistent with Jesus's teachings on how to enter the Kingdom of God.  Rather, such a shepherd would fit Nietzsche's depiction of the ascetic priest, whose urge to dominate is incompatible with an underlying condition of weakness.[7] While neither Nietzsche's conception of strength or weakness fits with Jesus's kind of strength, Nietzsche's conception of strength is closer because it is more selflessly generous than is Nietzschean weakness. The sheer meaningfulness of outside accountability beyond human power being applied to weak clerics who refuse to give up their positions (i.e., power) in spite of the glaring hypocrisy is in line with many of the faith narratives in the Bible as well as a human instinct for justice. Hence the secular reactions in Paris during and after the fire can be said to have eclipsed a distinct sort of meaning, religious meaning, which transcends moral sentiment.

[1] Aurelien Breeden, “France Debates How to Rebuild Notre-Dame, Weighing History and Modernity,” The New York Times, April 18, 2019.
[2] Aurelien Breeden, “Millions in Notre-Dame Donations Pour In as France Focuses on Rebuilding,” The New York Times, April 17, 2019.
[3] Liz Alderman and Steven Erlanger, “As Rich Lavish Cash on Notre-Dame, Many Ask: What About the Needy?The New York Times, April 17, 2019.
[4] Skip Worden, God’s Gold: Beneath the Shifting Sands of Christian Thought on Profit-Seeking and Wealth, available at Amazon.
[5] Laurie Goodstein, "Abuse Victims Ask Court to Prosecute the Vatican," The New York Times, September 13, 2011.
[6] Skip Worden, Christianized Ethical Leadership: The Servant, Shepherd, and Stewardavailable at Amazon.
[7] For the figure of the ascetic priest applied to business ethicists and managers, see my book, On the Arrogance of False Entitlement: A Nietzschean Critique of Business Ethics and Modern Management, available at Amazon.