Heaven: Miracle or Entitlement?

March 15, 2012

Our readers might be interested in my latest offering on The Jesuit Post.  Here’s how it starts:

In my current line of work—I’m the administrator of three small parishes on an Indian Reservation in South Dakota—I deal with a lot of funerals.  I schedule them; I lead prayers; I empty the ashes out of the censer afterwards.  I’ve helped to bury everyone from the saintly to those who haven’t seen the inside of a church since they were baptized.

The job causes one to hear and say and think quite a bit about the life after this one, which is a good thing: in our liturgy, in fact, we ask God to turn our thoughts from the things of this world to the things of heaven.  And contrary to what skeptics like Nietzsche thought, a lively belief in heaven helps one live a good life here below; the courage of the saints and martyrs would never have been possible without it.

And yet…

…and yet, I often find myself cringing at the things people say about heaven.  Atheists have historically mocked Christians’ belief in paradise as an opiate—a comforting fantasy, a fairy tale we tell ourselves to soften the pain of loss.  And sometimes I find myself agreeing with Christianity’s critics.

I’ve noticed, for example, a tendency among many to attempt to remake heaven in our own image.  So if Grandpa really loved donuts, heaven gets described as an all-you-can-eat Dunkin’ Donuts, open 24 hours, where the Bavarian cream is always fresh and smooth.

You will be relieved to know that even though I cringe inwardly when I hear someone preach hope in an everlasting supply of jelly donuts, I don’t jump in with, “Actually-it’s-not-like-that.”  Still, I can’t help but think how awful such a “heaven” would be—even if one were spared the indigestion.  As Pope Benedict put it, reflecting on the possibility of an endless prolongation of this life:  “…to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable” (Spe Salvi, 10).

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Come, Lord Jesus!

December 21, 2011

It is almost 2012, and the world will soon be ending.  At least, according to the Mayans and a fundamentalist preacher in California, it will.  Even though the Church’s readings in November, the end of the liturgical year, and Advent, the beginning, point toward the Second Coming, I have, I admit, not been overly concerned.

But then I had an unusual conversation a few weeks ago with a priest who was passing through town, one of those delightful Jesuits one meets who could be described as “a little crazy, in a good way.”  On the surface, this good priest appears a tad unkempt, but you can tell from the way he prays the Mass—and he is praying, not performing—that the man has real spiritual depth.

While visiting our community, this man talked about his time, many years ago, working on the Rosebud Reservation, where I am now stationed.  He talked about working with prisoners and people in one of the reservation’s most depressed communities and then said, almost out of nowhere, “It was here that I realized that prisoners and the really destitute have an intuitive understanding of the apocalypse—the good news of the apocalypse.”  And then his voice rose slightly and he gave his little-crazy-in-a-good-way laugh and added, “Because it is good news.”

I realized I had never thought of the apocalypse as good news before, but I should have.  The Bible itself ends with an urgent prayer for the Lord’s swift return:  Come, Lord Jesus!  (Rev 22:20).  We pray for the end of this world every day in the words of the Our Father, Thy Kingdom come.

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Remarkable

October 3, 2011

It’s easy when one is working fulltime for the Church or studying theology or sharing opinions on the Catholic blogosphere (do all of you have jobs?) to get caught up in minutiae and the controversies of the moment and lose sight of the Big Picture or forget just how remarkable the Big Picture really is.  (And just so we’re clear, when I say, “Big Picture,” I mean, “The Gospel.”)

Last week, after slop buckets of minutiae, a few frustrations, and a futile circle or two, I decided I needed a day off the reservation (literally).  So I pulled on my jeans and my cowboy boots and grabbed a volume of Greek tragedies (you can take the nerd out of the university, but you can’t take the nerdiness out of the nerd) and drove down to Valentine, Nebraska to sit on the porch of Auntie D’s Coffee Shop and read Aeschylus in the late-September warmth, as trucks full of hay bales drove past on Main Street.

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Elijah the Prophet, Jesus the Lord

September 27, 2011

Today’s Gospel reading happens to correspond to a presentation that I recently made in one of my classes on Luke’s use of Elijah imagery in his Gospel.  Luke’s use of Elijah is complex.  He does not make a simply one-to-one typological correspondence, but rather seems as concerned to contrast Jesus and Elijah as compare them.  Luke contrasts Elijah and Jesus not to criticize Elijah, but rather to show that Jesus is something more than a prophet.  Jesus is the Lord, and a Messiah who will bring salvation to all people, not through violence but through the cross.

Jesus explicitly invokes Elijah (and Elisha) in Luke 4:16-30. Here, he reverses the people’s expectations that the Messiah would be a warrior king who would bring God’s blessings on Israel and his wrath on her enemies.  Jesus first reads a messianic passage from Isaiah about the blessings the Messiah will bring, and says that this passage is fulfilled in their hearing.  This accords with people’s hopes and expectations.  But then, he invokes Elijah and Elisha who gave God’s blessings to Gentiles, to say that God’s blessings will be extended outside of Israel.  This contradicts the people’s hopes and expectations about membership in the Kingdom of God, and provokes their wrath.

Again in Luke 7:11-17, the raising of the son of the widow of Nain, there are allusions to Elijah raising the son of the widow who fed him during the famine (1 Kings 17:17-24).  Here, though, there are notable discontinuities.  Elijah uses almost magical efforts to raise the boy–laying upon him and three times breathing upon him (according to the Greek Old Testament which Luke would have used), completed by a powerful plea to the Lord (kyrios in the Greek Old Testament) to raise the boy.  By contrast, Jesus simply commands the boy and he is raised.  Elijah must beg the Lord for the miracle, whereas Jesus simply commands.  Significantly, Luke calls Jesus only “kyrios” in this passage.  Elijah must call on the Lord, Jesus is the Lord. Read the rest of this entry »


Ouch.

May 16, 2011

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his disciples, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (Matt. 5:30).

When I’m teaching confirmation class, I often use this passage to make the point that taking the Bible seriously sometimes means not taking the Bible literally.

Last week, however, I watched a movie, 127 Hours, which is about cutting off one’s arm.  Literally.

James Franco stars as Aron Ralston, a mountain climber who becomes trapped in a remote canyon in Utah, his arm pinned underneath a boulder.  After 127 hours in the canyon, facing dehydration and death, Ralston cuts off his own arm with a rather dull substitute for a Swiss Army knife.  First he has to break the bone, since the knife isn’t sharp enough to saw through it.  Yes:  ouch.  Or, as a delirious Ralston puts it while videotaping what may turn out to be his last moments, “Oops.”

The movie is not religious, but nonetheless contains a few good metaphors for the spiritual life.  The point of Jesus’ hyperbole in the Sermon on the Mount, for example, is that when it comes to doing good and avoiding evil, the stakes are higher even than life or death.  Ralston finally resorts to cutting off his arm after 127 hours—though we’re led to believe that the thought occurs to him soon after he’s been trapped—because his only other alternative is death.  More than a few conversion stories have begun in similar fashion, as when the alcoholic only sobers up after finally hitting rock bottom.

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Pontius Pilate, Postmodern American

April 18, 2011

Nathan’s post on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ last year generated a lot of discussion and ended with an intriguing question:  “Why does Pilate always get so much empathy from us?”

It would be easy, at this point, to start tossing around charges of anti-Semitism, charges which would allow us to feel a certain measure of moral superiority over those less enlightened than ourselves.  Then we could pray like the righteous Pharisee, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, anti-Semites like Mel Gibson over there” (Lk 18:10).

Throwing around such charges is a way of doing precisely the same thing that blaming the Jews for the crucifixion once did:  deflecting guilt from ourselves.  I would suggest a far more troubling answer to the question, “Why do we empathize with Pilate?”

Because Pontius Pilate is the character in the Passion who is most like us.

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Catholics and abortion: A test of faith (Part I)

January 17, 2011

Because of teaching commitments here in Chicago I will not be able to join the growing number of young Jesuits, their students, and colleagues at the annual March for Life this weekend.  I thought I would use the occasion of the March, however, to address a challenge posed to me nearly a year ago in this blog’s discussion of health care reform:  why is it that Catholics—and American Catholics specifically—are so concerned with the issue of abortion?  Haven’t the American Catholic bishops in particular allowed themselves to be hijacked by this one issue?

Commonweal board member George Dennis O’Brien argues essentially this point in a new book titled A Catholic Dissent, the content of which one can surmise from the title.  In a very different way, Joseph Bottum, editor of the journal First Things, also claims that abortion has become a primary marker of the cultural identity of American Catholics.  Even if one agrees with Bottum that the pro-life cause is a significant marker of Catholic identity, it does not follow that it should be so.

The observations of O’Brien and Bottum raise two related questions:  first, should opposition to abortion be treated as constitutive of Catholic identity?  Is it really that central to our faith?  Second, should Catholics make abortion issue number one politically?  Should it be prioritized above other issues?  I’ll look at the first, more theological question, today and the second in two posts to follow. Read the rest of this entry »