Rejecting Stereotypes, Forging New Relationships

It was my privilege and delight last evening to participate in a program sponsored by the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning. (The Jay Phillips Center is a joint project of University of St. Thomas and St. John’s University in Collegeville.) The program featured a lecture given by my friend Rabbi Norman Cohen and a response by me.

The title of Rabbi Cohen’s lecture was Jews and Christians: Rejecting Stereotypes, Forging New Relationships. In his lecture, he talked about the history of Christian-Jewish relationships, the improvement in dialogue between the two and the need to make further progress in that dialogue. He believes that much dialogue has “consisted only of cautious attempts to find common ground, to determine and emphasize the things we share,” risking an unintended syncretism and a failure on the part of both Christians and Jews to develop greater understanding of the “distinctive flavors” of the other’s faith. He talked about some of the misconceptions and stereotypes that plague the efforts of both Christians and Jews to grow in their relationship with each other.

Ultimately, Rabbi Cohen believes that “only the concept of a God who is so great that covenant can be created with more than one people and in different ways, is the road to better interfaith understanding.”

I began my response to his lecture by talking about why I believe greater understanding between Jews and Christians is important. I then shared some observations about some of the points he raised in his talk, starting with observations about Christian perceptions of Judaism and, more briefly, raising a couple of thoughts about Jewish perceptions of Christianity. I ended with some observations regarding both Christians and Jews that affect how we view each other, including my strong agreement that we cannot (using his words) “be so bold as to think that our God is so limited that God chooses only the Jews or has replaced the Jews with the Christians.”

Because Rabbi Cohen’s lecture is a part of a larger writing project in which he is currently engaged, I can not post a text of his lecture. However, I have posted on my website the text that formed the basis of my response. You can find that text here.

Following our talks, there was a lively questions and answer period. One of thing on which we all agreed is that these sorts of conversations are important and that we need to find ways to bring them to larger audiences.


Lord’s Prayer for Justice

I just finished facilitating a book discussion series at Our Lady of Lourdes on Ron Rolheiser’s The Holy Longing, a classic of Christian spirituality. The participants and I had a great series of discussions over our sessions together.

In the fourth part of the book, Rolheiser describes several “key spiritualities within a [Christian] spirituality. One of those is a spirituality of Justice and Peacemaking. The chapter ends with “A Lord’s Prayer for Justice,” which some of you may already be familiar with. Given the contrast between the way of the world (survival of the fittest) and the rule of God – where God always stands on the side of the weak, Rolheiser suggests we might occasionally pray the Lord’s Prayer in this way.

Our Father … who always stands with the weak, the powerless, the poor, the abandoned, the sick, the aged, the very young, the unborn, and those who, by victim of circumstance, bear the heat of the day.

Who art in heaven … where everything will be reversed, where the first will be last and the last will be first, but where all will be well and every manner of being will be well.

Hallowed by thy name … may we always acknowledge your holiness, respecting that your ways are not our ways, your standards are not our standards. May the reverence we give your name pull us out of the narcissism, selfishness, and paranoia that prevents us from seeing the pain of our neighbour.

Your kingdom come … help us to create a world where, beyond our own needs and hurts, we will do justice, love tenderly, and walk humbly with you and each other.

Your will be done … open our freedom to let you in so that the complete mutuality that characterizes your life might flow through our veins and thus the life that we help generate may radiate your equal love for all and your special love for the poor.

On earth as in heaven … may the work of our hands, the temples and structures we build in this world, reflect the temple and the structure of your glory so that the joy, graciousness, tenderness, and justice of heaven will show forth within all of our structures on earth.

Give … life and love to us and help us to see always everything as gift. Help us to know that nothing comes to us by right and that we must give because we have been given to. Help us realize that we must give to the poor, not because they need it, but because our own health depends upon our giving to them.

Us … the truly plural us. Give not just to our own but to everyone, including those who are very different than the narrow us. Give your gifts to all of us equally.

This day … not tomorrow. Do not let us push things off into some indefinite future so that we can continue to live justified lives in the face of injustice because we can use present philosophical, political, economic, logistic, and practical difficulties as an excuse for inactivity.

Our daily bread … so that each person in the world my have enough food, enough clean water, enough clean air, adequate health care, and sufficient access to education so as to have the sustenance for a healthy life. Teach us to give from our sustenance and not just from our surplus.

And forgive us our trespasses … forgive us our blindness towards our neighbour, our obsessive self-preoccupation, our racism, our sexism, and our incurable propensity to worry only about ourselves and our own. Forgive us our capacity to watch the evening news and do nothing about it.

As we forgive those who trespass against us … help us to forgive those who victimize us. Help us to mellow out in spirit, to not grow bitter with age, to forgive the imperfect parents and systems that wounded, cursed, and ignored us.

And do not put us to the test … do not judge us only by whether we have fed the hungry, given clothing to the naked, visited the sick, or tried to mend the systems that victimized the poor. Spare us this test for none of us can stand before this gospel scrutiny. Give us, instead, more days to mend our ways, our selfishness, and our systems.

But deliver us from evil … that is, from the blindness that lets us continue to participate in anonymous systems within which we need not see who gets less as we get more.


Rather than recite the entire prayer in one sitting, it would be worthwhile to take one line each day and let that be the focus of our prayer and the intention for our day.

The Apostle We Love To Hate

I just finished reading Karen Armstrong’s new book, St. Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate, which was part of my wedding anniversary gift from my husband. (What can I say: 25 years of marriage means he knows me well. Accompanying the book were several goat cheeses.)

This is Armstrong’s second book at Paul. Her first, The First Christian, relied heavily on Acts. In this book, she relies mainly on Paul’s letters. (Throughout the book, she points out differences between Luke’s and Paul’s accounts of the same events.) Acknowledging that there is much we will never learn about Paul, she suggests that “his letters bring him to live and are an extraordinary record of the passions that drove this man to change the world.”

I had a hard time putting this book down once I picked it up. Despite its brevity – it is only 125 pages – I found much here that enriched my appreciation of Paul and his letters. Let me share here just a few comments that I hope will entice you to read the book yourselves.

First, Armstrong does a good job of giving the context of Paul’s various letters. In doing so she reminds us that Paul was speaking to particular audiences in response to specific issues. His letters were never intended to lay down doctrine or guidelines for all Christians for all times. (And in this, I think she effectively combats claims that Paul is misogynist.)

Second, although I had already been aware of the view that certain letters historically attributable to Paul – such as Colossians and Ephesians – were not written by Paul, Armstrong has a helpful discussion of how those letters, in fact, misrepresent Paul’s teaching.

Third, the book does an effective job of creating a cohesive picture of Paul’s theology, a theology premised on the centrality of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the belief that if people “imitated Jesus’s kenosis in their daly behavior…they would experience a spiritual resurrection that brought with it a new freedom.”

Armstrong’s conclusion about Paul is that

Paul has been blamed for ideas that he never preached, and some of his best insights about the spiritual life have been ignored by the churches. His passionate identification with the poor is unheeded by those Christians who preach the Prosperity Gospel. His determination to eradicate the ethnic and cultural prejudices that divide us from one another, his rejection of all forms of “boasting” based on a spurious sense of privilege and superiority, and his visceral distrust of a self-indulgent spirituality that turns faith into an ego trip have not become part of the Christian mindset….Above all, we need to take seriously Paul’s insight that no virtue was valid unless it was imbued with a love that was not a luxurious emotion in the heart but must be expressed daily and practically in self-emptying concern for others.

There have been times I’ve heard words of Paul’s (and, as an aside) Armstrong reminds us that Paul’s letters were meant to be read aloud to people) and wondered what to do with them. This book encourages me to want to spend more time with his letters, aided by the context the book provides.

Jews and Christians and Their Views of Each Other

My friend Rabbi Norman Cohen, senior rabbi at Bet Shalom Temple in Minnetonka, who is often a speaker on interfaith dialogue, has been working on a book on Stereotypes and Misconceptions Christians and Jews Hold About Each Other.  Last fall, I invited him to come to speak to the law school community on the subject.  During that visit, he only addressed half of his project: stereotypes and misconceptions Christians have about Jews.  Today we had him back for a lunchtime presentation on the second half: stereotypes and misconceptions Jews have about Christians.

The following are some of the misconceptions Rabbi Cohen identified as ones Jews have about Christians. (He had 11; I’ll just mention 5.)  He was very clear that not all Jews think all of these things, but that these is some prevalence to these views.

1.  That Christianity is monolithic.  Just as Christians often fail to appreciate the enormous differences within Judaism, Jews often do not appreciate that there are differences, not only between Catholicism and Protestantism, but between Roman Catholics and Orthodox Catholics, or between Southern Baptists and UCC folks.  He feels the need to sometimes remind members of his congregation that you don’t understand “Christianity” by watching a few TV evangelists on Sunday morning.

2.  That Christians mean the same things as Jews do in using certain terms.  A good reminder for all of us that words we take for granted like “Bible”, “Messiah”, “sin” and “salvation” mean different things to people of different faith traditions.

3.  That Christians only care about heaven and hell and not about his world.  Rabbi Cohen noted that his response is to point out how many soup kitchens and other works of mercy and charity are performed by Christian churches.  The commitment of especially the Catholic Church to social justice is, he believes, apparent to anyone who looks objectively at their actions.

4.  That the New Testament is nothing more than anti-semitic blaming of Jews for killing Jesus.  This is one I sense Rabbi Cohen loves to talk about with Jews, as he has become convinced from his own experience of the value to Jews of studying the New Testament.  He believes it is source from which Jews can better understand their Christian friends, what first century Jews were like, how a young Church develops, and so on.  This is a subject I’d love to hear him elaborate on.

5.  That the Holocaust is totally the fault of Christianity because it took place on a Christian continent and the Church did not prevent it from happening.  This strikes me as one of those over-generalizations that have some germ of truth.  It clearly is a misconception to place the blame of the holocaust on Christianity.  However, it is also clear that the Catholic Church could have taken more decisive action in challenging the Nazi regime, something it itself has acknowledged.

There was much more in his talk, but this gives you a few highlights to think about.  I am grateful to my friend for taking time with us.



The Church in the Modern World: Interreligious and Ecumenical Dialogue

I participated yesterday in a conference sponsored by the University of St. Thomas on The Church in the Modern World: Teaching and Understanding Gaudium et Spes after 50 Years.  The objectives of the conference, held over a two day and a half day period, were to examine the contemporary context of the Church in the 21st century, reflect on the continuing impact of Gaudium et Spes on the Church, its practices and its theology and  consider the role of Catholic colleges and universities in educating students to be agents of the proper development of human culture for the common good.

Each of the panels I attended yesterday was quite good, and I hope to share some thoughts in coming days about some of the fine presentations I listened to.

I spoke on the panel yesterday morning on Interreligious and Ecumenical Dialogue, presenting a paper titled The Engagement of Catholics with Other Faith Traditions in the Post-Vatican II World.  In my presentation I spoke a bit about the paradigm shift created by the Second Vatican Council with respect to engagement with other faith traditions before then speaking about the value to Catholics and non-Catholics of the inter-faith dialogue and interspirituality that have resulted from the increased freedom granted by Vatican II for Catholicism to engage with other faith traditions.  (I focused particularly on the engagement of Christians with non-Christian.) My comments drew on both my academic interest in inter-faith dialogue and my personal experience, first as someone returning to Catholicism after spending twenty years practicing Buddhism, and second, as a spiritual director and retreat leader working with people whose spiritual practice incorporate elements from multiple faith traditions.

Why should anyone, regardless of his or her faith, think there is any benefit in exploring other religious traditions?

In his 2010 Santa Clara Lecture on Evangelization and Interreligious Dialogue, Professor Peter Phan expressed the goal of interreligious dialogue as

mutual correction and enrichment. In interreligious dialogue both Christian and other believers are invited to examine their religious beliefs and practices, to correct them when necessary (this is always necessary at least for Christians, since the church is “semper reformanda”), to deepen their commitment to their own faiths and to live them more fully.

Those words capture well the experience of those who have engaged seriously with other religions, that is, that by such engagement we learn much about ourselves and our own religions. Referring to his experience with the Dalai Lama, Jewish Orthodox Rabbi Irving Greenberg said:

The Dalai Lama taught us a lot about Buddhism, even more about menschlichkeit [humanness], and most of all about Judaism. As all true dialogue accomplishes, the encounter with the Dalai Lama opened to us the other faith’s integrity. Equally valuable, the encounter reminded us of neglected aspects of ourselves, of elements in Judaism that are overlooked until they are reflected back to us in the mirror of the Other.

Zen Rabbi Alan Lew writes that it was Zen practice that helped him to discover the depth of Jewish spirituality and quotes a friend of his who suggested that his years of Zen meditation enabled him to understand how deep and “utterly gratifying” ordinary Jewish practices could be. Tom Chetwynd made a similar observation about his experience with Zen Buddhism in Zen & The Kingdom of Heaven, writing “I had had the privilege to be born into Christianity, but because I had encountered Zen, I would not die in it—I would live in it.” He describes in that book how his Zen practice allowed him to see new things in his Christian practice he had not seen before and “to take a fresh delight in the Mass.”

Whatever else Vatican II did or did not accomplish, it opened the door a bit wider for Catholics to benefit from the practice of other faith traditions.

A Single Story

As I sat with today’s Gospel reading during my morning prayer, I was momentarily confused, since the reading is John’s account of Peter and John finding the empty tomb after Mary Magdalene tells them she has seen the risen Lord. Wait, I thought – we just celebrated Jesus’ birth and here we are at the resurrection!

I then remembered that today is the feast of St. John the Evangelist, so both readings come from John: a beautiful passage from the First Letter of John and the first reading and the Gospel to which I already referred.

As I continued to sit with the passages, it seemed fitting that we hear the story of the empty tomb two days after Christmas. Today’s Gospel is an important reminder that the Christian story is a single one: one that begins with Incarnation and ends with death and resurrection. Our beautiful Nativity scenes are merely Act I of a play that cannot be fully appreciated unless we apprehend it in its entirety. God’s entry into the world inevitably leads to the cross. But then, when all hope seems lost, the tomb is empty. The story whose beginning we celebrate this season ends with victory over death. That is the Christian story.

“Repost if You Love God”

Almost every day my Facebook newsfeed contains a “repost if…” post from one of my Facebook friends. Repost if you have a child you think is the cat’s meow. Repost if you have someone you love has died. Repost if you think your cousins are the best friends anyone could ever have. Share if you have the best brother in the world. Etc. Etc. And so forth. (By the way, for those of you who are my FB friends, I never repost any of these memes.)

The ones I find the most offensive are the religious ones, which take varied forms:”Repost if you love Jesus.” “Send to all your friends if you love God.” “Only true Christians will repost this.” And perhaps the one that disturbs me most: “If you love God, repost and you will receive a great favor.”

The last is the worst because it conveys a small image of God. A God who engages in quid pro quos with us. A God whose love for and goodness toward us depends on how we deal with a chain letter. God just doesn’t work like that.

But all of them, whether or not they promise a quid pro quo, bother me. Because if you read between the lines what they all really sound like they are saying is “I am such a good Christian and I know most of you aren’t, and my belief that I am a better Christian than you are will be proven because most of you won’t repost this.” In my understanding of Christianity, saying “I’m a good Christian” on Facebook is not what makes a good Christian.

So instead of “repost if you love God” or “only true Christians will repost this” how about if our meme for the day is: “If you love God, perform a random act of kindness for someone today.” Or “Call a loved one you haven’t spoken to in a while if you love Jesus.” Or simply, “If you are a true Christian, Be Love in the world.”

Original Goodness

I’ve made the point a number of times in talks I’ve given that it makes an enormous difference whether we view our starting point as sin or grace. A column in the current issue of Shambhala Sun (which contains my review of Brad Warner’s There is No God and He is Always With You) expounds nicely on that same theme.

We are a mixture of wisdom and neurosis. Everything we think, feel, perceive, say, and do has both an awakened and a confused aspect.

So, we are a mix of good and bad. This we all know. The important question is which we really are, which is the deeper reality of human nature. Which is more original, as it were, the sin or the goodness?

How we answer that question will define our path to becoming better people – whether we are struggling against our basic nature or trying to realize it.

What the author of the column describes as the Buddhist path to becoming a better person proceeds from the notion that it is the goodness that is more original. “The Buddhist path to becoming a better person is about being who we really are.”

Although not a Buddhist, I proceed from the same premise. If I take seriously the idea of being created in the image and likeness of God, and believe that God looked on his creation and judged it “very good,” than it is the goodness that is more original.

That means that our task is not struggling against our basic nature, but uncovering what Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr and others term our “true self.” Our task is to peel away the false layers of ourselves so that we can be who we really are.

Christian Persecution

I just finished reading Candida Moss’ The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented A Story of Martyrdom. As the subtitle of the book suggests, Moss’ central thesis is that the traditional and popular belief that early Christians were systematically persecuted is a fiction.

Moss does a good job in explaining that stories of persecution in the early church have been exaggerated. Contrary to a story line of several hundred years of efforts to destroy Christianity, what persecution there was seems to have been episodic, local and often for reasons other than religion. Moss’ research suggests that many of the popular stories of early church martyrs have no historical basis.

Apart from historical accuracy, why does it matter? What difference would it make to abandon the fiction?

Moss argues that it would make a big difference. Defining oneself as a persecuted people has an effect on how one behaves in the world. I think Moss is correct that the more one believes one is persecuted, the less one feels obliged to debate with and understand those who one labels as the one doing the persecuting (particularly because of the identification in the early chuch of persecutors and evil). As Archbishop Desmond Tutu commented in talkind about the book, “the popular misconception about martyrdom in the early church still creates real barriers to compassion and dialogue today.”

The book is a worthwhile read.

At Present I Know Partially

I’ll be flying back to Minneapolis this morning from Boston, where I’ve had three days of book talks. Saturday evening, I spoke at Kurukulla Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies, which was the first time I’ve spoken about Growing in Love and Wisdom in a Buddhist center.

Not surprisingly for a Buddhist center in the United States, many of the Buddhist practitioners in the audience were people who had been raised in a Christian tradition. Some others were Christians who have incorporated some aspects of Buddhism or Buddhist meditation into their practice. (One was a Congregationalist minister who was looking for language to be able to present some Buddhist concepts in a way her congregation could understand.)

As always the question and answer portion was engaged, thoughtful and left me with things to continue to ponder.

One of the things that came out of the dialogue were reasons many had left their Christian communities (both Catholic and Protestant). Sadly, many of those comments reflect a failure on the part of Christian Churches to share enough about the contemplative strand of our Christian tradition and others reflect genuine grounds of criticism of catechesis or our own failures to live up to our Christian ideals.

One of the questions that evening helped me articulate another reason that I do not identify as a Buddhist-Christian. (There are several reasons that is the case; and the question comes up often.)

Someone has asked me what I had originally found most profound in Buddhism. Before addressing the “most profound” part, I started by saying that what had first attracted me to Buddhism was the Buddha’s insistence that no one had to believe anything because he or anyone else said it. Rather, the truths he had realized were open to all through their own meditation experience. If you sit, this is what you will realize.

Coming from a tradition where, as a teen, it seemed like the answer to every question I had was “it’s a mystery” or “you just have to take this on faith,” that was very appealing. I embraced the Buddhist notion that I could know all fully by my own meditation practice.

Only as I was sharing this on Saturday night did I articulate that it is in this that I truly am no longer Buddhist. I believe firmly in the necessity of experiencing God in prayer (and not just talking about or reading about God.) But, I have also come to believe that, in the words of the First Letter to the Corinthians we heard at Mass on Sunday, “at present I know partially.” I have come to believe that in this life there are things I cannot fully understand, that my ability to comprehend certain things awaits the point at which I reach full union with God. It is only then that “I shally know fully, as I am fully known.”