Promoting a Consistent Ethic of Life

Today we held one of our “Mid-Day Dialogues” at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.  The topic was Promoting a Consistent Ethic of Life.  

The phrase “consistent ethic of life” was coined in 1983 by then Cardinal Joseph Bernadin to express an ideology based on the premise that all human life is sacred and should be protected by law.

The genesis of today’s program was a conversation I had with my friend and colleague Mark Osler last semester.  He commented that it doesn’t make sense that anti-capital punishment folks and pro-life folks often most often talk to different audiences, and that what was needed was to bring the two audiences together.

To further that goal, I invited Mark and another friend and colleague, Teresa Collett to engage in today’s conversation.  Mark is actively involved in matters of criminal justice, notably death penalty and clemency, and Teresa is actively involved in the pro-life abortion arena.

Each of the two spoke for about 12 minutes, after which we had a wonderful dialogue with the audience.  As is my usual practice, I only recorded the comments by our two speakers.

You can access a recording of todays talks here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 23:54.)

Giving Someone a “Plus Sign”

I mentioned previously that during my retreat I used Louis Savary’s book, The New Spiritual Exercises in the Spirit of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, for my prayer material.  The prayer exercises and text of that book produced many powerful religious experiences and both broadened and deepened my understanding of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises.

As I continue to bemoan the lack of real dialogue on so many issues on which there is disagreement in our society, I am reminded of something Savary writes in the introduction of his book.

Ignatius always taught his fellow Jesuits that, when presented with ideas or behaviors that are strange, unusual, questionable, or appear to be wrong, they should always begin by trying to find what might be good, useful, or inspiring in that person’s ideas, rather than to criticize them or condemn them outright.  Jesuits call this approach giving someone a “plus sign,” that is, to look first for the positive in what is being offered and to assume the person offering it wants the best and is operating with good intentions.

Although Savary’s purpose in writing that was to ask his readers to give him a “plus sign” in their reaction to his book, this seems to me a good approach in our general dealings with each other.

Salvation and Afterlife

Yesterday was the first Mid-Day Dialogue of Faith of the year at UST Law School. Mark Osler and I have been doing these dialogues several times a year over the last several years, where we take some issue as to which Catholics and Protestants have varying thoughts and talk about them. Our subject for yesterday was Salvation and Afterlife.

Christians uniformly believe that human existence does not end with our physical death. But what happens when we die? What is salvation and how is it obtained? Although there is greater consonance in how Christians of different denominations answer these questions than exists between Christians and non-Christians, not all Christians necessarily would answer these question the same way.

I shared some thoughts on the subject from a Catholic perspective, after which Mark shared his thoughts from an Episcopal and Baptist perspective. We then had a lively conversation with the audience.

You can access a recording of Mark and my dialogue here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 24:29.)

Mid-Day Dialogue: Confession

Yesterday, Mark Olser and I engaged in another of our “Mid-Dialogues,” lunchtime programs where we take some issue as to which Catholics and Protestants have varying thoughts and talk about them. Our subject for yesterday was Confession.

“Confession is good for the soul,” says a Scottish proverb from the mid-1600s. Most religions would agree. Verses from the Torah, the Bible and the Quran speak of the importance of confessing our sins and receiving forgiveness from a God who is merciful. But there are differences among different faith traditions in what that means. Does it require confession to a priest? Do all sins have to be confessed? Does it have to be done publicly? What happens if you don’t confess?

I opened the program by talking about the Catholic sacrament of Reconciliation and why I believe there is value to the practice of individual confession to a priest. Mark then talked about confession in the Protestant tradition and about the humbling aspect of confession. After our two presentations, we opened it up for lively discussion with the participants. As is always the case, Mark and I found much we agree on, but enough difference in how we think about things to encourage each of us to further reflection on the subject.

You can access a recording of Mark and my presentations here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 40:25. (As I usually do, I recorded only our comments, not the dialogue with participants that followed.)

Contemplative Conversation

Yesterday morning I attended a program at Sacred Ground (one of their monthly development programs aimed primarily at spiritual directors) presented by Diane Millis on Contemplative Conversations: Accompanying Adults in the First Half of Life. Given the spiritual formation work I do with law students, the topic is one of great interest to me, and Millis (founder and director of the Journey Conversations Project and author of Conversation: The Sacred Art) has been working with young people for a long time.

Much of what Diane talked about, particularly with respect to how we listen and respond to each other has broad application. In any of the communities of which we are a part, we can learn to listen more compassionately and respond to each other more contemplatively.

Often, when someone shares something with us, particularly if they are in a discerning phase, our approach is to respond with statements – assertions, analysis, advise. We could help the other far more by asking evocative, contemplative questions designed to evoke deeper reflection in the other person.

One of the things Diane talked about (familiar to all with training as a spiritual director or in other listening professions) is the difference between conventional questions and contemplative questions. Conventional questions seek information, while contemplative questions nurture the other’s awareness. The former restricts avenues of exploration, the latter expands the arena of exploration. The former elicits a rehearsed response, the latter evokes reflection. The forme may or may not resonate with a person’a experience, the latter usually does.

Consider the difference between asking a child “What happened in school today?” (which, when my daughter was young, usually elicited “Nothing” as a response) and “What was the best thing about your day today?”

Or between asking a recent graduate, “What are you going to do now?” and “What is your passion?”

Training ourselves to ask contemplative questions of each other, rather than seeking to answer each other’s questions gives us a deeper way to be present to each other.

The Role of Ritual

Yesterday was one of our “Mid-Day Dialogues of Faith” at UST Law School. As regular readers will remember, each of these dialogues takes a single theme and explores it from the perspective of several Christian faith traditions. In the past, we’ve dialogued on subject that include the value of creeds, on intercession, faith and works, and heaven, hell and purgatory.

The theme for yesterday was The Role of Ritual. In addition to myself, the speakers were Mark Osler (currently Episcopalian, with roots in the Anabaptist tradition) and Chato Hazelbaker (Evangelical Christianity). As we usually do, each of us spoke for a while and we then opened it up for broader audience participation.

Of the three of us, Mark expressed the most hesitation about ritual, although each of the three of us acknowledges both the potential positive power of ritual to aid in our transformation as well as the danger that it be mindless or hypocritical. I was particularly struck by Chato’s opening, which distinguished Evangelical attitudes toward ritual, sacrament, tradition and discipline – distinctions I’m not sure are drawn as clearly in Catholicism. The broader discussion after our brief presentations raised some good issues about the distinction between ritual in an individual and a corporate capacity and the challenges for those unfamiliar with the rituals of a faith tradition.

You can access a recording of the dialogue among Chato, Mark and me here or you can stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 31:51.)

Conversion, Interreligious Dialogue and Evangelization

I first became acquainted with the Cistercian monk Christian de Cherge through the film Of Gods and Men. De Cherge was part of a Cistercian community at Tibhirine in Algeria, living and working among the Muslims there until he and six of his fellow monks were abducted and then assassinated in 1996.

After seeing the film, I gave little thought to de Cherge until my friend Richard gave me a book for Christmas, Christian de Cherge: A Theology of Hope, written by Christian Salenson. I started reading the book this week an am loving it.

Since I often talk about conversion, both in retreats and in the book talks I’ve been doing about Growing in Love and Wisdom, I smiled at Salenson’s description of de Cherge’s way of understanding conversion (a subject about which he wrote much), since it echoes what I often say on the subject. Salenson quotes one of de Cherge’s chapter talks, in which he said:

Conversion is a dynamic process, a way of being meant to remain active. It is a ‘tropism’: we turn toward God the way f plant turns toward the sun. Conversion must not be confused with change of religion…Change of religion may bring about an important shift in focus, but it does not exhaust the whole meaning of conversion, and it may well turn out that it is not even a part of the meaning of conversion.

De Cherge understood that all, of whatever religion, are called equally to conversion – a conversion that is a turning toward God.

For de Cherge, this understanding of conversion as, first and foremost, a dynamic process of turning toward God, says something about the goal of interreligous dialogue. The purpose of interreligious dialogue is not to convince the other person of the tenets of our own religion. In Salenson’s words, “Interreligious dialogue obliges us to distinguish between conversion to God and change of religion. Although conversion remains the heart of dialogue, this conversion of all participants does not mean a change in religious affiliation but a turn to God.”

This also invites us to think about how we articulate the goal of our Christian mission of evangelization and reminds us of the importance of distinguishing between evangelization and proselytization. Witnessing to Christ and proclaiming the Gospel is our task, not seeking to have adherents of other faith traditions abandon theirs in favor of ours.

Heaven, Hell and Purgatory

When I was a child, I had a vision of hell a a fiery furnace into which people who died with very serious sins on their soul were thrown, Satan guarding the door with a pitchfork. In college, I read Dante’s Inferno, giving me even more ghastly visions of various circles of hell. For many, heaven is a place where angels serenada the souls of the faithful departed with harps and lyres.

Do you believe in hell? What does your faith tradition teach about the existence and nature of hell and who inhabits it? What about purgatory? Is there a heaven? What’s it like?

All Christian denominations accept that there is life after death. But Christian denominations are not monolithic in how they talk about what that means.

Today, we had a Mid-Day Dialogue at UST Law School the explored the views of several faith traditions on heaven, hell and purgatory. In addition to myself, presenting a Catholic perspective, Chato Hazelbaker talked about the issue from an Evangelical perspective, and Mark Osler spoke from his anabaptist-turned-Episcopal standpoint. As is always the case at these events, the subsequent discussion with the audience (which included a Catholic priest, an Episcopal minister and laypeople of various ages and faith traditions) was both lively and informative. Mark, Chato and I came away from the dialogue feeling as though we had each learned something and I’m confident all of the attendees felt the same way.

You can access a recording of my, Chato, and Mark’s remarks here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 25:48.)

How Not To Disagree

My friend Rabbi Norman Cohen, senior rabbi at Bet Shalom Temple in Minnetonka, was kind enough to share with me a copy of his Rosh Hashanah sermon (which is now available on the Bet Shalom website here). In it, he made an appeal that has often been on my lips and the lips of others:

Demonizing and personal attacks have no place in civil debate. It diminishes the strength of legitimate arguments. It is time for more compassion and respect, especially toward those with whom we disagree.

Rabbi Cohen gave the example of Hillel and Shammai, who “disagreed on nearly everything.” They debated hard and strong with each other, “[b]ut when the day was done, they were ‘friends.’ They were each passionate about their opinion, but found a way to respect their opponent.”

He then said something very sobering. Referring to the Hebrew expression Sinat hinam (baseless hatred) he quoted another rabbi, Rabbi Danny Gordis, who has been the victim of personal press bashing. Rabbi Gordis referenced the destruction of the First Temple, destroyed by serious violations like murder and incest, and the destruction of the Second Temple, destroyed because of “baseless hatred.” He then asked the question: How is it that the First Temple was rebuilt after 70 years after being destroyed by the more serious violations, but the second was never rebuilt? Rabbi Gordis continued

The answer was that sinat hinam, baseless hatred, dismissive attitudes, and communal rancor are different. They are the sorts of actions for which we can always find explanations and justifications, and so, we never really confront the fact that we’ve sinned. This is why the Temple that was destroyed because of baseless hatred has never been rebuilt.

I think that last quoted piece from Rabbi Gordis is worth a lot of reflection.

One Holy Catholic Church: Family or Foes

Someone for whom I have great respect, although I differ with him on a number of issues, wrote a post on Facebook yesterday morning triumphantly sharing the news of the appointment of the new Archbishop of San Francisco. He gleefully described the new archbishop as “the toughest hombre in the American episcopate” cheering that there “is a new sheriff comin’ to town.” Several other bloggers and commentators sounded similar themes. One described the appointment as an “ecclesiastical earthquake.”

I’ve lamented with some frequency the tone with which we speak to and about those who differ with us, criticizing those on the “left” as well as those on the “right,” “liberal” Catholics as well as “conservative.”

I realize that there are vast differences among members of this large tent that is the Catholic Church. And I appreciate that we get frustrated, and, at time, even angry at each other. And, when we do, we are injudicious in our speech.

But my primary reaction when I read these sorts of comments in reaction to the appointment of the new archbishop was sadness. The comments sound like they are directed at foes not at other members of the Church. People to be taken out or driven down, not people to be worked with. (This is not a one-sided lament. I have both in writing and orally spoken out to people across the spectrum when their comments convey disrespect and lack of love for those with whom the disagree.)

I can only pray that the new archbishop doesn’t come riding into town brandishing his sheriff’s badge and a six-shooter with the idea of taking out the opposition. That he remembers that the “progressive Catholics” (a term used as though it were a dirty word by one of the commentators I read) are part of his family, not his foe.