Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Main Takeaways from our Study of Spiritual Quests and Popular Culture

Popular Culture is often just thoughtlessly consumed today as entertainment. That is unfortunate because if one looks deeply at many works of popular culture and analyzes them properly with the right tools and background knowledge regarding the sources from which they come, one will realize certain profound and noteworthy things which I will try to summarize below. We have done this by analyzing films such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Harry Potter (and his different adventures), Regarding Henry, etc.

[1] Heroes and Villains |  Works of popular culture generally have “Heroes” and “Villains.” These characters, their respective “journeys” and “adventures/misadventures” usually form the backbone of the stories. The journeys of heroes have been a main focus of this course because they reflect and mirror the real journeys that each of us undertakes in life. Each of us is “the Hero” of our own life. At the same time, we can also potentially become “the Villain” of both our life and the lives of others.

[2] Journeys and Spiritual Quests |  The “journey” itself can be considered a spiritual quest. The essence of the “spiritual quest” can be expressed in this way: We may not be fully aware of it, but all of us are actually seeking (“questing”) in everything we do for a more MEANINGFUL and HAPPY existence. This can only be reached—I’m proposing—by pursuing a more profound “depth in life” and, at the same time, participating in something “bigger” than ourselves. The key words here are “depth” and transcendence.”

[3] Spirituality and Spiritual Quests |  Hence, the (working) definition of the spiritual quest (or of “spirituality” itself) that I have proposed in this course is: The spiritual quest (or spirituality itself) is the human quest for meaning by finding ways to go deeper into oneself and transcend oneself for something bigger. We can shorten that to: Going “Deeper” and “Bigger” as the very essence of the spiritual quest. At their best, the different religions and spiritual traditions of the world try to enhance the development of this spiritual quest/spirituality in their own particular ways. Sometimes they are successful; at other times, they are not. Another main point I’ve emphasized is that spirituality is a basic human dimension. It is not the exclusive domain of institutional religions although the pursuit of spirituality has been predominantly done within religious institutions in the past. Hence, spirituality can be properly pursued within but also outside institutional religion today.

[4] Christianity and Jesus |  We cannot neglect the major role that the Christian tradition and its central figure (Jesus Christ) have played in the history of Western civilization.  For better or worse, Christianity has impacted many aspects of Western culture both in the past and still in our day. Therefore, a knowledge of key aspects of Christianity, particularly, of its central figure—Jesus Christ, is key to understanding Western culture itself and the many pieces of literature and popular culture (among other things) that come from it.

[5] Joseph Campbell and the Monomyth |  The American mythologist Joseph Campbell proposed that stories of heroes around the world follow one basic plot which he outlined in his influential work A Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell called this plot “the monomyth.” It is also popularly known as “The Hero’s Journey.” These stories, which basically follow Campbell’s scheme of the hero’s journey, are found in various mythologies and religious-spiritual traditions. Or course, they are also found in many of the stories and plots of popular culture.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

The “Limit Experience” and the Hero’s Journey (aka, the Spiritual Quest)


I recommend that you view the film Regarding Henry first before reading this blogpost. Available from the Western library system HERE.

Thinking about “Limit” Experiences and Situations

The film Regarding Henry (1991, starring Harrison Ford and Annette Benning) would probably be considered nowadays a rather unremarkable film that is too sappy and corny for an audience composed
of many “jaded” people used to more glitzy films. I consider it though a good chance to reflect on the concept of “limit” and “limit situations/experiences.” “Limit” is a major key for understanding and reflecting about the most important questions of human life and existence, particularly, how these relate with God, spirituality, and religion.

According to theologian David Tracy, a “limit situation” refers “to those human situations wherein a human being ineluctably finds manifest a certain ultimate limit or horizon to his or her existence.” Tracy distinguishes two main kinds of existential situations: “Either those ‘boundary’ situations of guilt, anxiety, sickness and the recognition of death as one's own destiny, or those situations called 'ecstatic experiences'... intense joy, love, reassurance, creation.” (David Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order, p. 105).

Let me explain “limit” in my words (with my students in mind). A “limit experience or situation” can be described as an intense moment when something major (either positive or negative)—be it an event, an overwhelmingly magnificent or evil person, extraordinary beauty or ugliness, a serious crisis or extraordinarily beautiful moment, or the like—so powerfully discloses the limits of human beings to understand the mysteriousness of human existence. It forces us who experience this event as “a limit” to nevertheless make at least some sense of this event’s mysteriousness that transcends the ordinary limits of human understanding. How to do that? By attempting to do an interpretation of the experience (“interpretive understanding”). That’s just a fancy way to say: When faced with a limit situation, humans try to put forward a possible explanation of the event. Of course, it is obvious that the effort to make sense of limit experiences often takes place in the midst of many strong positive or negative emotions, such as hope, faith, love, anxiety, sadness, anger, fear, despair, etc., elicited by these powerful experiences.

The Limit Situation in Regarding Henry

Let’s go back to Regarding Henry. First point for consideration: At the beginning of the film, we see that New York lawyer Henry Turner is at the top of his game. He is a tremendously successful lawyer who “has everything” in terms of worldly success. At this point, recall that in order to reach such success in one’s career, Henry has had to work and study hard, hone his rhetorical and reasoning skills, have the right connections, and pursue everything with drive and perseverance. Being successful in life (such as having a successful career) is itself an impressive feat that could not be reached without much discipline and sacrifice. Being university students, most of you are in that “struggling” stage now.

But Henry’s life and success are obliterated in a single moment because of a seemingly random and senseless shooting that almost kills him and tragically reduces him to the state of a helpless person who has lost even the most basic of human capabilities such as walking or speaking, let alone reading or writing. This is the story’s BIG limit experience and situation. How can a whole life of hard work culminating in great success be gone in a few seconds? Such tragic experiences make us come face to face with our limits to comprehend life’s utter mysteriousness. Henry himself as well as his family and colleagues think of the whole situation as a tragedy. But is it really? (see the Zen story below)

How do you evaluate this tragedy in terms of the Hero’s Journey? How would you apply the Hero’s Journey to the whole life-journey of Henry presented in this film? Reflect on those questions and be prepared to give meaningful responses.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Some “Big Ideas” on Spiritual Quests & Popular Culture

From 'Creative Educator'

Summary of the Most Important Points of a Course that I regularly teach called “Spiritual Quests & Popular Culture” 

[1] “Spiritual Quests” |  Human Life can be described in general as a “quest" or a “journey.” It is a quest and a search for something so precious that is worth the trouble of a difficult journey filled with lots of challenges.

In philosophy & religious studies, it is said that the most important quest or search in life is the one that will lead you to know deeply who you really are and all that you can be – in short, your authentic self. And that “authentic self” is someone who accepts yourself as you are but is, at the same time, connected with others (and the whole universe even!) and also living for a cause that is “bigger than yourself.

To summarize, the spiritual quest is “a quest for your deepest and most authentic self—a self that is connected with the universe and living for something bigger than your small EGO.” The external circumstances will differ from person to person, your life-adventures can bring you to far-away places or be done close to home but no matter where you go or what you face, the goal is the same: to know your authentic self as described above.

[2] “Spirituality” | Spiritualityas I [jkk] understand it—is composed of the following: One, it is a process of going deeper to find out who you really are in the most profound part of your being. Let’s call that “depth.” Two, it also means living for “something bigger than yourself.” A good term for that is “transcendence.” When you’ve begun to know deeply who you really are (depth) and when you’re pursuing something bigger than yourself (transcendence), only then can your life have a deeply satisfying and fulfilling meaning.

[3] Spirituality and Religion |  Spirituality as described above (in #2) is the heart of all religion. A religion is valid only in as much as it can enhance the spirituality of its members. However, spirituality can also be pursued outside of institutional religion. That is a growing trend especially in the West today (and in other parts of the world in which religion is on the decline).

We can make a good case that spirituality itself is the summum bonum (the highest good) for humans whether it is pursued within or outside a religious tradition. In other words, pursuing a spiritual quest (for depth and transcendence) is the greatest and most fulfilling adventure humans can be engaged in. Some will do it within a religious tradition; some others will do it outside the bounds of an institutional religion.

[4] The Hero’s Journey |  In order to accomplish this goal (of knowing deeply who we really are and partaking in something bigger than ourselves), everyone has to go on a QUEST or JOURNEY in life. This is in fact “the spiritual quest.” In the course of this journey, one has the possibility of becoming a HERO. [Note well though: If you allow the journey to embitter and break you, you can end up becoming a villain.] Hence, this spiritual quest has also been frequently expressed as “the Hero’s Journey.”

[5] Joseph Campbell’s Iteration of the Hero’s Journey |  The American mythologist Joseph Campbell outlined this quest well in his teaching on “The Hero’s Journey.” In one of his most well-known books, Campbell referred to “a hero with a thousand faces.” There, he described the Hero’s journey as “the monomyth.” By this, he meant that almost all “hero stories” throughout history and across all cultures seem to follow basically “one mythical plot” (hence, “mono-myth”).

The Hero’s Journey according to Campbell has three main parts: [1] The Departure or Separation: a hero is called to adventure and has to leave “home” (that is, everything familiar to them); [2] Initiation-Adventure: This part of the journey involves all the adventures, trials and defeats, joys and triumphs, etc. that the hero experiences. These experiences in turn forge the person into a genuine hero; [3] The Return: The hero then returns home bringing the fruits of their journey. There they bring about a new and better world.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Worldviews and Religions: The Role of Religions-as-Worldviews in Building a Global Community of Justice & Peace

image from gracechurch.org

By: Julius-Kei Kato, PhD

I acknowledge my debt to the many thinker-teachers who have taught me precious lessons about the topics I write about here, particularly, Ken Wilber and his iteration of “the Integral Theory.” A full list of references for sources of the content here as well as for further study is found at the end of the article.

Part I

Worldviews and Religion-as-a-Worldview – Attaining a Worldview that Can Help Build a Just and Peaceful World

This essay is principally about the importance of worldviews, especially religious and spiritual worldviews. It describes what worldviews are and how they can impede or contribute to the building of a world in which true justice and peace are present.

[1] Building a Just and Peaceful World |  One of the most important keys to building a just and peaceful world today is to bring people (as individuals and as groups) to truly want to be “global citizens,” in other words, willing participants of—what we shall call here—a “global community.” Let us define “global community” along the lines of the concept of “global citizenship” as a movement of many people throughout our increasingly globalized and interconnected world who value the well-being of others: one’s own insider group of course but, equally, also those outside one’s groups of affiliation (extending this concern to the whole world even). A particularly urgent matter at this juncture in history is for members of this global community to become deeply aware of the precarious ecological situation of our common earth-home and act to improve the situation.

Global citizens (the members of this envisioned global community) commit themselves, first, to refrain from things that harm others and, second, to act in order to realize better the vision of a more peaceful and just world not only for themselves and their in-group members (aka, one’s “tribe”) but for everyone in the world, particularly, those who have been considered “others” by one’s tribe.

[2] What We Mean by “Tribe" |  We will use the word "tribe" or “tribal” frequently here. It is proper, therefore, to describe it further. “My tribe” can mean many things. It’s basically the human group that I consider “my own people” or my “in-group.” Hence, “my tribe” can refer to: my family and extended family, my clan, my village. It can also refer to: my race, my culture, my social and economic class, my gender and gender-orientation. More specifically for our purposes here, we should be aware that “my tribe” has also meant “my religion and my religious community” for many people in past history and continues to mean so in the present.

Note that it is of course natural and good to value one's "tribe." We affirm that. However, we should also remember that if we uncritically overvalue our tribe in a way that excludes others, that unfortunately results in neglecting other groups or, worse yet, it can make us marginalize, discriminate against, and even cause harm to others not included in our tribe.

[3] Worldview and Its Pervasive Character | Our aim in this reflection is to understand better the potential contribution that spiritual-religious traditions can make to the building of a truly just and peaceful global world. To reach that aim, it is important first to recognize the importance of “worldview” and how that is a key to humans becoming active and committed global citizens.

A worldview is, literally speaking, the way by which one views and understands the world. It is a combination of all the influences one has had in one’s life up to this point. One is largely unconscious of it but it informs practically all the areas—big and small—in life: what one believes; what one holds as true or false; how one approaches life; how one relates to others, and so forth. It is like the pond someone is swimming in if they were a fish.

Another useful analogy to understand worldview is this: It’s like someone’s mother language and all the complex grammatical rules that make up that language. One is largely unconscious of this process, but people speak their mother language perfectly, without being aware that they’re actually following all the complex grammatical rules of the language flawlessly as they speak. We only experience how actually complex any language is when we learn a foreign language and, as if for the first time, marvel at how effortlessly native speakers can speak a language that, for us, seems so difficult to learn. Thus, our mother language is an accurate image of the all-pervasive, total character of our keyword here—worldview, in the life of individuals as well as groups of people.

[4] Religion is a Worldview |   It is obvious that religion (or any spiritual tradition for that matter) is definitely a worldview. It is a way of viewing the world which usually involves some “ultimate reality” that is meant to pervade the whole existence of believers, influencing how they understand the world and informing them how they should live their lives if they want to reach the particular religion’s ultimate goal. That goal may be the Christian union with God, Buddhism’s Nirvana, Islam’s total surrender to God or Judaism’s fidelity to the covenant, and so forth. Moreover, it is good to be aware that a religious worldview has an arguably stronger hold on the psyches of those who are living entirely within it because they believe that this particular worldview has been somehow “revealed” and gifted to them by an ultimate or divine Being or Entity, hence, carries with it some kind of absolute character. 

[5] How Worldviews Develop |   There is a basic and foundational principle about worldviews: Worldviews can and do undergo a process of evolution/development from: earlier, basic, (arguably) immature and more selfish stages – to: more advanced, more inclusive, (arguably) more mature stages. Since religions are worldviews, that principle is equally true about religions.

Up until now, the various spiritual-religious traditions of the world have not given much attention to the process of how spiritual-religious worldviews evolve and develop in individuals (as well as in whole groups of people). And this is perhaps one of the major things that religions lack which must definitely be rectified: a lack of knowledge and awareness of developmental processes as explicitly applied to religious faith.

To elaborate on this, various developmental studies have pointed out that humans (across different cultures and historical eras) go through a predictable general pattern of growth or development in their worldviews.

The pattern usually begins with a first level (Stage #1), a stage at the start of life that can be described as Egocentric. This is a stage in which one’s worldview is focused on oneself. Babies and young children are clear evidence of this. From that stage though, if humans would develop properly, they should grow and transcend their natural egocentric worldview and move on to being (2) Ethnocentric, a stage in which the person goes beyond and overcomes the “natural self-centered focus” of life’s initial stages. Instead, the person advances to a stage in which they can include the people closest to them (one's "tribe" or "in-group") as valuable for themselves. In short, the circle of one’s concern is getting bigger as one grows. That is a sign of good human development.

[6] Moving Beyond Ethnocentricity in a Global Community |  Today, in our more interconnected, diverse, and globalized world, it is more urgent that one should not stop at the ethnocentric stage unlike in the past. From an exclusive focus on one's "tribe" or “in-group” (ethnocentric stage), people in a globalized, interdependent world, as an ideal, should grow further into higher worldview stages, that is, (Stage #3) Worldcentric, a stage in which we acknowledge that those who, up to this point, were considered "Others" (by our “in-group”)  are deserving of the following things: at the basic level, a just and humane treatment and, if possible, also friendship and care. The highest level of development would be becoming more (4) Cosmocentric, a stage in which we consider not only humans but also other living and non-living things (our whole cosmos even!) as the objects of our concern and care. This cosmocentric dimension is in the forefront today in our globalized world as we become more aware of the precarious situation in which the ecological order of our earth finds itself.

Monday, January 31, 2022

Scripture is, first and foremost, an Art Form, not a “Rule Book”!


Citation: Armstrong, Karen. The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts. London: The Bodley Head, 2019.


(Here are some of my [jkk's] initial personal takeaways from watching some video clips of Karen Armstrong lecturing about the book and a quick browsing of the book itself. Hopefully, it will urge people to go and read the book itself. See below for links to some public lectures by Armstrong on youtube.)


"The Bible" (and sacred scripture in general) is frequently thought at least in the West to be writings where one can find eternal, immutable, and foundational truths that people have to consult or should learn and put into practice in order to attain an ultimate goal which, in traditional Christianity, meant “being saved” or "getting to heaven." 

Karen Armstrong in her book The Lost Art of Scripture (2019) seeks to correct that common misunderstanding and set the record straight about what might be the true purpose of "scripture" in a spiritual tradition.

And what would that be? She insists that "scripture" is an "art form" (p. 7). Being an art form ... it is the product of and is concerned primarily with touching the right-brain human functionalities of intuition and artistic sense, rather than the left-brain characteristics of rationality and logic. Unfortunately, in the West, since the Enlightenment, scholarship has sort of imposed many left-brain functionalities upon the scriptures. That has in turn resulted in our missing and losing its original identity of being an art form.

The following are noteworthy points that I randomly picked up from listening to Armstrong's online lectures and browsing through the book. They contain some insights about some essential ways by which—Armstrong thinks—scripture functions.

Lesson #1: Scripture Invites Us to Enter Mystery

The notion <that scripture tells us what we must believe; that it gives us truths we must accept> is not really correct! (Library of Congress lecture: timestamp 13:00)  Instead, there is a deliberate vagueness about even some important matters throughout the Bible. That is an invitation for us to plunge deeper into mystery and not fool ourselves into thinking that we have received a quick and complete answer to our perplexing questions by consulting the book like a manual.

This deliberate vagueness that acts as an invitation to enter mystery is symbolized by the name of God in Hebrew:

אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה ... The word was possibly read as "Ehyeh asher Ehyeh" meaning "I am that I am." Another possible, perhaps better translation might be: I will be who I will be. That phrase is intentional in suggesting deliberate vagueness. For example, if someone asks you where some friends of yours went and you answer, “they went where they went,” you are basically saying, “I don't know where they went.” When God, therefore, tells Moses that his name is YHWH (with the above-mentioned vague meaning), that basically means that God doesn’t want to box the divine identity in some fixed category, hence, God will be who God wants to be. To be curt about it, God was in effect telling Moses and the people, “Mind your own business” “Don’t think that you know who I am or who I will be.”

Examples from other religious traditions: Way back in the 10th century BCE, in India, they developed a form of religious discourse known as the brahmodya competition (See: The Great Transformation, p. 127). It was a competition among priests about who could discourse on sacred mysteries best. It was carried out by having a series of profound reflections from different priests about the nature of the sacred. The priest who won the competition would be the one who reduced everyone to silence because everyone would be at a loss for words to express the sacred mystery. And in that silence—it was recognized—the Brahman (the ultimate reality) was present. 

Tao Te Ching of Confucianism declares: The Dao (the Way, the Ultimate Principle) that can be named is not the Dao'   

Hence, scripture does not really tell us what we have to believe. Rather, it opens us up to the reality that when we speak about God, we actually don't know what we're talking about. It's a limit concept - shows us our limitation!  cf. again the Brahmodya competition.

Lesson #2: Scripture is Primarily Forward-Looking

[Scripture (as a community’s spiritual-religious text) does not primarily expect us to go back to the original meaning of the text. This is the opposite of what modern scholarship does because scholars want to go as close as possible to the original texts and study them. But this scholarly project is a post-enlightenment quest. That’s not how many believers treated their scriptures in the beginning: they used scripture to engage life in the present so that the future could be better

If there’s one thing we can say about the nature of these ancient texts, it would be: It's actually impossible for us to go back perfectly in time. Scholarly efforts to reconstruct the past based on scripture will always be incomplete and imperfect. (As a scholar I would add though: scholarship is of course important to make us understand better what scripture meant in the past and how we can correctly apply it to the present!)

So, it is again clear that Scripture is an innovative art; it is creative; it insists that you move forward by applying scripture’s lessons to the present. The Jewish practice of midrash (creative interpretation of tradition to make it applicable to present realities) wonderfully illustrates this character of scripture.

Lesson #3: Scripture Invites Us to Transcend Ourselves

Scripture is not about me. Scripture is not meant to just tell us about our own private spirituality but must rather issue in practical action. Scripture tells us to act! It seeks to conquer EGO in concrete ways.

Illustrative here is the story of Buddha. After he attained enlightenment, he was resistant to the idea of teaching it to others because that would hold many challenges. In the end, however, he had to share and teach his enlightenment with the whole world in order to help people to find a solution to the problem of suffering.

This quality is also illustrated in the Confucian teaching of compassion that forms the heart of the Golden Rule = shu (in Japanese 思いやりomoiyari). This virtue urges us to discover what gives us pain, and resolve not to inflict that on others. Moreover, according to Confucius, this has to be practiced all day and every day. If done so, it will give the practitioner enlightenment. 


There are various youtube videos of Karen Armstrong talking about the central points of the book and they're useful if one wants to gain a bird's eye view of the essential points of this voluminous work:

A talk she gave in Huston, TX on the book divided into three parts:

Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6xRv-g0GwY&t=1492s 

Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oKutgk1W-DY&list=WL&index=45&t=746s

Part 3 (Q&A): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TsYYiF9DpR0&list=WL&index=46

Lecture at the Library of Congress: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TsG8DEszSbk&list=WL&index=3&t=1483s

Lecture at the Toronto Public Library: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CF03oKfZxq8


Friday, December 31, 2021

How We’re Swimming in a “Christian Fishpond” in the West

-- Historian Tom Holland on the Christian Roots of the West --

I’ve been studying the theme of ancestry (particularly spiritual ancestry) for a while now and reflecting on what our ancestry here in the West consists in. My conclusion at this point is reflected in the title above: The Christian heritage is such a fundamental part of our cultural and spiritual ancestry that—to put it metaphorically—whether we like it or not, we are swimming in—what was once—an originally Christian fishpond! Hence, if we really want to understand well this place where we are, we’ll have to understand Christianity to a certain extent. I’ll have to unpack more what I mean by that but, at this point, I think it’s better to refer first of all to people who have thought longer and harder about this topic than I.


     Thus, in this blogpost, I’ll introduce parts of an online lecture of British historian Tom Holland. Holland wrote a book titled Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind.


Holland, Tom. Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. London: Little-Brown, 2019. (references will be to this originally British hardcover edition)


The North American edition’s sub-title is more explicitly Christian and religious:

Holland, Tom. Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. New York: Basic Books, 2019.


There he makes the argument that the history of the so-called West has been so crucially and irrevocably influenced by Christianity that, although the West has become generally doubtful of religion
nowadays in this secular age, its basic “instincts –for good and ill—remain thoroughly Christian” (p. xxix). That is what I mean when I say above that anyone who has been or is influenced by “western” ideas can be compared to fish swimming in an originally Christian fishpond. Thus, if we want to understand our western culture and civilization or, to use the metaphor again, the fishpond-habitat in which we swim, we’ll have to face its Christian heritage and ancestry. Holland bluntly puts it this way: “To live in a Western country is to live in a society still utterly saturated by Christian concepts and assumptions” (p. xxv).


     To take Holland’s last quoted point further, this means that although many parts of the West now are societies characterized by great diversity in terms of culture and ethnicity, being and living in the West still means to be swimming in a fishpond that is full of Christian influence even though many are not aware of it.


     The text of Holland’s lecture follows below. The parts in blue are my own annotations. Sub-headings are not part of the original lecture. Special thanks to my research assistant Danielle Rivest-Durand for helping me with this project.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

"Sealed for Service" - From When I Became a Deacon


My Pre-Diaconate Exam

I was ordained a deacon in Rome in June of 1994. I was then a member of a religious order, the Salesians of Don Bosco, and I became a deacon as part of my ministry as a Salesian. Rome is a special place to be ordained a deacon obviously because it’s the pope's very own diocese. We candidates had to take a special oral interview-exam for the diaconate conducted by professors coming from different Roman pontifical universities. This was the last hoop to be cleared before one was ordained in the pope's diocese. The exam was to take place at the Lateran University because that is the university of the local church of Rome. So we prepared for the exam and went to the Lateran University bright and early on the specified date.

When my turn to be examined came, I was directed to the exam room. There was a priest-professor waiting for me. I found out later that he was the rector of the North American College in Rome. I don't remember his name but, looking at the list of rectors online, he must have been then-Fr. Edwin O'Brien (later archbishop of Baltimore). His first question to me was a totally unexpected one: What is ontology?

I was blindsided by the question because, to my mind, it apparently had nothing to do with being ordained a deacon. But I duly answered him and explained what I thought ontology was: that it was examining the nature of reality and the totality of things in existence. I think I also went on about ontology as the study of 'being' and what constitutes a being as the word "ontology" comes from the Latin "ens" which means precisely "being."

Having listened patiently to my explanation, he proceeded to his second question which was even more baffling to me. He asked , "What’s the connection between ontology and being a deacon?"

The So-Called "Ontological Change"

As soon as I heard that, I immediately grasped what he was getting at. So, I calmed down and started to explain that being ordained a deacon means having, as it were, a spiritual "seal" seared into your very being, because standard Roman Catholic sacramental theology  teaches that the sacrament of ordination effects a character upon the people who receive them. To use a fancy yet traditional expression, the sacrament of holy orders effects--what Roman Catholic theology calls--an "ontological change" (a transformation in the person's very being) whereby the person is given an ontological character which changes them into the very thing that the sacrament signifies.

Baptism is another of these "character-giving" sacraments because it bestows an irrevocable seal, a mark on your soul that transforms you into a child of God. After all, baptism is the sacrament of initiation which transforms people--it is believed--into children of God. When you receive the sacrament of ordination (and there are three kinds: diaconal, presbyteral [priestly], and episcopal), Roman Catholic theology teaches that you are given the "ontological character" (a character that constitutes your very being) of what the particular sacrament signifies.

The Heart of Becoming a Deacon - Becoming a Servant Forever

In the case of the ordination to the diaconate, the ordinand is, therefore, marked with the "ontological character" of a deacon. And what is that character, one may ask? It is to be a servant, one who devotes oneself to the service of the Christian community, particularly in the service of proclaiming the word and offering a few sacraments and ministries that would serve the community.

As I went on explaining the connection between "ontology" and "ordination" along those lines, it seemed that the good father realized that I knew my theology and so he stopped me and said in a solemn yet calm voice,  "Do you know why I asked you those questions?"

Without waiting for my answer, he proceeded to answer his own rhetorical question. What he said struck me powerfully and I have never forgotten it to this day. He said that many candidates for ordination think that being ordained a deacon is just the penultimate stage on their path to being ordained a priest because the diaconate in the Catholic Church is still generally a "transitional" stage. That means: it is mostly conferred on men who are eventually going to be ordained as priests. My priest-examiner said that this lack of mindfulness about the diaconate is a lamentable fact because very few priests remember that, when they were ordained deacons, they were in fact given a character which remains irrevocably embedded in their souls for life. And that character is, as I said, to be a diakonos, a servant. In short, when one is ordained a deacon, one is transformed irrevocably into a servant forever because the sacrament effected this so-called "ontological" change! Hence, even if one does become a priest one day, one should never forget that one is and should always and in all cirumstances be, first and foremost, a servant.

Reflections in Retrospect

I remember quite clearly those memorable words of the priest-examiner before my ordination to the diaconate as if they were uttered yesterday. I did get ordained to the diaconate shortly after that at the Sacred Heart Basilica just beside Rome's central train station Termini. It was a joyous and memorable occasion particularly because my father flew all the way from Asia to attend it. I was surrounded by dear friends who wished me well. I served as a deacon for a whole year, most of the time at the very basilica where I was ordained a deacon. A year later in 1995, I was ordained a presbyter (priest)  this time in--what was then my home base--Tokyo, Japan.

Fast forward now some 25 years later to myself in 2021. I no longer have the official "faculties" (a kind of a "license") to practice formally as a deacon or a priest at present due to circumstances that I will not bore you with now.  I still do remember though with a grateful heart what the priest examiner told me before I was to be ordained a deacon. I don't think that the "ontological change" language is helpful anymore though. It kind of sounds arrogant and narcissistic to me. However, if you describe the diaconate as being "sealed with a character of service," I still find that symbolic language quite powerful. I have always striven to be true to that mission and that character which I gratefully received then and continue to cherish even now.

In the final analysis, what is ordination anyway? It is a sacrament conferred on a select few in order to symbolize more intensely the true nature of the Christian community and of every member thereof: a servant, a minister, a mediator like Jesus between God and one's fellow humans, a shepherd like Jesus who takes care of those under one's charge to the point of being willing to offer one's life for them. 

The nature and mission of the so-called "ordained" state therefore are not the exclusive property of ordinands, some of whom like to strut around like peacocks because of their different so-called "ontological" state. I find that attitude quite silly. They belong rather to the whole body of Christ and they ought to be conferred--I firmly think--on any Christian, irregardless of sex or marital status, who is willing and qualified. That's what I honestly think today and, in large part, that is in line with the practice of the early Church. 

The ultimate argument though for me is this: If someone can bear the image of God and of Christ (and that again is not dependent on sex or marital status), they can be rightfully empowered to represent God-Christ in a more intense way through ordination to the munus triplex (the threefold role) of "prophet, priest, and servant-king." Any quibbling about that is--I think--nothing but attachment to a patriarchal past rather than genuine openness both to tradition and to the "spirit at work in the world" today.


Friday, October 22, 2021

Women Deacons? "The Prayers and Tears" of Phyllis Zagano


From America Magazine. Dec. 18, 2019

The Diaconate and Women Deacons

On Oct 21 (2021), I attended a webinar-lecture that forms part of the Veritas lecture series at King's this year on the common theme "Seeds of Hope." It was by theologian Dr. Phyllis Zagano Ph.D. and  entitled "Catholic Women, Catholic Church: Where do We Go from Here?" She focused on her particular field of specialization which is the 'diaconate of women and its possibility today'.

First of all, there is no question that Zagano is one of the foremost authorities in the Catholic world today on women and the diaconate. I really appreciated how much work she has put into moving this theme forward and bringing it to the attention of more people. More power to you, Phyllis!

As we went on with her talk, some things became clear to me. First (this one I already knew but it was really reinforced by her lecture), historically, women served as deacons for a long time, before that precious ministry was gradually suppressed by the institutional church mainly because of a negative view of women. Hence, there is historical precedent and no valid theological reason to prevent women from being ordained to the diaconate.

Second very sad realization: Although there is historical precedent and no theological reason for barring women from being ordained as deacons, the recent history of the valiant endeavours by Catholic theologians (of which Zagano is an impressive representative) has just met with, to mention the worst, rejection, opposition, and invalid (even heretical!) counter arguments from church officials. Zagano mentioned that she was even told that women cannot represent God and Christ  by no less than an official of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). This actually appalls me and makes me angry. More on the subtle side of preventing the project of women-deacons would be the hedging, stalling, and delaying tactics of those in the Catholic institutional structure that simply do not want women to be ordained deacons. 

See for example this statement from the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research on this issue.

Zagano (and her co-theologians who support the diaconate for women) have made it clear that the diaconate is not simply a pathway to the ordained priesthood, although in normal church practice now, the diaconate is usually a step before the presbyterate ("transitional diaconate"). It is a vocation in its own right with a different character than the priesthood.  

But, I suspect (and this is just my personal impression) that the strong opposition that they have received is due to the fact that there are powerful forces within the Roman Catholic Church institution that fear that if women deacons are allowed, it will just be a slippery slope that could lead to more people clamoring for the priesthood to be conferred on women as well. And that is definitely what they are so scared of. Besides, the inability of the Church to confer priestly ordination on women has been declared as solemnly as the Church could, short of a dogma. If you want to know my personal opinion on that, you'll have to ask me personally ... 

Moreover, I agree with something Zagano said during her talk: Some male clerics simply CANNOT and/or DO NOT WANT to work with "ordained" women.

But ... Where's the Hope in This?

At the end of the lecture, despite my renewed admiration for Zagano's (and other like-minded theologians') valiant efforts to make a good case for why the diaconate could be and should be conferred on women, the effect of getting a clearer picture of the concerted efforts to prevent this project from coming to fruition in the Catholic Church left me quite discouraged, angry, and ... to be honest ... ironically bereft of hope. 

I ask in frustration: How long should we endure and tolerate an institution with a hardened heart? As someone who was ordained a transitional deacon in 1994 and a priest in 1995 but willingly resigned in 2005, I know the agony of holding hope for a long time but sadly concluding at a certain point that this intransigent and incorrigible institution is just not worth sacrificing one's whole life for. There are better things to do in life than to continually get frustrated and hurt by a fossilized structure that actively and continually frustrates--what I deeply believe to be--the genuine movements of "the spirit in the world." And one of them is this movement for conferring the diaconate on women. As Zagano affirmed, the symbol of having a woman stand beside the pope at mass as a deacon would have a tremendous effect on the Church, especially on the many discouraged, long-suffering Catholic women (and men!) throughout the world.

Sadly, I concluded many years ago that it is only when enough people stop cooperating with the dysfunctional parts of the institution and perhaps even boycott it into irrelevance that it will finally realize that a radically new transformation in its mode of being and thinking is necessary and truly have the will to ACT to realize that change. I'll believe it when I see it ... Please be easy on us who fought battles and got quite tired and discouraged ...

I sincerely hope that I'm proven wrong in this. Francis' becoming pope was a welcome surprise in 2013. Perhaps God has some powerful trick up God's sleeve? ... I wondered...   Thus, I've supported and continue to support Francis' efforts to move the church in--what I think--is a better direction. Zagano's remark is enlightening. She opined that, with this current synodal movement, Pope Francis is taking us Catholics on a two year-long Ignatian retreat. How I wish and pray that it would bear fruit!

But one man cannot do it. Ironically, the fact that a lot of things still depend on one man at the top of the Roman Catholic pyramid is the single most troubling ecclesiological factor for me. This is in fact the most damning dysfunctionality of the Roman Catholic structure: that one man can actually single-handedly stamp his seal on the billion-member institution. This has to go. It is uncannily too similar to fascism. For all we know, a super-conservative guy will be put on the throne of Peter tomorrow and voila! It'll be back to wintertime in the Church!

There should be proper checks and balances; true decision-making authority should be given to a wider circle of people (particularly, women, married people!) who represent more accurately the wide umbrella of Roman Catholicism and should not just be limited to a clique of male, ordained celibates. 

And ordaining women to the diaconate will be a VERY SIGNIFICANT baby step!

... Many thanks to Dr. Zagano and like-minded people who still give me a glimmer of hope. But God help us all --- we need more than just a glimmer!

---Julius-Kei Kato, PhD    jkato@uwo.ca   ---

Monday, September 13, 2021

Understanding Religion and Which Aspects of It Can Impede or Advance Human Flourishing


Philosopher Ken Wilber's Keynote Address at the Integral European Conference (IEC) 2018 

(The Original Title of Wilber’s Lecture)

Is Religion Evolution’s Ally or Enemy?


LINK (in the public domain): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Z9vyJDME7w&t=2118s

Published: Oct 1, 2018 / Accessed: 2021-05-11


(The numbers in-between parentheses are timestamps. Parts in blue are my own [jkk] annotations to Wilber’s talk. When parts are italicized within Wilber’s talk, those are my own emphases. Special thanks to my research assistant Christine Atchison for help with the transcription of Wilber's talk.)

[jkk annotation] Have you ever wondered why religion can produce both the best things and the worst things in the world? I think the best way to answer that is by explaining religion through what is called “the Integral Theory.” I’ve found that this talk of philosopher Ken Wilber, the major proponent and exponent of the Integral Theory, is one of the best and most succinct-yet-complete presentations that could help us gain a good “big picture” of religion – its lights and shadows, its tremendous potential as well as its darkest dysfunctionalities. This talk of Wilber titled “Is Religion Evolution’s Ally or Enemy,” gives us an excellent overview of an understanding of religion and spirituality that could help humanity advance through the proper developmental stages and grow into a more mature and more holistic state as individuals and as groups, and also experience the highest states of bliss that religious traditions envision.


Introductory Remarks on Religion in the West

     Hello everybody, my talk is titled ‘Religion: Evolution’s Ally or Enemy?’. So let me start by asking ‘what are we going to do with this thing called Religion?’ Around two or three hundred years ago the percentage of people in, for example, [Northern] Europe who considered themselves ‘churched’, that is, serious and regular followers of a traditional church (in this case the Catholic Church) was well over 90 %. Today the percentage of people in Northern Europe who consider themselves ‘churched’ is less than 11%. The number of people who are followers of any sort of traditional religion has dropped dramatically—especially in the modern, developed countries. In the pre-modern or developing countries the numbers of religious believers are much higher and, as we’ll see, there’s a reason for that. But, in general—and this is the central point—the more evolved a country is, the less religious it is. And this is true for individuals as well; the more evolved a person is, the less religious they’re likely to be. Why is that? Are religion and evolution the opposite of each other so that the more you have of one, the less you have of the other? Is religion an ally of evolution or its enemy?


Defining Terms: Spiritual Intelligence and Spiritual Experience

     First of all, we need to understand what we mean by the word religion. There are at least two very different meanings of that word. One meaning is called religious intelligence or spiritual intelligence. It’s how we think about spirit, how we think about what we believe is an ultimate reality or ultimate concern. It’s how we interpret or conceptualize or think about ultimate reality. The other meaning is not spiritual intelligence but direct spiritual experience or immediate religious experience. Human beings have both capacities—spiritual intelligence and spiritual experience.

[jkk annotation] I would avoid using the word “religion” altogether because it has negative connotations nowadays in many circles. We can use terms with a more positive resonance for people today, such as the Japanese word ikigai (生き甲斐) or “spirituality”. “Human beings are spiritual beings” might be a foundational principle. Why? Because a person is usually animated and motivated to engage with life by interior and exterior factors that are “greater than (but also inclusive of) the physical.” That is just another way to say “spiritual.” Hence, the spiritual dimension plays a foundational and crucial role in humans.

     In certain instances, like listening to beautiful music, walking in nature, making love, having a peak experience or an altered state of consciousness, humans can have a direct spiritual experience. William James explored these direct spiritual experiences in his classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience. But even if we have a direct spiritual experience, we almost always start interpreting it, conceptualizing it, giving it some sort of meaning or using some sort of conceptual framework—however simple—to make sense of it. So, as soon as we have any direct or religious or spiritual experience, we use our spiritual intelligence to interpret it, conceptualize it, frame it. We have spiritual experience and we have spiritual intelligence. (4:15) 

     Sometimes people have not had any direct spiritual experience, but they have lots of ideas and thoughts about what spirit is or what they think spirit is like. Most people have some sort of idea of what an ultimate reality is like, or at least what the most important reality or ultimate concern is for themselves. In other words, they have some form of spiritual intelligence, however vague or crude, but they have no direct spiritual experience. Some of these people even have very advanced spiritual intelligence. They’ve read texts from all the world’s great religions; they know all sorts of theological theories and ideas. They’ve thought a great deal about spirit and ultimate realities They might even have tried to weave together all of the latest leading-edge versions of modern science into a ‘new paradigm’ and then claim that this new paradigm represents a mystical, interwoven unity of all reality—just like Zen, or Daoism, or Vedanta. And yet, even though they believe this theory they themselves have never actually had a genuine spiritual experience in their life. So when it comes to spiritual reality they have lots of knowledge by description (or spiritual intelligence), but no direct knowledge by acquaintance (or direct spiritual experience, or satori, or enlightenment).

     On the other hand, others have had a great deal of spiritual experience or several of them, but they can’t articulate it well or show how it relates to all the other areas of life. They have much spiritual experience but not much spiritual intelligence. These two forms of religious engagement—spiritual intelligence and spiritual experience—are very different in their fundamental nature and recognizing that difference is truly important, as we’ll see. These two forms cannot be completely separated from each other but they are different in several important ways and it’s crucial to recognize that difference. Spiritual experience, in its highest form, is claimed by its adherents to be a direct and immediate experience of pure one-ness with an ultimate reality.

     This experience itself has been known in almost every major culture throughout history and around the world and given names such as enlightenment, awakening, metamorphosis, Satori, Moksha, Fanaa—the great liberation. And this is said to result in states described as ultimate unity consciousness, divine oneness, pure unity, infinite wholeness, or the supreme identity. Supreme because it is said to be one with spirit and thus one with the entire universe. And this oneness is said to constitute a person’s real self or true self. For the moment, simply assuming that something like this ultimate, religious, experience exists, I refer to this overall process in any of its forms as ‘waking up’. ‘Waking up’ is the ultimate form of spiritual experience. (8:22).

     Spiritual intelligence, on the other hand, is one of up to a dozen multiple intelligences that all human beings possess. That is, in addition to cognitive intelligence we have emotional intelligence, moral intelligence, aesthetic intelligence, linguistic intelligence, interpersonal intelligence and, yes, spiritual intelligence. These are not so much experiences as they are intelligences. That is, mental operations that address fundamental questions faced by humans. Emotional intelligence, for example, addresses the issue of ‘what are you (or I) feeling?’. Moral intelligence addresses the question ‘what is the right thing to do?’. And spiritual intelligence is the thinking process that humans engage whenever they think about some sort of ultimate reality or ultimate concern. A person might use their spiritual intelligence and decide that there really isn’t any spirit or ultimate reality—they’re atheistic. Or they might conclude that they just can’t decide that issue—they’re agnostic. Or, as I said, they might look at today’s leading-edge sciences and come up with a new paradigm about a fully interwoven and unified nature. In any of those cases, they’re using their spiritual intelligence because they’re thinking about ultimate realities.

Note Well: Spiritual Intelligence, according to Wilber, is one of several multiple intelligences that human beings possess.

     Now, like all multiple intelligences, spiritual intelligence grows and develops through a well-known sequence of developmental stages. People aren’t born with any of their multiple intelligences operating at their highest and most mature levels. Like all things in nature, any multiple intelligence has to grow and develop through a series of stages. Each stage being more functional, more complex, and more mature. The same is definitely true of spiritual intelligence. So, what stages does spiritual intelligence grow through? What stages are there? (11:05).

[jkk annotation] To summarizeReligionSpirituality consists of two main factors(1) Spiritual Experience and (2) Spiritual Intelligence. Traditional religions know #1 well; they unfortunately are largely unaware of #2 and hence they cannot “get” why religion has become irrelevant to many people in the West today.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

My Theory of Religion - Part 1


[1] Reality 

Here, for the sake of illustrating my point, I will imagine first that everyone is born with a tabula rasa [a clean slate] regarding religion. Of course, that never happens because everyone is already born into some concrete traditions and cultures.

Each and every human being is born into reality (into a world, into "life") which--we can say--can be all of these things at the same time:  

  • Reality can be full of potential meaning
  • However, it is also utterly mysterious. There are lots of things to understand and fathom but ultimately no one will be able to figure out the "ultimate meaning of it all." Hence, in the final analysis, reality is a great mystery.
  • We can see reality also as "neutral" in the sense that it does not have a meaning unless someone imputes a particular meaning to it
  • Lastly (if you take it in a pessimistic way), reality can also be seen as meaningless in itself. People just impute meaning to it because living in a meaningless world is scary for humans.

When faced with this reality, we humans cannot exist in a meaningless-vacuum. We need to "make sense" of this reality (this world, this life). I locate the roots of what we know as "religion" and "spirituality" precisely in this human effort to make sense of reality.


[2] The "Meaning of It All" |  We humans are equipped with a kind of "spiritual intelligence." Spiritual intelligence is just one of the dozen or so multiple intelligences that exist. They include: cognitive intelligence, musical intelligence, moral intelligence, motor intelligence, etc. This spiritual intelligence is what drives us to seek for a possible "meaning of it all." In short, there is a powerful urge deep within humans that leads us to look for "the big picture" of the whole of reality, an encompassing worldview or meta-narrative that would potentially make sense of everything, the ONE thing that "makes the whole thing tick." Let me define spiritual intelligence here as the deep desire hardwired in humans to search for "the meaning of it all" through depth and transcendence. That is, we proceed on this life-long search for meaning (1) by going into the deepest parts of ourselves to find what is truly authentic, and, at the same time, (2) by going beyond ourselves to selflessly pursue something bigger than ourselves that could bring a fuller meaning to our existence. The former (1) involves introspective work, the "journey within," while the latter (2) involves transcending our petty, selfish ego or desires through service to others and to the world. 


[3] Spiritual Intelligence |  We call this drive to search for meaning "spiritual" intelligence because most humans in history have believed that the "meaning of it all" can be found not only in the material or physical things that we can access with our senses (or that conventional science can prove). Instead, the deepest and truest meaning of reality--according to this more traditional theory of reality--could be found in a dimension that is beyond the physical, in short, in a spiritual dimension. Plato's allegory of the cave illustrates this. In the novel The Little Prince, this is expressed as: "What is essential is invisible to the eye."


[4] "God"  |  It is this active spiritual intelligence that has led humans in history to posit theories about reality, claiming for example that there is a supreme spiritual Being that is behind everything, a Being that is known in the Western religious traditions as "God." This Being (at least in the Western monotheistic traditions) is the source and creator of all; It continually acts to sustain, heal, and save everything; It is also the ultimate goal and fulfillment of everything. In non-Western spiritual traditions, the concept of "God" may not be dominant but there is a similar spiritual reality that is posited as the heart of all reality, such as "Nothingness" in Buddhism.


[5] Spiritual Experience  |   What led many to posit the existence of "God" or some other ultimate reality? The cause seems to lie in what is called "spiritual experience." Alternatively, it is also known as "religious experience," "mystical experience," "contemplative experience," or even "transpersonal experience." "Spiritual experience" has been a universal occurrence found in all cultures and historical periods. Many spiritual practitioners have had experiences that brought them to realize that there is indeed a bigger dimension beyond our normal, physical existence which is benevolent and in which every single thing in the universe is connected. Hence, one often hears expressions from mystics and sages to the effect that "Everything is One" -- one in this bigger, benevolent being or dimension which encompasses everything.


[6] Tradition |  It is likewise true that humans do not have to "reinvent the wheel" every single time because we are already born into particular traditions, also known as "cultures." Tradition is an accumulation of meaning, experience, and knowledge that humans have had as a group. They see the world through it and live within it. They hand it on to those who are in their communities for posterity. Those who are born into human communities draw on tradition to understand the world. Tradition is the foundation of worldview. Religion has been an important part of tradition.


[7] The Ambivalence of Tradition |  Tradition (I'm thinking particularly of religious tradition) can be good for us because it provides us with the wisdom, knowledge, and experience of past generations. However, tradition also has its dark sides because through it we inherit the dysfunctionalities, downright idiocies, and very limited perspectives of past generations. 


[8] The Clash between Tradition and Innovation in Religion |  Both tradition and innovation have important roles to play in religion and spirituality. Tradition anchors us to the past and what has been valued in history. We should not forget though that there are dark sides in any tradition. Innovation is the willingness to think in new ways or to create new forms that would enable us to respond more adequately to the needs and challenges that present themselves to us in the present. There is often a relation of tension between these two in religious communities. Those who tend to cling to tradition are frequently known as "conservatives" and those who are more willing to embrace innovation are  called "liberals." Holding both in a creative tension is the ideal. 


[9] Idolatry |   At the end of the day, we have to say though that "reality" or "the world" is ultimately a great, big mystery that cannot be figured out completely. In the monotheistic traditions, this is usually expressed as "the utter mysteriousness” of the supreme reality - God. Despite our best efforts, reality/life /God cannot be tamed ... It frequently surprises us in very unexpected ways.  The big temptation of institutional religion is to pretend that it possesses supreme knowledge about the ultimate reality. In the Western monotheistic traditions (particularly, in Christianity), there has been a consistent effort to "set things in stone" (dogmatize them) by investing absolute truth in a teaching authority (e.g. the hierarchy or the Bible). This is, in the final analysis, a form of idolatry that is pointed out as the principal sin in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. 


[10] The Necessity of Deconstruction in Religion  |  Institutional religions are relatively stable structures or systems. We grow attached to them. We try to make them unchangeable and even absolute and thus fall into idolatry. Thus, we convince ourselves that we have absolutely true factors such as an infallible pope or an inerrant Bible. But if there be truly a God, this God can never be forced into a hierarchical system or an inerrant book. This God will be so much bigger and greater than any human religious "system" or institution that we can come up with. Hence, there is a need to constantly "deconstruct" these religious structures or systems that we humans construct because all of them are too small and limited. (Philosopher of Religion John Caputo’s work on deconstruction can be utilized with much profit regarding this topic.)