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.)

---


Wednesday, June 30, 2021

How I Make Sense of the Horror of the Residential Schools in Canada

(... and other horrifying yet true stories from history)

Pair of children's moccasins are pictured at a memorial in Vancouver (from a CBC story: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/canada-residential-schools-kamloops-faq-1.6051632)

***

This is the framework within which I, as a scholar of religion and history, try to make sense of the many true horror stories of history and the role that religion played in them. Here, I'm dealing with the discovery of hundreds (will probably reach thousands?) of unmarked graves in multiple former residential school locations here in Canada. The majority of those graves belong to the children who were treated horribly and even abused to the point of death in these schools, most of which were run by Christian churches (particularly by Catholic religious orders). 

 

Part I

A Conceptual Framework to Better Understand the Many Horrors of History (such as the Canadian Residential School System)

[1-The Ambivalence of Human Civilization] Human civilization is, in a deep sense, innately barbaric. A brief look at human history will sadly yet clearly show that wherever humans are, there too will be disagreements, mutual dislike, and even hatred. This results in acts of horrible violence. Of course, not to be forgotten, however, is that humans also have a deep core of compassion and kindness within themselves. As the saying goes, "There are two wolves within us; the one we feed more wins." 

[2-The Human Pattern of Development] Another crucial factor that plays an important role in this framework is the process of how worldviews develop in individuals (This applies also to whole civilizations). Humans in fact go through a predictable pattern of growth or development. It begins with being (in Stage #1) Egocentric at the start of life, a stage in which one is selfishly focused on one's self. From there, if humans are to develop properly, they should move on to being (2) Ethnocentric, a stage in which the person transcends one's selfishness and includes one's "tribe" or "insider group" as valuable as well.

[3-Beyond Ethnocentricity] Today, in our more interconnected and diverse world, it is common sense that one should not stop at the ethnocentric stage because there is more necessary development to undergo. From an exclusive love of one's "tribe" (ethnocentric), people should grow further into being more (3) Worldcentric, a stage in which also those considered "Others" should be valued as deserving: of at least a just and humane treatment and, if possible, of friendship and care as well. The highest stage would be being more (4) Cosmocentric, a stage in which not only humans but also other living and non-living things (our whole cosmos even!), become the objects of our concern and care. 

[4-Ethnocentricity as Dominant in History] Most people and civilizations in history though have been mainly ethnocentric. The vast majority have lived their lives viewing the world from a "tribal" point of view which is based on the following mentality: “my 'tribe' is better than others," "my tribe has a higher truth"; or even, "my tribe is the superior one among all others." That is still true even today for most of the world's population. One dark aspect of an uncritical ethnocentricity is that people who we consider "Others" are dehumanized in our worldview (they seem "less than human"). This leads to us treating them in negative ways without feeling too much guilt. Another thing to note: the ethnocentric worldview is also characterized by a “mythic-literal understanding” of the tribe’s foundational principles (aka, stories, teachings, dogmas). For example, God appointed white people to bring civilization to the whole world; Hitler is the German nation’s saviour; America is the new chosen nation of God, etc.

Important to note here: When you are in a certain stage (particularly, Stage 2: Ethnocentric-Tribal), you can only see what this stage's worldview lets you see. You find it hard to put yourself in another’s shoes (which is more characteristic of Stage 3). Therefore, you think that this tribal-centered worldview is the truth; you are not so concerned with the "others." You think their worldviews are wrong or inferior. You usually cannot think critically about the worldview of the stage you are in because that is the pond (as it were) in which you are now swimming. It follows that you can only objectively and critically evaluate lower-stage worldviews. 

[4-My "Tribe"]  My "tribe" can mean many things: my family and extended family, my clan, my village. Particularly important for our topic here, “tribe” also refers to: my race, my culture, my social and economic class, my gender, my religion, etc. It is natural to value one's "tribe" but uncritically overvaluing it unfortunately results in neglecting other groups or, worse yet, marginalizing, discriminating, and even causing harm to others.

Hence the importance in our present context of studying disciplines such as critical race theories, postcolonial and liberationist theories, and (particularly in my field of religious studies) integral theories of religion that apply developmental theories of worldviews to particular religious mentalities.

[5-"The Imperial Gene"] Human civilizations are, moreover, innately imperialistic. Imperialism is the lust for dominance and control over others that lies at the heart of civilizations. If a particular civilization acquires enough power, it is usually tempted to use that power to exert control over others. That has often happened in history when one human group moves out to conquer and dominate other groups. 

[6-Western Imperialism] At a certain point in world history, Western civilizations acquired tremendous power through advances in science, technology, and the production of goods that resulted in the development of better means of transportation, more powerful means to wage war and other intellectual and material resources. This power was a catalyst for certain Western powers to exert their dominance over "weaker" groups either in the West itself or beyond the West. When Westerners conquered other non-Western groups, they also developed a hubris that made them think that their own Western civilization was superior to the conquered ones.

I happen to apply the framework here to Western civilization because of our particular topic but it is important to remember that the barbarism, violence, imperialism, and the hubris of civilization are not only "Western" problems. They are universal problems that appear when the conditions are right or when this particular "wolf is fed." I am half-Japanese and I lived in Japan for a long time. Thus, I know very well that in Asia for example, Japan, a non-Western imperial power, is a clear example of malevolent imperialism in recent history. One can also look at the history of slavery around the world to see that it is a universal barbarism that has been practiced in varying forms in all civilizations.

[7-The Process of Colonization] Here in North America, when Westerners arrived from Europe and encountered the indigenous people who were already living here, all the above-mentioned factors came together and produced a "perfect storm" as it were, that would be disastrous for the indigenous people. The Europeans brought their civilization with them and colonized this land (as they did elsewhere in the world). While we acknowledge that European civilization has many good things in it, we must also point out that the colonization process was characterized by all of the above-mentioned factors, namely, an ethnocentric mentality that was convinced of the superiority of Western civilization and its religion (Christianity) and that looked down upon other cultures as inferior. Present also was an imperialistic lust bent on conquering people, obtaining their lands, and making the new land into a colony that would benefit the mother country at the expense of the original inhabitants of the land. This whole process, moreover, frequently utilized barbaric violence to achieve and maintain such a colonial order. 

I am referring to my present location--North America. If this process is applied though to different settings in the world and historical periods, it will show that there are remarkable similarities in the patterns that imperial powers use to colonize other people and lands. Imperialism and colonialism then are fundamental human problems. Here in North America though, the aggressors were Europeans and their descendants.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Jesus as Source of a Spirituality that Transforms the World

 

Christ of the Breadlines by Fritz Eichenberg

Jesus of Nazareth

Source of a Spirituality that Acts to Transform the World

 

--Key Summary Statements: A Bare-bones Description-- 

Introduction 

In this piece, I would like to propose Jesus of Nazareth as a major source of a spirituality that is both rooted in a non-dual/unitive consciousness of reality (everyone and everything as One in God) and acts to transform the world into a better place where “Shalom” is present. I will take “Shalom” to mean: the totality of all good and wholesome things, particularly, benevolence, social justice, peace, inclusivity, compassion, forgiveness, and harmony.

To that end, let me begin by stating that Jesus of Nazareth --acknowledged as “the Christ” (as recoverable by a balanced historical-critical study of the New Testament)-- is supposed to be the heart of Christian faith and spirituality. (This assertion is from Catholic theologian Hans Küng.)

Before going further, let us start by situating the figure of Jesus, his cause, his teaching, and ministry, within the context of the world’s great spiritual-wisdom traditions and the many spiritual masters throughout human history. In this way, we could see both the commonalities and the distinguishing characteristics that Jesus has vis-à-vis other sages and their traditions. Thus, we could also be more aware of both the commonalities that the Christian tradition shares with other wisdom-spiritual paths and the particular characteristics that give it its special character, albeit free of any claim of superiority. Let’s begin then by describing what many spiritual teachers have called “the Perennial Philosophy.”


Part 1 – The Perennial Philosophy

Source for Part 1: Roger Walsh MD, PhD, Essential Spirituality: The Seven Central Practices to Awaken Heart and Mind (Wiley, 1999), pp. 6-9. I have done some minor annotations and revisions to the text. 

#1 [What’s the “Perennial Philosophy”?] Thanks to global communication, for the first time in history, we have all the world's religions, their wisdom and their practices, available to us.  ... What do the different [religious-spiritual] traditions have in common?

Beneath the hundreds of different cultures, claims, and customs, there lies a common core of both wisdom and practice at the heart of each authentic tradition. By "authentic tradition," I mean one capable of offering a direct experience of the sacred, and of fostering true spiritual growth and maturity in its practitioners. 

Many scholars and spiritual practitioners have called the essential common core of religious wisdom "the perennial wisdom" or "perennial philosophy" (PP). Why "perennial"? Because these profound insights into life have endured across centuries and cultures and have been taught by the great sages of all time

Developed over thousands of years, the perennial philosophy is a treasure house of humankind's curated wisdom. Vast in scope, profound in depth, it offers numberless insights into the nature of life and love, health and happiness, suffering and salvation.

At its heart lie four crucial claims--actually observations--since they are based on direct insights by advanced spiritual practitioners about reality and human nature.

For Further Elaboration: Materialist and Spiritual views of reality;

 

#2 [ First Thesis of the PP: There are two realms of reality]

[jkk] In order to avoid sounding too “dualistic,” I would rephrase this to: Reality is bigger than what we can access with our senses and what science can empirically prove at this point.

The first is the everyday realm with which we are all familiar, the world of physical objects and living creatures. This is the realm accessible to us via sight and sound and studied by sciences such as physics and biology.

But beneath these familiar phenomena lies another realm far more subtle and profound: the realm of God, of “the Spirit” (also known as the realm of Consciousness, Mind, the “Ground of Being”, the “Sacred”, Tao [- Japanese, michi – Way] and other names). This dimension cannot be known through the physical senses and only indirectly through the physical instruments of science. Moreover, this realm creates and embraces the physical realm and is its source. This domain is not limited by space or time or physical laws, and hence it is unbounded and infinite, timeless and eternal.

#3 [Second Thesis of the PP: Human beings partake of both realms] 

We are not only physical but also spiritual beings. We have bodies but we also have at the core of our being, in the depths of our minds a centre of transcendent awareness. This centre is described as pure consciousness, mind, spirit or Self and is known by such names as the neshamah of Judaism, the soul or “divine spark” of Christianity, the atman of Hinduism or the "Buddha nature" of Buddhism. This divine spark is intimately related to--some traditions even say inseparable from and identical with--the sacred ground or foundation of all reality. We are not divorced from the sacred but eternally and intimately linked to it.


#4 [Third Thesis of the PP: Human beings can recognize their divine spark and the secret ground that is its source] 

What this implies--this is absolutely crucial--is that the claims of the perennial philosophy do not have to be accepted blindly. Rather each of us can test them for ourselves and decide their validity based on our direct experience.  Although the soul or innermost Self (because it is non-physical) cannot be known by the senses or the instruments of science, it can be known by careful introspection [jkk annotation] and by practicing some essential practices recommended by the world’s religious-spiritual traditions that could awaken heart and mind. (See the link below)

This is not necessarily easy. Although anyone can be graced with spontaneous glimpses, clear sustained vision of our sacred depths usually requires significant practice to clarify awareness sufficiently. This is the purpose of spiritual practice. When the mind is still and clear, we can have a direct experience of our “Self.” This is not a concept of, nor an intellectual theory about, the Self. Rather, it is an immediate knowing, a direct intuition in which one not only sees the divine spark but also identifies with and recognizes that one is the spark. Sages from Judaism and Sufism, from Plato to Buddha, from Meister Eckhart to Lao Tsu have agreed on this. 

Compared to this direct realization of the sacred, mere book learning and theoretical knowledge are very poor substitutes, as far removed from direct experience as a text on human reproduction is from the embrace of a lover. 

  

#5 [Fourth Thesis of the PP: The perennial philosophy's fourth claim is that realizing our spiritual nature is the summum bonum: the highest goal and greatest good of human existence]   

Beside this, all other goals pale; all other delights only partly satisfy. No other experience is so ecstatic, no other attainment so rewarding, no other goal so beneficial to oneself or others.  ... 

Again this is not wild dogma to be accepted merely on the word of others or on blind faith. Rather, it is an expression of the direct experience of those who have tasted these fruits for themselves. Most importantly, it is an invitation to all of us to test and taste for ourselves. 

** [end of excerpt from Walsh’s work] **

 

How does one concretely go about—what the Perennial Tradition calls— realizing “our highest good” or waking up to our spiritual nature? The same Prof. Roger Walsh spent 3 years researching all the major spiritual and religious traditions of the world and he summarized what he calls “essential practices” that all the greatest sages and spiritual practitioners throughout history have engaged in for the purpose of awakening heart and mind. You can read a summary of these essential spiritual practices HERE 

For Further Elaboration: Spiritual Experience; Unitive, Non-Dual Consciousness;  

Let us now proceed to reflect on Jesus of Nazareth, the central distinguishing factor of Christian faith, within the context of spirituality outlined above and how Jesus himself can be the source of a spirituality that acts in order to transform the world into a better reflection of “the Reign (or Kingdom) of God.”

 

Part 2 - Jesus of Nazareth as a Great Contemplative-in-Action

#6 [Jesus as Sage and “Spiritual Master”]

Jesus of Nazareth, believed in as “the Christ” (the anointed one), is often predominantly portrayed as divine in Christianity. That unfortunately obscures the fact that before he was worshipped as God, Jesus as a historical figure, as a flesh-and-blood Jewish person who lived in the First Century CE, was, without doubt, a profound mystical-contemplative “Spirit Person” (cf. Marcus Borg) who let his deep spirituality overflow into powerful action to realize concretely a kind of “order” that he called “the reign of God” (aka, “the Kingdom of God”) in his own concrete place and time. (Notice that the “reign of God” is, first and foremost, supposed to be present in the here and now and not in some otherworldly paradise or heaven.)

In other words, Jesus of Nazareth can very rightly be considered a “contemplative-in-action” or a model of the balance between contemplation and action. He is one of the great sages and spirit persons in human history (such as the Buddha, Lao-Tzu, the Prophet Muhammad, etc.) who were experientially connected to a greater reality and who made that non-dual/unitive experience the vision for transforming the world. By “non-dual/unitive experience” we mean: the experiential knowledge of sages and spiritual practitioners that everyone and everything are all united with “the ONE.” It is clear that these spiritual practitioners and masters are living embodiments of the principles of the perennial philosophy stated above.

For further elaboration: What is the “non-dual” or “unitive” experience or consciousness? How can we cultivate an appropriate spirituality? How to do a Meditation-Mindfulness practice? Lectio Divina? Discernment practices? Roger Walsh’s ‘Seven Essential Practices’ to Awaken Mind and Heart can be an important reference (see link above); Illustrate with a spiritual experience (e.g. Thomas Merton’s).

Consider the Catholic monk Thomas Merton’s “unitive” experience while walking on a city street:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness…

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all the time.

(from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 1966)

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

What's the Meaning of Life and Other Perplexing Questions

 Four Perplexing Questions: Why is there no “happily ever after”? / What is true love? / What’s the meaning of life? / Why “Happiness” may not be the best word to describe your life goal?


(These reflections are already part of our efforts to review the different things we’ve been studying so far in this course on the perplexing issues of life. Please watch the four short video clips from the SOL on the four perplexing issues presented here.)


Review: The Greater Reality, the Big Background and Faith

     One of the major things I’ve been arguing for so far in this course on the so-called “Perplexing Issues” of life is this: Having the “Big Background” provided by the spiritual-wisdom traditions (the religions) of the world is an important help in enabling us to give better responses to the many perplexing issues (existential questions, ultimate questions) of life. And that “Big Background” can be accessed by the attitude of being (at least) open to the possibility, or even having faith-trust that there is a bigger dimension of reality, one that is not yet accessible by conventional science but has been taught by the spiritual-wisdom traditions from the very beginning. This bigger “Spirit” dimension that encompasses everything else is also known in various spiritual-wisdom traditions as “God”, “the Sacred”, “the Numinous”, “the Ultimate”, etc. 

    Many of the greatest sages and spiritual teachers in history have claimed that they experientially know this greater dimension through spiritual experience (AKA, mystical/contemplative/religious experiences). There are techniques that can increase the possibility of experiencing directly this sacred dimension taught and transmitted by practically all the spiritual-wisdom traditions. (If you want to review what philosopher Ken Wilber says about that, please go here.) 

    This view which acknowledges that humans exist in and can access material and spiritual dimensions is expressed in what is called "the Perennial Philosophy." If you want to review what the “Perennial Philosophy” claims about reality, please go here

 

   When that openness to the “Greater Reality” is in place, we acquire a wider and better perspective of reality and the bigger context of where we are in our efforts to give responses to the different perplexing issues of life. As we learned when we covered the topic of “Faith” (faith as a fundamental attitude of trust in the goodness of reality), this faith is the source of our continuing decision to trust that reality is good and that life is worth living and even fighting for.

     If you want to review what we discussed about faith-as-trust, go here

 

Four Other Perplexing Issues

     With that fundamental attitude of openness to and optimism for life, we can better go about trying to give more concrete responses to the different perplexing issues and existential questions of life. Here, I will suggest tackling these following big questions:

·         Where are we going (in an existential sense)?

·         What is true love?

·         What’s the meaning of life?

·         What is a better way than the word “happiness” to express our goal in life?

     To give some responses to these questions, I’ll be enlisting the help of the School of Life (SOL) once again. You already know them well. You know that the SOL is basically a secular school of philosophy. You can review the “eight rules” of the school of life here

     So, what you’ll get from the SOL are basically secular answers to these questions. Still, I think that the SOL has many excellent insights that we can use in practical life and if one has the “bigger background” (I refer to above) to complement the insights of the SOL, I think one can acquire an even deeper spiritual wisdom! (For a further discussion of the SOL's philosophy set in the context of a "Greater Reality," please go here.)


Where are We Going?

     This question can be asked in different senses. Here we are posing this question in an existential sense. This can be expressed alternatively as: Where is my life headed? What should I aim for in life? What are the “goals” that would give my life greater meaning? We often dream of a “happily ever after” goal to our life and efforts. This dream can be the cause of the many attachments and cravings we have in life. Recall that many spiritual-wisdom traditions (such as Buddhism and also Christianity) tell us that cravings and attachments can be a big obstacle for us to acquire true wisdom. Roger Walsh in his ‘Seven Essential Practices’ has, as practice #1: Transform your motivation: Reduce craving and find your soul's desire. You can review these practices here.

     However, in its usual brutally frank yet wise way, the SOL tells us starkly: “There is NO ‘happily ever after’”. The “goal” of living is the “journey” itself! View this short film (5:37) and reflect on it - Why There’s No Happily Ever After

What is True Love?

     Love is commonly known as “the greatest” thing in life (see 1 Corinthians 13:13). So one of the most urgent perplexing issues is: What is true love? I’m sure that you have heard many explanations of love both religious and secular. In line with this, the same Roger Walsh in his ‘Seven Essential Practices’ has, as practice #2: Cultivate emotional wisdom: Heal your heart and learn to love.

     I think that the SOL has a fresh perspective on the nature of true love. View this short film (5:37) and reflect on it - What True Love Really Is.

What’s the Meaning of Life?

     Of course this question is one of the most asked existential questions. Each religious or spiritual-wisdom tradition tries to give us answers to this urgent question. Let’s see what the SOL suggests about this question – (4:59) What’s the Meaning of Life? 

Is the "Pursuit of Happiness" the Major Goal of Life?

     This is another one of the “biggies.” Nowadays, we often hear that the pursuit of happiness is one major goal of life. But is it really? Why is there so much unhappiness both in our lives and in the lives of others? Here is another fresh perspective from the SOL. It says that perhaps the word “happiness” is not the best way to express the goal of life. It then takes a hint from ancient Greek philosophy and urges us to consider instead an alternative way to express what we should be trying to reach in life – Why ‘Happiness’ is a Useless Word and an Alternative (3:28).

***

    You don't have to agree with any of the above perspectives. What is more important is that you listen with an open-minded attitude to different perspectives, reflect on them, and formulate your own critically thought-out answers to those different perplexing questions of life.


Sunday, March 14, 2021

What is Religion? Six Insightful Statements (from Marcus Borg) to Describe It

 

What is Religion? Six Insightful Statements to Describe It

By the late Marcus Borg (biblical scholar and theologian)


Found in the public domain at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHIv-c-Rpzw&t=0s&index=2&list=WL  /  (from 08:30 to 21:05) / Annotations by Julius-Kei Kato


(The main text is a transcript of Marcus Borg’s talk. Italicized parts within square brackets [ ] are my own [jkk’s] annotations.)

 

Marcus Borg:  I will develop this part of my lecture by describing a general understanding of religions with six statements. All six statements are commonly affirmed within the academic study of religion. That is, there is widespread agreement amongst scholars of religion about these statements. In each case, I will put the statement into a very short sentence and then of course explain it.

 


[1] Religions as Cultural-Linguistic Traditions

First statement about religions: "Religions are cultural - linguistic traditions." That’s pretty abstract but it's actually a very helpful definition. Let me repeat it: Religions are cultural-linguistic traditions and I owe this language to George Lindbeck of Yale Divinity School. I'm not sure that it’s original with him, but that's where I ran into it. And what it means to say is that each religion originates within a particular culture. And thus, it uses the language and symbols of that culture. So, in that sense each religion is a cultural-linguistic tradition. Moreover, if that religion survives for any length of time and, of course, all major religions have. If that religion survives, it becomes a cultural-linguistic tradition in its own right. That is, it becomes a way of construing the world, of structuring the world, and it has its own particular language and symbols.

     And thus, being Christian or Jewish or Muslim is a little bit like being French or Italian. To be French means not only knowing French (the language). It also means knowing something about the ethos of being French. It means to have lived within a French world and to have that world structure your vision of life. And of course there's a sense in which being religious is different from this as well because it is a much more universal identity - one that transcends national, ethnic, and racial boundaries but nevertheless it is very helpful to think of religions as cultural-linguistic traditions, each with its own language, symbols, etc.

 

[2] Religions as Human Constructions

Second statement about religions, "Religions are human constructions". Religions are human constructions or human products. This is a corollary of the first statement of religions as cultural-linguistic traditions. Religions are human creations and, within that, I'm including their scriptures. Their scriptures are human products, and thus for Christians, the Bible is a human product. The religions’ teachings, their doctrines, their rituals, and their practices, all of these are human creations, human constructions.

     This time I'll use a phrase from a Harvard religious scholar, Gordon Kaufman. Kaufman speaks of religions as " Imaginative human constructions." And by imaginative he doesn't mean imagined, imaginative and sort of a negative sense of the word as when we say about something that sounds really far-fetched or that's really imaginative, not in that sense but imaginative in the sense of both creative, as well as using the language of the imagination, the language of images and symbols, and story, and so forth.

     Now, of course not all religious people would agree with this statement that, "Religions are human products or human constructions." Within the three major Western Religions, the Abrahamic traditions, as they are commonly called, there are many who would say that their religion comes from God, that it's a divine product and not a human product. I think you are all aware that official Muslim teaching is that, the Koran was dictated by Allah to Muhammad. Within Judaism, Orthodox Jews, not all Jews but Orthodox Jews typically affirm that the Torah including the laws given to Moses on Mount Sinai that are included in the Pentateuch but also the ‘Oral Torah’, all of it was given directly by God to Moses. And of course, fundamentalist Christians typically claim that the Bible is a divine product, and thus infallible and inerrant. But, within the framework of the academic study of religion, these claims look like a common human tendency to ground their sacred traditions in God. That is, if lots of religious traditions say this (that “our traditions come from God”), we can say then that one of the characteristics of religions is that they tend to ground their traditions in divine origin. 

[When seen in a humanistic way, we can say that, in order to strengthen the claims that religions make, some of the key figures involved in the institutionalization of a particular religious tradition established at a certain point in history the notion that this particular religion (e.g. Christianity) was “revealed” directly by God. Seen from a more theological or faith perspective, we can say that religions often have their origins in a powerful religious/spiritual experience of certain people at the start of the religion’s history. Reflecting on their profound spiritual experience, they concluded that this experience was a revelation of God, hence, the religion that was born out of that experience “came from God”.]

 

[Borg’s statements #1 and #2 are not theological evaluations of religions. That is, they do not come from a perspective of faith. They are a result of looking at the phenomenon of religion from a purely humanistic standpoint. We can consider them, therefore, as coming from the discipline of religious studies, which does not presuppose any faith but studies religion as a human phenomenon. The statements below, however, contain some faith perspectives. Although they are still affirmed by many in the academic study of religion, they can be considered as grounded more in the discipline of theology, which presupposes religious faith but tries to deepen its understanding of faith through reason.]

 

[3] Religions as Human Responses to the Experience of the Sacred

Now, those first two statements both stress the human origins of religion. The third statement brings God back into the picture, namely, "Religions are responses to the experience of the sacred or the experience of God, or the spirit." Those terms are ones I use synonymously and interchangeably. I take the reality of God very seriously. I am utterly convinced that there is a “More,” to use [philosopher and psychologist] William James's marvellously generic term for the sacred -- a stupendous, wondrous “More,” and I am convinced that this "More" has been experienced in every human culture, and that the origin of the major religious traditions lies in experiences of the "More". So, I see religions as human products but as human products created as response to the experience of the sacred in the particular culture within which each emerged.

 

[4] Religions as Wisdom Traditions

My fourth statement, "Religions are wisdom traditions." And I owe this statement to a man I'm honored to call my friend, Huston Smith [He was a widely respected US professor of world religions]. He speaks about this a lot--of religions being wisdom traditions. Wisdom (in both religion and philosophy) is concerned with the questions: "How shall I live?", "What is life about?" [Religion attempts to respond to humans’ most perplexing questions – also known as “ultimate” or “existential” questions.]  This is what the religions to a large extent are about. They are disclosures of how to live, and by that I don't mean just morals but something more comprehensive than that. They are disclosures of what life and reality are about, and it's not just that they have responses to that question, but they are the accumulated wisdom of the past of centuries of thinkers. [An insightful way to refer to the activity of learning about religions is the expression A.W.E. ‘Ancestral Wisdom Education’, as proposed by theologian Matthew Fox.] This wisdom ranges from very practical wisdom to theological and metaphysical wisdom. The religions are a treasure trove of wisdom.

 

[5] Religions as Means of Ultimate Transformation

Fifth statement: Religions are means of ultimate transformation. I'll repeat the sentence, religions are means of ultimate transformation, and I owe this short statement to Fredrick Strang, author of An Introduction to Religion textbook, published some 25 years ago or so now. Let me unpack that definition. Religions are means; it's partly that they're not ends, okay, but it's also that they are means in the sense of that they have a very practical purpose; and that practical purpose is ultimate transformation. And when we speak of ultimate transformation, we mean not just psychological transformation (important as that is) but ultimate transformation in the sense of spiritual transformation, in the sense of the transformation of the self at its deepest level. That is the very practical purpose of religion, and that transformation is from an old way of being to new way of being, from an old identity to a new identity. And the fruit or product of this transformation across religious traditions is compassion, becoming more compassionate beings. This is central to all the major religions and the saints of the various traditions look very similar in this respect.

 

[6] Religions as Sacraments of the Sacred

And sixth, and finally, "Religions are sacraments of the sacred." Religions are sacraments of the sacred. Now, let me define the word sacrament here. Those of us who are Christians are familiar of course with the two universal sacraments of the Protestant and Catholic traditions and then of course the five additional sacraments of the Catholic tradition itself. But I'm using the word sacrament in a broader sense and not just to refer to those two or those seven.

     Namely, a sacrament is a mediator of the sacred, or a sacrament is mediator of the spirit. A sacrament is anything finite and visible through which the spirit becomes present to us. Now, in this broad sense, nature can be a sacrament; music can be a sacrament. Okay, virtually everything in human history has, for somebody, been a means whereby the Spirit has been mediated to them. [This is the meaning of “a sacrament” in the broad sense: Something that makes the sacred present and tangible for us humans in our world.] 

     Now, to apply this definition to religions, the purpose of religions is to mediate the sacred [to make “the Sacred” present and tangible in a concrete way]. The purpose of their scriptures, their rituals, their practices is to become a vehicle or a vessel for the sacred to become present to us. Now, if one takes this seriously, it also has an effect upon what we think being religious means. Within the Christian tradition over the last 300 years (especially for Protestants but for Catholics as well because this is generally true of what's happened in Western Christianity since the Enlightenment), there's been an enormous emphasis on ‘believing’ as what it means to be a Christian: that to be a Christian means believing in the Bible and Jesus, and God, or in Christianity, or whatever. Well, if you see religions as a sacrament, the point is not to believe in the sacrament. The point is to live within the tradition and let the sacrament do its work within you; to let the sacrament mediate the reality of the sacred to you. And it seems to me that this is the purpose of the Buddhist tradition, the Muslim tradition, the Jewish traditions, and so forth -- that they are means whereby the sacred becomes present to people and works within people.

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