The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Crucifix

I once heard a evangelical preacher named Brother Earl give some strong opinions about the crucifix. He went on and on about how it appalls him that "some Christians" depict Jesus hanging on the cross. I can still see the contortions in his body as he talked about his sheer disgust. To him, the crucifix was practically an abomination. His point was that Jesus is risen and is no longer on the cross. Showing Jesus on the cross seemed to deny some essential part of this man's faith.

I had a hard time grasping what was driving his rage. We celebrate and learn from all the events of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, so why there was some kind of prohibition to the cross seemed silly, if not downright counterproductive. If you really want to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, then the empty tomb is a much better symbol than an empty cross! We know the cross is empty--the empty tomb is a bit of a surprise! It just seemed like a way to pick on a symbol that some people find meaningful. Before the sermon, those in attendance were asked what our religious background was and many of us raised our hands and said "Catholic." I suspected anti-Catholicism was a driving force of this sermon, since the crucifix is such a central symbol of our faith.

Still, another minister reassured us afterwards that this preacher had good intentions and was just expressing his faith. Was there something more to this belief than just a jab at another denomination? In light of the themes in my last post (Why I'm Catholic), I may have stumbled on another way of looking at this.

To Catholics, Jesus shown on the cross is a defining message. It is the truest and more intimate statement of Incarnation. Not only did Jesus come to the earth, but he is with us as totally and as intimately as in our suffering and our death. He shares that with us. There is no place that he won't go. He is present in all the nooks and crannies, all the dungeons and torture chambers of this earth. The crucifix also shows the grim reality of what we're talking about--no one is whitewashing what really happened. There are scars, gashes and a crown of thorns. They tell us something about God, in Andrew Greeley's words.

Protestants are pilgrims on their way out of this world (see Eldebo's remarks). The world, our humanity, our earthly vices and comforts are all obstacles on our path. God is the source of all goodness, and the more we can focus on that instead of any person or artifact from this world the better. The death of Jesus on the cross isn't a moment that would be helpful to someone coming from this orientation. Jesus on the cross just proves the rottenness of the world.

One of the most central parts of the Christian tradition is that God and the world are not the same. God is "other." God and the world are two different entities/things/manifestations. The world is not God, and we are not divine. At first glance, it can be easy to get excited about certain eastern or pagan religions that see people and nature as divine, but there are limitations to that view. The fact that God is not us means that we can be in relationship with God. Divinity also seems to be mean more if there is such a thing as non-divinity. All Christians affirm this and it is absolutely at the core of all the Christian denominations that I'm aware of. Yet, God is still a part of this world, somehow. The question is how this distinction is perceived, which parts are emphasized, and how this presence of God is understood. Here is where we arrive at the Protestant and Catholic imaginations.

It goes back to that Greeley quote in my last post: To Catholics, the world can tell us something about God. There is nothing more radically human than Jesus dying on the cross. Jesus is part of this world in a most intimate, gruesome, personal way. Not just the cross but the whole Lenten journey teaches us about God. To Protestants, who tend to think the world is radically different from God, the death of Jesus on the cross is only the means to another end--a stepping stone before the final Revelation. To dwell at the foot of the cross is shortsighted, to them. The moment of Jesus' death is the darkest moment, when the forces of evil seem to have won, when Jesus seemed to be mortal and thus as depraved as the rest of us. The resurrection is what matters.

It is not that Protestants deny the presence of God in this world--I don't want to make them out to be entirely Gnostic. But how they imagine God to be present is where the difference lies. Jesus is almost like a messenger whose role is to give us a Word for how to get off of this godforsaken world. Catholics emphasize that Jesus is Emmanuel--God is with us. That isn't just a statement about a one-time showing of Jesus 2,000 years ago, but rather God is really with us right here and right now. You can be as isolated as someone dying alone suspended on a cross amidst public shame and outrage, and God is still with you.

No Catholic would deny the centrality of the Resurrection, nor deny that we are a pilgrim people. No Protestant would deny the reality of the Incarnation. I don't think I wrote anything from a theological perspective that would conflict with any of the dogma on the books of most Catholic or Protestant denominations. It is more of a matter of perspective and emphasis than anything else. Greeley says that Catholics and Protestants actually tend to think differently. Supposedly, Catholics thinks analogously while Protestants think dialectically. Our understandings of God's relationship to the world--although based on the same foundations--have over time evolved into different worldviews, perspectives and approaches for how to understand it all. At some point, these different perspectives turn into different theologies, but for the moment we can say that we agree on much, but by emphasizing certain parts we can lean in different ways.

Catholics are an Easter people. The resurrection is key to the faith. But we try to hold the goodness of God's creation as well. There is something that matters about the here and now. We are not just focused on life after death. We can learn about God by looking around in the world, and we can see God present there. Protestants are more relational, Catholics have more of a cosmology. All the events and incidents that led up to the crucifixion and resurrection are noteworthy.

So no, Brother Earl isn't off the hook. He was being petty and partisan. There is no reason someone coming from a Protestant background couldn't find tremendous significance in a crucifix. However, I can see how it is possible that he was genuinely reflecting a perspective that is consistent with a traditional Protestant worldview.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Why I'm Catholic

I have often felt the need to explain--and understand--why I am Catholic. I am not sure why.

Many reject the Catholic Church over its policies regarding women or homosexuals. Many reject the way the Church conducts itself in scandals or hypocrisy. Many don't believe in this or that dogma. I have always thought of myself as a natural candidate for the improvisational nature of Protestant worship and the progressive church structures of certain denominations. All those are very understandable positions, but for me they don't quite say it.

This isn't to say that there isn't anything obviously good about the Catholic faith, because there most certainly is. I'd be glad to talk about that. But in a culture where being Catholic can be an unpopular thing, where there are some very obvious parts of the Catholic Church that are quite uncomfortable, where there is much public attention on the faults of the Church and misunderstandings galore, I feel the need to say something.

Unfortunately, I may have to defer to the words of someone else, but I think these words do justice to what I'm trying to describe. Here is what Andrew Greeley has to say about the Catholic Imagination:

The Catholic "classics" assume a God who is present in the world, disclosing Himself in and through creation. The world and all its events, objects, and people tend to be somewhat like God. The Protestant classics, on the other hand, assume a God who is radically absent from the world, and who discloses (Himself) only on rare occasions (especially in Jesus Christ and Him crucified). The world and all its events, objects, and people tend to be radically different from God.

The downside of this quote is that is sets up a dichotomy between a Catholic worldview and a Protestant one. Those are not the only two religious options out there. Furthermore, each denomination or individual person may find themselves embodying a blend of the above criteria, so a comparison like this will always seem unfair and possibly divisive. However, for the sake of discussion, I think this dichotomy is useful, at least as a starting point. What I do like about this quote is that it shows that what it means to be a Catholic (or Protestant) goes much deeper than a particular rule or the Church's administrative structure. It has to do with how we relate to the world and how we imagine God to be present (as a side note, the rules and administrative structures should reflect this worldview, but that is a discussion for another day).

There is lot between the two camps that is very similar. The two traditions don't disagree on much, as far as basic dogma goes. Even most educated Catholics will say that Luther got it right--with conditions. It all starts from Faith. Period. One very important caveat is that Catholics see Faith, Hope and Love as one single gift of Grace. In other words, a person who has Faith will also have Hope and Love (works), too. You can't have one without the others. However, Protestants don't necessarily disagree with this, either. Most people may be surprised to find out that Catholics and Lutherans have issued joint statements in recent years stating that there are no major differences in their respective theologies on justification. How about that!

We also have in common the belief that all goodness comes from God. Our total dependence on God is probably the purest and most singular message in all of the Biblical and Church traditions: It's in the Psalms. It's in the Gospels. It's at the core of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and on down the line. The Church Fathers went to great lengths and great pains to maintain this distinction.

Greeley's quote, however, captures the essence of what is actually a pretty huge divide between Catholics and Protestants. What is different is how this relatively singular theology has come to be distilled through centuries of diverse culture and tradition. Protestants have taken this dependence on God to a different logical conclusion and a very different worldview unfolds as a result.

Protestants are focused on the relationship of the individual to God. To some denominations, everything hinges on this personal relationship. No Catholic would ever doubt that our God is unbelievably personal. However, Catholics are steeped in the Aquinas worldview that sees all of Creation as part of the unfolding of Grace. Our theology involves the whole Cosmos. Protestants, focusing on the idea that all goodness comes from God, have ended up seeing Creation as absent God and as a result not something to worry about. The world is simply the setting and the scenery. If you take this to Calvinist extremes, you can find yourself talking about the sheer depravity of all Creation and hating all that is here on the Earth, including yourself. To Protestants, the world is an alien land--get to know Jesus and forget the rest--grab his hand and hold on for dear life. Anything else is distraction, or even worse, a possible lure away from Jesus and, by extension, salvation.

To Catholics, the world is an access point to God--as evidenced in the theology of the Incarnation. God has come in human form, and the people of faith comprise the Body of Christ. We seem more willing to see the Mystery of the Incarnation as something of an ever-present reality, rather than just a one-shot deal with the person of Jesus.

Catholics are sacramental. I have to take this moment to tell my Protestant friends that you won't understand Catholics without understanding what it means to be sacramental. In the sacraments, the mundane becomes a way to touch God, to grab a hem of His garment. The bread & wine are the Body and Blood of Jesus. The waters of Baptism and the oils of Confirmation are ways that God touches us--for real. It is not just an abstract metaphor, but rather it is as real as the dirt under our feet. It is as ordinary--and extraordinary--as that. The "official" sacraments like (Baptism and Eucharist) lead us into an overall sacramental way of thinking. We see grace in and through Creation. The world can be blessed. God can come to us in bread, wine, water, and in the laying on of hands. The world is not a distraction but rather a place to learn about God, a place to touch God. The world is not God, but the world can show us something about God, and God can be present in this world.

Our Church experience is radically different than a Protestant service. For us, going to Communion is the climax of the service. The experiential nature of consuming the bread and wine and sharing a corporeal closeness with our Creator and Redeemer is what happens at Mass. Sometimes, we don't even have a homily. We are immersed in churches with rich atmosphere, the smell of incense, the light peering through stained glass windows, the meditative chants. We feel the discomfort of the wood of the kneelers, we kiss the wood of the Cross. We see the beauty on the face of Mary on a well-carved statue and it tells us something about God. We are a very earthy people. Protestants are more into words and The Word--it is more cerebral and relational.

The Reformation debates over having religious statues probably represent this the best. Nothing on this earth can represent God to Protestants--many Evangelicals today don't even want to see Jesus depicted on the Cross. Putting Jesus here on earth is somehow missing the point for them. For Catholics, it is pure Incarnation--Emmanuel, which translates as "God with us." Protestants have worried that soaking up the spirituality through a statue will lead someone to worship a false idol by mistaking the statue for what it represents. But it goes deeper than that--the very idea that a statue--a piece of this world--could represent any form or aspect of God is itself an idea uncomfortable to many Protestants. To a Catholic, we see ourselves as earthly beings and are going to use earthly means to learn about God, and God will come to us in and through this world.

The end result is that Catholics have a culture that is sensual and earthy. God is in the mundane. We dance, we drink, we revel in beauty and drama. I think we allow ourselves to be human, trusting that God comes to us through our humanity. We still have to transcend this world at some point, but it is to us a fulfillment of our humanity more than it is a discarding of it.

You could say that we all run the risk of falling into so-called "heresies." Protestants are in danger of falling into Gnosticism, seeing God as totally apart from the world. Catholics are in danger of Pelagianism, thinking that there is some inherent goodness in Creation just by itself. Catholics can sometimes not be relational enough and end up downright formulaic. Catholic can become too concerned with the material trappings of the Church. Protestants can disrespect the earth, thinking it doesn't matter. Catholics can forget their dependence on God. There are pitfalls no matter which way you go. Neither tradition affirms these heresies, but both can run the risk of leaning these ways.

These distinctions go further. There are ways in which these traditions nurture either individualism or a community vision. Catholics tend to have more of a community orientation. One could also argue that the Calvinist idea of the predestination of the Elect--even though it has been largely rejected--is still is a driving force in society and have generated an anxiety and a level of industriousness that is unhealthy. I'll leave it at that and might discuss these in more detail at another time. For the moment, I just want to say that these aspects also influence my Catholic identity.

I have mixed feelings about weighing my Catholicity in opposition to another tradition, in this case Protestantism. Maybe that's an antagonistic way to go about it. I could have written another post about being Catholic vs. Buddhist. While I have been enormously enriched by ecumenical dialogue and worship, while I can't imagine life without members of other faiths around me, at my core I have never really felt myself swayed by other faiths. The answer lies--at least the starting point--somewhere in this discussion.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


I just read a book for class called The God of Faith and Reason by Richard Sokolowski. Neat book. One of the sections was on Virtue.

In our modern culture, we tend to praise people who hold up to their beliefs at great personal sacrifice. It is as if we only value something if it were hard to do. There is no way to tell by looking at someone if they have good moral fortitude. Morality is determined not by a deed itself, but by the personal motivation behind it. You can only tell by looking deep within a person and exploring their motives and their struggles and all the internal stuff that goes on. Good deeds by themselves are suspect unless they were done with the "right" attitude. Bad deeds may have some good in them if the person did the best they could and that was all they could manage to do. In fact, if something was enjoyable we tend to think it is less worthy of praise since the person must have done it for "selfish" reasons.

In other words, if you feed the hungry but you did it because it was fun, then you aren't as much an example of morality as someone who feeds the hungry despite wanting to do something else with every fiber of their being but who does it anyway because it was the "right" thing to do.

In the days of Aristotle, the ultimate moral category was the virtuous person. This was a person whose ideals and willpower were so much in line that s/he delighted in doing good. S/he wanted to do good. It was easy to do good. The virtuous person was held up as an ideal. This person had no internal conflict.

The person who was able to do good despite being pulled in contrary directions was actually secondary to the virtuous person.

Somewhere along the line, we lost that notion of virtue. We don't believe there are people who are naturally oriented to good or evil. We just believe that there are people who struggle with internal motives of all sorts, and we tend to value the person who is able to hold his or her head up highly despite being pulled in contrary directions. I have usually gone along with this view, but I am coming to appreciate the classical perspective a bit more.

Isn't it great to be so in line with goodness that you just want it and can't get enough? Isn't that a better goal to be than someone who wants to do bad but is able to pull themselves kicking and screaming to do something good? It is wonderful to have that self control, but isn't it better not to even need it?

So internal motivations still count here. But it is also true that a good deed is a good deed despite the intentions behind it. And a selfish motive may actually be the ideal! I dunno, I don't have this all worked out, but the gears are really turning on this one.