Sunday, August 23, 2015

Didn't we do away with hell? part 2

Continued from last week….

I have heard it said that the Catholic Doctrine of original sin is the most obviously true of all its doctrines. Remember what sin is. In its root meaning, the Greek word “hamartia” is a term that comes from the world of sports. It simply means to miss the target. Were I shooting arrows for example, and missed the target, I would say, were I an ancient Greek, “Oh! I’ve sinned!!” (Of course I would say it in ancient Greek.)  

The New Testament, I maintain written by the Holy Spirit, gives a moral connotation to a common word.  “I have failed.” In the New Testament this means that I have failed morally. Is there a person alive who thinks that it’s all good? Everything we do seems motivated by and riddled with failure. We are not happy. So we make a lot of money. We are still not happy.  We are not happy. We go from bed to bed, intimacy to intimacy. We are still not happy. It seems that the best we can do is to keep busy. We keep trying failed strategies; “If only I had a little more money, a little more sex, a little more time, a little more sleep, a little more TV, a better car, a bigger house, nicer furniture….then I would be happy. 

I am a history geek. I love to watch videos of war as the war is ending. The end of war is for me the ultimate happy ending; the slave being set free; the tyrant perishing; the veteran returning home; the prisoner surviving the concentration camp. Face it, happy endings aren’t really part of the story.
People of African descent were re-enslaved by the Jim Crow laws; the ousted tyrant is usually replaced by a new tyrant; the veteran returns home and faces alienation from his family and post-traumatic stress disorder; and the few Jews who were released from concentration camps were pretty much abandoned by the world. They returned to their homes and found other people living in them. 

I remember the story of a Jew who returned to his old village home only to find a local man occupying it. The local said, "You’re here for money you’ve hidden!”  

The survivor said, “No, I don’t want to move back. I just want to see the old home.” 

The squatter refused to let the Jew back into his old home. After the Jew went away the man systematically destroyed the house looking for the treasure he was convinced the Jews had hidden in the walls, and ultimately the house was destroyed and abandoned. The Jew was met only with sorrow after his liberation and the squatter was destroyed by wanting more than he had already been able to steal.  

We seem designed for unhappiness. We fight horrible injustice only to replace injustice with injustice. St. Paul sums it up pretty well:

 “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want, so I find this law at work. Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  For in my inner being I delight in God’s law, but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.  What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans, 7th Chapter)
We are a mess, personally and politically. We want peace, but make war. We want harmony but we argue. We want love but we pick at each other finding fault. The great humor of the current age is that the “tolerant” increasingly lodge civil and even criminal charges against the “intolerant.”  We all have a sense of failure in a failed world, and think that if we just tried a little harder, if we just lowered our moral standards a little, if we could just fight the war to end all wars. Remember one of the definitions of insanity:  “keep doing what you’ve always done but this time, expect different results.” 

Jesus has a completely different approach to the whole matter. “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.” (John 12:25)  This sounds crazy. It’s like the thing about turning the car’s steering wheel in the direction of the skid on an icy road. It sounds crazy. Crazy, but it works if done right. We in the world are already crazy. Maybe we should try Jesus’ advice. What we are doing now doesn’t work. 

What can Jesus possibly mean when he tells us to hate our lives so we might gain it? I think C.S. Lewis explains it nicely in the 14th chapter of the Screwtape Letters:

“(God) wants to kill their animal self-love as soon as possible; but it is His long-term policy, I fear, to restore to them a new kind of self-love, a charity and gratitude for all selves, including their own; when they have really learned to love their neighbors as themselves, they will be allowed to love themselves as their neighbors. For we must never forget what is the most repellent and inexplicable trait in our Enemy (God); He really loves the hairless bipeds He has created and always gives back to them with His right hand what He has taken away with His left.” 
This is what I mean by saying that God doesn’t send us to hell; He finds us there. We are in love with ourselves, and thus unable to love ourselves. There is a wonderful song “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.” 

In the beauty of Christ’s love on the cross you can find a happiness that will not go sour.

Next week, more hell.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Didn't we dio away with hell?

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
My pastor delivered a sermon on hell a few weeks ago that really burned me up. I thought that we had abandoned the outmoded concept of hell. Are we going to return to the medieval practice of frightening people into the church?  Didn’t they just make some guy a bishop who says there is no hell?  Enough with the depressing sermons!
Lou Gubrious
Dear Lou,
You’re talking about Bishop-Elect Robert Barron, a great theologian and all around good guy. You need to stop getting your religion from TV news. They can barely read the instructions on the hair spray bottle. Fr. (soon to be bishop) Barron was talking about the virtue of hope.  You can hear what he had to say by doing a web search for Fr. Robert Barron on “Whether Hell is Crowded or Empty” on Youtube. He does a masterly job of explaining the theological and philosophical need for the existence of hell to a generation that rejects the idea. He points out that it was good and gentle Jesus who speaks most about hell in the Bible. He correctly says that the Church has never definitively put any human being in hell, and we can hope for universal salvation. Just don’t count on it!
We still believe in the reality of hell. Read the catechism. “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, eternal fire. The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.” (Paragraph 1035) 
How can a good and loving God ever send anyone to hell? Bishop elect Barron says, “God doesn’t send anyone to hell. We send ourselves to hell.”  I would put it differently.  God doesn’t send anyone to hell. He finds us there!  Ever heard of original sin?  Original sin is the alienation from God in which we are born.
I can hear you say, “That’s nonsense! Babies are sweet and innocent.” 
Obviously you are not a parent. Babies are original sinners. Babies have a certain cry that can penetrate brick. I am not saying that a baby’s cry is sinful. A baby cries because it is his only way to communicate. The crying is not sinful, but it does indicate the neediness and aloneness that is the basic human state.  An infant is aware of mother’s love and of his own need. Every human being is made in the image of God and at the same time is born into the world in a state of alienation from the God whose image he bears.
There is, I believe, a struggle in every human being from the moment of conception between love and selfishness. I know that babies are sinful, even if not culpable (a fancy word meaning worthy of blame). I am a former baby. My earliest documentable memory takes me back to my grandmother’s funeral 1953, when I was 3 years and 3 months old. I was so obnoxious at the first night of the wake that I was not going to the second night of the wake. I can remember my parents putting on coats and hats as I realized that I was to be left behind. I was furious! I was going to make them suffer. I can still remember my mother’s pained expression through the window of the back door. She thought I, poor baby, was suffering. On the contrary, I was angry and wanted them to suffer. I was a little original sinner.
I have an earlier memory than that. I remember my little white baby shoes and the wonderful noise they made when banged on the church pew. My parents were in a dither trying to get me to stop. For quite a while thereafter they went to different Masses while one of them stayed home to do guard duty over the little narcissist (me).
A newborn’s cry is a result of that newborn’s immaturity, but it can become an indicator of human selfishness, though an infant is certainly not morally culpable.  A baby, at least one like me, learns to lie before he learns to talk.  A baby has that certain cry that will bring mommy and daddy running. One does the diaper test. Nothing. One tries to feed the baby. Nothing.  All that baby wants is for mommy to hold him. This is not a bad thing in itself. It is a longing for relationship, a good thing.  Still, it matters not to the light of your eyes that daddy and mommy must be up at 5 AM to begin the struggle all over. As long as he has a bottle in his mouth, a change of clothes and mommy to hold him, junior is fine. I know old men who, if they have a bottle in their mouth, a change of clothes and mommy to hold them, they are just fine.
My point is this; the cry of a baby is evidence of and a protest against the fundamental aloneness into which we are born. In a baby it is appropriate. It is not so appropriate in whiny old men like me.  My suspicion is that when we die, time simply stops. We become timeless, eternal. If when we die we have not accepted the grace of God, and grown out our essential aloneness, that is who we are forever, the self-centered sons of our mothers that we were born.
Jesus calls hell the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Heaven is a wedding banquet. God’s grace finds us in an outer darkness.  If we admit our need, our infant cry, as it were, He is generous. The Scripture says that God does not wish the death of a sinner, but as Fr. Barron points out, he will not override our freedom.  We must, in the end choose love or hate, light or dark, God or ourselves.  1 Timothy 2:4, (God) “…wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” And again, Ezekiel 33:11, “Say to them, 'As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.’”  God seems to agree with Fr. Barron here. We can hope for universal salvation, but we darn well better not count on it.
There really is a hell. I’ve met people who have been there. If you are at all decent you shouldn’t want your worst enemy to go there. I remember well the first person I met who claims to have gone to hell. He was only about 18 years old, and already a horrible human being. He was a drug dealer and general low life. He overdosed on his own product, and found himself all alone and sinking into blackness. His family were all devout believers and an ocean of prayer was being offered for him. He told me that he saw Jesus in the distance standing in light. He cried out “Give me another chance!” and woke up on the emergency room gurney. He said yes to grace and was able to turn his life around.
Another story of hell was told me by a good friend, also from a devout family. He, however, was not so devout. He was a great fancier of recreational pharmaceuticals, which he also sold. He was a purveyor of used cars, though without their owners’ permission and quite a few other unsavory occupations. (For the humor impaired: He was a drug dealer, addict and car thief.) I was at a family gathering and some of the children asked me about life after death. I was sharing stories of people I know who claim to have seen heaven.
My above mentioned friend chimed in, “That’s all b@#$%^!t. When you’re dead, you’re dead. I know. I died.”  He found me a little later and said, “What I said wasn’t true. I was in hell.”
All of us have heard stories of the light and the tunnel etc. etc. It seems that very few people report hell. I once read that only about one out five people who lose vital signs report anything, and these are generally positive. BUT…I remember hearing the story of a doctor whose patient had a heart attack in his office. It took a few attempts to get him stabilized. Every time the pulse returned and the patient was conscious, he would shout, “Get me out of here! I’m burning in hell!”  The doctor, an atheist, was quite shaken, and when he visited his patient in the hospital he asked, “What was all this about burning in hell?” The patient just looked at the doctor and said, “What do you mean? I was unconscious. I don’t remember anything about hell.” 
It hit the doctor like a ton of bricks. If the death experience was unpleasant it was repressed.  He began to ask people he revived about their experience as soon as possible, and he was able to double the number of people who had experiences and quite a few more were negative. This is not good science, and not good theology, but it is interesting. Hypothetically, if these things are what they appear to be, there are a lot of people going to hell.
Next week: Try to look on the bright side.

Friday, August 7, 2015

What have you got against Jews?

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
I just located your Father Know-it-all site. What’s with you and Jews? You talk about the decrease in the Jewish population of the Roman world, attributing it to conversion to Christianity, without mention of the two great Jewish rebellions which led to the death and expulsion of a large part of the Jewish population. This, of course, was followed by Christians obtaining political power with Constantine which wasn’t so good for Jews either. As I indicated in an earlier e-mail, I sense a pattern of unfavorable comments about Jews.
Beth K. Nesset
Dear Beth,
Well, this is a first. I am usually criticized for being too semito-philic. What’s with me and the Jews? I think the Jews are very important to the culture, so I am always trying to fine tune my understanding of the history of a rather troubled relationship. I don’t know your ethnic and religious background, but would like to tell you a story.
I have a dear friend who is an ultra-orthodox rabbi. He likes me because I am orthodox, even if I’m not Jewish. His daughter was being married on a Sunday, and because I work Sundays, I couldn’t attend the wedding. So the rabbi invited me to Shabbos dinner to meet the in-laws. The groom’s uncle, a true Tsaddik, (righteous man) was there. He heads an anonymous charity for mothers in trouble. I was about to pour him a glass of wine, and I stopped myself because I realized that if it was yayin (wine) he couldn’t drink it if I had poured it. Were it mevushal, (cooked wine, or wine sweetened by a boiling process) it would be no problem if served by a gentile.
I said to the Tsaddik, “I don’t know if I can pour this for you. I have to see if it’s…”
He looked utterly flabbergasted and said, “I don’t know! I’ve never been in this situation before!!!”
He was astonished by the whole thing. He had never had a religious conversation with a gentile and certainly not with a galleck (Catholic Priest) and there we were, talking about the same things, righteousness, the nature of Messiah, the Scriptures and so on. He was amazed, and frankly so was I.
I realized that we were co-religionists. We did not share the same faith, but we did share the same religion. The moral and ethical concepts, the understanding we shared about much of the nature of the Almighty, even customs such as the washing of hands and the blessing of bread and wine, the prayers and psalms and chants, the hope of Messiah. We shared all these to some degree. We were playing in the same ball park, as it were.
What we did not share completely were faith and our understanding the nature of Torah (the Law). I regarded the whole Hebrew Scripture as fully inspired. He regarded Torah as preeminent, and of course he did not regard the New Testament as inspired at all, but was surprised to find that I do not consider the New Testament more inspired than Hebrew Scriptures. Talmud, along with Torah, was his whole life. Talmud is not mine though Old Testament better called Hebrew Scriptures most certainly is. His great trust is in Talmud and Torah. My trust is in Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew whom I believe to be the visible image of the invisible God, the Torah come to life! (c.f. St. Paul’s first letter to the Colossians, chapter one, verse 15)
Nonetheless, it was a transformative conversation for me. I realized that we were both claiming to be Israel. One cannot claim to be Israel without Moses and Mt. Sinai, but one cannot be a Jew without Talmud. I believe that my friends, the Tsaddik and the Rabbi, are doubtless Israel. They don’t believe that I am Israel, because I am not a Jew. In this, I think, they make a fundamental mistake. They claim, as I believe does Talmud, that the word “Jew” and the word Israel are interchangeable. I don’t think this claim can be made on the basis of Hebrew Scriptures. It is interesting that the word “Jew” or “Jews” (Yehud, Yehudim) really doesn’t appear in the Hebrew Scriptures very frequently. I think it is less than 100 times. The word Israel appears more than 2,000 times, 2575 times if the New Testament is included in the count. The word only refers to what we might think of as a Jew beginning with the second temple period, principally in the book of Esther, probably written in 350 BC about events that occurred in 470 BC, that is after the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. I maintain that Rabbinic Phariseeism, which is what we now call Judaism, really took hold of the religion of Israel in Babylon, the cultural center of the remnant of Israel after the devastation of the Holy land in 132 AD.  Remember, it’s the Babylonian Talmud that carries the most weight in Jewish life, not the Jerusalem Talmud. The Pharisee movement created an innovation in the religion of Israel that allowed one to practice a form of the religion of Israel when one could not go to the temple. This was an innovation.
I have a unique spin on the passage of Christian scripture in which Jesus talks about new wine skins and new patches on old garments.
“No one tears a piece of cloth from a new garment and puts it on an old garment; otherwise he will both tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined, but new wine must be put into fresh wineskins, and no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined. New wine must be put into fresh wineskins. No one, after drinking old wine wishes for new; for he says, 'The old wine is mellow.” (Chrestos in Greek means “mellow” in this context)” Luke 5:38 
People assuming that Jesus’ innovations are the new wine, struggle with this final statement that “…old wine is mellow, better, good et alia.” Why would Jesus say that His innovations are not as good as the customs of the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist? 
I maintain that He is saying the opposite. He is saying that Rabbinic Phariseeism is the innovation. As I mentioned, Rabbinic Phariseeism is a way to practice the religion of Israel without a temple. Jesus was saying that as Messiah he would fulfill the messianic expectation by rebuilding the temple at the same time transforming it into a temple made of living stones.  “You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus the Messiah.” (1Peter 2:4)  
He would fulfill the Messianic expectation of the rebuilding and purifying the temple that had been profaned by the Syrian Greeks, the Hasmoneans who extended its space for military purposes and then by Herod the Great, who used it to aggrandize himself. He would, however, do so in a way unexpected. He would create a living temple, the church.  He thus claimed to be the fulfillment of the tradition of Israel. It was the Pharisees who were the innovation.  
My dear friend Rabbi Lefkowitz, an ultra-orthodox Rabbi, would howl at this interpretation, as would most Christians, but it was he who started my thinking about this, I’m sure to his chagrin. He once said, “You Christians have got it wrong. You are more Jewish than we are. You have temples and sacrifices. We believe that the temple and the sacrifices of the law were concessions to the Jews, lest they backslide into the practices of the Canaanites. The sacrificial order is not central to Judaism. It’s the moral and ethical content of the Torah that matters.”  To which I want to respond that the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures fairly drip with sacrificial blood?  
A second insight that pushed me in this direction came from Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, with whom Rabbi Lefkowitz thoroughly disagrees on this point. Shanks holds that two forms of Judaism survived the destruction of the temple, Christianity and Rabbinic Phariseeism. The Sadducees, the Zealots, the Essenes and the followers of John lost their reason for being with the destruction of the temple. Rabbinic Phariseeism, or what we now call Judaism, is a religion of the synagogue. It survives because the temple is optional, though desirable. 
Christianity is still the religion of the temple, though a spiritualized temple. Catholicism and eastern Orthodoxy still offer sacrifice. Protestantism is thus a deviant form of Christianity, a form of Phariseeism which holds that there is no more sacrifice and no need for further sacrifice. We, in the traditional forms of Christianity, maintain, as I believe Jesus did, that we are fulfilling, not changing Torah. The only way I would disagree with Hershel Shanks is instead of using the word Judaism to stand for the totality of Israel, I would say that two forms of the religion of Israel survived the destruction of the temple, Christianity and Judaism.
The best estimates for the Jewish population of the ancient Mediterranean world are about one or two million. The estimate of the Jews living in the Diaspora, (scattered communities) in the Roman world is perhaps 4 or 5 million more. 
Dr. Rodney Stark in his book The Rise of Christianity, points out that in a few centuries the Jewish population of the Roman Empire was greatly reduced to perhaps fewer than one million. Certainly many were killed in war or died in plague, but it is doubtful, that the majority of first century “Israel” would have perished. More likely they found in Christianity a kind of “reform” Judaism which allowed them to practice the religion of Israel, praying to the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob and reading the books of Moses, and the prophets, without the restrictions that made life so difficult in a diaspora, (a scattering) through the Greco Roman world, where circumcision was mocked as an obscenity and kosher meat was hard to find. 
The end of all this, is that there are two major representatives of the religion of Israel, two groups of people who reverence the books of Moses and the rest of the Tanakh, that is Hebrew scriptures, three if you count the 800 Samaritans who are still alive. The two are Christianity and Judaism, or more properly, Rabbinic Phariseeism. To say that Christianity comes from Jewish roots is very problematic. It means that Christianity must necessarily supersede Judaism; or that somehow Christianity is inferior to its parent religion, Judaism, a sort of “Judaism light.” 
I believe it is more accurate to say that both Judaism, though it precedes Christianity by about 3 or 4 centuries, and Christianity are variations of the religion of Israel. We Christians thus must concede that Jews have an authentic claim to be Israel. What I would hope for is the recognition of Jews that we too practice a form of the religion of Israel, which we believe to be its fulfillment. Thus we may find a new mutual respect and a way to collaborate despite the horrors of the past, a collaboration that is respectful and mutually beneficial, while admitting real and serious differences. 
We claim to be Israel by just a bit of genetic inheritance and a lot of adoption. We are members of the same religion, but followers of different faiths. Jesus and Moses are not enemies. Their followers should imitate them.
Rev. Know-it-all
PS you will be pleased to know that my family did not get along with Henry Ford. They refused to loan him money when he wanted to get his business going. We thought he was a bad investment and beside he gave us the shpilkes.