Review of Mary Grace, The Communion of Saints: Talking to God and Grandma (Phoenix: Tau Publishing, 2013)

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Communion of Saints

Communion of Saints (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

I had looked forward to reading this book since I am interested in the interface between faith and parapsychology. Since the doctrine of the communion of saints is the only major Catholic teaching that could be used to justify communication with the dead, I was interested in reading what Ms. Grace had to say.  For the reader’s information, I am a member of the Anglican Catholic Church, a conservative continuing Anglican church.

Unfortunately, the book was disappointing. If it had focused exclusively on the issue of the communion of saints and communication with the dead, it would have not only been shorter, but it would have been a stronger book. Ms. Grace used the book as a means to push her various theological agendas that are not in accord with Roman Catholic teachings. She affirms that all people are part of the communion of saints, which, contrary to what she states, has never been the teaching of Holy Scripture nor of the Church Fathers. It is possible that all people might be part of the communion of saints eventually, as von Balthasar notes, but it is also possible that some people obstinately reject God. To be a saint is to be set aside–Grace is quite correct is stating that the New Testament teaching is that all Christians are saints. The church also affirms this teaching, but it also affirms the belief that some Christians have sacrificed so much for God and their fellow human beings that the church as a whole can affirm that they are currently enjoying the Beatific Vision. That is not an elitist view, but it sets examples for us to follow. Nor does it deny that even the saints sinned–we are all sinners, despite Ms. Grace’s disclaimer in the book.

Ms. Grace supports a revision of the church’s holding that homosexual activity is sinful (the church has never said that the orientation itself is sinful). She also supports the ordination of women to Holy Orders. These are not matters for her to decide, and given that these involve essential moral and doctrinal teachings of the church, they will not change. The majority of the world’s Roman Catholics support both these doctrines–liberal American and European Roman Catholics do not have the right to publicly dissent from church teaching. Heresy is cruel since it can lead a person to rebel against God. It is out of love that the church sets boundaries to legitimate belief, and while theological speculation is allowed, open and public disagreement with the teaching of the church is (and should be) condemned.

Relating to her view of the afterlife, she holds that the Christian vision is for a non-physical existence. While I Corinthians 15 can be interpreted that way, it would be highly unusual for Paul, given his Jewish background, to de-materialize or de-physicalize the resurrection. Paul uses terms like “flesh” and “physical” to refer to the sinful, fallen part of nature. His affirmation of the renewal of all of nature in Romans 8 is not consistent with a total spiritualized resurrection. When Paul uses the term “spiritual body” in I Corinthians 15, he means “a body under the total control of its spirit.” He does not mean a non-physical, a non-material, or a non-physical body. Ms. Grace selectively quotes from the Christian tradition and ignores the statement in the Apostle’s Creed, “Credo in resurrectionem carnis“–“I believe in the resurrection of the flesh.” Even Ms. Grace’s mother appeared to her in material form, in the form of a warm, solid, physical body. Glorified flesh is still flesh. While there may be a non-embodied intermediate state between death and resurrection, full human identity requires a body–I would refer the reader to the works of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Gilbert Ryle, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty on the necessity of a body for full human identity. The soul is the “form of the body” (forma corporis), as Aquinas puts it–the body is for this soul and the soul for this body. A Platonic or Cartesian soul has no place in Christian theology.

Now as far as communication with the dead, the Catholic Church has traditionally been open to scientific study of phenomena such as electronic voice phenomena, apparitions, and other putative means of contact with the dead. It does accept the traditional strictures against mediums. That may well be a belief that the church would consider revising, but only after much study and much more scientific evidence comes in. Bishop Pike‘s statement that the Hebrew Bible’s condemnation of mediumship was only a power play by the Jewish priesthood is historically inaccurate. The problem was that mediumship was closely associated with Canaanite pagan practices. Issues concerning mediumship today include whether (1) mediumship can be decoupled from paganism and New Age pantheism, (2) whether mediums can avoid spiritual pride, and (3) whether the medium has the gift of discernment to distinguish between genuine communications from the dead and communications from demonic entities.

My own view is that if a loved one who has died comes to comfort the living (after death communication or ADC) that is almost certainly legitimate. The use of meditation to contact the dead is a matter for the church to decide–if practiced carefully and in line with other teachings of the church, this might be acceptable. The church rightly takes its time on such matters. As for mediums–if they are mediums out of love for others and wish to comfort them in their grief by putting them in contact with their loved ones, there is a possibility that the church might eventually change its mind on mediumship. However, that is unlikely given the great potential for abuse concerning a realm about which we know so little. My hope is that theologians would at least discuss these issues. Mary Grace’s book, while well-meaning, will likely drive those who are theologically orthodox away from discussing mediumship given developments in parapsychology–and this would be an unfortunate result indeed.

On Christmas

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Birth of Jesus Matthew 2:1

Birth of Jesus Matthew 2:1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think my favorite Christmas special is the Charlie Brown Special, in which Linus reads from the Gospel of Luke–the story of “what Christmas is all about,” and at the end the children sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” The theme of the show was against the commercialization of Christmas. That trend has continued to the point that for retailers, “Christmas” begins in September. That is a shame. For Western Catholic Christians, Christmas begins December 25 and continues until January 5, and then there is the Feast of the Epiphany (the coming of the Wise Men) on January 6. The time before Christmas is Advent, a time of preparation for the coming of Christ, with the focus being on the Second Coming more than the first.

For orthodox Christians of whatever stripe, Christmas is about the coming of God into man, in which God Himself, the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, was born as a baby in a manger over 2000 years ago. The notion of a being who is fully God, fully man is an offense to many in the intellectual classes–Kierkegaard recognized this in his writings. The belief seems absurd. Yet the Christian faith teaches the coming of the eternal into time, the infinite into the finite, the God-man. Because of that, sin and death are overcome and human beings have not only the hope of salvation from sin, but of salvation from death. Salvation is far more valuable than anything than Santa Claus can bring! I have no problem with children believing in Santa Claus as long as they are taught the true meaning of Christmas–God, born like the rest of us, as a newborn baby who grew up, struggled as we do with temptation, taught a “more excellent way,” was crucified, died, and was buried, and was raised from the dead. Now God the Son remains incarnate, fully God, fully man, for all time. It is an incredible message, that is for sure. I believe it to be true. For those readers who also believe it to be true, consider the wonder of it and thank God for the gift of Himself for us.

Mysticism and Christianity

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Teresa of Ávila, Ulm, Germany

Teresa of Ávila, Ulm, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Contrary to a common stereotype, mystical thought has always played a role in the development of Christian thought, just as it has in other religious traditions. While eschewing Gnosticism, Neoplatonist pagans such as Plotinus were used by Christian writers, and the Pseudo-Dionysius’ writings could be called mystical works from a Christian perspective. The Eastern Orthodox Church has emphasized contemplation, and this trend became dominant during the late states of the Eastern Roman Empire just before Constantinople was taken by the Turks in 1453. In the Western Church, St. John of the Cross, St Julian of Norwich, and St. Theresa of Avila were only a few of the great mystics. The Church has taken care regarding mysticism, not in order to make life difficult for the mystics, but to make sure that the teachings of the mystics were in line with Christian teaching. St. Theresa of Avila gladly submitted to that rule and did not begrudge it–anyone with doubts should read her writings. There were a few exceptions, but this was not due to the authors’ mysticism. The problem was the teachings of certain mystics seemed to conflict with the teachings of Christianity. I am not sure if Scotus Erigena was a mystic, but he was clearly a pantheist, and while not formally condemned, his position was stronger than the alleged panentheism of Meister Eckhart–Erigena clearly identified God with the universe in his dynamic pantheistic system. Meister Eckhart, on the other hand, believed, as far as I can follow his thought, that the was a good Thomist–if every contingent thing that exists is radically dependent on God, then without God all contingent things are literally no-things. Thus God is all in all. Eckhart’s teachings could be a form of panentheism, and one could even interpret them in terms of classical theism. In my judgment, Eckhart’s heresy trial was based on a misunderstanding of his teachings.Mystics tend to emphasize the untiy of all things in the One, and sometimes they seem to subsume creation into God so that God is the only reality and contingent things are unreal. R. C. Zaehner has argued that Christian mysticism always kept the God-world distinction in the background while Eastern mysticism did not. That is a widely disputed point; many writers would claim there is a strong cross-religious and cross-cultural commonality to religious experience. Huston Smith has argued that within a religious tradition that approves their use, psychedelic drugs may be a way to reach the transcendent. From a very different perspective, Stanislav Grof has argued that high doses of LSD can put some persons in contact with transcendent reality. Even the majority of mystics who do not use drugs use fasting, chants, and other methods to focus the mind. However, as William James notes in his Varieties of Religious Experience, there is a passivity to mystical experience–ultimately it is a gift of grace. James is also correct in noting the ineffable quality of mystical experiences. It is not that mystics cannot communicate anything about their experience–otherwise, why would they write books about mysticism–but that language does a poor job in communicating the experience. In December 1273, St. Thomas Aquinas told his secretary that he had a mystical experience of God of such power that everything he had written before was “straw.” He died shortly afterward in March 1274.

Mystics also have a sense, as James noted, of certainty that the experience they had was real. The experience itself does not last long; James is probably not far off the mark when he states that most experiences last less than half an hour. These special gifts of grace are the height of the contemplative (Mary-type) life as opposed to the more practical Martha-type life. The church requires both.

Christian mystics should always keep in mind the fact of the incarnation (as did St. Theresa of Avila). Matter is good and redeemed by God through Christ. Any mystical experience that denies the goodness of matter is heretical from a Christian perspective. What mystical experience tells Christians, among other things, is how small we human beings are in comparison with God. Even the Beatific Vision will not result in anything close to a complete knowledge of God. It is good for humans, who have a tendency toward pride and arrogance, to realize their smallness, their nothingness, in the face of Existence Itself.

The Danger of Private “Revelations”

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Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The great seventeenth century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker once lamented the strange teachings that arise when Christians accept their own private interpretation of scripture over the tradition of the church. The result is practically seen today in 200+ major Christian denominations and over 20,000 total groupings of Christians in the United States alone. The Catholic/Orthodox tradition from the very beginning of the church was that Holy Scripture, while worthy to be studied by any Christian, does not find its final interpretation in the individual. Individuals are prone to error and often misread the Biblical text in terms of their own desires. Thus the Holy Spirit, through the Church Councils, the Creeds, the Fathers, and the Bishops, has guided the Catholic Church into all truth and set the boundaries of acceptable interpretation of Scripture.

A corollary of private interpretation is the tendency of some Christians to assert that “God laid a burden on my heart…..” or “God spoke to me, and therefore…..” It may be the case that God did speak to the person, but such revelations should not be accepted uncritically. I am very careful to make a claim about any private revelation–I prefer to say that God speaks to me through the Sacraments, through His Word in Scripture and in Tradition, and through the consensus of the Church as a whole. Thus, if I were to feel as if God spoke to me, I would determine first of all whether that alleged communication is consistent with Holy Scripture and with the teachings of the Catholic Church. If not, the “revelation” was either of my own (usually selfish) desires or a revelation from a source hostile to God. It is all too easy to justify our own selfish desires by appealing to “God told me I should do x, and it is so amazing that x is what I wanted to do in the first place.” Thus the alleged “revelation” becomes a justification for selfish, prideful, sinful behavior that “cannot be questioned” for “how dare you question the voice of God who spoke to me.” The problem is that God does not contradict Himself, and He would never command a person to violate His expressed will in Scripture, tradition, and His Holy Church. “Prove the spirits,” the Bible says, to determine whether they are genuine. Otherwise, our fallen, sinful nature will take over and we will mistake our own voices for the voice of God.

Anti-Religious Bias in Medical Ethics

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A few of my medical ethics students (not by any means the majority) object to my including such a large component of religious ethics in my teaching. Such an attitude is not surprising–it is another instance of religion’s increasing exclusion from public life and debate (Fr. Richard John Neuhaus‘ “naked public square,” but it is nevertheless disturbing. The founders of the great Hippocratic tradition of medicine (and ethics) were Pythagoreans, and their thought cannot be understood apart from Pythagorean mysticism. Roman Catholic scholars were producing texts in medical ethics as early as the seventeenth century, and taught medical ethics as a university course long before the contemporary bioethics revolution began in 1966. Roman Catholic concepts such as the principle of double effect and the ordinary-extraordinary care distinction have become a part of the ethical vocabulary in medicine.

In addition, Protestant scholars, such as Paul Ramsey and James Gustafson, have made important contributions to medical ethics. Jewish scholars, such as Hans Jonas and Leon Kass, have also contributed to the field, with Professor Kass serving as the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics during the Bush administration. Muslim scholars are beginning to be published in both mainstream medical and in medical ethics journals. At a practical level, understanding diverse religions is important for any health care provider.

The terms of the debates over key bioethical issues such as abortion and euthanasia cannot be adequately understood without understanding the religious arguments involved in these debates. I am not denying the possibility of a consistent secular ethics; I am saying that, as a matter of fact, de-emphasizing the religious aspect of medical ethics is irresponsible, period, and would be more irresponsible for me from a scholarly/teaching point of view.

What is more disturbing than students’ attitudes, which may be as much due to lack of exposure to alternative views (especially for those students who are “rabidly secular”), is the increasing exclusion of religious points of view from medical ethical debates. This exclusion is not absolute; journals such as the Hastings Center Report occasionally publish articles from a religious perspective, as do some other journals in medical ethics, but this is becoming increasingly rare. The false Enlightenment assumption that religion is only a private, subjective matter is part of the problem. Such a view reveals utter ignorance of the function of religion in personal behavior and in society. As one of my teachers at UGA once said, “I would never be such a damned fool as to claim that religion is only a private matter.” He was a liberal Protestant and not a raging Fundamentalist, but he understood the function of religion to be inherently social. He also understood that religions make claims about reality, and such claims can be broadly tested against human experience in general, although there will always be an element of faith and of mystery in religion.

Increasingly, I find a small group of students who could be called “misotheists”–they hate God or at least the notion that any Creator exists. Since these are mostly science students, I would guess they were encouraged to believe such things by some of their science teachers, as well as by the strict methodological atheism of modern and contemporary science. Far too many science teachers make sweeping metaphysical claims regarding religion being a superstition and claim that such a view is “scientific.” Of course this is really the philosophy of “scientism,” the view that science can explain all reality and that any reality claims that go beyond a mythical “scientific method” are, by their very nature, not part of reality. Such a view needs to be justified by argumentation, but neither the scientists who accept scientism nor students are willing to present arguments–their hostility to religion is palpable. Other students (and atheists and agnostics in general) are angry ex-religious people who have rebelled against, perhaps, a harsh religious background (or maybe they just want to get laid and don’t want any religion to get in their way). Since misotheism is, like scientism, an emotionally-based position, there is no rational way to get most people who hold such views to think them through.

I admit I’m frustrated. It is becoming increasingly difficult to be a religious believer who teaches in a college or university. They follow the logic of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, adopting not only its positive side (toleration for different points of view) but also its negative side (the total secularization of the academy). Even in religious schools, the logic of the Enlightenment leads many faculty be be atheists or agnostics and to minimize the role of religion in public life. It is sad that this attitude has spread to future health care providers.

The Health and Human Services Department’s Attack on Faith-Based Organizations

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The United States Department of Health and Human Services mandated that employers offer health care insurance to employees that includes payments not only for standard birth control, but also for abortificants. Faith-based organizations are not exempt from this mandate. The Roman Catholic Church is resisting this mandate, as well they should, and since abortificants are also paid for, all faith-based groups who oppose abortion are being forced to violate their beliefs. I have no doubt that the social democrats and socialists who read this post will disagree, which is their right. What about the right of a faith-based organization to establish employment benefits in line with its beliefs? H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., a bioethicist and physician at the Baylor College of Medicine, has argued for ideological pluralism in health care choices. That is, if someone accepts abortion, she can buy insurance through a company that accepts abortion. Roman Catholic groups could have what Engelhardt calls “Vaticare” or something like that. Now Engelhardt is a Classical Liberal who is consistent that pluralism be respected. What the government is doing is the equivalent of telling “Vaticare” or similar organizations that their beliefs be damned. The government will now tell you what to do, and if you don’t like it, suck it up. The result, if this rule is not overturned, will be a mass closing of faith-based organizations that help a significant number of people.

Although Mr. Obama has tended to be a friend of Wall Street and warmongers, his ideological roots are strongly Marxist, and, I would claim, totalitarian. The fact that he is no more totalitarian than Dubya does not change the fact that Obama desires as much power as did Mr. Bush. Regulatory agencies have been one way that government can gain power without legislative approval. Congress should establish a conscience clause in the health care bill in order to allow for faith-based organizations to offer insurance to their employees consistent with their own beliefs. To do otherwise would be another step toward a “social democratic benevolent” dictatorship that the most radical on the left wing desire. Although this is by now a tired cliche, it remains true that freedom of religion was never construed by the founding fathers to mean freedom from religion. I am pleased that Eastern Orthodox Bishops (The Council of Canonical Orthodox Bishops) as well as conservative Protestants have joined the effort to reverse this rule change. I hope they succeed.

A Shortage of Exorcists

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At http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/a-shortage-of-exorcists is an article concerning the shortage of exorcists in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Apparently a number of dioceses have reported a need for more bishops and priests trained in exorcism. Why is there such a demand?

A skeptic might answer that superstition is spreading throughout the U. S. and a greater number of exorcisms is evidence of increased credulity. Such a skeptic might also claim that exorcisms are risky because they are a form of malpractice in treating those who are really mentally ill.

Another option is that demons (fallen angels) not only exist in reality, but that they can also possess a person who is spiritually vulnerable or who invites the demon in either by corruption of character or by intentional or unintentional invitation. Those who saw the original version of the movie The Exorcist may remember that Regan, the possessed child, became possessed after playing with an Ouija Board, in which the demon pretended to be a playmate and called himself “Captain Howdy.” Some individuals believe that using an Ouija Board, or even using other forms of automatic writing, invite entities in, and that not all of those entities are friendly.

There is also the possibility that, with God’s permission, a demon could possess the body of a good person, as was the case in the movie, The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The idea was that if Emily Rose manifested the demon in such a way that people could not deny its existence, materialists would be open to the possibility of a spiritual world that is beyond the material. And that opens the possibility not only to the existence of demons, but to the existence of God. I do not know if the priests involved in the “real Emily Rose case,” the exorcism of Anneliese Michel, had such an end in mind. It seems to me that they sincerely tried to help her, but unfortunately she died of dehydration and starvation during the exorcism.

Why does there seem to be an increase of apparent demonic activity in the U. S.? I believe it is because the United States is becoming more and more a “Me! Me! Me!” society. Selfishness and pride are the primal sins, and they are always destructive. Humans are naturally social animals, and attitudes that harm family and other social relationships can be one causal factor in mental illness. Another possibility, which is a live option for me, is that the self-centered attitude of many Americans is a way of inviting demons into their lives in a more direct way. If that is the case, and I believe that it is, then more Americans are becoming possessed by demons–literally. Does that mean that all exorcism cases are of the demonically possessed rather than of the mentally ill? Of course not–in my judgment, Anneliese Michel, for example, suffered from mental illness and was not truly possessed. But having talked to priests who have extensive experience with exorcisms (and could not mention specific cases but referred in general to the things they had witnessed), priest whom I trust, I believe that some exorcisms succeed in expelling a real demon (for you philosophers, I do mean “ontologically real,” literally) from a possessed person.

Christians should not dwell on fears of being possessed, but should focus their lives on becoming Christlike with the help of God’s grace. As for unbelievers, it may be that God is allowing demonic activity to show, as William Peter Blatty tried to show through his novel The Exorcist, that there is a spiritual realm. In an ironic way, then, demon possession can result in bringing a nonbeliever or a doubter closer to Christian faith.

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