Mom’s Wisdom on Religion

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That’s mom, circa 1950

W.J. Astore

Today, I want to share a bracing view, courtesy of my mother.  She converted to Catholicism (from Protestantism) when she married my dad, but she wasn’t much of a church-goer.  When my dad suggested she should accompany him to mass on Sundays, she had a telling rejoinder:

You worry about your soul — I’ll worry about mine.

Excellent advice.  Mom had a way of speaking that cut to the chase.

When it comes to religion, too many Americans seek to push their beliefs on others.  And often there’s some guilt or a veiled threat in the push.  “A good person goes to church.” “These are holy days of obligation.”  “You should go to set a good example for the kids.” “Don’t forget judgment day — God is looking down on you right now.”

My mom was having none of that.  She also didn’t need church to do the right thing.  She was kind and generous and, in my opinion, followed the example of the Gospel without making airs about it.

When it comes to religion, few people want to be pushed into attending “mandatory” practices.  Indeed, I’ve always liked Christ’s teachings on praying to God in private, rather than standing on a street corner and shouting your beliefs to the masses.  Speaking of which, I once witnessed a man doing exactly that in Oxford, England, shouting on the street, proclaiming the good news.  When someone complained, he cited a Biblical passage that enjoined him to proclaim his faith in a loud voice so that others might follow in his footsteps.

That’s a problem with the Bible: So many passages, so many messages, so many interpretations.

Still, I persist in believing in my mother’s aphorism: Focus on the health of your own soul and its relationship to whatever higher power or higher ideals you believe in.  Don’t focus on the souls and the beliefs and practices of others.

Or, as Christ put it, “Judge not — lest you be judged.”

Why Fund the Arts and Humanities?

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W.J. Astore

Federal funding for the arts and humanities often comes under attack, notably from conservative quarters when a particular artistic expression is considered to be objectionable.  Cut the NEH and NEA (national endowments for the humanities and arts), Paul Ryan says, and we can save a whopping $335 million a year (slightly more than the cost of one F-35 jet fighter for the Marine Corps).

What are the humanities and the arts, after all?  Why should the government fund them? Can’t we let the marketplace rule?  Won’t good art find an audience (and patrons) without the government getting involved?

Art and the humanities?  Well, they are what make us human.  Art and music and dance and theater, but also our history, literature, languages, poetry, and so on.  Art and the humanities teach us about the human condition — what it means to be human.  So, in a way, religion is also part of the arts and humanities in the secular sense of the history of various belief systems, what they teach us about morality and ethics, as well as their iconography, music, and so on.

As a personal aside, I’m sure my first true artistic/humanistic experience came in my local Catholic church.  The splendor of light streaming through stained glass windows, the intricacy of the architecture, the majesty of the altar, the beauty of the music: all of this and more represented an artistic and humanistic experience that resonated with me, putting me in touch with something larger than myself.  I’ve felt similar majesty being out in the cathedral of nature, gazing out at the Continental Divide at 12,000 feet as clouds raced overhead after a long hike in the Colorado Rockies.

Nurturing and protecting the arts, humanities, and nature too is fundamental to being human.  We should be stewards of beauty in all its forms.  And certainly government must have a role in funding the arts and humanities as well as protecting the planet.

Unfortunately, the American political scene is oligarchical and driven by venality and greed.  So nowadays what you see in education is an obsessive push for STEM, for competitiveness vis-a-vis various foreign countries, for workforce development, as if education can be reduced simply to job/vocational training. Arts and humanities? Humbug!

I have nothing against science, technology, engineering, and math.  I majored in mechanical engineering as an undergraduate, loved calculus and differential equations, took several courses in physics and chemistry, and eventually got advanced degrees in the history of science and technology. Science is great and wonderful; technology is fascinating and much needed. Vocational training is important too.

But there’s more to life than getting a job.

Oligarchical powers don’t like to fund the arts and humanities.  They’d rather fund business and industry in the name of competitiveness (and profit!). But there’s more to life than building things, crunching numbers, and working for the man. We have souls, if you will (there’s the Catholic in me), and our souls need to be nurtured by ideas and ideals, by beauty, by the angels of our better natures as represented by the arts and humanities.

So please act to save the arts and humanities, especially in our schools. They enrich our lives in ways you simply can’t measure with dollar signs.  And please act to preserve nature and our planet as well, whether you see it as God’s creation or as spaceship Earth — or both.

Did Jesus Have a Wife?

In this papyrus, Jesus mentions "my wife" and suggests she is his disciple
In this papyrus, Jesus mentions “my wife” and suggests she is his disciple

W.J. Astore

Did Jesus have a wife? Or, if not a wife, did his mention of “wife” symbolize a greater role for women as disciples? I’ve always wondered about the proudly patriarchal Catholic church and its marginalization of women. WWJD?  Would would Jesus do about a church that is so male-dominated?  So proud of its prejudices and biases vis-a-vis women and their reputed weaknesses?  I’m thinking Jesus would not have approved of official church teachings on women.

The papyrus in which Jesus mentions a wife is suggestive but not conclusive.  Nevertheless, it should spur the church to reexamine its teachings on the proper roles for women within the church.

Women should not be segregated in separate and unequal communities. They should be incorporated in the church as disciples every bit as equal and whole as male disciples.  They should be able to become priests and to administer the sacraments.  No more Adam’s rib and weaker vessel nonsense, Catholics.

It seems a radical concept to a church burdened with two thousand years of woman-marginalizing tradition.  But Jesus came to forge a new covenant, a new world order.  It’s time for the church, at least partially, to fulfill His vision.

Open your hearts, Catholics, to the equality of women within the church.  By doing so, you’ll be following Jesus more nearly.  Or so I believe.

 

Reforming the National Security State (updated)

The World as a Confessional, with the NSA as its Priests
The World as Confessional, with the NSA as its Priests

W.J. Astore

At TomDispatch.com, Tom Engelhardt has an especially fine exposé of the National Security State as a religion with its own priesthood, holy books, dogma, and true believers/followers.

I recommend reading the entire article, but I do want to highlight some implications of his argument.  Like the Catholic Church (and I’m Catholic), the National Security State is hierarchical, conservative, and often anti-democratic.  We, the laity, have little if any say in how the system operates, even as we’re the ones who fill the coffers and collection plates.  We are subject to a militarized (or militant) aristocracy that sees itself as uniquely privileged, the “best and the brightest,” working to keep us safe from the devil of the day.  To question the system and privileges of the powerful is to risk being seen as an apostate.

But the Catholic Church is, at least in theory, dedicated to the cause of peace (though historically sometimes at the point of a sword).  The U.S. National Security State, despite (or rather because of) the evangelicals or true-believers in its midst, is dominated by a church militant and a church triumphant.  This is unsurprising.  Powerful militaries seek military solutions.  Defeats or stalemates like Iraq and Afghanistan are reinterpreted as triumphs (at least for the U.S. military).  If they defy reinterpretation, defeats can always be attributed to Judas-like figures within the body of the American politic, like the anti-war hippies of the Vietnam era (even if the latter looked more like Jesus than Lucifer).

The biggest problem is how the dominance of the National Security State weakens our democratic structures, including our right to privacy.  Consider the penetration and interception of all forms of electronic communication by the NSA and similar “intelligence” agencies.  Like the Catholic Church with its rite of confession, the NSA listens to our “sins” in the name of safeguarding us from harm.  In the bad old days, the Church used its rite of confession to gain access to the secrets of the powerful.  Leave it to the NSA to trump the Church by turning the whole world into a confessional booth.

Such a subversion of privacy doesn’t preserve democracy – it destroys it.  Like the Catholic Church of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the National Security State is choking on its own power and privileges, losing its sense of mission as it wallows in money and sanctimony.

Where is Martin Luther when you need him?  For like the Catholic Church in the 16th century, the U.S. National Security State needs a serious reformation.

Update (1/7): At TomDispatch.com, Nick Turse has a great article today on the growing reach and power of Special Operations Command (SOCOM) within the U.S. military.  It’s a powerful coda to Engelhardt’s article.  Extending the Catholic Church analogy, SOCOM in the U.S. military today is much like the Jesuit Order of the Catholic Church — missionaries of the American military across the world.  And like the Jesuits they see themselves as an elite, as true believers, as holy warriors deserving of secrecy and privilege and power.

As such, they believe they should not be accountable to the laity — meaning us.  Neither do they believe they are accountable to our legal representatives in Congress.  They answer to their Loyola (Admiral McRaven) and ultimately to the Pope (whoever the commander in chief happens to be, as long as he supports them).

The National Security State has truly become the new national religion of America.  We worship at its Pentagon of Power, its huge NSA facilities.  They are America’s true national cathedrals.