Monday, April 15, 2013

Should God Be Our Therapist?

Yesterday, the New York Times published a second op ed essay by T.M. Luhrmann, a Stanford Anthropologist, on the subject of evangelical Protestantism. In the second essay,  titled "When God is Your Therapist," Luhrmann argued that evangelical Protestants have a therapeutic relationship with God that mainstream Protestants and Catholics don't have.
Professor T.M. Lurhmann
Should God be our therapist?
Lurhmann believes that evangelicals do not seek an answer to the problem of evil.  Rather, in the words of an evangelical she interviewed, they just want to "hang out" with Him.

In Luhrmann's opinion, the evangelical approach to  the age-old problem of reconciling evil with a  benevolent God "is not really available to mainstream Protestants and Catholics, who do not imagine a God so intimate, so loving, so much like a person."

Such pretentious nonsense. On what basis does Luhrmann conclude that evangelical Protestants have a more loving, intimate relationship with God than other Christians?

Apparently, Luhrmann has not read the literature of Catholic mysticism or the biographies of the martyrs. If Luhrmann had read the Catholic mystics--St. Teresa of Avila or St.John of the Cross, for example--she would know that the Catholic mystics had a deeply intimate and personal relationship with God, some people might even say shockingly intimate.  And if she read the biographies of the Catholic martyrs--Edith Stein, Thomas Moore, Maximilian Kolbe, and others--she would know that the martyrs did not give up their lives for an impersonal God or an impersonal faith.

Of course, most everyday American Catholics are not mystics, and (so far, at least) they are not martyrs. Nevertheless, I feel confident that I know a lot more Catholics than Professor Luhrmann knows;  and I can say for a certainty that the relationship between God and many individual American Catholics is as strong, as intimate, and as personal as any Christian group's.  Indeed, what could be more intimate that the Eucharist--when Catholics eat Christ's body and drink his blood?

Professor Luhrmann may know a lot about evangelical Protestantism, at least from an anthropologist's perspective. And she may even know a lot about Catholicism. Nevertheless, she missed the mark when she off-handedly suggested that evangelical Protestants experience God in a more intimate and personal way than Catholics.


T.M. Luhrmann. How Skeptics And Believers Can Connect. New York Times, April 7, 2013, Sunday Review Section, p. 12.

T.M. Luhrmann, "When God Is Your Therapist." New York Times, April 14, 2013, Sunday Review Section p. 11.

Professor Luhmann's Essay in the Times: Christian Steadfastness on Social issues--Schismogenesis or Fidelity?

Last week, I was home in Baton Rouge, reading the Sunday New York Times. Not surprisingly, I found a sly essay in the Sunday Review section that subtly argued for a change in fundamental Christian values. T. M. Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropology professor had written an op ed essay entitled "How Skeptics and Believers Can Connect," in which she lamented the fact that the dialogue between Christians and nonbelievers was becoming increasingly intransigent, especially on social issues.

L. M. Luhrmann
Photo credit: Stanford
Professor Luhrmann described this phenomenon as "schismogenesis," a fancy anthropological term for inflexibility. She called for a mediating conversation between the religious and the nonreligious, and she essentially called for compromise--particularly on the issues of same-sex marriage and abortion. "Same-sex marriage and abortion should not be approached by drawing a line in the sand and demonizing everyone on the other side," Luhrmann counseled. "We need to recognize something of what we share, and to carry on a conversation--and if we can keep the conversation going, we will, however slowly, move forward."

Basically, I think, Professor Luhrmann was implicitly calling for Christians to bend on core social issues--to reach some rapprochement with the postmodern world. I interpreted her essay to be a subtle suggestion that ancient Christian values about the dignity of life and the meaning of marriage need to be tweaked a bit to fit the values of our postmodern age.

Professor Luhrmann's arguments called to mind a passage from G. K. Chesterton's classic work, Orthodoxy:
An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another. Some dogma, we are told, was credible in the twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays. You might as well say of a view of the cosmos that it was suitable to half past three, but not suitable to half past four.
As for me, I stand with Chesterton. Before becoming a Catholic, I lived in the postmodern world and I lived by postmodern values; and I was wrong. In midlife, I found the Catholic faith and I came to realize that the core doctrines of Catholicism are true and will always be true.
G.K. Chesterton
And I was certained to that truth during a recent trip to central California, where I visited the Catholic church at San Luis Obispo, located not so very far from where Professor Luhmann teaches at Stanford.  Franciscan friars founded San Luis Obispo as a mission in 1782 and it continues to operate as a parish church.

As I walked the aisles of that old adobe church where Spanish friars and Chumash Indians once worshipped and where modern Californians still worship today, I caught the familiar smell of all Catholic churches--the smell of incense, burning candles, and humanity.

Just as the fragrance of San Luis Obispo is the fragrance of Catholic churches all over the world, Catholic truths that were valid in the age of the Spanish empire remain valid today for modern Americans and all humankind.

Professor Luhrmann might see Catholic intransigence on social issues as a sign of schismogenesis, but I see it as a sign of fidelity to ancient truths.


T.M. Luhrmann. How Skeptics And Believers Can Connect. New York Times, April 7, 2013, Review Section, p. 12.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Dorothy Day: Patron Saint of People Struggling with the Postmodern Sin of Pride

Some day--some day soon, I hope--Dorothy Day will be canonized and join the ranks of our American Catholic saints. Miracles have already been  attributed to her, and I pray every day that she will soon be recognized by the Church as the great saint that she is. We need her desperately.

Many of our saints have been designated as the patron saint for particular groups of people. St. Joseph is the patron saint of unwed mothers, St. Aloysius Gonzaga is the patron saint of
Servant of God Dorothy Day
AIDS care givers, and St. Francis Cabrini is the patron saint of immigrants.

So when Dorothy Day is finally canonized, whose patron saint will she be?

 Personally, I think Dorothy would be the perfect patron saint for people struggling with postmodernism--our current spiritual affliction. Postmodernism has been defined as the spirit of materialism, relativism, and secularism; and this is certainly an accurate description. But if I had to sum up the attributes of postmodernism in one word, that word would be pride.  The spirit of American postmodernism is vanity, conceit, arrogance--in a word, postmodernism is the sin of pride.

Dorothy Day was the humblest of Catholic women, and yet she struggled with the sin of pride, which she believed was "the worst sin of all." As a journalist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, she was often showered with praise and compliments from important people.  And Dorothy worked hard not to let all that flattering attention turn her away from her humble mission.

In Robert Coles' book about her, Dorothy spoke frankly about her efforts to overcome the sin of pride.  "When important people--writers, political folks--come here and want to learn what we're doing, one side of me is impressed," Dorothy admitted. "I can feel my blood warming" (pp. 133-134).

Dorothy went on to describe her battle with pride in some detail:
Our pride, our vanity, responds to the interest of important people. People tell me we're becoming important and a force in the church; they tell me the pope admires us; they tell me I'm going to be a saint one of these days, and I don't know whether to laugh or to cry.  I hear such talk and I feel sad, mostly.  
 Dorothy told Coles how she dealt with the temptation to let the compliments she received make her prideful. "I go to my room and read," she confided.  "I'll take the Bible and read it or one of my novels; or I'll try to sit and talk with someone in our community who needs a listener."

If she were really free of the sin of pride, Dorothy confessed, she would not be upset by the compliments she received from important people. "I'd forget it very quickly and get on with my work."

Dorothy understood clearly that the striving for recognition was a distraction from the work God wanted her to do:
I'm here to help out with all my strength, until I die--help out in this house of hospitality, our community here. I'm not here to spend my time being better and better known by people who like to applaud certain people and debunk others. . . . We are meant to be with the poor--those of us who have chosen to live here--and the distractions of the mighty should be a warning to us: that we not be blinded by their glitter.
This passage from Coles' book made a deep impression on me, because I too struggle with the sin of pride. Too often I have striven for recognition and praise for their own sakes, and that is the sin of pride.

And as I come to the end of my scholarly career, I sometimes regret that I did not become better known for my work, that I did not receive the prizes and recognition that others received.  I did not get a Fulbright, for example; and I never won an prestigious award for anything I wrote.  And that of course is the sin of envy, pride's close traveling companion.

Pride--the sin of struggling for fame, recognition and power--is the curse of our postmodern age. It is the very soul of our postmodern conceit.  And people who struggle with postmodernist pride would do well to read Dorothy Day's work and try to imitate her life, at least on some small scale.

And that is why I nominate Dorothy Day as the patron saint of people who struggle with postmodernism.  Even now, although Dorothy has not yet been canonized, we can ask her to intercede for us--to help us be humble and kind to others and to focus on what God wants us to do and not on fame, power, or recognition.


Robert Coles. Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1987.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Free Condoms and Lubricants at Boston College: A Gratuitous Insult to Catholic Values

I am no fan of Catholic colleges and universities, and I will tell you why. Many of them are not that Catholic. Too many Catholic institutions tolerate behavior on the part of students and faculty that is inconsistent with Catholic doctrine and traditions. For example, several Catholic universities shelter faculty members who claim to be Catholic but strive to tear down Catholic values and traditions in their teachings and writings.

Nevertheless, Boston College, a Jesuit institution, does not deserve to be harassed by a group of its own students who are distributing free condoms and lubricants on the BC campus. A founding member of the group, which calls itself Boston College Students for Sexual Health, said the group's aim is to "normalize the presence of condoms, whereas before, they were super taboo."

In addition to distributing free condoms, the group maintains about 15 dorm rooms, which they call "safe sites," where students can get free male and female condoms, lubricants, and sexual health pamphlets.

Artificial birth control is contrary to Catholic doctrine, but Lizzie Jekanowski, a group member, justified the group's action on the grounds that "[s]tudents are going to have sex regardless" and they need to be educated about how to use condoms. Jekanowski even argued that the group's activities are consistent with Catholic values.  "It harkens to a deeper Catholic morality of caring for your neighbor--and that's literally what we're doing, caring for our neighbors."

According to a New York Times article, the group has operated on the BC campus for several years with the implicit approval of campus authorities. Now, however, BC officials are threatening disciplinary action if the group continues to distribute condoms on campus.

Not surprisingly, the Massachusetts ACLU backs the condom distributors.  According to Carol Rose, an ACLU spokesperson, BC does not have the right to impose its religious beliefs on its students who "are engaged in lawful and constitutionally protected activity."  It's a safe bet that the ACLU will sue BC if it suspends or expels a student for distributing condoms or lubricants on campus.

Here's my take on this dispiriting episode.

First, Boston College is one of the most expensive and exclusive private universities in America. I would be very surprised if a single BC student does not have health insurance. BC students who want birth control or information about birth control can go to their health care providers for assistance.

Second, Boston College is located in the wealthy town of Newton, Massachusetts, which has plenty of pharmacies.  A Boston College student who wants lubricants or condoms can purchase them at a CVS store or a Walgreen's just like millions of Americans do every day.

Finally, Boston College is a Catholic institution, and it should have the right to enforce Catholic doctrine on its own campus. If Ms. Jekanowski and her classmates disagree with BC's policies they should attend another college. 

It seems to me that this student group's activities are nothing more than an effort to embarrass the college they freely chose to attend. By distributing condoms and lubricants on the BC campus, the group has forced the college to either compromise its Catholic values or risk being sued by the ACLU.

Lizzie Jekanowski and her friends will soon graduate from Boston College and several members of their condom-distributing group will likely apply to prestigious graduate programs in law, business or medicine. When that time comes, they will be proud to have attended Boston College and they will hope that the prestige of their undergraduate institution  improves their chances of being accepted by an elite graduate school.

Instead of showing some appreciation for the privilege of attending a college that has provided them with so many lifetime opportunities, Lizzie and her friends have chosen to insult Boston College with a gratuitous condom-distribution scheme.  And for Lizzie to self-righteously justify the group's action as an application of Catholic values is offensive.

I hope Boston College deals forthrightly with this fatuous group.  If the Jesuits can't enforce Catholic doctrine on their own college campuses they should get out of the education business.


Jess Bidgood. Ban on Free Condoms Jeopardizes Student Group's Work with Catholic College. New York Times, April 8, 2013, p. A12.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Mission San Luis Obispo: The Smell of a Catholic Church is the Fragrance of Our Living Faith

I was in central California last week and visited four of the old Spanish missions: Missions Santa Barbara, Santa Ines, La Purisma, and San Luis Obispo.

Mission San Luis Obispo
All the Spanish California missions were closed in the 19th century, but several continue to function as Catholic parish churches.  Mission San Luis Obispo, located in the heart of a lovely coastal California town, is one of these operating Catholic parishes. 

As I walked up the steps of the San Luis Obispo church for the first time, someone opened the church's front door; and I immediately caught the familiar scent of a Catholic church--the smell of burning candles, the sweet odor of incense, and the human smell of a building in constant use.

As that familiar smell wafted over me, I felt my heart uplifted.  I knew immediately that I was entering a living Catholic church.  I knew I was entering the church of my own chosen faith and the church of my own people.  And I knew I would be welcome here, and  that all the familiar accouterments of Catholicism would be in their appointed places.

And of course I was right.  Fonts of holy water were stationed by the doors just as they should be. The altar lamp was lit, statues of Mary and Joesph flanked the tabernacle, and the stations of the cross lined the walls--all was in order.

 And my old friends the saints were present as well.  The typical saints of an 18th century Spanish church lined the walls and filled the niches of Mission San Luis Obispo: Saint Teresa of Avila, St.
Anthony of Padua, St. Jude, and many others. At a side altar to Mary, I saw a Hispanic women kneeling on the floor--crouched so low that she almost appeared to be in a fetal position.  Obviously, she was seeking Mary's intercession for some serious intention--an illness, a family problem, who knows?  And in the pews a few people--not all of them old--were patiently waiting for noon Mass.

Walking along the aisles of this old adobe church, I realized how fortunate I was to be in this lovely edifice founded as a place of worship by Franciscan friars during the Spanish empire and essentially unchanged. Here I would find the body and blood of Christ mysteriously present in the sacraments just as they were in 1772, the year this mission was founded.  Just as the fragrance of that mission church is the fragrance of Catholic churches all over the world, Catholic truths that were valid in the age of the Spanish empire remain valid today for modern Americans and all humankind.