Thursday, June 26, 2008

Americans See Diverse Ways to Interpret Their Faiths and Reach Eternal Life

It's very encouraging that a survey released June 23rd by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that most Americans cherish views of religion and salvation quite compatible with the process philosophy and theology that I present here. Here are some important paragraphs from the summary on Pew's website:

A major survey by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that most Americans have a non-dogmatic approach to faith. A majority of those who are affiliated with a religion, for instance, do not believe their religion is the only way to salvation. And almost the same number believes that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion. This openness to a range of religious viewpoints is in line with the great diversity of religious affiliation, belief and practice that exists in the United States, as documented in a survey of more than 35,000 Americans that comprehensively examines the country’s religious landscape.

Most Americans agree with the statement that many religions – not just their own – can lead to eternal life. Among those who are affiliated with a religious tradition, seven-in-ten say many religions can lead to eternal life. This view is shared by a majority of adherents in nearly all religious traditions, including more than half of members of evangelical Protestant churches (57%). Only among Mormons (57%) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (80%) do majorities say that their own religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life.

Most Americans also have a non-dogmatic approach when it comes to interpreting the tenets of their own religion. For instance, more than two-thirds of adults affiliated with a religious tradition agree that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their faith, a pattern that occurs in nearly all traditions. The exceptions are Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, 54% and 77% of whom, respectively, say there is only one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"Trees for Houston" Fights Destruction of 126 Live Oaks That Are Twenty Years Old

Nearly twenty years ago Trees for Houston, a nonprofit that promotes adding trees to Houston's public places, got donations from the public and planted most of the 126 live oak trees that line Kirby Boulevard between Westheimer and Richmond roads. The trees are now worth upwards of $25,000 apiece, a public asset of about $3.2 million.

But today, for the second time in less than twelve months, Trees for Houston finds itself almost alone in crying out against the tree-forsaken wilderness that the City of Houston wants to put in place of the trees.

The city's plan is part of a project to install a new storm sewer on Kirby. A section of Kirby through the prestigious River Oaks neighborhood north of Westheimer has been completed, and work is wrapping up on another section south of U.S. 59.

But the endangered live oak trees line a six-lane thoroughfare at the heart of the Upper Kirby District, one of several business special taxing districts in the greater Houston area. It carries thousands of vehicles each weekday, with impressive traffic jams at every intersection during evening rush hours, and to a lesser extent in the mornings.

By 2009 the blocks just south of Westheimer will be home to a new 30-story residential high rise (including seven floors of parking), with another multiple-story multi-use development with more multi-level parking across the street.

After the storm sewer is installed, the benighted experts at Houston's Public Works Department think it would be a good idea to widen the six lanes on Kirby, replace the current left-turn suicide lane with a limited-access median, and destroy the 126 live oaks, planting new trees that will reach the current size in a mere 15 to 20 years.

This is not the idea that the Upper Kirby District started with. It's architect proposed a landscaped esplanade with four traffic lanes--which is what Kirby has for several miles through River Oaks and the West University neighborhood south of Bissonnet, more recently tony real estate. But for the more commercial blocks of Kirby the Public Works Department insisted on six, wider lanes, and Upper Kirby dutifully responded with a plan that would destroy all of the trees.

Last September, Trees for Houston thought they had hammered out a compromise with Upper Kirby and the city that would save at least half of the trees: the six-lane street would be expanded to 73 feet in general and 77 feet at the intersections, instead of the 81 feet the city wanted. But the city basically reneged: the construction plans approved by the Public Works Department applied the 73-foot width to only 4% of the street, again requiring all of the 20-year old trees to be destroyed.

Trees for Houston has submitted a new plan that would allow for somewhat wider lanes but still save the trees, in addition to the $400,000 cost of new landscaping. They have even agreed to replace any trees that do not survive if their plan is implemented. But with the sewer contract just out for bids, Upper Kirby is not willing to put the work on hold again and resubmit the new plan for city approval.

It is very sad to see Houston falling back into its infamous history, leveling the old to make way for the new--and preserving almost nothing of its heritage. It's also unfortunate that Mayor Bill White, who has taken the lead on environmental initiatives and limiting the size of high rises that would add too much population to existing neighborhoods, has been pretty much a guilty bystander on this episode of environmental destruction and neighborhood blight.

Meanwhile, Eric Dumbaugh, a traffic engineer and traffic safety researcher at Texas A&M, tells the Houston Chronicle in a letter today the city's plan for six lanes and no trees is really the least effective from a traffic-safety perspective. He says that several studies have found that urban street trees reduce speeding, increase driver attentiveness and enhance traffic safety.

Professor Dumbaugh argues that the safest road would also be the most aesthetic: four lanes with the existing trees, just as Upper Kirby's architect first proposed. Second best would be six lanes with the existing trees.

His final judgment? The city's six-lane plan is the preferred choice only "if one believes that moving the maximum number of vehicles at the highest possible speeds is a goal that should outweigh either life safety or neighborhood aesthetics."

Friday, June 20, 2008

Multiple Signs of the Times: Some Raise Hope, Some Call for Action

Several developments in recent days are note-worthy as significant signs of the times. The first three covered below are quite encouraging. The rest call for corrective action.

State sued over Christian license plates. On behalf Christian and Jewish clergy and a local Hindu group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has sued South Carolina over a new state law that instructs the state to produce and promote license plates that feature a Christian cross in front of a stained glass window and the slogan “I Believe.” The plate was approved over the objections of the ACLU and the American Jewish Congress. Charging that approval of the plate signaled that “Christianity is the preferred religion of South Carolina,” the suit seeks to prevent the state from even producing it. As usual, Americans United is doing a commendable job upholding Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state.

Cardinals duel over prominence of old Latin mass. Quebec Cardinal Marc Ouellet has challenged a Vatican official who claims that Pope Benedict XVI wants to see the old Latin mass celebrated in every Catholic parish. Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, president of the Pontifical Commission "Ecclesia Dei," which works with separated traditionalist Catholics, expressed his opinion at a press conference in London June 14. Initial coverage did not stress strongly enough that Castrillon was mainly trying to please separated traditionalist Catholics, who would really like the pope to declare the old Latin mass the best Rome has produced and the one by which all others should be measured. Cardinal Ouellet, by contrast, correctly understands that the pope explicitly did not do this when he made the old mass more available a year ago. In fact, the pope made post-Vatican II eucharistic prayers in local languages the standard by which the old Latin mass should be evaluated, and he said that no priest could refuse to offer the newer liturgies and give preference to the old Latin mass alone. Kudos to Cardinal Ouellet!

Columnist questions McCain’s attack on Supreme Court ruling that Guantanimo detainees have the right to request habeas corpus hearings. Since Will generally rails against judicial activism, it is quite significant that he disagrees with McCain’s claim that the 5-4 decision was “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.” Will notes three other decisions he considers much worse: Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), which concocted a constitutional right to own slaves; Plessy v Ferguson (1896), which endorsed legally enforced segregation; and Korematsu v. United States (1944), which approved of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Will says the question of the detainees’ rights, and the government’s, is one intelligent people of good will can debate. But Will says habeas corpus took centuries to achieve before it was finally enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. He agrees with “the conservative and libertarian Cato Institute (which) argued in its amicus brief in support of the petitioning detainees” that when and whether habeas corpus can be suspended is a separation of powers issue between the executive and the judiciary, and that “the executive cannot be the only judge of its own judgment.” It’s not often that Will stands against the position of Justices Roberts, Alito, Thomas and Scalia. In this case, it’s refreshing that he did.

Hispanic workers in U.S. are at highest risk of heat related death. The Centers for Disease Control reported June 19th that it reviewed 423 heat-related deaths in the United States from 1992 to 2006, and that 71 percent of the dead were Hispanic in the period from 2003 to 2006 (the only timeframe when it knew the nationalities of all the workers). The most heat-related deaths were in construction, which of course is increasingly dominated by Hispanic workers. The highest rate of heat-related deaths was among crop workers: .39 percent per 100,000 workers annually, vs. .02 percent for other U.S. workers. North Carolina was worst with a death rate of 2.36 percent, then Florida at .74 and California at .49. There are no federal regulations to protect workers from heat and California is the only state to do so. It is evident that effective federal and state controls are needed urgently, before employers exploit any more Hispanics to death.

Earth adds a billion more people in 13 years. The U.S. Census Bureau says the world’s population will reach 7 billion in 2012, despite the planet’s inability to provide basic necessities for the 6.7 billion people already plundering it today. With 304 million people, the U.S. ranks third behind China and India. By comparison, the earth did not reach 1 billion inhabitants until 1800, nor 2 billion until 1930. But by 1999 it was 6 billion, and it’s taken only 13 years to add a billion more. I have commented on the planet’s birthing disorder in several previous posts.

Martin Luther King sculpture improved? The second model of a 28-foot statue of Martin Luther King Jr., planned for a monument in Washington D.C. next to the Tidal Basin and across from the Jefferson Memorial, won Juneteenth approval from the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. Last April the commission criticized the first model, by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, as too confrontational and too much like political statuary in totalitarian regimes. The new model has “a less furrowed brow, a softer mouth and more detailed rendering of the hands.” The sculptor, refuting critics who said King never stood with his arms folded across this chest, gave the commission a photo of King in that position. Personally, I’d say the sculpture still needs work. The artist has transformed a statue reminiscent of Mao or Lenin into what looks a lot like a slightly weightier Ray Nagin! That just won’t do.

Friday, June 13, 2008

U.S. Bishops Surprise Catholics by Declining New English Translation of Mass Readings

National Catholic Reporter columnist John Allen Jr. reports that at a meeting in Orlando, FL this morning enough U.S. bishops voiced opposition to a new English translation of readings for daily masses to derail the approval process indefinitely.

The vote was taken on the proposed revision of the English text of the Proper of the Seasons, the second of twelve sections of the Roman Missal being retranslated and the source of priest's prayer near the beginning of the mass, the prayer over the offerings, and the prayer after communion for the masses of the Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter seasons as well as the Sundays of Ordinary Time and holy days of obligation.

The bishops approved the first section of the Missal, the Order of the Mass, in June of 2006, but only after lengthy and often acrimonious battles over some of the wording. I addressed that outcome in my first posting on this blog, July 17, 2006. The wording that won out generally removed a lot of inclusive language that the English mass had contained for several decades and made the English text much more slavishly dependent on the existing Latin version, even when the earlier wording often made much more sense to English-speaking Catholics.

Allen writes: "Heading into the U.S. bishops’ spring meeting in Orlando, it didn’t seem likely that a proposed new translation of the Proper of Seasons, part of the prayers and other texts for the Catholic Mass, would stir up much dust. Following a decade and a half of impassioned argument over such texts known colloquially as the 'liturgy wars,' many bishops privately expressed fatigue and a desire to move on – suggesting to most observers that approval of this text ought to be more or less a given."

But that changed today when a lone bishop rose to voice objections to the new translation. Bishop Victor Galeone of Saint Augustine, a former Latin teacher who still reads Thomas Aquinas in Latin, said the proposed translation is too unclear and awkward to be effectively used in American parishes. He found it too slavish to the Latin and too little concerned with communicating accurately and effectively in English.

Galeone's views were seconded by Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba of Milwaukee, Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, PA and Bishop Robert Lynch of Saint Petersburg, FL. Lynch reported that when he asked the 26 priests on his presbyteral council to review the translation, two were in favor of it and 24 were opposed.

Other bishops voiced the "let's move on" sentiment that was thought to be dominant going into the meeting, including recently installed Cardinal Daniel diNardo of Houston.

The remarkable upshot of the discussion was that the meeting was too poorly attended to vote the translation up or down. The rules of the bishops' conference require a two-thirds vote to adopt such changes--which currently means 166 to approve or 83 to reject. With only 178 bishops at the meeting, neither side could reach the count need to prevail.

The group agreed to mail ballots to any bishop who was not in attendance. They also decided that if the translation isn't approved after the ballot process, there will be another opportunity for all of the U.S. bishops to submit additional observations and proposals for revision.

I find today's developments encouraging: first, because at least a few of the bishops have declared themselves stakeholders in a decent English translation and have had the courage to voice their concerns about a deficient draft when it was thought to be a done deal; and second, because by taking their stand they at least kept open the possibility that a better English translation will be crafted, even if it is not the one the Vatican thinks is best; and most importantly, because their stand upholds the truth that they, not the bishop of Rome, are primarly responsible for the quality of the liturgy celebrated in U.S. Catholic churches, and it's about time they took that responsibility more seriously. All of that is much more edifying than what they have done in the past, which has mostly been to let Rome steamroll pretty awful translations of very generic Latin prayers.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Mary Quite Contrary: Monster Monstrance Promotes Mariolatry and Wafer Madness

“Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” These words from Golgotha, among the last that scripture attributes to the earthly Jesus, are all too apt for the object pictured above.

Take a close look at it. Never seen anything like it? You’re right. There’s never been anything like it. It’s a statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus, that’s nine feet tall and 700 pounds. But it’s not just the height and weight that make it special. It’s that round niche cut into most of the torso between the heart and the uterus. The niche is meant for displaying a 12-inch consecrated communion wafer. That technically makes the statue a
monstrance, and it’s said to be the biggest in the world.

For a better appreciation of the sheer size of the piece, the picture below shows how it dwarfs Deacon Michael McCloskey of Holy Name Cathedral as he places a consecrated host in it on May 31st.

That was the day the curtains parted in the sanctuary of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Chicago to reveal the monstrance of Our Lady of the Sign, Ark of Mercy.

The archdiocesan newspaper and the Catholic News Service reported that Cardinal Francis George (an Oblate of Mary Immaculate) “was on hand to celebrate Mass and bless the new nine-foot, hand-carved and painted monstrance featuring Mary atop a gold-leaf decorated ark flanked by two kneeling angels, also in gold leaf, whose wings extend to shelter her.”

The desire to glorify Mary for her unique role in salvation history is biblically sound, especially her cooperation with God in bearing Jesus, bringing him into the world, keeping faith with him through his ministry and death, and being among the earliest to bear witness to his resurrection.

However, what is very dubious theologically is for the Catholic Church to procure and promote a physical image of Mary that in its monstrous size so towers over human beings that it could easily be confused for a pagan idol or an Asian Buddha. It leaves the church open to charges of Mariolatry, a term used in the past by Protestant critics who believed Catholics tended to denigrate worship of Jesus and his Father by idolizing Jesus’ mother.

And it muddies the theological waters all the more to turn this overwrought likeness of Mary into a monstrance, which misconstrues Mary’s relationship to the eucharist and promotes misunderstanding of the eucharist itself.

It was no accident that eucharistic devotions like exposition of the blessed sacrament (in a monstrance), 40 hours devotion before the exposed eucharist (in a monstrance), benediction with the exposed eucharist (in a monstrance) and Corpus Christi processions of the consecrated host (in a monstrance) became less frequent after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

The Council took seriously the concern of modern liturgists that with the emergence of large medieval cathedrals the original Lord’s Supper had become distorted from a shared meal to a mammoth exercise of visual adoration. A cult of sharing and eating the eucharistic bread and wine, “in memory of me” as Jesus asked, was replaced with a cult of looking at the consecrated bread and venerating it. As Catholic professors of sacramental theology told their students in the 1970s, in the decades before the Council the challenge wasn’t believing that the bread was really Jesus: the challenge was to believe it was bread!

The eucharistic devotions were never officially revoked. But they were officially downplayed in favor of reformed eucharistic liturgies that put greater emphasis on the altar as a table and the eucharist as a shared meal, Jesus’ transformation of the Passover seder into a celebration of his own deliverance, and ours.

Still, the conservative reaction against Vatican II included a renewed preference for the old eucharistic devotions. Pope John Paul II did not discourage them, and as recently as May 22, 2008,
Pope Benedict XVI could be found kneeling before a monstrance driven through the streets of Rome on a canopied flatbed truck, on the way to a benediction service and eucharistic devotions.

But as with other issues discussed here, just because the pope thinks something and does something does not make it theologically correct or in this case sacramentally wise. And that is especially true of allowing one of his U.S. cardinals to help commission and encourage veneration of the largest monstrance in the world.

Two fans of the new monstrance described some of the devotions that accompanied its unveiling. They help explain the theological misgivings I raise:

“After Mass, many remained in Adoration. Some got out of their pews to walk close to the altar so they could get a better view of the monstrance, while others were prostrate on the ground, kneeling on the floor, or just standing in awe before the Eucharist. Many walked out of the church with tears in their eyes.

”Many families attended despite temperatures in the 90s. The ceremonies began at 6 p.m. eastern time. Long after Mass, people lingered. In fact, at 11 p.m., the church was still packed. People crowded near the front entrance to St. Stanislaus Church, talking about their personal experiences they had in the unveiling, Mass, and Adoration.

“‘It was almost as if you were away from the world,’ shared one pilgrim, ‘and Noble Drive [the location of the church in Chicago] had become a piece of heaven on earth.’”

If so, this particular heaven on earth is an ersatz one. These kind of devotions are not how Jesus asked his followers remember him. They detract from what he did request, that we share bread and wine in a ritual meal. By claiming to experience Jesus as more intensely present in these devotions than in the ritual meal, they misconstrue the meaning of the eucharist and trivialize Jesus’ presence in the eucharistic liturgy.

And by transforming Mary into a monstrance, they trivialize her actual role in salvation history and turn her into some kind of mystical ark of a mystical new covenant centered on veneration of consecrated hosts.

I know of nothing that will convince Cardinal George and Benedict XVI to stop pushing these devotions. But those who are truly devoted to the eucharist need to challenge them and affirm that nothing in Christianity should ever be given greater prominence than the eucharistic meal.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Creationists Evolve in Texas and U.S., Proving Darwin Factual Even If They’re Not

The Houston Chronicle had reports yesterday on two new strategies by creationists to make their fundamentalist anti-evolution teachings pass constitutional muster in public school science classes. Neither effort is unprecedented, but in the face of prior defeats the creationists have changed their tactics—proving evolution a fact of life, despite their claims to the contrary.

In one, a creationist school wants the state to authorize its proposed Master of Science degree in Science Education (MSE). The MSE is Texas’ certification of an individual’s competence to teach science in public schools. In April the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board denied the request by the Institute for Creation Research to offer the degree, on the grounds that the creationist content of the courses would not equip graduates to teach science in Texas public schools. Now the institute has appealed the board’s decision. That gives the independent Office of Administrative Hearings 180 days to hear the case. The institute plans to file a lawsuit against the state if the appeal does not reverse the board.

The other effort? Modify the criteria and content of the state’s science curriculum, which of course is what the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board relied on for its April decision. The creationists hope to convince the State Board of Education to re-interpret an existing rule that has never required mentioning creationism in a science class. The current rule requires teachers to present both the strengths and weaknesses of all scientific theories. The creationists would have the State Board of Education list the lack of ‘intelligent design’ as a weakness of evolution and require science teachers to address it in class.

Coincidentally, Alan Boyle, science editor at, noted yesterday that these changes in tactics are not exclusive to Texas. Ever since 2005, when a federal judge ruled that intelligent design was a religious concept that should not be taught in science classes, the creationists have sought new ways to force public school science teachers to indoctrinate students with fundamentalist objections to evolution. The latest trend paints creationism as an academic freedom issue, contending that science teachers should have the right to express any questions they have about evolution, including religious ones. Hopefully the boards which decide science curricula will find this approach as bogus as intelligent design. If not, another federal court should.

Because Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy is grounded so thoroughly on the organic evolution of reality, including thought and God, the creationists are unlikely to give it a second thought. The more clever among them might eventually figure out they could claim his support for intelligent design. The claim would ultimately prove bogus. But, forewarned is forearmed.

Chapter 3 of my doctoral dissertation explains why Whitehead holds that every instance of novelty involves purpose, and that nothing in the givenness of past provides an answer to the question “What next?” After lots and lots of tortured research and analysis, Whitehead concludes that the ‘initial aim’ of each novel occasion of experience can only derive from God. This would square quite remarkably with the creationists’ insistence that natural selection as described by Darwin in not sufficient to account for novelty in evolution (although it would not help fundamentalists with salvaging the temporal chronology of Genesis and other biblical creation accounts as factual).

But Whitehead would never countenance the intrusion of this analysis into the high school science curriculum—or probably even science courses at the college or graduate levels. Whitehead was writing cosmology and metaphysics. The proper place to teach and address such thought is philosophy and theology classes.

Those, of course, are not much in favor in public education at any level. But if the creationists want to become serious about getting their feet in that door, they might try shifting their emphasis to the propriety of offering philosophy or religion classes in public schools.

That too can be debated. But unlike theocratizing science classes, it is not an idea that must be foreclosed constitutionally from the start. And if it could pass constitutional muster, it would at least be putting philosophical discussion in the curriculum where it belongs.