Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"Take what you like..."

Time to expound a little on the rationale of this blog.

It is obviously a little disingenuous of me, titling the blog "The Potluck Catholic, and then addressing only one side of the meaning: everyone bringing a different pot to the table, to share.  The other side, of course, is that we share by eating--that is, we share by taking something from the table, for sustenance.

The first thing I would like to say--this to head off the charge that indeed what I proscribe is the cafeteria catholic paradigm--is that what is on the table at a potluck dinner is much different than what is behind the sneeze guard at a cafeteria.  A little bias in that image?  You bet! Even in the commercial world the cafeteria is a dying institution.  The variety of the buffet has seen to that.

But we are talking here of something entirely different: the potluck dinner.  This is a gathering of friends (or at the very least, people sharing a common interest), not a commercial transaction.  For someone to label another person a "cafeteria catholic" reveals only what the name caller surmises the nature of the relationship between the two to be: one offering his or her wares to another for a price! 

What I want to say, second, is that the potluck paradigm conveys the image of a community of believers who bring what they have made in their own kitchen out of their own experiences, and sharing it with them.  But we do not force each other to eat what we bring.  Nor do we feel the compulsion to eat everything that is set before us.

In this I am guided by a saying that I have taken to heart recently: "Take what you like and leave the rest."  This saying means two different things in the cafeteria versus the potluck paradigm.  When I refuse an entree at a cafeteria, I am voting against that selection.  Enough votes against by me and others means the item is removed from the menu.  But the real result is that some people who want the item are now deprived of it. (This has happened to me with my favorite meal: liver and onions.)

In the potluck model--now seen as the model for all the church through all its history--people's selection of one item, or refusal of it, means something only to the one choosing.

Here's my final point:  I want there to be different kinds of catholics, much more variety in belief and practice, many more choices before me.  I need that.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What Day is it?

Back last night from a long weekend in Monterey, where my wife attended a conference and I explored the area. I'll have to say this: California does not lack in beautiful locales; nor does it lack in making those places expensive to enjoy!  But as my wife would say, apropos of her field of geology: you don't get the majestic scenery unless you have the (geologic) faults.

Which leads me to say this: Pope Francis has already faded from the attention span of the traditionalists.  What do I base this on?  Not much, really.  I did check in on the website also known as "The American Catholic," wanting to observe their take over the last two weeks.  Their lone post on the papacy:  Benedict's eclipse amidst the agenda of Francis.  Why can't we appreciate who he was and what he stood for? Especially the robes he wore, it seems?

In other words: Is there a tectonic shift occurring in the Vatican? Can change happen at all without some destruction of the present structure?  Those are the questions demanding most of the attention.

But the real question is this: Is there any way to assess and/or predict the movement happening deep down?  I don't think so.  I think we are in a position similar to that faced by geologists: we just don't know.  We can study all we want about the different forces at work in the church, where one mighty force is pushing against another (I see the movement of the nuns' push for social justice being countered by the Vatican's intransigence and fall-back mantra of male superiority as the major example); but in the end we do not know how it will happen or when it will.

And for that we have not just the Holy Spirit, we have that very intransigence of the Vatican. Major changes (earthquakes) do not happen when two forces accommodate each other.

So, here's my take: First, just like many say the failure of Christianity is due to the fact that it has never been tried; so the failure of Vatican II--it too has never been tried.

And, second, when the next major set of changes happens in the church it's going to be the big one; it will make Vatican II feel like a 2.2 on the Richter scale, barely noticeable in the grand scheme of things.

Friday, April 19, 2013

More Books I've Read

I will have to say this about Bakersfield: It has a good library!

These are just two of the more than dozens of non-fiction books I read here in my exile in Bakersfield,

First: "The Moral Lives of Animals," by Dale Peterson.  This is a serious book about the roots of morality in the animal kingdom--and thus a book about the roots of human morality there. There are instincts and feelings so deeply embedded in our consciousness that we often conclude that they have sprung up by our own efforts, or at the very least we conclude wrongly that the resulting morality is what separates us from our soul-less brothers and sisters. As a matter of fact, Peterson argues, this is what joins us to them.

Now, lest anyone think that the book is a peon to the wonderful meaningfulness of evolutionary thought, that perhaps the animals are the ones who get it right, that if we learned from them we would all be better off, let me assure you this is not Peterson's argument.  The book may very well have been titled "The Immoral Lives of Animals," for all the examples he gives of the brutal struggles and actions of animals against their own kind.  The conclusion: morality, no matter how deep its roots, for us is always a matter of choice.  And I don't mean by that a choice about following a moral code however devised or revealed; I mean a choice in the concrete about whether to do the right thing or not.

Second: The above leads right into the second book I read: "A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster," by Rebecca Solnit.

Solnit's book is an extended argument against the tendency of media and common wisdom to focus on the breakdown of social mores in disaster--the most recent example being the one or two incidents of armed people in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina.  This she contrasts with the many recorded efforts of people who rushed into disaster to help and give aid--all the way from the great San Francisco earthquake to the attack on 9-11.

But what I found even more interesting is her treatment of the academic study of the subject.  She says of Charles E. Fritz, a pioneer in the field, "[his] first radical premise is that everyday life is already a disaster of sorts, one from which actual disaster liberates us." And then she quotes him, "Disaster provides a form of societal shock which disrupts habitual, institutionalized patterns of behavior and renders people amenable to social and personal change."

Here, then, we see the central message of the two books: morality is clearly a matter of making the choice to do or not to do the right thing--at the very moment the choice has to be made!  We are aided in this not only by the teachings of Jesus and his followers; we are also helped by the roots that bind us to all of life on earth, and by the examples of those who act unselfishly in the midst of attacks against that life.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Books I've Read

In addition to writing one book, and reading probably hundreds of police procedural/thriller/life in America novels during my stay in Bakersfield, I did manage to read something really worth all the effort.  Actually, three worth that effort.

I'll comment on just one this blog; and get to the others in subsequent posts. This one tops my list; not just of books I've read these last two years, but, I feel,books I've read up to this point in my life: "Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age," by Robert N. Bellah.

Let me say first of all that this is the book Bellah was destined to write, that only Bellah could have written--and that I am glad he wrote.  No one more than me wanted this book to be written.  And, I say this humbly, had he not gotten around to writing it, I would have been forever sad that I did not possess the learning nor the skill to explore in such depth and wisdom the topic he did.

Do I have a personal stake in this book?  I do.  Let me explain.  Over the course of the last ten years or so I have drifted away from not only organized religion (i.e., church), but also the god of organized religion--a personal god, or god as a person, or however one wants to say that. The language, and the history of that language, means less and less to me; although I still pay attention to it and use it as I understand it to be and have been used: as a way of talking about something that is not able to be talked about, yet still needs to be talked about because that is the way we as humans deal with our thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

I have read other books on the topic of religion and evolution; and I have been a student of the theory of the 'axial age' since I first learned about it from Roland Murphy in an Old Testament course in the seminary.  But I must admit to not paying attention to either my teacher or my subsequent reading; because it was not until I picked up this book and read the table of contents that I saw what I needed to see--namely, that alongside the axial ages in ancient Israel (the prophets), China (Confucianism and Taoism), and ancient India (Hinduism and Buddhism), Bellah explores the axial age of ancient Greece (culminating in Socrates and Plato).

I had found my home.

That's what I felt after reading the book. I do not disparage the insights and meaning of the simultaneous axial ages; but I know now that for me my world turns on the myths and meanings and memes first hammered out by the pre-Socratics, then Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, then taken up by Albertus Magnus and Aquinas and Anselm, and in our times by Metz and Rahner and Bultman and Moltman and Gilkey.

And, to my real point, this is the language I am trying to keep alive in the face of the fundamentalist rant. Read the book, Bellah,s 'Religion in Human Evolution.'  For this is the language he has spoken all his life.  Perhaps you will find a home, too.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Writing a Memoir

I mentioned a couple of times that I sat down and wrote a memoir during the time I spent (two years) in Bakersfield. Here is some of what I learned.

First: I learned something while I wrote.  Of course I, and any writer for that matter, learns something while they write.  It's not as though everything is there in perfect prose, sitting and just waiting to be released from the brain.  The writer searches the brain, finds pieces and tidbits, and then tries to put them out there in a form that can be read and understood by the reader--never forgetting that the writer him/herself is the first reader, and the most demanding reader.  The reward for which is learning something that the writer did not know before he/she put the words down on paper.  It always amazes me when it happens.

Second: The mind is not a dangerous thing, as some have alleged; it is memory that is dangerous.  I mean that not in a moral sense.as though memory is trying to deceive us or lead us astray.  Often it is trying to protect us--as when it represses incidents that happened to us or that we perpetrated.  But mostly memory is dangerous because there are just too damn many things in there!  And most of them are useless and incapable of enlightening us as to what we were doing or what was happening to us at some point in the past.

Third: I learned that what I could not forget is what I needed to pay attention to the most.  It was not the buried, repressed memories; it was rather what was staring me right in the face!  Spoiler alert: what I could not forget, until I faced it head on in the memoir, was that I was a priest.  But if you read the memoir (coming out sometime this fall as an e-book) expecting a long detailed and very messy description of the soul-searching, guilt-ridden, ex-priest who could never get past that period in his life, you will be disappointed. For at some point during the writing I made the decision to resign from the ex-priesthood, in much the same manner as I had resigned from the priesthood.

Fourth: I learned that there is a difference between who I am to myself and who I am to others.  This is what helped me get past being an ex-priest.  For to myself I was, am, and always will be a reader, writer, reflecter. I was never a priest to myself. I was a priest to others at one period; but I could very well have been a TV repairman for all the difference it made to me.  What I am to others now, a parent, is what I was called to be to others.  I can never resign from that!

If any of this makes sense to you, then, as they say, read the book.

Monday, April 8, 2013

What I did in Bakersfield...

So, it's time to account for my time here in Bakersfield, and answer the question I know is burning in the brains of all my followers: Why did I stop posting on my blog?

First, you need to know something about Bakersfield, famous in country music for Buck Owens and Merle Haggard: it is famous for Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.  That's about it. There really aren't many more distinctions one could ascribe to it.  But let me name a few.

It has a river flowing through it, the Kern, that is turned on and off at various times: holiday seasons, maybe some few months in summer for swimming in its sandy bottom, and for special occasions, such as the weekend hosting of the "Tour de California" bicycle race.

Along the rim of the escarpment that dominates the northeast quadrant of the city runs the walking path called 'Panorama Trail.' The distant views it offers of the central California Sierra Nevada Mountain Range are spectacular (on the five or six pollution-free days Bakersfield endures); the view it offers every day, in the foreground, is of a huge oilfield, over 100 years old and still producing the crude. That field, with its storage tanks, and a small refinery, runs through the heart of Bakersfield.

The main attraction of Bakersfield, attested to by newcomers and natives alike, is that Bakersfield is no more that 2 to 3 hours from any place you want to be except Bakersfield: Los Angeles, San Francisco, the central coast, or the mountains, including of course Sequoia and Yosemite.

I arrived here in Spring of 2011, ready for a one-year stay.  That was the understanding I had of my wife's signing on for the tour.  My books were all packed up, some in our garage,but must in storage in Dallas.  The move occupied my time and energy for a couple of months; then it was off to Sweden for the wedding of our daughter, followed by a couple of wedding receptions in the States for the many family and friends who could not make the trip.  And it was November!  I had not posted once!  I couldn't make myself unpack the books. I was disoriented.

I did find a stash of paper and a pen, however, and did what I had always done in such circumstances: I sat down and began writing--this time a memoir.  I had thought about it for a few years.  I mean in general terms, nothing specific. Aided by the lessons I learned from being a member of a fellowship, whose names shall remain anonymous, I took stock of all that I had experienced, and began to describe that for what and for whom I was grateful. About 195 hand-written pages, and 14 months later I had made the journey. (Sometime this fall, after settling in a new location--yet to be decided--I will up-load it as an e-book for those who are interested.)

Oh, I forgot to mention one more thing about Bakersfield: it was there I wrote the book I would like to be remembered for.  I will always have fond memories of the town.

Thursday, April 4, 2013


What just happened?

I must confess I am not the most traditional, practicing Roman Catholic these days; but with a little nudge from the culture, I do get myself to church on those sacred feasts that dot our calendar.  Or, at the very least, I think about how so much has changed over the past fifty years.  Yes, I do reminisce in that time span now.

But, Easter?  There is a greater disconnect between that holy day and our secular, commercial-oriented culture than exists between any other and that same culture.  Christmas has, in fact, been wholly taken over by commercialism; it is now Christmas as the secular feast that is celebrated at the winter solstice.  Easter, on the other hand, does not even register a blip on the screen.

Part of this is due, of course, to the referents of the feasts themselves.  Who could seriously refuse to celebrate a birthday?  Even the birthday of someone who is worshiped as God's son, born of a virgin who remains a virgin as mother?  Not I; I would never get between a mother and child.

But, again, Easter? The resurrection of a god who was crucified?  Much easier to celebrate the feast looking for candy and eggs hidden by an Easter bunny, eat the traditional meal of the paschal pig, and then sit down to watch whatever phase March Madness seems to be in that year.  No nudges whatsoever from the culture to point us in the right direction.

So here's my conclusion: Easter has to be much more central to what it means to be a Christian than any other feast/festival; for it has slipped of the secular/commercial calendar almost completely.  We Christians are left completely to our own devices concerning this feast.  There is no nudge from outside, pushing us to at least go to church this day.

It's a struggle.