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Lesson 14- Disney And The Natural World

         As I ended my last program, I was exploring the idea that in order to understand salvation we have to understand damnation. In other words, how are we being saved and from what are we being saved? Too often, we fail to meditate upon the words and imagery found in the Bible and thus we fail to see the deeper meanings behind them. Jesus said to His apostles, when He was about to ascend into heaven, that there was much more that He had to teach them but that they were not ready to hear it. However, He would send to them the Spirit of Truth who would teach them all things. In other words, there are many truths that cant be understood until a proper foundation has been laid and thus the proper attitude for the Church and for us is the one commanded by Jesus to "seek and you will find; knock and it will be open unto you." Thus, we shouldnt be surprise that our theology has been developing and expanding throughout the centuries and truths that were known only in their embryonic form in the beginning have matured into a fuller and deeper understanding of the mysteries of God. It wasnt because God didnt want us to know the truth but He, like any good parent, understood that children are incapable of understanding some things until they have gained enough experience to be able to relate to them. Thus, being a Christian involves a growth process through which simple truths taught to us as children become deeper insights and understandings into the mysteries of life and God as we mature. As St. Paul said in Corinthians I 13:11-12, "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known."

         In many ways, the Bible is a developmental book that describes a growing understanding of the ways of God by the Hebrew People. For example, in the beginning of the Bible the Hebrews thought that Gods idea of justice was "an eye for an eye", yet, as the sacred scriptures develop, we start to hear more of mercy than justice and by the time we reach the New Testament the theme is love and, instead of doing to our enemies what he has done to us, we are advised to "love your enemies, do good to those who harm you."

         People, who do not understand the developmental nature of the Bible often make the mistake of applying an earlier understanding to a current situation. Thus, for example, in Arabia they are still stoning to death women caught in adultery that is what the Old Testament of the Bible required people to do. However, in the New Testament, we see a further development on this when the woman caught in adultery is brought to Jesus. The Pharisees, hoping to make Jesus look bad in the eyes of his followers, asks if they should stone her to death, as the law of the Old Testament required. He doesnt say "Yes" or "No." Instead, he tosses the issue back to them by saying, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." After all the accusers have crept away, He says to the woman, "Does anyone accuse you?"... "No!" she says. "Then neither will I. Go and sin no more." Notice, He doesn't say "Go, and don't worry about the fact that you committed adultery. He affirms that it was a sin and tells her not to do it again. In this one statement, He has informed us that the real role of God is redemption, not condemnation. Throughout the New Testament, He is constantly giving a new twist to old things.

         However, the same is true of the writers in the Old Testament and, when it is read properly, one can see that the Hebrew writers did not always fully understand the nature of their God. The Old Testament is an unfolding revelation that is limited by the understanding of the listeners. It starts off by giving detail instructions concerning the offering of animal sacrifices to God and then later says that God doesnt want these sacrifices. Instead, what He really wants is righteousness and justice. And in the New Testament, Jesus gives it an entirely new spin when he replaces animal sacrifice with self-sacrifice. He has become the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

         The Book of Job is another example of the growth and development of Hebrew theology. At first, Hebrew theology held that "if a man was good, he would have good luck; and if he was bad, he would have bad luck." This is simply a disguised form of hedonism which would say, "if you do good, you'll feel pleasure; and if you do bad, you'll feel pain." Thus, when Job, a good man, who is rich, happy, and prosperous as the theory says he should be, begins to lose everything that he has, he neighbors conclude that he has sinned. Throughout the book, they keep demanding that he confess his sins but he protests that he hasnt. In truth, he hasnt and later in the book God affirms that he hasnt. However, God also says that, being God, He owes no explanation to Job or anybody else for the evil that befalls them. What the Book of Job really says is that the old theology was mistaken and that sometimes bad things happen to good people. In fact, later the Bible says that God, like any good father, chastises His children.

         Job becomes a symbol for the just man who suffers difficulties unwillingly. Even in the time of Jesus, the old idea persisted because his own apostles asked him, when confronted with a handicapped man, whether he or his parents had sinned. Jesus answered that it was neither.

         Jesus, through His Passion and Crucifixion, take the theology one step further. Some theologians have even referred to Him as the New Job because, where Job was a Just Man who suffered unwillingly, Jesus was the Just Man who suffered willingly because He knew that this was part of the plan for salvation.

         Its good new that sounds like bad news to our animalistic nature. Nobody, including myself, looks forward to suffering and yet, when I look back on my past sufferings, I suddenly realize that they deepened me in ways that the life of pleasure never could. Jesus had said, "If you want life and you want it fully, pick up your cross and follow Me." He didnt say, "If you want life and you want it fully, seek pleasure and comfort and dont follow my example." In fact, He said that the path to salvation was narrow and straight and that we should seek to enter by the narrow gate because the path to perdition or damnation was wide.

         Yet the idea that good people should have good luck while bad people should have bad luck is very hard for us to shake. We instinctively think that when things are going bad that God must be punishing us and we feel betrayed when bad luck occurs while we are doing our best to serve the Lord. We make statements like "Why does God let things like that happen to good people?" Yet, we forget that one of the gifts that God has given us is "free will" which obviously means that many of the things that happen occur because we or someone else chose to do them. It wasnt God that crashed two planes into the TwinTowers in New York. It was human beings that were exercising their "free will." It is obvious that we cant expect God to respect our "free will" and at the same time control all events that affect our lives. However, the problem goes deeper than this because as I speak a little first grade girl from my parish lies in a coffin having just died from what they believe was dehydration brought on by the flu. It wasnt the exercise of someones free will that caused this. Instead it was the constant battle between living organism to survive and expand their existence. Her body was invaded and it lost the battle. This, of course, is a deeper mystery but our faith says that even if we dont understand it, we believe that God can draw "good" even out of this. Perhaps these problems have a deeper purpose than we realize. St. Paul said that God had placed a "thorn" in his flesh to keep him from pride and many of the saints were afflicted with great trials and sufferings. And, of course, Jesus Himself is a prime example of what the Old Testament refers to as the Suffering Servant of God. Catholic theology almost stands apart from other Christian theologies because of its acceptance of suffering as a redemptive device. How many times have we all heard the nuns say "Offer it up for the poor souls"? The reason is because St. Paul said in one of his epistles that add our own suffering to whatever was lacking in the suffering of Christ.

         Some Protestant churches have even suggested that God is the source of good luck and the devil is the source of bad luck and they teach their members to rebuke Satan whenever anything occurs which is not to their liking. Thats because they see all difficulties as defects in the creation and, since God is the source of all perfection, then the defects must be due to His archenemy, the devil. While the devil might be the source of evil, it seems to be a stretch to blame him for every inconvenience or disaster that occurs in our lives. In fact, as I have suggested in my previous talk, these difficulties might be part of the perfection since they might be the crosses that challenge us to grow in ways that we might otherwise never grow. We have to keep reminding ourselves that Gods perspective is different from our own. His perspective is pro-life while ours is pro-comfort. The natural world is a testing ground designed to challenge living beings in their ability to survive. Because of its harshness, many people are tempted to attribute it to someone else rather than God.

         The Church throughout its history has condemn this idea and has had to deal with heresies, such as Manicheanism, which, unable to reconcile the harshness of nature with the goodness of God, decided that their were two gods: the God of Evil or devil who made the earth and all that was flesh and the God of Goodness who made everything spiritual. Thus, they rejected the Old Testament and only accepted those portions of the New Testament that fit their theory. Because they considered the flesh as evil, they opposed marriage and the reproduction of children. The Church condemned them because the Church has always taught that everything God made was good, even the flesh and the natural laws that govern nature.

         From Gods perspective whatever is pro-life is good and whatever is anti-life is bad. Perhaps that is why the word EVIL is LIVE spelled backwards and when you put a "D" in front of it, it becomes the DEVIL. Today, we hear the Pope declaring the same message as he tells us that there is a war going on between the Culture of Life and the Culture of Death. Unfortunately, the Culture of Deaths message sounds much more appealing to our hedonistic ears because it speaks of a world in which all challenges and difficulties are removed by a paternalistic welfare state. Unwanted children are aborted and unproductive senior citizens are euthanized. The Culture of Life, on the other hand, challenges us to take responsibility for ourselves and each other. The first culture debilitates us by demanding nothing from us while the second one challenges us to grow and develop by facing the crosses that are put before us.

         If we told the truth, we would admit that we have trouble with the natural world that God has created because at times, underneath the external beauty, their lies a harsh world of competition based on Natural Selection and Survival of the Fittest. Its a "dog eat dog" world in which life survives by feeding on life and it is something that we try to hide from our children and ourselves. We give our food names, like steak or veal, that disguises what it really is and pretty it up with garnishes and sauces, and, thus, it is easy to forget that we, like the rest of the natural world, survive by eating other forms of life. Some people, not being able to deal with this fact, try to reject it by becoming vegetarians. But even this does not solve the problem because the vegetables that we eat are just another form of life. It is easier to eat them because they are further removed from us as a form of life than the animals are.

         I can still see the shocked and confused look on my grandsons face when this truth first dawned on him. He had seen Bambi and other Disney classics in which the animals in the forest bounce about in friendly play and nobody ate anybody else. How they survived is a question that most of us avoid and the movie glosses over it too.

         If our right lobe, with its hedonistic belief that pleasure is good and pain is bad, had its way we would have had Walt Disney invent the natural world. It would be a wonderful picture but unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, it wouldnt be true.

         Life is a struggle in which everything is competing with everything else to survive and there are winners and losers. Throughout history philosophers and theologian have struggled with the mystery and problem of pain and suffering. How, they wondered, could a Good God create a world that contained pain and suffering? There must be some mistake. Every body knows that pain and suffering are bad and, if Walt Disney had created the world, he would have left them out. But maybe God operates at a deeper level of Wisdom than Walt Disney. Would Walt have ever asked his son to die on a cross? The Scriptures quotes God as saying, "My ways are not your ways and my thoughts are not your thoughts. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so far are my thoughts from your thoughts." Man, thats pretty far.

         Just what is this difference between Gods way and our ways? Well, if the natural world is any clue it would seem that God is progressive minded, while we are content to remain fixed and static. Recently there was an article in our parish bulletin that seemed to be making the same point. It said:

         Dec. 22nd, 2002 Parish Bulletin St. Matthews
"There is a teaching from the rabbis that "When Israel wanders, God stays with it; when Israel stays in one place, God wanders." Of course, God never left the chosen people; this is the rabbis' way of saying that human beings can get too grounded in earthly things and dwelling places. Our hearts get crowded, there is no room, and so God must wander. The people of ancient Israel were, for much of their history, a nomadic, wandering, tribal people. Their time in the desert and their years of exile in Babylon were the high points of their religious formation. Many feared that if a mortal ascended the throne of Israel as king, then God would be dethroned as true king of Israel. Likewise they feared that if God had a permanent dwelling or temple, then they would no longer know the Shekinah of God, their term for God pitching a tent in their midst, joining them as a companion in their journey."

         In other words, the People of God are people who are on the move. People who are always seeking, searching, developing because they realize that they are finite beings who are pursuing an infinite God and therefore life is a continuous journey and he who becomes rooted in the past loses the future by default. As a result, many people are always seeking to return to the past rather than moving on to the future.

         There are Christians who believe that we have to return to the embryonic form of Christianity in order to get the Gospel message correct. Thus, being dissatisfied with the theological complexities of established churches, they are always finding new churches whose aim it is to reestablish, what they think, was the simplicity of the EarlyChurch. Unfortunately, there never was any simplicity in the EarlyChurch. From the beginning, there were disputes between liberal and conservative elements over how the New Testament should be interpreted in relationship to the Old Testament. Liberals, like St. Paul, thought that all the ritualistic laws involving circumcision, and the kosher dietary laws should be ignored, while conservatives, like St. James, thought that they should be observed.

         In the Acts of the Apostle we read about the first Council of Jerusalem where both sides argued their positions and finally, St. Peter, the moderate, worked out a compromise. This was only the first of many councils in the Churchs history in which theological disputes over the true meaning of the Gospel had to be worked out by the Magisterium of the Church. Most of us think that the EarlyChurch was composed of wonderful people who were in total agreement and are unaware of the constant clash between opposing groups concerning what we, as Christians, should believe. These clashes often involved good and sincere men on both sides who thought that their position was correct. However, it was the councils of the Church that finally decided these issues. Issues like the Trinity, the Divinity of Jesus, and others, which we take for granted now, had to be worked out and defined by these councils and we can see the end result of their work in documents like the Nicene Creed.

         We should not be disturbed by the fact that arguments and disputes are part of the historical growth of the Church because it appears that this same process is the one used by nature to create the balances that we observe. All different kinds of living things are competing for survival and the integration and balance of their conflicting interests is the harmonious order that we call the "balance of nature." Conflict resolution is part of the order system of our universe and is logically necessary in any universe involving different beings with different perspectives and different interests. Order is not the absence of differences but rather the integration and resolution of differences. Even are bodies involve an order known as homeostasis which is simply a fancy word which means that all of our systems have to be balanced in relationships to one another. For example, the job of the pancreas is to maintain the balance between insulin and sugar in our blood and if either one gets out of balance the bodys health is threatened as any diabetic will tell you.

         It appears that there will always be conflicts so long as there are differences and thus peace is not the absence of differences but the blending and resolution of them.

         This truth was brought home to me years ago when I was attending a Catholic Charismatic meeting. There was a young man who, although he had grown up in a Protestant evangelical church in the Midwest, had married a Catholic girl and was then practicing the Catholic faith. One night he came up to me and said that he couldnt believe how much freedom there was in the Catholic Church. I was confused because our reputation is not for freedom but, rather, for dogmatism. "What do you mean?" I asked. "Well," he said. Look at you and little Anna over there. You are deep into philosophical speculations and Ann couldnt care less. For her, attending Mass, praying novenas, and saying her rosary is what is important. Yet, you both belong to the same church? ... "Of course we do!" I said. "Why wouldnt we?" ... "Where I come from," he said, " because youre so different, you would belong to different churches."

         He was right. Within our Church there is a great deal of freedom within a firm structure. It is like a spiritual smorgasbord that has something that appeals to everyones taste or level of development. It is a blend of liberals, conservatives, and moderates, contemplatives and social activists, celibant religious and married people with large families, prayerful old ladies and philosophers on the cutting edge of knowledge and so long as they all stayed within the firm boundaries of the Churchs essential identity, they were all welcomed. It is only when they stray and step outside of these boundaries that they came in conflict with the Church.

         The Pope and the Magisterium of the Church are the keepers of the DNA code of the Body of Christ on earth and, like our immune system, it is their job to sense when foreign bodies or ideas are trying to invade that body. It is their job to accept those things which are compatible with our essential identity and to reject those things that are not. In this way, new truth and new insights can be incorporated into our essential identity without the threat of losing it. Churches which lack this historical sense of self end up either being unable to incorporate new truths and insights and remain at an infantile level of understanding or else they incorporate into themselves new ideas which are totally incompatible with their essential Christian identity. The first group is the fundamentalist conservatives, who by being firmly rooted in the past cant integrate anything that might be revealed in the future. The second are the loose gun liberals who, having little or no respect for the past, go chasing every fanciful idea into the future. Neither one is capable of organic growth because they either forget the laws of growth which require the integration of the new with the old or the laws of identity which requires that one must remember who one is before he can develop into who he capable of being. That is why the Church must not only be committed to the written Word of God, as it is found in the Bible, but, even more so, to the living Word of God as it is revealed to us through the Holy Spirit in all the areas of truth which are revealed to us. The Truth will set us free but only to the extent that we are open to receive it and that requires a flexibility possessed by children to the new, while at the same time, like adults, holding firmly to those truths that have stood the test of time.

         The EarlyChurch was not simple nor is the proper understanding of the Bible. Even those churches that try to return to the imagined simplicity of both find that it is difficult to get unanimous agreement on what the Bible means. Thus, when disagreements arise, they either splinter into different churches based on the different interpretation of scriptural passages or, they are forced to create a group of leaders whose purpose it is to define what is orthodox and what is not and, when one of their members goes beyond the defined limits, he or she, is politely expelled. In other words, they are forced to create their own Pope or a Magisterium, with an implied infallibility that has the power to settle disputes by making a final decision. Otherwise, they will lose any sense of identity and end up like some of the mainline liberal churches whose identities as Christian churches are so fuzzy that by trying to be all things to all men, they wind up being nothing to anybody.

         Every organization has its liberals, like St. Paul, who are pushing for change and growth, and conservatives, like St. James, who are defending the existing system and stability. However, what it needs most to grow organically are the moderates, like St. Peter, who, while listening to both, blends what he hears into a harmonious whole.

         I was once told by a friend who had taught at a few Catholic colleges and universities that the favorite sport of the liberal professors was to criticize Pope John XXIII for his staunch defense of tradition values that, in their mind, made him out of step with contemporary society. Shortly afterwards, I ran into a man who taught at a local Catholic university and I mentioned this statement to him. He looked at me and asked me what I thought of the Pope. I said that so long as the conservatives thought that he had gone too far and the liberals thought that he hadnt gone far enough, then he was right where he was suppose to be: the midpoint between two extreme points of view.

         It is his rocklike solidness that provides a secure framework in which theological speculation can take place with the knowledge that every new and clever insight will be tested against the Churchs historical memory to see if it is consistent or inconsistent with its sense of identity. Thus, different ages produce different insights concerning the same truths. In the past, our ancestors looked at the Passion and Death of Jesus and saw a call to pain and suffering and thus some of them tortured and mortified their bodies. Today, we look at the same truth and start to realize that struggle, which involves pain and suffering, might be a more accurate insight into His Passion and Death.

         If this is true, then we dont have to invent problems and difficulties, which are what crosses have come to signify, as the medieval ascetics had to invent ways to torture their bodies. Life is full of problems and difficulties and each one is a test of our ability to survive and grow. As someone once said, "Whatever doesnt kill me strengthens me."

         Last month, I attended a monthly Mens Meeting where, for the past 12 years, Catholic men met to share their faith. Usually, a psalm from the Bible is read and then everyone is invited to comment on the meaning that it had for him. That weekend, the first psalm began with "Out of the depth, I cry unto you, O Lord!" and, as the sharing began, man after man attested to the fact that it was in the depths of pain and suffering resulting from some crisis in his life that he found the Lord. Nobody said that it was in the midst of pleasure and comfort, yet, our animal nature says that whatever gives me pleasure is good and whatever gives me pain is bad."

         Jesus said that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, yet most of us want to be rich. Is there something that we are missing here? Is there part of us, that doesnt understand or cant understand some deeper truth? Are we, like Peter, always looking for the easy way because we equate good with pleasure and bad with pain?

         I have spent a lot of time looking at the natural world and the laws that govern it. You might be wondering what all this has to do with God and religion because, although we say that we believe that God created everything, we dont always give enough credit to Him for the laws of the natural world. One possible reason might be because the laws of the nature seem so harsh to us that we have trouble reconciling our loving Father with those laws. In future programs, I will try to share with you my insights into this problem.

         Well, I see that my time is up. Heres Dom.