Frthom's Blog

“Please insert the square peg into the round hole…”

Posted in God, religion, theology by frthom on October 20, 2011

From time to time we all get unsolicited gifts in the mail from various religious organizations in their attempts to raise funds.  The gift could be as simple as personalized mailing labels, rosary beads, a miraculous medal, bingo chips, pope soap-on-a-roap, etc. 

A while back I received in the mail something from a Catholic religious order that still has me a bit puzzled.  It was a crucifix but it appeared to have been made by Furn-A-Kit or Bush or Sauder because it required some assembly. 

Included in the envelope was a finished wood crucifix that bore a relatively ornate plastic body of Jesus, along with a separate wood stand. Sauder would have labeled the crucifix “A” and the stand “B” and the directions would have read, “Insert crucifix A into stand B.” 

Seems simple enough, except for the fact that the part of the crucifix that is supposed to fit into the stand is square.  The hole in the stand is round. Literally a square peg into a round hole.

I didn’t save any of the literature that came along with my gift, although I did say a prayer of thanks for their generosity, hoping that they didn’t actually expect me to send them a donation.

Without knowing the source of the crucifix, I guess I’ll never truly understand whether the square peg/round hole was someone’s mistake; someone’s idea of a joke;  a divinely inspired parable; or punishment for my venial sin of accepting the gift without sending back a donation. 

Regardless of the intent, I can’t help but regard that gift as a profound statement about religion in the modern world.

God as Santa Claus (An Atheist’s Guide to Prayer)

Posted in Atheist, God, religion, theology by frthom on February 21, 2010

I originally wrote this essay in the form of a letter to an old friend, Marie, who was dying of cancer.  I was suggesting to her that praying might ease some of her pain if not bring about some divine insight to her disease.  I’ve always known my friend to be stubborn and that her 12 years of parochial school had turned her off to organized religion and to that God that Josiah Bartlett called a “feckless thug.” Indeed, she had become an agnostic, perhaps an atheist, most certainly a lapsed Catholic.  I wrote what follows with tongue partially in cheek to try to assuage her concerns that I might evangelically try to reconnect her with her estranged deity.  My primary goal was to use some reverse psychology to get my friend to pray, if only to bring her some inner peace.  In the eight months that followed, as death drew nearer with each passing day, Marie seemed to be doing just that. She died ten years ago today.

During my first day of class in the masters program at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Father Catania sauntered into the classroom, said hello and then with increased passion, asked:

“Is there anyone in this room who believes that the Bible is God’s verbatim word to man, all true, chronicled events, God-said-it/I believe-it?  If so, please raise your hand.”  We were a bit too shocked to respond so there were no raised hands.

“Good.  Anyone who thinks that way doesn’t belong in graduate school.”

And so began my formal journey into the world of theology.  Having a mixed background in Christian, Quaker, and Jewish cultures, I had dabbled in religious theory, both in some independent study classes prior to my work at the Seminary as well as while covering some God-related stories for the NY Times.  In actuality, it was via an assignment for the Times that I stumbled upon the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in the first place.

My theological view of the world did not really coincide with any one formal religious doctrine and, back then,  if I had to point to any one religious mentor it would probably have been Dennis Miller or George Carlin.  I loved Carlin’s line (similar to something Andy Rooney once said) that we may not know the answers to life’s mysteries, but why do we have to make up stories and fairy tales so that we might sleep at night? The energy should instead be expended toward uncovering truths, the absolutes, the science of what we see or believe.  But, despite George’s wisdom, we still have an allegorical rather than historical Bible, a Church run by a bunch of celibate old men, and people killing other people in the name of God.

The Old Testament (or the more politically correct term “Hebrew Scriptures”) seems to consist of page after page of Jewish suffering—weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth—worse than anything you hear around any Long Island shopping mall as housewives and/or house husbands desperately fight for a parking space. Because they made the mistake of believing in one God instead of multiple gods or any one ruling king,  Jewish people in their early history were exiled, enslaved, demeaned, and persecuted. So much so, the prophet Jeremiah predicted that things had to take a turn for the better for the Jews (because things couldn’t get much worse,) that a messiah who would lead the Jews to the Promised Land would replace the covenant of Moses and the suffering would end.  Some of the less patient Jews decided that this interesting looking guy (somewhere between Willem Dafoe and James Caviezel,) who hung around with some interesting women, spoke in riddles, got himself into some trouble with the Feds, got himself executed, was indeed the Messiah.

Someone, something, some force probably moved the rock, and then moved the corpse.  Jesus is alleged to have reappeared to a chosen few (none of whom were reported to be using any of the little known state-of-the-art hallucinogens) and, in the early part of the first century, at least one small enclave on our planet had found its savior.  The curse of the Garden of Eden had been lifted; the Jews would no longer be enslaved and forced to build pyramids; and death had been replaced by eternal life.  Those who believed that Christ was the savior became Christians and those who said that this guy who came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey just couldn’t possibly be the Son of God remained Jewish, still hoping that some other descendant of King David might yet happen along soon and fulfill Scriptural prognostications.

That was a bit of a prelude to 5000 years of religious history that I did NOT learn in the Seminary  What do I believe?  Pretty much what I did as I entered the Seminary in 1992: the Bible is historical anecdotes organized to present some religious themes that may or may not be supported by context or fact.  I believe that some of what is written can provide a smattering of relief to some who are troubled by life as much as they are by the prospects of their death.

The New Testament is very much a book of persuasion, “rhetoric” as we were taught in class, written by first-century theologians hell-bent on selling Christianity and displacing Judaism.  To support their case that Jesus did indeed fulfill some of the prophesies offered in the Hebrew Scriptures, evangelists placed on the lips of Jesus some of the words put forth by the earliest Biblical scholars.  One of the first recorded cases of lip-synching.

As an alleged theologian, the biggest problem that I’ve observed over the years has been the confusion between the concepts of God and Santa Claus.  I’m sure that you learned growing up that God was watching all, knew when you were doing something wrong, had a list, was checking it twice, and was going to find out who was naughty or nice.  This same God/Santa Claus could be “petitioned” (yes, Jim Morrison, the concept of “Petitioning the Lord with prayer!”) and asked that we be forgiven our sins and our hairy palms, and that he intercede and help the Mets win another world series, that I pass the test I never studied for, and that I win the lottery.

I don’t see God as Santa, although most people who believe in God do envision him that way, an old guy with a white beard, sitting on a cloud with a clipboard and a medium point Bic pen.  And to those who say that God will answer all prayers, let them be aware that some of His answers may include: “No, not now, or figure it out yourself.”

I recently heard of a survey that indicated that nuns who used the word “joy” and “happiness” were shown to live ten years longer than those who did not.  Although I am not a nun and the word “joy” is not often in my vocabulary, I decided to change the ring on my cell phone to “Ode to Joy.”  My point (yes, I do have a point) is that, apart from all the superstition and mindless ritual associated with religion, there may be some benefits to certain aspects of spirituality and prayer.  Some of those benefits may be due to the power of suggestion, the undoing of psychosomatic trauma, or some ion transfer or shifts in magnetic fields that we may not yet fully comprehend.

I took a course in Church doctrine that was taught by the rector of the Seminary who was about to leave his post and go back to running a parish.  He was a brilliant scholar, having studied in Rome about the time of Vatican II, and it was his last class before he left; so his interaction with the class was a bit less formal than it might have normally been.  I asked him about intercessory prayer and he said that it primarily benefits those who are doing the praying, giving them some form of inner strength, some sense of purpose when things are looking on the glum side.  This acquired inner strength can by itself work miracles, but he agreed with my non-Santa theory.

I see ancient religion as more than occasionally trying to find some primitive–almost childlike– explanations for life forces and phenomena that people didn’t understand then nor may not fully understand now. Modern religion seems to be perpetually trying to catch up with modern science and culture and, by all measurements, seems to be losing that race.  Speaking of magnetic fields, going into the Seminary, I harbored a theory that, if humans had a soul, it very likely was in the form of a magnetic field.  And my final course in Christology seemed to espouse a theory from noted Catholic theologian Karl Rahner who basically stated something along the same lines. Hence, the concept of an enduring soul may be wishful thinking or science fiction. Or maybe this theory or others like it just haven’t been figured out yet.

The benefits of prayer may very well take on more characteristics of science that we just don’t yet understand, e.g., more similar to sonic or electronic wave transfer than anything having to do with intercession from a heavenly source.  Similarly, the healing miracles attributed to Christ in the Bible may very well have just been mere foreshadowing of the medical miracles we read about today, where science helps the blind to see, helps the lame to walk, or a patient with cancer to miraculously heal with the help of medicine or inner strength or forces unknown.

When I pray, I try to forget any preconceived notions that I may have brought along with me to adulthood from childhood.  No Santa, no clipboard, no magic wand, no clicking of my heels, no man behind the curtain.  I appeal to the inner workings of me, the nebulous life force that somehow started and keeps ticking in ways and for reasons that aren’t truly clear to me. I also am sometimes hopeful that, through prayer, some positive vibes or some mini ion-storm might somehow affect someone I care about in some productive ways.

I don’t know whether changing the ring on my cell phone will make me more joyous and consequently live longer. I don’t know if a focused, inward, prayerful appeal on your part or by those around you will have any effect on whatever you’re going through.  But it probably can’t hurt.

FrThom