Is my religion my hobby?

hobbyI had a coffee today with Graham J. an old friend of mine, who is a believer in Zen Buddhism. He said he recently decided to take his Zen beliefs much more seriously. I asked him if his Zen beliefs were a hobby or a way of life? (Graham knows me quite well  and likes or at least tolerates my habit of asking provocative questions in order to learn more deeply about any subject.)  My hobby is Duplicate Bridge; I take it seriously and my partner and I analyse our performance and try to learn how to play better so we can win more often. But I don’t see Bridge as being very important compared to many other aspects of my life. It isn’t my ‘way of life.’

We discussed this question for awhile. Graham suggested that his desire was to live all aspects of his ordinary life more mindfully. His Zen Master taught him living mindfully required three steps: Clear your mind; Understand the situation; Act.  His way of making Zen his way of life was to practice these three steps diligently, starting with meditating each morning on his day and preparing to live mindfully.

What about me?

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. In the Catholic Church Lent is a special time to ‘repent’ and think about your life as a Christian. I don’t think that it was accidental that Graham and I had this conversation on the second day of Lent; God arranged it and sent his grace into our conversation to shape it for His purposes. When I asked Graham whether his belief was only his hobby I was actually asking myself that same provocative question. I’d like to say that I was able to quickly say that I treat my Christian belief as a way of life not a hobby but I have an uncomfortable feeling that there’s too much ‘hobby’ in my practice and not enough ‘way of life.’  And my discomfort is grace again working in me.

I won’t do an examination of conscience here in my blog. I do suggest that you ask yourself the question ‘Is my religion my hobby?’ and listen very carefully to what God has to say to you. One good result of this exercise is that you will come to appreciate God’s mercy and forgiveness a whole lot better.

Reason and belief

faithreasonIn the March 2013 issue of Quadrant, “one of Australia’s leading intellectual magazines,” Michael Giffin made a plea for rationality in his article The Church, Its Enemies, and Child Abuse. He points out that “unfortunately (the media) reports (child abuse) in a way that, in the public mind, links it predominantly with the Catholic Church, as if that’s the principle institution with a case to answer.” Michael Giffin is a priest in the Anglican diocese of Sydney so one can assume that he is not a mindless defender of the Catholic Church. Instead, he is pointing out the dangers in a very complex and emotional discussion. “It’s hard not to feel danger looming, when listening to (ostensibly educated professionals involved in identifying and prosecuting child abuse) as they bounce back and forth between rationality and irrationality.”

The source of the danger

My friend Father Brendan Purcell is a respected professor of philosophy. He has examined the source of dangerous irrationality in an article on Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist. He uses another atheist’s own words to convict Dawkins of the very crime that he and the author accuse believers of. Richard Dawkins quotes Sam Harris, another atheist who wrote: “‘We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common we call them “religious”; otherwise, they are likely to be called ‘mad’, ‘psychotic’ or ‘delusional.'” [1] Father Purcell then uses three quotes from the distinguished modern philospher Wittgenstein to point toward the irrationality in Dawkins and Harris’s own position:

  • It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.
  • We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, our problems of life remain completely untouched…
  • One keeps forgetting to go right down to the foundations. One doesn’t put the question marks deep enough down. [2]

Brendan points out that Dawkins is being at least inconsistent if not irrational in his position. “Would Harris or Dawkins find that there is ‘no rational justification’ for these experiences of Wittgenstein? If there is even a possibility that they might be valid, it does not make sense to call them delusions, with all that word’s connotations both of a serious lack of interest in intellectual inquiry and a fear that such experiences may not in fact be true at all.” [3] Why would educated, even brilliant professionals like Dawkins, or the others that Michael Giffin refers to, “bounce back and forth between rationality and irrationality”? I think my friend Brendan points directly at the source of the issue — “fear” of the consequences of following rational argument wherever it may lead. Dawkins is afraid that there may be a rational case for religious belief. The professionals that Michael Giffen refers to — lawyers, scientists, lobby groups and others engaged in the child abuse issue — are afraid that they might have to admit that as an institution the Catholic Church is no more guilty of child abuse that many other secular organisations.

The quest for authenticity and truth is the antidote for such fear

The basic stance of rationality is that a person should remain open to the implications of the evidence  of his/her experiences. The challenge is ‘remaining open,’ as well as recognising that one may have prejudices and biases like every other human being. Bernard Lonergan calls this situation ‘general bias.’ He writes, “To err is human and common sense is very human . . .Common sense is incapable of analyzing itself.” It takes rigourous self-discipline to examine one’s commonly held beliefs, and to arrive at one’s authentic beliefs. Lonergan describes the journey toward authentic belief as “always precarious, ever a withdrawal from inauthenticity, ever in danger of slipping back toward inauthenticity.” [4]

I think it is clear that authenticity is not a state easily obtained. All human beings must engage in a lifelong quest for truth, which they can genuinely and authentically “bet their life on.” I admire Father Purcell’s gentleness with Richard Dawkins, in surfacing what Dawkins may have great difficulty in admitting to himself — that a belief he has espoused his entire life may not stand the test of reason. Brendan is being a true pastor in his gentleness, encouraging Dawkins to “rethink” his position on God, to be open to a very different possibility and to “bet his life” on the truth of that.

Every Christian must engage in a quest for authenticity. Our beliefs can become ‘common sense,’ especially today when we are surrounded by a culture that holds materialism and success in such high regard. Why not go along with these secular beliefs, at least part way, and achieve a measure of comfort and worldly success? Doing this allows us to provide a safe, secure and comfortable life for ourselves and our family. That can’t be bad. Nonetheless, we must deal with the demands of being a Christian if we are going to be authentic. “Take up your cross and follow me” is a pretty clear invitation from Jesus. (It is no longer seems to be a clear demand of many Christian churches sadly.) Our quest for authenticity must include this aspect of the kingdom; else we have invented a pseudo-Christianity to make ourselves feel good. The quest for authenticity always involves suffering; how do we include that possibility in our lives? To me, the only answer lies in prayer — God forgive me for I am a sinner. Help me to see how to live according to your Holy Will.


 [1] Sam Harris, The End of Faith.

[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963, 149e; Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984, 62e. I owe the suggestion of these Wittgenstein references to Edward Oakes: ‘Edward T. Oakes and His Critics: An Exchange’, First Things 112, April 2001.

[3] Brendan Purcell, Dawkin’s Fear of Reason

[4] Bernard Lonergan, A Second Collection


Authenticity and Transformation

be-authenticMy previous post raised a question about the meaning of “authenticity” — does it apply to beliefs or the state of an individual holding a belief? And why should anyone care anyway?

The OED defines authenticity as “the quality of being authentic” — and authentic means “Of authority, authoritative, entitled to obedience or respect” in the first place. Further down the list in the OED is the meaning I wish to focus on — “Real, actual, genuine, original, first-hand, really proceeeding from its stated source.” Authenticity is the quality of being genuine in one’s depths.

Each person has first-hand knowledge of whether they are being genuine or not. However, as we all know, many times we are unclear about what is actually going on in our inner depths, so ‘being genuine’ is not something that is easy to be confident about. In fact, in humility, each of us must admit that, sometimes, we don’t know ourselves very well at all — and thus we have what might be called ‘existential doubts’ about our own authenticity. So, we don’t usually say “I’m being authentic.” It is a hypothetical concept that we rarely apply to ourselves. But perhaps we should occasionally think more deeply about our authenticity.

Going deeper

Bernard Lonergan is one of my ‘going deeper’ heros. He wrote an 800 page book called Insight on how we arrive at a true understanding about ourselves or anything. In that book, Lonergan says “adequate self-knowledge can be reached by man only at the summit of a long ascent.” In other words, authenticity results from a process, and is not a quality one claims easily. Ths should set our expectation when it comes to ‘going deeper.’  And the great thinkers, saints and mystics agreed with this — St Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton and the Buddha, to name only three. What awaits us in our depths is not only our authentic self but also an encounter with authentic reality within which we exist. One cannot have an authentic self and a false view of the context in which we live. We must leave behind our false ideas about ourselves and reality, in other words, in order to experience ‘conversion.’ “For Lonergan, [authenticity] is absent in someone who is stubborn or driven by power, for this inner conviction is the fruit of conversion and it is the concrete principle of authentic self-transcendence.” [1]

What is this process of ‘conversion’ which leads to authenticity? “Authentic human existence is, in Lonergan’s terminology, the result of a long-sustained exercise of being attentive, intelligent, reasonable, responsible, and loving.” [2] Conversion and therefore authenticity arises from five human acts:

  • Attentive — Not only being aware but paying attention to and reflecting on what presents itself to us
  • Intelligent — Applying what we have learned, in an open-minded way, to what we become aware of, to encounter what we do not yet know — ‘hitherto unnoticed or unrealized possibilities’ according to Lonergan [3]
  • Reasonable — Using criteria to discern what is true in what we learn, crtieria that goes beyond simple self-referential or self-serving ideas about truth
  • Responsible — Making choices and taking action based on what we conclude is reasonably true
  • Loving — Applying an overriding criteria of love to every choice and action to ensure that it is ultimately responsible

If we conscientiously follow this process — and that may require a very long time, even a lifetime — we may find that we have been transformed. “What will transform us [and the world] is an ability to love the world, ourselves [and God], to see it as good in spite of the wrong. To fall in love is to set up a new principle that has, indeed, its causes, conditions, occasions, but, as long as it lasts, provides the mainspring of one’s desire and fear, hope and despair, joy and sorrow.” [4] This is obviously a much deeper definition of authenticity than one commonly encounters, one that includes the notion of personal and even cosmic transformation. Can ordinary people engaged in the complexity of living in the 21st century actually engage in such a process?

Practical authenticity and transformation

I’m inclined to simply answer this question ‘yes’ and leave it there. After all, people decide to do extraordinarily difficult things, like climb Mount Everest or sail around the world alone. But, unfortunately, in the modern world the pursuit of the deepest levels of authenticity and transformation are even more difficult than such feats. We can get ourselves into physical shape to approach Everest or the Pacific Ocean and people around us support us and applaud our success (or even our failure if we give it a good try). In years gone by, people who wanted to follow the interior path I described withdrew from the world and become monks, hermits or contemplatives. Only a few ‘heros’ managed to do this, like the ones I mentioned before. Now, however, it seems to me that many are being called to follow this path. Ordinary, middle-class men and women, who stay in the world yet, in a way, are called to leave the world. There is a great hunger for authenticity today; you can see it in books like “Eat, Pray, Love” and others.

So, practically speaking, what do you do if you sense this call to undertake the deeper journey of authenticity and transformation? Like any change process, there are steps. Here are three simple starting steps to prepare yourself to engage in this process:

  1. Clarify your intent — This involves being open to the future and the reality of your current situation –telling yourself why you must seek something different, what will happen if you don’t and what you hope to encounter if you do engage in the process. Your intent provides the motivation to make the long, arduous journey
  2. Plan your journey — Probably you can only see a short way ahead; that is what you must focus on. Read about others who have made this journey, and how they started. Then select some things to do and begin the journey. Stay open to what happens and be prepared to adjust your plan.
  3. Seek a support community — For ordinary people who stay in the world, having people to support and guide you through the process is critical. “No man is an island” applies very strongly to ‘middle-class’ adventurers. Only in conversations with people you trust will you be able to learn to be ‘attentive, intelligent, reasonable, responsible and loving.’

I would like to have a conversation with anyone who wants to learn more about the journey toward deeper authenticity and transformation.

[1] Braman, Brian J. (2012-05-23). Meaning and Authenticity: Bernard Lonergan and Charles Taylor on the Drama of Authentic Human Existence (Lonergan Studies) (Kindle Locations 2237-2239). University of Toronto Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Braman, Ibid

[3] Braman, Ibid

[4] Braman, Ibid



Authenticity, Christianity and Atheism

imagesCAX5FCAVChris Stedman, a “former Christian” and now an atheist and Chaplain at the Harvard humanist community wrote the following in an article posted on Q, Ideas for the Common Good. [Click here to read the full article]

“Recently, I participated in an interfaith dialogue with someone who responded to my bristling at evangelizing by saying:
But, Chris, it strikes me that the problem there is with the definition of evangelization. If we think of that word as a synonym of hectoring and finger wagging and a holier than thou attitude, I completely agree with you. But what if evangelization is itself a mutually enriching dialogue in which the promises of the Church (that is, of Christ) are put forward as proposals, as encounters, not as edicts? Then we are taking about the manner, not the fact, of evangelization, aren’t we?

He is absolutely right. This is a distinction that I am hearing articulated more and more often by members of religious communities that see evangelizing as central to their faith—and it is one I welcome with gratitude. Maintaining a general orientation toward encountering diversity with inquiry and empathy, rather than lecturing at it, can facilitate a more productive dialogue. That will require listening from both sides and recognizing  we have much to learn from one another. For starters, perhaps we can learn how to talk to, and listen to, one another in a more constructive and friendly manner.

The divide between Christians and atheists is deep. As an atheist, I’m dedicated to bridging that divide—to working with other atheists, Christians, and people of all different beliefs and backgrounds on building a more cooperative world. We have a lot of work to do. I’m excited by the growth of the interfaith movement—but still, in many ways, we have our work cut out for us. My hope is that these tips can help foster better dialogue between Christians and atheists and that, together, we can work to see a world in which people are able to have honest, challenging, and loving conversations across lines of difference.”

Facing one’s opponent

Let me preface my comments by saying that I believe in conversation and not convincing when it comes to discussions between Christians and non-Christians, including atheists. That is one of Chris Stedman’s 6 major points: “Don’t try to “win” the argument.” But, as a matter of fact, there is a chasm between Christian and Atheist beliefs that cannot be bridged. Every person ultimately chooses to be on one one side of the chasm or the other; there is no middle ground. For a Christian, the conversation with an atheist is a matter of life or death. For the Atheist, it’s a matter of getting along and finding common ground so that together we can advance human good. I’m not opposed to that goal; in fact if you read my blog, you’ll know I support finding ways to work with everyone of good will for the common good of humanity.  But I also feel that many Christians don’t make clear distinctions about the consequences of belief and non-belief.

Be clear about this: Christians and Atheists (and atheistic humanists for that matter) are opponents in the realm of belief. If we say that God came to save us from our fate, atheists say that there is no fate to be saved from. They say that we humans are the creators and masters of our fate and that’s that. Of course, that quickly leads to the question of what happens after death. Atheists say nothing happens after death; we say eternal life happens after death. That’s why Christians see conversations with Atheists as a matter of life and death. God gave every person complete freedom to determine their personal eternal future. So, if a brother or sister says that nothing exists after death, that is the future that they may be creating for themself. [I say ‘may’ because we can’t understand the extent of God’s mercy.] Atheists need to understand that if we Christians become excited and argue it’s because we fear for their future. Not a pretty sight in many cases but certainly an honest concern.

To me the question boils down to authenticity. At our deepest level of awareness, we know whether we are being authentic or not. Both Charles Taylor and Bernard Lonergan have written about this, and see authenticity as a fundamental drive of being human. “Authenticity for Taylor and Lonergan is the experience of a profound transfiguration in one’s being and doing. ‘It is a transformation of our stance towards the world and self, rather than simply the registering of external reality.’” [1] Seen in this way, Atheists take the position that any transformation we might experience in life will be solely our own doing, and will arise out of human understanding of external reality, period. But they have put a boundary around reality and excluded God! The question is, are they making an authentic choice? Whether they are or not is beyond any other person’s knowledge — or power to change. “As for inauthenticity, no amount of dialogue can change those who are irresponsible, unreasonable, inattentive, and obtuse.” [2] So, I can agree with Chris Stedman when he says “Don’t try to “win” the argument.”

So, what can we Christians do? Only this. Understand that when we pray “Thy kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer, we are petitioning God to send the power of his kingdom, which is the Holy Spirit, into the situations of our life — including conversations with Atheists or other non-believers. We are literally helpless until God does that. We can train ourselves, pray for people and do everything we might imagine would ‘convert’ some person — but we must let God be God. In the depths of the human soul is where God encounters each person and each person, if they pay attention, knows authentically when something is moving or stirring inside them. That ‘still small voice’ is what we all respond to, believers and non-believers alike. As Chris Stedman also points out in his article, Christians must not get in God’s way.  “For starters, perhaps we can learn how to talk to, and listen to, one another in a more constructive and friendly manner.”

Read my next post “Authenticity and Transformation”

[1]Braman, Brian J. (2012-05-23). Meaning and Authenticity: Bernard Lonergan and Charles Taylor on the Drama of Authentic Human Existence (Lonergan Studies) (Kindle Locations 2233-2235). University of Toronto Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Braham, Ibid.



Authenticity and our three ‘Selves’

“Being authentic” is one of the key attributes of leading a good life in the postmodern mind. As our confidence in traditional beliefs and institutions has weakened, we have come to rely more and more on our own core strengths. One of these is our “integrity” or our “authenticity.” The opposites of “authenticity”  — being a “phony” or “wishy-washy” — are easy to imagine. But what does being authentic mean in practice?

We all experience “being human.” We can easily recognise three parts of ourselves in daily living:

  • Our normal feeling, thinking and behaving self, that does practically all our living, mostly automatically, “on autopilot.”
  • A critical self, that watches our normal self and tells us what we ought to be doing, why we aren’t living up to its expectations, etc.
  • A third self, the detached observer, who watches both these other selves, recognises their characteristics and wonders about “what all this means” and other questions.

What does “being authentic” mean?

Given that each person has these three selves, how do we live “authentically?” Here are several things living authentically doesn’t mean:

  • It doesn’t mean living only ‘on autopilot.’ It doesn’t mean “If it feels good, do it.” Our normal self is shaped by many things out of its control — where and when you were born, your family, etc — and makes choices based on these circumstances, without a full view of the consequences. Learning by experience is what our normal self does, sometimes to its regret.
  • It doesn’t mean doing what someone else tells you to do, especially your own critical self. While that self might possibly include recommendations from a well-developed conscience that we ought to listen to, many times it is simply inappropriate memories and limiting decisions that chatter away and distract us.
  • It doesn’t mean living in a detached state, observing life but not actually participating. Our detached observer could spend all its time mulling over questions while the normal self stays on “autopilot,” barely aware of other people or day to day life and the critical self as it chatters away.

To me, living authentically means being able to balance all three of these selves and participate in life according to some higher level of meaning and purpose. Living authetically implies that our detached observer becomes an involved and committed self, which counsels the normal and critical selves according to its understanding of my higher purpose. [You can see an example of how this involved and committed self might emerge in Steps 2 and 3 of the AA’s Twelve Step Program.]

The only authentic question we can ask

To a Christian, being authentic must mean that I live according to Jesus’ guidance for the meaning and purpose of my life. But, many times, this leads to more questions. What is Jesus’ guidance in my precise situation? Where do I find this guidance — in the Bible (which passage?), from the church (who?), from prayer (How do I recognise Jesus’ voice?), etc. We may want to develop our involved and committed self so that we can guide our normal and critical selves “authentically” but we get stuck in all these questions. Many times, I lapse back to detaching again and letting life go on as it always has, defending this choice with, “Oh, I’m a good person” or “I’ll rely on God’s mercy to sort all this out at the end.” While I forgive myself and keep on trying, being detached is certainly a cop-out and not living authentically.

These is only one authentic question that our involved and committed self can ask, to find the way forward. “Where is God right now in this situation?” If we truly strive to answer that question, then Jesus’ guidance (and grace) will surely find us in our need. Of course, it’s not like picking up a phone, calling the God number, and getting an instant answer by SMS. It is like a conversation with a close friend. You know the mind of a close friend, even when they aren’t there. By telling her or him the story of your situation, you are pretty certain about what they are going to tell you when you meet them face to face. Sometimes, you talk to other friends and tell them what your close friend told you, to get confirmation. This is a metaphor for prayer and Christian community.

A Christian’s involved and committed self is formed in prayer and in conversations with other Christians about our life. Forming this crucial authentic part of ourselves so we (and the community) can achieve God’s purpose for us is one of the primary purposes of a local church. If this is happening already in your life, you are fortunate to know how to pray and you are in a genunine Christian community. If that isn’t the case, perhaps you are being called to be a Change Agent in your own prayer and in your church.