Can you love someone with words alone? From Walt Disney to God’s touch in the sacraments

Filed in Arts by  on February 26, 2014 • 2 Comments

frozen from http://lin1130.deviantart.com/art/Meet-elsa-frozen-385081338

I have just seen two great films in twenty four hours: Her, a dystopian sci-fi vision of a very near future, and Disney’s Frozen, which goes into my top three films of the year. Very different films but both with an interest in the nature and quality of love.

One of the questions that Her asks is whether we can really love another in a disembodied way. Are words on their own ever enough? Can the chat room, the text, the love poem or letter ever be a substitute for being in the physical presence of another and loving them as bodily creatures? If love is to be real, truthful and not reduced to a virtual reality, does it not have to be expressed in a sensual, physical form?

Frozen provides its own answer using a familiar fairytale motif: the icy heart of the princess can only be healed by a kiss from someone who really loves her. The truest love must be expressed in a physical way if we are to be restored to fullness of life. This may appear an unsophisticated, romantic answer but it is also a compelling one that has captured the human imagination from the earliest times. It’s also one that is corroborated by human experience.

Last week, I met with a husband to discuss the funeral of his late wife. He had cared for her throughout her long illness. He didn’t do it by text or phone call, he did it by buying an inflatable mattress so that he could lie by her bedside during the final weeks of her time in hospital.

He told me:

Before I met Ann, I was a cynical, grumpy old man who didn’t believe I could be loved. She saved me from this. She loved me and I loved her

Their vocation of love as husband and wife realised itself in the bodiliness of their relationship.

These films reminded me that Catholicism is a fleshy religion. This fleshiness provides an essential aid to our experience of God’s love. The Incarnation, the second person of the Trinity taking human flesh out of love for us, is the primary expression of this.

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life (1 John 1:1)

The ancient rumours of God’s love became physically real in Jesus Christ.

But it’s not just in theological terms that this is evident. The way Catholics worship is physical: we kneel, sit, bow, genuflect, prostrate, cross ourselves and so on. The necessary desire to love God is embedded in our bodies. Catholics are not spiritual dualists. When we pray and worship this desire of our hearts surfaces and becomes a physical reality.

All this is most clearly expressed in the sacramental, symbolic realm that God has gifted us. Words have a hugely significant role in God’s communication of his love for us. But these only become effective and God’s presence known when they become physically real. Water, oil, bread, wine, the laying on of hands, the exchanging of sacred vows that cannot be done by Skype, are the physical mediums by which God’s love becomes transparent.

Without the sacraments, God’s love would exist but it would remain remote to us – an intimation, a flirtation, something at the periphery of our vision. With the sacraments, divine love is revealed to us in a way that is intimate, mysterious and personal. God becomes a real presence rather than an abstract logarithim of love.

At the age of fifty, the American writer, Andre Dubus, was left paralysed following a car accident. He spent the remainder of his life in a wheelchair. His writing aches with the loss of his physical mobility and, at the same time, becomes more sensitive to the sensual world. In his beautiful essay, Bodily Powers, he described how in the daily reception of the Eucharist he regained his “physical contact with God”:

This morning, after struggling with two doors to get into the church, I settled in my chair and watched the priest lifting the unleavened bread and saying, “This is my body”; lifting the chalice of wine, saying, “This is my blood of the new covenant”…and peace of mind came to me and, yes, happiness too, for I was no longer a broken body, alone in my chair. I was me, all of me, in wholeness of spirit. The old man assisting the priest handed me the host, and I placed it in my mouth and was in harmony with the old man, the priest, the walking communicants passing me and my chair to receive the Eucharist; one with all people in pain and joy and passion, one with the physical universe, with Christ, with the timeless dimension of the spirit, which has no past or future but only now; one with God.


On blaming us or them: a multi-cultural perspective

Window on Israel

Monday Feb 24, 2014

On blaming us or them: a multi-cultural perspective


Israelis have been seeking accommodation for decades, depending on when you start counting, first with Arabs and later with Palestinians.

It is common, and perhaps justified, for Israelis and our friends to blame the Arabs for intransigence as well as violence.
That is a cultural perspective, one that sees Israelis with a prior claim, earned by purchase, settlement, military success and development, enhanced by attitudes and behaviors that value human life and oppose bloodshed as a means of settling disputes.
Those are not, alas, the Muslim ways or perspectives.
Attributing nasty motives and practices to Muslims does not accord with the fashion of the politically correct. From a naive perspective, mandatory among western politicians, we’re all the same.
But we aren’t all the same. Culture matters. In the larger picture, it ranks high among what determines how we think, how we perceive history, and how we act.
There is a cultural fault line a few meters from my home.
We’re different. We don’t have to insist on being better.
A multi-cultural perspective recognizes the differences, without necessarily demanding that one cave in to the other.
Blame is irrelevant, except as part of a political campaign to justify oneself.
Both sides practice the blame game.
It may be inherent in the human condition, but it helps to know what we are doing.
Along with the narratives associated with each side, there is no shortage of controversy about what happened, who did what, with what justification. History is a slippery craft, dependent on perspective, and more properly assigned to the fuzzy Faculty of Humanities rather than to the more exact Social Sciences.
I can have Palestinian friends, with whom share to a considerable extent a common understanding as well as friendship, and still recognize that most Palestinians are different from most of us.
Over the course of decades, and almost one decade since the last wave of Palestinian violence petered out, Israeli and Palestinians of the West Bank have reached an imperfect accommodation, with the help of Americans and Jordanians who have trained Palestinian security personnel, only some of whom have gone bad. That may be the best we can do given the cultural differences, and the contrasting narratives widely accepted by each population.
There are fewer security barriers, more interaction and commerce with the West Bank if not with the more violent and rejectionist people of Gaza.
Too many Americans, including some who in or close to the White House, haven’t learned the realities, and may be doing more harm that good.
Kerry and his team have prompted the extremists of each side to express their reservations, perhaps out of fear that their leaders are close to concessions. Those reservations, and even louder noises from each camp, make it unlikely that Israeli or Palestinian leaders can agree to whatever it is that Kerry has in mind.
The leaders themselves may not want to make the concessions demanded, and may be relying on associates to express their rejections, while they prefer to avoid having to affront Kerry in any explicit fashion.
Some Jews and even more Palestinians have turned to violence, with the people of Gaza saying that the armed struggle is the only way for them.
Whatever the source or the nature of each party’s politics, the process may get in the way of further accommodation, and cause reversals from the status quo.
Another wave of Palestinian violence will produce Israeli responses aimed at the uprising and perhaps more extensive, along with a re-imposition of roadblocks, inspections, and other nastiness.
It is not appropriate for an Israeli to put on rose colored glasses. Israel faces unknown numbers of Palestinian and other Islamic movements for whom the destruction of Israel is high priority and a cause for their excitement. There are also an unknown number of individuals–not part of organized movements– set on revenge for Israel’s violation of their personal norms or the injury, death, or incarceration of family members.
The prominence of the blame game in the case of Israel and Palestine derives much of its energy from centuries of religious rivalry focused on Jerusalem and its hinterland. The intensity has increased with modern Jewish immigration, the Balfour Declaration, and the establishment of Israel.
Jewish Diasporas and Muslim religious and political leaders have been prominent sources of the rhetoric, as well as finance and other assistance directed at development or warfare.
Since the latter part of the 19th century, the norms of democracy have developed to free western Jews from the incentive to convert in order to attain their professional aspirations. Well-to-do Jews aid the Jews of Israel, and advance the Israeli cause in their national politics.
Arabs have used their oil, the masses of troops they employed from 1948 through 1973, and their votes in international forums.
Christians have wavered from being interested outsiders to active promoters of their own favored solutions. Currently they are competing with one another with pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian narratives.
The basic reason for Israelis to defend themselves may take some energy from the millennia of rhetoric, but is essentially much simpler.
Israel’s existence is reason enough, including what has been developed, and the sanctity of Israeli lives..People in need of more can add what they will by way of God’s promise, or what they think happened in the past, including the assessment of blame..
None of that is as important than what exists, which is as worth defending as what exists in any other western democracy.


A round-up of religious news from around the world

Faith in brief

Mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoe has criticised the design of a Russian Orthodox church on the banks of the Seine
Francois Mori
  • Mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoe has criticised the design of a Russian Orthodox church on the banks of the Seine Francois Mori
Bess Twiston Davies

A round-up of religious news from around the world

Mayor of Paris criticises design for new church

The Mayor of Paris has criticised the design for a Russian Orthodox church planned on the banks of the River Seine as an example of “hodge-podge architecture” unworthy of display near the Eiffel Tower. Bertand Delanoe has asked Unesco, which granted World Heritage Site status to the banks of the Seine, to intervene. The plans for a white church with five gold domes topped by a wavy glass roof were approved by the French and Russian Governments in 2010. M. Delanoe was not consulted.

Islamist parties of Algeria unite for election

The three main Islamist parties of Algeria are to run as an alliance in the country’s elections this May. The al-Nhada and al-Islah parties are to join the Movement of Society for Peace, the largest Islamist party in Algeria. Abou Djara Soltani, speaking for the Movement for Society and Peace, invited like-minded parties to join the alliance saying it would “give the best possible chance for the Arab Spring to happen in Algeria as well”.

Religious belief ‘gently squeezed in public life

A new report says that religious belief is being “gently squeezed” from public life in Britain, but adds that Christians do not face persecution. Clearing the Ground was launched in Westminster on Monday. Produced by a cross-party group of Christian MPs, the report highlights “a narrowing of the space for the articulation, expression and demonstration of Christian belief” caused by legal and cultural changes over the past decade.

Oxford alumnus protests against Christian Concern

An Oxford graduate has returned his degree in protest at his college agreeing to host a conference run by a Christian group which does not favour gay rights. Michael Amherst, who read English at Exeter College, acted in protest against a conference organised by the Wilberforce Academy – which is run in association with Christian Concern, reports Pink News. Christian Concern founder, Andrea Minichiello Williams, said: “Homosexuals are displaying an extraordinary intolerance for us and freedom of thought. We are motivated by love and compassion for all people. Everyone seems to forget Oxford University was founded by Christians.”

Christians questioned on climate change

The Christian Census on Climate Change has launched its latest survey. Believers are invited to answer 12 questions, such as “What percentage of climate change do you think may be due to human activities?” and “What percentage of the world’s population could survive on a 5 degree Celsius average temperature rise? The deadline for completing the poll, which can be found at www.CConCC.wikispaces.com, is the end of March. The results will be released on April 21 in York Minister.


Jerusalem celebrates Bob Marley’s birthday

In Jerusalem

Got to fulfill the book

02/20/2014 11:04   By EVA LINDNER

Jerusalem celebrates Bob Marley’s birthday

bob marley
Photo by: Wikimedia Commons

If the King of Reggae were alive today, he’d be 69 years old, and to mark the occasion, Jerusalem’s Yellow Submarine hosted a tribute concert earlier this month, featuring the 10-piece Waka Chaka Live Band, which wailed through Bob Marley’s repertoire.

Those who think reggae is past its prime should have a look around Jerusalem. It is not uncommon for young people to wear their hair tied up in dreadlocks, a style that traditionally comes from the Caribbean Rastafarian culture. You can spot Jamaican flags in the Rehavianeighborhood, and on Hanevi’im Street windows are draped with Bob Marley pics. Israelis seem to love Marley. Besides the Yellow Submarine, Jerusalem bars celebrating the reggae icon included the Abraham Hostel, Pinkas Bar, Paparazzi Dance Bar and The Toy Bar. Die-hard reggae fans were singing and dancing almost every night in the two weeks surrounding Marley’s birthday, February 7.

Waka Chaka lead singer Netanel Lesser says, “Reggae music is still very popular around the world and also in Israel.” In addition, he explains, “the Rastafarian movement is connected to Judaism in many ways.”

Marley’s songs refer to “Jah,” Lesser says, which is similar to the Jewish name for God. Some song lyrics discuss “going to Zion” – including “Zion Train” and “Iron Lion Zion.”

While for Jews Zion is another word for Jerusalem, Rastafarians believe Zion stands for a utopian place of unity, peace and freedom, as opposed to Babylon, the symbol of the materialistic modern world.

“The Rastafarians are the greatest Zionists,” Lesser says.

The Rastafarian movement is an African-based spiritual ideology that arose in the 1930s in Jamaica. Members hold that all people are equal, regardless of race, because all people are children of Jah.

Marley’s most-quoted lines include the advice “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.”

According to producer Haggai Hirshman – who organized the Yellow Submarine’s tribute – “in Israel, Rastafarianism is more a culture than a religion.”

It’s about equality, peace, love, vegetarianism and, of course, the music. Reggae music is inspired by traditional African music that spread in Jamaica and across the world in the ’70s. The songs transcend social classes, generations and cultures.

“What I like about the philosophy is the positive message that it brings, the message of peace and community,” says Lesser. “We are all one: one love, one heart, one soul.”

Marley recorded his first singles in 1962 and had his first international hit with The Wailers’ album Catch A Fire in 1973. His first solo hit outside Jamaica was “No Woman, No Cry” in 1975.

Lesser, who studies composition at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, waxes enthusiastic when it comes to the messages of reggae songs, asserting that “Bob’s message of peace and love was so universal that everybody can connect to it.”

The Waka Chaka singer says he grew up with Marley’s songs and started to write his own music when he was nine years old.

“I’ve felt a deep connection to his music since I was little,” he explains. Today he also finds inspiration in Arabic and Turkish music and plays the oud, a traditional Arabic stringed instrument used in Middle Eastern music.

So far, he and Waka Chaka focus on covering songs by Marley and other reggae artists like The Abyssinians and The Gladiators, music that represents the original roots reggae sound. This subgenre of reggae identifies with ghetto life and the rural poor, as well as resistance to oppression.

“Even great bands like Led Zeppelin covered only blues songs in the beginning, and then later played their own songs,” notes Lesser.

However, there are plans for him and Waka Chaka to record their own music soon: “In one month, we are going [into] this six-month period of recording songs. We want to make this mix of Balkan, Arabic and roots reggae and try to create our own sound.”

His band started with only three members; today there are 10. “We have been through a lot, just in the process of searching for our sound. We first added a vocalist, and then percussions and so on.”

He dreams of taking the band to play shows abroad as well, in Istanbul, Berlin and cities in France.

Marley’s message carries on today, not only in contemporary reggae acts, but across genres like funk, dub step, Dance Hall, Ragamuffin and Jungle beat, Lesser explains. All these music styles are based on strong African percussion, particularly on the beating of the heart.

Marley, who died in 1981 at the age of 36, was inspired by his beliefs proclaiming the divinity of Jah Rastafari at almost every performance. As a musician playing Marley’s songs, though, one apparently doesn’t have to feel the same.

“I am not a religious person,” says Lesser. “I really try not to be. But I appreciate the message and the spirit, and I can connect to it. I respect all religions, but I believe in what I want.”

Some people connect Marley’s music to drugs, but his drug of choice was marijuana, which today is used to treat many illnesses. Marley himself was against the consumption of alcohol, “Herb is the healing of a nation, alcohol is the destruction.”

Next year, Jerusalem will celebrate Marley’s 70th birthday. But the parties will stay simple as they have been until now, Hirshman says.

“It was great how it was this year; events lose their charm when they become too big.


Criticized by Ratzinger, Liberation Theology hailed at Vatican as founder gets hero’s welcome

Published February 25, 2014

Associated Press

VATICAN CITY –  The founder of liberation theology, the Latin American-inspired Catholic theology advocating for the poor, has received a hero’s welcome at the Vatican as the once-criticized movement continues its rehabilitation under Pope Francis.

The Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez was the surprise speaker Tuesday at a book launch featuring the head of the Vatican’s orthodoxy office, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller; one of Francis’ top advisers, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga; and the Vatican spokesman.

The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spent much of his tenure at Mueller’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith battling liberation theology, arguing that it misinterpreted Jesus’ preference for the poor into a Marxist call for armed rebellion.

Guttierez insists true liberation theology was always perfectly in line with the church’s social teaching about the poor that Francis widely embraces.


My guide to making God laugh out loud

Fr Frankie Mulgrew was once so depressed he used to watch EastEnders for relief. Then he learned how to relish the divine sense of humour

By  on Thursday, 6 February 2014


Fr Frankie MulgrewFr Frankie Mulgrew

“God made us for joy. God is joy, and the joy of living reflects the original joy that God felt in creating us” Blessed John Paul II

The day before my ordination last summer I was giving my four-year-old nephew a lift in the car. I wanted to test him, so I said: “Tristan, what’s happening tomorrow?” He said: “Uncle Frankie, you’re being ordained.”

I was surprised. I thought: four years old and he knows terminology like that. This kid’s a genius. Then I said: “And Tristan what happens when I am ordained?” He said: “You become a priest.”

I thought: that’s two out of two. I need to go for the third and final question, so I said: “And Tristan, what do priests do?” And he said: “They wear dresses!”

I’ve put the cause for his canonisation on hold, but it certainly made me laugh out loud! I’m a Catholic priest with a background in stand-up comedy, so maybe it was only natural that I should be inspired to bring the two worlds together in a book. Does God LOL? has contributions from comedians including Ken Dodd, Tim Vine, Ricky Tomlinson, Jo Brand and Milton Jones. The idea must have originated in my background since as I’m from not only a traditional Irish Catholic background but also a deeply rooted showbusiness background. If I hadn’t gone into the priesthood, it probably would have been Riverdance.

When I was in comedy it was a great privilege to make people laugh. I mainly used props. I would look at the audience and say: “If the corkscrew hadn’t been invented would Australians look like this?” Then I would put on an Australian hat with the bottles still attached to their corks. Seeing people happy and enjoying themselves brings great joy – even on the nights when it is not going all that well. Once I was heckled with the line: “Get off!” To which I replied: “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t do requests.”

A few weeks ago my youngest sister Katie got married. She’s a comedian and so is my dad. He is the comedian Jimmy Cricket. After the speeches, one comedian commented on how we were all enjoying one another’s banter and good humour. “Your family were raised on laughter,” she said. Joy begets joy. Laughter begets laughter and surely God would not have given us this great gift if he wanted us all to be miserable.

You may ask why I decided to write a book called Does God LOL? (LOL, of course, is internet slang for Laugh Out Loud,) My response would be: “Because God is fun.” For example, Jesus appears and announces the Kingdom of God is like a great wedding feast. How many wedding feasts have you been to that are boring and dull? Jesus said that he had come to give life in abundance (Jn 10:10).

Surely abundant life is not possible if you celebrate all the attributes of being human but leave out smiling and laughter. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) Pope Francis comments that an “evangeliser must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral”.

During some of the most difficult times of my life – some personal and others while assisting those going through hard times – a laugh or a smile has been a sign of hope that a brighter day is ahead, that amid tragedies and loss there is light, in a joy that is heaven-sent.
I mention in the book a true story about a young man with cerebral palsy. He was a Catholic, but because of his condition whenever the time came for him to receive Holy Communion he could not open his mouth. The priest realised that the only way he could get him to open his mouth was to tell him a joke and make him laugh. While he was laughing the priest was able to give him Holy Communion. I love that story because it tells us that under such special circumstances God came to that young man at such a sacred moment with the aid of laughter and joy.

A recurring theme throughout the scriptures is that those who have God have joy. An evidential sign that any person from the Bible has the Spirit of God within them is great joy matched with inner peace. Regardless of ever-changing circumstances around them they have an underlining peace and joy that no person, place or thing can take away from them. I would have to agree: that has certainly been my experience, as a former sufferer of depression. I’ll tell you how bad my depression was: I used to watch episodes of EastEnders as an antidepressant.

In the Our Father we have the line: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” From the advent of Jesus and ever since, the Kingdom of Heaven has been breaking into the world, becoming more and more present – dependent on how open we are to it – revealing itself bit by bit. We see this, in glimpses of heaven on earth, of things now on earth as they will be for all time in heaven: acts of love, kindness and so on. It is my belief that when we laugh, from an innocent and integral source, that laughter is a glimpse on earth of the happiness we will feel for all time in eternity. That’s fundamentally where the inspiration for this book came from. I wanted to explore where this gift – all this laughter and the ability to create happiness – comes from. It’s not a book written by theologians and philosophers. That’s been done. But the idea was to have it written by comedy’s foot soldiers, the laughter-makers who day in and day out see their vocation in life as bringing happiness and joy into people’s lives. As Thomas Merton expressed it: “Comedians and clowns are likely to have a high place in heaven because they must be near to the heart of God.” The hope in the book is that we will try to get nearer to understanding God’s humour through his different faces in the world.

Comedians are experts in realising that a sense of humour also helps us laugh at ourselves when we begin to take ourselves too seriously. Surely God had that in mind too: the gift to laugh at one’s self. There is a true story that I mention in the book. It concerns a bishop who goes to visit a priest in his diocese one Sunday for Mass. The priest gets up to preach the homily and begins by saying: “I’m in love with another’s man’s wife!” The congregation gasps. The Bishop gasps. And the priest goes on to say: “I’m in love with another’s man’s wife… I’m in love with my mother.” And then he continues with a homily about unconditional love, while the bishop sits there marvelling at the ingenious way the priest had begun his homily. A few weeks later the bishop himself has to give a homily on unconditional love. He thinks to himself: “I’ll begin it in the same way as that priest did.” He stands up in the pulpit and announces: “I’m in love with another man’s wife.” The congregation gasps. And then his mind goes blank. He has forgotten what comes next. Then he says into the microphone: “For the life of me I can’t remember who it is now.” And then he says: “Wait, I’ve got it! It’s a priest in my diocese: it’s his mother!”

I miss the camaraderie from other comedians now that I am not doing stand-up anymore. It was always such fun, bouncing off one another with jibes and funny quips backstage in the dressing room. There was always the feeling of being all in this together. Whether it was a great crowd or a tough crowd, we were helping each other through. I remember once being really nervous. It was my first time performing at an open spot at the Comedy Store. A well-known comedian picked up on my nerves and gave me a friendly pep talk. It was as if he were my personal coach and I was going out there to run my personal best.

It was always fun and inspiring to journey and converse with the different comedians. Some of the contributors to the book were personal friends, while some were acquaintances. Others we just pitched cold, in the hope that they would contribute – and they did. The book also features the work of leading cartoonists who answer the title question through illustrations.

Giving the authorship profits from Does God LOL? to my favourite children’s charity, Mary’s Meals, has been an added incentive, both to the contributors and to me. A charity named after Our Lady that helps to feed and educate more than 800,000 children a day in the developing world and which tries to guarantee that 93p out of every £1 goes to the front line has to be a worthy cause.

So the book contains a rich tapestry of personal reflections and accounts of faith, interspersed with funny anecdotes, as the comedians share the ways in which they interpret God’s sense of humour. They also express their understanding of how faith, Scripture and signs in the world can point to God laughing out loud. According to professional laughter-makers, God is interested in our happiness. As C S Lewis put it: “Joy is the serious business of heaven.”

Does God LOL? is published by Darton, Longman & Todd, priced £7.99

This article first appeared in print edition of The Catholic Herald (31/1/14)


How wide will the gate of mercy be on judgment day?

  • John Shepherd
Published at 12:01AM, February 22 2014

The theme of judgment figures largely in the Christian tradition. From early on, Christians incorporated into their writings the inherited idea that God’s eventual coming into the world with power and great glory would be the occasion of judgment. Mercy would be granted to the righteous. The unrighteous would be cut down and thrown into the fire.

So when Luke tells us of John the Baptist announcing the coming of a Messiah, it is a Messiah straight out of Old Testament imagery, with a winnowing fork in his hand, clearing the threshing floor, gathering the wheat into the granary, and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.

And with that, we’re told, John proclaimed the good news to the people. Good news? Being destroyed in unquenchable fire because of our unrighteousness? If that’s good news, we’d hate to hear the bad news. Curiously, it is good news, but it needs teasing out.

When John the Baptist was asked, “What should we do, in the face of our impending rejection?” he answered, in summary, offer support, shelter and sustenance to those in need, act fairly, don’t abuse or cheat others, don’t bully, extort or lie, and don’t grumble about how life is working out for you.

That is, act compassionately and justly to others, and get on with it.

This is what God is looking for, and it concerns the way we relate to each other. It’s a matter of conduct in community.

Unfortunately, however, the idea of God’s judgment came to refer more to doctrine, than conduct.

As the Church established itself, correct doctrine was invented, and it was assumed that, above all, right belief was what God wanted. What we thought now mattered more than what we did.

And so people who tried hard to make the lives of those around them a little happier, a little more worthwhile — if they didn’t at the same time acknowledge their belief in the prescribed articles of doctrine — were made to feel excluded.

The priority to attaining righteousness and achieving salvation became right belief, rather than right behaviour, with the result that the gate snapped shut for many, if not the majority of the world’s inhabitants, both living and dead.

As a way of encouraging disillusionment, suspicion and a keen sense of the Church’s irrelevance, this approach was gold-plated. The extent of pastoral harm it caused is incalculable.

Surely if God is indeed the God who is the Creator and Redeemer of all creation, then this God would never shut anyone out who treated others with kindness and generosity and forgiveness, and so offered them hope for a richer, fuller life — no matter what creed they confessed, or even if they confessed no creed at all.

In fact, if the definition of so-called “right belief” were ever thought to be the central feature of the Christian faith, this would be a profoundly worrying thing.

What is important for Christianity isn’t that it gets its beliefs absolutely clear and definite. If it’s really God were talking about, we can never hope to do that anyway.

What matters is that we make the spirit of God a living reality for others in all our acts of charity, of generosity, of forgiveness and of caring. God is within all of us, irrespective of the degree to which we care to acknowledge it or not, and we make this God a reality for others more by what we do, than what we say. As John reminds us, “anyone who does what is right is righteous, just as Christ is righteous” (I John 3:7).

If we had to define judgment, I think we could say that judgment is knowing ourselves. Judgment happens when we see ourselves as we are. Not as we’d like ourselves to be seen, but as we actually are.

This is a daunting prospect. Frightening, even.

Except for one thing.

When we do see ourselves as we really are, we’ll see ourselves as God sees us.

“My knowledge now is partial,” says Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, “but when I meet God face to face, it will be whole, like God’s knowledge of me”(13:12).

That is, when we get to see ourselves, it won’t be destructive for us, because we’ll see ourselves as God sees us, and the way God sees us is by looking beyond our weaknesses to our potential.

God won’t stop at our failures, but will go on to what we’re capable of, and focus on the immense amount of good we have done, and can do.

This means that the judgment of God will never be destructive. It will be affirming, if it is truly God who is judging us, and not some lesser god of our own invention.

So judgment is not something to be feared, but something for which we can give thanks to the God who is both our maker and mender.

The Very Rev Dr John Shepherd is Dean of Perth, Western Australia


Arizona bill letting businesses deny service for religious reasons sparks heated debate

Published February 25, 2014


FILE: Jan. 28, 2014: A same-sex couple with their daughter at a rally in Salt Lake City, Utah.REUTER

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer is facing pressure from both sides of a heated debate over religious rights, as she weighs whether to sign a bill that would legally protect businesses that deny services to customers for religious reasons.

The bill cleared the Arizona Legislature last week. Opponents are calling the measure “state-sanctioned discrimination” and raising such scenarios as gays being denied restaurant service or medical treatment when a business owner’s religion doesn’t condone homosexuality.

The bill updates existing Arizona law on the “exercise of religion” and protects businesses, corporations and people from lawsuits if they deny services based on a “sincere” religious belief.

Supporters argue the bill is about protecting religious freedom, not about allowing discrimination. And they frequently cite the case of a New Mexico photographer sued for refusing to take wedding pictures of a gay couple.

“This bill is about preventing discrimination against people who are clearly living out their faith,” said state GOP Sen. Steve Yarbrough, the bill sponsor.

Brewer, a Republican, has five days to sign or veto the bill once it gets to her desk but has yet to clearly indicate what she will do. Brewer suggested over the weekend that she supports a business’s freedom of choice but remains unsure whether that has to be put into state law. She vetoed a similar bill proposed last year by Yarbrough.

Despite some support in the state Legislature, prominent Republicans have pressed the GOP governor for a veto, including Sen. John McCain. Five of seven Republican candidates for governor also have called for the bill to be vetoed or withdrawn. The latest is Frank Riggs, a former California congressman, who said it is a “solution in search of a problem.”

According to the new bill, “A person whose religious exercise is burdened … may assert that violation as a claim or a defense in a judicial proceeding.”

In addition to the New Mexico case, a gay couple in Arizona was recently denied service over religious beliefs when the owner of a small bakery declined to bake the couple a wedding cake. “I respectfully declined due to my personal Biblical convictions as a born-again Christian,” the owner told an Arizona TV station. “I firmly believe that my convictions in the Bible are more important than money.”

Similar legislation has been introduced in Ohio, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee and Oklahoma. But Arizona’s plan is the only one that has passed.

Supporters of the Arizona legislation also say it is needed to protect people from heavy-handed actions by courts and law enforcement.

The bill allows any business, church or person to cite the law as a defense in any action brought by the government or an individual. It also allows the business or person to seek an injunction once they show their actions are based on a sincere religious belief and the claim places a burden on the exercise of their religion.

Three state House Republicans opposed the bill but have not elaborated on their vote.

“I disagree with the bill,” said GOP state Rep. Ethan Orr. “I think it’s a bad bill.”

Arizona’s voters approved a ban on same-sex marriage as a state constitutional amendment in 2008. It’s one of 29 states with such prohibitions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Federal judges have recently struck down bans in Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia, but those decisions are under appeal.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Babies are born with a sense of right and wrong, claims psychologist

Babies as young as three months old are able to make moral judgments

Jade Brookbank/Getty Images
  • A baby
    Babies as young as three months old are able to make moral judgments Jade Brookbank/Getty Images
Hannah Devlin Science Editor
Published 1 minute ago

Eating, gurgling and waking up at night are often regarded as a baby’s core skills. An American psychologist claims, however, that babies as young as three months old are also able to make moral judgments.

Studies show that babies have a sense of fairness and appear instinctively “drawn to the nice guy and repelled by the mean guy”. The theory challenges the notion that babies are born “blank slates” and are only taught right and wrong through social interactions.

Paul Bloom, of Yale University in Connecticut, believes that a child’s experiences can subsequently enhance or degrade their innate morality.

In his book Just Babies, Professor Bloom described a study in which one-year-olds watched a puppet show where a ball was passed to a “nice” puppet, who passed the ball back, or a “naughty” puppet, who stole it. When the babies were invited to reward or punish the puppets, they tended to take away treats from the “naughty” one.

In a second study, babies of six months watched a show in which a colourful wooden shape with eyes tried to climb a hill. On some occasions the shape was helped by a second toy, while on others a third toy pushed it back down.

After the puppet show, more than 80 per cent of the babies had a preference for the helpful toy when given the choice of which one to play with.

Professor Bloom said: “There is a universal urge to help those in needand there are universal emotional responses that revolve around morality — [for example] anger when we are wronged.”

He argued in an article for CNN that this sense of morality was “hard wired” and was evident before babies even learnt to speak, although he conceded that they might not always have the ability or inclination to act on it.

“Many people believe we are born selfish and amoral,” he said. “Others think that genes are destiny. Both these cynical views are mistaken.”

Previous research has shown that babies cry in response to the cries of other babies and spontaneously help people who are struggling, for instance passing them objects that are out of reach.

However, others are yet to be convinced. Simon BaronCohen, a psychologist, writes in The New York Times: “Proving innateness requires much harder evidence — that the behaviour has existed from day one, say, or that it has a clear genetic basis. Bloom presents no such evidence.