Mike Kueber's Blog

November 5, 2016

A cafeteria Catholic

Filed under: Religion,Uncategorized — Mike Kueber @ 6:24 pm
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My best friend and I aspire to live reflective lives, as suggested by Socrates’s “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  To support each other’s aspiration, we try to point it out whenever the other says or does something base or inconsistent with our philosophy.

For example, my friend is a Jesuit-schooled Catholic who attends Mass regularly, but his view on abortion is almost identical to that adopted by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade – i.e., abortion should be discouraged, but legal.  The view, of course, opened up my friend to my charge of his being a cafeteria Catholic – i.e., those who assert their Catholic identity yet dissent from one or more Catholic doctrinal or moral teachings.

I, on the other hand, was raised Catholic, but don’t attend Mass regularly and don’t assert a Catholic identify.  Yet, in a sense, I have become a cafeteria Catholic recently by choosing to adopt a Catholic doctrinal teaching regarding cremation.

Several years ago, I decided that cremation instead of burial was the path for me to take due to simplicity and economy.  And I left instructions with my Will in favor of cremation.  But a couple of weeks ago, I read about new Catholic guidance re: cremations.  The following report was gleaned from a NY Times article:

  • Ashes to ashes is fine, the Vatican says, as long as you don’t spread them around.  On Tuesday, the Vatican responded to what it called an “unstoppable increase” in cremation and issued guidelines barring the scattering of ashes “in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way.”  The Vatican decreed that the ashes of loved ones have no place in the home, and certainly not in jewelry. It urged that cremated remains be preserved in cemeteries or other approved sacred places.
  • The instructions, which reiterate the Roman Catholic Church’s preference for burial over cremation, are in line with previous teachings.  “We believe in the resurrection of the body, so burial is the normal form for the Christian faithful, especially Catholics, whom we are addressing with this document….  cannot “condone attitudes or permit rites that involve erroneous ideas about death, such as considering death as the definitive annihilation of the person, or the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe, or as a stage in the cycle of regeneration, or as the definitive liberation from the ‘prison’ of the body.”

In yoga, our teachers sometimes talk about certain things that “speak to you” or “resonate with you.”  That is how I felt when reading the Catholic guidelines about cremation.  Cremation does seem like a belief in Mother Nature, and I’m hoping/believing there is something more to human life than Mother Nature.

I need to revise my Final Instructions in favor of burial.


January 30, 2015

Two questions for the candidates

Filed under: Culture,Law/justice,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 3:30 am
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Assuming Hillary and Mitt face-off in the 2016 presidential election, and if I were the journalist assigned to ask them questions in a debate, I would ask the following:

  1. Mitt: How would your philosophy, values, and objectives change if you were presented irrefutable, incontrovertible evidence that Jesus never existed and that the Bible was an elaborate hoax? I have asked my Christian friends this, and they struggle with accepting the premise. Ultimately, I think most people would not have a different mindset even if their specific God disappeared.
  2. Hillary: You often complain that women in America are treated as second-class people who are denied full participation in life, but if, in 1947, you were given the choice of being born man or woman, which gender do you think provided the greatest opportunity for a fulfilling life? A friend prompted this question by always complaining about how easy women have it with dating. He was flummoxed when I asked him if he would prefer playing the feminine role in dating. Ultimately, I think both sexes would decline the opportunity to live their life as the opposite sex.

October 10, 2014

No democracy; we just want Islam

Filed under: Culture,Issues,Politics,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 11:01 pm
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A Facebook friend recently posted a photo of bearded, agitated Muslims marching with a sign that reads, “No democracy, we just want Islam.” The punchline of the photo is that the Muslims weren’t marching in the Middle East, but rather in Dearborn, USA.

My first reaction to the photo was from a practical perspective – i.e., that it was another conservative attempt to create hysteria over the presence of Muslims in America, just as they often do with a warning that Muslims are attempting to impose Sharia law in America. And because the Muslims are such a small minority in America, I am confident that they will never be able to impose their views on democracy or Sharia law.

But my next reaction to the photo was from an intellectual perspective – i.e., is there anything wrong with Muslim-Americans advocating for democracy or Sharia law?  Many groups and institutions in America are run under undemocratic principles and they are able to function, some quite well. And Americans are among the most religious people in the world, and most religious organizations are highly respected despite being highly undemocratic.

So, do free people have the right to prefer a government that is more theocratic and less democratic? Yes, they do, but because of our constitution and its strong preference toward democracy and against theocracy, it seems that anyone with such an inclination would be better off living in a country with traditions and values more similar to their own.

August 20, 2014

Sunday Book Review #144 – The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan W. Watts

Filed under: Book reviews,Philosophy,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 4:12 am

A few weeks ago, a Facebook friend (Paul Stahl) posted something wise from a guy named Alan W. Watts. Unfortunately, I don’t recall what Watts said in the posting, but his quote prompted me to check out Watts’s classic 1951 book, The Wisdom of Insecurity, which dovetailed nicely with a similar book that I reviewed a few weeks ago, Benefit of Doubt by Gregory Boyd.  Both books examine how man deals with the modern predominance of science at the expense of religion. Boyd’s examination is from the perspective of a serious Christian, while Watts seems to be an agnostic despite his background in Christianity and Zen Buddhism.

The first chapter in The Wisdom of Insecurity contained several passages that reflect Watts’s impressive ability to articulate issues so that you don’t need a doctorate in theology to understand:

  • There is, then, the feeling that we live in a time of unusual insecurity. In the past hundred years so many long-established traditions have broken down – traditions of family and social life, of government, of the economic order, and of religious belief…. To some this is a welcome release from the restraints of moral, social, and spiritual dogma. To others it is a dangerous and terrifying breach with reason and sanity, tending to plunge human life into hopeless chaos.
  • As a matter of fact, our age is no more insecure than any other. Poverty, disease, war, change, and death are nothing new. In the best of times, “security” has never been more than temporary and apparent. But it has been possible to make the insecurity of human life supportable by belief in an unchanging things beyond the reach of calamity – in God, in man’s immortal soul, and in the government of the universe by eternal laws of right.
  • Today such convictions are rare, even in religious circles. There is no level of society, there must be even few individuals, touched by modern education where there is not some trace of the leaven of doubt. It is simply self-evident that during the past century the authority of science has taken the place of the authority of religion in the popular imagination, and that skepticism, at least in spiritual things, has become more general than belief.
  • The decay of belief has come about through the honest doubt, the careful and fearless thinking of highly intelligent men of science and philosophy. Moved by a zeal and reverence for facts, they have tried to see, understand, and face life as it is without wishful thinking. Yet for all that they have done to improve the conditions of life, their picture of the universe seems to leave the individual without ultimate hope.
  • What science has said, in sum, is this: We do not, and in all probability cannot, know whether God exists. Nothing that we do know suggests that he does, and all the arguments which claim to prove his existence are found to be without logical meaning. There is nothing, indeed, to prove that there is no God, but the burden of proof rests with those who propose the idea. If, the scientists would say, you believe in God, you must do so purely on emotional grounds, without any basis in logic or fact. Practically speaking, this may amount to atheism. Theoretically, it is simple agnosticism. For it is the essence of scientific honesty that you do not pretend to know what you do not know, and of the essence of scientific method that you do not employ hypotheses which cannot be tested.
  • [My favorite] – Consequently our age is one of frustration, anxiety, agitation, and addiction to “dope.” Somehow we must grab what we can while we can, and drown out the realization that the whole thing is futile and meaningless. This “dope” we call our high standard of living, a violent and complex stimulation of the senses, which makes them progressively less sensitive and thus in need of yet more violent stimulation. We crave distraction – a panorama of sights, sounds, thrills, and titillations into which as much as possible must be crowded in the shortest possible time. To keep up this “standard” most of us are willing to put up with lives that consist of largely doing jobs that are a bore, earning the means to seek relief from the tedium by intervals of hectic and expensive pleasure.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the book was not as understandable, so I will have to revisit it after I get my theology doctorate.



August 7, 2014

Sunday Book Review #139 – Benefit of Doubt by Gregory Boyd

Filed under: Book reviews,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 2:37 am

Benefit of Doubt, subtitled “Breaking the Idol of Certainty,” attempts to assure Christians who accept science and practice critical thinking that their occasional doubt about the existence of God is reasonable and acceptable. In fact, author Gregory Boyd suggests that individuals who claim to have no doubt are likely either lying or failing to employ their brain in the way God intended. Fascinating perspective on how to read the Bible.  I especially enjoyed the part that eviscerates serial sinners who claim to be true believers.

March 9, 2014

Sunday Book Review #124 – Writing from Left to Right by Michael Novak

Filed under: Biography,Culture,Philosophy,Politics,Relationships,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 2:19 pm
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Michael Novak reminds me of Forrest Gump – i.e., his obscure life, starting in a dying steel-mill town of Johnsville, PA, seems to have fortuitously involved him in many of the most interesting events of the past few decades.  He also reminds me of my best friend Mike Callen because he studied to become a priest before deciding he preferred to remain in the lay world as a lifelong philosophical theologian or a theological philosopher.  Although I had never heard of Novak before stumbling across this book, Callen told me that Novak cast a big shadow in the Jesuit/theological world back when Callen was studying at Fordham to be a priest.

After leaving his priestly studies, Novak studied philosophy and theology at Harvard and came under the influence of two great men – French philosopher Gabriel Marcel and Protestant theological ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr:

  • Gabriel Marcel – “Marcel brought new light to daily experiences, such as recognizing the ‘presence’ of other persons and ‘encounter’ with another person – in other words, not just a passing, inattentive moment with another human being, but something more.  He drew attention to the difference between sitting between two people on the subway for an hour – treating them without recognition or interest or attention – and the act of having a memorable exchange of personal qualities.”

That reminds me of my dad, who “never met a stranger.”  The first night that Novak met Marcel, the philosopher generously spent much of the evening talking to Novak and even read to him extensively from a favorite play, The Funeral Pyre.  At the end of the evening, Marcel said to Novak – “Tonight, I think we had an encounter.  I think so.  Don’t you?”

  • Reinhold Niebuhr – In 1937 he coined The Serenity Prayer.  (Original version by Niebuhr – “Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.”  It was later revised to read by an unknown person to read – “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can change, And wisdom to know the difference.”)

Novak was most impressed by Niebuhr’s moral axioms:

  1. Expect that every man sometimes sins.
  2. Expect that every man has the capacity to act virtuously (and that the power of God might prompt man to rise to the occasion.
  3. Expect the laws of irony to operate – i.e., one’s stated motives are not always one’s unexamined, baser aims and there are almost always unintended consequences.
  4. Expect to feel the bite of tragedy – i.e., tragedy flows from overlooked human weaknesses that turn high hopes upside down.
  5. Know that decision-makers for social and political bodies must take into account factors that individuals do not.
  6. Know that in social and political actions by decision-makers, the difference between public duties and personal inclination is often keenly felt by the decision-maker.
  7. Know that our actions in history seldom work out as we hope, but even so we are responsible for protecting our actions from unanticipated ill effects as best we can.

There is an old saying that an old liberal has no brain, while a young conservative has no heart.  Well, Novak fits that mold perfectly, as his book is subtitled, “My journey from liberal to conservative.”  As a brilliant young man, he was drawn to the left and Humphrey, McCarthy, the Kennedys, and McGovern, with a special place in his heart for Sergeant Shriver.

But as he got older, he realized that liberal policies didn’t work – “Where has socialism ever worked?”  The war of poverty, welfare, and socialism corrupted people while capitalism caused them to flourish.  Similarly, military weakness brought out the worst in other countries.  Although Novak remained a Democrat, he worked for Reagan and became a big fan of the Bushes.

Like his hero Niebuhr, Novak attempted to balance idealism and realism, as reflected in his statement – “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”  President Obama also is impressed with Niebuhr, calling him his favorite philosopher and theologian.

Fascinating guy, with a rare combination of intellectualism and down-to-earthness.  And his description of Marcel’s “encounters” is something that I plan to apply to the rest of my life.

Incidentally, Novak loved President Kennedy, but his recollection of Kennedy’s time seems inaccurate:

  • Both us had rejoiced in the subsequent celebrations of ‘Camelot’; ironic and silly as the idea was, it was contagious.  Now we felt only the senselessness of the television set in front of us, one scene being played over and over again, as the open convertible pulled slowly around the circle in Dealy Plaza in Dallas.  The head of the president snapping forward, his collapse, and Jacqueline Kennedy bending over him.  This squalid killing.”

The pre-assassination reference to Camelot is false because the use of term to describe the Kennedy administration originated with Jackie Kennedy talking to Theodore White after the assassination.  And regarding the film showing Kennedy being shot – the Zapruder film – Life magazine outbid CBC for the film and it was released a few days later in the magazine, not on TV.

October 30, 2013

Sunday Book Review #108 – Killing Jesus by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

Filed under: Book reviews,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 8:29 pm
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Killing Jesus is Bill O’Reilly’s follow-up to bestsellers Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy.  Both of those books were excellent; Killing Jesus not so much.

Coincidentally, I recently read Reza Aslin’s bestseller, The Zealot, and O’Reilly’s book pales in comparison.    Aslin’s book is about historical Jesus, and although it relies heavily on the Gospels, the book is quick to reject passages in the Gospels that don’t jibe with their in-depth historical context.  By contrast, O’Reilly’s book, which is self-described as “a history,” is not much more than a narrative consolidation of the Gospels put in a superficial historical context.

An example of the different approaches of Aslin and O’Reilly concerns the birthplace of Jesus.  O’Reilly assumes the birthplace was Bethlehem because that is what the Gospels say.  Aslin, however, based on a variety of factual issues, concludes that Jesus was actually born in Nazareth.  He suggests that the Gospels misstated this fact so that the location of birth conformed to some earlier biblical prophecies.

O’Reilly recently wrote an illustrated children’s version of Killing KennedyKilling Jesus already fits that mold, with light, popular reading, but it provides almost nothing in terms of in-depth thinking or insights.

May 24, 2013

More on San Antonio’s proposed anti-bias ordinance

Filed under: Issues,Law/justice,Politics,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 1:40 am
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A couple of days ago I blogged about San Antonio’s proposed anti-bias ordinance, and a discerning reader noticed that I neglected to address a threshold issue (i.e., is any discrimination against the LGBT community tolerable), and instead I jumped directly to the issue that I wanted to discuss (i.e., which types of discrimination against the LGBT community are tolerable).  I responded directly to the reader, but for the record, I am taking this opportunity to elaborate on my response.

The reader asked, if any discrimination based on race or religion is prohibited, then why should any discrimination against LGBT be tolerated.  My response was as follows:

  • You accurately point out a flaw to my post that I noticed yesterday – i.e., it failed to distinguish between LGBT discrimination and racial/religious discrimination. The distinction is that the vast majority of Americans believes it is sinful to discriminate on the basis of race or religion. That is why America won’t tolerate any such discrimination. But Americans are still divided on whether discrimination against LGBT is sinful or, ironically, whether it is sinful to be LGBT. I agree that Americans are evolving, with same-sex marriage being a leading indicator, but I also think it is a reasonable compromise for now to allow people who think homosexuality is sinful to be able to decline to rent their house to or to decline to hire a person who is a homosexual.”

The reader subsequently followed up by stating that America would not allow racial discrimination even if a person’s religious believe approved it or slavery.  I responded that I was not aware of any significant religion that approved discrimination against blacks or approved slavery and if there were, America would not tolerate such beliefs.  This would be akin to America’s insistence that Utah and the Mormon Church repudiate bigamy.

My closing comment to the reader remains appropriate:

  • A representative democracy shouldn’t get too far in front of its people.”

December 27, 2012

Saturday Night at the Movies #58 – Les Miserables

Filed under: Book reviews,Movie reviews,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 8:43 pm
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Les Misérables (2012) is a new musical that was released Christmas weekend.  The movie is based on an all-time great French novel of the same name by Victor Hugo in 1862, and its plot revolves around the French revolution.  I almost never see a musical, but I was on a date (with a former flame) and the girl wanted to see it.  Good choice. 

Who’d a thunk Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway could sing?  I had read that Russell Crowe, despite his Academy Award-winning credentials, had to audition for his part, but that certainly seems reasonable considering that the movie has almost no dialogue and is almost exclusively singing – 49 songs. 

Although the book – at 1400 pages – is one of the longest ever, the 160-minute film effectively captures the essence of the book’s storyline.  Amazingly, I was so captivated by the story that this old guy was able to stay wide-awake despite the movie’s 11 pm starting time.  Of course, the company of an enchanting woman probably had something to do with that.  

My date was someone who I previously thought so much of that I considered her to be a strong marital prospect.  But I was reluctant to pull the trigger (commitment-phobe?), and she has since moved on to greener pastures.  Seeing her again, however, caused me to reflect on what I gave up with her and two others in very similar situations.  (Coincidentally, two of the three were commited urban girls who subsequently took up with farmboys like me.  That reminds me of the Adele song, Someone Like Me.) 

This reflection was aided because, coincidentally, I have been reading a book that I Christmas-gifted to my youngest son.  It is titled The Jesuit Guide to (almost) Everything by James Martin, SJ, and the relevant section concerns what the author calls “Six Paths to God.”  Along with the paths of Belief, Independence, Disbelief, Return, and Confusion, there is a path called Exploration that seems analogous to my path to finding my soulmate. 

According to author Martin, the path of Exploration, with questioning and research, is consistent with common American values.  The benefit of Exploration is that, after a serious search, the explorers may find a tradition that is ideally suited to their understanding of God.  But there are pitfalls, too:

  • The danger of not settling for any religious tradition because none is perfect.
  • Not settling on any one tradition because it doesn’t suit them.
  • Lack of commitment.  Your entire life may be one of exploration – constant sampling, spiritual grazing.  When the path becomes the goal, rather than God, people may ultimately find themselves unfulfilled, confused, lost, and maybe even a little sad.

I suspect that these pitfalls are hindering my search for a soulmate, and I will keep them in mind as I roll into 2013.

Getting back to Les Misérables, the Rotten Tomato critics score it at a modest 73% and the audience gives it a stellar 86%.  I agree with the critics and give it three stars out of four because musicals aren’t my cup of tea.

December 26, 2012

Evolutionary biology explains….

Filed under: Culture,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 10:16 pm
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A few days ago, there was an op-ed piece in the NY Times on one of my favorite subjects – evolutionary biology.   The piece, titled “The Moral Animal,” by British rabbi Jonathan Sacks begins with the premise that religiosity has been declining in Britain and America and then argues that this decline, if it continues, will not bode well for those countries.  What makes Rabbi Sacks’ argument unusual is that it relies on evolutionary biology.

Sacks’ starts his syllogism by stating that man often acts altruistically, even though evolution tends to favor selfish, ruthless behavior.  According to Sachs, this dichotomy results because, as scientists have determined, the human brain has two modes – “The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational….  The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive.  The slow track leads us to more considered behavior, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained.”

Rabbi Sacks supplements the science of the two-speed brain by suggesting that religion tends to amplify the role played by the slow brain – i.e., reflective and rational:

  • “[Religion] strengthens and speeds up the slow track. It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters.”

According to Sacks, the connection between religion and altruism is undeniable:

  • “[Research shows] that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who was feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is, he found, a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race.”

Rabbi Sacks concludes logically that, because altruism is undeniably a good thing (unless you ask Ayn Rand), religion is an essential foundation to a good America:

  • Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology. This may go to show that God has a sense of humor. It certainly shows that the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.”

My first thought in reading the Sacks op-ed piece was that his logic didn’t depend on the existence of God, but rather only on people’s belief in God.  That reminded me of the Karl Marx quote – i.e., religion is the opiate of the masses.    

On second thought, I was reminded of the old saying that if God hadn’t created man, man would have created God.  And that, too, would be consistent with evolutionary biology.

Although Rabbi Sacks surprised me by making a non-theological argument, NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd made up for that omission in her column today titled, “Why, God?”  In the column, Dowd and her pastor struggle to understand why God would allow the Sandy Hook massacre to occur.

Good luck with that.

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