Saturday, July 16, 2016


July 6th marked the 601st anniversary of the martyrdom of Jan Hus, the Czech reformer who was condemned by the Council of Constance and burned at the stake as a heretic on July 6, 1415.  One of the charges against Hus involved his vehement condemnation of the sale of indulgences by emissaries of the antipope John XXIII (who should not be confused with the 20th century pope of the same name) as a means of fundraising to finance John’s struggle against his rivals.  Hus argued that the Czech people were being exploited for John’s private benefit.
The complex theology supporting the issuance of indulgences had been developed in the 11th and early 12th centuries as the concept of Purgatory became more popular throughout Western European Christianity.  At first indulgences were granted by the pope, or less often by archbishops and other church leaders, to those who had expressed contrition for their sins and done some act of penitence.  The belief was that the indulgence would lessen the time that a soul spent in Purgatory, hastening the attainment of eternal salvation. 

Saturday, May 28, 2016


For those Christian denominations that follow the liturgical calendar, the church year begins with the first Sunday in Advent, four Sundays before Christmas, and is divided into seasons.  During the first half of the year, from Advent through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter, and concluding with the festival of Pentecost, scripture readings focus on the life of Jesus.  The second half, between Pentecost and the beginning of Advent, emphasizes the ministry and teachings of Jesus.  Trinity Sunday, which the Western Christian world just celebrated on May 22, and Christ the King Sunday, which will fall this year on November 20, are the pivot points between these two major divisions in the calendar.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Your God Is Too Small

“Your God Is Too Small” is the title of a book written by English Bible scholar and Anglican clergyman J. B. Phillips.  Published in 1961, it was quite popular among young Christians during my college years in the ‘60s and has never gone out of print.  Today paperback and electronic editions are available from a number of sources.
Phillips acknowledged that, while modern science, technology, and social interconnections have expanded immensely, for many Christians, our conception of God has remained static for centuries.  He challenged his readers to stretch their understanding beyond the formulas of ancient creeds and to recognize that God is expansive enough to encompass everything we encounter in contemporary life.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Religion in the Presidential Campaign

To one extent or another religion is a topic of discussion in the campaigns of most of the contenders for the U.S. presidency.  This column provides a brief run-down of the religious views, insofar as they can be determined from public statements and analyses, of the remaining candidates for the two major parties’ nominations.  I list them in alphabetical order by last name.
Having attended mass with his Catholic wife for many years, Jeb Bush formally converted to Catholicism in 1995.  From all reports he is sincere and devout in his faith, which clearly influenced many of his actions as governor of Florida.  In his presentation to a 2009 conference, he stated, “As a public leader, one’s faith should guide you,” and that attitude was in evidence when, for example, as governor he established the nation’s first faith-based prison and attempted unsuccessfully to compel a hospital to keep Terri Schaivo on life-support.  He differs from Catholic doctrine on the matter of capital punishment, however, having presided over 21 executions during his time as governor.  Since the publication of Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change, Bush has acknowledged that earth’s climate is changing due, at least in part, to human activity, but he has not articulated any clear program to address the problem.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

A World of Lies

The Ninth Commandment, or the Eighth, depending on which numbering system is used, states, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:16, NRSV) Though in a narrow reading this refers to testimony in a court of law, it is generally understood to forbid telling a deliberate untruth in most circumstances.
Humanity has wrestled with the necessity for truth-telling and the propensity to lie for as long as written records exist.  The philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, who flourished in the fourth century BCE, is said to have walked the streets of Corinth with a lighted lamp, searching for an honest man.  In our own time theologian and professor Joseph Fletcher stirred widespread debate with the publication in 1966 of his book “Situation Ethics,” in which he argued that adhering to absolute rules such as “never lie” could produce cruel and unethical results.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation

In my last column I discussed the historic roots of freedom of religion in the United States.  In this one I will focus on one less-well-known organization that is doing critical work to protect a specialized group within our country – those who serve in our armed forces.  First a bit of explanation is in order.
Because the military is rigidly structured and highly controlled, and because trust and cohesion within units is essential to the safety of service people, some forms of religious expression that would be perfectly acceptable among a civilian population must be curtailed during military service.  For example, service personnel of higher rank are not permitted to proselytize among those of lower rank.  The reason is simple.  Obedience to the commands of those of higher rank is mandatory and absolute.  Within such a power structure, for an officer to “suggest” to enlisted personnel that they attend a particular religious event or engage in a specific religious activity is inevitably coercive.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Freedom of Religion in the U.S.

Religion is mentioned twice in the U.S. Constitution.  The final provision of Article VI states, “…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”  The First Amendment, which lists basic rights of the people, begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; …”  And the Fourteenth Amendment, enacted in 1868 after the end of the Civil War, extended the protections granted under the Constitution to the states.  “… [N]or shall any state … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Like every other right guaranteed in the Constitution, freedom of religion is not absolute.  Over the years courts have been called on to mediate between conflicting claims, and Congress and state legislators have seen the need to define and amplify or restrict the way freedom of religion is applied in specific instances.  In some cases accommodation is made in favor of religion, such as the granting of conscientious objector status to those who do not believe in participating in armed conflict and the exemption of the Amish from the requirement that young people receive formal education to age 16.  In other cases such accommodations have been denied.  Some examples of the latter are the requirement imposed on the Mormons of Utah to abandon the practice of polygamy before Utah was granted statehood, and the jailing of Schwartzentruber Amish elders for failure to comply with septic system ordinances.