Scientist Priests

Georges Lemaitre: scientist priest
Georges Lemaitre: scientist priest

Nathaniel made an interesting observation the other day about physicist Andrei Linde’s reaction to the new evidence for cosmic inflation. The scientist worried, “What if I believe into this just because it is beautiful?” This led to a discussion about religious faith and scientific evidence. It might be worth remembering in light of the new discovery that Georges Lemaitre, the Father of the Big Bang, was a Catholic priest and a physicist at the Catholic University of Louvain. RealClearScience has a couple brief pieces on the history of scientific and religious thinkers:

Check them out.

“This is My Credo,” A Media Portrayal of the Ukrainian Protests

Oleksandr Muzychko, a radical Ukrainian militant.I’m Israeli with Ukrainian Jewish roots, and my wife is Ukrainian, so naturally the topic of anti-Semitism in Ukraine concerns me. Since I’m also studying journalism, I couldn’t help but notice a recent article from the Russian network RT that has been going around on various social networks.  The article is illustrative of a problematic approach to reporting the Maidan protests in Ukraine. It shows footage of an anti-government protester, Oleksandr Muzychko, waving a Kalashnikov. It claims that Muzychko (AKA Sashko Biliy) is a notorious right-wing Ukrainian extremist and terrorist who as a foreign volunteer in the Chechnyan War was responsible for significant Russian losses in the battle for Grozny. In his book on the Chechnyan War, the journalist Anatol Lieven described Muzychko as

A volunteer from the Ukranian extreme nationalist UNA-UNSO movement… who looked as if he had been born in a cave. He had a massive face with a forehead sloping straight back from his eyebrows, a jutting jaw and a broken nose, and was wearing an American baseball cap turned back to front and a green Islamic headband. He said that he was there to ‘fight against Russian imperialism and help destroy the Russian empire… and then on its ruins, we will build a new, truly great Slavic power, uniting all the Slavs under the leadership of the Ukrainians, the oldest, greatest and purest Slav people.’ I was told some months afterwards that he had been killed in action in Grozny. Biliy was one of perhaps twenty Ukrainian volunteers who fought in Chechnya; I met three of them…

Lieven was wrong, as it turns out. Muzychko was not killed in action. Instead, he returned to Ukraine and was later jailed for several years on a charge of kidnapping. A brief review of UNA-USO activity reveals a markedly ultra-nationalist platform, but so far very little actual violence apart from that committed by volunteers like Muzychko in Chechnya.

Still, in an interview for a documentary produced by REN in 2007, Muzychko declared that “As long as blood flows in my veins, I will fight communists, Jews and Russians. This is my credo.”

Jews are understandably worried. For one, some of the worst atrocities against Jews were historically committed by Ukrainians. At a central location in Kiev there is a prominent memorial to the 17th century Cossack Hetman, Bohdan Khmelnytsky. During Khmelnytsky’s uprising against the Poles (a foundational narrative amongst Ukrainian nationalists) around a fifth to a quarter of the entire Jewish population of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth perished. In 1919, the armies of Symon Petlyura slaughtered around 17,000 Jews in a serious of vicious pogroms. The Jewish writer Isaac Babel vividly described the aftermath of one of these pogroms in his characteristic terse, laconic style.  The family of David Zis, in their home, the old prophet, naked and barely breathing, the butchered old woman, a child with chopped-off fingers. Many of these people are still breathing, the stench of blood, everything turned topsy-turvy, chaos, a mother over her butchered son, an old woman curled up, four people in one hut, dirt, blood under a black beard, they’re just lying there in their blood…

A mere generation later, many Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazi invaders, including the insurrectionist movement OUN before it had a falling out with Germany.  The German-raised Ukrainian police was an important instrument for murdering Jews in those years of occupation.

The anti-communist and anti-Russian sentiment expressed by Muzychko is fairly self-explanatory. In the previous century alone, Russia has pursued policies that have aimed at the suppression (and at times destruction) of the Ukrainian nation. There was the artificially-prolonged famine, the Holodomor, which resulted in the deaths of more than 4 million Ukrainians due to starvation.  In 1939, the NKVD  instituted a reign of terror in newly-occupied Galicia and Volhynia. The Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church was dissolved by the NKVD in 1946 and its assets and congregations turned over to the politically compliant Russian Orthodox Church.  There was also the systematic repression of the Ukrainian language, for example, no factory in the Soviet Union produced typewriters with the Ukrainian alphabet (it differs somewhat from Russian).  Even as late as the 1970s and 1980s, Ukrainian poets like Hryhoriy Chubay and Vasil Stus were imprisoned, and an extraordinarily well-loved composer of popular music, Volodymyr Ivasyuk, was kidnapped, beaten, and hanged on a tree. The middle-aged Stus died in a forced labor camp in 1985.

But even with a long history of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, the question still remains. Why the Jews? Partially because of deep-seated Orthodox anti-Semitism, partially because of rhetoric originating in 19th and 20th century Russian circles which painted the Jews first as partners with Freemasons for world domination, and then as the masterminds behind communism, not to mention the prominent involvement of many Jews in the Soviet regimes. Compounding the issue, some of the more visible members of Yanukovich’s odious party- such as Dobkin, Kernes, and Tabachnik– are Jewish. Sadly, when members of visible, cohesive minorities behave poorly people tend to assign blame and complicity to the group as a whole.

Yet, surprisingly little anti-Semitic outburst has occurred during the protests. I don’t think that this can be emphasized enough. On February the 23rd there was a fire-bombing of a synagogue in Zaporizhie, one of those Eastern Ukrainian towns which had undergone significant russification. As of today there is still no information released on who might have done it. Even if we assume that Maidan activists are the perpetrators (and they are a minority in Zaporizhie), have any other synagogues been attacked? In the areas where we’d expect them the most, I.E., the areas where nationalist and radical influence is strongest, there have been no such attacks during the course of the protests. Not in the Maidan-controlled parts of Kiev, not in Lviv, stronghold of the ultra-rightwing party Svoboda, and not in Rivne, where different footage shows Oleksandr Muzychko brandishing his Kalashnikov during a municipal meeting. There have been organized Jewish groups participating in the Maidan, and the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, president of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, is also a staunch supporter of the Maidan. The Chabad rabbi in Kiev has closed his schools and called upon Jews to flee, but the chief rabbi since 1990, Yaakov Bleich, long sympathetic to Ukrainian aspirations, has issued no such statements. Indeed, Josef Zisels, a vice-president of the World Jewish Congress who monitors the spread of anti-Semitic incidents in the former Soviet Union, noted that there were only two incidents in all of the forty Maidans throughout Ukraine, and both were purely rhetorical.

As a knowledgeable friend remarked (we’ll call him Eustace), a certain wave of anti-Russian and anti-Semitic sentiment is to be expected, though how serious remains to be seen.

What the RT article fails to do is pose questions which would allow one to contextualize the information.  What happened to UNA/USO and what precisely is the Praviy Sektor? What role does Muzychko play in the Praviy Sektor, and what role does the Praviy Sektor play in the Maidan? How ideological is the movement? How do Jews rank in importance in Muzychko’s views as opposed to communists and Russians? What do other Maidan leaders think of Muzychko? How powerful is he? Has he ever attacked Jews?

It is unreasonable to expect full, definitive answers in a brief online piece, but none of the questions were even raised. That is the problem. The article is basically saying that here is a protestor, and he is a modern Nazi “aiming for power.” Thus, by extension, the protests are driven by Nazis aiming for power, and everyone knows how bad Nazis are, hence the protests are bad. Timothy Snyder said it best when he said that

If people in the West become caught up in the question of whether they are largely Nazis or not, then they may miss the central issues in the present crisis.


Ratzinger Prize to Richard Burridge

Pope Francis (right) presenting Richard Burridge (left) with the 2013 Ratzinger Prize
Pope Francis (right) presenting Richard Burridge (left) with the 2013 Ratzinger Prize

First Things has an excellent article in the January issue dedicated to biblical scholar Richard Burridge, who recently became the first non-Roman Catholic to receive the Ratzinger Prize (virtually the Nobel Prize in Theology). The article is a fantastic tribute to Burridge and covers his impact on New Testament scholarship in a brief, but highly informative way. In the 1980s, biblical scholars typically saw the Gospels as legends or mythology (perhaps midrash or something of that nature). But Burridge’s book What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography turned the tide, demonstrating that the Gospels fit the genre of ancient Greco-Roman “Lives” i.e. biographies. In these ancient biographies, 15-25% of the narrative focused on “the hero’s attitude to his death and his final acts or words” (the Gospels range from 15-30%). Furthermore, 25-30% of verbs in ancient biographies “have the hero as the subject, and an additional 15 to 30 percent of the verbs are found in the hero’s sayings, speeches, or quotations. This concentration of verbs is found in no other genre of ancient literature. The gospels have the same concentration of verbs” (pg. 22-23). In later work, Burridge explained that “Greco-Roman biography is an invitation to imitate,” therefore “both what Jesus says and what Jesus does are important” (pg. 23).

Christian philosopher William Lane Craig does a fine job in the video below explaining the contemporary take on the literary genre of the Gospels. And we have Burridge to thank for it.

The Pre-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute has an excellent article at Public Discourse entitled “Why Max Weber Was Wrong,” packing in a wealth of information and resources regarding the development of capitalism. Far from having Protestant roots, capitalism grew up in the very Catholic West. “Even Catholic critics of modern capitalism,” writes Gregg, “have had to concede that “the commercial spirit” preceded the Reformation by at least two hundred years. From the eleventh century onward, the words Deus enim et proficuum (“For God and Profit”) began to appear in the ledgers of Italian and Flemish merchants. This…symbolized just how naturally intertwined were the realms of faith and commerce throughout the world of medieval Europe.” Drawing on the work of various researchers and historians, Gregg points to the increased sophistication and innovation of banking, business models, and wealth creation in the Middle Ages. He concludes, “The point…is that the widespread association of one form of Protestantism with capitalism is theologically dubious, empirically disprovable, and largely incidental. To make these observations is not to propose that modern capitalism was somehow constructed upon a “Catholic ethic.” That would be equally false. It is simply to note that much of Weber’s particular analysis is very questionable and that this should be acknowledged by economists, historians, and above all, by Catholics.”

Check it out.

Pope Francis: Lost in Translation

Priest and blogger Father John Zuhlsdorf argues on his blog that part of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation may have been mistranslated. The Spanish reads,

54. En este contexto, algunos todavía defienden las teorías del «derrame», que suponen que todo crecimiento económico, favorecido por la libertad de mercado, logra provocar por sí mismo mayor equidad e inclusión social en el mundo.

The official English is translated as

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.

However, por si’ mismo (translated as “inevitably” above) actually means “by itself.” In other words, the Pope is saying the assumption that “economic growth, encouraged by free markets, will by itself succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world” is false. As Father Zuhlsdorf puts it,

But the real point here is that in EG 54 the author says that “trickle down” economics cannot by itself produce the desired result. That is, of course, correct. No economic plan will solve the problems of the poor by itself.  Economic plans must be carried out by people who have good, solid morals and values.

Easy for things to get lost in translation.

Pope Francis Continues to Rock

2013-12-03 Pope Francis

First came stories based on an interview with Archbishop Konrad Krajewski like this one. According to the stories, Pope Francis was unable to spend time distributing money–and love–to the homeless and poor as he had done prior to his elevation to the papacy. But Krajewski mentioned that the Pope had indicated he wished he could go, and soon speculation abounded (like here) that Pope Francis was sneaking out at night in disguise to continue his ministry to the poor.

The Pope is popular, that is for sure. And I certainly love his example. But there are two roles for a leader like the Pope. One is symbolic, and here the Pope’s example shines. The other is administrative. I think only time will tell whether or not Pope Francis is able to strike the right balance between those two roles.

My hope (as a non-Catholic who loves Catholicism) is that the Pope is able to encourage more Catholics to reconsider their relationship to their own faith and begin to take more seriously the teachings, doctrines, and perspectives of that ancient and honorable faith.

Good News, Pope Francis

The media has exploded over Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation. In it, he denounced social and economic inequality, which he declared are “the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation” and “trickle-down theories.” The media hailed it as an anti-capitalist proclamation, while virtually ignoring other important factors like his attack on abortion. While some are seeing Francis’ remarks as radical, it is virtually the same message found in, say, the exhortations of John XXIII (1961) or Leo XIII (1891). This just reinforces Nathaniel’s point in his post “Meet the New Catholicism, Same as the Old Catholicism.”

But I have some good news for Pope Francis and the media: things have been getting better for some time. The world isn’t quite on its way to hell in a handbasket. Furthermore, it was the “autonomy of the marketplace” that achieved one of the major Millennium Development Goals of halving global poverty five years early. And as I’ve noted before, global inequality is actually decreasing. A brand new study supports past research by demonstrating that–though inequality is still high and increasing within countries (not just in America)–global inequality has seen an unprecedented decline.

(Above graph provided by GMU’s Robin Hanson)

This is not to say that all is well. There is much, much more to be done. But these are positive trends; trends that caused one journalist to declare 2012 (at the dawn of 2013) the best year ever. We have seen incredible progress over the past couple centuries. If we want to address social ills like those Pope Francis spoke of, we should look to those policies (and yes, ideologies) that have made these positive trends possible.

The Pope Preaches Fairness, Is A Radical

117049-pope-francisPope Francis’ recent “apostolic exhortation” criticizes certain aspects of modern society, championing equality and policies that guarantee opportunity and basic welfare.

Naturally, the Pope’s words are being and will be co-opted by the left as a long-awaited attack against conservative ideals and a tacit approval of redistributive policies, not excluding socialist positions.

While I can’t, myself, read the Pope’s document (my guess is because it hasn’t been translated to English), reading what’s being said in the news about it leads me to believe Pope Francis is not sanctioning socialism or anything like it, but rather calling for society to back away from “idolatry” in the form of obsession with wealth and status, which isn’t what I would consider to be an earth-shattering pronouncement. He asks for people to make giving to those less fortunate than themselves a priority, and for politicians to ensure everyone in their society has access to what most people around the world would consider to be basic necessities (education, employment and health care).

Perhaps the most potentially divisive comment made in the exhortation is, ironically, the Pope’s call for closing the inequality gap. I’m not sure what solutions he offers for fixing that problem, but it’s perhaps what the Pope points to as a cause for the gap’s existence that is the most interesting:

“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems,” he wrote.

I don’t think many people are seriously arguing for absolutely unregulated markets, so I’m not sure what this statement is meant to accomplish, nor why it is (at least, going from the comments sections on the various outlets reporting this) being interpreted by leftists as a socialist call-to-arms and a radical departure from everyday Christian culture which, with its emphasis on personal liberty, responsibility and autonomy, is in their minds a spiteful dismissal of or, at best, indifference to the plight of the disenfranchised.

While I applaud Pope Francis’ for attempting to place emphasis on helping the less fortunate and shedding the pursuit of wealth at the expense of others, I’m more interested in learning what solutions he proposes to addressing what are, in fact, human failings, not unique to any corner of any political spectrum.


A Kingdom of Priests: A Support for Female Ordination

Note: Many thanks to my wife Anne Stewart, whose wide research on this subject bolstered my own efforts. Her assistance with this article was essential and invaluable. It is her beautiful, informed and spiritual example that has been an inspiration to me in seeking Wisdom.


“The [Relief] Society should move according to the ancient Priesthood, hence there should be a select Society separate from all the evils of the world, choice, virtuous and holy— Said he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day— as in Paul’s day.”[1]

 The context of this remarkable statement was Joseph Smith speaking at the third meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ female organization Relief Society on March 30, 1842 (although in those days the Relief Society was an autonomous organization that was yet still connected to the Church in its purpose). Joseph Smith was a guest speaker nine times to the Relief Society before it was disbanded right before his death (and reinstated a decade later when Eliza R. Snow urged Brigham Young to give the organization a second chance). The Minutes were recorded in the official Relief Society Minutes Book in Secretary Eliza R. Snow’s own hand,[2] which are now available online from the LDS Church’s official Joseph Smith papers.

The above statement by Joseph Smith is one of the many pieces of evidence that have made me side with faithful Mormon feminists in the recent brouhaha over the issue of women’s ordination in the LDS Church. To me, this shows that Joseph Smith was considering an expanded priesthood role for women, specifically through the mechanism of an autonomous Relief Society. Unfortunately, conflicts with Joseph’s wife Emma and other women over polygamy, his martyrdom in Carthage Jail, and Brigham Young’s retrenchment tendencies when he felt his authority was being challenged, derailed this possibility of female priesthood being enforced in its fullness (although the Mormon temple endowment, especially the Second Anointing, was indeed a partial fulfillment, which I will briefly and respectfully discuss later).

Women’s roles in the Church are not an issue of “doubt” for me, although there have been times in my life where doubts have certainly raised their unsettling concerns, as they have for most honest inquirers. In the end, however, investigating an expanded role for women in the Church has rather had the opposite effect. I am filled with faith and the Spirit when I’ve prayerfully studied the issue and realize that statements from Joseph Smith (like the one above) and LDS scriptures show that gender issues are not so cut and dry as many Mormons would have us believe, and that revelation still has to come line upon line, precept upon precept to the Latter-day Saints. We are not an “unchanging” Church, but rather an eternally progressing Church that is still striving to live up to its potential of building Zion upon the Earth.   

Rather, doubts have come when I’ve considered the confusing “separate but equal” rhetoric issued to defend the lack of priesthood authority given to women. I feel nothing but alienation, confusion, and darkness when I prayerfully consider such justifications of gender inequalities. Trying to adopt such attitudes in the past have NEVER brought me peace, but rather a repressed unease. I feel farther from our Heavenly Parents when I consider such a constricted view of my mother, my sisters, my friends, my nieces, my in-laws, my aunts, my wife, my daughter, my Heavenly Mother. I not only feel farther from my Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, but nearly as tragically, I also feel more distant from those beautiful women in my life. Whether I throw women on a pedestal or in a pit, we are not, at that point, on equal footing. That distance is created.

And I don’t want distance—I long for closeness, friendship, kinship, and fellowship with the women in my life. I have had a long, personal history with women. I have seven sisters. The majority of my friends in Jr. High and High School were female. My mother was a vitally important influence in my life. Many of my historical and literary heroes are women, from Joan of Arc, to Emma Smith, to Charlotte Bronte, to Lorraine Hansberry. My wife is my best friend, and I long for a beautiful, empowering future for my 3 year old daughter. As a general rule, I tend to feel closer and more connection to women than I do with men. Some may not think that I have much “skin in the game,” because I am a privileged, white male in an equal rights struggle. Yet this issue is quite personal to me, and it is spiritually urgent.

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Bejeweled Catholic Martyrs

2013-10-10 Catholic Martyrs

I like this article for two reasons. First: the pictures (like the one above) are really arresting. Secondly: it plays a little bit of havoc with my preconception about Eastern vs. Western culture. The use of a metric ton of jewels for decoration is something I tend to ascribe to cultures like India rather than, say, Germany. But one of the things I’ve learned (although I’m no historian) is that our notions of “East” and “West” are pretty simplistic. This is just one tiny example.