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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Theologian as Dead Frog

After reading this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by someone who identifies himself as "theistic off the job and professionally agnostic,” I'm wondering if I should reconsider my Theology studies. He explains:

“Theology [as opposed to religious studies] also views itself as an academic discipline, but it does not attempt to advance knowledge. Rather, theologians practice and defend religion.”
How can theology be so unambitious?

“Since rituals do not accomplish what the religion says they do, the researcher evaluates them on the basis of what they actually accomplish, even when the doctrines do not acknowledge those accomplishments.”
It seems I should also reconsider my vocation as a priest.

“In sum, the religion researcher is related to the theologian as the biologist is related to the frog in her lab. Theologians try to invigorate their own religion, perpetuate it, expound it, defend it, or explain its relationship to other religions. Religion researchers select sample religions, slice them open, and poke around inside, which tends to "kill" the religion, or at least to kill the romantic or magical aspects of the religion and focus instead on how that religion actually works.”
Can somebody explain this to me? As far as I can tell, this analogy doesn't make any sense, because shouldn't the religion researcher then be dissecting the theologian? And, if so, wouldn't that make it hard for the theologian to invigorate or perpetuate anything? Unless, perhaps, maybe after dissection the frog is resurrected? But, then again, this might not "kill" religion, but start a new one. I'm confused. And, besides, I don't want to be the dead frog. Maybe I could be a virus?

Also, apparently, if I want to persist in being a priest and a theologian, I'm going about it unethically:
“The failure of theologians to remind the members of their churches and synagogues that the Bible is an anthology of ancient literature composed by ancient people in an ancient culture has consequences. The laity are entitled to know that any god described in a biblical text is an ancient god, a byproduct of the ancient culture that produced the text. The god of the Bible is the sum total of the words in the text and has no independent existence. It would be reasonable to begin every theological discussion with the disclaimer "the god described in this sacred text is fictional, and any resemblance to an actual god is purely coincidental." This is not an outsider's dismissive opinion, but the reality, and theologians have an ethical obligation to teach that truth even if they also want to believe and teach, as is their right, that a god exists.

But, thank God, it seems that my qualms may be unwarranted. He wants to reassure me:
“Am I trying to imply that theology is without value? Certainly not.”

So, maybe it is safe to step back into the sanctuary, and the classroom. And, in case you were wondering, I checked: not from the April Fool's issue.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I'm Good

You never know how things are going to come across on the internet. I've had a few kind messages from people, thinking I was upset or down, because of the post (since removed) which at least two people described as "raw." It wasn't as raw as what I had originally written for myself, and it was trying to express something I've been thinking about for some time. So, it wasn't really as raw as it seemed. But since it was interpreted that way, it's probably better that I removed it. I can assure you that I am not down or upset, but actually quite the contrary.

Indeed, I've had a lovely couple of days. One of the things that's great about being a Jesuit priest is that we have this great network of people who are graduates of our educational institutions. Since I am a graduate of Fordham university, I received word that there was a group of Fordham alumni coming to New Orleans this week to assist Catholic Charities and Operation Helping Hands in some of their ongoing rebuilding work. Knowing I was going to be here at the same time, I contacted them and invited them to the parish for mass. They kicked off their week with an alumni reception here in town last night. So, I joined them and some other local alumni last night for drinks and hors d'oeuvres in the French Quarter, and they joined me for mass this morning at 11:00 am. After mass, I joined them for an afternoon around town. So, it's been a really enjoyable couple of days with a group of young alumni, all of whom have graduated within the last ten years. Many of them used their vacation time from work in order to come down here for this trip.

This is truly one of the perks of being a Jesuit. I have enjoyed seeing many of the great positive contributions my former students are making in the world. And that's only a small percentage of the alumni I haven't taught myself from other schools, like this group from Fordham (actually several of them were students at Fordham at the same time I was a student). What a privilege to spend some time with them these last two days! I know they are going to do great work here this week.

So, yeah, sometimes there are the conversations that are a little lacking in Christian charity, and in sensitivity toward people I care about, but that's one of the "perks" too. Knowing the success of our work, witnessed to by the generosity of our Jesuit alumni, helps outweigh the criticism of those who fail to see the good.

So, really, I'm good.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Voices in My Head

So, the book manuscript has been submitted, which is a relief. But with that comes the back and forth reevaluation in my head. Maybe that part wasn't really finished. That part was really good. Does it really all come together? Does it provide what I wanted it to? Yes, there's enough there that many different people will be able to getting something out of it. Did I limit the audience too much? Or not enough? Blah, blah, blah.

I expect this is normal, and I'm counting on editorial feedback. And, of course, there is always the fear that they'll return it and say: This is really awful. But I'm pretty certain that won't happen.

In the meantime, I'm throwing myself into my summer work as a parish priest. And starting to look ahead to other things like moving, the young adult retreat I'm working on next month, my own retreat, and a new school year at a new school. So, I guess it's helpful that stuff is running around my head as well!

For Some, I Must Be the Agent of Darkness

Today I again had one of those experiences where as a priest I feel like I just have to sit silently, and hope that maybe God gives me something to say, if God wants me too. And, if not, God will take better care of things than I can . . .

A friend expressed some concerns about this post. So, I've removed it, at least for now, to consider his concerns.

If you're interested in my thoughts, feel free to write me at my e-mail address.

Friday, July 10, 2009


My creative energies have been focused elsewhere lately. So, I hope you have not been "put out" by my absence.

My book, which has been floating far too long in the ether, is nearly complete. I'm not sure why it has been such a prolonged effort, but I hope it will prove to be worth it. It has been a fascinating experience of inspiration, frustration, change and nurturing. Chapters moved, titles changed, and the realization that it will never be quite "done." How much to explain? How much to leave to the reader? The hope and the trust that ultimately it will be up to the reader to finish, for it is for him and her and them after all.

This is all to say that my lack of blogging ought soon to produce a material reward, in 2010. Here's a description, I prepared for the publisher:

Part memoir, part cultural critique, part Christian apologetic, Title Yet to Be Finally Determined is Jesuit Fr. Mark Mossa’s spiritual primer for young adults searching for God in their life. “You may have noticed that there are not a lot of Catholic Christian spirituality books out there that speak to your experience,” he says to the reader, “I noticed that too.” This book is Mossa’s attempt to begin to make up for this lack, by delving deeply and honestly into his own young adult experience. While doing so, he invites the reader to agree to one key insight, which provides the book’s basic structure: “Whether we like it or not, each of us has a past, present and future. And . . . they’re connected.”

Indeed, as the title suggests, Mossa’s book is all about making connections. That, he says, is what the spiritual life is all about. It has to be more than just a vague feeling of self-transcendence. True spirituality, he insists, must connect us with God, and other people. Drawing inspiration from sources as varied as Marlon Brando and the Psalms, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Kermit the Frog, Adam Sandler and U2 he invites young adults on a journey to finding God already present and active in their lives, in their relationships and in their culture.

Along the way, by also sharing his own successes and mistakes, and the lessons he learned from them, he hopes to offer insights more suited to the complexities of life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. What does it mean to allow myself to love and be loved? Can I ever really forget the pain of my past life? How do I discover the unique life that God is calling me too? Inviting young adults to embrace what he calls a “spirituality of desire,” Title . . . seeks to start them on the path to an adult spiritual life, one energized by the common human desire to be with God.

Sound interesting? I hope so.

I have promised to submit the manuscript Monday, and there is only a little and much to do between now and then. So, see you on the other side.

Please pray with me that my finishing touches will be sufficient, for now.