For the Sake of the Deceased, Cease and Desist!

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"I have found at times that some of the eulogies are really out of control in terms of the language and stories told, and others are just tremendous and beautiful," said Msgr. Thomas J. McDade, pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Franklin Lakes. "My point is to talk about the death and resurrection of Jesus and the promise of eternal life. That's what needs to be said at this time."

Newark Archbishop John J. Myers has banned eulogies at Roman Catholic funerals. [Stupid but free NYTimes.com registration required. You can also try a Reuters retread and the Bergen Record article that broke the story.] Although the Record story cites a couple padres who either don't support the ban or have worked out compromises, the Times says it's been welcomed by "priests who favor refocusing on the mysteries of the faith rather than on the deceased's love of the Jets or penchant for domestic beer." Families and friends of the deceased, on the other hand, are seeing red.

It's an interesting story not only for the spectacle of a totally discredited elite still wanting to demonstrate its authority to make people miserable, but also for what it says about the attitude of the parishioners. Technically, there should be no controversy, because there were never supposed to be eulogies at Catholic funerals (I always used to wonder why our funerals never had the entertainment value of the ones on TV). That people have come to expect them is a sign of how free consumers of religion feel to demand satisfaction from the clergy. Basically, no grownup believes in Jesus or the resurrection or the mysteries of faith, at least not in the same way they believe their dead pal liked the Jets and drank Yuengling. Who wants some priest coming along to talk about eternal life? (The most satisfying funeral-type thing I've ever been to was a Quaker affair where there was no priest or minister, and in fact no leader at all, and the mourners would volunteer some thoughts on the event; after a few excruciatingly silent minutes, we were all sharing great tales and jokes about our friend the stiff.) This attitude reduces the priest to a functionary whose job is to help cheer up mourning people, and they'd obviously prefer to be thought of as the gatekeepers of Purgatory. But it's the consumer who calls the shots.

NEXT: Jerry's Thought of the Day

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  1. But boiling down religion to mere consumerism robs it of its mystery and importance. Our culture is not better off if religion is considered to be a method of self-help. Religion deals with the questions beyond reason: Why are we here? What’s our purpose here on earth? What’s there beyond death?

    And by the way, I’m a “grownup” who believes in Jesus, the resurrection, and the mystery of faith.

  2. The previous poster has missed the point: Religion is a human institution, and as such it will necessarily adapt itself to the needs and desires of the humans who participate therein. It may be that Mr. Hackbarth believes that religion ought to be inaccessible to laymen, or even beyond the reach of rational thought; others, however, disagree, and the market will fill their needs as surely as it fills his own.

  3. thanks, Paul. And that was the intent.

    Phil, you make an excellent point. Not very comforting to the family, tho. And besides. Who is the priest or minister to say whether or not someone has gone to hell. Pretty sure God makes that decision (other posts in this thread notwithstanding).

  4. The concept of hell, like virgin birth and gods rising from the dead, as well as the devil, has pagan antecedents. The idea of eternal torment is not original with Xianity. Religion, like any other human phenomenon, is influenced by prior beliefs and the socio-economic circumstances of a population. It changes and evolves in response to new ideas and new pressures, but does not cast off all that came before it.

    Messiah fever was in the air at the time of Christ. Jesus was not the only candidate for the role. Jews suffering under Roman subjugation turned to their religious mythology to sustain hope of deliverance, and Jesus came with a particular spin on the Messiah theme. His followers in turn ran with the ball, creating something remarkable, but which does not lack for this-world explanation.

  5. “Messiah fever was in the air at the time of Christ.”

    That is a completely true statement. If you read many of the later books in the Old Testament (Isaiah and Daniel, to name a couple), there were many hints that a Messiah was to come and deliver the people of Israel from their sinful past. In the times leading up to the life of Christ, the people of Israel were basically tossed around between a number of civilizations which had captured them – the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and a few others in between. The people were really looking hard for one man – a savior – to bring them together.

  6. Brad — true what you say about the OT and the messiah thing. (I wrote the “messiah fever” post but apparently forgot to “sign” it.)

    Religion is fascinating, but hardly outside of secular explanations and study. At its founding Xianity was an extremely radical faith that freed many from the oppressive expectations of Roman political and social obligations, particularly so for women. After it became the official religion of the Empire, however, it lost much of what I find appealing about it. A good book on this subject is Elaine Pagels’ “Adam, Eve and the Serpent.” I believe Pagels is a practicing Xian, but not exactly of the orthodox variety. Her take on how institutional approval combined with the doctrine of Original Sin arguably corrupted (not that this is a word she does or would use) Xianity is compelling to me.

    Anyway, religion does either serve the interests and needs of its adherents, or it doesn’t survive, except through force. This has always been true, and is true for contemporary Catholicism as well.

  7. Not much to lose in beliving. If there is a God, Heaven and Hell, I’m good. If not, I’ve lost nothing. contrast that with the atheist. If he’s right, no problem. If he’s wrong, eternity’s a REALLY long time.

  8. The above three posts (Mona,Brad,Mona) make points that support either the falsehood or truth of christianity depending on what you already believe. If there was a “messiah fever” in the air during the life of Jesus, then it makes sense that people would attach such a label to a highly charismatic figure – if you already believe christianity to be the exaggerations of overly zealous followers. On the other hand, the religious person would point to prophecies and pagan myths as support for his belief that this was something divinely foretold (as C.S. Lewis put it “Myth became fact”), and in fact, if you think otherwise then there are a hell of a lot of coincidences to explain between prophecy and the life/death of Jesus. Also, if his followers made up the claims of divinity, resurrection, etc. then it is a bit baffling to me why they would go on to die (sometimes painfully) for their myths. As for a faith being appealing, I don’t ask it to appeal to me. It is supposed to give truth, and this is the only standard by which it should be judged. Anyone who rejects a religion based on aesthetics is rejecting it for a lousy reason. I agree that we should not believe solely on the claims of a minister or parents. Read, study, judge for yourself. Any faiths claims are there to be judged against the findings of philosphy, history, archaeology and anthropology. It’s either true or it’s false and it’s one or the other whether we like it or not.

  9. While I certainly wouldn’t agree that religious faith, or faith in God is not ‘grownup’, I don’t really see how it could be classified as ‘a reasonable belief’. If christianity is reasonable, then certainly believing in the tooth fairy, or that all life on earth came from clone happy aliens should also be considered reasonable. While it may be human nature to attach ourselves to religious beliefs, I don’t think it’s something that really makes a whole lot of sense looked at from a detached perspective. Everyone’s religious beliefs probably seem absurd and unreasonable to someone else, and we can’t all be right.

    While I don’t have any problems with anyone’s personal religious beliefs, I’m quite happy to see organized religious institutions sweat a little as their followers demand more accountability from the clergy, and more say in their spiritual lives. I think it’s a positive thing for society if people’s beliefs become more personal, and they can learn to rely less on an elite cadre of priests, ministers, and clerics to tell them what to think and what their faith should mean for them.

  10. Sebastian, it has been a widely held belief within christianity that, if nothing else, belief in God can be supported by reasonable argument at least since the days of Aquinas. I believe christianity because I think it is supported by metaphysics and history, at least the philosophy and history with which I am familiar. I don’t have faith for absolutely no reason. Why would anyone, except a fool, believe something for no reason? This is also the reason I am a nondenominationl christian – I just don’t agree with the fundamentalist doctrine. But that’s because I judge the logical support for those doctrines insufficient, not simply because they make me uncomfortable, or it’s what I grew up with. You’re right to say we can’t all be right, but that doesn’t mean no one is. How did you come to your beliefs about religion, if not reason? Did you just throw darts?

  11. Jim N – I like your points, but I disagree with your conclusion. To me, the most important thing about a person’s faith is not whether it is true or not. The important thing is that it gives that person comfort and inspiration when comfort and inspiration are needed. As an example, take my Christian beliefs. Just because I’m a Christian, does that mean that I believe every single passage of the Bible is true? Of course not. I read the Bible knowing that much of it is not true, at least not in the literal sense. But if I read a story – Biblical or otherwise – and I find some comfort or inspiration from that story, does it really matter whether the story is true or not? I found the movie “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” to be inspirational in parts, even though the movie itself is completely fantasy. I found “Forrest Gump” to be inspirational in some parts, even though there was no such person. In the Bible, for example, it doesn’t really matter to me whether or not it’s true that Jesus was the son of a virgin mother. If believing that it’s true gives me inspiration, does the truth/falsehood really matter?

    Religion is the process of substituting unimportant questions with verifiable answers for important questions with unverifiable answers. But therein lies the beauty. In the material world, it is easily possible for one person to get the upper hand on another. But in the spiritual world, no one can ever really have the upper hand. What I believe, what you believe, what someone else believes, may differ considerably. And that’s fine, as long as what I believe inspires me and gives me comfort, and what you believe inspires you and gives you comfort. That’s all that matters.

  12. Jim – there are no “prophecies” that are fulfilled which admit of no perfectly pedestrian explanation. But I certainly agree that the Xian martyrs held beliefs they found worth dying for. This was particularly so in the case of women such as Thecla, and other females who chose celibacy rather than consent to forced marriages, in wholesale violation of social expectations. Their families and culture thought them literally insane, but the virgin martyrs considered themselves standing on liberty. I admire people who will die for liberty, including these Xian saints. Gregory of Nyssa captures this early Xian ethos of moral and social freedom when he writes: “The soul directly reveals its royal and excellent quality in that…it is governed and ruled autonomously by its own will.”

    Xianity has embodied many different beliefs since its foundation, and has appealed to people for different reasons at different times. When it was an illegal, minority religion it drew many who found the order around them oppressive. When it became the state religion it appealed to people (like Augustine) as a means of keeping base human instincts in control, with help from the state. The early Xians, on the whole, would have been aghast at employing coercion in matters of faith and morals, but that changed as soon as Xians came to power. And the religion changed with it. Moral freedom was no longer the bedrock of
    Xianity once Augustine and his notions of human depravity, Original Sin, and the purported consequent need for political control of human vice gained doctrinal ascendancy. The young Augustine embraced early Xian ideals of liberty, autonomy and self-government, but not the older, more influential Augustine. That Augustine rejected human liberty utterly, and declared about the forbidden fruit Adam consumed: “The fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is personal control over one’s own will.” That view came to control Xianity, and I feel it has been the worse for it.

  13. Steve, did you just whip Pascal’s Wager on everyone? If so, I don’t think you’ve thought it through. What if there is a god, but it’s Vishnu? Or Odin? If Jehovah doesn’t exist, but Odin does, do you think you’ll be going to Asgard? To really hedge your bet, you have to believe in *every* god, which really means you don’t believe in any (since some of them demand exclusivity).

    What’s more, given the proscriptive and prescriptive natures of the major religions, it’s rather fatuous to claim that believers “lose nothing.”

  14. Phil – yes, Steve does appear to be tossing out Pascal’s Wager. Among the problems with that bet, as you observe, is how is one to know which god to please and thus which hell to avoid?

    But I also wonder that a god could really exist who is so craven and stupid that he/she/it would let me off the hook because I believed solely to pass go. Somehow that seems inconsistent with the vastness and complexity of the universe. Kind of like Einstein becoming preoccupied with who shot J.R.

    But then, I find the whole concept of hell beneath the universe, and any creator such as it may have.

  15. Phil. Good point. And thought of it, but said what I said anyway.

    In Christianity, since we are all (supposedly) free agents, I DO believe I lose nothing by believing.

    Unless, of course, Odin is the “One True God”. In which case, I’m screwed.

    Regards,

    Steve

  16. Brad, I am not dismissing the importance of the comfort that religion gives people. But I don’t agree with you that truth or falsehood really doesn’t matter. Supposing the mainstream christian belief is true (and I am not certain this particular one is), then anyone who does not believe in Jesus during their earthly life is condemned to hell upon death. If that is the case, then do you really think that the truth won’t matter to each and every one of us when we stand before our creator?

    Mona, I’m not denying that christianity has held different beliefs during it’s history, and whether it has or not is not relevant. My whole point remains that faith is not unreasonable, like believing in Santa Claus. People can disagree whether the evidence supports this faith system or that or none at all, but no one should randomly believe for no reason and they shouldn’t take Jerry Falwell’s word for it, or Bertrand Russell’s or mine or yours. They can decide for themselves based on what evidence is available.

  17. Jim, I don’t grasp your point. You write: “My whole point remains that faith is not unreasonable, like believing in Santa Claus. People can disagree whether the evidence supports this faith system or that or none at all, but no one should randomly believe for no reason …They can decide for themselves based on what evidence is available.”

    Faith is belief where there is lack of evidence. If Jesus appeared in my living room and told me the Presbyterians were the true path, I’d become a Presbyterian based on that compelling evidence. But it wouldn’t be faith on my part.

    People believe in things religious because the beliefs fill needs. The philospher and psychologist William James compellingly demonstrated the benefits of conversion experiences almost a century ago. Brad is right, in my view, that a pragmatic approach to belief is not only in order, but is descriptive of how people choose their beliefs. Particularly when the are *free to choose.

  18. Has it occurred to anyone that this religion thing could have a genetic connection? It has been so pervasive in every society throughout history that it could easily pass for being a part of the human makeup. Like eyes and hair and speech and that thing that makes us exhale when we hold our breath. That funny desire to know and wonder where we came from and make up stories about it and kill each other over it could just be our “nature” i.e. our genetic soup.

    What would happen if scientists discover and isolate the “god gene”. My guess is the shit would REALLY hit the fan.

  19. This is one of the more interesting threads I’ve seen lately, so I’ll try to avoid some of the glibness I’ve been using lately.

    The beauty of living in this country is that we can believe…or not believe…as we choose. I have chose to believe as a Christian. Pretty fundamental, too. I believe because…..I do. If someone wants to know what I believe, I’m happy to tell them. FAR from perfect, but working on it. So I don’t have much call to be unforgiving.

    For the most part, the Bible is pretty clear about the do’s and don’ts. Especially in the New Testament. But the one thing that stands out (to me anyway) is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart,……and your neighbor as yourself.”

    Pretty good advice, I’d say.

  20. Not sure about a ‘god gene’, but there has been some suggestive research showing that strong feelings of religious experience (e.g. feeling Jesus is in the room with you, becoming born again, etc.) are associated with a fairly particular part of the brain. It’s been half jokingly referred to as “the God Module”.

    And more to the point of findings that might cause ‘the shit to hit the fan’, it’s been suggested that these religious experiences are actually triggered by small seizures in that relevant brain region.

    I’m pretty sure the work was done by a fellow named Ramachandran. But a google search for “religion” and “brain imaging” should bring up any of the relevant articles at any rate.

  21. Consumer sovereignty is a good, useful economic idea. But so is revealed preference– which means we need some logical explanation for why funerals continue to be held in churches rather than saloons. It’s just barely possible that people who have just lost a friend or relative are more interested in hearing about eternal life than Cavanaugh is.

  22. Paul:

    Mom died 3 years ago. ALS. Terrible disease. After she died, we did the funeral thing where eternal life was, of course, the major topic. THEN we went to the saloon to celebrate not just mom’s earthly life, but her eternal life. We continue to do so when we all get together. I guess my point is that one doesn’t need to have a “church” funeral to celebrate those things.

  23. I think the real issue here are people like “Easter Catholics” who call themselves Christian, but only go to church a few times a year. Religion has lost it’s meaning for them, so they don’t see why they can’t have funerals or weddings the way they want.

  24. Quick points;
    Funerals are for the living

    Far too many people (over 18) belive “in Jesus or the resurrection and the mysteries of faith” in ecactly the same way they believe “their dead pal liked the Jets and drank Yuengling”

    NYT registration is stupid because everyone gives false information

  25. What are the “reasonable” arguments for believing in religion and God? I must have missed them in fifty years of reading.

  26. I won’t go into my deeply held Christian faith here, because I believe my faith to be a very personal thing. If someone wants to hear about it, fine, I’m more than happy to tell. But I know that the vast majority of people don’t want to know, just as I don’t really care to know their reasons why my faith is invalid.

    Regarding funerals, to me, a funeral is many things at once. It is a celebration of the life that the person lived. It is a mourning that the person is no longer with us in this world. It is a celebration that the person has left the earthly kingdom to be a part of God’s eternal kingdom. It is a chance for the family to come together to support one another and sort out any pressing family issues that may now arise as a result of the person’s death. It is a meditation on our own mortality and the temporary nature of this life, and the immortal and eternal nature of God.

    So, why can’t we celebrate BOTH the fact that the deceased loved the Jets and domestic beer AND the idea that the deceased is now enjoying eternal life with God?

  27. There actually are some intelligent adults who literally believe that Jesus was the son of a god and that he rose from the dead. I’m not one of them, and for me abandoning Roman Catholicism was a primary act of personal liberation; that occurred in part via a liberal education and bachelors in religious studies which informed me that virgins bearing gods, and those gods then rising from the dead, were popular pagan beliefs well before and during the time of Christ. That syncretism largely explains Christian doctrine is obvious, and hardly a reason to accept that adherence to these pagan/Xian notions has a basis in logic and reason, which basis, btw, Aquinas did NOT demonstrate.

    Religion, like anything else, responds to consumer demands, or it dies (and this demand also explains syncretism). Especially so in free cultures and states. Some religions that please many people I find appalling, but I also understand the needs these belief systems meet.

    American Catholics who want eulogies will have them, or they will go elsewhere, and the Roman Catholic Church in the West will continue to lose members to New Age enthusiasms, non-denominational fellowships, and fundamentalist churches. Most American Catholics are Americans first, and won’t be dictated to regarding their preferences.

  28. What the church is saying, basically, is that at a funeral, the deceased doesn’t matter, the family doesn’t matter, the only thing that matters is Jesus. I don’t know — I think the deceased should get at least a little attention at his/her own funeral. But you’ve got to give the church points for consistency: as the abusive priests scandals have shown, the church has always cared more about itself than about the people it ministers to.

  29. As another grownup who believes in Jesus I feel I should chime in, although I’m not really sure where to start since I’m not sure what is meant by much of what has been written.

    Maybe all Tim meant by his statement that “grownups” don’t believe in such things is that they don’t seem as real to them as the other things he mentioned, since no one alive has spoken w/ Jesus or witnessed the resurrection. Even if that is what he means, I think his larger point in the post (if I am reading it right) is mistaken. Tim, do you believe the church is doing something morally, ethically wrong here? That there is something wrong with imposing it’s beliefs on people who freely choose to use it’s services? If you really believe in the free market, then what is the problem? If on the other hand you think the “consumer” is wrong to demand something of the church that it is not willing to give, I agree with you. Churches should do their best to deliver the closest thing to truth as possible. Disagreement on whether they have or not is legitimate debate, but we should not demand they satisfy our wants like we would of rite-aid. But what exactly it is you’re trying to say is not really clear to me.

    As for Rick: Your statement that religion is a human institution is an assumption (as far as these comments are concerned) that Sean and I do not share. If you think otherwise, then that is also a subject of legitimate debate, but I think it is worth pointing out to everyone here that it has been held for centuries that belief in christianity is a reasonable belief, not simply a matter of faith.

  30. Sorry to hear about your mom, Steve. But you do help illustrate my point. People don’t NEED church funerals in order to reminisce. If they continue having them, then, that’s at least prima facie evidence that the church is giving them something else that they need.

  31. “It is a celebration that the person has left the earthly kingdom to be a part of God’s eternal kingdom.”

    Or is, you know, suffering torment at the hands of Satan and his minions.

    Just once, I’d love to see a priest or minister stand up at a funeral and say, “We are gathered here to remember Steve, who was a wicked, unrepentant sinner and is surely burning in the fires of Hell even as we speak.”

  32. Hold up a sec… Why, exactly, is the NYT’s registration “stupid”?

    When they present an offer for a six-month subscription that you can choose to accept or decline, is that stupid? When the guy at the newsstand asks for a few quarters in exchange for a copy of the paper — another offer you can accept or decline — is that stupid?

    Maybe I’m not understanding here. Is it that you believe the NYT gets nothing of value from a base of registered user names, and thus is “stupidly” wasting its own time? Is there some technical flaw in the coding that the Times has “stupidly” overlooked?

    Because surely it’s not that you simply don’t like the particular offer that’s been tendered (i.e., “you give us personal info, we’ll give you content”). If you deem that Times content is not worth your personal info, that would make it “too costly,” or “out of your price range.” But I don’t see how that would make it “stupid.” Especially since Reason is all about the sanctity of voluntary exchanges.

    (Answer with quick, sharp retort that makes me look dumb for writing so much about what was a quick aside.)

  33. This is probably the last posting I am going to make on this subject. The claims I make (the reasonableness of theism and christianity) have been made by prominent christians for centuries, and those who advocate faith on other grounds, such as that it comforts people, are, I think, mistaken. After all, if we don’t really believe a faith is objectively true, then how can it bring comfort? As for the other two points which were most recently brought up:

    I think the idea that faith is belief without reason is mistaken. After all, we all know that airplanes are safer than cars. But there is no shortage of people who are afraid to fly and would rather drive. Faith is required here to hold on to our reason against the fear of flying. Faith is the ability to go on believing when moods or other illogical temptations try to pull us away from what we consider most likely true. C.S. Lewis gets into this in “Mere Christianity”.

    As for the possibility that our brains are wired for belief, it’s another argument that works for whatever you already believe. If you think religious people are decieved, then you point to this and say “See? You only believe because there is a short circuit in the human brain that causes you to.” On the other hand, as a religious person who believes we find our only true happiness in our creator, it’s pretty much what I expect.

    If anyone wants to continue this discussion with me, send me an e-mail: jimtnel@yahoo.com

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