FISH – STORIES

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It is no doubt unfair to fish to associate them with what we also call “tall” stories.  It would seem that from time immemorial, fishermen have not been able to resist adding to the length of the fish they claim to have caught.  No one ever boasted of catching a sardine.

The Bible is a collection of fish-stories, some of which actually concern fish.  The biggest in both categories is, of course, Jonah and the Whale, a literary classic perhaps less gripping, more difficult to … swallow, but far more readable than “Moby Dick”.  Jesus Himself made reference to it (Mt.12:39-41) and presumably believed it actually happened.  (He saw it as a model for the miracle of His own Resurrection, so He must have thought it was more than pious fiction.)  He chose as His Apostles a bunch of fishermen, establishing His credibility by offering them a miraculous, net and record-breaking, catch.  He told one of them, Peter the future Pope, that he would be a “fisher of men”.  When a crowd of 5000 and later another of 4000 forgot to bring a picnic lunch with them to His open-air rallies, He fed them all with a few loaves and … fishes.  Some unknown early Christian, who was into acronyms, wanted to find a clever secret code for members of the persecuted sect.  He came up with “ICTHUS” – “I-esous CH-ristos TH-eou U-ios S-oter”, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” : the Greek word for … fish !  Better still, it was enough to use two simple intersecting curves to draw a stylized fish, the prototype of a collection of centuries of Christian art.  (Humankind is descended from fish; so is Christian iconography.)

(Just for fun  :  “F-aith  I-s  S-imply  H-allucination !”   Anyone for acronyms ?)

Both Testaments have their fish-stories, but the one I like best is in Mt.17:27 : Jesus has the I.R.S. on His back, so He sends Peter fishing.  From the mouth of the first fish he catches he pulls out a coin, just enough to pay Jesus’ – as well as his own – taxes.  And you thought money grew on trees !

RIDENDA   RELIGIO

FAITH : THE NECESSARY EXTRA INGREDIENT

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—   “Be it done unto you according to your faith”  (Mt.8:13)

—   “Your faith has saved you”  (Mt.9:22)

—   “Be it done unto you according to your faith”  (Mt.9:29)

—   (To Peter, who had a sinking feeling …)  “Man of little faith, why did you  doubt ?”   (Mt.14:31)

—   “Woman, your faith is great.  Be it done unto you according to your desire”       (Mt.15:28)

—   “In truth I tell you, if you have faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mountain ‘Move from here to there’ and it would move : nothing would be impossible for you”   (Mt.17:20)

—   “If you do not become like little children (‘who believe in Me’ – Mt.18:6), you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven”  (Mt.18:3)

—   “If you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what was done to this fig-tree, but if you say to this mountain ‘Go back and throw yourself into the sea’, that will happen.  Everything that you ask for in prayer, you will receive”  (Mt.21:21-22)

Those eight quotations are what Jesus said about faith in the Gospel of Matthew.  He kept repeating Himself, apparently afraid people might miss His point or not take Him at His word : if you believe enough, you can do anything : get your cancer cured, walk on water, move mountains, you name it !  You just have to believe, like a child.

We all know about the Placebo Effect.  And we have all practised wishful thinking.  But Jesus is telling us solemnly, without hyperbole or rhetoric … “YES, you CAN !”   It was bad, and sad, enough that He believed it Himself; it is worse, and more pathetic, that many people still do.  Naturally they need a back-up explanation when things don’t work out quite the way they hoped and expected : “God works in mysterious ways.  He must have known it would have done me (or my dead baby …), more harm than good.  I not only believe Him; I believe IN Him – I trust Him; He knows best.”  (Don’t forget to pick up your brain from the cloak-room.)

No way one can argue with such a closed (empty ?) mind.  If your prayer is answered, “Hallelujah !”  If it’s not, “Thank you, Jesus, for doing what’s best for me”.  Such iron-bound credulity makes attempts at rational discussion pointless.

But this naïve confidence, charming and touching in a child, is shared by adult believers who take Jesus seriously and “become as little children” (Mt.18:3).  An engineer and would-be Catholic apologist, in an attempt to counter my attacks against credulity, recently told me, in writing :  Our reasoning is “imperfect”; “faith is additionally needed”.  The expression is clumsy but the thought is clear.  Echoing the nonsense in Pope John Paul 2’s encyclical “Faith and Reason”, he seriously suggests not only that faith can move mountains but that it is a necessary source of truth, to complete that which we acquire through reason.  Luckily Jesus told us what we must believe.  And He is God’s Son, isn’t He ?  He told us so Himself.

I know a catechist in Sydney who is planning on relocating Australia’s highest, albeit modest, mountain from Kosciusko to Katoomba.  Melbournites won’t be happy (it’s halfway between the two capitals), but my friend feels it’s all in a good cause.  He wants to organize Bible-camps in the snow-country but finds Mount Kosciusko too far.  It would be so much more convenient, and economical, at Katoomba, just 100 kms from Sydney.  Moreover, he feels the best time would be January, during the long Summer school holidays.  So he is not only going to get Jesus to move the mountain; he is going to get Him to make it snow, heat-wave or no heat-wave.  The kids will have fun in the snow as they learn about the fires of Hell.

RIDENDA   RELIGIO

” DO YOU LOVE JESUS ? “

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I thought I did once.  Now I realize I don’t even like Him.  He was one crazy, mixed-up, dangerous megalomaniac, notoriously hung-up about sex and opposed to even heterosexual marriage, a manipulative magician, a deluded religious fanatic, a mixture of sado-masochism, violence, vengeance and xenophobia, with illusions not only of being the Savior of Mankind but of incarnating God Himself.  On the other hand, many see Him as a great story-teller, kind to kids, fallen women and even His executioners, a crowd-pleaser, something of a poet, a dreamer, a mystic – in all, these people feel, one really nice dude and probably the Most Unforgettable Character anyone ever met.

If you think I’m exaggerating or just being nasty, take a look at the Gospels.  Telling people not to care about tomorrow, where the food and the money are to come from, how to feed the kids, pay the bills and make ends meet, was irresponsible enough to send Christopher Hitchens up the wall.  Jesus was a doomsday prophet who thought the world would end some time soon, real soon, so He advised people to down tools, abandon their fishing nets (and presumably their families) and follow Him, though He had nowhere to lay His head or they theirs, knowing they would all have to depend on handouts to survive.  (Later St Francis of Assisi would take Him literally and make mendicants of mugs like me.)

He was, no doubt about it, a gifted magician.  Those miraculous cures, those resurrections of dead folks, those mass-feedings of 5000 then 4000 hungry people with a few loaves and fishes !  The trick I liked best was walking on the water before conning Peter to do the same and so make a drowning ass of himself – Laurel and Hardy biblical slapstick – and then pulling a coin out of a fish’s mouth to pay His and Peter’s taxes (Peter’s Pence ?).

He waxed eloquent, especially when He was scaring the bejeebies out of folks by threatening them, if they refused to believe in Him, with non-stop weeping, gnashing of teeth and the fires of Hell.  He was pitifully vulnerable (and, in His own mind, no doubt noble), when He accepted His inevitable arrest, torture and execution, convinced that even if His Dad would not let that damned chalice of pain and distress disappear and rather let Him suffer and suffocate, abandoned on the cross, He would rise from the dead before returning to sit next to His Father, as apparently He had been doing from all eternity until His Old Man sent Him to earth to die so as to pay the debt we owed Him (you work it out !).

As principal character in a gruesome, godawful novel (in serious need of editing, if only to eliminate the embarrassing contradictions and mindless repetitions), He lives out a tear-jerking tragedy with a Happy Ending.  His imagined biography became the Best Seller of All Time.  The extraordinary thing is that people believe that the story is true, factual, and worse, believe in Him, dedicate their lives to Him and His message, and die convinced they will enjoy the eternal bliss He promised them.  The writers of the “Good News”, the Gospels, had no idea how successful they would be.  They got billions of people to believe the story, to believe in their Hero, to love Him – while I find it hard even to like the poor guy.                                     

RIDENDA   RELIGIO

TALKING TO MYSELF

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I heard myself saying to myself once : “You talkin’ to me ?”.  I thought I was quoting Bob de Niro, but I found out later that his famous improvisation in “Taxi Driver” was a steal from an Alan Ladd movie twenty years before.  Anyhow, I naturally answered myself and said “Yes”.

I have been talking to myself for as long as I can remember.  But when I was young, mostly it was when I thought I was talking to invisible people like Jesus, His Mum and His Dad.  Now I know they were not only not listening; they no longer existed or never did.  Today, just this side of eighty, I no longer talk to them.  But like lots of old folks I enjoy chatting with the most interesting person I know : me.  (The two rules are never contradict yourself and never lose your temper with yourself.)  I can ask myself questions like “Where did I leave my keys ?”, and talking about it out loud often helps me remember where they are.  Sure beats asking God or St Anthony of Padua to find them for you : as one of them never existed and the other died seven hundred years ago, they are not a lot of help.

I know people who still think God is listening to them.  No harm – but not much point either – in that.  When I talk out loud I know that at least one person is listening, me, and on occasion others as well.  After chatting with them I’m likely to talk to myself about what they said, if, like everything I myself say, it happened to be interesting.  So many people have nothing to declare.

Someone once told me that I was talking but not saying anything.  It is one of my recognized talents.  I can even write (you may have noticed) without saying anything.  But it’s better than praying to Someone who is not there.

RIDENDA   RELIGIO

” WHAT A PITY HELL DOES NOT EXIST ! “

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Has that warped thought ever occurred to you ?  It obviously has to me.  Atheism robs us of the satisfaction born of the blood lust and vengeance which tempts us every time a serial killer strikes, every time a child is raped and murdered, every time a terrorist decapitates an innocent victim, as one did in France this morning.  (A French politician, displaying a severe case of historical amnesia, called it the first decapitation in France …).  Even in the country I have adopted, where since 1981 the guillotine has been dismantled (or put into moth-balls ?), many find consolation in God’s supposedly more enlightened intolerance of evil in inflicting atrocious eternal suffering on the sadists, the suicide bombers and the S.S.

If one of my own loved ones were a victim of such monsters I must confess I would probably be tempted by such a vicious pipe-dream.  But rationally, and without the pressure of actually experiencing such a tragedy, I am inclined to regret that Hell does not exist, for another reason.  That guy who today butchered the businessman in southeastern France, that other terrorist who this morning killed 37 tourists on a beach in Tunisia, and the Sunnis who slaughtered, also today, another 25 in a Shiite mosque in Koweit, when they die will all, like everyone else, simply cease to exist, without ever not only experiencing punishment for their crimes, but not even the realization that their religious fanaticism, to say nothing of their promised 72 virgins, was a total illusion.  They caused excruciating suffering to their victims and their families but will escape both retribution and the frustration of enlightenment when they die.  Death is indeed the Great Leveller, the Great Equalizer.  Rich or poor, believer or atheist, saint or sinner, hero or criminal, we all die – and that’s it ! It’s all over.  Annihilation.  Nothingness.  The fragile bubble which was life and consciousness has burst.  We are no more.  No reward for the just, no punishment for the wicked, no realization how wrong both were.  It’s enough to make you want to believe in Heaven (for us) and above all Hell for all those bastards (unlike you and me) who deserve it.

All things considered, it’s no wonder people believe in God and attach such importance to the “Last Things” : Death, Judgment, Heaven and/or Hell.  But no amount of wishful thinking will make God, Heaven and Hell exist.  A pity ?  Akin to regretting that children grow up.

RIDENDA ,   DELENDA   RELIGIO

” I DON’T BELIEVE SO ; I AM SURE ! “

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No, I do not BELIEVE God exists; nor do I BELIEVE He does not. I’m SURE He does not.  You BELIEVE He does, and you can ONLY believe He does.  I KNOW He doesn’t – for two reasons : Bertrand Russell’s “not enough evidence” and “we all die”, which makes people want to believe – irrationally – in God, souls, an after-life and Heaven.  So there is no point in trotting out your “proofs” and trying to explain away the problem of evil.  When you start with the foregone conclusion that God exists, the “proofs” you concoct are evidence only of wishful thinking.  When you tie yourself in knots trying to justify the pain, the hunger, the torture and the death if not the slaughter of innocent children, you refuse to recognize the obvious : your God, if He existed, would be a monster.

You can throw away your books of Theology and Apologetics.  That one paragraph says it all.

DELENDA   RELIGIO

“WHEN LEGEND BECOMES FACT . . .”

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” . . .  print the legend !”.  The words are those of the newspaper editor who had just interviewed the man who had supposedly shot Liberty Valance.  Played by Jimmy Stewart in John Ford’s classic western of 1962, the U.S. Senator and Ambassador whose career had been  built on his reputation of having shot the notorious bad guy, played by Lee Marvin, knew it was the good guy, played by John Wayne, who actually fired the fatal bullet.  But the newspaper man, who discovered the uncomfortable truth, knew the power of legend over mere fact, and so he let the legend live.

Others before me may have underlined the wider truth the words express, for the phrase is a perfect explanation of the resilience of the myths on which religious faith is based.  Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all built on legends that have become facts for the faithful.  Once the founding myth is accepted, others, including the “miracles” of Moses, Jesus or Mahomet, can be invented and incorporated into believers’ beliefs.  Dividing the waters of the Red Sea, raising Lazarus to life, a dead man riding a horse into Heaven, remain unquestioned by people ready to abandon logic and rationality and to prefer legend to fact.  Blind faith is blind folly, which is why this Blog exists.  The challenge it faces is even more formidable  than getting people to accept the truth about a bogus hero.  But different from the editor in the movie who decided to leave the legend intact, I intend to keep inviting readers to relinquish their illusions based on legends, and to discover the truth based on facts that alone can make them free.

DELENDA   RELIGIO

W A Y O U T t t t ttttttttt . . . ! !

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Marketeers and spin-doctors of the lucrative tourist business have become masters of their craft. Who can resist those brochures, those TV documentaries, those gorgeous photos of Australian beaches and rain-forests and their exotic, unique animals, as well as the marine life in sublime, living reefs of coral ? Cities like Rio, Paris, London but also countries like Malaysia, New Zealand, Switzerland ? The jungles of Central Africa and South America, the deserts of North Africa, the canyons of the United States, the ice-fields of Antarctica ?

The next tourist frontier will be space. Elon Musk is promising us the Moon and even Mars. The former is a round-trip; the latter is not. On both the scenery is, well, out of this world. But when you have oohed and aahed a few hundred times at the Blue Planet you left, frankly there’s not much to see out there. Why would anyone want to pay a fortune not only for the risky venture of space-travel, but also for the one-way trip to another planet of which we know so little ? Having seen what telescopes, fly-by space vehicles and that neat little car Curiosity have shown us of Mars, I am not specially tempted by either the challenge or the scenery, and wonder why, on earth …, anyone would want to go there even for a visit, if that were possible ?

If it were question of an exoplanet proven hospitable and with lush vegetation, a viable environment and unique tourist potential (little Green Men literally flying to meet your every need, for example), the trip may be somewhat more attractive, even if it were without a return ticket. The bigger problem, of course, is that not only have we no certitude such planets could compare or compete with life on earth (which ain’t really so bad, all things considered), but it is highly unlikely that science would ever make it possible for anyone to travel that far. It is, to offer an astronomical understatement, a long, long way to go.

We know Mars is a barren wasteland, worse than the Australian Outback (which at least has Uluru, Wave Rock and the Olgas) : a No Man’s Land, in the exact sense of the phrase. The unreachable stars, or rather the planets of other galaxies, are possibly habitable or even inhabited, but we’ll no doubt never know. However there is, according to religious believers all over the world, a land of beauty, somewhere over the rainbow, beyond our wildest imaginings, a place of perpetual peace and joy, which they dreamt of once in a lullaby. They are hooked on Heaven, though they have never seen a single promotional photo of it, nor read the testimony of people who have been there. The remarkable marketing which is religious propaganda is so effective that some people are prepared to give up everything, even their lives, to get there. Some are even impatient to die – a necessary pre-condition for a Green Card to get through the Pearly Gates. Such illusions, like the Utopia they promise, can only be called … way out.

RIDENDA RELIGIO

BLOODY HELL ! BLEEDING HOSTS ?

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An American Opus Dei priest writes a column in Sydney’s “Catholic Weekly” and a blog, which he humbly, self-derisively and accurately calls “Meditations and Mutterings”. One recent muttering concerns the intriguing question from a reader as to “why the Church has a second feast, in addition to Holy Thursday, in honour of the Holy Eucharist”. We learn that the celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi goes back to “St Juliana of Cornillon, who in 1208 reported a vision in which she understood Jesus to be lamenting the absence of a particular feast in the Church’s calendar focused on His sacramental presence on the altar”.

Now you will understand, dear reader, that I will be more than disappointed if after my death there are not one but TWO grandiose commemorations of the days I posted the first entry on the Blog, and the day (maybe today …) I will have trumpeted my Last Post. It is therefore not surprising that Jesus was a bit teed off with His Church for giving Him only one feast celebrating the Eucharist. Normal that He would have complained, and normal that the Church did what He asked. Spoiled children, especially when they are divine, too often get what they ask for.

It is bad enough to have to swallow this tall story, but the article goes on to tell another, about a German priest, Peter of Prague, who was, in 1263, “a pious priest, but one who found it difficult to believe that Christ was actually present in the consecrated host”. At Mass one day “he had barely spoken the words of consecration when blood started to seep from the consecrated host and trickle over his hand onto the altar and the corporal”.

This is the Miracle of Orvieto, where “the linen corporal bearing the spots of blood is still on display”. On the 700th anniversary of the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi, in 1964, Pope Paul V1 (who gave me my dispensation from the priesthood four years later) celebrated Mass at the altar where the corporal is kept.

Devout Catholics would miss the unintended irony of a phrase in the blog article, speaking of “the Eucharistic feast of the Body and Blood of Christ”. And what a feast, devouring the blood-drenched Body of Christ !

It is astounding – worse, pitiful – that intelligent people could believe the legend of Orvieto, and not even notice that the bit about real blood on the host makes a literal understanding of Holy Communion not only absurd but disgusting.

RIDENDA RELIGIO

” DEATH AIN’T NO WAY TO MAKE A LIVIN’ ! “

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The reproach was made by a ghost employed by a conman who used him to frighten people into getting their haunted houses exorcized. It’s a line from Peter Jackson’s movie “The Frighteners”, starring Michael J. Fox, a way-out but masterfully-made film about ghosts, which is a festival of special effects – no surprise in a movie made by the creator of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Hobbit”. The producer, Robert Zemeckis, called it “a computer-graphics extravaganza”. In the supplemental material to the film on DVD, Jackson shows us how he works his magic and adds, seriously, that he himself not only believes in ghosts, but that he actually saw one cross his bedroom when he woke up one morning ! There are ghosts galore in this movie. Death, an empty cloak in the form of the Grim Reaper complete with scythe, is a central character. “The Frighteners” succeeds in making a farce about death, which provides a living for the “exorcist”.

Sounds silly ? No more than the clergy who exploit belief in the after-life which they cultivate as the fundamental raison d’être of the religion in which they have appointed themselves as the official representatives of God Himself (including … the Holy Ghost !) Stipends from funerals and multiple Requiem Masses are solid sources of income. But the beliefs, rules and rituals the clergy promotes are all based on death and its imagined sequel, Heaven or Hell. Although many of the Almighty’s accredited guides to Heaven may themselves believe the rubbish they preach, they are just as much purveyors of nonsense as the amusing, entrepreneurial exorcist in the movie, who at least knows and admits he is a fraud.

RIDENDA RELIGIO

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