He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Monday, July 23, 2018

Fair Questions: Why is post-Reformation Biblical literalism a dead letter?

Before I start, I want to emphasize that I think the literal sense of Sacred Scripture is very important.  It's been considered very important throughout the long history of Catholic scholarship on the Bible, from the early Church through the medieval era and into the modern era.

This hasn't changed.  What has changed is that a reductively literalistic view of Biblical interpretation has gotten more popular in some circles.  It is this reductively literalistic view with which I take issue.

For a Catholic perspective on how to understand Sacred Scripture (which some non-Catholics are largely in agreement with), start with the Catechism, and then read this piece on addressing contradictions, and this piece on skepticism related to the Bible.

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I was recently asked a question that inspired me to dig a little deeper into the question of Biblical literalism.  What I mean by Biblical literalism in this case is a particular view of the Bible which stipulates that the Bible has the following characteristics:
  1.  The Bible is the inerrant Word of God.
  2.  Thou shalt not take away or add to the Bible; it is the sole rule of faith.
  3.  Reading the Bible literally is the only tenable interpretative approach.
This view ends up committing the Biblical literalist to some other propositions as a consequence of their view:
  • Any apparent contradictions have to be resolved literally.
  • Any apparent contradictions cannot be resolved by inserting additional information into the text from tradition or speculation.
  • Any apparent contradictions cannot be resolved by removing information from the text.
There are many lists on many websites laying out these alleged contradictions in the Bible.  Now, most of what folks refer to as contradictions in the Bible aren't actually contradictions in a logical sense that matters for literal interpretation.  They just reflect a lack of knowledge on the part of the reader, or confirmation bias that sees contradictions everywhere.

That said, there are certainly passages in the Gospels that read as flat-out contradictions.  And Christians who take what I described above as a Biblical literalist view are going to have a hard time explaining those within the constraints that their position requires of them.

One example of this relates to the narrative of Jesus' resurrection from the dead in the Bible.  In the Gospel of Matthew's narrative, Mary kneels down and clings to Jesus' feet right after the Resurrection.  In the Gospel of John's narrative, Jesus explicitly tells her she's not allowed to touch him before she even tries.

How can we reconcile that the Gospels claim these both to be true?

A.  Jesus' feet were touched at the time of greeting Mary after he was resurrected
B.  Jesus refused to allow Mary to touch him when she turned towards him after he was resurrected

Well, we could suppose that Scripture is missing some information.  Maybe the Gospel of John just left out the fact that Jesus specifically told her not to touch him because she had already knelt down and touched his feet?  Maybe it's not a different narrative at all?

But John's account actually proposes something different, that Mary did not recognize him at first, and when she did recognize him, that Jesus instructed her not to touch him as she was turning towards him (read the verse in context here).  In Matthew's account, it's not just Mary, but the women as a group, who recognize him and kneel before him to grab his feet (read the verse in context here).

Now, this can be resolved by merging the texts.  We can take the part from Matthew about it being a group of women and them recognizing Jesus and grabbing his feet, and then he tells them all not to touch him because he hasn't ascended to the Father yet.

We could make a single narrative out of it in a variety of ways.  But there are going to be multiple places where we have to remove some parts of one Gospel account in order to make room for the other, or add interpolations to the Gospel account in order to get a single non-contradictory literal account of the events.

Creating a harmony of the gospel accounts is a not uncommon project of Christians who are very interested in synthesizing Biblical teaching.  And there's a very simple reason that there are so many attempts create a single Gospel account that manages to include all the account of Jesus' life:  it's very, very difficult to do so.

Narrative contradictions make it especially difficult for Biblical literalists, but it's difficult even for those of us who read the Bible keeping in mind the literal, moral, anagogical, and allegorical senses of Scripture.  If it were easy to do, it would have already been done well before the 1st millennium of Christianity had ended, and most Christians would simply be referencing that text.

Clearly, that is not what has happened.  The closest thing I've found is the Catena Aurea, and it's well worth reading, but it is not an attempt to harmonize the Gospel accounts into one narrative.  However, it does contain some useful explanation as to why the Gospel authors chose to tell those narratives differently, and it's mostly an explanation from the perspective of early Christian thinkers and writers.

Most early Christian thinkers and writers, because the canon of Scripture wasn't a settled question for several hundred years, didn't see themselves as part of a text-based religion that looked to the Bible as the sole rule of faith (a view designated by the Latin phrase Sola Scriptura today).

It's likely that most early Christians would see the Protestant idea of Sola Scriptura as weirdly incomplete as compared to their own view of the Church as providing the rule of faith.  For example, Irenaeus of Lyons was a big fan of using the Bible to make his case, but he saw the Holy Scriptures as being part of the Apostolic Tradition, not as the sole rule of faith.

The view that the literal sense of Scripture is not just necessary (its necessity being the Catholic view), but indeed all-sufficient as the rule of faith (which is the view of some post-Reformation Christian groups), is a strange new idea.  It's not the sort of thing that the early Christian community that compiled the Biblical texts would likely have thought very intelligible.

This strangely reductive literalism, for them, would have been what the Catechism calls a dead letter, the product of viewing Christianity as a "religion of the Book" like Islam.  The Church, on the other hand, is a living authority, a transmission of the Apostolic Tradition from generation to generation.

It is only in light of the Tradition, shaped by the various Apostolic oral traditions of the early Church, that we can understand the Gospels aright.  They are representative of the orally transmitted teachings of the Apostles, inspired by their encounter with the Living God and transmitted in a shockingly faithful way despite the many imperfections of the human beings involved in the process.

Related: Will reading the Bible make people atheists?


Friday, July 20, 2018

Fair Questions: Why have I added even more skull beads on my rosaries?

As I've mentioned before, I have reasons for adding skull beads to my rosaries.  I've prayed the Rosary in many of those ways, and found them all beneficial.

Since the last time I wrote, I have added more prayers to my Rosary repertoire.  Listed below are a few more of the ways I pray the Rosary.

Read on to find out why I have continued to add skull beads to my rosaries.

"Une Mort Sainte" Rosary

In English, this is what I call "A Holy Death" rosary.  It's based on the quite ancient Dominican way of praying the Rosary.  The only difference is an added prayer between each of the decades and at the end of the final decade.

"Seigneur, que le Pirate des Ames ne dérobe pas ceux qui T'aiment, que leurs actes d'amour soient grands ou petits, et accorde-leur une mort sainte."

English translation: "Lord, let not the Pirate of Souls steal away those who love You, whether their acts of love be great or small, and grant them a holy death."

This prayer is inspired by the two French saints (Joan of Arc and Thérèse of Lisieux) whose medals are attached to it, and also by the skull and crossbones on the crucifix.  It also draws upon Sacred Scripture and Christian mystical theology.

I prefer to use this rosary to pray for my friends and family who have died.

The Domini Canes Rosary

The Domini Canes Rosary is inspired by the Dominican-style rosary with a large Dominican cross (see the coat of arms of the order).  I pray with this rosary in the Dominican way of praying the Rosary, though I pray an additional prayer when I come to each skull bead (there are 6 of them).

"Por favor, Señor, ayudame siempre a buscar para Tus corderos perdidos como un amable Sabueso del Señor, guiando ellos con paciencia ilimitada y un amor del autosacrificio, al pasto de Tu hogar paradisíaco del mismo modo como Tu santo siervo Domingo de Guzman lo hizo en la vida y en la muerte."

English Translation: Lord, please help me to ever search out your lost sheep as a gentle Hound of the Lord, leading them with boundless patience and self-sacrificial love to the pasture of Your heavenly household, just as your holy servant St. Domingo de Guzman did in life and in death.

Those familiar with St. Dominic (as he is referred to in English) may know that the order he founded, the Dominicans, had a pun made on its name.  The Latin words Domini Canes can be translated as Hounds of the Lord.

The Gunmetal Dust Rosary

The Gunmetal Dust Rosary was inspired by the Rule of St. Benedict's instruction to "Keep death daily before one's eyes." and my reading of St. John Climacus' The Ladder of Divine Ascent, which devotes an entire chapter to the remembrance of death.  I pray this Rosary according to the Dominican form, though I add an additional prayer when I arrive at each skull bead between the decades.

"Lord, please help me to remember that it was from dust that I was formed, and that it is unto dust that I shall return."

The crucifix is in a Benedictine style, with a medal of St. Benedict embedded in the structure of the cross.  Around the image of St. Benedict is printed the Latin phrase: Eius in obitu nostro praesentia muniamur!  It is a prayer asking for his presence at the hour of our death, because, like St. Joseph, he is regarded as a Patron Saint of a Happy Death.

*     *     *

I mentioned previously that Ancient Christianity has placed a great emphasis on the importance of a holy death.  At the time that Christ died, it was much easier to follow the Rule of St. Benedict by keeping death daily before one's eyes.

Most of the population was much more familiar with death than we are today.  The wealthy elites watched people die in real time in the arenas such as the Coliseum, the poor farmers went through many a cycle of life and death with their animals, sailors lost friends to the sea, and lifelong soldiers were so intimate with death that they might as well have counted it among their close friends.

Add to this that the infant mortality rate was high, and making it to adulthood without dying from something or another meant that you were doing pretty well.  The upshot of the sheer frequency of exposure to death is that, whether via an unhealthy desensitization to violence or a mature acceptance of the reality of suffering, people were generally more accepting of death.

Death was so ubiquitous that it could not be avoided except by unusually insulated individuals.  Now there are parts of world in which much of the populace has no close encounter with death.  They never see the animals whose flesh they eat with blood spurting out of their necks upon being slaughtered.  Infant morality rates are very low, and crime rates are low as well.

Dangerous frontier areas are now uncommon in many countries.  Wars are less often a case of soldiers killing one another on the field and more a case of soldiers killing from a distance with new technologies.  In some parts of the world where Death was an ever-present varmint 150 years ago, it's now an endangered species.

Even in areas in which it is still common, in many of them it is at least less common than it was before.  So for those of us living free of the majority of experiences of death that our ancestors would have faced, it is more difficult to remember our own deaths on a regular basis.  And it is easier to deny the importance of keeping our mortality ever in mind.

The resurgence in memento mori artifacts is at least partially a consequence of more people being aware of how distant we have become from the reality of death and its severity.  And at an individual level, we ought to find ways to bring that awareness of our own mortality and frailty into our lives through daily habits.

A rosary with skull beads is one nice way to do that.  Or in my case, lots of rosaries with skull beads because I needs lots of reminders.

Note:  The large rosaries with silver-finished skull beads are from Rugged Rosaries.  I highly recommend them for custom rosary designs that are both beautiful and extremely durable.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Fair Questions: Why are many Catholics in the U.S. so Protestant in their thinking?

This question was posed recently in a group I'm a part of, and I thought it was worth answering from my perspective because I'm a former Protestant who only very gradually became Catholic in his thinking.

One thing to note is that this is an issue that is not specific to Catholics.  Members of Eastern Orthodox or Coptic Orthodox congregations who grew up primarily in the U.S. often have the same struggle of trying to reconcile their deeply-ingrained and culturally-acquired assumptions that stem from Protestant thinking with the ancient Christian religious tradition which predates such thinking and is different from it at a paradigmatic level.

This is not even an issue that is specific to members of Christian groups.  Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, people who are part of various Indian traditions under the umbrella of Hinduism, and so on are often afflicted with this difficulty as well.  That said, I'm going to examine the situation of Christianity in particular.

We who were raised in America generally inherit a set of intuitions about the meaning of the word "worship" and the word "pray", the nature of human social hierarchies, the nature of our relationship with religion, the place of the Bible in Christian life, the nature of the Church, what it means to be a Christian, and so on.

Because the United States was heavily influenced by Protestant Christians in its culture, its theological language, its popular ecclesiology, its view of the Bible, and its view of human nature, these intuitions are often Protestant intuitions.

I wrote a fairly lengthy series about my own journey to re-examining and ultimately rejecting those intuitions, and that was not an easy process, given how basic many of them are to someone raised in the United States.

For example, it took me quite a long time to shake the intuition that the Bible is the basis for Christian theological claims and truly understand that the Bible is a written record of early Christian theological claims.  I thought that the Bible was what gave Christianity the authority.  It turns out that Christian authority vested in the Church gave us the Bible.

It also took me many years to understand why my intuition that Mary's role as Queen of Heaven need not be emphasized was wrong, and to unpack the ways in which my American understanding of social hierarchy had unfairly prejudiced my view of the divine hierarchy.

I also had a defective understanding of my relationship to the Church.  I viewed the Church as something I could accept or reject on intellectual grounds, not as the Body of Christ in its earthly fullness to be loved as I love my own body, just as Christ loves the Church.

This intuition that turned out to be false isn't something I developed on my own.  I inherited it from an American culture that has largely agreed that attending churches is just a matter of individual preference in practice, even if in theory some of the congregations assent to the traditional ecclesiological view of the 1st-millennium Church that there is one true Church, and outside the one true Church of Christ there is no salvation.

In a similar way, there are many people in the United States who are raised Catholic and nonetheless take the typical post-Reformation view that leaving the Catholic Church to attend services with another congregation is just their personal choice.  It's not a schism or anything serious like that.  It's just a matter of doing what their conscience tells them.

And given this, it's not surprising that Americans don't see the Catholic Church as an authority to be obeyed, but rather an advisor on morality whose advice can be ignored, because the individual is the final arbiter of what is best for the individual.  The Church can't really be an authority over an individual, because the individual is the ultimate authority.

This American individualism is so deeply rooted in the psyche of most Americans that even the most traditional Catholics who strive for obedience to the Church can struggle with it, sometimes going so far as to set themselves against the Church for not living up to their individual standards.

While some might focus on the problem with Protestant theological language flattening the definitions of the words "pray" and "worship" (for good reasons), I am more concerned about the more deeply-rooted intuitions which make it easy for us to rationalize leaving the Church or rejecting Her teaching while still being attached to the Church for other reasons.

Intuitions like these are doing real damage to the Corpus Christi, as they motivate an increasing number to leave, many to dissent, and some to grumble against the Church for not doing more to strike against those who dissent.

Though it's interesting to consider how American culture tends to make even Catholics and members of other ancient religious groups accept intuitions at odds with how their religious traditions understand the world, it's mostly just sad to watch the Body of Christ breaking again.

Ut unum sint.

Related: The Protestant Intuition: Divine Gifts & Human Works

Note:  Above is a picture of Martin Luther's edited Bible translated into German.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Heart of Our Lady

Editor's/Translator's Note:  I composed this poem in both Spanish and English at various points.  Sometimes I was inspired in Spanish and at other times in English.  I took some liberties with both the Spanish and English grammar for poetic reasons, to more effectively convey the image I wished to present to the reader.

"El Corazón de Nuestra Señora"

En la Concepción de Nuestro Señor
fue el corazón de Nuestra Señora
que se llenó de alegría mientras
su útero se llenó del Hijo de Dios.

En la Epifanía de Nuestro Señor
fue el corazón de Nuestra Señora
que se ponderaron todos estos eventos
y descubrieron que son tesoros.

En la ciudad de Nuestro Señor
fue el corazón de Nuestra Señora
que resultó herido por
la permitiendo su Hijo salir.

A la muerte de Nuestro Señor
fue el corazón de Nuestra Señora
se rompió cuando el Cuerpo del Hijo
fue molido por nuestros pecados.

En la tumba vacía de Nuestro Señor
fue el corazón de Nuestra Señora
que se llenó de alegría cuando
supo que su hijo había resucitado.

"The Heart of Our Lady"

At the Conception of Our Lord
it was the heart of Our Lady
that filled with joy while
her womb filled with the Son.

At the Epiphany of Our Lord
it was in the heart of Our Lady
that all these events were pondered
and discovered to be treasures.

In the citadel of Our Lord
it was the heart of Our Lady
that was wounded by
allowing her Son to leave.

At the death of Our Lord,
it was the heart of Our Lady
that broke when the Lord's
body was crushed for our sins.

At the empty tomb of Our Lord
it was the heart of Our Lady
that filled with quiet joy when
she knew her son was risen.

The above is a picture I took of an icon I had custom-made.  Teshin Iconographics did great work.  I translated the original Portuguese inscription "Nossa Senhora da Luz" into English, along with the Bible passage on the scroll.  This particular icon is of Our Lady of Light of Mozambique.  She is holding the Christ-child, in whose hands there is a scroll with the verse from Matthew: "Let the children come unto me."

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Letter of Bahá'u'lláh to Pope Pius IX

Recently, I was finally able to get a decent copy of an English translation of some of the writings of the Bahá'í faith.  I realize that it's not common for Americans to order a book of Bahá'í writing, and folks may wonder, "Why would I do that?"

I haven't studied the Bahá'í faith is an much depth as Buddhism or Islam or various traditions under the umbrella of Hinduism, and I had a desire to at least lessen my ignorance about it.

I opened it up and quickly learned a few things.  First, I learned that Bahá'u'lláh wrote a fair number of letters to people of prominence.  He wrote to Pope Pius IXTsar Alexander II, Napoleon III, Queen Victoria, and the famous Sultan of Persia, Naser al-Din Shah Qajar.

I was a little surprised to see how prominently Bahá'u'lláh's letter to the Pope at the time was featured in the volume.  I wasn't sure why the Pope would head up that list in a Bahá'í collection, and I wasn't sure why the Pope was included among a list of very powerful secular rulers of empires.

"O POPE! Rend the veils asunder! He who is the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings, hath come overshadowed with clouds (Rev. 1:7) – the prophecy hath been fulfilled on the part of God, the Almighty, the Unconstrained. It is incumbent upon thee, therefore to dispel the clouds and proclaim Baha'u'llah, the splendor of the Authority of thy Lord; then ascend into the Kingdom of His names and attributes. Thus hath the Supreme Pen command thee, on the part of thy Lord, the Mighty, the Most Powerful.
Verily, He hath come again from heaven another time, even as He came down from it the first time (Jn. 3:13 KJV); beware lest thou oppose Him even as the Pharisees opposed Him the first time without evidence or proof. On His right hand floweth the living waters of grace and on His left hand the choice sweet Wine of Justice; whilst before Him march the angels of Paradise bearing the Divine Standard of His signs (Is. 11:11). Beware lest any name debar thee from God, the Creator of the earth and heaven. Leave thou the creatures and the world behind thee, and turn towards thy Lord, through Whom all the horizons of the earth hath been illumined. We have adorned the Kingdom with the ornament of Our name, El-Abha – The Brightest of Lights (Jn. 3:19-21); thus hath the matter been decided on the part of God, the Creator of all things. Beware lest your theologies and vain imaginations withhold thee after the Sun of Truth hath shone forth above the horizon of the Explanation of thy Lord, the Mighty, the Beneficent. Dost thou dwell in palaces, while the King of Revelation (Rev. 6:16) liveth in the most desolate of abodes? Leave palaces to those who desire them behind, then advance to the Kingdom with spirituality and fragrance."

A little historical context helped me in that regard.  It seems that Bahá'u'lláh or someone close to him was at least somewhat familiar with the political troubles in Europe at the time, given the people he chose to write to with warnings and exhortations.

It might look like Bahá'u'lláh was seeing the future in some supernatural way, given that an important part of his warning to the Pope Pius IX turned out to be prophetic-sounding after the events in Rome.  He advises the Pope to leave behind his palaces, which would have seemed like very good advice to many people, given that the Pope's armies and city were conquered not too long after the letter was written.

But there were decades of problems leading up to Italy's conquest of the Papal territory, and it would have taken little insight from any non-prophet to predict that getting out of town was a good move for the Pope who prized his own safety first.

I also think it's unlikely that Bahá'u'lláh was actually concerned about giving such advice anyway.  His purpose seemed to be primarily theological, given that Bahá'u'lláh opens his letter by exhorting the Pope to abandon his Christian theology and accept the Bahá'í faith.  He goes on more in that vein later in the letter:

"Beware lest theologies of men prevent thee from accepting the King of the known, or the world distract thee from Him who created it and set it upon its course. Arise in the name of thy Lord, the God of Mercy, amidst the peoples of the earth, and seize thou the Cup of life with the hands of confidence. First drink thou therefrom, and proffer it then to such as turn toward it amongst the peoples of all faiths. Thus hath the Moon of Explanation shone forth from the horizon of wisdom and evidence.
Rend asunder the veils of man-made theology lest they prevent thee from the court of Him Who is My Name, the Everlasting, the Self-Subsistent. Call thou to remembrance Him Who was the Spirit - Jesus - Who, when He came, the most learned of His age pronounced judgement against Him in His own country, whilst he who was only a fisherman believed in Him. Take heed, then, ye men of understanding heart! Thou, in truth, art one of the suns of the heaven of His names. Guard thyself, lest darkness spread its veils over thee, and fold thee away from His light. Look at that which has been sent down in the Bible on the part of thy Lord, the Almighty, the Generous.
Say: O assembly of learned men, withhold your pens, for the sound of the Supreme Pen hath been raised between the earth and the heaven. Set aside that which ye have and accept what We have explained unto thee with power and authority. That Hour which was hidden in the knowledge of God hath come, whereupon all the atoms of the earth have proclaimed: “The Ancient of Days (Dan. 7:9-10, 22) is Come seated upon David's throne! Hasten unto Him with submissiveness and penitence. O people of the earth!” Say: Lo, I made Myself your ransom for the sake of your lives (1 Tim. 2:5, 6), but when I come unto you another time (Heb. 9:28) I see you fleeing from Me (Rev. 6:16); therefore doth the eye of My compassion weep over My people; fear God, O ye people of observation."

Like those in the Islamic tradition before him, Bahá'u'lláh viewed Christian theology as corrupted by men, but based on a genuine revelation from Allah.  Also like them, he wanted those who had been granted access to the corrupted theologies to leave behind what they had been taught and to proclaim the pure and true revelation.

Bahá'u'lláh continues, as he goes on in the letter, to warn that Christian worship is actually a barrier between the Christian and Allah, and that being well-educated has not kept them from falling into error.

"Consider those who opposed the Son, when He came unto them with sovereignty and power. How many the Pharisees who were waiting to behold Him, and were lamenting over their separation from Him! And yet, when the fragrance of His coming was wafted over them, and His beauty was unveiled, they turned aside from Him and disputed with Him. Thus have we expounded unto thee that which was written in the Bible and Holy Scriptures. None save a very few, who were destitute of any power amongst men, turned towards His face. And yet today every man endowed with power and invested with sovereignty prideth himself on His Name! In like manner, consider how numerous, in these days, are the monks who, in My Name, have secluded themselves in their churches, and who, when the appointed time was fulfilled, and We unveiled Our beauty, knew Us not, though they call upon Me at eventide and at dawn. We see them clinging to My Name—Jesus—yet veiled from Myself. Verily, this is a strange marvel (2 Thess. 2:11 KJV). Say: Beware lest your devotions preventeth you from meeting the One to Whom you are Devoted, and your worship debar you from the One Who is the Object of all Worship.
Rend asunder the veils of vain-imaginings and false expectation. Verily this is your Lord the Omnipotent, the Omniscient! He hath come for the life of the world, life abundantly, and to unite all who dwell upon the whole surface of the earth. Come ye, O people, to the Rising-place of Revelation and tarry not even for a moment. Do ye read the Gospel of the New Testament and yet still do not acknowledge the All-Glorious Lord? This beseemeth you not, O concourse of learned men!
Say: Should ye deny this Revelation, by what proof have ye believed in God? Produce it! Thus the matter hath been revealed (2 Thess. 2:3 KJV) by the Supreme Pen on the part of your Lord El-Abha, in this Epistle from whose horizon the Light has shone. How many servants are there whose actions and deeds (Rev. 20:12,13; 22:12) became veils for themselves whereby they were withheld (Rev. 21:27) from coming nearer to God, the Sender of Breath."

This passage might make it seem like Bahá'u'lláh was claiming to be Jesus Himself, God's Son who was to return at the end of time, but it's important to remember that in Bahá'í cosmology, religion is renewed periodically by Manifestations of God, people who are sent by God precisely for that purpose.

While Bahá'u'lláh seemed to view himself as one of the Manifestations of God, there were many others who were also viewed that way in his religious tradition, including Krishna, Zoroaster, Jesus, and the Buddha.  He did not view any religion's revelatory claims as final, though they might be legitimately a partial revelation from Allah in terms of their moral content and theology.

Bahá'u'lláh expected that there would be more people like him to come, that Allah would send more messengers to humanity in other times and places.  He was exhorting the Pope and all those he led to abandon their attachments to their current way of understanding religion and accept the latest revelation that he was providing as Bahá'u'lláh.

"O concourse of monks! The fragrances of the All-Merciful have wafted over all creation. Happy the man that hath forsaken his desires, and taken fast hold of guidance. Verily he is one of those who have attained unto the presence of God in this Day and gazing upon all the inhabitants of the earth seeth them frightened and terrorized (Isaiah 2:10, 19) save those chosen by God, He who layeth low the necks of men.
Do ye adorn your bodies while the garment of God is intensely red with the blood of hatred by that which came upon Him on the part of the people of willful blindness? Come out of your abodes and bid the people to enter into the Kingdom of God, the King of the Day of Judgment. The Word which the Son concealed is made manifest. It hath been sent down in the form of the human temple in this day. Blessed be the Lord Who is the Father! (Is. 9:6, 7) He, verily, is come unto the nations in His Most Great Majesty. Turn your faces towards Him, O concourse of the righteous!
O people of all religions! We see you are wandering erringly in the waterless desert of loss; ye are the fish of this Sea, why do ye withhold yourselves from your Sustainer? Verily, the Sea is surging before your faces; hasten unto Him from all regions. This is the day whereon the Rock (Peter) crieth out and shouteth, and celebrateth the praise of its Lord, the All-Possessing, the Most High, saying: “Lo! The Father is come, and that which ye were promised in the Kingdom is fulfilled!” This is the Word which was preserved behind the veil of might, and when the promised time came, it shone forth from the horizon of the Primal Will with manifest signs."

The renunciation of wealth, even of rich garments, continues to be emphasized as the letter continues.  Bahá'u'lláh tells the members of religious orders to leave their cloisters, monasteries, abbeys, and priories so that they can proclaim the Kingdom of God to all the people.

As before, he sees their religious attachments as keeping them from God, and abandoning their current religion as the means to begin reaching God.

"My body hath borne imprisonment that your souls may be released from bondage, and We have consented to be abased that ye may be exalted. Follow the Lord of glory and dominion, and not every ungodly oppressor. My body longeth for the cross, and Mine head awaiteth the thrust of the spear, in the path of the All-Merciful, that the world may be purged from its transgressions. Thus the Sun of Wisdom hath shone forth from the horizon of the command of Him Who is the King of all names and attributes.
The people of the Qur'án have risen against Us, and tormented Us with such a torment that the Holy Spirit lamented, and the thunder roared out, and the eyes of the clouds wept over Us. From amongst the unbelievers some imagined that afflictions could withholdeth Baha from fulfilling that which God the Creator of All Things hath Willed. Say unto them: No, by Him who causeth the rains to fall, nothing withholdeth Him from the mention of His Lord.
By the Righteousness of God! Even though they burn Him on the earth, verily He will lift up His head in the midst of the sea, and will cry: “Verily, He is God of whatsoever is in the heaven and the earth!” And if they cast Him into a darksome pit, they will find Him seated on earth's loftiest heights calling aloud to all mankind: ''Lo, the Desire of the World is come in His majesty, His sovereignty, His transcendent dominion!'' And if He be buried beneath the depths of the earth, His Spirit soaring to the apex of heaven shall peal the summons: ''Behold ye the coming of Baha with the Kingdom of God, the Most Holy, the Gracious, the All-Powerful!'' And though they shed His blood, every drop thereof shall cry out and invoke God by this Name, whereby the perfume of His raiment is diffused throughout all regions."

This portion of the letter seems to be referring to both the persecutions faced by the fledgling Bahá'í community and Bahá'u'lláh himself, who was imprisoned in Tehran.  Being a religious leader has its risks, and facing capture and imprisonment and harsh treatment is certainly something that Bahá'u'lláh shares in common with Jesus, which may be why he uses the imagery of the crucifixion throughout this passage.

It's really a beautifully-written passage, and while it's not the most poetic religious work I've read, it does have a nice poetic element to it.  We really see this poetry as we get into the direct appeal to the Pope as the Supreme Pontiff.

"Though while threatened under the swords of the enemies, We call the people unto God, the Creator of the earth and heaven, and We assist Him so greatly that We could not be hindered either by the hosts of the oppressors nor the influence of the liars. Say, O people of the earth: Crush to pieces the idols of imagination, by the name of your Lord, the Mighty, the Benevolent, then advance unto Him in this Day, which God hath made the King of Days.
O Supreme Pontiff! Incline thine ear unto that which the Fashioner of mouldering bones counselleth thee, as voiced by Him Who is His Most Great Name. Sell all the embellished ornaments thou dost possess, and expend them in the path of God, Who causeth the night to return upon the day, and the day to return upon the night. Abandon thy kingdom unto the kings, and emerge from thy habitation, with thy face set towards the Kingdom, and, detached from the world, then speak forth the praises of thy Lord betwixt earth and heaven. Thus hath bidden thee He Who is the Possessor of Names, on the part of thy Lord, the Almighty, the All-Knowing. Exhort thou the kings and say: ''Deal equitably with men. Beware lest ye transgress the bounds fixed in the Book.'' This indeed becometh thee. Beware lest thou appropriate unto thyself the things of the world and the riches thereof. Leave them unto such as desire them, and cleave unto that which hath been enjoined upon thee by Him Who is the Lord of creation. Should any one come unto thee with the whole treasures of the earth, be as thy Lord hath been: turn not thy sight toward them. Thus hath the Tongue of Revelation uttered that which God hath made the ornament of the Book of Renovation.
Consider the pearl! Verily, its luster is in itself, but if thou coverest it with silk it assuredly veileth the beauty and qualities thereof. Such is man, his nobility is in his virtues, and not in that which covereth him, and not in toys and childish things (1 Cor. 13:11). Know, then, that thy true adornment is the Love of God and thy devotion to naught else save Him, and not to the allurements and luxuries of the world which thou hast in thy possession: leave them to those who desire them and come to God, who causeth the rivers to flow."

The exhortation to sell all the property and liturgical garments in the Papal State and live a life of personal asceticism as a public figure would not be out of place in any Protestant's letter to any Pope, but it is Bahá'u'lláh who is making it this time.

That said, Bahá'u'lláh tries to differentiate himself from the average person who writes the Pope to advise the Pontiff as to the best course of action.

"All that was said by the tongue of the Son was spoken in proverbs (parables and figures), whereas He who speaketh today speaks plainly and does not use them (Jn. 16:25 KJV). Beware not to take hold of the cord of vain-imagination and withhold thyself from the plain truth of what was ordained in the Kingdom of God, the Mighty, the Bounteous. Should the inebriation of the wine of My verses seize thee, and thou determinest to present thyself before the throne of thy Lord, the Creator of earth and heaven, make My love thy vesture, and thy shield remembrance of Me, and thy provision reliance upon God, the Revealer of all power.
O people of the Son! We have sent unto you once again John the Baptist (in the person of the Bab as My precursor). Verily, He crieth in the wilderness of the Bayan: “O Peoples of the world! Clear your eyes, for the day of vision and meeting the Promised One is now!” “O people of the Gospel, prepare the way, for the Day whereon the Glory of the Lord (Baha'u'llah) shall come (Mk. 8:38), hath drawn nigh. Prepare yourselves to enter His Kingdom.” Thus was the matter decreed on the part of God, Who causes Dawn to Break.
Hearken unto the strains which the Dove of Eternity hath sung upon the Branches of the Divine Lote Tree and which is vocal with the melody: “O peoples of the earth, We have sent unto you Him who was named John to baptize you with water that your bodies might be purified for the Appearance of the Messiah, the Christ. He in turn hath purified you with the Fire of Love and with the Water of the Spirit in preparation for These Days whereon the All-Merciful hath willed to cleanse your bodies with the Water of Life, by the hands of His loving-kindness. This is indeed the Father, whereof Isaiah gave you tidings (Isaiah 9:6, 7 and ch. 2 and 11), and the Comforter (John 16:7-15 KJV) from whom Jesus hath received His Covenant.” O concourse of learned people! Open your eyes that you may see your Lord sitting on the Throne (1 Chon. 29:23) in Glory and Might."
Bahá'u'lláh makes the claim that his predecessor the Bab is John the Baptist returned to the Earth, once again preparing the way for a Manifestation of God.  His frequent references to the New Testament and the Old Testament of the Bible may be meant to persuade the Pope, but I am very doubtful that it did anything to persuade.

I suspect that the Pope would be very suspicious indeed of anyone from Persia claiming that he was providing a new revelation from Allah and acting as though he were equal to Jesus in authority.

"Say, O people of all Religions! Be not of those who followed the Pharisees and thus they were veiled from the Messiah, the Christ. Verily, they are in forgetfulness and error. The Ancient Beauty hath come in the Most Great Name and hath desired to admit all the people into His Most Holy Kingdom, that the pure in heart may see the Kingdom of God before His Face (Mt. 5:8). Hasten unto Him and follow not every denying infidel. And if the eye of any one oppose him in this, it behooveth him to pluck it out (Mk. 9:47). Thus was it written by the Pen of the Ancient of Days as bidden by Him Who is the Lord of all creation. He hath verily come again a second time for your deliverance and salvation (Heb. 9:28). O people of creation, will ye kill Him yet once more, He Who desireth to grant you eternal Life? Fear God, O people of discernment.
O people! Hearken unto that which is revealed to you on the part of thy Lord in El-Abha. Turn unto God, the Lord of this life, and the life to come. Thus commandeth you the Rising-place of the Sun of Inspiration on the part of the Creator of all human kind. We have created you for the light, and We do not like to leave you for the fire. Come out, O people, therefore from darkness through this Sun of Reality which has shone forth from the horizon of the grace of God. Then advance unto Him with purified hearts and assured souls, seeing eyes and bright faces. This is that whereby the King of Fate admonisheth you, from the region of the Most Great Outlook, that ye may be attracted by the Voice to the Kingdom of His Names.
Blessed is he who remains under the provisions of the Covenant, and woe unto him who breaketh the promise and denieth God, the Knower of secrets. Say: Lo! This is the Day of Grace! Come ye that I may make you kings of the realm of My Kingdom (Rev. 1:6). If ye obey Me, you will see that which We have promised you, and I will make you the friends of My Soul in the realm of My Majesty (Is. ch. 35) and the Companions of My Beauty in the heaven of My Power forevermore. And if ye disobey Me (Deut. ch. 28), I will be patient through My Mercy, perchance that ye will awake and arise from the couch of heedlessness. Thus hath My forbearance preceded you. Fear God and follow not those who have turned away from the Face while they invoke His Name at the dawn-tide and in the night season too."

Oddly for a letter to the Pope, Bahá'u'lláh addresses people of all religions and follows it with very specific religious language that Christians and Jews would readily understand, but might be rather obscure to the average Hindu, Buddhist, or even a devout Muslim who had not read the Bible.

You may notice that many of the exhortations of Bahá'u'lláh are reiterations of passages from the Tanakh, the Christian New Testament writings, or the Qur'an.  In this case, the part about remaining under the Covenant reminded me of a Quranic passage regarding the Jews as covenant-breakers.

"Verily, the Harvest Day hath come and all things are separated one from another. That which was chosen is stored in the vessels of justice, and into the fire was cast what was fitted for it. Thus hath decided thy Lord, the Mighty, the Beloved, in this Promised Day. Verily He ordaineth whatsoever He pleaseth. There is no God but He, the Mighty, the Subduer! The Sifter did not wish but to store every good thing for Myself. He did not speak but to inform you of My Cause and guide you into the Path of Him by whose mention all the sacred Books of the world are adorned.
Say: O concourse of Christians! We have, on a previous occasion, revealed Ourself unto you, and ye recognized Me not. This is yet another occasion vouchsafed unto you. This is the Day of God; turn ye unto Him. Verily He hath come down from heaven as He came down from heaven the first time (Jn. 3:13 KJV) and desired to shelter you under the shadow of His Mercy. Verily, He is the Exalted, the Mighty, the Defender. The Beloved One loveth not that ye be consumed with the fire of your desires. Were ye to be shut out as by a veil from Him, this would be for no other reason than your own waywardness and ignorance. Ye make mention of Me, and know Me not. Ye call upon Me, and are heedless of My Revelation and of My Appearance, after I have come unto you from the heaven of prophecy with My Most Great Glory. Burn away the veils in My Name through the Power of My Dominion that ye may find a way to the Lord.
The King of Glory continually proclaims from the horizon of the Pavilion of Might and Greatness saying: “O people of the Gospel! They who were not in the Kingdom have now entered it, whilst We behold you, in this day, tarrying at the gate. Rend the veils asunder by the power of your Lord, the Almighty, the All-Bounteous, and enter, then, in My Name My Kingdom. Thus biddeth you He Who desireth for you everlasting life. Verily, He is powerful over all things. Blessed are they who have known the light and hastened toward it. Behold! They are in the Kingdom, they eat and drink with the elect."
The various titles which Bahá'u'lláh gives to Christians throughout the letter are interesting.  From "People of the Son" to "People of the Gospel" he emphasizes the continuity of his proclamations with the existing Christian religious traditions while calling the faithful Christians out of them.

Then he goes on to give them another title, which is "Children of the Kingdom."  He tells Christians that they are in darkness, and they need to return to the Light.

"We behold you, O children of the Kingdom, in darkness. This, verily, beseemeth you not. Are ye, in the face of the Light (Jn. 3:19-21), fearful because of your deeds? Direct yourselves towards Him. Verily, thy Glorious Lord hath honored His country by His coming, blessed His lands with His footsteps. Thus We teach you plainly the path to Him (Jn.14:6) whereof Jesus hath prophesied. I, verily, bear witness for him even as he hath borne witness unto Me. Verily, He said: "Come ye after Me, and I will make you to become fishers of men." In this day, however, We say: “Come ye after Me, that We may make you to become quickeners of mankind.” Thus has the decree been ordained in this Epistle written by the Pen of Command."

Finally, Bahá'u'lláh gets to the crux of the matter.  He makes it clear that the new revelation has priority, and that he is the new authority.  His letter to the Pope was, from the perspective of Bahá'u'lláh, a letter to a leader of the Church whose deposit of faith had been emptied, a guardian of a flame that had long since been snuffed out by error and corruption.

Bahá'u'lláh saw himself as a Manifestation of God writing an epistle to the lowly Servant of the Servants of God.  He understood himself as the Pen of Command, made by the Creator's hand to send these messages.

I'm not sure what Pope Pius IX thought of the letter, or if he even had the chance to read it.  He was rather busy at the time with many problems.  Nonetheless, I think that he might have been more interested by Bahá'u'lláh's account of his vision of the Maid of Heaven.

That might have been a more compelling place to start the letter to a Pope famous for his Mariology.

The above is a picture of my copy of The Summons of the Lord of Hosts.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Fair Questions: Why am I not Eastern Orthodox?

I was recently asked by multiple people why I did not choose to enter one of the Eastern Orthodox churches after investing considerable time and effort in learning more about it.

I think this question arose because it was clear that I enjoyed the artistic traditions, and the ancient liturgies, and the pleasant community of the Eastern Orthodox parish I was visiting regularly.  Also, it was clear that I had an affinity for the works of the Saints commonly venerated by the Eastern Orthodox (and our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters) in their liturgical calendar.

That's completely understandable, given that most of us make our decisions about religion based on affinity rather than on any number of other possible grounds for decision-making.  But as you can see from my exposition of why I did not become a Buddhist despite having a strong affinity for Buddhism, mere affinity is not a sufficient reason for me to make that kind of decision.

So what was it that kept me from becoming Eastern Orthodox?

The historical arguments for the Eastern Orthodox claim to be the one true Church founded by Christ seemed, at first glance, pretty good ones.  In the course of engaging in and observing ecumenical discussions between Catholic and Eastern Orthodox believers, I learned a great deal about what those arguments are and what the counter-arguments are from Catholic and Protestant perspectives.

I learned more about the Filioque controversy, which is a part of the long history of cultural, linguistic, political, and theological disputes that culminated in the Great Schism between most Eastern Christian jurisdictions and the Western Christian (and some Eastern) jurisdictions.  I learned about the sacking of Constantinople by Crusaders as well.

I gained a great deal of sympathy for my Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters whose forebears in faith were treated poorly, both in the 1st millennium in the buildup to the Great Schism and more recently in the United States where the schism was deepened in some important ways.

I also gained a great deal of sadness regarding the history of fractures between the ancient Christian patriarchates.  Much of what I have read, which is by no means enough to make me an expert, leads me to conclude that in many cases it is our failures to love as individuals, whether Papal envoys, Patriarchs, gifted theologians, Emperors, military leaders, or devout laypeople, which contribute mightily to schism.

As you can read from some of the articles I've linked to in previous paragraphs (all of them from Eastern Orthodox sources), the history is complicated and does not lend itself well to the oversimplifications that tend to get tossed out as arguments for one side or another.

One area where the oversimplifications tend to abound is in the disputes over ecclesiology.  I have learned over the course of several years that the Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology is very similar to Catholic ecclesiology.  I have also learned that, where they differ, there are not clear proofs from the consensus of the early Church to settle the issue neatly, though I obviously favor one side.

My initial assessment of the disputes (after reading the Ravenna document) between the Catholic and Orthodox church was that the big remaining issue was the nature and extent of Papal primacy and authority.

So I was confronted with the question: Who is correct about the nature and extent of Papal primacy and authority?

Is it true that the primacy of the Pope of Rome is a mere primacy of honor, that his role is simply that of a primus inter pares (first among equals)?

Or is it true that the primacy of the Pope of Rome entails the supreme and immediate authority over the Church here under the heavens as described in the Vatican I Council document Pastor Aeternus?  (See an English translation here under Session 4.)

I needed to find a way of deciding the answer to this question.  The early Church writings do not show a clear consensus either way.  The history of Christianity in the 1st millennium also does not show clearly that the definition of the authority of the Pope of Rome in Pastor Aeternus is correct in the sense that it was always and everywhere believed by the early Church.

Nor does that history show that the primacy of the Pope of Rome was a mere primacy of honor.  At times, it appeared to be more the latter.  And at other times, closer to the former.  Neither the Roman Catholic understanding of Papal primacy and authority can be neatly proved from every historical event in early Christianity, nor can the Eastern Orthodox understanding of it be neatly proved in that way.

So, I thought, let me consider the matter another way.  Can either view be falsified?  Or is one simply less probable than the other?

Based on my reading of Sacred Scripture and the testimony of various prominent figures of the Church in the 1st millenium (which you can read at this link), both those I've read on my own and those compiled by others, I tend to think that it's much less probable that the Pope of Rome is merely a primus inter pares.

At minimum, it seems to me that the Pope of Rome was frequently regarded in both East and West as having more authority than the honorific view of Roman primacy would allow on matters of doctrine and Church governance.

This isn't to say that I think the patristic witness is a clear and simple proof that Pastor Aeternus is correct, but that I think that the claims made by the Catholic Church at the 1st Vatican Council in Pastor Aeternus are true, and the patristic witness is an important part of what makes sense of it.

To state it in a more positive way, I think that the Catholic claims about the primacy of the Pope of Rome flow more naturally from the witness of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition than do the Eastern Orthodox claims about the primacy of the Pope of Rome.

I see a strong thread of Papal supremacy of authority in the history of Christianity from surprisingly early on, and I do not see a similarly strong thread of Papal primacy as a matter of mere honor.

I realize that there are very intelligent and well-read Eastern Orthodox folks who disagree with my assessment of the matter.  And it was very tempting for me to join them in that assessment at one point.  I have had my own struggles with authority, as many Americans (and especially former Protestants like me) often do.  Obedience to the Pope has not always sounded good to me either.

But in the end, I am not Eastern Orthodox, much as I love my Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, because I believe, like many in the 1st millennium, that the Petrine ministry and authority reside in Rome.

And I believe that it is my duty to obey the servus servorum Dei who, like his venerable predecessor Pope Gregory the Great who exercised Papal authority admirably, believes that, “My honour is the honour of the whole church. My honour is the steadfast strength of my brethren. Then do I receive true honour, when it is denied to none of those to whom honour is due.”

Related: What did I learn from visiting an Eastern Orthodox parish regularly?

By Anonymous - National Icon Collection (18), British Museum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7306236

Note: The image is an icon depicting the restoration of icons to the churches under Theodora and Michael III.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Humble Gate of Sion

Lend me your hand, dear Lady
and we shall walk together to
the dwelling place of the Lord
whose seat is found upon Sion.

Let me not be drawn far away
from the City of God, and rue
the day when I sought to ford
the stream of the aged Jordan.

Lo!  The gates of those cities
of transient pleasure and easy
comforts are open wide, wide
like the roads that lead inside.

Over hills and through fields
of flourishing vines, fig trees
and cedars we walk together
towards the Son, my brother.

Old men and women showed
me the way; their gentle eyes
and their weary backs bowed
by heavy burdens tell of love.

Oh!  What love is this broken
body showing, what signifies
this Word whose final spoken
words recall our Father above?

Verily, He says unto us of that
gate which opens into Heaven
from Earth, the way is narrow
and we must leave any burden.

Vengeance is far too heavy; the
selfish rage seeking no pardon
is such a poison; it is an arrow
of the Enemy, an evil weapon.

Vanquish thy desire for wealth
and comfort, seek not strength
nor power, set aside thy sword
and anger, wait upon thy Lord.

Even the words revealed to us
by the Prophets, such glorious
words fulfilled by a carpenter,
point us to Logos and Creator.

Eagerly I seek Christ the Way,
the Truth who as Word is true
and Life to whom I'm moored
like a boat on the aged Jordan.

Ever hold my hand, dear Lady
as I let go of every earthly joy
emptying myself like my Lord
to pass the humble gate of Sion.

The above picture is one I took of an icon of Our Lord entering Jerusalem on a donkey that was painted on papyrus and purchased in Egypt.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Fair Questions: Why was atheism so appealing to me in college?

It was interesting to read this Atlantic article from 2013 and learn something that experience has already taught me: atheists often want a Christianity that they can respect, perhaps merely as as a worthy opponent, and possibly as a serious alternative to their own beliefs.

I can understand that desire.  I also prefer to find defenders of other viewpoints that I can respect because they're well-reasoned, take into account the relevant evidence, and build character when lived out.

Like the students interviewed by Larry Taunton, I took (and continue to take) the big questions seriously.  I had a lot of time on my night shifts while getting my first degree to ponder those big questions, and I still revisit them now that my schedule is less conducive to it.

I first encountered rational and compelling arguments for atheism in my philosophy courses and in online philosophical debates that I thought of as simply a good practice for critical thinkers.  But it wasn't just the Euthyphro Dilemma and the Omnipotence paradox, or the argument from inconsistent revelations, or the argument from parsimony which shaves God from the face of one's beliefs with Occam's razor that made me seriously consider atheistic claims.

These sorts of inductive and deductive arguments were worth wrestling with, and I did wrestle with them, but they weren't the primary driver of atheism on average so far as I could tell from my engagements with atheists.  I'll come back to that.

I was inclined toward atheism in college because it was simpler.  I was an instinctive reductionist, wanting to find the most comprehensive explanation put forward in the simplest terms.  Part of this was because, as I've mentioned before, I was a scientific realist.

The simplicity of the atheistic worldview, specifically the one bound by the epistemic limits of scientific methodology, was a natural fit for my inclinations at the time.  I thought that the accurate answers were the simpler answers that were still internally coherent.

Over time, I came to realize that, given the limits of human cognitive functions, it was very unlikely that the answers which I found to be simple and comprehensible were actually accurate answers.  I also realized that, because reality cannot be described accurately in terms of classical logic, using classical logic to demonstrate the existence or non-existence of God wasn't going to work.

So I abandoned the project of finding an argument or set of arguments that would settle the question of whether or not atheism was the correct position.  But this did not eliminate the question.  The intellect might be agnostic, but the heart must have an answer with which it can live and move.

Speaking of the heart, I found that many atheists brought up the Problem of Evil, and asked heartfelt questions about how a loving God could allow so much suffering to befall so many people.  This is a question that I, of course, wrestled with as well.

I thought that my own sufferings were rather important.  I wallowed in them.  I was so absorbed in looking at the darkness of my suffering and the sufferings of others that it was rare that I looked at the glorious light filling my life.  These sufferings seemed so large, and God seemed so distant while I focused on them.

Where was God?  Why was God allowing me to suffer so much?  Why was God allowing my friends and family to suffer so much?  Would a loving God allow so much suffering?

These are not new concerns and questions that should confuse Christians.  These concerns and questions should not be any surprise to the Christian who has read the Psalms or the Book of Job or lived a life in which a person's heart groans with anguish at all that must be endured for love.

It should surprise none of us that atheism is greatly appealing to those who believe that suffering is evil (because they believe that pleasure is a moral good).  If suffering is evil by nature (rather than just unwanted), then a God who causes or allows suffering which could be prevented is either evil himself, not a particularly powerful god after all, or just a polite fiction to comfort those who cannot bear the weight of the idea that their suffering is pointless.

And it should surprise none of us that atheism is greatly appealing to those who have been trained (like myself) to trust the scientific community to provide us with true beliefs about the world, to believe that the simplest explanations containing only references to physical processes are best, and to accept the assumption that all mysteries can eventually be fully explained by scientific investigation.

These are influences that affect many people in many countries, and we should expect that where those influences abound in the lives of any person, atheism will become more appealing.  I don't think that my experience with finding atheism appealing in college was all that unique.

It certainly should not have been unexpected.  I found atheism appealing for much the same reasons that others do.

Related:  The Gospel of Doubt

By Unknown - This image is available from the National Library of Wales You can view this image in its original context on the NLW CatalogueCC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44920993

Note: This is called the Incredulity of Thomas, and it shows Thomas placing his hand in Christ's side, as do many of the works of art based on the events described in the New Testament.  The portion of the Gospel of John in which this event is related is the source of the phrase "doubting Thomas" in common parlance.