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Opportunities in faith controversies

New ideas and ways of strengthening faith should not be dismissed out of hand

  • Joachim Francis Xavier, Kuala Lumpur
  • Malaysia
  • March 8, 2012
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There is perhaps nothing more controversy-prone than religion. Controversies of all kinds have colored the long and illustrious history of the Catholic Church since Jesus laid its foundations more than 2,000 years ago, and it continues to do so even in modern Malaysia today.

Recent Controversies

Every year Chinese (Lunar) New Year is celebrated in Malaysia with great fanfare in January or February. In several churches around the country this year, the Chinese Catholic community included several cultural elements in the Mass to celebrate the auspicious event. Apart from the usual red-colored decorations and distribution of oranges, the practice of venerating an ancestral tablet was also carried out.

The practice involves the parish priest bowing in front of an ancestral tablet while offering incense or holding joss sticks. To most Chinese people, this is an act of respect and reverence for loved ones who have passed on. However, it immediately invited criticism and quite surprisingly from Chinese Catholics.

The criticism was varied but most people appeared to be “confused” and “aggrieved” by its inclusion in Mass. Others voiced concern that the Church was turning its back on its traditions and “giving in to pseudo-cultural
practices.”

Then last month another controversy came to the fore when a Penang diocese worker was conducting a formation session for parish youths in Ipoh. He threw a Bible on the floor in an apparent attempt to shock participants into realizing how important reading the Bible is to their faith.

When later asked to explain his actions, he said that there was no real spiritual value in the material (paper) upon which the Word of God is printed, or in placing it on an altar at home. Instead it is in the reading that the full spiritual value of the printed words is realized by the reader.

Some of those who heard this reacted strongly. One accused the worker of “disrespecting the Bible,” and said such over-dramatization was “disturbing.”

Moses and Jesus were controversial too

Speaking about reading the Bible, if one did that on a regular basis, it would be plainly evident that even prophets often behaved in ways that shocked those around them.

In the Old Testament, we know that Moses upon returning from speaking with God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 32:19), threw down and smashed to bits the tablets on which the 10 Commandments were written. He did so because he was mad with people for worshipping a golden calf while he was away. Talk about disrespect!

Then there is Jesus. He surely courted controversy wherever he went. Jesus and his disciples appeared to ignore or even break several Jewish customs and laws held dear by the community. For example, not fasting at times when the law required them to do so (Mark 2:18); healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6), associating with tax collectors (Luke 5:29-31), prostitutes (Luke 7:36-50) and Romans (Mathew 8:5-13). And of course we all know the story of an angry Jesus brandishing a whip and giving a bunch of bewildered cheating traders in a temple a run for their money (John 2:13-16).

Closer look

If we look closely at these controversial moments in the Bible, there are several similarities we can identify. First, all these actions appeared to condone some form of disrespect or disregard for some sacredly held custom, tradition or established authority.

Second, these actions caused confusion and anger, and disturbed those around the “perpetrator,” often eliciting harsh criticism and disapproval.

Third, while the controversies themselves appeared to be unacceptable, the protagonist in each case did what he did because he desired to drive home a point. It is important to note that the point being made was for the most part
of greater spiritual value than the custom, law or convention that appeared to be disrespected, disregarded or avoided.

In each of the above examples involving Jesus, he never failed to explain why he did what he did – although not always in direct terms. In associating with outcasts, Jesus laid bare God’s unconditional love for all. In driving the thieves from the temple, he alluded to his heavenly mission of driving out sin from the temple of the Holy Spirit – our bodies. In ignoring
the Sabbath healing rule, he showed that the spirit of the law was more important than the letter of the law.

Now this is not to suggest that one can do anything controversial just to make a point. Great care has to be taken in considering whether the message is of such value that it would serve to strengthen the faith of the
community rather than erode it. For this, wisdom and experience is necessary – both of which Jesus and Moses possessed.

Besides wisdom, controversial actions are best accompanied with some form of explanation or clarification as was the case with Jesus. This way, the shocked observer has the opportunity to digest and understand the intended message.

Similarly, it would be prudent for churches intending to practice some form of inculturation to explain it to parishioners as clearly as possible. In the veneration of the ancestral tablet, a proper explanation would have made the point that the ritual is not meant as an act of worship but an act of love and remembrance for those who have joined the “communion of saints” in heaven.

Finally, it is necessary to add that explanations may not be welcomed by all. There will always be those who will reject anything that departs from strict norms, albeit very slightly.

Conclusion

There is no doubt there will be more controversy in the Catholic Church, considering faith itself is not a subject matter capable of exhaustive exposition. In our lifetime and in times to come, there will be new “prophets” who will present the Gospel in novel ways and challenge the very ideas, norms and practices that we have personally and earnestly carved into our own solid stone of faith.

However, they are not to be altogether feared and rejected. The fact that the Catholic Church has survived for more than 2,000 years is a testimony that it has learned that some “disturbing”, “confusing” and “unacceptable” occurrences upon closer inspection may be actually be covert faith lifting opportunities overshadowed by overt shouts of disagreement and
disapproval.

Joachim Francis Xavier is a legally trained social activist who has served the Catholic Diocese of Penang for more than 10 years. He is now chairperson of the Malaysian bishops’ Episcopal Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants

 
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