And Yet We Try

Father GodOh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!

For who has known the mind of the Lord
or who has been his counselor?
Or who has given him anything
that he may be repaid? (Rom 11:33-35)

This is a troubling passage for most of us. It suggests that no matter what we do, we are too small, too limited to understand God. When faced with some calamity or other that we cannot understand, we say oh so mysteriously “God has his reasons, and someday we will understand.” Such nonsense is less than helpful to the one suffering, but we are at a loss and so we say such inane things.

For a variety of reasons, many biblical scholars conclude that the real first attempt to set down in writing the oral traditions of the early Israelites didn’t occur until the tribes had secured the land of Palestine. That is only a beginning of course, relating to the ancient times, the exodus, the wandering and the entering into the land. It is no little stretch to see why this might be so. Given the bloody history of the take over of the land by the various tribes, it is not unexpected that some effort would be made to tailor the stories to defend all that invasion and mayhem as God-ordained.

Similarly when we look at the histories in Samuel, Kings, and so forth, we see justifications for the political lifestyle that was being faced by those returning from exile. We see theology melded around political necessity and reality. We see the winners proclaiming truth. The losers no doubt had their own version.

So what do we make of this thing called “THE BIBLE”? A collection of writings, all unknown today, and perhaps largely unknown at the time. At least the source of much that was put down in written form had come from hundreds if not more than a thousand years before. Traditions oral, handed down from generation to generation. And more than one in some cases for the same basic “history”.

We can of course make it all quite easy. We can simply declare that it is all written at the direction of the Almighty Himself–not exactly dictated, but placed within the mind of various scribes exactly as God desires, and they faithfully scribbled it down as if it was being read to them in their mind. To make it a “human” endeavor, we are told that each writer used his own “words” although it is hard to explain why God’s words wouldn’t be considered the best.

We can do this, making the Bible the “word of God”, smiling smugly and going on with nary another thought, glad that that problem has been laid aside as solved. No matter that it is not remotely true of course, or that someone so grand and perfect could surely “write” a manual of behavior much simpler and easier to understand. And do not say it is not hard to understand. If that were so, then pray tell why are there so many (30,000 at least) various “churches” all claiming that they have got it right and nobody else, quite right. To say nothing of all those millions who actually in their arrogance eschew “experts” and find the document easy enough for the average person to understand as written.

We actually know that the bible, or should we say the various writings that would one day be declared, by men long dead, the bible, have been rewritten more than several times. They are not all the same, there are longer or shorter versions of some books, parts left out, and new parts added. We can tease apart a good deal of this, but it all leads to something called an “oral tradition” that is not capable of being “located” or known. Our oldest copies are not so very old when we look at what they refer to. Most are from the Common Era, after the birth of Christ.

They are copies of things we no longer have, and they are probably copies of other things we don’t have either. And on it goes.

And the most we can say, is that God, we trust, has held these minds in loving embrace while they struggled to explain their history and times and how God had occupied their world and influenced it, changed it, and directed them. If we are to believe that God really means free will, then he did not put words or thoughts in their minds, but loved them fiercely and from that relationship trusted that they would speak truthfully as they understood.

So some of what they believed is true, and some is just not. But they were well-meaning, honest, and dedicated to showing this wonderful God as the center of the universe they lived in. And that is the best we can expect.

And it is humbling, this knowing.

For we are no different. We are well-meaning, and we are honest, and we too are dedicated to explaining to ourselves and to each other how this God we so love works in the world and in our lives.

And we struggle with words, and ideas, and concepts. And we don’t get it all right, but we get some of it right. And a thousand years from now, others will continue doing the same.

And bit by bit, perhaps we will piece together some mosaic of this Godness. At least enough to know that it is too grand for each of us, for all of us.

It is a process we experience, this doing God. It is touching ourselves in our aloneness, and in our neediness. It is discovering that the only important thing is love, and from that all good comes. And when we feel that perfect loving peace for short moments, then we know in some place deep inside that we have for a brief instance brushed aside the veil and we have seen.

And we scribble hurriedly before it slips from us, as it must. And others will judge if we have hit the mark or failed, far from now.

For we are creature.

And yet we try.

Naming our Golden Calves

Golden bull sclupture on grey glassIt’s ironic isn’t it that the Israelites created a golden calf and not a golden bull. I mean given their belief that their God was a jealous God, one prone to dangerous anger, one wonders at their use of a newborn, still fragile, unknowing of much of the ways of the world, as their symbol of deity.

In any case, the story is fraught with puzzlement. Like much of the Hebrew scripture, God is portrayed as hardly all-knowing and often not all-powerful. He often argues and gives in to human logic (or what passes for it), and he seems to be in need of human hands to accomplish his ends at times.

This is perhaps why some folks think they know God and know what He wants on any given issue.

So Moses argues with God and dissuades Him from destroying the people for their “stiff-neckedness”, something one would have thought God had learned by now. It shows that Moses is the more rational of the two, reminding God that all His work to date would be for naught, and worse yet, he would look pretty weak and puny to non-Hebrews if in the end, he just mashed his sculpture into a ball and started over again.

Literalists of course, ignore all the strange and contradictory conclusions to be drawn here. Historically a lot of them used to (and perhaps still do) tsk, tsk, at the Catholic church for its use of statues of saints, calling it idol worship. One of course often misses the plank in one’s own eye when busy pointing out the planks in other people’s.

There are so many problems with concluding that the Bible is the “word of God” in a literal fashion. Least of which is that none of the fundamentalist crowd will ever answer the questions. They are quick to point out ( having matured no doubt) that they don’t claim that God literally “wrote” the bible, but only that he caused the writers to write down “in their own words” all that he desired humanity to know and nothing he did not want them to know.  Since they have pointed this out, I think it only fair to answer, “well why?”

Why what, you ask? Well, if God “used” people to write “in their own words” my question would be why would he do that? A God who can inhabit a burning bush, cause tablets to magically contain the ten commandments, part waters, create plagues of locusts, bring forth water from a rock, can surely manage to make a book of instruction can’t He? So what is the point of using these intermediaries?

Well, the answer begs the question. It’s just a not very logical way of explaining why God didn’t just start with one, and go through a list of commands. He did it once, so I guess he could make a longer list right? It explains why the Bible doesn’t read very God-like. Rather of course, than just simply state the truth–men (maybe women but we don’t know) wrote it.

My friend, Dr. James McGrath from Butler, said it thusly:

“People spoke it, others wrote it, still others copied it, still others collected the writings together, still others elevated the collection to the level of Scripture, others claimed that collection to be the Word of God, then the words of God. And that doesn’t “settle it.” The Bible tells me so.

So to claim that it does settle it, under the fundamentalist adage, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”, suggests to me somebody is busy sculpting that calf again.

Churches can become calves too. I’m afraid that given enough time, almost all of them do. The church becomes THE thing. Certainly true of the Roman church, where rules and rules upon rules tell every Catholic what to do and when. They’ve relieved a bit of that, given the falling numbers, but there is still plenty of it. The Roman church formed from a winning of the battle of orthodoxy. But it didn’t go away. It erupted full force during the Reformation. It continues today. Most every church is formed around the belief that only they have the “true” understanding. That human hubris  sounds pretty darn calfish to me.

Then of course there is the infighting within the denomination. Who is a heretic? Who is a real prophet, seer, Guru? What is right teaching, wrong? Churches split nowadays over gay rights even suing each other over the very physical structures. People vie for personal power within the institution. People steal from the coffers in the name of something or other that somehow or other they justify as being “Godly”.  Your preacher “needs” to live in splendor given that he is “sweatin’ for Jesus” and you have no idea how stressful that is with the powers of Satan working so feverishly at every moment.

All that power, so necessary to “rightly lead” is a calf for sure awaiting its gilt covering.

We can get real personal and find that calf growing in our garage with that car that is oh so essential “given my long commute”, or that state of the art entertainment center, because after working so hard for the Lord, I just got to unwind! The calf grows in our relationships as we struggle to be in control, and form our partner into what works for us, draped in a facade of “what is the right way” to be a couple.

We are a stiff-necked people. Until we stop using the poor Israelites to teach a story to OTHERS about their lack of piety, well, we will continue that tradition. It’s all about your own calves. They surround you and me.

Is it time to melt down a few?

Simplify. Quiet down.

Find your real God.

She’s waiting.

My Cooking is Killing My Sheep!

Jesus told Peter to “feed my sheep.” That responsibility falls upon us as a believing community. Yet Paul reminds us that we all have different gifts.

One of mine is surely not pastoral care. Mind you, I did some graduate work in this area, but it’s not my forte.

I screwed it up, as they say.

You will remember that I spoke about finding some bloggers who were in transition, having freed themselves of fundamentalism. They were in deep pain, struggling to retain a faith that had lost it foundations.

I felt that my offerings were not helpful. Yet one commented on that post and I felt encouraged enough to continue. I should have left well enough alone.

I have not the right words it seems, or the right attitude, or something. In point of fact, I think I misunderstood the “place” of the other person. I negligently thought I saw a person still struggling to retain faith. Rather I think I found a person who rejected fundamentalism in its interpretation of the bible, but accepted its underlying threat: It’s all inerrant, or you have no reason to accept any bit of it.

This is the constant and insidious ugly side of fundamentalism. Not only does it convince that a book is God, it convinces that if the Book isn’t God, there is no God to be found.

Most of the other commenters on this post are agnostics or atheists, so they were challenging me as well as supporting the doubts raised by the poster. Trying to argue a person out of agnosticism or atheism, especially when it is newly acquired is a worthless proposition.

But it did get me to thinking. How very different my own journey.

While I knew plenty of Catholics in my young life, they were never ones to speak of their faith. It just wasn’t done. When I did learn anything about religion and God, it was from a fundamentalist point of view. This was true through my early 20’s and  through my 30’s.

I simply rejected it out of hand for this reason. I could never have believed in a God that was projected by a inerrant reading of the Bible. In fact, upon reading it, my reaction was, “what an evil and awful thing this God is!”

For, intuitively I knew this: God had to be at least as perfect and beautiful as ANYTHING I could create in my own mind. I suspected God was much more, but the Creator MUST be at least that perfect. I was merely a person, with a reasoning brain after all.

So reason, before I knew a thing about real theology, was a hallmark of believing. Remember, I am the one who, upon learning that there was no Santa Claus, placed God in the same category. Wispy magical imaginative whispers of non-reality. Nice, but not real.

Thankfully, God did not stop knocking at my door. And one of my first questions to Sister Doris when I explored entering the Roman Catholic church was, “Do I have to believe all this stuff in the bible literally?”

“My, my,” she laughed, “of course not. True, we do have tenets, things we accept in faith, but we don’t think God tricks us. The earth is certainly not a mere 6,000 years old, for instance. We have dozens and hundreds of fine Catholic scholars who study and examine the manuscripts and explain what certain texts mean.You will learn about myth and allegory and such in your preparation to join the Church.”  

We had a lively conversation, and I left assured that my common sense and reason would never be assaulted by the strange child-like machinations of fundamentalist demands.

Since that time, I’ve studied under priests and other nuns who were theologians and biblical experts, some in the Roman tradition, and recently in the Episcopal tradition. They, individually, studied in some of the most respected and intellectually rigorous universities in the world.

I was never asked to accept their beliefs. I had the benefit of their scholarly learning, but one thing that all of these fine men and women taught me, was that questions were never bad, God was big enough to handle them. And moreover, I understood, whether said directly or by implication, that the hallmark of a mature faith was one worked out individually.

I have come to see it this way: God is like a key hole. We are the key. Yet, we are a key blank at the beginning. Our experiences, study, prayer,  and so forth serve to try to create the key that we can place in the lock and turn. We work at this, making it sometimes jiggle, turn a bit, turn more, stick. We withdraw it at times and look it all over again. We hone, chisel, sharpen. Over time, with effort, we begin to unlock God.

Jesus, of course, was a perfect fit. Perhaps Buddha was as well. Others, those we revere as great mystics and teachers, have got the lock almost open. Once open, the kingdom is ours, today. Jesus tried to explain to us how to do this. He showed us “the way.” But there are other ways, I think, since I dare say the Dalai Lama thinks the Buddha’s way is such.

This is a God I can love, and revere and work hard to emulate. This God, who joyously provides all his sentient beings with keys, calling them to fashion themselves in his image.

Some wonder why it is hard? Should it be easy? What can we possibly learn if it is handed to us on a silver platter? No, we become Christ-like by the struggle. Study is my joy, teasing out the delicate threads of real value in sacred scripture. Sacred? Yes indeed, for all was wrought by believing minds speaking their truth as carefully and completely as they could.

Confound it, but I cannot speak this in a way that convinces the unbeliever. I preach to the choir only. It is my frustration. Is it yours?

Repost: Luke: A Theological Commentary

Originally posted at A Feather Adrift.

Today I review the second in the new Belief series published by Westminster John Knox Press. Luke: (Belief: A Theological Commentary) is written by Justo L. González.

Again, I give my deepest thanks to WJK for giving me the opportunity to participate in reviewing this extraordinary series.

If Plachter’s book on Mark was excellent, this second offering by González, meets that standard in every way. While Plachter perhaps placed more emphasis on the exegetical-historical aspects of the gospel, González focuses a bit more on the theological implications of Luke to our world today.

In the end, this seemed most right to me. Quoting Gustaf Wingren:

All good interpretation of the Bible is contemporary. If it were not so, it would not be good. . . .The Bible is not on a par with the subsequent interpretation; it is above it, as the text is antecedent to the commentary. And the interpretation is always an interpretation for the time in which it is written or spoken.

There is also a distinctive flavor of liberation theology which permeates the text. This also seems logical to me, since any fair reading of Luke renders the conclusion that Luke portraits a Christ who favored the poor and the marginalized as the true inheritors of the Kingdom of God.

Paramount in González’s theology of Luke is that the evangelist emphasized above all that Jesus’ teaching was one of the “great reversal.” His teachings were indeed revolutionary to his world. His was a world of power held by Rome, of patriarchy, of Temple priests and church hierarchy. His teachings again and again told of the coming Kingdom where none of this would be so.

The poor, the marginalized, the unclean, the unwanted, the unworthy, the sinners, the children, the women–all these would find a new world in God’s Kingdom, one in which those who were served would serve, those first would be last, those most religious and pious would often find themselves judged less than the most simple of the country folk of Galilee, that most marginal of lands.

In fact, Mr. González suggests that if one were to remove all the “reversal” stories from the text, there would be few pages left.

Perhaps the most stunning theological commentary comes with González’s explanation of the Paralytic. He shows how Luke weaves a story of how the teachers and scribes, the Pharisees sat around listening to the teachings of Jesus. The friends of the lame man could not get through the crowd of the listeners to reach the Healer. The end up opening the roof to lower the man to Jesus inside.

González reflects on these “circles” about Christ that we as church construct. We sit as pious listeners before the Word. We block the way for those who come in need of healing and comfort.

“Today, just like then, there are lame people who cannot reach Jesus, because access is blocked by the numerous and tight circles, circles of religious leaders and wise and profound theologians, circles of ecclesiastical, academic, and social structures. . .”

He points out that these people are not necessarily bad, but in their zeal to be at the forefront, they (we) block the way of others. We are cautioned to open the doors to those who are marginalized outside the circle. These are the people Jesus most came to help.

Of special importance to me, are the continued references to Jesus’ table hospitality. Too many of our churches set themselves up as arbiters of who is invited to the table of Christ. Any fair reading of Luke, suggests this is a grave error.

Time and time again, as González points out, Jesus welcomed the sinner to the table, and did not require any repentance as a condition to the invitation. He teaches that we should be inviting those who cannot repay our offer, instead of those who will extend a return invitation to ourselves.

González powerfully reminds us that:

“All too often Christians have claimed control of the Table as if it were ours, and not his. We decide whose belief is sufficiently orthodox to share Communion with us, who is sufficiently good and pure, who belongs to the right church. . . .Rather than inviting those who seem most unworthy and cannot repay us, we invite the worthy. . .”

There is example after example of gentle, and not so gentle reminders to us as readers, that the Gospel of Luke calls us to a discipleship that is not easy, and not comfortable either. Luke tells of a Jesus who comes not preaching so much an afterlife of bliss but a life offered that is truly life. A full life, filled with the Spirit, faithful to God, bearing the cross of discomfort with the joy of knowing that we are doing God’s will as did He who was his image.

At the end, Mr. González ponders the church of tomorrow. And as we see a decline in the Western Church and a rise in the church of the South, the African, and the East, we see new thinking, new interpretation. We see reflections through the eyes of the poor and the marginalized. He asks:

“. . .could it be that God’s great gift to the worldwide church today is the growing church of the poor, who are teaching us to read the Bible anew? Could it be that God is using the last, the least, the poor, and the excluded to speak once again to the church of the first and the greatest?”

Is this the final reversal? Such questions as these do we ponder as we read this most excellent book. Do buy it. You will not regret the decision.

The Feast of the Holy Family

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family:

                    Ecclesiasticus 3:3-7, 14-17
                    Colossians 3:12-21
                    Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

Matthew tells the story of how Joseph in a dream is told to take the child Jesus and make haste for Egypt to protect him from Herod who has designs to kill the child. After Herod’s death, Joseph is informed again in a dream to return home. He does so but finds that Herod’s son, Archelaus, is now ruler so he journeys not home but to the neighboring region of Galilee, in Nazareth.

We learn that Joseph is the epitome of fatherhood, taking his son and wife to new lands to protect them and then being cautious upon return, keeping a “low profile” in a small backwater town, called Nazareth (can anything good come of Nazareth? indeed!).

Most of us can relate, knowing that our parents too would have done whatever was necessary to protect us and keep us safe.

The other readings are more problematical.

In Ecclesiasticus, we are told that the offspring should honor father and mother, indeed our sins are forgiven as we do so. We will have a long life if we respect and serve our parents. Even if they suffer from a failing mind, we are to be sympathetic and kind.

These are fine words of course. The readings leave out the end of this chapter which accords one who does not honor parents as no better than a blasphemer and one who will be accursed. These are harsh and punishing.

Yet what of those who have suffered at the hands of parents. Many people have not been given the benefit of parents. Many have been raised with only one, and that one hard pressed to do an adequate job when circumstances may require multiple jobs just to keep the family afloat. Many have never had contact with the absent parent, and may not even know who they are.

Of equal trauma, if not worse are those who have suffered at the hands of physically abusive parents. Whether sexual or not, deep scars psychological and otherwise take a lifetime to heal. And though not given as much press, those who have been psychologically abused by verbal and more insidious mind games, also suffer life-long wounds.

What of these? So many of us are the product of dysfunctional families. When you expand to grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, the opportunity for abusive treatment are magnified. Are those who are victims of such families to simply forgive, forget, and honor?

They would find it hard to do so, and plenty of experts say that asking is unfair. Victims need to confront the hard facts of their torturers and need to confront them and make them face themselves. So the experts say. Where do these victims find solace? How can they read these admonitions to “be respectful” and be anything more than even more hurt and discouraged?

I think the pathway can be found by enlarging the concept of “parent.” All of us parent when we interact with another human. We pattern behavior, we offer advice, we commiserate, we empathize. All these are human responses of the same nature as traditional parenting.

This idea becomes more apparent when we look at Paul’s (or pseudo Paul) advice to the Colossian community.  Paul tells us to “clothe ourselves in compassion, kindness, humility and gentleness and patience.” We are to “forgive when a quarrel begins”. Over all this we are to drape a cloak of “love.” We are to be at peace. Teach each other, advise each other.

All this Paul exhorts us to do as a community of believers. As parents, if you will, to each other.

While we may not find purchase in our own immediate families with which to relate, we can look to our broader “family of humanity” and realize these same attributes. We can honor and respect our fellow humans. We can care for others in their infirmities and failing minds. We can be gentle and kind to their errors.

We can protect our greater family against the errors and dangers they are pursuing by speaking truth with compassion; we can admonish with love, knowing that we too are prone to err ourselves.

Paul in the end reminds parents, “never drive your children to resentment” for that will “frustrate” them, inhibiting their ability to honor and respect, as they are called to do.

Many in this world live alone. This was not the norm in the times when the writer of Ecclesiasticus, or Colossians wrote. In fact, it was highly abnormal. Large family units of parents, grandparents, sometimes children with spouses and young children inhabited the same household.

Yet, we can all respond to the words by seeing ourselves rightly in the family of humanity. No one is alone, we are all interconnected, and the Trinity, though deeply mysterious, at least seems to suggest that God expects for us to live in community, as God does. As Emmanuel (God with us) did and still does.


Repost: Mark: A Commentary

It is with pure delight that I thank Westminster John Knox Publishing for sending me the following selection for review. This is the opening book in a new series entitled: Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible.

The first book in the series is Mark, by William C. Placher. It was published along with Luke, which I have also received and will be reviewing shortly.

WJK also publishes the Interpretation series, of which I have long been a fan, but after reading Mark, I suspect this new series may far outstrip that wonderful series.

The idea behind the Belief series is to bring together the latest exegetical work, along with literary, historical, archaeological, and other pertinent advances as they impact how we interpret the bible from a theological point of view.

In Mark, they have certainly attained their goal. Professor Placher, unfortunately now deceased, has written a simply beautiful commentary. Not content to just tell us what the text means, or most likely means, Placher explores how Mark’s “good news” is still most relevant to the world we live in today.

For example, in the opening pages, he writes:

Americans today, therefore, read the Gospel of Mark–this story of a Middle Eastern man tortured to death by the most powerful empire of his time–when we are the most powerful nation of our time, and our forces are torturing people, sometimes to death. What does this imply about our values and the sort of people we have become?

Peppered throughout the chapters are “Further Reflections” on key phrases or words such as Kingdom of God, Miracles, and Ransom. Each of these probes into the historical record and juxtaposing that against our modern notions, finding common ground and points of comparison.

Quotes are boxed throughout the text as well, and are wide-ranging in their authorship, including Luther, Barth, Basil, Tertullian, Philo, Cicero and many others. These highlight themes introduced and explored by Professor Placher.

What is most compelling is the breath of sources. You will meet the likes of Karl Barth, and Luther of course, but also the likes of Calvin, John Dominic Crossan, and Gustavo Gutiérrez. Majority opinions are explained, but plenty of minority opinions are given with their rationales. Of course, Placher gives his choice and the reasons for it in the end.

We are a world more and more polarized along religious lines. Placher offers us, for example, a theological explanation of chapter 12:28-34. Here Jesus is questioned by a scribe as to which commandment is first. Jesus famously says “love God and love your neighbor.” This is all well and good, but in answering, Jesus shows us that even though many of his arguments are with scribes, not all scribes are bad, some come with honest questions. Barth points out that this the Hebrew Scriptures often engage “outsiders” to do the will of God, and thus Jesus shows us that good can often come from those who are not like us. How useful it is to remember that today.

The point always is, that when we read scripture, and Mark in particular, there is much that speaks to our condition today, both individually and as communities and nations. Every minister, priest, and preacher, every teacher seeks to make the scripture relevant to their listeners. This is no more than Mark did himself, in trying to tailor the stories he told to the issues present in his community.

How could Jesus help them? How can Jesus help us? As students of scripture, we have much to gain here in understanding, but if we are also preachers and teachers, we have even more, for here we can find new insights, new interpretations, new connections where we never realized them before. For every minister who has sat late into Saturday evening, still trying to find something “new” to say on tomorrow’s gospel, she or he will likely find help here.

We squabble, some of us in our respective traditions with rules about who can join us, and who cannot join us. We have our own brand of “unclean”. Yet, Jesus did not teach us that. He taught us the opposite. He regularly ate with sinners and those ritually unclean, and he never made it a condition for sitting at table with him that repentance was a pre-requisite. What does that say to us today?

Page by page, Placher explores, teases out, and conjoins text from not only Mark, but from other texts as well both in and out of the bible. The picture sharpens and Mark’s words take on added significance. We see in a new way, hopefully a better one.

I simply enjoyed this commentary more than I can say. I found it easy of explanation, yet profound in its theological depth. Placher has drawn from a broad spectrum of experts, and has intertwined them to make coherent and useful conclusions. He gives us a foundation from which to explore.

As I said, teachers and preachers will find this commentary invaluable as they search for new ways to marry scripture to today’s world. Individuals will see application in their own lives and spiritual journeys.

If the rest of this series can be predicted upon the basis of this opening publication, then we are in for a rich treat indeed. You may indeed want to consider the entire series, as it comes out. I have barely begun Luke, and I can already see that it carries on the fine standards established in the first offering. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up. You won’t be sorry.

Will There Be Any Faith On Earth?

“But when the Son of man comes, will he find any faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8)

Indeed, what a question. It asks the seminal question to all of us, and for me synthesized a number of things I read, making me wonder, just what is faith?

What does it mean to be faithful?

NCR in an article entitled, The Had-it Catholicssuggests that once you account for immigrants, the American Roman Catholic Church is bleeding followers at the same rate that all the mainline Protestant denominations are. And the reasons have surprisingly little to do with child abuse and contraception. They have more to do with marriage and divorce rules, homosexuality teachings, and ordination of women. We can discuss any of those issues, but what caught my eye was a fairly common comment that is made against “dissenters.”

It basically goes like this: If we have no settled doctrine to rely on, then we have nothing but what is the fashion of the day. I can as easily reject your “preferential option for the poor” as you reject church teaching on homosexuality. Where does it stop? To be Catholic is the accept this repository of faith as your foundation. No one is keeping you here.

This presupposes I would argue, that there is such a repository of faith that is sacrosanct as it were. Untouched in its basics since the resurrection at least, only added to as we come into a “fuller” understanding of truth. And many believe this is correct–they argue that there is perfect truth, unalterable, and knowable as such by everyone.

I daresay that every generation has thought it had the truth. Yet, civilization progresses over the eons and what was normative in 1350 C.E. is not necessarily so today in terms of moral behavior.

It denies as well, it seems to me, that the Holy Spirit works ever in the human race to help it, individually and collectively to understand who and what they are and what their life is to be. To suggest that even when majorities of faithful Catholics disagree with the Magisterium they are wrong by definition, is to deny that the Holy Spirit is active in the hearts and minds of each of us.

It is to deny, moreover, the value of the gift of intellect, or reason also gifted to us. Are we not to learn from the our pasts and to extrapolate anew, more inclusive morals for our future? Are we not to draw into sanctity all life as a higher level of love? All because such things were not contemplated in the past?

A few days ago, Enlightened Catholicism posted a report of a letter sent out  by Archbishop Vigneron, to the Archdiocese of Detroit. It warned that all clergy and laity were prohibited from attending a meeting of The American Catholic Council scheduled to be held next year in Detroit. The Archbishop claims the groups beliefs are contrary to Catholic “Faith” and are contrary to the “spirit of Vatican II.”  He said we should “shun efforts which threaten unity.”

Again we get the presumed “never-changing faith” claim. Does not the Archbishop know that this is not true? Moreover has he learned no lessons from the past?

Father Frederick J. Cwiekowski, in his book, The Beginnings of the Church, explained how modernism was condemned by the Inquisition, turned Holy Office in 1908. Modernism, meaning the use of modern methods of biblical exegesis such as form, text, redaction, and other forms of criticism. The determinations made by such methods were condemned.

Some of the claims of this new methodology were:

  • The Gospels were not historical but teaching testimonials, interpretations by the evangelist of what Jesus said and taught.
  • None of the evangelists were eye-witnesses, (Matthew and John) had been so taught)
  • It questioned Christ’s anticipation of the emergent church.
  • It questioned whether the apostles in fact knew of Christ’s deity before the resurrection.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission in the years 1905-1915 declared all these things in error and heretical. Such conclusions were bolstered by the encyclical On the Doctrines of the Modernists by Pius X, and again in Spiritus Paraclitus by Benedict XV in 1920.

Slowly things turned around after that, however, More openness was allowed and it was declared that such prohibitions only applied to faith and morals issues, in 1955. At the beginning of Vatican II, a working document, “On the Sources of Revelation” was issued to the bishops. Fully 60% rejected it, and although not the 2/3 required, John XXIII, sent it back for further work. When it was issued with Pius VI’s approval, the PBC, Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Bible,  contained the following:

  • The evangelists were witnesses not historians
  • There is evidence they did not understand that Jesus was divine until after his resurrection. The apostles passed down what Jesus truly said and did, but it was later interpreted to the needs  of the listeners of the Gospels.
  • None of the evangelists were apostles and they adapted and synthesized the information at hand to the situation of the emergent church.

These became incorporated into the final document, the 1965, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, (art. 19).

There is no truth to the claim that once dogma always dogma.

So what is faith?

It seems to me, that faith, and being faithful is to be a constant student of what is taught by the Church and constantly to study what is being learned about the bible and its theological underpinnings. It is constant searching for truth, always following heart and mind, with careful and deep reflection.

 It seems to me that we are all called to this work. It is simply not faithful to simply rely on an institution, no matter how revered as the sole determiner of all things moral and right. We, as Catholics, as Christians are obligated to seek truth ourselves.

Indeed, I do  think there will be faith on Earth, Lord, as long as good people of strong believe ever seek to apply the issues of the day to the tenor of your teaching.

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