Archive for category Theology
Nearly 50 years ago in this medieval city with its steep hills and the sprawling campus of one of Germany’s great universities, Hans Küng and Joseph Ratzinger were priests and theology department colleagues.
Küng and Ratzinger were the youngest and most influential progressives to advise bishops at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
When Vatican II concluded, it unleashed a historic movement in the church toward greater engagement in the daily lives of the people of God, the rank-and-file believers. A new sensibility for justice and individual rights arose in the church that would grow to 1 billion Catholics worldwide, with missions of activism in many of the poorest countries on Earth.
Back at the University of Tübingen, Küng, a native of Switzerland, and Ratzinger, who had grown up in the Nazi darkness of his native Germany, soon found themselves at odds over the sweeping changes in the church, in a theological debate that would echo across Europe and the global church.
Now, during the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, Küng, an internationally renowned scholar, and Ratzinger, known as Pope Benedict XVI, are even more at odds. Of the many issues that divide them, Küng sees the attempt to rein in the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious as a sign of myopia, a failure of vision.
“You cannot deny that Joseph Ratzinger has faith,” said Küng, in a coat and tie, seated in his office, speaking in calm tones in the blue twilight. “But he is absolutely against freedom. He wants obedience.”
“He is against the paradigm of Vatican II.” Küng paused. “He has a medieval idea of the papacy.”
“Many sisters are better educated and more courageous than a lot of the male clergy,” he said matter-of-factly. The Roman Curia “will try to condemn them.”
The legendary intellectual battle between Küng and Ratzinger holds a mirror to divisions in the larger church. Their split began shortly after Vatican II. During the student revolts of 1968, Ratzinger was appalled when protesters disrupted his classroom. That same year, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, which condemned the use of artificial contraception, met with enormous protest from laypeople, theologians like Küng, and even scattered bishops.
Ratzinger shifted to the right, embracing institutional continuity. Küng attacked papal infallibility as an accident of history, devoid of genuine theological meaning.
Küng sees the clergy abuse crisis and the crackdown on the leadership organization of American nuns as symptoms of a pathological power structure. By his lights, the impact on church moral authority, and finances, is a crisis rivaling the Protestant Reformation.
In his years at the university here, Ratzinger, polite and bookish, was a familiar sight on his bicycle. “He did not have a driver’s license,” recalled Hermann Häring, a retired faculty theologian who knew both men.
Ratzinger saw the church’s future in rebuilding its orthodox roots.
From academia Ratzinger rose to archbishop of Munich and Freising, then a cardinal appointed in 1981 by Pope John Paul II as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the old office of the Roman Inquisition. As he prosecuted theologians for straying from official teaching, he became known as an enforcer of truth.
Küng became a highly influential popular theologian with a stream of writings, including a book critical of papal infallibility. The Vatican reacted with a doctrinal investigation and suspension of Küng’s license to teach theology in 1979. But at University of Tübingen, a public facility that dates to 1477, Küng had job safety. Still a priest, he became a pariah to orthodox Catholics and an intellectual hero to mainstream believers as he kept publishing and speaking.
As doctrinal congregation proceedings targeted more church scholars, such as U.S. Fr. Charles Curran and Leonardo Boff, the Brazilian scholar of liberation theology, Küng likened Ratzinger to the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov — the sinister monk who tells Jesus the masses must be subdued by superstition for religion to maintain its power.
“You cannot be for human rights in society and not be for it in the church,” Küng told NCR. “In Ireland, the prime minister is more outspoken than anyone” — referring to Enda Kenny’s blistering 2011 speech in the parliament attacking the Vatican for the rooted concealment of pedophiles. Ireland closed its embassy to the Holy See.
In the French edition of his new book (forthcoming in English as Can the Catholic Church Be Saved?), Küng expands on the analogy between a church that once put heretics on trial and the injustice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Ratzinger, as cardinal and now as pope.
“The Roman Inquisition continues to exist,” he writes, “with methods of psychological torture and the use in our day of many enforcement manuals.”
Küng, 84, expanded on the Inquisition theme in a Nov. 15 interview at his split-level residence, which also has offices for Global Ethic Foundation, which he founded.
“The [Roman] Curia realized that the practical life of nuns was different,” he said, “and that was enough to persecute them. You go to Rome for a hearing and it’s a dictate — take it or leave it.”
Küng and Benedict personify the polarized camps as the church has evolved since Vatican II. One side sees a church of rising aspirations in laypeople, particularly women; the papal side seeks a return to deeper piety, a rules-based tradition that honors the hierarchy.
The monarchical notion of papal absolutism has Benedict XVI and John Paul II standing out in high relief from the clamor of Vatican II-inspired theologians and activists. Küng sees the Vatican investigation of the nuns’ leadership group as symptomatic of papal retrenchment from Vatican II.
“Dissent is important in the history of the United States,” he explained. “The Catholic church is different. They are persecuting people who are dissenting. … Is the church one boss who has the truth, and not much justice?”
Küng said he is not surprised that the climate of fear generated by the doctrinal congregation has been met with silence by American priests.
“I have already written,” he said, as if the lesson should be memorized, “that one priest, acting alone, is nobody. Ten priests are a threat taken seriously. Fifty priests acting together are invincible.”
Küng has announced his retirement in 2013 on turning 85. The handsome, book-lined home here in Tübingen will continue housing the foundation he launched. For a man of such fierce idealism, he seems a portrait in serenity.
“Most people do not remain in the church because they identify with the local bishop — or the church,” he said, as the lights of the town twinkled across the hills of Tübingen. “They are loyal to their community and not the Roman Curia.”
[Jason Berry, author of Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, writes from New Orleans. Research for this series has been funded by a Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism; the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting; and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.]
Franciscan Sr. Pat Farrell and three other sisters crossed St. Peter’s Square through the fabled white columns, paused for a security check and entered the rust-colored Palace of the Holy Office.
It was April 18, 2012, and on entering the palazzo, they were aware of its history, that in this same building nearly 400 years earlier Galileo had been condemned as a heretic by the Roman Inquisition for arguing that the Earth orbits around the sun.
Today, the palazzo houses the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that enforces adherence to church teaching. As president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Farrell and her executive colleagues had an appointment with the prefect, Cardinal William Levada, about the congregation’s investigation of their group.
They were walking into what Fr. Hans Küng, the internationally renowned theologian who has had his own battles in the palazzo, calls “a new Inquisition.” (See related story. )
The sisters were accused of undermining church moral teaching by promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” To many sisters, the congregation’s action is a turn toward the past, causing a climate of fear and a chill wind reaching into their lives.
The Vatican wants control of LCWR, an association of 1,500 superiors, representing 80 percent of American sisters, most long active in the front lines of social justice.
The main leadership council of American sisters embraced the Second Vatican Council’s social justice Gospel, which has taken sisters to some of the poorest corners of the world to work with politically oppressed people, particularly in Latin America. But a stark drama of attrition has unfolded as the Vatican II generation reaches an eclipse. Since 1965, the number of American sisters has dropped by more than two-thirds, from 181,241 to 54,000 today.
In contrast, the rate of women joining religious orders has surged in Korea, South Vietnam, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Caribbean. Nowhere has the increase been more pronounced than in India. Five of the 10 largest religious institutes of women have headquarters in India, where only 1.6 percent of the population is Catholic.
“While India has nearly 50 million fewer Catholics than the United States does, it has over 30,000 more women religious,” wrote Jeff Ziegler in Catholic World Report.
The Vatican crackdown of LCWR has exposed a schizophrenic church. Interviews with missionary sisters in Rome, from India and other countries, register a deep fault line between cardinals immune from punishment, and sisters who work in poor regions with some of the world’s most beleaguered people. Religious sisters from other parts of the world view LCWR’s conflict with foreboding. How far Pope Benedict XVI goes in imposing a disciplinary culture, policing obedience over sisters, is an urgent issue to many of these women — and one sure to color this pope’s place in history.
The doctrinal assessment delivered by Levada was an intervention plan; he appointed Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to approve speakers for LCWR gatherings and overhaul its statutes. “You can impose silence, but that doesn’t change anyone’s thinking,” Farrell reflected several months later at the convent in Dubuque, Iowa, where she lives.
“This is about the Vatican II church, how we have come to live collegially with participatory decision-making,” Farrell said. “When I entered in 1965 we studied and prayed with [the Vatican II] documents, implementing new charters. … We’re in a line of continuity with the early history of our communities, assessing unmet needs, going to the margins to help the homeless, people with AIDS, victims of torture and sexual trafficking.”
“When Vatican II requested nuns to search their history, Rome believed in a mythology of plaster statue women,” said Syracuse University Professor Margaret Susan Thompson, a historian of women religious. “They found instead nuns who took the job literally, and became controversial for doing so.”
The leadership conference endorsed women’s ordination in 1977 — 17 years before Pope John Paul II reinforced the church’s ban on it with the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Farrell says LCWR has not campaigned for women’s ordination. Nor has it endorsed abortion. The doctrinal congregation’s demand that the leaders speak out against abortion and gay rights is a battle over conscience, forcing words into superiors’ mouths.
“These women are really rooted in Christ and committed to the poor,” said Sr. Nzenzili Lucie Mboma, executive director of Service of Documentation and Study on Global Mission in Rome. A Congolese member of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, Mboma had two friends murdered in political violence in the 1960s, during her novice years. “It is painful to see the Vatican carrying on these kinds of things,” she said.
“In certain parts of the church we have an us-versus-them mentality,” said Fr. Míceál O’Neill, an Irish Carmelite prior in Rome with background as a missionary in Peru. ” ‘Us’ is religious, and ‘them’ is officers of the Holy See.”
“We have a church that is doctrinally conservative and pastorally liberal,” O’Neill said. “The Vatican is trying to assert control, ‘we are in charge.’ … Many people are saying the two churches are not coming together.”
“There is a fundamental problem of honesty.”
Farrell, 65, came of age in Iowa in the years of Vatican II. She joined the Franciscans at 18, and in her 30s worked with Mexicans in San Antonio. She moved to Chile in 1980 during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Disappearances were common. “It was routine for police to torture people in the first 72 hours,” she said. Demonstrations were banned, yet protests were the only way to put a spotlight on abductions when lives were at stake.
She joined “lightning demonstrations,” unfurling banners of the anti-torture protest movement in congested traffic, spreading leaflets that gave people information on the missing, who were airbrushed out of news reports. At one point she was arrested, with 100 other people, but coverage in a growing clandestine media saw them released the same day.
In 1986, she moved to El Salvador with a handful of sisters to help people reeling from a civil war with U.S. military support of the Salvadoran government. Farrell spent her first weeks sleeping at night in a church sacristy, getting to know people, and eventually moving into a sprawling refugee camp, living with villagers displaced by military bombings. American sisters were a nonviolent presence, giving thin cover to locals.
“We learned never to leave the road because any area off defined footpaths could have land mines,” she explained. “I remember walking down one long hill with trembling knees to meet a group of soldiers who entered the camp. Part of our role as internationals in the camp was to keep the military out and I was on my way down to ask them to leave. That time they did, thank God.”
Religious processions common to Latin America took on heightened meaning. For a newly repopulated community to show up en masse, with banners of saints and the Virgin Mary, conveyed “a political statement,” Farrell said: “We are not afraid. We have a right to be here. Our faith continues to be a source of strength to us.”
In 2005, Farrell returned to her Dubuque convent. Elected to the LCWR board several years later, she was midway through her one-year term as president when LCWR leaders made their annual trip to Rome in 2012 to update church officials on their work. With Farrell were Dominican Sr. Mary Hughes, past president; president-elect Franciscan Sr. Florence Deacon, and Janet Mock, the executive director and a Sister of St. Joseph of Baden, Pa.
Before their appointment in the Palace of the Holy Office, they held an hour of silent prayer in a Carmelite center.
The sisters had met once with the doctrinal congregation’s investigator, Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, but had not seen his report. The sisters were expecting some conclusion to Blair’s inquiry but had no indication about what it would entail. Blair was not in the meeting that day. They were to meet with Levada, who was about to turn 76 and retire to his native California.
After a cordial greeting, Levada read aloud an eight-page, single-spaced assessment that his office was just posting to the Internet. The assessment accused the sisters of “corporate dissent” on homosexuality and failure to speak out on abortion. The assessment also castigated LCWR for ties to NETWORK, a Washington-based Catholic lobbying group that supported the Affordable Care Act, and the Resource Center for Religious Institutes, a group in Silver Spring, Md., that gives religious orders canon law guidance on property issues.
Leaving the Holy Office, Farrell felt numb. “It was in the press before we had time to brief our members,” she recalled.
“The reaction of rank-and-file sisters was anger. Now there is a stage of deep sadness and concern for the climate in the church and the misrepresentation of religious life,” she said.
A darkly ironic twist involves the doctrinal congregation’s handling of the clerical sexual abuse crisis. The congregation has processed 3,000 cases of priests who have been laicized for abusing youngsters. Several hundred are reportedly pending.
Yet those procedures, which Benedict, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, put in place as prefect in 2001, have a large loophole. The office has not judged bishops and cardinals whose negligence in recycling abusers caused the crisis.
The most glaring example is Cardinal Bernard Law, whose soft-glove treatment of pedophiles ignited the Boston scandal. He resigned as archbishop in 2002 and in 2004 he was named pastor of a great Roman basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore, with a $10,000 per month salary and a highly influential role in choosing new American bishops.
Law was a driving force behind a preliminary investigation of all American religious orders of women, according to several sources interviewed here, and a May 15 report by Robert Mickens, the respected Vatican correspondent for the British Catholic weekly, The Tablet. Law, who has not spoken to the media in a decade, refused an interview request. But Cardinal Franc Rodé, 78, retired prefect of the congregation that oversees religious orders, confirmed Law’s role. In a wide-ranging interview at his residence in the Palace of the Holy Office, Rodé said, “It was the American milieu in the Roman Curia that suggested it.”
The “apostolic visitation” of all but the cloistered communities of U.S. women religious was the initial phase. The doctrinal congregation’s aggressive investigation of the main leadership group soon followed.
“Some people say this is an attempt to divert attention from the abuse crisis, like politicians do,” a missionary sister from a developing country with her order in Rome, said of the doctrinal congregation’s investigation. She asked that her name not be used because the order depends on donations from U.S. Catholics channeled through dioceses.
“The Vatican is trying to assert control, to say, ‘We are in charge,’ ” she continued. “This envisions a different church from Vatican II. Many people are saying that the two churches are not coming together.”
LCWR has indeed pushed the envelope by giving forums to theologians who have questioned celibacy and the evolution of religious life. As liberal theologians clamor for change, LCWR has collided with the doctrinal office over freedom of conscience, a core principle of Vatican II.
Rodé, as prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, ordered the 2009 visitation of American sister communities. He told Vatican Radio of his concern for “a certain secular mentality … in these religious families and perhaps also a certain ‘feminist’ spirit.”
Rodé was also prompted by a 2008 conference he attended on religious life at Stonehill College near Boston. Dominican Sr. Elizabeth McDonough, a canon lawyer, accused LCWR of creating “global-feminist-operated business corporations” and “controlling all structures and resources.”
“I’m unaware of any such facts that would back up that claim. It sounds like a sweeping indictment of the direction many orders have taken which the hierarchy found offensive or disloyal, summed up in the ‘radical feminism’ catch phrase,” said Kenneth A. Briggs, author of Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns.
“Most orders were scrounging to come up with funds to support retired sisters, often selling off property that belonged to them to do so. It seems clear to me that the aim of the Stonehill meeting was to paint a picture of disobedience as a pretext for a crackdown,” Briggs said.
Rodé in an interview brushed off suggestions that the apostolic visitation was unfair.
Rodé had requested $1.3 million from religious communities and bishops to cover travel and other expenses for the visitation, which he appointed Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior general of Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to carry out.
The funding request raised eyebrows among many missionary orders.
“Why would you want to pay them to investigate you?” asked one of the missionary sisters in Rome.
The study by Millea has not been made public.
“Vatican II was the most important event that changed the Catholic church,” said Sr. Nzenzili Lucie Mboma. “Jesus was a carpenter. He didn’t build cells, but windows to see every culture.”
She paused. “Why is this investigation happening?”
[Jason Berry, author of Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, writes from New Orleans. Research for this series has been funded by a Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism; the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting; and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.]
“Think Different—Accept Uncertainty” Part XIII: Miracles As Signs to Be Interpreted
Today, as a part of the overall series entitled “Think Different–Accept Uncertainty,” I want to begin to press this mini-unit on the miracle stories of the gospels toward a conclusion. My concern has been to show modern readers that these miraculous narratives found in the gospels were always symbolic, interpretive stories rather than supernatural accounts arising out of the lack of knowledge present in that pre-modern world, filled as it was with fear and superstition. The first thing we noted was that the miracles attributed to Jesus in the New Testament fell into three distinct categories: nature miracles, raising of the dead miracles and making people whole miracles.
Our next insight came from looking at the miracle stories found in earlier traditions in the Hebrew Scriptures. There we noted that, for the most part, miracles in the Bible were centered in three cycles of stories. First, there was the Moses-Joshua cycle where the miracle stories all seemed to involve power over the forces of nature. Here we found such things as the plagues on Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea to allow safe passage across the water for the fleeing slaves and the raining down of heavenly bread called manna. These “natural miracles” dominate the Moses cycle of stories. When we arrived at the Joshua cycle we found additional feats of natural power that included the splitting of the waters of the Jordan River, the collapsing of the walls of Jericho and the stopping of the sun in the sky in its journey around the earth to allow more daylight for Joshua’s troops to massacre more of his enemy’s soldiers on the battlefield. Then looking at the nature miracles attributed to Jesus in the gospels we saw in them echoes of these Moses-Joshua stories. Jesus also was said to have had power over water. He did not split seas and rivers, but he could calm the storm and walk on the water. Like Moses, Jesus could also feed the multitude in the wilderness with finite amounts of food, which could expand to any needed dimensions and the supply never be exhausted just like manna in the wilderness. The power of nature was thus depicted in the gospels as subservient to the power of Jesus. Like Moses, Jesus could command the forces of nature to do his will.
The second cycle of miracle stories in the Bible was found in the accounts that gathered around the persons of Elijah and Elisha, who were thought of as those who started the prophetic movement. Here most of the miracles were once again nature miracles. Both Elijah and Elisha could part the waters of the Jordan River and they could both expand the food supply so that it did not give out. They could also control the weather and even call down fire from heaven to serve their purposes. Two dramatically new miraculous powers, however, were added to the accounts of Elijah and Elisha. Both were said to have been able to raise the dead. Elijah raised from the dead the only son of a widow. Elisha raised from the dead the twelve-year-old daughter of a wealthy woman who had befriended him. Elisha was also the first person in the Bible who was said to have performed a healing miracle. He healed the leprosy of a foreigner, a man named Naaman the Syrian. We looked earlier in this series at the relationship between these Elijah-Elisha stories and the gospel narratives and began to see the close connections. Jesus, like Elijah, raised from the dead a widow’s only son, a story told only in Luke. Jesus, like Elisha, raised from the dead a child in a narrative recorded in Mark, Matthew and Luke. I might also add that Luke alone told the story of Jesus cleansing the leprosy of ten people, but that story turned on the fact that one of them was a foreigner, a Samaritan, and he, like Naaman the Syrian, was the only one to recognize the source of healing power. The Elijah-Elisha stories appear to have shaped these gospel narratives dramatically.
Most of the best-known miracle stories in the gospels that surround Jesus, however, had to do with healing individuals or making them whole. Jesus was portrayed with some frequency as being able to give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, the ability to leap and walk to those with lame or withered limbs, and to enable the mute to speak or sing. What do we make of these stories? Well, the fact is that they too grow out of the Hebrew Scriptures and were presented in the gospels as signs that Jesus was the appointed messiah.
For this analysis, we have to go to I Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39). Someone must have asked this eighth century BCE prophet how people would recognize and know just when the Kingdom of God on earth was beginning. In Jewish mythology to inaugurate the Kingdom was the primary role assigned to the figure they called the messiah. I Isaiah wrote his response to this question in the 35th chapter of his book in beautiful and poetic language. You will know that the Kingdom of God is at hand and that the messianic age is beginning, he said, when these things occur: First, water will begin to flow in the desert enabling the crocuses to bloom there and the gift of life will be celebrated from Mt. Carmel to Sharon. The second sign will be just as dramatic: Human wholeness will begin to replace human brokenness. “The eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy” (Is. 35:5-6).
That specific messianic tradition was lifted out of I Isaiah quite intentionally by the interpreters of Jesus and its content placed into the gospel tradition by the authors of both Matthew and Luke when they re-introduced John the Baptist into their narratives. According to this story, John had been imprisoned by Herod for his preaching against Herod’s illegal marriage. While John was in prison, these two gospel writers tell us, John’s confidence began to waver as to whether or not Jesus really was “the one who was to come,” that is, the expected messiah, or whether John and his followers must begin to look for another. With these doubts motivating him, John the Baptist sent messengers to Jesus asking him to clarify his messianic status.
Jesus did not answer John’s question directly. Instead he told the messengers to return to John and tell him what they had seen and heard and let him draw his own conclusions. Then, he referred them quite specifically to this Isaiah text. The blind that came in touch with Jesus were enabled to see; the deaf were enabled to hear; the lame could walk and leap, and the mute could talk and sing. The signs of the messianic age were in fact breaking out all around Jesus. In this narrative, Matthew and Luke were making specific claims about Jesus as messiah and they were quoting this passage from Isaiah to demonstrate that Jesus indeed was the expected one, “the one who was to come.”
If healing were to accompany the inauguration of the Kingdom of God and if Jesus was believed to have been that promised one, then he had to be portrayed as the bringer of wholeness. This means that miracle stories had to be attached to the memory of Jesus in all three of the Old Testament categories: Moses stories, Elijah- Elisha stories and messianic expectation stories. Jesus was messiah was their claim and for supporting data for this claim they cited stories that demonstrated that he commanded the forces of nature, he raised the dead and he was the one who could and did bring wholeness to the brokenness of human life.
That is what those miracle stories were employed to communicate and that is why they need to be read as interpretive symbols, not as supernatural acts. That was also why no miracles were connected with the memory of Jesus until the eighth decade. It took that long for this interpretive process to get established. That is why Paul seems to know nothing of Jesus as a miracle worker. Miracles were an eighth decade addition to the Jesus story, introduced first by Mark, then copied within a decade or so with no additions by Matthew. By the time Luke wrote in the late 80’s to early 90’s, more Elijah-Elisha stories were added to the memory of Jesus. That is why only in Luke did Jesus like Elisha, heal not one, but ten lepers. Only in Luke did Jesus raise from the dead the only son of a widow just as Elijah did. When Luke arrived at the climax of his gospel he once again adapted an Elijah story, magnified it and then retold it as a Jesus story. That is why, only in Luke, did Jesus ascend into heaven, just as Elijah did, except that Luke says that Jesus did it without the help that Elijah received from a magical, fiery chariot drawn by magical fiery horses and propelled by a divine whirlwind. Jesus, as the new Elijah, could ascend without any supernatural aids. After Elijah ascended, he was said to have poured out a double portion of his powerful, but still human spirit on his single disciple, Elisha. In Luke’s climactic narrative, Jesus, the “new Elijah, poured out the enormous gift of God’s Holy Spirit in sufficient quantities to transform the entire community and to last throughout the centuries. In the telling of these Ascension and Pentecost stories, Luke tipped his hat overtly to the Elijah source from which he was drawing his material. He even took the whirlwind that propelled Elijah’s chariot heavenward and he turned it into the mighty rushing wind that filled the upper room on the day of Pentecost. He took the fire from the magical chariot and horses and turned it into tongues of fire that were said to have lighted on the heads of the disciples as a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
A close examination of the miracle stories of the New Testament thus reveals that they were not written as the memory of literal events. They were, rather, created as interpretive narratives presenting Jesus as the new Moses, the new Elijah and the expected messiah. They are to be read not as supernatural tales, but as interpretive symbols. Suddenly the miracles begin to look very different and we are able to read the gospels in a new manner. To see this, however, we must “think different” and “accept uncertainty.”
We will continue this series next week.
~John Shelby Spong
“Think Different-Accept Uncertainty” Part XI: Beginning a Probe of the Miracles Attributed to Jesus
Deconstruction is always easier to do than reconstruction, but it is not nearly so important. It is never enough to say who or what Christ is not, but we must move on to say who or what Christ is. The task is complicated, however, by the very fact that the Jesus story, as related in the gospels, has been literalized for so long that breaking through the literal window to establish some new possibilities is quite difficult. This is especially true when we realize that the old mindset, no matter how dated or nonsensical it is, is nonetheless reasserted in the hymns we sing, in the prayers we pray in our liturgies and in the sermons we hear in church every Sunday. All of these activities assume a pre-modern frame of reference that most educated men and women today simply can no longer affirm. So I have to approach this task piecemeal, week by week, in order to lay the groundwork for a radically different perspective. There is no silver bullet of understanding that can be fired to create in us this new point of view. So, today I will begin a unit in the series “Think Different-Accept Uncertainty” that will look at the miracle stories in the gospel narratives. Did the miracles really happen? If they did, do they still happen? If they did once, but no longer happen why did they cease? As one person tried to explain, “Perhaps ‘the age of miracles’ is over.” To which I need to respond, “Perhaps there never was an ‘age of miracles’ and the things we once called miracles are now understood in a very different way.” Those are the possibilities.
I begin this unit by probing the level of reality that still remains among my readers in regard to the miracles recorded in the New Testament. I ask each of you to do a test just with yourself, aimed at discovering whether or not you really believe that miracles can or did happen?
Here are the questions:
- Can a star really wander through the sky so slowly that wise men can keep up with it?
- Can that star really stop in its journey, first over the palace of King Herod for the wise men to get additional directions and then over the house in Bethlehem where the baby Jesus lives with his mother?
- Can a virgin conceive?
- Are there really angels that can break through the midnight sky to sing, presumably in Aramaic, the only language that the shepherds understood, about the birth of Jesus? Could these angels really send these shepherds in search of this child, armed with only two clues: he would be “wrapped in swaddling clothes” and he would be “lying in a manger?”
- Do you think that anyone can literally walk on water?
- Do you believe that anyone can feed a multitude of 5,000 men, plus women and children, with five loaves and two fish?
- Can one curse a fig tree and cause that tree to wither down to its roots and die?
- Can one still a storm by speaking to it and commanding it to cease its fury?
- Can one raise from the dead a man named Lazarus, who has not only been dead for four days, but who has also already been buried?
- Can a blind man be made to see by the laying on of hands or the anointing of the eyes with clay? Why did this procedure not work in one gospel episode until there were two applications? Is it any harder to bring sight to a blind man if he was born blind?
- Can the mentally ill or those suffering from epilepsy be cured by casting out the demons that cause them to be other than “normal”?
- Can the mute be enabled to hear and to speak if the healer can only get Satan to stop binding the tongue of the victim?
- Can a withered hand be restored to fullness of operation or a man crippled for 38 years be enabled to walk by another’s command?
- Can water be turned into wine to keep a wedding party going? Why was it necessary, as the Bible states, to create on that occasion 150 gallons of wine?
All of these are questions that arise from actual stories that are included in the gospels and all of them are attributed to Jesus. Did any of them literally happen?
If you are convinced that all of them happened, can you explain how those feats were accomplished? If they did not literally happen, what does that do to our understanding of Jesus? Is the concept of God as an invasive, supernatural force necessary to the maintenance and certainty of the Christian story?
Does Christianity really live or die, as many claim, on the one supreme, supernatural event that all the gospels record as the climax of their narratives, namely, that a man dead from sundown on Friday, is restored to physical life by Sunday morning in such a way that he could walk out of his tomb and invite his followers to handle his flesh and even to finger his wounds?
Many people cannot imagine Christianity surviving without these things being literally true. Many other people cannot imagine any of these things ever being literally true. That is the dilemma facing Christianity today. Believers become more and more literal and fundamentalist, while those who cannot and do not believe any of these things can find no place in the life of the church for them and have no desire to continue as part of a worshiping community that pretends that these things really happened. So how can we understand miracles and how can we understand the role they played in the original telling the Christian story? That will be our task in this series over the next few weeks.
First, some biblical observations. There is no unanimity in the New Testament about most of these miracle accounts. For example, there are only two miraculous events that all four gospels record. Gospel unanimity exists only on the resurrection of Jesus and the expansion of the loaves and fishes to feed the multitude. Yet when one looks at the texts of each of the gospels the details surrounding both of these narratives vary enormously.
In regard to the resurrection, Mark, the earliest gospel to be written, has a messenger instruct the women at the tomb to tell the disciples that the risen Christ will meet them in Galilee. None of the women ever sees Jesus in this first gospel and Mark records no account of Jesus ever meeting with the disciples in Galilee. So in Mark no one ever actually sees the risen Christ. In Matthew the women are said to have seen the risen Christ quite literally in the garden on Easter morning and the disciples, or at least eleven of them, were said to have seen him on a mountain top in Galilee. In Luke the women do not see him at the tomb on Easter morning and no disciple ever sees him in Galilee. Then Luke says that two disciples, but not members of the twelve, see him in Emmaus, but he disappears into thin air. Later the twelve do see but only in Jerusalem. When we turn to John we read that Mary Magdalene alone sees the risen Christ at dawn on the first Easter and then the disciples, minus Judas and Thomas, see him in the upper room in Jerusalem at the time of the evening meal. In both instances, this gospel tells us that they conversed with him. A week later, John writes that the disciples see him again this time with Thomas. Finally, months later, John says seven of the disciples see him in Galilee, but not on top of a mountain as Matthew claimed, but beside the Sea of Galilee. There is no consistency in the details of these sightings.
In regard to the stories of the miraculous feeding of the multitude, Mark and Matthew give us two versions. The first one has 5,000 people fed with five loaves and two fish, the second has 4,000 people fed with seven loaves and a few fish. Each feeding takes place on a different side of the lake. Luke and John reduce the feedings to one. There is, thus, no gospel unanimity in this episode either. Then to complicate the picture still further, Luke alone has Jesus raise a widow’s only son from the dead. John alone has Jesus turn water into wine. The witness of the gospels to the reality of miracles is thus far more confused and ambivalent than most Christians realize and more than most of them can believe when it is spelled out for them.
We add to that complex analysis the fact that as far as we are able to discover or to read no miracle was ever associated with Jesus before the 8th decade when Mark’s gospel came to be written in the early seventies. Paul, who wrote between 51 and 64, never mentions a miracle in association with Jesus. The Q document and the Gospel of Thomas, which some, but not all, scholars believe might be pre-Marcan sources, do not mention a miracle being associated with Jesus. The Virgin Birth does not enter the Christian tradition until the 9th decade of the Christian era or some 55-60 years after his death. The physical resuscitation of the deceased body of Jesus as the way resurrection is to be understood does not enter the tradition until the 10th decade or some 60-70 years after his crucifixion. These are the factual data about the miracles of the New Testament. It is not the stable picture that believers claim and that skeptics reject. It is also not a simple study. This is enough, however, to raise the subject to our consciousness, to allow it to play upon our minds and our imaginations, to stimulate our interest. I also hope it is enough to bring you back to this column in succeeding weeks when we begin to unravel this material. So stay tuned! Same time, same place!
~John Shelby Spong
“Think Different – Accept Uncertainty” Part X: The Christ – He Is Not the Savior of the Fallen
by John S. Spong May 23, 2012
In my studies of the origins of life and its evolution, I have become convinced that the traditional and primitive claim that involves the concept of “original sin” has got to go! This mythological misunderstanding was based on the assumption that human life began perfect, but that we had our perfection destroyed by our disobedience, which left us separated from God. This was our “original sin” and no human life escapes its effects. In the light of all we know about the origins of life “original sin” has first become quaint, then bankrupt and finally harmful and destructive of our humanity. The Christianity of the future must jettison this outdated idea if it intends to live and to participate in the world that is emerging in the 21st century.
This will not be an easy transition for the Christian Church or for individual Christians to make. The concept of “original sin” has been so deeply instilled into the heart of the way that Christianity has defined itself, that for many people abandoning “original sin” feels like abandoning Christianity itself. The task before Christian leaders is therefore the task of developing a compelling new understanding of Christianity that can provide an alternative to this former understanding. This alternative will have to be far more radical and far more extensive than most people in the church can now even imagine. It will also have to be positive and in touch with what we know of the origins of life.
One aspect of this alternative Christianity will be that we must see that the word “savior” is no longer a title that we can use for Jesus. Think of what that title assumes. One cannot be the “savior” unless there is something or someone who is in need of salvation. One cannot see Jesus as the “savior” unless one believes oneself to have fallen from an original perfection into the mire of “original sin.” Since that is not the way we now understand human life, what content is left in the title “savior?” What do evangelists mean when they ask: “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?” What is the meaning of either the Protestant mantra: “Jesus died to save me from my sins” or the Catholic mantra which describes the Eucharist is the “Sacrifice of the Mass,” that is, a liturgical reenactment of the cross on which Jesus died for our sins?
So extensively has the title “savior” permeated the Christian story that it is the primary way that Jesus is described in most Christian liturgies. Other forms of the word “savior” are the words “redeemer” and “rescuer.” We Christians even name some of our churches “The Church of the Redeemer.” We speak of redemption in Christ Jesus. This word means to restore full value to that which has been compromised, to make whole that which was broken. One redeems one’s valuables from a pawn shop by paying a premium.
“Rescuer” is the word that lies behind many Protestant hymns like “Throw out the lifeline,” “Love lifted me” (when I was sinking deep in sin) and a variety of others. We are told in thousands of ways that Jesus’ act of saving us had to do with his death and with the shedding of his blood on the cross. The images are somewhat gory as we sing words such as “Washed in the blood,” “Saved by the blood” and “There’s a fountain filled with blood,” all of which imply that we are “dirty,” that we are sinful and that the blood of Jesus is endowed with cleansing power. For many people there is no other way to understand either Jesus or the Cross. It might, therefore, surprise us to know that Paul, the earliest writer of material that came to be included in the New Testament, never used the word “savior” to describe Jesus. Paul wrote between 51 and 64 C.E. If Paul is representative of the thinking about Jesus in those years before any gospel was written, we get the hint that to think of Jesus primarily as “savior” was not present among the followers of Jesus in the early years of Christian history.
Neither Mark, who wrote the first gospel in the early years of the 8th decade, nor Matthew, who wrote the second gospel in the middle years of the 9th decade used the title “savior” for Jesus. So, we can surmise, that “savior” was still not the title of choice for Jesus when the 9th decade of Christian history arrived. The word “savior” makes its first appearance in Christian writing in the Gospel of Luke, a work written in the late 9th to early 10th decade of Christian history, somewhere between the years 88-93. Luke uses the word “savior” twice. The first time is in the song sung by Mary called “The Magnificat.” There she says “My spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Note that the first biblical use of the word “savior” is not a reference to Jesus, but to God! The second Lucan use of the word “savior” does apply to Jesus and is found in the song of the angel in Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus: “for to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). The only other use of the word “savior” as a name for Jesus in the gospels comes in John’s story about the Samaritan woman by the well who, after her conversation with Jesus, returned to her village and announced that “This is the savior of the world” (John 4:42).
Both of these gospel uses of the word “savior” could better be translated “messiah,” for they are references to the messianic function of bringing about the “Kingdom of God” on earth in which the Jewish people would be rescued from such perils of history as slavery, defeat, exile and oppression. In the Hebrew Scriptures to ask God to save meant to save the Jewish people from the clutches of an enemy, a natural disaster or a personal tragedy. It was never a reference to being saved from one’s sinfulness or one’s fall from an original perfection.
It is not until one gets to the Pastoral Epistles (I & II Timothy and Titus) and the General Epistles (I & II Peter, I, II & III John and Jude), all of which are dated from about 90 to about 135 C.E., that the word “savior” comes to be applied regularly to Jesus. These are the biblical data that cause me to question just how this title “savior” comes to be the one by which Jesus is primarily known today. It clearly was not the original way the disciples thought about him.
To see human life as distorted, fallen and in need of a “savior” is an idea that does not get attached to Jesus until the 4th century and was, I submit, the contribution of a man named Augustine, who was the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, and whose writings shaped Christian thinking for about a thousand years. It is his view of the origins of human life and the birth of sin that still infect the Christian message in 2012.
Augustine collapsed the two competing creation stories in the book of Genesis into a single narrative to form the background for telling the Christ story. From the first story (Gen. 1:1-2:3) he got his sense of the original perfection of the world and all that is within it. That story says that God created the world in six days and when God had finished, God looked out on all that God had made and pronounced it not only good, but complete. Human life, this story says, shared in this perfection for in the “image of God,” the man and the woman were fashioned. From the second creation story (Gen. 2:4 -3: 24) Augustine got his understanding of human rebellion, disobedience and the fall into sinfulness. Eve, tempted by the serpent, ate the “forbidden fruit” then fed it to Adam and “their eyes were opened.” God’s creation was ruined by this act of disobedience. Their sinfulness resulted, according to this primitive story, in the banishment of the original human family from God’s presence in the Garden of Eden. It caused human distress from the woman’s pain in childbirth to the man’s need to gain his daily bread from the soil of the earth. The ultimate punishment for this act of disobedience was death. The fact that everyone died meant two things to Augustine. First, it meant that everyone shared in the fall and, second, that sin was universal and original. It could not be escaped. It was part of the “being” of human life into which we were born. We needed to be saved from it, redeemed from it, rescued from it. That was the human condition. In order to free the world from its sinfulness the “savior” had to be external to the world, which of course meant that the savior had to be sent from the God who lived above the sky. In time, it became clear that the savior had to be, in some special sense, of the very nature of God.
That became Augustine’s frame of reference and into that frame, he told the story of Jesus. Messiah no longer meant the one who would usher in the Kingdom of God on earth but the one who would save human life from the fall and from the power of original sin.
That is thus the context in which the Jesus story has traditionally been told and it is obviously dependent on that understanding of human life’s origins. You and I, however, live in a post-Darwinian world in which this story is nonsensical. There was no original perfection from which one could fall; there was rather the emergence of life out of an evolutionary process in which survival became the driving principle and the highest value. Our ancient forebears interpreted this basic survival drive, present in all living things but self-conscious in human life, to be a manifestation of a self-centeredness that resulted from the fall, thus viewing self-centeredness moralistically when they should have viewed it biologically. Our survival-driven self-centeredness is, however, not sinful, it is in the DNA of life itself.
Being saved, therefore, does not mean that someone has to pay the price of our evil in order to satisfy the judging God and to restore human life to a status it has never before possessed. It cannot mean that “Jesus died for my sins.” It cannot mean that baptism is the liturgical act to wash away the stain of the fall. It cannot mean that the Eucharist is the liturgical reenactment of the divine rescue operation accomplished on the cross. When one pulls out this central plank of the Christian story, then the whole superstructure of doctrine, dogma, creeds and liturgy collapses. That is when we know that we must “think different” and “accept uncertainty.” The future of our Christian Church depends on our doing just that. So we will continue to develop these new themes as this series continues.
~John Shelby Spong
The so-called “Great Commission” is recorded only in Matthew’s gospel (28:16-20) and is the first time anywhere in the gospel tradition that the risen Christ is said to have spoken any words. Matthew is the second gospel to be written (82-85 CE.). We need to note that in the first gospel, Mark (written in the early 70’s CE.), there is no narrative of the risen Christ ever appearing to anyone at any time and thus there is no opportunity for Jesus to be allowed to speak. According to the translation in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the words of the “Great Commission” are, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel.”
What do these words mean? First, let me state what they do not mean. They are not a challenge to become missionaries in order to evangelize the world and thus to make converts of all people to the Christian religion. That is a dreadful misconception based on the imperialism of Christianity that developed after Christianity became the established religion of the empire in the Fourth century CE. When Matthew’s gospel was written, the followers of Jesus were still members of the synagogue. The Christian community did not separate itself from the synagogue until about the year 88 C.E. which would have been within a decade after Matthew’s gospel was written.
What then do these words mean? This text is part of what I call Matthew’s “interpretive envelope.” Matthew was the most Jewish of all the gospel writers, yet he wanted to portray Jesus as the power that called people beyond all of their tribal identities and ethnic values. In his opening chapters Matthew uses the symbol of a star to proclaim the birth of Jesus. The uniqueness of a star is that its light is not bound to the territory of any single nation, but it shines all over the world and thus it can serve as a sign, a heavenly invitation to come to the light that the star announced. The wise men were symbolic of the human yearning to leave their divisions behind and to find human oneness in the God Jesus was thought to reveal. The wise men were Gentiles overcoming their fears and their prejudices by coming into the Jewish world in search of the light. Following that introduction Matthew then told the story of the life of this Jesus, who with consistency set aside all barriers of tribe, gender, race and even religion, all of which serve to separate people from one another. When the story of Jesus is complete, Matthew closes his envelope by having Jesus speak the words of the “Great Commission.” What Matthew’s Jesus was saying is that once you understand the meaning of Jesus, you have a new responsibility. You now must go into “all the world.” You must go to those you have described as unclean, unbaptized, uncircumcised, non-koshered, different or unworthy and you must proclaim to them the love of God that has no boundaries and that knows no limits. You do this by crossing all human boundaries, all human prejudices and by removing the sources of all human rejections. The “Great Commission” thus has nothing to do with converting the heathen.
Thanks for your question, it makes it possible for readers to see deeply into the biblical story, that is, to see far beyond the level of understanding that a literal reading of the scriptures would ever provide.
A Meditation on the Meaning of a Brief Life
They were a very happy young couple. Both the wife and the husband were successful professionally. They had worked hard to achieve this success, postponing much of what young adults think of as fun in order to pursue their goals. They were in their early thirties when they met, fell in love and decided to get married. Their marriage was an occasion of great joy for themselves and for both of their families. The wedding brought together customs old and new, uniting two distinct cultural histories into one life-giving and flowing stream. They settled into their new home and began to build their own traditions.
They wanted a family and after a year or so were delighted to learn that they were expecting a baby. Both families rejoiced in this news and it seemed that their happiness broke any boundaries that they had known before. Inspired by their joy they seemed to soar through the days. A month or so later to their amazement and heightened pleasure, they learned that they were expecting twins. With the realization that they had started their family a little bit later than usual, they were overjoyed. When all of their friends warned them about sleepless nights, double barreled diapers and no time for themselves, it fazed them not one bit so ecstatic was their anticipation.
All went well for about five months and then complications arose. The young mother began to dilate prematurely and threatened to go into labor. The lives of these babies were barely on the edge of viability outside the womb. Modern medicine that is so amazing sprang into action. The expectant mother was taken to the hospital and placed under twenty-four hour observation. If necessary, she would spend the rest of her pregnancy in the hospital. Every day she got through in that setting without further complications was a day that made the lives of these twins more hopeful.
Two weeks later, however, the mother’s body was attacked by e coli bacteria while she was in the hospital. The medical team began to treat this infection with the massive drugs at their disposal, but it soon became clear that a caesarian-section would be required to save the babies from both the virus and the drugs. The c-section was performed. Only one of the twins made it through that transition. The boy, Julian Edward was the name they had chosen for him, lived but a moment. The girl, Chloe Emma was her name, was on the borderline, but she seemed to have that tiny edge that pushed her to the side of life. She is still living and the hopes and expectations are that after time in the neo-natal unit of this hospital, she will go home to her parents vital and healthy. The mother also finally passed the crisis point and she too will recover fully, but the emotional price that she and her husband were called on to pay was very high. It was a price that their extended families also had to pay. No one who ever loves another is immune to the pain to which that love makes us vulnerable. As this situation unfolded, I learned yet again something of the mystery of life as well as something of its terror.
If someone had told this young couple a year ago that they would be the parents of a precious and happy baby girl, they would have been thrilled. They would have seen that as the fulfillment of their dreams. Now, however, their joy has been compromised by grief. Joy at the birth and life of their daughter, grief at the death of their son, these conflicting emotions – feelings both bitter and sweet – engulfed them simultaneously. Questions about life’s strange twists raged in their minds as well as in the minds of those of us who love them. The necessity of absorbing pain over which one has no control was real, hopes that ran so high were dashed so cruelly and a haunting wonder surrounded them. They needed to mourn their lost boy, but what is the form that their proper grief can take? Can one ascribe purpose to a life that lived so very briefly? Is there any redemptive meaning that can be attributed to the death of a premature baby?
In generations past, comfort came through the suggestion that the will of God must in some way have been served by this tragedy. The religious assumptions of that age were clear. God had to be in control of this world. No tragedy would have occurred without purpose or if God had not somehow willed it. God must have a plan, we said, into which this little lad fitted. If life were ruled by nothing other than chance or blind fate, then the anxieties we would have to face in the task of living would simply be too difficult and too debilitating for us to manage emotionally. Those comforting convictions of an earlier time, however, have not endured. We have been forced to note time after time that history is replete with illustrations that reveal that God is apparently not in charge, for things do not always turn out well and good does not always prevail. Elie Wiesel came to that conclusion when he lived through and survived the Holocaust, being the only member of his family to do so. The poor of the city of New Orleans came to that conclusion when they had to endure the fury of Hurricane Katrina. The people of Haiti came to that conclusion when the tectonic plates beneath the island of Hispaniola shifted, creating an earthquake in which over 200,000 people perished. Trayvon Martin’s family had to come to that conclusion as he became yet another victim of an all too familiar pattern of a deep-seated and blind racism.
All of us face this same reality every time disease strikes; every time an innocent child dies or is killed; every time irrational anger on someone else’s part ends the life of another, whose only fault was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. No one can deny life’s dark and painful side. Nor can we today cover it over with the simple and pious rhetoric of the past. Our questions are rooted in life not in the religious convictions of the previous era.
How are we to observe or honor a life that only lives for a moment? Should grieving parents and grandparents note the reality of that life by giving that baby a name? Should a memorial or funeral service be planned to honor the tiny life that was there? Would that make life easier for the parents, the grandparents or even for the way they will all relate to the surviving daughter? Would those gestures be anything more than an act of sentimental and hopeful delusion?
This particular experience caused me to think about these questions and to come to these conclusions. I am convinced that all life, no matter how brief, is of value. I do not want to spend my time trying to explain why bad things happen to good people or by trying to assess guilt and attempting to find someone or something to blame for life’s tragedies. I have no interest in turning to yesterday’s religious certainty and seeking comfort by assigning this tragedy to the “enigmatic will of God.”
Instead I find that I yearn to engage this family in a new kind of discussion by asking them to think with me about a new set of questions. How was your life touched by this child who did not make it? Did anticipating this baby’s birth expand your consciousness and enhance your life? Did it increase in you a capacity to love and to know the joy of anticipation? Was there any role this now-deceased infant played in strengthening the love that holds a marriage together? Did this infant boy serve to deepen the bonds of affection that create the extended family? Is it possible that the survival of the infant girl was made possible by the death of the infant boy? Did he absorb the e coli bacteria and thus protect his twin sister from the fate that he experienced? Was the noblest of all human experiences operating here, the principle of sacrifice: one dies so that another might live? If any of these questions can be answered with a “yes” then I think we should call this boy by the name his parents had chosen for him, to remember him, to give thanks for him and to acknowledge that, while his time on this earth was short, it was not insignificant. This is also why I believe that we should mark the passing of this brief life with some kind of liturgical event in which he is remembered, his remaining effects placed into the ground or in some appropriate place with care, ceremony and sensitivity. He did live. He affected positively those who still live. He made a contribution to life that needs to be acknowledged and for which thanksgiving needs to be expressed.
Life at any level is a miracle. Only those who are able to love and to love self-consciously and deeply can feel the trauma of loss, of separation. So anyone who participates in life, if only for a moment, that one still lives, still contributes and still needs to be acknowledged. Every life no matter how he or she lives is still an expression of the Source of Life. Every life is, therefore, holy because the Source of Life is holy. It is that holiness that we acknowledge when we come together in grief and with heavy hearts to commit one, who lived only momentarily, to the Source of life, which he surely embodied. So, yes, let us treat this tiny life as we treat every life. Let us hear in worship the words, “dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.” Let us give thanks for the meaning that this life has brought and commend this life to the Source of Life. It is our self-consciousness that allows us to be grateful, to commune with and even to worship, that which makes us alive even if for but a moment.
~John Shelby Spong
The Vatican vs. the Nuns
Perhaps it takes a political campaign to reveal the fault lines in both our nation and in institutional religion. At least that is what appears to be happening in current American politics. The political season has a way of loosening latent fears, exciting the extremists and bringing silliness to the political arena. We have watched that process for long, long months now. There have been moments when it was the theater of the absurd. Now a news story comes out of the Vatican announcing that, as a result of issues raised in this campaign, an American archbishop, J. Peter Sartain of Seattle has been appointed by the Vatican to deal with “serious doctrinal problems” that have appeared among American Catholic nuns.
When the Catholic bishops criticized the Obama health care law’s requirement that contraceptives must be made available to female employees of Catholic institutions, President Obama immediately worked out a compromise. Churches had already been exempted and now it was agreed that contraceptives will be provided free of charge to those female employees of Catholic institutions by the health care companies themselves, so that the Church’s moral teaching on this issue was not compromised. It seemed a reasonable solution and was widely applauded. The largest body of Catholic nuns called “The Leadership Conference of Women Religious,” many of whom work in hospitals and health care facilities, agreed to the compromise immediately. The bishops, however, a few days later did not agree, thus pitting the sisters in a public dispute against the bishops, who are in the Catholic system proclaimed to be the church’s only “authentic teachers.” Dissent in an autocratic system strikes at the root of authority and threatens the imposed conformity. It now appears that the “independence” of these sisters had to be countered and the sisters brought into line, that is into conformity with the teaching of the bishops. So now a “visitation” has been ordered by the Vatican and, once again an all-male hierarchy in the name of a God named Father, has directed that women be disciplined and forced to conform to the patriarchal ordained leadership of the church if they want to remain in religious orders. Since no women can be ordained, there is no way that women in this church will ever be empowered to do anything, no court to which they can appeal this abuse of authority and the world gets to see how empty the idea still promulgated by this church really is: namely that treating women as second class citizens does not mean that women are regarded as “inferior” only that they are “different.” In this church all power flows through the hierarchy of the ordained and since no woman is in that flow chart, women are inevitably and finally powerless. “Separate but equal” was once nothing more than propagandistic perfume sprinkled over the stench of segregated America, now it is to be propagandistic perfume sprinkled over the stench of a patriarchal, sexist church. “Separate but equal” is always separate, but it is never equal!
There were, of course, other issues. It was said that the nuns have also challenged the church’s teaching on homosexuality, a male-only priesthood and promoted a “radical feminist agenda incompatible with the Catholic faith.” Roman Catholic nuns have always been more open than the priests and the bishops, at least since the time of Pope John XXIII. With the death of this broad spiritual leader conformity to yesterday became the rule of this church. Hans Kung, probably the best read theologian of the 20th century, was removed from his position as a Catholic theologian at Tubingen because his mind could not be twisted into the medieval concepts required by his church. This action was carried out by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who at that time under Pope John Paul II held the office that in another time gave us the Inquisition. Matthew Fox, one of the most popular retreat and meditation leaders and an environmental activist, was then silenced by the same Cardinal Ratzinger. Professor Charles Curran, one of America’s best known ethicists, was removed from his tenured professorship at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., also by the same Cardinal Ratzinger. Father Leonardo Boff, the best known Latin American liberation theologian, was forced to renounce his ordination in order to continue his work for justice among the poor of Latin America by the same Cardinal Ratzinger. Next we learn that the Vatican, now headed by Cardinal Ratzinger under his new name Pope Benedict XVI, has ordered the removal of a book from all Catholic schools and universities written by a popular female theologian at Fordham University, Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson. Now the nuns are to be investigated. Conformity trumps truth in every direction.
By entering into the American political process so blatantly and by forcing the issue of contraceptives into that debate so centrally, the Catholic bishops have blurred the lines between church and state rather considerably.
In the candidacy of former Senator Rick Santorum, a very traditional Roman Catholic lay person, he not only stated his opposition to contraception, but he also dismissed President John Kennedy’s understanding of the separation of church and state, saying that it made him “want to throw up.” That candidacy gave us a clear vision of how the Catholic bishops will try to manipulate the American political process. The scene was not pretty. Without any fanfare, the nation now awakens to the fact that two thirds, that is, six of the nine sitting justices on the Supreme Court today are Roman Catholics and that three of them, Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito, identify themselves with the most hard line conservative wing of that church. Suddenly, the American dream of “Freedom of Religion” looks shakier that it has ever looked before.
This ecclesiastical attack against health care for women, against contraception, against the nuns and against their leading theologians, presents us with a picture not of strength, but of a desperate power play, designed to recover influence that this religious system has so clearly lost.
When abortion was the defining issue in church-state relationships, the polls continued to show that a majority of Roman Catholic lay people wanted abortion to be a legal option, a safe option, while being at the same time as much as possible, a rare option. Every study reveals that the availability of contraception cuts down the abortion rate dramatically. The Roman Church, however, also wants contraception to be curtailed. Once again, polls reveal that up to 98% of Catholic women in America avail themselves of contraception during some part of their lives. These women are clearly not following the teachings of the bishops. So the bishops have now decided on a plan to use the health care bill of the government of the United States to force its own members to do what their church is not capable of forcing them to do. Is this not a strange twist on the relationship between church and state?
Next, they want to use male hierarchical power to silence any dissent within the largest body of nuns in America. If the lay people of this church are not buying what this church is selling and now if the nuns are not buying what this church is selling, perhaps the bishops might ask themselves whether they have truth on their side. No, truth is not determined by majority vote, but truth can be distorted by those who think they possess it just as quickly and just as surely as it can be by those who find its tenets no longer self-evidently true.
During his unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination, Senator Santorum also complained that 60% of those who enter a college or a university with a strong religious faith had that faith challenged, disturbed or destroyed by what the senator described as “liberal secular professors.” It did not seem to occur to the senator that maybe these students’ “strong faith” was based on concepts that are either dated, immature or simply wrong. Is knowledge in the future in our universities to be bent so as not to offend the naïve faith of some religious believers? Are we ready to put the Catholic Church in charge of discerning all truth? Was this Church not wrong about Galileo, about Darwin, about Hans Kung? Are they not wrong about women, about birth control, about celibacy, about homosexuality, about mental illness and about left-handedness? Has not the papacy itself owned slaves in its history? Have we not had enough inquisitions, crusades and religious wars to make us loath to return to the Middle Ages? Do we wish to cancel the Enlightenment in order to preserve the faith of the Catholic Church as it is interpreted by this Pope, rooted as he obviously is in a world that no longer exists?
Where was this passion for truth and for the exercise of moral leadership when priests were abusing children and the hierarchy was covering it up? Why is Cardinal Bernard Law, the prelate guiltier than any other of covering up that scandal, in a senior Vatican position where he will never have to be called to testify under oath for his criminal behavior?
The last thing I want to see is divisive, religious hostility present in our American body politic, nor do I want to see this nation get to a place where we decide that a person is not fit to serve in any public office because of his or her religion. If the Catholic bishops, however, keep trying to impose their agenda on this nation, that is what they will bring about. This nation will be a poorer nation if devout Catholics are excluded from public service. That would remove people like Speaker John Boehner, Senator John Kerry, Vice-President Joe Biden, Chief Justice John Roberts and a long list of other high ranking officials of both parties. We are not at this point yet, but if the Catholic bishops, spurred on by the Vatican, continue to walk the path on which they now seem to be embarking, they will inherit the wind and reap the whirlwind.
Those vital nuns are now on the battle line facing this out-of-touch male hierarchy. I predict, however, that the nuns will ultimately prevail. The Vatican has never understood either feminine wiles or the fact that truth cannot be finally trampled in the service of institutional power.
~John Shelby Spong
“Think Different – Accept Uncertainty” Part VI: Understanding the Source of Evil
Bad theology is inevitable when it is based on bad anthropology! That is, the way we understand human life always determines the way we understand God. This becomes very clear when religious people begin to grapple with and to try to explain the source of evil.
One does not have to argue today about the reality of human evil. Stories documenting that reality find daily expression on the front pages of our newspapers and are the lead stories on all news telecasts. Though an evil presence is all but universally acknowledged, defining what constitutes evil can, however, still vary widely and explaining the source out of which evil flows has been a major debate throughout the ages. The source of evil has been portrayed in a variety of mythological ways. All people, however, seem to know intuitively that there is something deep in our lives, out of which hostile, spiteful, defensive and sometimes killing impulses flow. The depth of this reality oft times surprises us. It is as if it overwhelms our cultivated self image. Many of us are hesitant to own evil as something that is part of ourselves.
St. Paul, for example, saw evil as an external force that somehow held him in its grip. He explained its presence by saying, “It was sin, working death in me through what is good.” (Rom. 7:13). Later, but in a similar vein, he explained that when he knows what is evil and still chooses to do it: “It is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me” (Rom. 7:17).
In Persia, where the Jews first ran into a radical dualism that divided the whole of reality into two realms, one good, one evil, another definition was operating. Creation was a mixture of two competing and eternal powers, not just the beginning of God’s good world, as the biblical story of the Hebrews had maintained. Life was a mixture of good and evil, light and darkness, spirit and flesh and heaven and earth. This dualistic idea found a major place in the writings of Plato, who describes human beings after the analogy of a charioteer being drawn by a pair of horses, one representing the higher aspiration of the soul and the other representing the lower yearnings of the flesh. The task of the charioteer was to steer these competing forces so that the higher nature always led the lower.
Deep down in this theological divide that separated dualism from the biblical witness was their mutually exclusive images of God. For the dualists good and evil were equal divine forces contending for dominance. This counter force might be called the devil, Satan or evil, but it was portrayed as possessing a status equal to and independent of God. For the Jews, to whom God was both ultimate and one, evil was not an independent power, but a corruption of the original goodness of God’s creation. This Jewish conviction was expressed in the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one,” and it was grounded in the Commandments where it was written, “I am the Lord your God…You shall have no other Gods before me.” This meant that for the Jews evil had to be understood as a corruption of that which is good. So, in the Jewish tradition, Satan was not an independent creature, but a fallen angel cast out of heaven by God for leading a revolution against God and human life was not evil in its origins, but became evil through an act of disobedience that corrupted the goodness of God’s creation forever.
Although these ideas were present in the mythology of the Jewish stories of their origins, they did not get developed in a systematic way until the fourth century of the Common Era and then by the hand of the most significant Christian theologian in the first twelve hundred years of Christian history. His name was Augustine. He was the bishop of a North African town known as Hippo. Today he is canonized, both in fact and tradition, and is widely referred to as simply St. Augustine.
Augustine had an interesting personal history before he was converted to Christianity. Much of that history he has chronicled in a book called “The Confessions.” He was captured, he says, by “the lure of the flesh.” He had many lovers and lived with one of them long enough to father a son by her. He identified himself as a Manichean, which meant that he was a follower of Mani, a Middle Eastern dualist. Finally, however, inspired by the witness of his Christian mother, whose name was Monica, and under the influence of a Christian leader named Ambrose, he became a Christian and put his enormous intellectual gifts into the service of his newly-adopted faith. He assumed that it was his task as a Christian theologian to explain all mysteries. One of those mysteries to be explained was the source of evil in a world that Christians believed was created by a good God. To accomplish this task, he went to the scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which he believed, as the Christians of that day did, that these words were the “Word of God” and, therefore, that they held the key to the understanding of all things. Augustine knew nothing of the source or background of these scriptures, but assumed it was his job to mine them to discover ultimate truths.
In that sacred text Augustine found two quite different stories of creation side by side in the book of Genesis. They were actually written in two different eras about 500 years apart and under very different circumstances. He blended them, however, and used them as his starting place in the definition of evil. From the first story (Gen. 1:1-2:4a), he took the idea of the perfection of creation. This was the “seven day” story, which suggests that God, the source of all that is good, created out of nothing the earth, the sun, the moon and all forms of living things from plants, fish and birds to the “beasts of the field” and “every creeping thing that creeps upon the face of the earth.” Then late on the sixth day, to complete the act of creation, perhaps as its crown and jewel, God made human life.
God made this human life both male and female, presumably as equal expressions of the divine image. To this newly minted couple God gave stewardship over all things and commanded them to be faithful and to multiply. This story ends with God pronouncing everything that God had made to be good. There was no dualism here between good and evil. All was good, all flesh, all desires, all creatures. Because creation was now complete it was assumed to be perfect. Nothing can be perfect if it is incomplete or still evolving. Completeness was established in this narrative when it announced that on the seventh day of that first week, God rested from all the divine labors and thus established the Sabbath day of each week thereafter to be a day of rest for all creation.
This familiar narrative was a product of the period in Jewish history known as the Babylonian captivity, which would date it in the late 6th century BCE. It was written to accomplish two things. First, the writer, who was a member of a group we now refer to as “the priestly writers,” wanted to have a Jewish story of creation that could be placed as a contrast alongside the Babylonian story of creation. Second, this writer wanted to establish the peculiar Jewish Sabbath day custom as a defining mark of all Jewish people and to cause that practice to distinguish the Jews from all other people.
The Jews must become, this author believed, people who refuse to work on the seventh day of the week and, in the separateness of that existence, keep themselves from losing their identity by intermingling and ultimately intermarrying with members of other ethnic groups. Only in a strictly observed separation could the continuity of the Jewish people be guaranteed and only in separation could they fulfill what was, they believed, their God-given vocation, namely to be the people through whom all the nations of the world will be blessed. That was their calling, their messianic role and their divine, historical destiny. This hymn of creation was designed to affirm the oneness of God, the goodness of creation and to justify the stance of separation in which their hope of survival as a people rested.
When this group of “priestly writers” later compiled the sacred scriptures of the Jews, an action that also took place in and following the Exile in the late sixth and early fifth centuries BCE, they placed this story of the earth’s beginnings as the first chapter of the first book of their sacred story, the first chapter of what they would later call “The Torah.” This meant that it had to push a much earlier story of creation into a secondary position.
That displaced story of creation, which was written some 400 to 500 years earlier, was much more primitive and reflected its more ancient origins. It was quite different and even quite contradictory when compared with the newcomer that now preceded it. In the first story, the creation of living things came in an orderly manner from plants to animals to human life. In the second story, the man was created first out of the dust of the earth and even after God had created a beautiful garden in which the man could live. Then came the creation of all the animals, which were designed to give the man companionship, and finally, when none of the animals seemed capable of meeting the man’s needs for companionship, God created the woman. The woman in this story was thus not coequal as in the earlier story. She was quite secondary, made out of the rib of the man. She was created to be the male helpmeet and support person. The man had the power to name her as he had named all the other animals, which meant that he had the power to control her. The names of this man and woman were Adam and Eve. The garden in which they lived was called the Garden of Eden. In both stories the perfection of creation was asserted, but how evil entered this paradise was yet to be told. The Jews would come down on the side of evil being the corruption of that which was good. St. Augustine would put these two stories together and make them the basis of his explanation of evil and just why it was that all human beings were corrupted, why they died and why they needed to be rescued and saved by an intervening deity. I will turn to that story next week.
~John Shelby Spong