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.