When Theology Must Fall Silent: A Reflection on a Teaching from St. Bonaventure

silence and light

Saints sometimes say daring things. Today, on the feast of St. Bonaventure I’d like to reflect on a saying by him. First, though, let’s consider a certain idiom he used, drawn from biblical times.

In Scripture there is an “absolute” way of speaking that many of us moderns misconstrue. For example, Jesus says (quoting Hosea 6:6), For I desire mercy not sacrifice (Matt 9:13). To those untrained in Jewish and biblical idioms, the meaning would seem to be, “Skip all the sacrifice; God just wants you to be nice.” However, that misses the point of the idiom, which more accurately means this: “Practice mercy without neglecting sacrifice, for sacrifice is in service of mercy.” All of our rituals have the goal of drawing us to greater charity for God and neighbor. Caritas suprema lex (Charity is the highest law). Although charity is the highest law, that does not mean it is the only one. The basic Jewish and biblical idiom goes like this:

“I desire A, not B.”

This means that A is the goal, not B.
However, B is not to be neglected because it is a means or a way to A (the goal).

With all this in mind, let’s consider a teaching from St. Bonaventure, who wrote something very daring—even dangerous. Because he is a saint, we must grant him the liberty that we would not give to lesser men. As a saint he ponders truth and is thoroughly reputable. In his sanctity, his thoughts go where words no longer “work.” In a sense, he must explode our categories lest we become locked in them and forget that God is greater than words or human thoughts can express.

St. Bonaventure wrote of a kind of “passover” we must make wherein we must pass from the world of words, categories, images, pictures, and preconceived notions; to God, who is mystically beyond all that. It is a moment when the “ology” (words) of our theology must step aside for the Theos (God) of our Theology. As you read this quote, remember the cautions and context we have just reviewed, especially regarding the “I desire A, not B” idiom.

For [our] Passover to be perfect, we must suspend all the operations of the mind and we must transform the peak of our affections, directing them to God alone. This is a sacred mystical experience. It cannot be comprehended by anyone unless he surrenders himself to it; nor can he surrender himself to it unless he longs for it; nor can he long for it unless the Holy Spirit … inflame his innermost soul ….

If you ask how such things can occur, seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of the will, not in the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man; darkness not daylight; and look not to the light but rather to the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervor and glowing love. The fire is God 

[From The Journey of the Mind to God, by Saint Bonaventure, bishop (Cap. 7, 1.2.4.6: Opera omnia 5, 312-313)].

Unschooled readers will cringe at the apparent dichotomies: grace not doctrine, longing not understanding, sighs not research, bridegroom not teacher, darkness not daylight.

But this is why we studied the idiom beforehand. “I desire A, not B” means that B serves A, not that B is of no value. Thus, doctrine leads to and serves grace. Our teachings point to heights where words no longer suffice. Our understanding and intellect inspire the will to desire Him whom our minds could never fully contain or comprehend.

Thus our goal is not doctrine (precious and necessary though that this). Our goal is Him to whom the doctrine rightly points. Doctrine is the roadmap, the path, not the destination. Follow the map! It is foolish to try to invent your own religion. Yes, follow the map! But remember, the map is not the goal; it is not the destination. God is the goal and desired destination, and He cannot be reduced to our words or categories.

The great theologian Bonaventure knew the limits of theology. Theology makes the introductions sets the foundation, set limits beyond which we may not go. But there comes a moment for silence and a dark night of the senses and even the intellect. Now the heart and the fiery light of God’s Holy Spirit must do His work. He will not overrule doctrine but build upon and transcend it.

St. Peter speaks to this same process:

We also have the message of the prophets, which has been confirmed beyond doubt. And you will do well to pay attention to this message, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Peter 1:18-19).

Yes, the prophets and the teachings must be attended to; they are like a lamp shining in a dark place. But there comes a moment when those teachings are confirmed and a greater light dawns, the Morning Star rises in our hearts. The truth of doctrine gives way to the Truth Himself, who is also the Way and the Light.

Listen to Bonaventure; listen to Peter. The Creed is essential. Memorize it and don’t you dare go off and invent your own religion! But there comes a moment when the creed steps aside and, pointing to God, says, “He is the one of whom I speak. Go to Him and sit silently at His feet.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: When Theology Must Fall Silent: A Reflection on a Teaching from St. Bonaventure

Fix Me, Jesus; Fix Me – Three Reasons Even Our Spiritual Life Needs Fixing

When I was a good bit younger – in college, actually – I took a few courses in economics and marketing. I remember thinking to myself, “God has a bad marketing department,” because it seemed to me that things like Scripture and prayer were often so difficult to understand and do. God wants us to pray, but everyone I ever asked admitted that prayer was difficult even if the specific reasons were different in each case. I wondered why God didn’t just make prayer delightful. “Yes,” I thought, “God has a bad marketing plan.”

God isn’t selling products, of course—He’s raising children. He’s healing hearts, and heart surgery is a lengthy procedure that often involves pain for the patient. Many purifications, mortifications, and changes are going to be necessary if we want to attain holiness and get to Heaven.

Let’s look at three reasons our soul needs purification. Note that purifications of the soul are akin to, but distinct from, the mortifications necessary for our body to control the passions related to it (e.g., gluttony, lust, and greed). Our soul, too, can be weighed down with excesses and defects.

Drawing from the spiritual masters and St. Thomas Aquinas, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange details three reasons that our soul needs purification, especially as we begin to make progress. They are spiritual pride, spiritual gluttony, and spiritual sloth. Each of these brings conditions and temptations to a soul that is beginning to make some progress in prayer and fervency. The very gifts of progress and fervency are also possible dangers to the ongoing growth that is needed. God purifies us in different ways in order to avoid having these traps capture us entirely.

Let’s look at each in turn. The writing is my own, but the insights and inspiration came from Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange’s Three Ages of the Interior Life, Volume two, pp. 44ff, Tan Publications.

I. Spiritual pride This comes when a person, having made some progress and experienced consolations as well as the deeper prayer of a proficient, begins to consider himself a spiritual master. He may also start to pass judgement on others who seem to have made less progress.

A person afflicted with spiritual pride often “shops around” for a spiritual director, looking for someone who affirms rather than challenges his insights. Further, he tends to minimize his sins out of a desire to appear better than he really is.

Soon enough he becomes a Pharisee of sorts, regarding himself too favorably and others too harshly. He also tends towards hypocrisy, playing the role of a spiritual master and proficient, when he is not.

God, therefore, must often humble the soul that has begun to make progress. In a certain sense He slows the growth, lest the greatest enemy—pride—claim all the growth.

II. Spiritual sensuality – This is a kind of spiritual gluttony, which consists in being immoderately attached to spiritual consolations. God does sometimes grant these to the soul, but the danger is that the consolations can come to be sought for their own sake. One starts to love the consolations of God more than the God of all consolations. Growth in the love of God for His own sake can easily be lost or become confused and entangled. Even worse, it may become contingent upon consolations, visions, and the like.

Hence, God must often withhold consolations so that the soul can master the discipline of prayer with or without consolations and learn to love God for His own sake. Uncorrected, spiritual gluttony can lead to spiritual sloth.

III. Spiritual sloth This emerges when spiritual gluttony or other expectations of prayer are not met. There sets up a kind of impatience or even disgust for prayer and for the narrow way of the spiritual life. Flowing from this is discouragement, a sluggishness that cancels zeal, and the dissipation of prayer and other spiritual practices. One begins to fall prey to distraction, to make excuses to avoid prayer, and to shorten prayer and other spiritual exercises or do them in a perfunctory manner.

Here, too, God must seek to purify the soul of attachment to consolations, lest such sloth lead to a complete disgust and a refusal to walk the narrow way of the spiritual life. The Lord can effect this sort of purification through a spiritual director who insists on prayer no matter how difficult. God sometimes uses certain seasons such as Lent and Advent or other ember days to bring greater zeal to the soul weighed down by spiritual sloth.

Clearly, God must correct spiritual sloth and help us to accept Him and prayer on His terms, not ours. The insistence on delight and consolations on our own terms is a great enemy to the docility and humility necessary for true growth.

Yes, we need many purifications, whether we like to admit it or not. We might like to think that our spiritual life would be free from excess or defect or at least would be a sign of great progress, but often even the most beautiful prayer experiences and spiritual stages are replete with the need for purification and further growth. Perhaps this is what Isaiah meant when he wrote,

In our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?  We have all become like one who is unclean, and even our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (Is 64:5-6).

This song says, “Fix me, Jesus; Fix me.”

Cross-posted with the Catholic Standard: Fix Me, Jesus; Fix Me – Three Reasons Even Our Spiritual Life Needs Fixing

The Whole Counsel of God

The first reading from Tuesday’s Mass is Paul’s farewell speech to the presbyters (priests) of the early Church. Here is a skilled bishop and pastor exhorting others who have pastoral roles within the Church. Let’s examine this text and apply its wisdom to bishops and priests as well as to parents and other leaders in the Church.

The scene is Miletus, a coastal town in Asia Minor not far from Ephesus. Paul, who is about to depart for Jerusalem, summons the presbyters of the early Church at Ephesus. He has ministered there for three years and now summons the priests for this final exhortation. In the sermon, St. Paul cites his own example of having been a zealous teacher of the faith who did not fail to preach the “whole counsel of God.” He did not merely preach what suited him or made him popular; he preached it all. To these early priests, Paul leaves this legacy and would have them follow in his footsteps. Let’s look at some excerpts from this final exhortation.

From Miletus Paul had the presbyters of the Church at Ephesus summoned. When they came to him, he addressed them, “You know how I lived among you the whole time from the day I first came to the province of Asia. I served the Lord with all humility and with the tears and trials that came to me … and I did not at all shrink from telling you what was for your benefit, or from teaching you in public or in your homes. I earnestly bore witness for both Jews and Greeks to repentance before God and to faith in our Lord Jesus … But now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem … But now I know that none of you to whom I preached the kingdom during my travels will ever see my face again. And so I solemnly declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from proclaiming to you the entire plan of God … (Acts 20:1-38, selected).

Here, then, is the prescription for every Catholic, whether bishop, priest, deacon, catechist, or parent: we should preach the whole counsel, the entire plan of God. It is too easy for us to emphasize only that which pleases us, or makes sense to us, or fits in with our world view. There are some who treasure the Lord’s sermons on love but cannot abide His teachings on death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Some love to discuss liturgy and ceremony but the care of the poor is far from them. Others point God’s compassion but neglect His call to repentance. Some love the way He dispatches the Pharisees and other leaders of the day but suddenly become deaf when the Lord warns against fornication or insists that we love our spouse, neighbor, and enemy. Some focus inward on Church politics but neglect the outward focus of true evangelization the Lord commands (cf Mat 28:19).

In the Church today, we too easily divide out rather predictably along certain lines and emphases: life issues here and social justice over there, strong moral preaching here and compassionate inclusiveness over there. When one side speaks, the other side says, “There they go again!”

We must be able to say, like St. Paul, that we did not shrink from proclaiming the whole counsel of God. While this is especially incumbent on the clergy, it is also the responsibility of parents and all who attain any leadership position in the Church. It is also the call of Catholic politicians, many of whom have lamentably chosen party over faith, what is expedient over what is eternal. All of us must remember that we will appear before the judgment seat of Christ one day and will have to render an account for what we have done and what we have failed to do.

All the issues above are important, and each must have its proper place in the preaching and witness of every Catholic, whether clergy or lay. While we may have particular gifts to work in certain areas, we should learn to appreciate the whole counsel and the fact that others in the Church may be needed to balance and complete our work. While we must exclude notions that stray from revealed doctrine, within doctrine’s protective walls we must not shrink from appreciating and proclaiming the whole counsel of God.

If we do this, we will suffer. Paul speaks of tears and trials. In preaching the whole counsel of God (not just your favorite passages or politically correct, “safe” themes), expect to suffer. Expect to not quite fit in with people’s expectations. Jesus got into trouble with nearly everyone. He didn’t offend just the elite and powerful. For example, even His own disciples puzzled over His teachings on divorce, saying, “If that is the case of a man not being able to divorce his wife it is better never to marry” (Matt 19). As a result of Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist, many left Him and would no longer walk in His company (John 6). When Jesus spoke of His divine origins, many took up stones with which to stone Him, but He passed through their midst unharmed (Jn 8). In addition, Jesus spoke of taking up crosses, forgiving one’s enemies, and preferring nothing to Him. He forbade even lustful thoughts, let alone fornication, and insisted we learn to curb our unrighteous anger. Yes, preaching the whole counsel of God is guaranteed to bring the wrath of many upon us.

Have you proclaimed the whole counsel of God? If you are a clergyman, before you move on to another assignment; if you are a parent, before your child leaves for college; if you are a youth catechist, before the children are ready to be confirmed; if you teach in RCIA, before the time comes for Easter sacraments—can you say you preached it all? God warned Ezekiel that if he failed to warn the sinner, that sinner would surely die for his sins but that Ezekiel himself would be responsible for his death (Ez 3:17 ff). Paul can truthfully say that he is not responsible for the death (the blood) of any of them because he did not shrink from proclaiming the whole counsel of God. What about us?

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Whole Counsel of God

On the Futile Quest to Find Happiness from the World, as Seen in an Animated Short

The video below is a humorous depiction of the utter frustration of seeking fulfillment in or from this world. It features a pig, Ormie, who goes to ridiculous lengths to obtain some cookies that are just beyond his reach.

Many people are like this, sparing no expense in search of illusory happiness. Some practically self-destruct in their quest to fill the God-sized hole in their heart.

It never works, though, because our desires are infinite; a finite world will always leave us unsatisfied. Complete fulfillment can only be found with God. For now, we walk by faith toward Him, of whom our heart says, “Seek His face. Seek always the face of the Lord!”

Seeking the Lord does several things for us. It helps us to stop thinking that finite things can really satisfy us. It increasingly ends our frustrating, futile, intense pursuit of those things. As our prayerful union with God deepens, our satisfaction with Him increases and He becomes more desirable than the things of this world. More and more we can say that God really does satisfy us.

In the video, Ormie is a very unhappy pig because no matter how hard he tries, he can’t get what he wants. The world seems to taunt him as he tries again and again. Frankly, even if he did get the cookies, they would probably only satisfy him for about twenty minutes!

Allow the cookies to represent happiness. Ormie expends all his effort on pursuing something that this world can’t give him. An awful lot of people live like that, forever chasing butterflies. Somehow, they think that if they can just get that one thing, then they will be happy. They will not—at least not in the infinite sense that their heart really desires. Wealth brings comfort, not happiness. The finite world just can’t provide what many want it to give them.

Enjoy this amusing animated short. Often humor registers in us because it contains an element of truth that we recognize in our own self. Laugh and learn with Ormie the Pig!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard:  On the Futile Quest to Find Happiness from the World

The Greatness of Little Things: A Reflection on a Quote From St. Augustine

I have found that one of my favorite quotes from St. Augustine is not all that well known. Here it is in Latin, followed by my own translation:

Quod minimum, minimum est,
Sed in minimo fidelem esse,
magnum est.

What is a little thing, is (just) a little thing.
But to be faithful in a little thing
is a great thing.

(from St. Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, IV, 35)

I first saw this quote on the frontispiece of a book by Adrian Fortescue. Fortescue applied it to the intricate details of celebrating the Old Latin Mass. That form of the Mass has an enormous amount of detail to learn: how exactly to hold the hands, when and how to bow, what tone of voice to use, what fingers should be used to pick up the host, and on and on. Some might see these details as picky and overwhelming. But as the quote above states and Fortescue apparently wanted us to think, love is often shown through reverence for the little things. (See the second video below.)

It’s so easy to become lazy, even about sacred things like saying Mass. I often have to remind myself about little things like the condition of my shoes. Are my vestments clean? How about the altar linens, are they properly cared for? Do I bow and pause at Mass when I should? How is my tone of voice? Do I walk reverently in the sanctuary? Am I careful to pronounce the sacred words of the liturgy with care and a prayerful spirit? Some may find such questions tedious or even too scrupulous. But when you love, little things are often important.

Married couples may also struggle to remember the little things that show love: a kind remark, a simple thank you, flowers brought home for no particular reason, a simple look, the gift of listening attentively, cleaning up after yourself in the kitchen, a simple reassurance like “I’m glad I married you” or “You’re a great father to our children,” a quick phone call saying, “I love you and was thinking about you.”

They’re just little things. But to be faithful in little things is a great thing. A gospel passage comes to mind:

Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness! (Matt 25:21)

Another passage says,

Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much (Luke 16:10).

Little things—who cares? God does. Little things are great things to those who love.

This song says, “You must be faithful over a few things to be ruler over many things. Be thou faithful unto death and God will give you a crown of life.” It ends in a rousing chorus: “Well done good and faithful servant, well done!”

And since I mentioned the details of the traditional Latin Mass, here is a video that illustrates how little things can mean a lot. Some unaccustomed to this form may find such details stuffy, but to those who appreciate them, these “little things” are small signs of love for God and are a way of suppressing a kind of careless informality.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Greatness of Little Things: A Reflection on a Quote From St. Augustine

On the Relationship of Suffering and Wisdom

Over 29 years ago, as I was finishing seminary and about to be ordained, my spiritual director at the time gave me some advice on seeking a new one in my diocese. “Look for someone who has suffered,” he said. At the time I wondered about this but have come to find that it was good advice.

If it is endured with faith, suffering brings profound wisdom. As much as I have hated any suffering I have endured in my life, I must admit it has brought gifts, though in strange packages. I discovered gifts and strengths I did not know I had. I experienced things I would have avoided. I learned to seek help rather than always trying to depend on myself. I became better equipped to help others in their struggles. Through suffering my faith grew as did my compassion and generosity for others who have struggled.

Scripture says, A broken humbled heart the Lord will not scorn (Ps 51). A few years ago, my spiritual director shared a strange saying with me: Everything needs a crack in it; that’s how the light gets in. Yes indeed, the light gets in through a broken heart, one with fissures or openings. Rarely does the light get in through a perfect wall, a strong barrier.

This is a painful truth to be sure, and it makes me want to run, but I have learned that it is so. God has done more with my brokenness than with my strength. In a paradoxical way, my brokenness has become my strength. Have you experienced this? Where would we be without our crosses and sufferings? What do we have of true value that has not come at the price of suffering?

Now let me get out of the way and let a Saint explain it. The following is from St. Rose of Lima, whose feast we celebrated yesterday. Here is an excerpt of what was in the breviary:

Our Lord and Savior lifted up his voice and said with incomparable majesty: “Let all men know that grace comes after tribulation. Let them know that without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace. Let them know that the gifts of grace increase as the struggles increase. Let men take care not to stray and be deceived. This is the only true stairway to paradise, and without the cross they can find no road to climb to heaven.”

When I heard these words, a strong force came upon me and seemed to place me in the middle of a street, so that I might say in a loud voice to people of every age, sex and status: “Hear, O people; hear, O nations. I am warning you about the commandment of Christ by using words that came from his own lips: We cannot obtain grace unless we suffer afflictions. We must heap trouble upon trouble to attain a deep participation in the divine nature, the glory of the sons of God and perfect happiness of soul.”

Suffer well, fellow Christians. Beg deliverance, but realize that even delaying our relief, God is up to something good.

This motet by William Byrd says, “O Lord, according the multitude of the miseries of my heart, your consolations have gladdened by soul.”

Wuerl Record Webpage

For those looking for the “Wuerl Record” webpage, we have taken it down.  Our effort in posting it was not to minimize the information from the grand jury report, but to ensure that Cardinal Wuerl’s full record was treated fairly.  I can certainly understand the criticism, so we have taken it down.  Our taking down the site, similarly, isn’t an effort at not being transparent. We made a mistake; we’re acknowledging it. Moving forward, some of that information will be housed on our Media page.

Thanks and God Bless,

Ed McFadden
Secretary of Communications

In Times of Harsh Political Discourse, What Do the Scriptures Say?

We are in times of strident political protest that includes a lot of harsh language, personal attacks, name calling, and even debased and profane terms. There are tweets, and angry monologues, harsh commentary on news networks, and interruptive press conferences and news interviews that sound more like a brawl than a debate. To put it all more pleasantly, these are times of “colorful” discourse.

What is the overall teaching of Scripture when it comes to this sort of colorful language? Are there some limits and ground rules? Let’s take a look.

The word “civility”dates back to the mid-16th century and has an older meaning that referred to one who possessed the quality of having been schooled in the humanities. In academic settings, debate (at least historically) was governed by a tendency to be nuanced, careful, cautious, formal, and trained in rhetoric. Its rules often included referring to one’s opponents with honorary titles (Doctor, Professor, etc.) and euphemisms such as “my worthy opponent.” Hence as the word entered common usage, it has come to mean speech or behavior that is polite, courteous, gentle, and measured.

As one might guess, there are a lot of cultural variancesin what is civil. And this insight is very important when we look at the biblical data on what constituted civil discourse. Frankly, the biblical world was far less dainty about discourse than we have become in 21st-century America. The Scriptures, including the New Testament, are filled with vigorous discourse. Jesus, for example, really mixes it up with His opponents—even calling them names. We shall see more of this in a moment. But the Scriptures also counsel charity and warn of unnecessarily angry speech. In the end, a balance of the scriptural witness to civility must be sought along with an appreciation of the cultural variables at work.

Let’s examine a few of the texts that counsel charityas well as a modern and American notion of civility:

  1. Anyone who says to his brother, “Raqa” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell(Matt 5:22).
  2. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen(Eph 4:29).
  3. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged(Col 3:21).
  4. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be (James 3:9-10).
  5. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry(James 1:19).
  6. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt(Col 4:6).
  7. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up(1 Thess 5:11).
  8. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips(Col 3:8).
  9. Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips(Eccl 10:12).
  10. The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools(Eccles 9:17).
  11. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification(Rom 14:19).
  12. Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother(Gal 6:1).
  13. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort [the repentant sinner], so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow(2 Cor 2:7).

All these texts counsel a measured, charitable, and edifying discourse. Name-calling and hateful or unnecessary expressions of anger are out of place. And this is a strong biblical tradition, especially in the New Testament.

But there are also strong contrasts to this instruction evident in the Bible. And a lot of it comes from an unlikely source: Jesus. Paul too, who wrote many of the counsels above, often engages in strident denunciations of his opponents and even members of the early Church. Consider some of the passages below, first by Jesus, then by Paul and other Apostles:

  1. Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?”(Matthew 12:34)
  2. And Jesus turned on them and said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. “Woe to you, blind guides! … You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. … And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”(Matt 23 varia)
  3. Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. … He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:42-47).
  4. Jesus said, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”(Mark 7:6).
  5. And Jesus answered them, O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long must I tolerate you?(Mark 9:19)
  6. Jesus said to the disciples, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11)
  7. Jesus said to the crowd, “I do not acceptpraise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts”(Jn 5:41-42).
  8. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables(John 2:15).
  9. Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!”(John 6:70)
  10. Paul: O senseless Galatians, who hath bewitched you that you should not obey the truth … As for those circumcisers, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!(Galatians 3, 5)
  11. Paul against the false apostles:And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Cor 11:11-14).
  12. Paul on the Cretans:Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith(Titus 1:12-13).
  13. Peter against dissenters:Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings…these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish. … They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. … They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! … Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud”(2 Peter 2, varia).
  14. Jude against dissenters:These dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings….these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them. Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; … These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. … These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage(Jude 1:varia).

Now most of the passages above would violate modern norms about civil discourse.Are they sinful? They are God’s word! And yet they seem rather shocking to modern ears. Imagine getting into your time machine and going to hear Jesus denounce the crowds and calling them children of the devil. It really blows a 21st-century mind!

I want to suggest to you that these sorts of quotes go a long way toward illustrating the cultural dimension of what it means to be civil.The bottom line is that there is a great deal of variability in what people consider civil discourse. In some cultures there is a greater tolerance for anger. In New York and Boston, edgy comments and passionate interruptive debate are common. But in the upper-Midwest and parts of the Deep South, conversation is more gentle and reserved.

At the time of Jesus, angry discourse was apparently more “normal,”for as we see, Jesus Himself engages in a lot of it, even calling people names like “hypocrites,” “brood of vipers,” “liars,” and “wicked.” Yet the same Scriptures that record these facts about Jesus also teach that He never sinned. Hence at that time, the utterance of such terms was not considered sinful.

Careful, now—be careful here. This does not mean it is simply OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then; we live now; and in our culture such dialogue is seldom acceptable and often backfires. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity. Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard-to-define things is “I know it when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility. But clearly we tend to prefer gentler discourse in this day and age.

On the other hand, we also tend to be a little thin-skinnedand hyper-sensitive. And the paradoxical result of insisting on greater civility is that we are too easily “outraged” (one of the more overused words in English today). We take offense where none is intended and we presume that the mere act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant, intentionally hurtful, or even hateful. We seem so easily provoked and so quick to be offended. All of this escalates anger further, and charges of hate and intolerance are launched back and forth when there is merely sincere disagreement.

Balance– The Scriptures give us two balanced reminders. First, that we should speak the truth in love, and with compassion and understanding. But it also portrays to us a time when people had thicker skin and were less sensitive and anxious in the presence of disagreement. We can learn from both biblical traditions. The biblical formula seems to be “clarity” with “charity,” the truth with a balance of toughness and tenderness. An old saying comes to mind: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”

Here is a video that depicts the zeal of Jesus and a bit of his anger.