Seeing More as God Does

Today I’d like to reflect further on the Gospel reading from today’s Mass (Thursday of the 13th week of the year). It tells the story of the paralyzed man whom Jesus tells to have courage because his sins are forgiven.

In one sense this is a rather peculiar response to a paralyzed man: Jesus looks at him and says, “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.” Now we might be tempted to tap Jesus on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me, Lord, but this man is paralyzed. His problem is paralysis; that’s what he needs healing for!” (The Pharisees and scribes get all worked up for a different reason: they don’t think that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins.)

Of course, Jesus is neither blind nor lacking in intelligence. Unlike us, however, when Jesus looks at the man he does not consider paralysis to be the most serious problem. To Jesus, the man’s biggest issue is his sin.

Living as we do in this world, most of us have the world’s priorities. The Lord sees something more serious than paralysis, while we wonder what could possibly be more serious than paralysis! But not as man sees does God see. For God, the most serious problem we have is our sin. We don’t think like this even if we are told we should think like this.

Influenced by the flesh as we are, most of us are far more devastated by the thought of losing our health, or our money, or our job, than we are by the fact that we have sin. Threaten our health, well-being, or finances, and we’re on our knees begging God for help. Yet most people are far less concerned for their spiritual well-being. Most of us are not nearly so devastated by our sin (which can deprive us of eternal life) as we are by the loss of our health or some worldly possession.

Even many of us who have some sense of the spiritual life still struggle with this obtuseness and with misplaced priorities. Even in our so-called spiritual life, our prayers are often dominated by requests that God fix our health, improve our finances, or help us to find a job. It is not wrong to pray for these things, but how often do we pray to be freed of our sins? Do we earnestly pray to grow in holiness and to be prepared to see God face-to-face? Sometimes it almost sounds as if we are asking God to make this world more comfortable so that we can just stay here forever. This attitude is an affront to the truer gifts that God offers us.

So it is that Jesus, looking at the paralyzed man, says to him, Your sins are forgiven. In so doing, Jesus addresses the man’s most serious problem first. Only secondarily does He speak to the man’s paralysis, which He almost seems to have overlooked in comparison to the issue of his sin.

We have much to learn about how God sees and about what are the most crucial issues in our life.

Joseph and Mary were told to call the child “Jesus” because He would save the people from their sins. In his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI writes,

Joseph is entrusted with a further task: “Mary will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). … On the one hand, a lofty theological task is assigned to the child, for only God can forgive sins. So this child is immediately associated with God, directly linked with God’s holy and saving power. On the other hand, though, this definition of the Messiah’s mission could appear disappointing. The prevailing expectations of salvation were primarily focused upon Israel’s concrete sufferings—on the reestablishment of the kingdom of David, on Israel’s freedom and independence, and naturally that included material prosperity for this largely impoverished people. The promise of forgiveness of sins seems both too little and too much: too much, because it trespasses upon God’s exclusive sphere; too little, because there seems to be no thought of Israel’s concrete suffering or its true need for salvation.

Benedict then cites the story of the paralytic and comments,

Jesus responded [to the presence of the paralyzed man] in a way that was quite contrary to the expectation of the bearers and the sick man himself, saying: “My son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). This was the last thing anyone was expecting; this was the last thing they were concerned about.

The Pope Emeritus concludes,

Man is a relational being. And if his first, fundamental relationship is disturbed—his relationship with God—then nothing else can be truly in order. This is where the priority lies in Jesus’ message and ministry: before all else he wants to point man toward the essence of his malady.

Yes, God sees things rather differently than we do. There is much to ponder about the fact that Jesus said to the paralyzed man, Your sins are forgiven.

>

The Word of God

We continue to read from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans in daily Mass. In today’s reading, we learn that we are justified by faith apart from the Law. The debates about faith and works are often the result of varied interpretations of today’s text.

One of the sources of confusion is a failure to understand the deeper point: that we are saved by Jesus Christ. It is by being put into a saving relationship with Him that we are saved. This relationship changes us; it affects what we do and do not do. Thus our works change, but it is as a result of the relationship with the Lord. Catholics and Protestants often talk past each other on this topic. It is not simply faith, or faith and works, it is Jesus to whom we must look.

Another confusion is over what we mean by the Word of God. It does not just refer to a book we call the Bible. Reading the Bible is a good thing, but meeting the Lord there is deeper and better. Many people think of the Word of God as an “it” when in fact the Word of God is a person, Jesus Christ. Jesus did not come merely to give us information and to exhort us. He came to give us His very self. Jesus is the “Word made Flesh.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI made this point in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini.

[There is a] statement made by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (1:1-2). … Here the Word finds expression not primarily in discourse, concepts, or rules. Here we are set before the very person of Jesus. His unique and singular history is the definitive word which God speaks to humanity. We can see, then, why “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a definitive direction.” … “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14a). These words are no figure of speech; they point to a lived experience! Saint John, an eyewitness, tells us so: “We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14b). … Now the word is not simply audible; not only does it have a voice, now the word has a face. (Verbum Domini 11-12).

The Word of God is not merely words on the pages of a book. The Word of God is not just an idea or an ethical system. The Word of God is not just a set of teachings or doctrines. The Word of God is Jesus Christ. In order to really grasp this Word, we cannot read ink spots on a page, we must come to know Him, and experience Him and His power active in our lives.

It is dangerous to turn Scripture into an abstraction or to treat it as just a text. St Thomas Aquinas wrote, The Son is the Word, not any sort of word, but one Who breathes forth Love. Hence Augustine says (De Trin. ix 10): “The Word we speak of is knowledge with love.” Thus the Son is sent not in accordance with [just] any kind of intellectual perfection, but according to the intellectual illumination, which breaks forth into the affection of love, as is said (John 6:45): “Everyone that hath heard from the Father and hath learned, comes to Me” (Summa Prima Pars, 43.5 ad 2).

Hence we cannot really grasp Scripture unless we come to know Jesus Christ. Further, to authentically read Sacred Scripture is to encounter Jesus Christ there. Before we analyze a passage from Scripture we are summoned to encounter the One who is speaking to us.

It is surely possible for some people, even secular scholars, to analyze a Greek text of Holy Writ and translate it into English (or another language). Some scholars can analyze the idioms used or the historical context. Such research can help us to understand what a particular passage is saying on one level, but only a deep, personal knowledge of Jesus Christ can help us to know what the text really means. It is this personal, communal, historical, and ongoing encounter with Jesus Christ that distinguishes true theology from mere literary analysis or religious study.

Indeed, theologians and Scripture scholars can be dangerous if they do not personally know Jesus Christ. Knowing Jesus is not the same as knowing about Him. I might know about Jesus Christ from reading a book or from being told by someone, but this is not enough; I must know Him. Being a true authority in Scripture requires meeting and knowing the author. Do you notice that the word “author” is in the word “authority”?

Note how Pope Emeritus Benedict quotes the Prologue of John’s Gospel: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14a) and then continues on to say, These words are no figure of speech; they point to a lived experience! He also says, in reference to the passage from Hebrews 1, Here we are set before the very person of Jesus.

In the liturgical context of Scripture, this fact is enshrined in our ritual. As the priest or deacon proclaims the Gospel, the congregation stands out of respect. For it is Christ Himself who speaks to them and whom they encounter in this proclamation of the Word. At the conclusion of the proclamation of the Gospel, they acknowledge that they are encountering Jesus as they say to Him personally, Laus tibi Christe (Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ).

Scripture and the wider concept of the Word of God authentically interpreted by the Church, is not merely a book or a set of ideas. It is an encounter with a living God, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Word of God is a person, Jesus Christ.

Perhaps a couple of short stories will help to illustrate the difference between seeing Scripture as merely a text, and seeing it as an encounter with the Word made Flesh, Jesus.

  • A rural Appalachian community was visited by a Shakespearean actor. They were amazed at his elegant but strange way of speaking. At one point in his public recital he recited the 23rd Psalm. His speech was elegant, the words pronounced in finest King James English and presented with great drama and flair. At the end of his recitation a strange, awkward silence filled the room rather than the usual applause. Finally, a poor farmer in the back of the room stood up and apologized, saying that the only reason no one had applauded was that they weren’t sure he was done. “See, out in these parts we say it a little different.” The poor farmer began, “The Loerd is mah shayperd …” When he finished, the room was filled with shouts of “Amen” and “Praise the Lord.” The Shakespearean actor then told the poor farmer, “I was elegant, but your words had greater power. That is because I know only the technique, but you know the author.”
  • Some years ago I heard an African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) preacher address an ecumenical gathering. He said to those in attendance, “You know I heard some strange stuff in seminary! The professors said that Jesus never really walked on water, that He didn’t really multiply loaves and fishes, He just got folks to be generous. They said that He didn’t really know He was God, that He didn’t really rise from the dead. He just lives on in our thoughts or something. Can you believe they taught me that in a Christian seminary?” Throughout his description of these wretched “teachings,” the disapproval in the gathering of Protestants and Catholics was audible. As he relayed this litany of faulty scholarship you could hear people saying, “Lord have mercy!” and “Mah, mah, mah.” Then the preacher stopped, mopped his brow, looked at them, and said, “I’ll tell you what. The problem with them wasn’t that they read the wrong books, y’all. The problem with them was that they ain’t never met my Jesus!” Well the house just about came down; folks were on their feet for ten minutes praising God. The choir stood up and began this familiar chorus: “Can’t nobody do me like Jesus; He’s my Lord!”

Well, you get the point. When you’ve met Jesus Christ you just don’t doubt that He walked on the water, multiplied loaves, raised Lazarus, knew perfectly well that He was God, and stepped out of the tomb on Easter morning.

The Word of God is not merely a text; It is a person, Jesus Christ, the Logos, the Word made Flesh. Once you’ve met Him, His spoken (and later written) Word begins to make greater and greater sense and there is just no doubt that this Word is true and powerful.

I’ll let Pope Emeritus Benedict provide the concluding words to today’s post: … the Word finds expression not primarily in discourse, concepts, or rules. Here we are set before the very person of Jesus. … These words are no figure of speech; they point to a lived experience! Saint John, an eyewitness, tells us so: “We have beheld his glory, the glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

How the Liturgy is Healing Medicine for Strident Times

One of the most concise and cogent descriptions of these often strident times came from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 1986. It is contained in, of all places, his treatise on the theology of sacred music in a book called The Feast of Faith (Ignatius Press, 1986). His comments have been republished in a larger compendium of his works, Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2014, Vol 11).

It is hard to describe our times as anything but contentious. Loud, strident protests often predominate over reasoned discourse and thoughtful argumentation.

To be sure, every era has had, and has needed, protest and public opposition to injustice. There is a time and a place for loud protest and the use of memorable sound bites.

However, it is the predominance of loud protest and civil disobedience that stands out today. Sound bites, slogans, and simplistic “war cries” have to a large extent replaced thoughtful, reasoned discourse. Volume, power, and visually flashy techniques are prized; they are being used more and more. Such approaches too frequently produce more heat than light.

Consider, then, this remarkable analysis by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, written back before the Internet and social media had turned up the volume even more. Ratzinger paraphrased an insight of Gandhi’s, applied it to his analysis of our current times, and then proposed a healing remedy to restore balance:

I would like to note a beautiful saying of Mahatma Gandhi … Gandhi refers to the three habitats of the cosmos and how each of these provides its own mode of being. The fish live in the sea, and they are silent. The animals of the earth scream and shout; but the birds, whose habitat is the heavens, sing. Silence is proper to the sea, shouting to the earth and singing to the heavens. Man has a share in all three of them. He carries the depths of the sea, the burden of the earth, and the heights of the heavens in himself. And for this reason, all three properties also belong to him: silence, shouting, and singing.

Today – I would like to add – we see only the shouting is left for the man without transcendence, since he only wants to be of the earth.

The right liturgy, the liturgy of the Communion of the Saints, restores totality to him. It teaches him silence and singing again by opening him to the depths of the sea and teaching him to fly, the angels’ mode of being. It brings the song buried in him to sound once more by lifting up his heart. . . .

Right liturgy … liberates us from ordinary, everyday activity and returns to us once more the depths and the heights, silence and song … Right liturgy … sings with the angels … is silent with the expectant depths of the universe, and that is how it redeems the earth (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Collected Works, Vol 11, Theology of the Liturgy, Ignatius Press, p. 460).

This is a remarkable analysis and an insightful application of liturgy and cosmology to the issues and imbalances of our day! It is in the vein of “Save the liturgy, save the world.” For indeed, only in the worship of God do we find our true selves. Only in the liturgy is our true personality formed. The human person in his glory unites the material and spiritual orders. We are capable of pregnant, expectant silence; of the joyful shout of praise and the Gospel going forth; and of the song of Heaven.

As Ratzinger pointed out, though, we too often are preoccupied with and value only one aspect: the shouting of the earthbound creatures of this world. But the liturgy – good and proper liturgy – trains us in all three and accomplishes the balance that is so often lost today. The liturgy is a training ground, not only for our heavenly destination, but also in what it means to be truly human.

Read and carefully consider Cardinal Ratzinger’s reflection. It will bless your soul; I know it has blessed mine.

Here is a song of the heavens:

Pope Benedict Shares Sober Remarks on American Culture with Local Bishops and Issues a Call to the Laity

On January 19,  Pope Benedict addressed bishops from the District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia, the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, and the Virgin Islands. These U.S. bishops were in Rome for their periodic “ad limina” visits, which included meetings with the pope and Vatican officials, covering a wide range of pastoral matters.

His words provide some sober reflection for us. As is usually the case, I would like to provide excerpts of the Pope’s remarks from a CNS News Article and then present my own comments in red.

Pope Benedict XVI warned visiting U.S. bishops that “radical secularism” threatens the core values of American culture, and he called on the church in America, including politicians and other laypeople, to render “public moral witness” on crucial social issues.

This will call for greater courage and hard work than is evident in many clergy and laity in the Church today. Too often the instinct is to play it safe. And when we are outspoken it is only in the safety of like-minded family and friends. Public moral witness must begin with clergy but it cannot end there. Also public moral witness requires a deep commitment in terms of time and even money.

Increasingly for clergy, the pulpit cannot be a place for abstractions and generalities like “do good, avoid evil.” We have to speak clearly to the issues of our day and be willing to name them. Clear assessments like sin, mortal sin, hell, judgment, right, wrong, good, and evil, must once again find a place in our homilies. Further, we must name issues clearly, abortion, homosexual acts, fornication, contraception, neglect of the poor, greed, corruption and so forth. Ambiguity must give way to clarity. But clarity must also reflect charity. We are to speak the truth in love.

Parents too and every level of the laity must give clear moral witness to their children. Parents must be willing to raise and discipline their children and instruct them clearly in the faith and moral life. It is not enough to say what is taught, but good teaching must also address why. This takes courage and the sacrifice of time.

Catholics in general must be far more willing to enter the public square without apology or fear, and be willing to speak the truth in love. In so doing we must be willing to accept that we will be misquoted, misunderstood and ridiculed. We must accept that we will get it with both barrels and learn that, just because people are angry with us, does not mean we did anything wrong.

Opening with a dire assessment of the state of American society, the pope told the bishops that “powerful new cultural currents” have worn away the country’s traditional moral consensus, which was originally based on religious faith as well as ethical principles derived from natural law.

Yes, at only fifty years of age, I can remember a time when there was a general consensus on the basic moral issues. We had surely been wrong on race, but on most other matters there was a wide consensus that divorce, contraception, abortion, fornication, homosexual acts, disobedience and disrespect for authority by children, loud and obnoxious behavior, public lewdness, immodesty, and bad language were all wrong. I do not say we all lived these values perfectly in every way. But they were agreed upon benchmarks and were largely undisputed.

Moral consensus began to break down with the sexual revolution and anti-authority revolution of the late sixties. But that revolt was largely centered on the college campuses, and took a little longer to reach the suburbs. In short order however, we came to where we are today, largely devoid of wide consensus on the moral issues.

It is amazing how quickly the powerful cultural currents swept away the consensus and the religious practice that was at the heart of it. As I child I remember standing room only in the Churches. Now, there’s a lot of empty pews. It’s happened so fast. And yet not so fast that we cannot share some of the blame for our slow and rather inept response. While the world went crazy, the Church was largely inwardly focused, moving furniture, tuning guitars, and debating about authority and who could be ordained etc. While we squabbled, the West burned.

The cultural revolution happened on our watch and we share the blame.

Whether they claim the authority of science or democracy, the pope said, militant secularists seek to stifle the Church’s proclamation of these “unchanging moral truths.” Such a movement inevitably leads to the prevalence of “reductionist and totalitarian readings of the human person and the nature of society.” The pope drew an opposition between current “notions of freedom detached from moral truth” and Catholicism’s “rational perspective” on morality, founded on the conviction that the “cosmos is possessed of an inner logic accessible to human reasoning.” Using the “language” of natural law, he said, the Church should promote social justice by “proposing rational arguments in public square.”

Yes, the Pope has spoken before about the tyranny of relativism. For if there can be no appeal to reason, to shared values, and a reasonable sense of right and wrong, the only way to win through is not by an appeal to the intellect or heart, but, rather, by shouting the loudest, having the most political power and money. In a relativist setting one cannot appeal to reason to win an opponent, one must simply over-power them. This ushers in an increasing totalitarianism, where those with the most money, power and influence win.

The concept of natural law is dismissed and the beautiful and ancient appreciation that the cosmos is possessed of an inner logic accessible to human reason, which is meant to teach and guide us, is lost. Devoid of this common and agreed upon font, competing groups seek increasing to impose competing visions by the raw use of government power, rather than by an appeal to reason. Power and impostion, not truth or reason, is the basis of many modern secular movements.

In effect, the Pope advises that we must simply stay the course and continue to appeal to natural law and propose rational arguments in the public square. While I do not disagree with the Pope,  I might add that we are bound to experience some futility in this approach,  if we are not willing to engage in some serious prayer and fasting, begging for a miracle, that the rock hard soil of this culture will finally soften to accept the seed of the word. Arguments, though multiplied in number, have proven ineffective in these unreasonable and stubborn times.  Prayer, fasting and the witness of changed and transformed lives, has simply got to take a higher priority for the Church.

Coming at the start of an election year, Pope Benedict’s words were clearly relevant to American politics, a connection he made explicit by mentioning threats to “that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion.” In response to such threats, Pope Benedict said, the church requires an “engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity” with the courage and critical skills to articulate the “Christian vision of man and society.” He said that the education of Catholic laypeople is essential to the “New Evangelization,” an initiative that he has made a priority of his pontificate.

OK, pay attention. The Pope is saying the laity are key, for it is to the Laity that the transformation of the temporal order is entrusted. It’s easy to criticize bishops and clergy, and lots of ink has been spilled right here at this blog of how the bishop’s botch this or that, or have the wrong priorities, or have done enough, or haven’t said enough, etc., etc. Fine, but where are the laity? Well, they’re probably in a sanctuary somewhere distributing communion. The fact is that we have done a terrible job in ushering in a chief aspect of the Vision of the Second Vatican Council: that of bringing forth strong lay leadership specifically focused on the renewal of the temporal order. It’s just so easy to say, “Father ought to do/say something” or “The Bishop’s aren’t doing enough.” But in the end, nothing prevents the lay faithful from organizing and marching forth as leaven in this sickened culture. It is true that the laity should receive formation, and must stick to Catholic principles to retain the name “Catholic.” But, and I’ll just say it plain, there’s too much pew sitting going on. Saying “The bishops should do this or say that” too easily amounts to a cop out.

I’ll boast a little and say that in my parish we are intentional about training lay leaders to engage the temporal order. And I’ve got some good folks stepping up to engage the city around affordable housing, job creation, budget priorities, neighborhood reinvestment, corporate welfare and crony-capitalism where the baseball owners and  convention center gets 100 million subsidy and neighborhood reinvestment gets cut to zero.

I know some of you will say, “Gee Father, sounds fairly left-wing.” OK but here comes the challenge. Where’s the “right-wing” version of this? The “left” has been doing this kind of work for decades. But what of the right? OK, there’s the March for Life, and we, in my parish,  send folks and pass out the literature, and do 40 Days for life. But what else? Where were the trained leaders and organization on the “right” when it came time to oppose Gay marriage in DC? The diocese sent me down to preach on the dais at an emergency rally in opposition to the Gay Marriage Ammendment. And frankly, except for a few parishioners who graciously accompanied me at the last minute, I was all by myself. There were no Catholic organizations that showed up for the large rally. OK, I know, it’s all the clergy’s fault. “If only Father had said something at Mass…” But honestly the large group that gathered there didn’t depend on a pulpit announcement. They were part of a network of Black Protestant Churches connected by e-mail and old fashioned phone calls and they had been organized and were following the issue. Where is the Catholic equivalent of this standing army? We do reasonably well with pro-life, but we are poor when it comes to the other cultural issues.

And believe me, more is needed than to go down and shake signs in front of the state capital on a given night and go home. It requires daily work, lay people coming together meeting with legislators, and crafting legislation on cultural matters. There must be the forming of “think tanks” to inform and influence the culture, publish position papers, build political and social power and influence, file amicus briefs, and even inform and seek to influence the bishops where necessary and inspire action. But where is all this? About the only thing I can think of is the Catholic League, and their out there! But so much more is needed.

It’s so easy to blame the bishops and sneer at the “useless” clergy (as one on my readers recently opined). But really what is the game plan folks? The laity don’t have to wait for the clergy to found something or start it. The renewal of the temporal order is the primary work of the laity.

For the record, I am trying to bring some more conservative folks I know together, and jump start a kind of Catholic think tank devoted to public policy, a kind of more local Washington-based group devoted to the moral and cultural issues as well as the social ones. But honestly it shouldn’t have to wait for a clergyman to start it. My hope it to jump start things and then step back, for the temporal order belongs to the laity.

Do you see what the Pope is saying? We have a battle on our hands and troops are needed. If you find a good fight, get in it! This is a good fight, a fight for the Lord and for the health and future of our culture which we love and want to see restored.

Now let’s see if the combox fills up with complaints about clergy and the endless debate about what to do with Pro-Abort Politicians, or if there will be soldiers with ideas and visions ready to step up for battle and restore the temporal order for the Lord.

Sorry to be a little tough, dear readers, but, as you might notice, I’m trying to pivot the conversation away a bit from the usual focus: There’s plenty to criticize the clergy for, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, but let’s not forget the essential role of the laity. What’s already going out there that’s good? What can be built on? What needs to be started? Who is willing to begin?

Picturesque and Pilgrim Papa – Two Lighthearted Videos on Pope Benedict

I don’t know why, but it’s funny to see the Pope on the phone. I am not sure where I got this photo. It has just been in my collection since shortly after Pope Benedict became Pope.

But again I say, that it strikes me as odd to see him on the phone, and I don’t know why. But, as I look at this photo, I think of the following caption as he speaks into the phone with his soft German accent: No, Really! This is the Pope! I really mean it! Please deliver three pizzas, extra cheese with Italian Sausage to the Vatican… No really! I am not kidding….This is me!

I have always thought that Pope Benedict is very photogenic. His face is wonderfully expressive. A couple of years ago, I put together a brief video of some of the more humorous photos of the Pope. I hope you might enjoy a one minute diversion.

I also put together another video of the Pope as a pilgrim and world traveler set to Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.” Enjoy a toe tapper of a song with photos showing the Pope’s far flung travels.

The Pope’s View of the Historical-Critical Method of Biblical Interpretation

I must that I was never all that enamored by the historical critical method of interpreting Scripture. I’ll say more of why in a moment. But some of you may be wondering what the historical critical method is. (If you want to skip my little lesson and some personal reflections of mine and go right to the Pope (instead of mere Msgr. Pope), the quote is at the bottom of the Page in bold italics).

The historical-critical method investigates the origins of a text and compares them to other texts written at the same time, before, or recently after the text in question. Did other ancient texts, whether biblical or non-biblical, adopt similar forms, use similar ingredients, story-lines, allegories, metaphors and the like. The Historical Critical method focuses on the sources of a document to determine who wrote it, when it was written, and where. What do we know of the author and his times? How was he influenced by them? What was his personal story? What other texts did he write and how do they compare what is before us? How does the writing we are studying compare to similar documents of the time? For example, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are all very similar in terms of their basic content of what Jesus said and did. However they also have significant differences. How do we understand and explain the differences? Is one of the three “synoptic” (called this because of their similarity to each other) Gospels more historically reliable than the others as to detail? Why is the Gospel of John so different in tone and content that the other three and what are we to make of this? And so forth.

As such though, the historical critical method focuses primarily, almost exclusively, on the human origins of a text. Of itself this is not wrong, but it is incomplete. The Scriptures are a document of faith, more specifically of the believing community of the Church. They are inspired texts, with God the Holy Spirit as their ultimate author. Further, the role faith in the communities from which the biblical texts emerged is also a significant factor. Hence the biblical text is not merely understood as an historical utterance, but one that was understood and interpreted by those who believed and who also influenced the process of collecting the sacred writings and discerning what was of God. But this process was guided by the Holy Spirit.

The human dimension in all these things is important and essential and the historical critical method is right to explore this dimension, for God the Holy Spirit did not choose to act independently of the human personalities involved or of the believing community of the early Church. But neither was God wholly bound by these things or limited by them. Thus the historical critical method can only be one dimension of proper biblical understanding.

Regarding Sacred Scripture’s human dimension the Catechism has this to say:

In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression. (CCC # 110)

My own struggle – As I have already admitted, I have struggled to be enthusiastic about the historical-critical method. This begins for personal reasons. When I was in Seminary the method was insisted on by some, (not all), of my professors as the only real and valid method of Scripture study. They were zealots of a sort and any suggestion of a world outside this method was dismissed by them. They also isolated themselves historically, since this method is rather a new one. Hence, just about anything written on scripture prior to 1900 was not considered very tenable by them. I remember once turning in a paper wherein I quoted a scriptural commentary from the 1870s. The Teacher simply circled the date in red and had nothing further to say of the point.

I was also troubled by the strong tendency of the historical-critical method to doubt the existence of the miracles recorded in scripture. Not all scholars do this, but the more usual explanation of the miracles were that they were either literary devices, or just epic legends that were common of ancient near eastern and middle eastern texts. Further, claims that Jesus made of his divinity were somehow to be understood as later additions, not something Jesus actually said. Many adherents of the historical critical method were also dismissive of John’s Gospel and tended to sniff at most details there. They considered what they called “the fourth Gospel” to be more theological reflection than actual history, hence it had little offer that they were not quite skeptical of. It did little good to quote John’s Gospel to some of my professors.

De-mystified – Generally speaking then, my experience of the historical-critical method was that it de-mystified the scriptures and saw them only in human terms. The over-arching role of the Holy Spirit as the true and primary author was set aside and, thus, Mark’s gospel was favored over say, John’s and so forth. Since some of my professors were zealots for the method. Asking questions, even in good faith, was considered a veiled rejection of the method and was not usually received well.

And yet I also knew the human dimensions and historical context of the Scripture were important. But getting past the odious qualities of zealots, and the over-emphasis they placed on the human, made it harder for me to learn from them or the method they proposed.

I write all this to introduce the Pope’s reflections on the historical critical method. At heart he is a professor and is thus very careful to distinguish and to realize that the truth is often found in dialogue with various disciplines. He is able therefore to take what is good in the method and describe what is lacking or in need of balance and correction. He does this gently yet clearly. I find his distinctions helpful, especially due to my personal history. I trust the Pope and need someone I trust to say to me, “There is something good here and worthy of acceptance, and there are also some tendencies to avoid.”

This excerpt is from the Pope’s recent book Light of the World. It begins with a question by Peter Seewald which articulates many of the concerns I just expressed and then there is the Pope’s answer.

SEEWALD: The historical-critical method had its merits, but it also led fatefully to an erroneous development. Its attempt to “demythologize” the Bible produced a terrible superficiality and a blindness toward the deeper layers and profound message of Scripture. What is more, looking back, we realize that the alleged facts cited for the last two hundred years by the skeptics intent on relativizing pretty much every statement of the Bible were in many cases nothing more than mere hypotheses. Shouldn’t we be much clearer than we have been that the exegetes have to some extent been practicing a pseudo-science whose operative principle is not Christian, but an antiChristian animus, and that it has led millions of people astray?

POPE BENEDICT: I wouldn’t subscribe to so harsh a judgment. The application of the historical method to the Bible as a historical text was a path that had to be taken. If we believe that Christ is real history, and not myth, then the testimony concerning him has to be historically accessible as well. In this sense, the historical method has also given us many gifts. It has brought us back closer to the text and its originality, it has shown us more precisely how it grew, and much more besides. The historical-critical method will always remain one dimension of interpretation. Vatican II made this clear. On the one hand, it presents the essential elements of the historical method as a necessary part of access to the Bible. At the same time, though, it adds that the Bible has to be read in the same Spirit in which it was written. It has to be read in its wholeness, in its unity. And that can be done only when we approach it as a book of the People of God progressively advancing toward Christ. What is needed is not simply a break with the historical method, but a self-critique of the historical method; a self-critique of historical reason that takes cognizance of its limits and recognizes the compatibility of a type of knowledge that derives from faith; in short, we need a synthesis between an exegesis that operates with historical reason and an exegesis that is guided by faith. We have to bring the two things into a proper relationship to each other. That is also a requirement of the basic relationship between faith and reason.

Just a final word of thanks to the Holy Father for the encouragement he gives me here. His charism is to strengthen and unify us (cf  Lk 22:31). His capacity to do this with clarity and gentleness is evident here. There are values to the historical critical method. And yet excesses must be avoided, distinctions made. I find this succinct answer, which he has elaborated in greater detail elsewhere,  of immense help.

On the Synergy of Sacred Scripture – A Reflection on the Pope’s Teaching in the Post Synodal Exhortation Verbum Domini

In the past few days we have reviewed how a humanist group has misused Scripture in an Ad campaign designed to ridicule faith in God. In their human kindness they have chosen the Christmas season to do this. Their misuse of Scripture centers on pulling individual verses from the Bible and posting them out of context and apart from the wider Biblical tradition that often clarifies, balances or distinguishes them.

Pope Benedict recently spoke to this very problem in his Post Synodal Exhortation Verbum Domini. His main point is that individual verses of Scripture must be understood in relation to the whole of scripture, not isolated from it. I’d like to quote a couple sections of the exhortation so we can learn from the Pope an important lesson about Scriptural interpretation.

From letter to the deeper spirit and meaning of the text – In this first quote the Pope makes reference to the literal sense or meaning of a text. Literal here signifies what a text is saying in the literary sense, not necessarily that it should be understood without any symbolic or figurative meaning, not that it cannot have an analogical, allegorical,  or spiritual meaning. The “literal” sense emphasizes what the text is saying, its sentence structure, its grammar, its basic message. However, understanding what the text is merely saying is not enough. We must move on to understand what the text means at a deeper and wider level than its mere literary meaning. The letter must give way to the deeper spiritual meaning. And here is where the Pope picks up:

In rediscovering the interplay between the  different senses of Scripture  it thus becomes essential  to grasp the passage from letter to spirit…..This progression  cannot take place with regard to an individual  literary fragment unless it is seen in relation to  the whole of Scripture. Indeed, the goal to which  we are necessarily progressing is the one Word.  There is an inner drama in this process…. Saint  Paul lived this passage to the full in his own life.  In his words: “ the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life ”  (2 Cor 3:6), he expressed in radical terms the significance of this process of transcending the letter  and coming to understand it only in terms  of the whole…… We know that for Saint  Augustine too this passage was at once dramatic  and liberating; he came to believe the Scriptures  – which at first sight struck him as so disjointed  in themselves and in places so coarse – through  the very process of transcending the letter which  he learned from Saint Ambrose in typological interpretation,  wherein the entire Old Testament is  a path to Jesus Christ. For Saint Augustine, transcending  the literal sense made the letter itself credible, and enabled him to find at last the answer  to his deep inner restlessness and his thirst  for truth. (Verbum Domini, 38)

Hence, to grasp the letter of a text (i.e., what is this text saying) is important because it lays out the data before us. But the next necessary step is to move from letter to spirit so that, by God’s grace and the instruction of the Church we are able to increasingly grasp what the text really means, not merely what it is saying. The Pope is clear to point out that movement from letter to spirit cannot happen if a text is isolated from the whole of Scripture.

But Scripture is not considered only in terms of the whole, but also in terms of its direction or goal. And this goal is Christ. Hence as St. Ambrose taught Augustine and we are reminded by Pope Benedict: the entire Old Testament is  a path to Jesus Christ. Thus we look back to and interpret the Old Testament in the light of Christ. God dealt with ancient Israel in stages where he increasingly led them away from barbarity and incivility by the Law and prophets. In these Last Days he speaks to us through his Son and seeks to perfect us even further through his grace. So, each passage or verse of Scripture must be understood in relation to not only the whole of scripture but also its place in the “trajectory” of Scripture.

Thus, what our humanist friends did in the Ads we have discussed was an inauthentic use of scripture. It is not possible to simply yank a verse out of thin air then say, “See here! Look at what they believe.” Or “Look at what their holy book says!” For example, in quoting from 1 Samuel as they did wherein God seems to command genocide, or to quote Leviticus, that those guilty of homosexual acts are to be stoned to death, in doing this our humanist critics fail to see where these texts are on the trajectory of Scripture or how they relate to the whole of it. We have come a long way as God’s people from the time of such cruelties. God has led us in this manner. The committing of genocide is unthinkable today given where God has led us. And, although homosexual acts are still spoken of as sinful at every stage of revelation, the death penalty for sexual sins has been set aside by Jesus own example (e.g. John 8).

In this next passage the Pope emphasizes the ultimate unity of all Scripture in the Person of Jesus Christ. All the Scriptures find their ultimate unity and meaning in him. This is done is at least three ways. Continuity, wherein Jesus affirms and brings forward Old Testament teachings and understandings, deepening them and fulfilling their meaning in a fairly straight-forward way. Discontinuity, wherein Jesus fulfills Old Testament texts in a paradoxical way (especially by suffering and dying) and sets aside certain or replaces certain Old Testament practices or understandings (e.g. the antitheses of Matt 5, the canceling of dietary laws in Mk 7:19). And Fulfillment wherein he transposes ancient texts and practices to a higher thing (e.g. the passover meal now becomes the Eucharistic Banquet). The Pope writes:

In the passage from letter to spirit, we also  learn, within the Church’s great tradition, to see  the unity of all Scripture, grounded in the unity  of God’s word, which challenges our life and constantly  calls us to conversion. Here the words  of Hugh of Saint Victor remain a sure guide: “ All  divine Scripture is one book, and this one book is  Christ, speaks of Christ and finds its fulfillment in  Christ ”. Viewed in purely historical or literary  terms, of course, the Bible is not a single book,  but a collection of literary texts composed over  the course of a thousand years or more, and its  individual books are not easily seen to possess  an interior unity; instead, we see clear inconsistencies  between them…..which nonetheless  are seen in their entirety as the one word of God  addressed to us. This makes it clear that the person  of Christ gives unity to all the “ Scriptures ”  in relation to the one “ Word”….(Verbum Domini,  39).

Moreover, the New Testament itself claims  to be consistent with the Old and proclaims that  in the mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Christ the sacred Scriptures of the Jewish  people have found their perfect fulfillment. It  must be observed, however, that the concept of  the fulfillment of the Scriptures is a complex one,  since it has three dimensions: a basic aspect of  continuity with the Old Testament revelation, an  aspect of discontinuity and an aspect of fulfillment  and transcendence. The mystery of Christ stands in  continuity of intent with the sacrificial cult of the  Old Testament, but it came to pass in a very different  way, corresponding to a number of prophetic  statements and thus reaching a perfection  never previously obtained. …The paschal mystery  of Christ is in complete conformity – albeit  in a way that could not have been anticipated –  with the prophecies and the foreshadowings of  the Scriptures; yet it presents clear aspects of discontinuity  with regard to the institutions of the  Old Testament.Verbum Domini, 40).

  Three essential keys to interpretation – Thus Scriptural interpretation for a Catholic must admit of a careful sophistication wherein an individual passage is seen in its relationship to three things:

  1. The whole of Scripture
  2. Its place on the overall trajectory of Scripture
  3. Its relationship to the Person and Paschal mystery of Jesus Christ.

Surely too an appreciation of the genre and basic literary devices like hyperbole, metaphor, simile, analogy and so forth is also essential. Since the Scriptures are a Church Book, one would also never presume to read them apart from the beliving community or in opposition to the magisterium.

If we fail to do this we risk not only misinterpreting Scripture but also of getting stuck in some of the difficult or problematic texts of the Old Testament especially. We have seen in the first quote above how St. Augustine overcame his own difficulties in the regard by focusing on Christ and seeing everything in relation to him.

Help for the Dark Passages of Scripture – In the last two days one of the conversation threads has focused on the problematic texts of the Old Testament wherein God called for a “Ban” wherein every living human being, and every animal in a given town was to be killed. Texts like these shock us, and they should. But we must also remember they are very early in the trajectory of Sacred Scripture and such practices were discontinued by God as he led his people away from brutality and instructed them through the prophets to act with justice and learn of mercy. Here too the Pope comments on this “Dark Passages:”

In discussing the relationship between the  Old and the New Testaments, the Synod also  considered those passages in the Bible which,  due to the violence and immorality they occasionally  contain, prove obscure and difficult. Here it  must be remembered first and foremost that biblical  revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan  is manifested progressively and it is accomplished  slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance.  God chose a people and patiently worked  to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to  the cultural and moral level of distant times and  thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating  and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre,  without explicitly denouncing the immorality of  such things. This can be explained by the historical  context, yet it can cause the modern reader to  be taken aback….In  the Old Testament, the preaching of the prophets  vigorously challenged every kind of injustice  and violence, whether collective or individual,  and thus became God’s way of training his people  in preparation for the Gospel. So it would a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture  that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should  be aware that the correct interpretation of these  passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired  through a training that interprets the texts in their  historical-literary context and within the Christian  perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical  key “ the Gospel and the new commandment  of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery  ”. (Verbum Domini 42)

Conclusion – And thus the Pope instructs us on the careful, nuanced and sophisticated care that Catholics must bring to Scriptural reading and understanding. Simple proof texting can have a place in setting forth teachings. But generally we ought to be careful of pulling out “one-liners” to illustrate complex theological teachings. The use of Scripture as a foundation of doctrinal teaching is proper and essential  but we must be careful to be sure the passages are used authentically, in proper relation to the whole of scripture, its trajectory and ultimate relationship to Christ. Scripture has a sacred synergy which is not usually well served by a simplistic singling out of the Sacred text.

The Word of God is More than a Book – A Reflection from the Post Synodal Exhortation Verbum Domini

When I ask most people, even Catholics what is meant by Divine revelation, they usually get around to equating revelation with the Bible. Now that is not wholly wrong. But Divine revelation is far more than a book, more than ink spots on paper.

Post Benedict has just issued the Post Synodal Exhortation, Verbum Domini: The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. I have just begun to read it, but, even early on there is much to consider. I want to present a paragraph to you and then comment on it. In this paragraph the Pope reminds us that Revelation transcends the pages of a book and that the Word of God must be read and understood in the light of the Tradition from which it emerged:

While the Christ event is at the heart of divine revelation, we also need to realize that creation itself, the liber naturae is an essential part of this symphony of many voices in which the one word is spoken. We also profess our faith that God has spoken his word in salvation history; he has made his voice heard; by the power of his Spirit “ he has spoken through the prophets.” God’s word is thus spoken through the history of salvation and most fully in the mystery of the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God. Then too, the word of God is that word preached by the Apostles in obedience to the command of the Risen Jesus: “ Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation ” (Mk 16:15) The word of God is thus handed on in the Church’s living Tradition. Finally, the word of God, attested and divinely inspired, is sacred Scripture, the Old and New Testaments. All this helps us to see that, while in the Church we greatly venerate the sacred Scriptures, the Christian faith is not a “ religion of the book ”:Christianity is the “ religion of the word of God ”, not of “ a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word.” Consequently the Scripture is to be proclaimed, heard, read, received and experienced as the word of God, in the stream of the apostolic Tradition from which it is inseparable. (Verbum Domini # 7)

I can be noted that Pope Benedict distinguishes stages to Revelation. The word of God is more than a Book. A book is one manifestation of it, but the sacred page is not alone the word of God. Lets look at the stages the Pope describes, all of which are revelatory and aspects of the word of God:

  1. Creation itself – the text says, creation itself, the liber naturae is an essential part of this symphony of many voices in which the one word is spoken. Even before one human word is spoken or written, creation itself discloses and reveals God. Scripture itself affirms this. For example: The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech;  night after night they reveal knowledge.  They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice  goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world (Ps 19:1-4). St. Paul also says, For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made (Rom 1:19). Thus even before a human word is uttered or written, God’s own work of creation witnesses to his existence, power, order and divinity. Creation is part of this one Word uttered by the Father. We hear it in many voices but it is one Word. Creation, part of the word in itself, also becomes the theatre, or stage, upon which and within the other stages of revelation are manifest.
  2. Historical event  – the text says,   We also profess our faith that God has spoken his word in salvation history; Thus the next stage or facet of Revelation, of the word is historical event  and our experience and interpretation of it. Before anything could be written it had first to happen and be experienced.
  3. Interpretation and proclamation – the text says [God] has made his voice heard; by the power of his Spirit “ he has spoken through the prophets.” God’s word is thus spoken through the history of salvation and most fully in the mystery of the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God. Then too, the word of God is that word preached by the Apostles in obedience to the command of the Risen Jesus… Once something happens and is experienced it is interpreted and proclaimed. The Pope writes of prophets (beginning with Moses and extending down through Malachi) who proclaimed what God had done. But their interpretation was not merely a human one. The Pope is clear to state our belief that God’s Holy Spirit inspired and guided the prophets. As we say of the Holy Spirit in the Creed : He has spoken through the prophets. So, event, salvation history, interpreted and understood by the Prophets under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the next stage or facet of Revelation. Now the greatest event of Salvation History is surely the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. This point too is made in Scripture: In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word. (Heb 1:1-4). And like the Prophets of old the apostles experience, interpret by the Holy Spirit, and proclaim these events as the word goes forth from them.
  4. The Handing on (Traditio)  – the text says, The word of God is thus handed on in the Church’s living Tradition– The collected expereinces of how God has acted and the inspired and an authentic understanding of them is collected, repeated and handed down through the generations. This process had occured beginning in Old Testament times, but continues on through the death of the last apostle. Notice we have not yet mentioned a book, (though the Old Testament writings came into written form before the death of the last apostle) for the Church’s reception of the Word of God involves more than a written document, but, more widely, the sacred deposit of memory of how God has acted and what he has said, and the authentic interpretation of those events and spoken words of God. It is this whole reality that makes up the “traditio” (what is “handed on”). Without this, events, and the understanding of those events would remain locked in history and unavailable to our corporate memory and experience. St Paul affirms this sacred Tradition when he says, I handed on to you what I myself received…. (1 Cor 11:23). And again, So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us (2 Thess 2:15).  Hence, note that Paul  binds them not only to what is written but to the traditions which also were taught by word of mouth. The Word of God which is handed on (traditio) transcends merely what is written.
  5. The written stage – the text says: Finally, the word of God, attested and divinely inspired, is sacred Scripture, the Old and New Testaments. Note that the Pope uses the word “finally” to describe the written stage. The word “scripture” means, “something “scripted,” or “written.” This writing down or scripting of the Sacred Tradition is most blessed indeed but, as we shall see, Scripture is not meant to eclipse or wholly replace the living Tradition of the community which God inspires to make this recording of their memories of how He has acted and what He has said. Notice that Pope Benedict is clear to say that this written stage, this attestation, is divinely inspired. Hence we can be confident that there is no error of fact or teaching about any matter of faith or morals in Scripture. But like any written text, it must be interpreted. Words are analogical, they represent what happen, they are not WHAT happened, they represent what happened. Words often fall short or need to be interpreted. Hence the Scriptures cannot be divorced from the community through who God inspired the text or from the Sacred Tradition of which the text is a part.

This then leads to an important conclusion in the paragraph: All this helps us to see that, while in the Church we greatly venerate the sacred Scriptures, the Christian faith is not a “ religion of the book.” Christianity is the “ religion of the word of God ”, not of “ a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word.” Consequently the Scripture is to be proclaimed, heard, read, received and experienced as the word of God, in the stream of the apostolic Tradition from which it is inseparable.

Of this concluding part of the paragraph I need say little more except to end where we began. The Word of God is more than ink spots on the pages of a book. The Word of God is Jesus Christ and he is alive and active in his Church. While formal revelation ended with the death of the Last Apostle, Jesus Christ continues to guide and protect his Church, his Body in understanding the Word he has proclaimed in creation, in what we have experienced in salvation history, received through the prophets and apostles and handed down through the generations, what we have also written as a part of that font of holy Tradition. The Word is not dead and mute on the pages of a book, but alive and active in his Church and guiding us to a deep and rich understanding of what he gave to his Apostles and prophets and they handed down to us. The Word of God is more than a book.

This Song says (in Latin)

  1. Verbum Caro factum est. Habitavit in nobis (The Word became flesh & dwelt among us)
  2. Notum fecit Dominus, salutare suum (The Lord has made his salvation known)
  3. Prope invocavit me, Pater meus es tu (Near is He who calls me, You are my Father)