To Teach as Jesus Taught – A Reflection on the Qualities of Jesus as Preacher and Teacher

blog.8.31As a priest I am called to preach and teach, and as such I must look to Jesus Christ as my model. In this I refer to the real Jesus of Scripture. Too many people today have refashioned Jesus into a sort of “harmless hippie,” an affable affirmer, a pleasant sort of fellow who healed the sick, blessed the poor, and talked about love but in a very fuzzy and “anything goes” manner. But absent from this image is the prophetic Jesus, who accepted no compromise and called out the hypocrisy in many of His day.

Thus I must look to the real Jesus of Scripture. The real Jesus clearly loved God’s people, but on account of that love could not suffer some limited notion of salvation and healing for them. Rather, He zealously insisted that they receive the whole counsel of God. He insisted that dignity for them that was nothing less than the perfection of God Himself (cf Mat 5:41).

As a teacher, Jesus often operated in the mode of the prophets. Prophets have a way of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Truth be told, we are all in both categories. We must be able to accept the Jesus who one moment says, “Blessed are you,” and the next adds, “Woe to you.” Jesus the teacher and prophet will affirm whatever truth there is in us, but, like any good teacher, He will put a large red “X” beside our wrongful answers and thoughts.

Yet despite Jesus’ often fiery and provocative stance, the scriptures speak of his renown as a preacher and the eagerness with which many heard Him.

And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes (Mat 7:28).

Sent to arrest him the temple guard returned empty handed saying: No one ever spoke like that man (Jn 7:46).

And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth (Luke 4:22).

And the common people heard him gladly (Mark 12:37).

But even Jesus could have a bad day in the pulpit. In Nazareth, they tried to throw him off a cliff for suggesting that Gentiles might have a place in the Kingdom (Lk 4:29). In Capernaum, many left him and would not follow him any longer because of His teaching on the Eucharist (Jn 6:66). In Jerusalem, the crowd said that He had a demon because He called Himself “I AM” (Jn 8:48). And thus Jesus warns all who would teach and preach: Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets (Lk 6:26).

And thus Jesus was a complex preacher and teacher. He was no mere affirmer; He often unsettled and troubled people, even as He consoled and comforted at other times.

Let’s consider some of the qualities of Jesus as a teacher and ponder the sort of balance that He manifests. It is a balance between His love for us, His students, and His zeal to tolerate no lasting imperfection or error in the pupils whom He loves too much to deceive. These qualities of Jesus as a teacher are presented in no particular order. Some are “positive” in the sense of being aspects of His kindness and patience. Others are “negative” in the sense that they illustrate His refusal to accept anything less than final perfection in us.

I. His authority – The Scriptures often speak of the “authority” with which Jesus taught. For example, Scripture says of Jesus, he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law (Mat 7:29). For indeed the teachers of Jesus’ time played it safe, quoting only reputable authorities in a wooden sort of way. But Jesus taught with authority.

The Greek word translated as “authority” is exousia, meaning to teach out of (one’s own) substance, to speak to the substance of what is taught. Jesus would often say, “You have heard that is was said … But I say to you” (cf Mat 5 inter al). And so Jesus spoke from His experience of knowing His Father and of knowing and cherishing the Law and its truth in His own life. He brought a personal weight to what He said. He “knew” of what He spoke; He did not merely know “about” it.

This personal authority was compelling and, even today, those with this gift stand apart from those who merely preach and teach the “safe” maxims of others but do not add their own experience to the truth that they proclaim. Jesus personally bore witness in His own life to the truth He proclaimed; and people noticed the difference.

How about you? You and I are called to speak out of the experience of the Lord in our own life and to be able to say with authority, “Everything that the Lord and His Body, the Church, have declared is true because, in the laboratory of my own life, I have tested it and come to experience it as true and transformative!”

II. His witness – A witness recounts what he has seen and heard with his own eyes and ears, what he himself knows and has experienced. Jesus could say to the Jews of his time, If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word (Jn 8:55). He thus attests to what he personally knows. He is not just reciting facts that others have said.

In a courtroom, a witness must attest to what he has seen and heard for himself. If he merely recounts what others have said it is “hearsay.” A witness can raise his right hand and say, “It is true, and I will swear to it. I have seen it for myself.”

And thus Jesus could witness to what He had heard and seen, of His Father and of us.

It is true that we cannot witness immediately to all that Jesus could, for He had lived with the Father from all eternity. But, as we make our walk, we can speak to what the Lord has done in our life and how we have come to know Him in conformity with His revealed. Word.

III. His respect for others – The Latin root of the word “respect” gives it the meaning “look again” (re (again) + spectare (to look)). Frequently in Scripture, especially in Mark’s Gospel, there appears the phrase, “Jesus looked at them and said …”

In other words, Jesus was not merely issuing dictates to an unknown, faceless crowd. He looked at them; and He looks at you and me as well. It is a personal look, a look that seeks to engage you and me in a very personal way. He is speaking to you, to me. His teaching in not merely for an ancient crowd; it is for you and for me. He looks to you, and He looks again. Are you looking? Are you listening?

Do you look with respect to those whom you are called to teach, or to the children you are called to raise? Do you engage them by your look of respect and love?

IV. His love and patience for sinners – Jesus could be very tough, even exhibiting impatience. But in the end, He is willing to stay with us in a long conversation. One text says, When Jesus went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them at great length (Mk 6:34). Yes, He teaches us at great length; He stays in long conversations with us. He knows that we are dull of mind and hard of heart, so He persistently and consistently teaches.

Do we do that? Or do we quickly write people off? Jesus had a long conversation with a Samaritan woman who, frankly, was quite rude to Him at first (John 4). He had a long conversation with Nicodemus, who was also at times resistant and argumentative (Jn 3). He had a long conversation with His Apostles, who were slow and inept.

How about us? Are we willing to experience the opposition of sinners, the resistance of the fleshly and worldly? Do we have love and patience for those whom we teach? I have met some great Catholics who were once enemies of the Faith. Someone stayed in a conversation with them. What about us?

V. His capacity to afflict and console – Jesus said, “Blessed are you,” but just as often said “Woe to you.” Jesus comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. All of us fall into both categories. We need comfort but are often too comfortable in our sins. A true prophet fears no man and speaks to the truth of God.

Thus for a true prophet (as Jesus was) there are no permanent allies to please and no permanent enemies to oppose. The determination of every moment is based on conformity or lack of conformity to the truth of God. Jesus said to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah” (Mat 16:17). And He gave him the keys to the Kingdom and the power to bind and loose. But in the very next passage, Jesus says to him, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mat 16:23)

No true prophet or teacher can say, “Correct,” or “Blessed are you” every moment, because we all fall short of the glory of God! Jesus had absolute integrity when it came to assessing everything by the stand of God’s truth and Word. Do we?

VI. His parables – Stories are an important way to teach. A story that registers with us will rarely be forgotten. It is said that Jesus used more than 45 parables; some are full stories while others are just brief images. He used parables to link His sometimes complex teaching to everyday life and to plant a seed of truth for our further reflection.

What stories and examples do you use? Teachings that consistently fail to make use of these risk being seen as merely abstract and can easily be forgotten.

That said, parables are somewhat like “riddles.” They admit of various understandings and interpretations. A good parable leaves its listener wanting more, seeking a definitive interpretation.

For example, a movie will sometimes have an ambiguous ending, stirring hopes for a sequel that will provide more information. Some stories and parables are compact and definitive. Others are open-ended and ambiguous, craving for an ending.

Consider that the parable of the Prodigal Son is not really finished. It ends with the Father pleading for the second son to enter the feast. Does the son enter, or refuse to do so? This detail is not supplied. That’s because you are the son and you have to supply the answer. Will you enter? Or will you stay outside sulking that if the kingdom of Heaven includes people you don’t like you’d just as soon stay outside.

Parables are powerful, but for various reasons. Learn stories and learn to share them!

VII. His questions – Jesus asked well over a hundred questions in the gospel. Here are just a few: “What did you go out to the dessert to see? “Why do you trouble the woman?” “How many loaves do you have?” “Do you say this of me on your own, or have others told you of me?”

Good teachers ask questions and do not rush to answer every question. A question is pregnant with meaning; it invites a search. The “Socratic method” uses questions to get to the truth, especially on a personal level: “Why do you ask that? “What do you mean by this?” “Do you think there are any distinctions needed in your claim?”

This method makes a person look inward to his attitudes, prejudices, and presumptions. Good teachers ask their students a lot of questions; questions make us think.

Here is a list of one hundred Questions that Jesus asked: 100 Questions Jesus Asked. Read them; they will make you think—a lot!

VIII. His use of “focal instances” – Jesus does not propose to cover every moral situation a person might encounter or teach every doctrinal truth in an afternoon.

For example, many today say that Jesus never mentioned homosexual acts and concludefrom His silence that He must therefore approve of them. Really? He also never mentioned rape. Do you suppose that He approves of rape? Further, He did speak of homosexual acts, through His appointed spokesmen (the Apostles), and thereby condemned them.

But no teacher can cover every possibility, every sin, or every scenario. So Jesus uses “focal instances,” in which He illustrates a principle.

This is most commonly done in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) where, to illustrate the principle that we are to fulfill the law and not merely keep its minimal requirements, He uses six examples or “focal instances.” He speaks to anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, love of enemies, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. And in Mathew 25:31ff, the Lord uses the corporal works of mercy to illustrate the whole of the Law.

These are not an exhaustive treatments. of the moral life. Rather, through the use of illustrations, the Lord asks us to learn the principle of fulfillment and then apply it to other instances.

Good teachers teach principles, since they cannot possibly envision every scenario or situation. Having instructed their students in first principles, they can trust that their students will make solid decisions in many diverse situations.

Good teachers teach students to think for themselves, not in isolation, but in ongoing communion with the principles learned, and through dialogue with authorities when necessary for assistance and accountability.

IX. His use of hyperbole – Jesus uses a lot of hyperbole. It is easier, He tells us, for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven (Mk 10:25). If your eye scandalizes you, gouge it out (Mat 5:29). There was a man who owed ten thousand talents (a trillion dollars) (Mat 18:24). It would be better for you to be cast into the sea with a great millstone about your neck than to scandalize one of my little ones (Mat 18:6).

Hyperbole has memorable effect. It’s hard to forget effective hyperbole. Who of us can forget Jesus’ parable about a man with a 2×4 coming out of his eye who rebukes his neighbor for the splinter in his? I often tell my congregation, “Go to church or go to Hell,” which is my way of saying that missing Mass is a mortal sin.

One of my seminary professors once signaled me that I was giving an incorrect and heretical answer to a complex theological issue. He did this by saying, “Charles, you are on the edge of an abyss.” I stopped immediately and gave the correct and orthodox answer!

Good teachers use hyperbole at the right moments.

X. His use of servile fear – Jesus made frequent use of “fear-based arguments.” He warned of Hell, of unquenchable fire, and of the worm that does not die. His parables feature of a lot of summary judgements wherein people are found unprepared, are excluded from Heaven, or are cast into darkness. One parable ends with a king burning the town of those who failed to accept his invitation to his son’s wedding banquet (Mat 22:7). Another has a king summoning those who rejected him to be slain before his eyes (Lk 19:27). Jesus warns of the wailing and grinding of teeth. He also warns of a permanent abyss between Heaven and Hell that no one will be able to cross.

Many today are dismissive of fear-based arguments. But Jesus used them; He used them a lot. So Jesus never got the memo that this is a poor way to teach. It is true that, for the spiritually mature, love can and does replace the need for fear-based arguments. But, frankly, many are not that mature, and a healthy dose of fear and the threat of unending regret is often necessary.

We ought not to exclude, as many do, the voluminous verses in which Jesus warns in vivid language of the consequences of repeated, un-repented sin. He is not playing games; He is speaking the truth.

To teach as Jesus did is to include warning of judgment and of Hell.

XI. His anger and zeal – Jesus does not hesitate to express His anger and grief at the hardness and stubbornness of many. One day He said, You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? (Matt 17:17) And in Mark’s Gospel we read, And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, He was furious and said to them, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them” (Mk 10: 13-14). Another day, in the synagogue, Jesus was angry at their unbelief: After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored (Mk 3:5).

Yes, Jesus memorably cleansed the temple and drove out iniquity there. He engaged in heated debates with the Jewish leaders and with unbelievers. He did not hesitate to call them hypocrites, vipers, liars, and the sons of those who murdered the prophets.

Here, too, is a teaching moment that renders what is taught memorable and meaningful.A parent who never reacts with anger risks misleading his child into making light of or not being serious enough about wrongdoing, disrespect, or stubborn unrepentance.

We must be careful of our anger. We do not have the kind of sovereignty over it that Jesus did; neither are we as able to see into people’s hearts as He was.

But there is a place for anger, and Jesus uses it—a lot, actually. Anger signals an important teaching and rebukes a lighthearted response.

XII. His refusal to compromise – There was in Jesus very little compromise about the serious teachings of doctrine or those issues related to our salvation. He said that either we would believe in Him or we would die in our sins (Jn 8). Jesus also said that He was the only way to the Father and that no one would come to the Father except through Him. He declared that no one who set his hand to the plow and looked back was fit for the reign of God. Jesus said that no one who would not deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Him was worthy of Him. We are told to count the cost and decide now, and we are warned that delay may be a deadly thing.

Much of this is countercultural today, a time of uncertainty, in which there is an inappropriate sort of pluralism that thinks that there are many ways to God. Many insist on a softer Christianity, in which we can love the world and also love God. Sorry, no can do. A friend of the world is an enemy to God.

Jesus teaches His fundamental truths in an uncompromising way. This is because they are truths for our salvation. Following these truths vaguely or inconsistently will not win the day. Some disciplines need to be followed precisely.

To teach as Jesus did involves insisting that the fundamental doctrines of our faith be accepted fully and wholeheartedly.

XIII. His forgiveness – Forgiveness may not at first seem to be an obvious way of teaching. But consider that teachers often have to accept that students don’t get everything right the first time. Teaching requires a patient persistence as students first acquire skills and then master them.

A good teacher does not compromise the right method or the correct answer; He assists students who fall short rather than immediately excluding them. In an atmosphere where there is no room for error, very little learning can take place due to fear.

Again, forgiveness does not deny that which is correct; it continues to teach what is correct. Forgiveness facilitates an environment in which learning can thrive and perfection can at last be attained.

Jesus, while setting high standards, offers forgiveness, not as a way of denying perfection but as a way to facilitate our advancement by grace and trust.

XIV. His equipping and authorizing of others – Good teachers train new teachers. Jesus trained the Twelve and, by extension, other disciples as well. He led and inspired them. And He also prepared them for a day when He would hand on the role of teacher to them. We who would teach need to train our successors and inspire new and greater insights.

Teach me, Lord, by your example, to teach as you taught and to preach as you would have me preach.

Costly Truth – A Homily for the 20th Sunday of the Year



In the Gospel today, we continue with Jesus’ great treatise on the Eucharist (John 6). Many of the Jewish listeners who hear Him speaking in the synagogue at Capernaum are grumbling and murmuring in protest at His insistence that they eat His flesh and drink His blood. But Jesus does not back down for a minute. In fact, He “doubles down” and quite graphically teaches a very real (as opposed to symbolic) call to eat His flesh and drink His blood. Let’s examine Jesus’ teaching in four stages.

I. REALITY of the Eucharist – Jesus begins by insisting on its reality, saying, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” Notice, therefore, that the bread IS HIS FLESH. The bread is not simply a symbol of His flesh, His body, or of His life and teachings. It is not simply a way of remembering Him when He is gone. No, it IS His flesh. Other scriptural passages also insist on the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and the truth that it is His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.

· For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11:23-25).

· The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a communion in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a communion in the body of Christ? (1 Cor 10:16)

· Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself (1 Cor 11:27-29).

· When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:31, 35).

Thus the Lord first teaches them of the reality of the Eucharist, of the bread and wine that He offers: it is in fact His Body and Blood.

II. REACTION – The Lord’s teaching provokes a strong reaction from His listeners: The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

This is one of the most difficult moments of Jesus’ public ministry. The scene is the synagogue at Capernaum, the town where Jesus worked some of His greatest miracles. You’d think he’d have a really supportive audience here!

But as it turns out, you might say he had no “Amen corner.” The old spiritual was demonstrated that goes, “Way down yonder by myself and I couldn’t hear nobody pray.” As we continue with this gospel next week, we will see that their reaction is one of revulsion so severe that many will leave Him and no longer walk in His company.

I wonder if Jesus had this moment in mind when he said of Capernaum, And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to Heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Mat 11:23-24).

III. REINFORCEMENT – But Jesus does not back down. Their rejection leads Him to reinforce His teaching: Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”

Yes, Jesus gets emphatic and uses the intensifier “Amen, Amen I say to you” which is the Jewish equivalent of “Let me be perfectly clear.” He also switches His vocabulary from the polite word for “eat” (φαγεῖν (phagein) in Greek) to τρώγων (trogon), which more graphically and almost impolitely speaks of gnawing on, crunching, or chewing His flesh.

Jesus wants to be very clear. His listeners now understand Him to speak literally, rather than metaphorically or symbolically. Jesus assures them that He expects to be understood literally. Why is He so emphatic? He wants to save us; He links the eating of His Body and Blood to eternal life: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. In order to be raised up and to make the journey to eternal life, we must be sustained and strengthened for the journey by eating His flesh and drinking His blood.

It is just like the manna that sustained the Israelites for forty years in the desert as they journeyed to the Promised Land. Had they not eaten, they would have died in the desert. And so it is for us in the desert of this world. Without our manna, our Bread from Heaven, without the Body and Blood of the Lord to sustain us, we will not make it to the Promised Land of Heaven.

Jesus insists and says, “Unless …,” “Eat …,” else the journey will be too long for you! For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. I am the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.

IV. REWARD of the Eucharist – Here the words of Jesus speak plainly of the reward in receiving the Eucharist: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever. Note that Jesus mentions three rewards:

A. Intimacy – The Eucharist is called Holy Communion because, by it, we grow into a deep, lasting union with Jesus. Our knowledge and experience of Him in our life becomes deeper and more real. We see and experience His power at work in our life.

B. Increase – We find that our life grows richer. Sin is put to death and graces come alive. We are more joyful, confident, and serene. We are less vain, angry, lustful, and distracted. Jesus in His Eucharistic indwelling of us produces these effects over time.

C. Immortality – Eternal life refers to the fullness of life more so than its length. And thus we become more alive as we grow into Holy Communion with the Lord. This happens even now, though its fullest effects wait until Heaven. But don’t miss the “now-ness” of eternal! It begins now and grows deeper with each year. Heaven will see its full unfolding, but even now a growing experience of a fuller and fuller life is to be the normative experience of every Christian.

The Teaching of the Eucharist was a costly teaching for Jesus in many ways. Clearly it pointed to and flowed from His horrific passion and death. But even before that, He had much to suffer in the murmuring of many disciples. As we continue with this gospel next week, we will see that many would no longer follow Him because of this teaching. It was, to be sure, a shocking—even graphic—teaching. And yet, so critical was it to the Lord that we obtain the Eucharist, that He was willing to risk rejection and ultimately give up His life so that we could have it. A costly meal indeed.

Without the Truth, We are Left Only With Power. A Reflection Based on the Pope’s Teaching in Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus had been brought before Pontius Pilate for trial and in a pivotal scene there is this memorable dialogue:

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth?” asked Pilate. (Jn 18:37-38)

I have generally interpreted Pilate’s remark about truth to be highly cynical and dismissive, almost as though he said it with a wave of the hand. Further, I have thought it well reflects the cynicism of our own times that so dismisses the notion that there is such a thing truth or that it can be known. While many claim this rejection is liberating, the fact is, without a common consensus on a basic framework of truth to which we must all assent, things reduce to a power struggle where the strongest and loudest win. This does not actually seem very liberating in the end.

Pope Benedict in his new Book, Jesus of Nazareth (vol. 2), ponders the implications Pilate’s question and what it means for us, who, at least culturally struggle with the same question, “What is Truth?”  I’d like to give a few excerpts from the Pope’s reflections and add some commentary of my own. As usual, the Pope’s text will be in black, italic bold, and my comments will be plain text red.

The Pope begins by pondering if Pilate’s question is not somewhat understandable given that Jesus indicates his kingdom is rooted in the Truth. But since there are often endless arguments as to what truth is, Pilate, as a politician, asks, “What is truth? As if to say, How can a kingdom be built on something that is so debated? The Pope writes:

[Since] Jesus bases his concept of kingship and kingdom on truth as the fundamental category, then it is entirely understandable that the pragmatic Pilate asks him: “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:38).

It is the question that is also asked by modern political theory: Can politics accept truth as a structural category? Or must truth, as something unattainable, be relegated to the subjective sphere…? By relying on truth, does not politics, in view of the impossibility of attaining consensus on truth, make itself a tool of particular traditions that in reality are merely forms of holding on to power?

In the last 50 years or so, the West has struggled greatly under the dissolution of a common moral and religious vision. Though we have long had sectarian differences, the basic Judeo-Christian vision held sway and tended to unite us in the essentials of a moral, and even political vision. That common vision, that grasp of the common truth, to which most assented, has dissolved. But, as the Pope articulates,  there are some who celebrate this dissolution, since; some argue that traditional and religious views excluded many from “power” or a place at the table. A united vision was/is to narrow for them.  So they not only celebrate the abandonment of truth as a category, but many actually seek to undermine and attack it. This is usually done through an un-nuanced call for diversity and the labeling those who seek to maintain a common vision as hateful, bigoted, narrow-minded, and so forth. Perhaps with this in mind, the Pope goes on to say:

And yet, on the other hand, what happens when truth counts for nothing? What kind of justice is then possible? Must there not be common criteria that guarantee real justice for all—criteria that are independent of the arbitrariness of changing opinions and powerful lobbies?…..

In effect, when there is no common basis from which to act, when there is no commonly accepted truth, no basis on which to reason, what we end up with is a power struggle. In the vacuum of a truth-free zone, what is reasonable does not hold sway. Rather, the one with the most power, money, and influence, the one who can shout the loudest or is most politically connected, wins the day. Truth thus yields to power, and without a common truth, mere power moves to the center.

And yet, it is one thing to assert that a common truth should unite us, but it is another to define what that truth is and should be. The Pope continues:

What, then, is truth? Are we able to recognize it? Can it serve as a criterion for our intellect and will, both in individual choices and in the life of the community?

The classic definition from scholastic philosophy designates truth as “adaequatio intellectus et rei” (conformity between the intellect and reality); Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q. 21, a. 2c). If a man’s intellect reflects a thing as it is in itself, then he has found truth: but only a small fragment of reality—not truth in its grandeur and integrity.

It seems here we have an appeal to what we have come to call the “Natural Law.” There is an “is-ness” to things, a nature that we must come to perceive and be in conformity with. In a pluralistic culture such as America, Natural Law is likely the essential basis from which we could build consensus. But, sadly, here too, there has been a breakdown in a Natural Law basis as many in our society have come to doubt that reality is intelligible at all.

St. Paul lamented the same thing in his day when he wrote of the Gentile world: The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 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, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools (Rom 1:18-21).

In rejecting the Natural Law, and that reality itself should be a guide for us, the modern discussion retreats primarily to the mind and the realm of opinion. And, as in Paul’s day, we have a lot of senseless thinking that is highly disassociated from reality.

Paul pointed to the approval of homosexuality in his time as a chief symptom of the problem.  Paul called homosexual acts “paraphysin” (contrary to nature). Any simple investigation into the anatomy involved makes it clear that the man is not made for the man, rather the woman is made for the man. But simple natural observation seemed to escape many of the people of his time and he describes their minds as “darkened.”

In our own time, as Natural Law recedes, we also, as a culture, retreat into the mind and lose touch with reality.  And sure enough, homosexuality is approved by increasing numbers as the simple truth expressed by nature is replaced by thought and opinion.

The Pope next moves to a more theological answer to the question, “What is truth?”

We come closer to what Jesus meant with another of Saint Thomas’ teachings: “Truth is in God’s intellect properly and firstly (proprie et primo); in human intellect it is present properly and derivatively (proprie quidem et secundario)” (De Verit., q. 1, a. 4c).And in conclusion we arrive at the succinct formula: God is truth itself, the sovereign and first truth (“ipsa summa et prima veritas”); Summa Theologiae I, q. 16, a. 5c). This formula brings us close to what Jesus means when he speaks of the truth, when he says that his purpose in coming into the world was to “bear witness to the truth”.

….. Man becomes true, he becomes himself, when he grows in God’s likeness. Then he attains to his proper nature. God is the reality that gives being and intelligibility. “Bearing witness to the truth” means giving priority to God and to his will over against the interests of the world and its powers. God is the criterion of being…..

Hence, to increasingly know the Lord is to know the truth, and to have that truth set us free (cf John 8:32). For we who believe, truth is not merely a set of facts, but it is found in a personal relationship with God who, through the Holy Spirit,  leads us to all the truth (Jn 16:13). Further, to know Jesus is to increasingly know the truth for he said plainly I am the truth (Jn 14:16)

We may also say that bearing witness to the truth means making creation intelligible and its truth accessible…..Let us say plainly: the unredeemed state of the world consists precisely in the failure to understand the meaning of creation, in the failure to recognize truth; as a result, the rule of pragmatism is imposed, by which the strong arm of the powerful becomes the god of this world.

This was said above but repeated here for emphasis: to abandon the truth found in Natural Law, and in God for believers, is cede the field to the most powerful. It is not the reasonable who win the day, it is the strongest, richest or most powerful.

What is truth? Pilate was not alone in dismissing this question as unanswerable and irrelevant for his purposes. Today too, in political argument and in discussion of the foundations of law, it is generally experienced as disturbing. Yet if man lives without truth, life passes him by; ultimately he surrenders the field to whoever is the stronger.

A good summary statement.

“Redemption” in the fullest sense can only consist in the truth becoming recognizable. And it becomes recognizable when God becomes recognizable. He becomes recognizable in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God entered the world and set up the criterion of truth in the midst of history.

The criterion of truth this time in the discussion should seem plain to us. Although, in a pluralistic society we may struggle to easily define truth, coming to some broad consensus is  essential for us. The word , “criterion” means, standard, principle or rule. Without some common basis, things reduce to power struggle. We see this increasingly to be the case as the West loses any common basis to discuss matters. What we are increasingly seeing are shrill debates, protests, advocacy journalism and the like. When conversations rooted in reason and commonly held truth can no longer be had, it’s “turn up the volume” time in America.  The one with the most money and power wins.

On Being the Adult in the Room

In the letter to the Ephesians, which we have been reading in daily Mass, Paul has this to say:

And [Christ] gave some as Apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood to the extent of the full stature of Christ, so that we may no longer be infants, tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery, from their cunning in the interests of deceitful scheming. Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ(Eph 4:11-15)

Coming to maturity is a basic task in the Christian walk. We are expected grow and come to an adult faith. The Letter to the Hebrews has something very similar to say:

You are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!  Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Heb 5:11-14)

However, we live in times and in a culture where maturity is often significantly delayed. In fact there are many in our culture who never grow up. I have argued elsewhere that one paradigm of our culture is to that it is fixated on teenage years. Fixation is a psychological description of a person who has not successfully navigated one of the stages of infancy and youth and thus remains stuck in the thinking and patterns of that stage, to one degree or another. Out culture’s fixation on teenage issues and attitudes is manifest in some of the following:

  1. Irrational aversion to authority
  2. Refusal to use legitimately use the authority one has
  3. Titillation and irresponsibility regarding sexuality
  4. General irresponsibility and a lack of personal accountability
  5. Demanding all of one’s rights but avoiding most of one’s responsibilities
  6. Blaming others for one’s own personal failings
  7. Being dominated by one’s emotions and carried away easily by the passions
  8. Obsession with fairness evidenced by the frequent cry, “It’s not fair!”
  9. Expecting others and government agencies to do for me what I should do for myself
  10. Aversion to instruction
  11. Irrational rejection of the wisdom of elders and tradition
  12. Obsession with being and looking young, aversion to becoming or appearing old
  13. Lack of respect for elders
  14. Obsession with having thin and young looking bodies
  15. Glorification of irresponsible teenage idols
  16. Inordinate delay of marriage, widespread preference for the single life

Now it is true that some of the things above have proper adult version. For example, the “obsession with fairness” matures and becomes a commitment to work for justice. Aversion to authority can be matured to a healthy and respectful insistence that those in authority be accountable to those they serve. And so forth. You may choose to take issue with one of more of the above and you may wish to add some distinctions. It is also a fact that not every teenager has all the issues listed above. All that is fine, but the point here is that the culture in which we live seems stuck on a lot of teenage attitudes and maturity is significantly delayed on account of it.

Some may also allege a kind of arrogance in the description of our culture as teenage. I accept that it is a less than flattering portrait of our culture and welcome your discussion of it. But I ask, if you reject the image of “teenage,” how would you describe our culture? Do you think that we live in an overall healthy and mature culture?

The Call to Maturity and the role of the Church  – In the midst of all this is the expectation of the God through his Scriptures that we grow up, that we come to maturity, to the fullness of faith, to an adult faith. Further, the Church is expected, as an essential part of her ministry, to bring this about in us through God’s grace. Notice that the Ephesians text says that Christ has given Apostles, prophets,  evangelists, pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones unto this. The Church is thus expected in a certain sense to be “the adult in the room.” She is to summon us to live responsible, mature lives. She summons us to be accountable before others, to be sober, serious, and deeply respectful of God’s authority over us by living lives that are obedient to the faith. She teaches us, by God’s grace, to master our emotions and gain authority over our passions. She holds forth for us the wisdom of tradition and teachings of the Scriptures and insists on reverence for these. She insists on correct doctrine and (as the text from Ephesians says) that we no longer be infants, tossed by the waves of the latest fads and stinking thinking, and that we not be swept along by every wind of false teaching arising from human illusions. We are to be stable and mature in our faith and judge the world by it.

Yes, the Church has the rather unpleasant but necessary task of being the adult in the room when the world is mired in things teenage and will often exhibit aversion to authority, rules, and cry out that orthodox teaching is “unfair”  or “old fashioned.”

But here we encounter something of an internal problem. For the Church has faced the grave temptation to “put on jeans” and adopt the teenage fixations. Sadly, not all leaders in the Church have taken seriously their obligation to “equip the holy ones for the work of ministry….until we all attain to the unity of faith and….to mature manhood and the…..full stature of Christ.” Preferring popularity to the negative cries of how one or more Biblical teaching is “unfair!,” many teachers and pastors of the faith have succumbed to the temptation to water down the faith and to tolerate grave immaturity on the part of fellow Catholics. It would seem that things are improving but we have a long way to go in terms of vigorously reasserting the call to maturity within the Church. Corruptio optimi pessima– the corruption of the best, is the worst. Clergy and other Church leaders, catechists and teachers, must insist on their own personal maturity and hold each other accountable in attaining to it. We must fulfill our role of equipping the faithful unto mature faith by first journeying to an adult faith ourselves.

The Church does not simply include clergy and religious. Lay people must also take up their proper role as mature, adult Christians active in renewing the temporal order. Many already have done this magnificently. More must follow and be formed in this regard. Our culture is in need of well-formed Christians to restore a greater maturity, sobriety and responsibility to our culture.

By God’s grace we are called to be the adult in the room.

I realize this post may cause controversy. But remember, this is a discussion. I am not pontificating (even though my name is Pope). I am expressing an opinion and initiating a discussion based on a text from Scripture. What do you think?

This video is a subtle description of the problem of immature faith. As the video begins, the young lady seems articulate. But as it goes along it becomes increasingly clear that life is really all about her and what she thinks. That of course is a rather teenage mindset:  rebellious with an “I know a few things”  attitude mixed in. In the end she discloses her modus vivendi. She says, “The Catholic Church can help me but in the end, I make up my own truth.”

On Beauty’s Relation to Truth – A Personal Testimony

When I was a freshmen in High School I had largely lost my faith. I was not an atheist, more of an agnostic. If God existed, I didn’t care. I was in a rather angry stage of my life. And frankly there were some things that I had every right to be angry about, things I need not discuss here.

I still went to Church, commanded there by my mother who did not care to discuss my many reasons for not going (thanks be to God that she did not cave in to my demands).

So there I sat in Church, bored out of my mind. I don’t remember that the priest had much to say and if he did I wasn’t in the mood to listen. But one Sunday, a small choir appeared. It was a choir of High School students. I don’t remember what they sang, I just remember that the girls in that choir were awfully pretty. Later that week in Religious Education (we called it CCD in those days), a man came into class and invited us to sign up for the new choir. “Is that the choir that sang last Sunday?”, I asked. “Indeed it was.”  he said. “Sign me up,”  I said. I remember that my mother laughed a bit because, of all the gifts I had manifested growing up, singing was not one of them.

But there it was. Beauty had hooked me. I will not promise you there was not lust admixed in my attraction. I will simply say that beauty drew me. And through that beauty the Lord would restore me to the truth. The Lord had my attention and my presence through that beauty and now the truth would gently permeate my unbelieving soul.

As luck would have it we sang a lot of traditional music in that choir. We weren’t the typical youth choir which sang a steady diet of folk music. I had never liked folk music, sacred or secular. It just didn’t impress me (just my personal opinion, I don’t say you have to agree). But the classical compositions of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Marcello, and the like impressed me. Here too, (remember I was a teenager)  it was related to girls 🙂  You see, folk music, at least the Church stuff,  has very little of a bass line to sing. But classical music used a lot of counter-point and hence the basses were kept busy and we got to sing a lot of low notes! Are you getting the picture?  Young teenager me, wanted to impress the girls in the choir with my deep voice. Classical music gave me the opportunity to do that. Hence,  my preference for the classical, simple as that.

But here too beauty was on the way. It was not as quickly appreciated as the beauty of the young ladies. It was a slowly discovered beauty. At first the music was just fun to sing, but slowly its beauty infused my soul. And as it’s beauty attracted me, the message of faith contained in that sacred music also became attractive. We would study not just the notes but also the words. I remember once singing a section of a Beethoven Credo (by then I was in my first year of college and we were preparing for a concert). The choir director explained  that the steady beating of the bass notes was to represent the hammer blows of  Christ being nailed to the cross as we sang “crucifixus etiam pro nobis.” (and he was also crucified for us). It was powerful to sing those notes. So the message began to sink in.

I need not say much more. My point is that God used beauty to draw me:  the immediate beauty of the girls in the Choir,  and the discovered beauty of the music. But it was through these beauties that I discovered the beauty of Truth. I joined the choir to meet my bride. In the end I did meet my bride. For it was through my deepening involvement with the Church through music that I discovered my Bride was the Church herself. My bride is beautiful and she is true.

This video is an excerpt from the film The Mission. Fr. Gabriel has gone deep into the rain forest were an untrusting and often violent people fear his arrival and hide preparing to stalk and kill him. But he takes out his oboe and plays a beautiful song (my first girlfriend played the oboe). The beauty draws them out of hiding and helps them accept him into their village. Beauty opened the door for truth and Fr. Gabriel begins to preach Christ.

Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, But Don’t Say it Mean

We live in an age of  “cultivated uncertainty”  in many aspects of our culture. Many seem almost proud of the fact that they are uncertain of things for this makes them seem to themselves (an they hope to others) to be “open-minded” and “tolerant.” Tolerance of course is one of the only virtues left in many people’s world. To say that there is a truth and that you can come to know it  articulate it seems “arrogant” to many. How dare a person really claim to know things better than anyone else. It is better to be a “seeker.” It is better to “live the question” rather than pretend that you have an answer or that there really are any answers. These are the “virtues” of relativism.

A lot of this relativism has seeped even into the way we talk. Consider a few examples:

  1. There is an annoying expression that often occurs between people who see things differently. It comes up a lot in interviews on television and radio. The reporter or interviewer will often say, “Are you suggesting that…..?”   For example in a recent interview on the radio I heard a talk show host ask a bishop, “Are suggesting that politicians who vote to fund abortion are not loyal Catholics?” The irritable  part of me wants to answer for the Bishop, “I am not only suggesting it I am plainly saying it.”  The dynamic of using the word “suggest” implies that the Bishop cannot really speak the truth or know it, he can only “suggest” it. The reporter seems to live in world where nothing is certain, (except that nothing is certain) and thus the Bishop can only “suggest.” This type of interaction seems to occur more in regular conversations at meetings and other interactions as well. It bespeaks an attitude of cultivated uncertainty.
  2. Another annoying little word that has crept into the vocabulary of many, especially younger people,  is the word “like.”  As in: “It’s like, y’know annoying?” Or when asked an ordinary question such as “Why didn’t you do your homework?”  The answer may come back,  “Well, y’know it’s like, I was busy?”  At one level the over use of the word “like” is just an annoying and unconcious habit. But it also seems to flow from the climate of cultivated uncertainty. Instead of something being what it actually is,  it is “like” something. So instead of the student simply declaring, “I was busy and neglected to do my homework, for which I take responsibility” they say rather, “It was,  like,  I was busy.” But what does “like being busy” amount to and how does it differ from actually being busy?  This habit of using “like” comes from a culture which says “Don’t actually say what you mean, be vague and uncertain. After all nothing is really all that clear. Nothing really is what it is, it’s just like something else. Using “like” also helps a person evade direct responsibility for what they actually do.
  3. A third example is already on display in number 2 above. It is the tendency to end declarative sentences with an interrogative tone.  As in: “It’s like, y’know annoying?” Here too the habit seems to emerge from a culture that doesn’t want to simply say something plain because that means that we actually think that something is so. Thus, instead of saying “Your habit of ending statements as questions is annoying and makes you seem vapid and uncertain” many simply “suggest” it: “It’s like, y’know annoying?”  Almost as if to say, “It’s not that I could say it actually IS annoying, that would be arrogant. Rather I just want to suggest that something might be so.”

These habits are wonderfully and comically displayed  in the video below (hat tip to Creative Minority Report).

The bottom line is that: I am “suggesting”  the cultivated uncertainty of our culture has, like, y’know seeped into our unconscious?”  In plainer language, the relativism of our times has gone deep into our minds and effects the very way we talk. Most of these mannerism are unconscious to us. But that is just the point. It illustrates how deeply we have  bought into and communicated, especially to the young, that to plainly assert what we know and think to be true is “arrogant.” Instead we should couch our language in more delicate circumlocutions. We suggest instead of say. Things are like something, instead of plainly being that thing. Everything is questionable, so we end statements like they were questions. Speaking plainly is perceived by many as arrogant, as if we actually believed what we were saying!

There is a place for humility and uncertainty but we have adopted it to a fault. It is the voice of relativism echoing through our verbal expression. Many today are vague and uncertain in their speech because our culture wants it that way and sees it as  becoming.  Jesus says, Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matt 5:37). A modern version of this is “Say what you mean. Mean what you say. But don’t say it mean.”

Typography from Ronnie Bruce on Vimeo.

Rediscovering the Conscience – We Know What We Are Doing

It is common to hear today, even among some clergy, that people really don’t know any better when it comes to moral teaching. Since they have not been properly taught they cannot be expected to understand important moral concepts nor should be held very accountable for the poor moral decisions they might make. I don’t agree and think that this sort of thinking amount to a denial of the existence of the conscience. It is my experience that deep down inside, most people know exactly what they are doing. It is true that the voice of one’s conscience can either be intentionally suppressed or that competing voices can vie for our attention. But, still, under all the layers of denial, suppression, and contrary voices that may occur, we know well the basics of right and wrong. Some examples from pastoral experience:

  1. I have sat in the parlor during marriage preparation with couples that are either co-habiting or fornicating. And despite all the stinking thinking of the world that such behavior is fine, despite whatever attempts they may have made to tell themselves it really OK, despite trying not to think about it, despite all attempts to call it something else….Despite it all,  when I speak frankly with them about it, they know what they are doing and they know it’s wrong. They know.
  2. I have walked the streets of Southeast and talked with the “boys in the hood.”  And when in conversation I  tell them they ought to stop selling and using and stealing and worse and get themselves into God’s house, they too know what they are doing, they know it is wrong and that they ought to get to God’s house. They know!
  3. I have become quite convinced that a lot of the intense anger directed against the Church whenever we speak against abortion, euthanasia, premarital sex, homosexual activity and homosexual marriage, etc, I am convinced that a lot of that anger is that,  deep down inside,  they know that these things are wrong and that what we are saying is true. Attempts to suppress our conscience are not usually all that successful and when someone endangers the zone of insulation we attempt to erect, we can easily get mad. But deep down inside we know the Church and the Scriptures are right. We know.
  4. Some people attempt to surround themselves with teachers and experts who will “tickle their ears” with false teaching and unsound doctrine. But deep down inside, they know better. They know.

We who teach and try hand on the faith need to rediscover the fact of the conscience and never loose heart when we teach and appeal. We are ultimately appealing to things people already know. This is so at least in terms of basic and fundamental morality. There may be certain advanced topics that require informed discourse, but as to the basics, they are written in their hearts. All the protesting and anger are not necessarily signs that we have failed at all. It may be just the opposite. We may have struck more than a nerve, we may have touched the conscience. Don’t lose heart.

And to those who read this blog who may be at odds with one or many Church teachings, please understand that we are appealing to your conscience. It is the dignity of every human person to know the truth. I may at times elicit your anger or surely your disagreements but I will not give up. I presume the presence of your conscience and I appeal to it. It will not write you off as hopeless. I am glad you come here and read even if it is to spar with me. I do not claim that I never suppress or ignore my conscience either. We are all in this mess together. But that is precisely why I so treasure Church teaching and the Scriptures and seek to share them here. It keeps me honest and appeals to what I already know, deep down inside, the truth which God wrote in my heart.

A  few basic teachings on conscience may help since, as I have stated, I think a lot of us have neglected to meditate much on the existence of the conscience and what it really is. Here are a few teachings from Scripture and the Catechism

  1. What is the Conscience and where does it come from? Does everyone have it? – For Man has in his heart a law inscribed by God, This is his conscience, there he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths… (Catechism of the Catholic Church(CCC) # 1776) Notice therefore that “conscience” is the innate sense of the law of God in each one of us. The conscience exists because God has written his law in everyone’s heart. His voice echoes in our soul.  It is there and we cannot ultimately deny it or silence it,  though many do try.
  2. Scripture too affirms the fundamental presence of conscience and the Law of God within every individual. For example:
    1. When the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, or at times even defending them (Romans 2:14-15).
    2. By the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every one’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor 4:2)
  3. We must  listen carefully to our conscience for its voice can lose its proper influence if we do not take time to listen – It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self examination or introspection. (CCC # 1779) Ignoring the voice of our conscience does not mean it goes completely away. There can be many things that tweak our conscience and stir us to hear its voice. Some react well to these reminders, others with anger. But the point of the catechism is that our conscience should not have to be tweaked or awakened, we should be in touch with it at all times by living a reflective life.
  4. Conscience must be formed and reinforced– It is true that we have a basic and innate sense of right and wrong and that God has written his law in our hearts. But the Catechism also reminds us that, due to sin,  we must also be open to having our conscience formed and its judgments refined: Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God…and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty…The human mind…is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful. That is why man stands in need of being enlightened by God’s revelation about…religious and moral truths…so that they can be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error (CCC #s 37-38). Notice that the catechism does not speak of the conscience as being removed but rather that the intellect, influenced by sin and disordered appetites,  tries to persuade us of other ways of thinking. Hence we attempt either to suppress the truth, or at least consider it doubtful and open to alternative interpretation. This is why we stand in need of the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church to help us overcome our tendency to suppress and confuse the truth.
  5. What then should the pastor, catechist, teacher, parent and evangelizer do? Speak the truth in love. Speak it with confidence, knowing that every person has to dignity of having a conscience and that even when that conscience has been suppressed or ignored, it can be reached. St. Paul gave good advice to Timothy in this regard: In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1-5)

In this video, Lady Macbeth can no longer suppress her conscience, incessantly she sleepwalks and washes her hands: “Out! Out! Damned spot!” But the bloodstains remain visible to her, her conscience can no longer be suppressed.

Pondering the Hermeneutic of Suspicion

I know! I apologize for using one of those rather haughty theological words: Hermeneutic!  I also know that many DO in fact know what the word means. But just in case you don’t let’s define. Fundamentally a “hermeneutic”  is an interpretive key, a way of seeing and understanding the world.

So what do I mean when I speak of a “hermeneutic of suspicion?” Well, consider the times in which we live. Most people  are suspicious of just about everything and everyone! It is a common and usual worldview that politicians lie, the Government is lying, big business is lying, advertisers are lying, the Church is lying. It is presumed that cover-ups are common and, even if there is not outright lying most people and organizations are just acting out of selfish motives and self-serving agendas. If their motives are not selfish they are otherwise bad motives: Liberal! Conservative! Bigoted! Homophobe! Hater! Infidel! Socialist! Selfish Capitalist! Reactionary! Well, you get the point. Everyone is simply dismissed because they  have an ”agenda” and this agenda is somehow less than pure, fair or neutral.

You may well think that some or much of what is said abouve is true. But in pondering this all-pervasive “hermeneutic of suspicion” I wonder if there do not have to be some limits to its application and conclusions. Is “everyone” really lying or just acting out of a less than pure agenda? Is it always wrong to have an agenda? Is self interest always a bad thing? Is it always wrong for groups to seek to influence the national discussion even if that influence serves their interest and worldview? Clearly lying is wrong and there is such a thing as lying but is everything I call lying really lying?

I don’t have simple answers to these questions and PLEASE understand I am not some moral relativist who is simply asking for everything to be murky and gray. But our culture is really overheated at the moment with suspicion. There is a pervasive presumption of the worst in terms of motives, sincerity and the like. It is getting harder and harder to have any kind of a conversation at all about issues without the names and the labels sallying forth and the impugning of motives. I don’t have a simple formula to come up with the right balance between a healthy skepticism and pathological suspicion but I would like to propose a few benchmarks toward a better balance.

1. Everyone DOES have an agenda and that is OK. It’s not wrong to have a worldview and to seek to influence others to that way of thinking. The very word “agenda” is intended as pejorative but it need not be. The problem seems to come up when everyone is defensive about having and “agenda.” Since that is somehow supposed to be “wrong”  we start to do unhealthy things. We often try to hide our truest agenda and paper it over with less than sincere descriptions of what we think and what we want. We start to talk in code and engage in political correctness, jargon and other circumlocutions that are not always true or at least frank. We become less transparent and this fuels suspicion. If we can just accept that we all have agendas and that’s fine, then we become more frank and honest, and suspicion recedes. In terms of full disclosure let me share my agenda: I am a Roman Catholic Christian and I believe everything that the Church teaches in matters of faith and morals. I believe Jesus Christ Founded the Catholic Church, that it is the one true Church. It is my desire that everyone on this planet become Roman Catholic and thus embrace the fullness of the faith given by Jesus Christ and revealed through the Apostles. Clear enough? That’s my agenda.

2. Self interest is not always bad– I do a lot of organizing work in the neighborhood working with the Washington Interfaith Network, a local chapter of the Industrial Areas Foundation. One of our key principles is to help people identify their interests and then act upon them. If they want more affordable housing, great! Then let’s work to find others who have a similar interest and build power around that shared interest. Self interest can be a powerful motivator toward great ends. Instead of being suspicious and cynical that people have self interest in mind, what if we just accepted that this is the universal human condition and used it to engage people for good ends? It’s not wrong to care about myself. I really ought to get my needs met and that also helps others because I am less of a burden on them. If ALL we care about is our self that is a problem. But most people instinctively understand that their self interest is linked to the good of others too. My life is more secure and stable if there is a healthy, strong and vibrant neighborhood. So I can be engaged around my own interests to work for a just and healthy world. The fact that I get something out it does make my motives somehow impure. But the hermeneutic of suspicion demands “pure” motives and unrealistically defines pure as completely selfless. What if we just stopped all that and accepted that people act on what interests them and that it isn’t necessarily bad. Accepting this makes us less suspicious and cynical.

3. Faith and Trust in the Church are an essential balance to the hermeneutic of suspicion– While it is true that we have to be sober that live in a world where lies are told and where motives are not always pure, it is also true that we have to refuse radical suspicion and cynicism. There IS truth, and there are those who do speak and teach the truth. We must find and seek those harbors of the truth and build and lower our anchor there. For Catholics, the harbor of the truth is the Church. Scripture describes the Church as the Pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).  One of the great tragedies of the hermeneutic of suspicion is that many Catholics have adopted this attitude  toward the Church.  Yes, there is sin and even corruption in the Church, but despite that the Church has never failed to hand on the authentic truth of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ does speak through his Church. I emphatically trust that fact. I believe and profess all that the Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims to have been revealed by God. I can do no other. This is my faith. I trust God and believe that he speaks through the Catholic Church despite whatever human weakness is evident in the Church. God can write straight with crooked lines and he can teach infallibly even despite human weakness in the Church.  Without a harbor of truth the hermeneutic of suspicion can and will overwhelm us. We will mistrust everyone and everything and have no real way to sort out all the conflicting claims and counterclaims. Without faith and trust both in God and in the Church I am lost, adrift on a sea of suspicion and cynicism and the hermeneutic of suspicion overwhelms me. This is sadly true today of so many who are cut off from the truth thinking they can trust no one. In them the hermeneutic of suspicion has its most devastating effect. The lack of trust locks them into a tiny world, dominated by suspicion and doubt. Only the gift of faith and trust can diminish such deep suspicion.  With faith we can measure all things by God’s truth and know what is true from what is false. We have a measuring rod to judge what is true and thus we need not flee to suspicion.

This video fits with my agenda! 😉