Friday, September 28, 2007

The Celtic Orthodox Church?

Does the early Celtic Church have anything to teach us today?

Images described by Ezekiel representing The Four Evangelists in the Book Of Kells

An Clar Bog Deal - Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill

You've got your Greek Orthodox Church, you've got your Russian Orthodox Church... You've got your Serbian, Bulgarian, and Albanian Orthodox Churches... You've got your Assyrian Orthodox Church and your Egyptian and Ethiopian Coptic Orthodox Churches too, but the Celtic Orthodox Christian Church? That was a surprise to me. Who knew? Who knew there was such a thing?

Is this on the level? Actually, this group looks a little strident to me, and a little bit peevish and cavalier about their canonical status. There is in fact such as thing as the British Orthodox Church, but that was a mission inaugurated in the 19th century, and is representative of something else altogether.

The idea, however, is not as far fetched as it sounds. Although I'd put early Celtic Christianity firmly in the Catholic tradition, with the local Celtic Churches coming to an accomodation with the Roman mission at the Synod of Whitby (an accomodation which did eventually lead to the decline of a distinct Celtic spirituality), there are quite a few parallels between Celtic Christianity and Eastern Christianity.

Both the Celtic traditions and the Eastern traditions held a deep respect for mysticism, the relative independence of local churches within a greater whole, and of the monastic spirituality of the Desert Fathers. Also, very much like the the Eastern Church, the Celts considered themselves to be solidly in the tradition of John the Beloved Disciple, "listening for the heartbeat of God in all things." As this website, St Fillan's Celtic Apostolic Church (less strident than the one mentioned above) says:
Unlike most Western churches, the Celtic Church follows, and has always followed, the tradition of Saint John, that beloved disciple who leaned against the breast of Jesus, "listening for the heartbeat of God", at the Last Supper. This 'way of seeing' led to the Celtic Church's stream of spirituality which teaches that God may be found, heard and experienced everywhere and in all things and that a true worship of God, therefore, can neither be contained within the four walls of a sacred building nor restricted to the boundaries of religious tradition. Every blade of grass, every sigh of the breeze, every splash of rain, every wave of the sea, every movement of the earth, every flutter of a bird's wing, every twinkle of a star, every ray of sun... and every breath of man contains the very life of God. This was not only an early Christian way of thinking but also a Druidic belief, which may help to explain why, according to a number of legends, a lot of the Druids were so quick to accept Christianity after the arrival in Britain of the Apostles. It may also help to explain why some of the Druidic teachings were incorporated into the early 'Celtic Church'.

Christianity came quite naturally to the Celts (the Galatians to whom St. Paul wrote were Celts). Under the Druids and the Bards in Britain and Ireland, there was already a tradition that revered the spoken word, and was amenable to monasticism, asceticism, celibacy under certain circumstances, and a love of teaching in triads, which lent itself very well to the doctrine of the Trinity. Although there certainly must have been some tension with the Druids, the Celtic world of Britain, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland accepted Christianity quite peacefully. In Ireland, for example, there is no record of any Christian martyrdom during that island's conversion.

The Celts also had a profound love of nature, and felt very close to it, looking for the fingerprint of God in all created things. They incorporated this readily into their Christian spirituality, and in this respect they ran into some tensions with the Latin Church, which had adopted the Roman Law Court view of looking at the things, had a more pessimistic view of fallen world, and was heavily concerned over controversies related to Grace and Sin which did not carry the same imperative in the Eastern Churches and the Celtic Churches. The Latin Church tended to look at the Celts skeptically as possible Pelagians and pantheists .

The Celtic Briton monk Pelagius ran afoul with St. Augustine and St. Jerome, with Jerome nastily describing him as "that big fat fellow... walking with the pace of a turtle... bloated with Scots porridge." Eventually, Pelagianism was condemned as heresy, as well as Semi-Pelagianism, as was allegedly taught by John Cassian among the Celts in Gaul. Celtic teachers were suspect for their positive view of nature right up through John Scotus Eriugena, whose name basically translates to "John the Irishman from Ireland".

It would be an intriguing thing to post about in and of itself, if Pelagius was actually guilty of the real heresy he was charged with. Pelagius may have had too optimistic a view of human nature, and attributed too much to man’s free will, but I think he had a kernel of truth in at least this much – He maintained that creation is essentially good, and that to look into the face of a newborn is to look at the image of God. I ask you - when you look at the face of a newborn child, do you see the image of God, or do you see, like the Augustinian-influenced Calvin, a totally depraved creature, a hatchling chick that would gladly pluck out the eyes of another hatchling?

Father Timothy J. Joyce O.S.B. is the prior of Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham Massachusetts. He wrote a very good book a few years ago called Celtic Christianity. A Sacred Tradition, a Vision of Hope. I recommend it highly, and quote from it here at length:

Under the influence of Augustine the theology of the West concentrated more and more on issues of sin and grace. Thanks to Tertullian Western theology had already begun to become more legal in nature. The Celtic church did not get embroiled in the same issues. This early church was influenced significantly by the Eastern Christian churches of Asia Minor. Through trade there were even direct contacts with the East. Knowledge of the churches of both Jerusalem and Constantinople was widespread. The way of the early desert monks was emulated in Ireland, where the desert figures of Saints Paul and Anthony would be found on many high crosses showing the special devotion they enjoyed. The Celts already shared some cultural affinity with the East in music and myth.

The Christian faith primarily came to Britain from Gaul and then from Britain to Ireland. Surprisingly we find that there were a number of Eastern cults flourishing in Gaul at the end of the first century. The names of the earliest Christians in Gaul appear to be Greek and Oriental. The first bishop of Lyons, presumably the main Christian center in Gaul, was Pothinus (87-177). He came from Asia Minor, as did Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (130-200), who succeeded him as bishop from 178 through the year 200. Irenaeus was a significant person in early Christian theology. He had been a protege of Saint Polycarp, himself a disciple of John the Evangelist. The Johannine influence seems evident in Irenaeus and, it is suggested, through him to the Celtic church. Irenaeus lamented that he was in exile among the Celts, but his own theology of wholeness and his respect for the goodness of creation was in harmony with the Celtic worldview.

Another connection to the East came through John Cassian (360-435). Possibly born somewhere in the area of the Baltic, John entered a monastery in Bethlehem and later lived the monastic life in Egypt. From this firsthand experience of Eastern monasticism, he came to Marseilles in Gaul, where he founded two monasteries about the year 415. His writings on the monastic and ascetical life had a large impact in the West, including the influencing of the Rule of Saint Benedict (480-560) in Italy, soon to dominate Europe. John Cassian also influenced the development of monasticism among the Celts. Monasticism would soon in fact become a major aspect of the Celtic church.

Gallarus Oratory (Séipéilín Ghallarais), Dingle Peninusla, Ireland 6th-9th Century.

The Celtic church developed in its own unique way, absorbing much of its pagan antecedent. The relation of this church to Rome and the larger universal church emerges as an issue, especially for those who see the Celtic church as something distinct from the church of Rome. I find that this relation is sometimes reduced to a simplistic black-white, good guys-bad guys scenario. I do not believe the Celtic love of paradox and mystery, of unity in multiplicity substantiates such an approach. Neither do the facts of history. On the continent many Celts had embraced much of Roman culture without much resistance after Roman imperialism had spread its way northward. The relation of Celt to Roman was not always adversarial. As far as the Roman church was concerned, the Celts accepted its reality as the communal expression of the faith and embraced being part of the one Catholic Church.

There is no doubt, however, that the Celtic church then developed in a distinct way. The Celtic church in most of Britain would give way to both the new Anglo-Saxon culture and the church customs brought by Saint Augustine (of Canterbury) and the missionaries sent by Pope Gregory from Rome. Scotland and Wales, however, remained too remote for either of these influences to have their full effect. Celtic enclaves in these two areas of Britain remained Celtic. But, most significantly, the planned Roman invasion of Ireland never took place at all. The Irish were never part of the Roman empire nor exposed to its day-to-day ways. On the continent, the church spread with the empire and took on many of its organizational attributes. The system of dioceses with bishops as overseers was developed along with the urban spread of the empire, a diocese being set up in each urban setting. As the empire crumbled the church organization was often the only way to keep things together, and bishops emerged as administrators, stewards of people's needs, slowly acquiring a base of power and authority. The bishop of Rome was the exemplar of this development. But in Ireland, and largely in Scotland and Wales as well, there were no urban centers. Bishops and priests there did not acquire such power bases. The base there was communal, and abbots and abbesses emerged as leaders. The model was not hierarchical as the Roman one was, but more communitarian and relational. Women continued, at least in the earlier years, to have positions of authority and leadership and enjoyed equal rights. There is evidence, for instance, of groups of deaconesses called Conhospitae, who had a liturgical role in the Eucharist.

Some of the theological problems that beset Rome never impinged on the Celtic church. Saint Augustine, for an example, had come from a sect called the Manichaeans. This group held a dualistic view of reality, believing in a cosmic split of light and darkness. Material beings, including the human body and sexuality took on the aura of evil. There has been a recurring tendency to this belief in Christianity. It emerged earlier among Gnostics and would emerge again later in Albigensianism and Jansenism. This mindset never entered the Celtic Christian church (though it would affect Irish Catholicism at a much later date). The Celtic belief in the goodness of creation and all material being was too strong for this.

To sum up, I believe that the Celtic church had a freedom of expression in its history that led to practices unlike those of the Roman church; nevertheless it never believed it was not part of that church. It was a local church that was in communion with all other local churches forming the universal church with the bishop of Rome, who enjoyed a special ministry of primacy. Now that is exactly what the Second Vatican Council talked about in reaffirming the understanding of the local church. The trend since the Middle Ages was to see the church as one monolithic unity organized so that dioceses and parishes were lower divisions of the one church. The council reestablished the ancient view of local churches in communion. Bishops were once again understood to govern their dioceses in their own names as part of a college of bishops enjoying unity with each other and with the bishop of Rome. Now, after many years, this doctrine of the local church is fraught with much tension and not yet fully accepted. Since the time of the dissolution of the Roman empire, the Roman church has tended to respond to any centrifugal forces by stressing the need for unity through centralization. The Roman Curia has demonstrated a paternalistic attitude, attempting to protect other churches from harming themselves through error. The grassroots voices that ask for a hearing and sometimes for change are dismissed with the statement that the church is not a democracy. What is not faced is that the church is not imperialistic Rome, or feudal Europe, or a Byzantine court, or a medieval monarchy either. But the church has been, and sometimes still is, all of these. The church must be incarnated in human forms. The Celtic church is an intriguing example of another way it once was so incarnated. Could it not offer an alternative as a local church to a bureaucratic, power-based church today?

Though the Celtic culture may not have been the expression of a unified people, I nevertheless am immediately struck by its high degree of sophistication in art, technology, story, warfare, social mores, and religion. The recent archaeological finds have added to the wealth of what is known as "La Tène Art." Full of swirls, circles, and geometric figures, it is a form of abstract art unique for the time, especially in the West. These designs are playful, with a sense of the unending and eternal, showing some relation to or influence from the East. Visually, the Celts liked color, brightness, movement, and human and animal shapes in abstract forms. I believe we are in touch with the Celtic mind and imagination with this characteristic of the "spiral knot." Their mind and their imagination differed from our modern scientific and literal way of seeing things. Theirs was more of a "symbolic consciousness" that reveled in images, symbols, myths. They saw reality from the lens of eternity, with no beginning or end, no distinction of the seen and unseen. The circle, rather than the straight line, emerges as the figure that expresses so much of Celtic life. The importance of relationships and kinship; all persons in the clan being on the same plane rather than in hierarchical positions; the equality of men and women, of king and peasant - such are characteristics of Celtic life that reflect this way of seeing reality.

A "natural" propensity of the Celts for Christianity was their way of looking at the world and all reality. I have focused on their openness to the other world in the immediate material world around them, their seeing the sacred in the ordinariness of creation. I have also described what I called their "symbolic consciousness," an ability to see more than what is immediately visible. I believe this was a natural opening to the sacramental worldview that Christianity proclaimed. God could be touched, felt, tasted in bread, wine, and oil, and in human word and touch as well. How natural indeed! Isn't this what we present-day Christians have been trying to revive since the Second Vatican Council? The centuries leading up to that council had seen a "spiritualizing" of the sacraments and of creation in general. Theology stressed the philosophical "substance and accidents" of sacraments, their validity and liceity. Bread no longer looked or tasted like bread but was etherealized into an air-like wafer. The cup and wine disappeared despite the fact that Christ told us to celebrate Eucharist in that mode. A few drops of water sufficed at baptism, a smudge of oil for anointing. Were we afraid of matter? Was there a relationship here to our shame about the body, and even a downplaying of marriage? And doesn't the Celtic perspective seem much healthier as well as much more theologically correct for us today?

Monastic "beehive" cells on Skellig Michael

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Mathetes Award

The Last Supper, by Philippe de Champaigne, 1652

I was extremely honored the other day when Talmida, a blogger I very much admire over at The Lesser of Two Weevils, tagged me as a recipient of a Mathetes Award, for Discipleship.

The Mathetes Award, created by Dan King of Management by God to recognize those who take to heart the Great Commission and further God’s Kingdom by creating more disciples for Him.

The rules for the award, as posted by its creator are as follows:

In the spirit of this award, the rules are simple. Winners of this award must pick five other “disciples” to pass it on to. As you pass it on, I just ask that you mention and provide links for:

1) This post as the originator of the award (Dan King of management by God)
2) The person that awarded it to you, and then
3) Name and sites of the five that you believe are fulfilling the role of a disciple of Christ.

There are many, but the five I would like to name at this time are:

Friar Charles at A Minor Friar

Don at Country Contemplative

Deacon Denny at Brief Notes Dot Com

Garpu the Fork at Musings From the Big U

Alyosha at Cascadia Catholics

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Coming Up On Fifteen Years

Back in the days when our hair was dark and our future looked bright. Now our hair is bright, and our future looks.... just kidding! Truth be told, we have both gone gray (I think it's been a few years since anyone has caught us together on camera), and we've both put on a few pounds, but life is going well. We certainly have our challenges as a family, but we have been very blessed.

At the Gordon Folger Hotel, Nantucket Island, October 3rd, 1992

There are all sorts of suggestions out there on what the gifts should be for each anniversary year. The last thing in the world that Anne needs is a crystal bowl, or anything like that. We actually packed up all of our wedding crystal a few months ago, when we gave our display hutch to the newlywed daughter of some friends of ours.

No, what my baby needs is a house with more space! As an anniversary gift to each other, we've taken out a new line of credit, in order to make needed repairs and improvements so that we can sell our house properly in order to buy a new one in which we can all fit without being on top of each other all the time. So, we are in "moving mode", in the midst of a housing slump. Keep us in your prayers.

Please pray for me in particular as a husband and a father, especially as a dad. I really do need your prayers and I'd appreciate them. Thank you.


Dhe, beannaich an ce's na bheil ann
Dhe, beannaich mo cheile is mo chlann,
Dhe, beannaich an re a ta 'na m' cheann,
Is beannaich, a Dhe, laimhseachadh mo laimh;
An am domh eirigh's a mhaduinn mhoich,
Is laighe air leabaidh anamoich,
Beannaich m' eirigh's a mhaduinn mhoich,
Is mo laighe air leabaidh anamoich.

Dhe, teasruig an teach's an t-ardrach,
Dhe, coistrig a chlann mhathrach,
Dhe, cuartaich an spreidh's an t-alach;
Bi-sa fein na'n deigh's da'n taladh,
Duair dhireas ni ri frith's ri fruan,
Duair shineas mi a sios an suan,
Duair dhireas ni ri frith's ri fruan,
Duair shineas mi an sith gu suan.


God, bless the world and all that is therein
God, bless my spouse and my children,
God, bless the eye that is in my head,
And bless, O God, the handling of my hand;
What time I rise in the morning early,
What time I lie down late in bed,
Bless my rising in the morning early,
And my lying down late in bed.

God, protect the house, and the household,
God, consecrate the children of the motherhood,
God, encompass the flocks and the young;
Be Thou after them and tending them,
What time the flocks ascend hill and wold,
What time I lie down to sleep,
What time the flocks ascend hill and wold,
What time I lie down in peace to sleep.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Ken Burns Takes On "The War"

The PBS Series "The War" premieres on Sunday, September 23rd

Marines on Peleliu, 1944

Back in 1990, filmmaker Ken Burns captured the attention and imagination of the whole country when PBS released his superb multi-part documentary on the Civil War. Endlessly imitated by other documentary producers, and repeated too often, it almost became a sort of cliche, in its sunset shots with wistful narration, overdubbed with mournful strains on violin or piano. Nevertheless, it totally remade the way documentaries are directed and produced. Burns is an incredibly talented researcher and director.

At the time, Burns vowed never to cover the topic of war in one of his documentaries again. Lately, however, realizing that World War II veterans are passing away at a rate of 1,000 a day, and hearing entreaties from several who want to get their long-held stories out before they too pass on, he has had a change of heart. Thousands of documentaries have been made before on World War II, but I have no doubt that Burns will make this one fresh and unique.

His new seven-part series The War will debut on Sunday night.
THE WAR, a seven-part series directed and produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, tells the story of the Second World War through the personal accounts of a handful of men and women from four quintessentially American towns. The series explores the most intimate human dimensions of the greatest cataclysm in history — a worldwide catastrophe that touched the lives of every family on every street in every town in America — and demonstrates that in extraordinary times, there are no ordinary lives.

I think Burns will say that there are many similarities and crucial differences between that war and the current one, but one thing that is surely different really sticks out in my mind...

It is the saga of this privatized group of modern-day-Hessian mercenaries called Blackwater, an apparently unaccountable band of soldiers-of-fortune who are in the news again this week for allegedly killing civilians recklessly, and perhaps even in smuggling guns to the PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.

This outfit needs to be shut down. While it still can be. I'm not naive enough to think that the "Good War" was all good, but can you imagine a private army, answerable to no one, operating like this in our name in WWII? This is the United States of America, for crying out loud.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

My Paul Problem: Part II. Were Paul and James on the Same Page?

Continuing a series on my struggle to understand the puzzle of Paul…

St. James the Lesser, by El Greco

Now we know that what the law says is addressed to those under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world stand accountable to God, since no human being will be justified in his sight by observing the law; for through the law comes consciousness of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, though testified to by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an expiation, through faith, by his blood, to prove his righteousness because of the forgiveness of sins previously committed, through the forbearance of God--to prove his righteousness in the present time, that he might be righteous and justify the one who has faith in Jesus. What occasion is there then for boasting? It is ruled out. On what principle, that of works? No, rather on the principle of faith. For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
-- Romans 3:19-28

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well," but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone might say, "You have faith and I have works." Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works. You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble. Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called "the friend of God." See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
-- James 2: 14-24

And when Kephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong. For, until some people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to draw back and separated himself, because he was afraid of the circumcised.
-- Galatians 2: 11-12

They have been informed that you are teaching all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to abandon Moses and that you are telling them not to circumcise their children or to observe their customary practices. What is to be done? They will surely hear that you have arrived. So do what we tell you.
--(James to Paul) Acts 21: 21-23

The Apostles Peter and Paul, by El Greco
Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace. And consider the patience of our Lord as salvation, as our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, also wrote to you, speaking of these things as he does in all his letters. In them there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures. Therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, be on your guard not to be led into the error of the unprincipled and to fall from your own stability.
-- 2 Peter 3: 14-17

Many people insist upon the absolute concordance of scripture, and insist that all of the fathers in the apostolic age were of the same mind…That they must have been, or else the whole thing falls apart... I think we are kidding ourselves if we think there wasn’t at least a little bit of tension between St. Paul and St. James. Was it possible that St. Peter was the man in the middle, holding it all together? Is that why St. Peter is such an important symbol of the unity of the Church?

St. Paul and St. James... Were they on the same page at all? The Catholic Encyclopedia says yes (see section on Paul and James).

It is clear from the whole passage that James does not use the word "justify", in the sense in which Paul speaks of the first justification, but in the sense of an increasing justification (cf. Rom., ii, 13; Apoc., xxii, 11), as corresponds to the object or the Epistle. Of any contradiction between the Epistle to the Romans and that of St. James, therefore, there can be no question.

In the commentary in the New American Bible, theologian Mary Ann Getty says yes.

The historical conflict (between the Judaizers and Gentiles) provides the context for Paul’s important concept of “justification by faith”…. Generations later in the Church, when the preponderance of believers were of Gentile origin rather than Jewish origin, the historical context of this dispute was forgotten. Since then, Christians have sometimes mistakenly interpreted Paul’s message as somehow considering faith as opposed to works. Furthermore, the word “alone” was added to the formula “justification by faith” and the phrase was understood in the absolute sense. So, for example, the Protestant Reformation portrayed the “gospel” as “law-free”. The Reformers used Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith to oppose any notion of salvation as dependent on good works such as they alleged the Catholic doctrine of salvation taught. They distorted the Catholic teaching of works as a response to faith. … Both Protestant and Catholics have based their arguments in this debate on Paul, especially on Galatians and Romans. As a result some Christians read into Paul’s message a dichotomy between faith and works which does not accurately interpret Paul’s original meaning.

She might be getting closer...

Martin Luther famously said no. The champion of “justification by faith alone”, read what he said about the Epistle of James:

Faith justifies' and 'faith does not justify' contradict each other flatly. If any one can harmonize them I will give him my doctor's hood and let him call me a fool…

James concludes falsely that now at last Abraham was justified after that obedience; for faith and righteousness are known by works as by the fruits. But it does not follow, as James raves: 'Hence the fruits justify,' just as it does not follow: 'I know a tree by its fruit; therefore the tree becomes good as a result of its fruit. Therefore let our opponents be done with their James, whom they throw up to us so often.

Therefore St. James' epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it. The epistle of James gives us much trouble, for the papists embrace it alone and leave out all the rest...Accordingly, if they will not admit my interpretations, then I shall make rubble also of it. I almost feel like throwing Jimmy into the stove, as the priest in Kalenberg did.

Besides, he [James] throws things together so chaotically that is seems to me he must have been some good, pious man, who took a few saying from the disciples of the apostles and thus tossed them off on paper...In a word, he wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but was unequal to the task. He tries to accomplish by harping on the law what the apostles accomplish by stimulating people to love. Therefore I cannot include him among the chief books, though I would not thereby prevent anyone from including or extolling him as he pleases, for there are otherwise many good sayings in him.

We should throw the epistle of James out of this school [Wittenberg], for it doesn't amount to much. It contains not a syllable about Christ. Not once does it mention Christ, except at the beginning. I maintain that some Jew wrote it who probably heard about Christian people but never encountered any. Since he heard that Christians place great weight on faith in Christ, he thought, 'Wait a moment! I'll oppose them and urge works alone.' This he did. He wrote not a word about the suffering and resurrection of Christ, although this is what all the apostles preached about. Besides, there is no order or method in the epistle. Now he discusses clothing and then he writes about wrath and is constantly shifting from one to the other. He presents a comparison: 'As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.' O Mary, mother of God! What a terrible comparison that is!”

Throw Jimmy into the stove... Martin certainly had a colorful way with words, but you know what? I think he was really onto something here, maybe even more than he realized. What do we know about James the Lesser, Bishop of the Jerusalem Church, aka James The Just, aka James “the brother of the Lord”? Eusebius wrote the following, quoting Hegesippus (in what looks to me like a clear blood feud between the family of the High Priest Caiaphas and the family of Jesus):

James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles. He has been called the Just by all from the time of our Saviour to the present day; for there were many that bore the name of James. He was holy from his mother's womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh. No razor came upon his head; he did not anoint himself with oil, and he did not use the bath. He alone was permitted to enter into the holy place ; for he wore not woolen but linen garments. And he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people. Because of his exceeding great justice he was called the Just, and Oblias, which signifies in Greek, Bulwark of the people' and 'Justice,' in accordance with what the prophets declare concerning him…

The … Scribes and Pharisees … placed James upon the pinnacle of the temple, and cried out to him and said: Thou just one, in whom we ought all to have: confidence, forasmuch as the people are led, astray after Jesus, the crucified one, declare to us, what is the gate of Jesus.' And he answered with a loud voice,' Why do ye ask me concerning Jesus, the Son of Man ? He himself sitteth in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and is about to come upon the clouds of heaven.' And when many were fully convinced and gloried in the testimony of James, and said, 'Hosanna to the Son of David,' these same Scribes and Pharisees said again to one another,' We have done badly in supplying such testimony to Jesus. But let us go up and throw him down, in order that they may be afraid to believe him.'

So they went up and threw down the just man, and said to each other, 'Let us stone James the Just.' And they began to stone him, for he was not killed by the fall; but he turned and knelt down and said, 'I entreat thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.' And while they were thus stoning him one of the priests of the sons of Rechab, the son of the Rechabites, who are mentioned by Jeremiah the prophet, cried out, saying, 'Cease, what do ye? The just one prayeth for you. And one of them, who was a fuller, took the club with which he beat out clothes and struck the just man on the head. And thus he suffered martyrdom. And they buried him on the spot, by the temple, and his monument still remains by the temple. He became a true witness, both to Jews and Greeks, that Jesus is the Christ. And immediately Vespasian besieged them."

According to the evidence we see in the New Testament, in Josephus, in Hegesippus, and in Eusebius, we see that James, the Bishop of the Jerusalem Church, a relative of Jesus, was a Temple-observant, practicing Jewish-Christian until the day he died. At the Temple.

What does all this mean, especially in light of the law-free Gospel that we largely inherit from St. Paul? Can Paul and James be harmonized so easily as people presume? At least as far as the conventional way of reading Paul is concerned? Some commentators seem to think that Paul and James were talking about roughly the same thing but in a different way. Were they? I have a hard time seeing how. James uses harsh polemic in his presentation, which leads me to suspect that it was more than that. (Recognizing, of course, that as with many NT writings, "James" was not written by "James", but I've never seen a scripture scholar who thought that the views expressed weren't those of James himself)

Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless?
-- James 2: 20

Who is James referring to here as an ignoramus, and why? Is he calling someone who believes in faith without works an ignoramus? What are the possibilities?

Option 1) James and Paul don’t agree on faith and works. James is calling Paul an ignoramus. By this point, they have broken contact, and are now enemies. Paul is right, and James is a Judaizer, which puts the whole story of Christian origins and concordance of scripture into question.

Option 2) James and Paul don’t agree on faith and works. James is calling Paul an ignoramus. By this point, they have broken contact, and are now enemies. James is right, and Paul is a Hellenized, Herodian Jew at best and a Turkish fraud at worst, which puts the whole story of Christian origins and concordance of scripture into question.

Option 3) James and Paul agree on faith and works. James and Paul are unified, at least on what is necessary for Gentiles to be members of the Church. Regarding Jews, there remains some tension. James is calling someone who misinterprets Romans as meaning “faith alone” an ignoramus, and is issuing a corrective, because he knows what Paul really meant was:

For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
-- Galatians 5: 6.

Should we take option 3, especially in light of 2 Peter? Are there other options that I missed?

Jesus said that his mission was to the lost tribes of Israel. Speaking as a Gentile, I am glad to receive the scraps off the table. Once, I would have been far off, but by God’s grace, in his eternal plan of salvation, I have been brought near. If you’re a Gentile like me, perhaps we should just sit back and enjoy the ride. Don’t boast against the branches.

Judaism has often been caricatured in the past, but it shouldn’t happen so commonly now, especially since scholars know a lot more about Second Temple Judaism now than they did back in the 16th century, when these faith vs. works controversies were raging.

Judaism cannot be simply categorized as a legalistic religion of self-righteousness in which the Jew tries to earn his salvation through works of the law. First of all, what Jews do we mean? The Sadduccees, for example, didn’t even believe in an afterlife at all. It was the Pharisees who believed in resurrection of the body. Even today, Jewish views on the afterlife are diverse and vague. They consider it a mystery held by God. Their focus is very much on seeing justice done in this life. It is one of the things I really admire about them. They are not “pie in the sky” people. Imagine that… Loving and trusting in God for His own sake, and not for the expectation of reward or punishment in an afterlife. That’s living by faith. Therefore, for most Jews, the very concept of “salvation” really means being part of the covenant. The works of the law are markers of that covenant, and how to maintain themselves in that covenant. The Torah was not a means to salvation in the Christian sense, but was a guide to obedience to the God of the covenant. It is the “way to walk” (Halakhah).

It’s wrong to say that the Jews were unfamiliar with, or did not believe in divine grace.In the Talmud, its says, “Thus said the Holy One, blessed be His name! ‘If I create the world with the attribute of mercy, sin will abound; and if I create it with the attribute of justice, how can the world exist? Therefore, I create it with both attributes, mercy and justice, and may it thus endure”.

When Paul talks about merit, justification, and election in Romans, Galatians and Ephesians, was he really telling the Jews anything that they didn’t already know or should have known? The Jews already knew that they were not chosen because of anything they had done to merit it. After the Anakim were driven from the land, they heard...

After the LORD, your God, has thrust them out of your way, do not say to yourselves, 'It is because of my merits that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land'; for it is really because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you.

No, it is not because of your merits or the integrity of your heart that you are going in to take possession of their land; but the LORD, your God, is driving these nations out before you on account of their wickedness and in order to keep the promise which he made on oath to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Understand this, therefore: it is not because of your merits that the LORD, your God, is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.
--Deuteronomy 9:4-6

Therefore say to the house of Israel: Thus says the Lord GOD: Not for your sakes do I act, house of Israel, but for the sake of my holy name, which you profaned among the nations to which you came.

I will prove the holiness of my great name, profaned among the nations, in whose midst you have profaned it. Thus the nations shall know that I am the LORD, says the Lord GOD, when in their sight I prove my holiness through you.

For I will take you away from among the nations, gather you from all the foreign lands, and bring you back to your own land.

I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.

I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts.
I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees.

You shall live in the land I gave your fathers; you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
--Ezekiel 36:22-28

When Paul tells the Jews they can’t merit justification, was he breaking new ground there? What he is breaking new ground with is the assertion that Gentiles are going to be brought in to the Kingdom of God too, without having to become Jews. The Mosaic laws were never meant for them. He uses strong polemic in his letters to disabuse the Jews of any notions of superiority. The Good News is Good News for Jews and Gentiles alike, not Bad News for Jews and Good News for Gentiles.

Can we say that in its wisdom the Universal Church acknowledged that both Paul and James belong in the Canon? There are good reasons for this, in that they both contain important universal truths. The Church was not meant to be a Gentile Christian Church or a Jewish Christian Church. It is a universal Church.

The Canon without Paul would be in danger of being Ebionite.

The Canon without James would be in danger of being Marcionite.

The Canon with Paul, and with James, and with Peter (as Pontifex – “bridge builder”) is “Catholic” (in the “universal” sense) Christian.

Should we read Paul’s role in the early Church as one that was specialized? He was a Jew who was the Apostle to the Gentiles, and he acknowledged that the Pillars of the Church - Peter, James, and John - were Jews who were Apostles to the Jews.

These men were all Jews, primarily interested in Jewish concerns. Mulling all this over, I started to become increasingly convinced that the problem with Judaism as Paul saw it was not works righteousness, but tribal exclusivity. What Paul was working so hard to do was to bring in the full measure of Gentiles so that all of Israel could be saved before the prophesied Parousia he believed was imminent. Was he interested in grafting in Gentiles, rather than in repudiating Judaism? Was his idea one of opening a covenantal relationship with all nations, or was it to replace a tribe of chosen Jews with a tribe of chosen Christians?

In Galations, Paul tells of how he told Peter he was wrong in his treatment of the Gentiles when “certain men from James” came, and how he resisted Peter to his face.

Did he have the same brass in front of James’ face when he stood before him, and the topic was not Gentiles, but Jews? Let’s see what Luke says about it in Acts…. I try to imagine James' thoughts...

When we reached Jerusalem the brothers welcomed us warmly.
The next day, Paul accompanied us on a visit to James, and all the presbyters were present. He greeted them, then proceeded to tell them in detail what God had accomplished among the Gentiles through his ministry.
--Acts 21: 17-19

“Paul is convinced that he works harder than anyone else, brothers. That’s fine, God bless him… I hope he doesn’t think, however, that we’ve been sitting here doing nothing while he’s been among the Gentiles. God has accomplished wondrous things for us here in Jerusalem. We have many followers of The Way here among the Jews, and we didn’t need to relax a letter of the law in order to do it.”

They praised God when they heard it but said to him, "Brother, you see how many thousands of believers there are from among the Jews, and they are all zealous observers of the law.

They have been informed that you are teaching all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to abandon Moses and that you are telling them not to circumcise their children or to observe their customary practices.
--Acts 21: 20-21

Rumor, Paul… or fact?

What is to be done? They will surely hear that you have arrived.

So do what we tell you.
--Acts 21: 22-23

Paul is not being given a suggestion. He is being given a command. Paul is not the guy in charge here. I’m not sure Peter is either. Looks like it’s James. In any event, Paul is clearly subordinate.

We have four men who have taken a vow. Take these men and purify yourself with them, and pay their expenses that they may have their heads shaved. In this way everyone will know that there is nothing to the reports they have been given about you but that you yourself live in observance of the law.

As for the Gentiles who have come to believe, we sent them our decision that they abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage."
--Acts 21: 23-25

“Paul, you should already know this. You didn’t misunderstand us, did you? You were there when we made the decision at the Council here in Jerusalem years ago, and we sent the letters up to Antioch too. The Gentiles are only beholden to the Noachide laws. No one was supposed to take this to mean that the Mosaic law was abrogated for Jews. Paul, Paul, Paul.... Tell me you didn't get this wrong.”

So Paul took the men, and on the next day after purifying himself together with them entered the temple to give notice of the day when the purification would be completed and the offering made for each of them.
--Acts 21: 26

What? No reply from Paul? He had no smack to throw down to James? He just rolled over like a fat seal? Where is all that tough talk about the Law from Romans and Galatians? If our conventional way of reading Paul is correct, here was his chance to hit James, the Jerusalem elders, and the whole “circumcision party” with the real broadside he’d been itching to give them ever since the incident with Peter at Antioch. He could have given it to them with both barrels. In the conventional way of understanding Paul, has Paul betrayed those Gentiles who contributed their hard-earned money to the collection by spending some of these funds on useless superstitions like Nazarite vows? Has Paul proven himself to be a bigger hypocrite in Jerusalem than Peter ever was in Antioch?

Or, is there another way of reading Paul? The text of Acts doesn’t say that Paul made a mistake. Paul was not a hypocrite. He was a Jew. That’s why he obeyed James without complaint or objection or comment. Maybe in our conventional way of reading Paul, we make the same error as the Asian Jews who similarly misunderstood him and attacked him in the Temple. They both see Jew vs. Gentile as a zero-sum game. It is not. The prophesy was for the redemption of all nations.

Hear me, O coastlands, listen, O distant peoples. The LORD called me from birth, from my mother's womb he gave me my name.

He made of me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me in the shadow of his arm. He made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me.

You are my servant, he said to me, Israel, through whom I show my glory.

Though I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength, Yet my reward is with the LORD, my recompense is with my God.

For now the LORD has spoken who formed me as his servant from the womb, That Jacob may be brought back to him and Israel gathered to him; And I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD, and my God is now my strength!

It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

Thus says the LORD, the redeemer and the Holy One of Israel, To the one despised, whom the nations abhor, the slave of rulers: When kings see you, they shall stand up, and princes shall prostrate themselves Because of the LORD who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel who has chosen you.
--Isaiah 49:1

Is this more along the lines of what Paul was talking about? More on this later...

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

My Paul Problem: Part I

A series on my difficulties with St. Paul, and how they were largely solved by an unlikely source

In the last post, we had a bit of a discussion on the historical Jesus theories, and whether or not they are generally harmful to people’s faith in their deconstructionism, or if they are capable of enriching our faith with new insights. I hope I can make a case concerning how the latter turned out to be true in my particular experience.

I used to spend a good amount of time in the Catholic apologetics community on the web. I’ve witnessed tons and tons of heated debates on the web between Protestants and Catholics on the subject of “faith vs. works”. I’ve seen people on both sides striving mightily, twisting themselves into pretzels, trying to explain how St. Paul (“one is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law” – Romans 3:28) and St. James (“one is justified by works and not by faith alone” –James 2:24) were using different words to say essentially the same thing. Hmmmm.

I found the arguments used by both sides to be strained and unconvincing. The only thing that I could say with certainty was that Protestantism seems to be heavily Pauline/Johannine in character, and that Catholicism seems to be heavily Jamesian/Matthean in character. I also couldn’t figure out why this Paul vs. James dichotomy was never a big deal in the first 1500 years of Christendom. This was confirmed in a sense by looking to Eastern Orthodoxy for help on this matter. It seemed that with their emphasis on theosis, they had scarcely considered this issue at all, beyond simply saying that we are saved by a faith that works through love, which is basically the same as the Catholic position.

I’ll say straight out, that except for the discourse on love from Corinthians, I don’t like the letters of St. Paul as much as the four Gospels and the “Catholic” Epistles. I find St. Paul contradictory and really hard to understand. He was a much better rhetoritician than a logical thinker, in my view. I always have to remind myself that his writings were specific letters sent to address specific problems in specific church communities, and perhaps they should not be read as theological constructs in the same way the four Gospels are.

In addition, Paul of Tarsus claimed to be of Pharisaical background, trained at the feet of Gamaliel. Strange kind of Pharisee, from what I can see. To me, he looks like a real Hellenistic, rather than Palestinian type of Jewish thinker… When I read his letters in comparison to the Gospels, they seem very different in tone and emphasis to me, almost to the point of being a different religion. I started to have some real problems with St. Paul’s thinking, and if I had relied on the standard “orthodox” Catholic apologetic arguments alone, I might have slipped into a real crisis of faith.

I’m not the first person to have these problems of course. Big thinkers and philosophers from Thomas Jefferson to Nietzsche have accused Paul of being the great “inventor” or “corrupter” of Christianity, turning the Gospel of sweet and gentle Jesus into something else altogether. Not so fast. What these guys didn’t know in their respective times was that Paul’s letters are the earliest Christian writings. They are older than the Gospels. They are the first writings about Jesus Christ that we know about. Therefore, St. Paul cannot be dissed or dismissed lightly.

What is shown below is to be taken tongue-in-cheek and with a grain of salt. It was in a letter I sent to a friend a couple of years ago. It was a satirical piece, meant to be partly humorous, written in the style of a Woody Allen monologue... Don’t take it too seriously, but it does reflect what I was struggling with at the time.

Hypothetical address of Jesus to His disciples before the Ascension:

“Peace be with you… Repent and rejoice. The Kingdom of God is at hand! It is within you and all around you. Trust God completely and work with Him to bring the Kingdom about. Put all of your Faith in Him. Love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your soul. Love one another as I have loved you. If you love me, keep the commandments. Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. Give to one who wants to borrow, without asking for anything in return. Always be ready to forgive, for my Father in heaven will extend forgiveness to you by the same measure. Remember the poor. Remember me when you eat and drink. Go out and make disciples of all nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. It is finished…. Um…Just a few announcements before I go…. Now you all know I designated Peter as my Rock, the first of all of you among equals. Well, Pete is a big-hearted guy and a heck of a fisherman, but he’s not much of an administrator… He flip-flops a little too much… Do you all remember my “brother” James, who always thought that I was a little crazy? Yes? Well, Peter will be handing over the reigns of the Jerusalem Church to him. He’s good at running stuff. He’ll make sure you all keep up with your Temple observance… OK, then. Good to go? I’m leaving now… Oh wait!!! I almost forgot one important thing … There was just one little thing that I didn’t get around to while I was here…. I can’t believe that I almost forgot (chuckle). You know I chose you twelve specially. What’s that? Well…, yeah, Judas didn’t work out too well…. Choose Matthias in his place. The problem is, none of you write too well. I don’t have a systematic theologian in the whole crew… I probably should have left some documentation of my own, but anyway, too late for that now… There’s this guy that I never met while I was here. His name is Saul. Pardon me? No, none of you know him either. He’s going to have a hand in killing Stephen… Whoa, whoa, now! Don’t get upset... Saul will come around and change his name to Paul, and everything will turn out OK. James will never trust him completely, and he’ll mouth off to Peter, but don’t let that bother you. He can just wave his Roman citizenship papers whenever he gets into a jam. He’ll go from persecuting you guys to being one of your brothers. More importantly, he’s going to explain what my whole life and death was about, since I don’t think any of you guys are quite up to the task. Remember my parables and what I said in the Sermon on the Mount? Forget all that. It was just a preview of what my “saved”, predestined, Godly-elect automatons may or may not be up to someday. Good works don’t really matter, you see…. That doesn’t make sense? (Sigh) Well, Paul will explain the whole thing to you… The main point will be, ‘Admit that Jesus died for your sins, or you can go to hell’. Got it? I know, I know, it all sounds Greek to me too, but… whatever… I’m out. Later. Shalom.”

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Geza Vermes: The Jesus Dream Epilogue

Geza Vermes is a very interesting guy. He's the emeritus professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford University, and is almost universally recognized and acknowledged as the world’s foremost authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls. He often weighs in on many of the controversies swirling around the topic of the historical Jesus.

His life-story is kind of unique, as can be seen in this interview.
Geza Vermes was born into a Jewish family, but in 1931, when he was seven, he and his parents were baptised in the Roman Catholic Church. Things were going well. His father was a successful journalist, and as a young man, Geza began theological studies in the town of Szatmar.

Then everything would change. The Nazis arose in Germany and then swept over Europe. Hungary's collaboration resulted in the rounding up of about a half a million Jews from the Spring of 1944. His parents' 13 years as Christians did not exempt them, and they were killed in extermination camps in Poland. At the age of 20, Geza Vermes had lost his parents, and was trying to lie low in Hungary and elude the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian collaborators with the Nazis...

"And with the help of the priest who actually baptised the family in 1931, who by that time became a Bishop, with his help I got to Budapest and tried to get myself lost among 200 or 300 students in the central theological college attached to the university. This Bishop was extremely kind and helpful. A few months later, he lost his life; again as a loving and courageous man, he was trying to protect a group of women from Russian soldiers, and they simply shot him dead. In fact, exactly a year ago he was beatified by the Pope, the blessed William Apor."

"...although I tried to enter the Dominican order, I was simply not accepted, and the untold reason was that they didn't want anybody with a Jewish background. And then in a kind of accidental way, I heard about the Fathers of Sion and I imagined, wrongly, that all the members were Jewish converts. And when I was still in my provincial college, I screwed up enough courage to write a letter in French asking for admission."

Vermes had joined an order whose mission was to convert Jews. After studying the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Mishnah, the Talmud, and other Rabbinic writings, he reverted back to Judaism. He is very much interested, however, in academic collaboration between Christians and Jews, and he says...
"If one accepts the idea that we can know something about the historical Jesus, which for about 50 years in the first half of this century was considered as academically unsound, if not impossible. But if it is accepted that we can know something about him, one realises very soon that we are dealing with a totally Jewish person with totally Jewish ideas, whose religion was totally Jewish and whose culture, whose aims, whose aspirations could be understood only in the framework of Judaism. So when finally after many years of study of Jewish history, I took as it were, a sabbatical to enjoy myself, and decided to write a book on Jesus, and titled Jesus the Jew. To my great surprise it was greeted both by Jews and Christians as something that would put the research on the history called 'Jesus' on an entirely new basis, and whereas for years before, there were no books on the historical Jesus for the last 25 years; Jesus the Jew was published in 1973."

In his 2000 book entitled The Changing Faces of Jesus, he investigates what he sees as various portayals of Jesus in the Pauline letters and in the Synoptic Gospels. He intentionally leaves out the Gospel of John, considering that a later work whose high Christology and Hellenistic style is entirely inconsonant with the Synoptics and the writings of St. Paul (I will post up some thoughts by Fr. Raymond Brown on the Gospel of John sometime in the near future).

In any case, it was an interesting read, but he ended the book in a way that I considered unnecessarily polemical, but fascinating nonetheless, in which he relays an account of a "dream" he had in which Jesus speaks to a modern audience.

I don't know if he himself caught the note of irony he threw in at the end.

Epilogue: A Dream

I have reached the point where my role as historian comes to an end. Preaching is not my job. If I have set out truths which some readers find meaningful and applicable to their lives, it is up to them to choose how to implement them. What follows here is in a sense the consequence of the insights gained throughout the many pages of our inquiry, yet it should not affect its results as it belongs to a totally distinct genre. Let us say that after many years of labor, one afternoon I fell asleep and I, too, had a dream.

In this dream the real Jesus staged a return shortly after the onset of the third millennium. He appeared as a middle-sized, middle-aged, dark-haired Jewish man, with strong arms, and the deep suntan of a Galilean from Ginossar or Kfar Nahum. His visage radiated an admixture of wisdom, sympathy, and steely determination. He had a resounding voice and his piercing eyes were shining. After two thousand years he came to explain himself and successively addressed Jews, Christians, religious dropouts from synagogue and church, and men and women belonging to other faiths or to none.

"Shalom," he saluted the Jews.

"Forget the lies about me. I'm one of yours. Look, my religion is that of Moses and the prophets. I only lay extra emphasis on seeking the Lord our God who is one in and through all that we do to our fellow men in every single humble and love-filled deed of all our todays."

He seemed surprised when he saw the many assembled Christians, though the size of the crowd was not quite as big as the one which recently greeted the pope in Cracow.

"I am amazed to see so many of you calling yourselves my followers despite some of the unkind words I let out about non-Jews. I'm all the same delighted and grateful. Without you my name would not be remembered all over the place. But I feel I must exhort you to rely more on yourselves, on your own insights-you may call it the voice of the Holy Spirit-on your strength and goodness. You've been told to expect everything from me. I say, you must save yourselves. Don't forget that the Kingdom of God is always at hand. Get on with it at once. You can do it, on your own, as you are children of our heavenly Father who alone is God, blessed forever. You may carry on with your rites, customs, and prayers, but be careful not to take the symbol for reality. You used to blame my Jewish brethren for turning the spirit into the letter. Aren't you doing the same? By the way, you can learn more about the real me from Luke, Matthew, and Mark than from all the rest of what you call the New Testament. I now wish I'd taken the trouble to write myself! In any case, you too need to be truly humble and show love and respect to all, especially to those with whom you disagree."

He then turned to the company of those who no longer practiced their religion, but who were seekers filled with remorse.

"I know you well and love you. You remind me of the publicans who were longing for a kind word from me. How I enjoyed the party one of them gave in my honor in Jericho, or was it in Galilee? I recognize you, too, ostracized sinners. Others like you, male and female, scorned by the genteel pious, used to come to me, listen to my words, and they changed their lives. Recognize your weakness and do the right thing. Repent and be confident. You are close to the Kingdom of God. Now as in my lifetime the father welcomes with greater joy the returning prodigal son than the son who has been conventionally (and boringly) good all the time."

At this moment I was suddenly woken by the telephone bell. Someone calling himself Jim was trying to interest me in new doors and windows for our kitchen, offered at a specially favorable price. Because of him I lost the end of my dream.

Geza! You were snapped out of your reveries by a carpenter?!

Think about it...

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Luciano Pavarotti - Requiescant in Pace

He was the best.

Like I'm sure a million other people are doing, I'll put up a video of him singing his signature piece, Nessun Dorma. I don't know where Youtube gets the bandwidth.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Year 2007 Finally Begins...

The New England Patriots visit the New York Jets
at the Meadowlands. Sunday, September 9th, 1:05 PM

I haven't been following the preseason as closely as I usually do, but even though we'll be missing Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour on the defensive side of the ball, I expect that Tom Brady will be connecting well with his new wideouts Donte' Stallworth, and Randy Moss, hopefully in full recovery from his "tweaked" hamstring. It should be enough to handle them Jets...

Monday, September 03, 2007

A Clouded Sunrise, or Sunset?

Jim Muller on our "psychic space" from the institutional church
Both fidelity and open dissent are preferable to silent indifference

Photo by Dennis Jones

Call me a glutton for punishment if you like, but I spent a good amount of time in the evenings during our past week in Chatham plowing through David France's 600-page epic, Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal. It chronicles in excruciating detail the sexual abuse scandal that had been occurring for decades and broke like a massive avalanche against the Church in late 2001. It was creepy and painful to read how many of the sickening details were overlaid upon the geography of the archdiocese in which I live. If not for a few twists of fate, this is something that could have happened to me or my children.

Going through the book, I was struck by what I consider to be one of the cruelest ironies of the scandal... the reaction of young Catholics in the blogging world that we've seen in the aftermath.

In the wake of the disclosures, many young Catholics just checked out in disgust, but many of those who still care strongly about the faith took an interesting if unexpected view. Rather than seeing the root cause of the crisis, which was clericalism, a clericalism which took down both conservative and liberal clerics alike, young people who still care about Catholicism seem to have bought heavily into a narrative that scapegoats homosexuals and "liberal" bishops. Leaving aside the fact that banning homosexuals from the priesthood would be counterproductive, and difficult to the point of impossibility, this narrative would actually make matters worse in that it would foster the kind of furtive, secretive, closeted behavior which tends to manifest itself in abuse to begin with. This narrative, rather than seeing the clear dangers of clericalism (the tendency of the those in the priesthood and the hierarchy to identify the Church as themselves, and to circle the wagons and close ranks to any perceived threat against them), encourages the very kind of unquestioning obsequiesness and deference to clerical figures that allowed the abuse and coverups to occur to begin with. Groups who try to keep pressure upon the bishops, and to ask for accountability and greater lay involvement in the running of the Church, like the VOTF, are roundly excorciated in these circles.

To a certain extent I can understand why this is so. It is easy for later generations to lay blame upon the Second Vatican Council because of a coincidence in timing. Never mind the fact that Boston's most notororiously abusive class was the Class of 1960, with a distinctly pre-conciliar formation. The scandals followed the Council, therefore, as far as this line of thinking goes, the abuses allowed by the Council must have been at the root of it. In other words, not only the sexual abuse scandal, but all of the current ills in the Church can be laid at the feet of the Council.

I hold a different view, perhaps because of my age and what I saw happening at the time. Whether the encyclicals were right or whether they were wrong, it looks crystal clear to me that a Council that was enthusiastically and even ecstatically received was undermined almost overnight when Sacerdotalis Caelibatus and Humanae Vitae blew two huge holes in the bottom of the Barque of Peter. After the first encyclical, a huge exodus from the priesthood began, along with a steep dropoff in new vocations. With the second, the hierarchy lost almost all credibility with the laity. The weight of papal authority has never been the same since. People stopped going to confession, and priests stopped wanting to hear their confessions. How long can a Church survive under such circumstances?

One particular passage in the book really resonated with me, because it made reference to my own parish. Jim Muller, who went on to become the co-founder of the VOTF, was speaking with our pastor, Reverend Tom Powers. It hit really close to home for me, because I remember very well the flourishing, burgeoning days that he makes reference to, and in being very heavily involved in what he describes. As for the young conservatives... I don't know if they really know and appreciate how well Jim Muller understands them...
He remembered the first time he had received communion at St. John's, as a young idealistic father. Back then, St. John's bristled with kids and teenagers and young couples. The youth ministry was active. It was not unusual to see over a thousand attend a Mass, even on nonholidays. Now his own children, who had left home for college and independent lives, would attend Mass only if their father had them in a paternal half nelson. At fifty-nine, Muller was still among the youngest parishioners at St. John's.

The problem was, he thought, the Catholic Church was out of step with young people's lives. They looked at church uncompromisingly. For some time now, Jim Muller had felt that by practicing cafeteria Catholicism-picking and choosing among the doctrines that made sense to him, and disregarding the rest-he was guilty of a sort of lazy hypocrisy. His children rejected this as inauthentic, which he knew it was. He and Kathleen both had made their compromises in small, almost imperceptible stages. They continued using birth control even after Humanae Vitae was handed down.They objected to the very notion that a church hierarchy might attempt to govern such personal matters as sexual love. But they kept their objections to themselves. As a result, they confessed fewer and fewer things, less and less often creating more and more psychic space between themselves and then church.

In significant other ways Jim was nonetheless a church conservative, or at least a church nostalgic. He craved some of the fabulous aspects of the Mass that were done away with in the name of modernization. In his youth, Gregorian chant epitomized a church of miracles. He missed the Latin liturgy, its muffled mystery and transcendental force. He understood why these things were changed, and he even applauded the effort to make Catholicism accessible and significant in ordinary people's lives. But he felt as though the church had opened up the wrong things to the parishioners. They craved decency and democracy, and respect for their life decisions in a modern world-they craved a catechism of the here and the now; the church gave them tinny language instead.

Once he told his pastor, Father Tom Powers, that he feared for the future of a church rejected by his own offspring. "It made no sense to me," he said, "because they're extremely spiritual people. I asked my daughter, `Where did your spirituality come from? Pop culture? Madonna?' And you know what she told me? Star Wars. `May the force he with you.'" He lifted his hand as if to joust. He laughed. He found something wonderful, and desolate, about the explanation.

"We have lost the next generation," Powers agreed. "We have pushed them away."

Muller knew it was true, and it disturbed him. It was the prophet Jeremiah who said, "Shame on the shepherds who let the sheep of my flock scatter and be lost."

He had asked Powers, "What's lost if you lose institutional religion?"

"Community," the priest answered.

At the time, Jim Muller shrugged. But since learning about [the scandal], he no longer felt he had the luxury of passivity. This was a Catholic Watergate. How could he not do something to harness his disgust?

Muller makes some really interesting points here about the psychic space that we've allowed to be created, and the need for authenticity in the hearts and minds of young people. They can smell what is phony from a mile off, and it is killing us. In a lot of ways, this reminds me of a family with an alcoholic in it. There's a huge problem that no one wants to talk about. We talk around it and we talk through it, and we talk past it, but no one wants to talk about the dead elephant in the middle of the room.

I think we've let the whole Humanae Vitae thing in particular fester for too long, and it colors everything else. Over 90 percent of Catholic couples use artificial birth control, and even the vast majority of weekly-mass attending Catholics do, despite the hierarchy's persistent ban. Now, this can mean one of two things. Either this is a teaching not properly taught, or it is a teaching not received. If it is a teaching not received, the laity had better start speaking up and saying something to the bishops, because this double-life in the Church can't go on forever. Something has to give one way or the other. People either have to get in line with the Church teaching (which seems to be the Vatican's strategic line of thinking... pare things down to a leaner, smaller, more obedient Church), or the laity have to speak out.

It is one thing for a layperson to read Humanae Vitae and to form his or her own consicence one way or the other in response to the Church's argument using biblical citations, the early Church Fathers, and Natural Law. It is another thing altogether just to silently reject Church teaching a priori just because he or she doesn't feel like it and couldn't be bothered. The latter, in their own way, do just as much harm as pig-headed curial officials who don't feel a need to listen to the laity.