Charting a New Course – Changing the Conversation

22 October 2016

I have always been interested in politics and come from a politically active family. This year, however, I have seen and heard more than enough about Donald and Hilary. I am politically tired and frustrated. I am also keenly aware that regardless who wins the key to the White House, the battles will not be finished when we wake up on November 9th. The civil/uncivil conflict may have just begun.

Today, in secular society and in the church, fierce polarization is our “realpolitik.” It threatens to disempower us and tear us apart in a long-lasting way. This past month (by way of a small personal example) because of my political and theological positions, I have been “unfriended” on Facebook by people who have been (I thought) my real friends for more than twenty-five years. Painful. Disappointing. Unnecessary.  

In the United States — but across the globe as well — we are in an historic and major socio-cultural transition: cultural change everywhere with various violent eruptions. It impacts religion and political stability. It shapes our sense of personal and group identity. It spreads fears about security and our sense of security. It demands, frankly, that we start working together to chart a new course – a new direction — for church and civil society.  

Charting a new direction and changing the conversation means moving beyond self-centered “my group” expediency to an other-centered engagement that promotes a more genuine Christian community and a safe and healthy society for all citizens: what we used to call “the common good.” It means looking at life and talking about life in new ways.  

Last week I read the Robert P. Jones book The End of White Christian America. Are we experiencing the “end of white Christian America”? Probably. Should we be anxious about this? I don’t see why. It is not the end of Christianity. It is not the end of America. It is reality. Now how do we talk about it?  

Americans in the United States are more racially and ethnically diverse than in the past. They will be even more diverse in the coming decades. By 2055, the U.S. WILL NOT have one single racial or ethnic majority, and “white people” will be a minority group. It may come as a surprise to some observers; but Asia has already replaced Latin America (including Mexico) as the biggest source of new immigrants to the United States.  

One of my correspondents wrote recently that “gays are destroying American society and thanks to them family life is disintegrating.” Well that is one way of looking and speaking. What, however, would gay people say about American society today? How would they speak about family life? If we can shift our conversation from quick condemnation to dialogical comprehension, we might also become a bit more understanding and supportive of men and women living and struggling in a variety of family situations.  

The American family is changing. In the United States, today, there are nearly 13.6 million single parents raising over 21 million children. Single fathers are far less common than single mothers, constituting 16% of single-parent families. The number of American adults who have never been married is now at an historic high. Two-parent households are on the decline. Divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation are on the rise. So, what is our appropriate response? We can shake our heads or we can be supportive of people living in changing times. It is a called ministry and outreach. Healthy social movements and positive social evolution are launched and maintained by compassion, support, and collaboration. Christianity is there to pick people up not push them down and ignore their plight. The historic Jesus understood this. He did not condemn the woman at the well, the woman about to be stoned to death, nor the good Samaritan.  

Charles Chaput, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia, gave a speech at the University of Notre Dame on Wednesday. He said that many prominent Catholics (he had the Democratic vice presidential candidate in mind) are so weak in their faith that it would be better if they just left the Catholic Church. He said he would prefer a smaller church of holy people, anchored in traditional orthodoxy. With Chaput’s approach, I fear, Catholics will continue their exit; and the Catholic Church will indeed become smaller. I am not convinced it will necessarily become holier. We could change the conversation however. Sit down with people who are leaving or have already left the church: not to pass judgment on them but to listen to their stories: their experiences, their expectations, and their disappointments.  

Another important element in changing our conversation must be inter-religious dialogue. As we chart a new course, we need to start building bridges with Islam. In our churches, we can and should have Muslim/Christian discussion groups and adult education programs. Why not have an adult ed. presentation on “Understanding the Qur’an: Islam’s Holy Book.” 

Projections about our world, over the next four decades, suggest that while Christianity will remain the largest religion, Islam will probably grow faster than any other major religion. By 2050, the number of Muslims in our world will nearly equal the number of Christians. Muslims are not Christians, but they are sons and daughters of the same God; and they are indeed our brothers and sisters in the Abrahamic tradition. It is time we get to know and respect each other. It is not enough simply to change our conversation about them. We need to change our conversation with them. 

The Millennials, young adults born after 1980, are the new generation to watch. They have already surpassed Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) as the largest U.S. generation. In many ways, they differ significantly from their elders. They are the most racially diverse generation in American history: 43% of Millennial adults are non-white, the highest share of any generation. They are much less interested in institutional religion and very supportive of LGBT issues and same-sex marriage.  

A colleague suggested recently that we need to do a “better job of educating the Millennials.” I am all for good education, and my friend may have a point. Charting a new course and changing the conversation, however, means first that WE must start LISTENING to the Millennials. We need to hear and learn from them about their life realities, their experience of church, their hopes, their frustrations, and expectations for tomorrow. 

I am not a misogynist. I do want to see women exercising every type of ordained ministry. I suggest however that we need to change our conversation about “women deacons” and “women priests.” Changing the conversation means that we consider the more basic questions about the meaning of ordained ministry. How should we understand Christian ministry today? What is the specific nature of ordained ministry today? What should it be? What structures and institutional roles and behaviors are appropriate for contemporary Christians? What is a proper – appropriately Christian – understanding of power and authority in the church? Is it not possible that the “ordained” have more than once misunderstood and misused their “power and authority”? I suggest that in many ways we need to chart a new course for ordained ministry. A new course will necessarily involve new parochial and ministerial structures. I can imagine for example that a parish could have a ministry supervisor (pastor) who would not necessarily have to be ordained. Within the parish there could be a great number of ordained ministers (women, men, married, single, gay and straight): ministering in schools, hospitals, youth groups, neighborhood and home visitations, college campuses, etc. 

Well enough thoughts for today. I read in the very latest (October 19th) Pew Research bulletin that only 13% of Americans have a great deal of confidence that religious leaders act in the best interest of the public. We do need to change our conversation and chart a new course: away from polarization.

(Next week end I will be participating in a conference on the Millennials. I will offer some reflections on that after the week end.) 

The Dictatorship of Relativism

14 November 2016

One of my former students emailed me a few days ago that he is alarmed because I continue stressing religious change and an historical/critical understanding of Sacred Scripture and church teaching. He fears that I have succumbed to “the dictatorship of relativism” which Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI so often condemned.“Our Christian morality,” my correspondent insisted, “is unchanging.” 

Ok, let’s be historically honest. I tried to respond to my concerned writer, the way I believe a good teacher should respond: a good teacher is not necessarily the answer person but the one who raises questions and tries to help students think and act with a broader perspective on reality. I reminded him for instance, that St. Thomas Aquinas, the great “Doctor of the Church,” taught that women are inferior to men because they are really “misbegotten males;” and that St Augustine, the very influential Neo-Platonic “Church Father,” taught that sexual intercourse, even within marriage, was always sinful. Augustine and Thomas, any good student knows, have been major shapers of Christian moral attitudes and behavior for centuries. I asked my young friend if he could affirm the papal teaching of Pope Nicholas V, who in 1452 instituted hereditary slavery for captured Muslims, solemnly teaching from his papal pulpit that all non-Christians are “enemies of Christ.” My final question was what he thought about the morality of a centuries old practice in Christian Europe of castrating prepubescent boys to ensure, in future years, a good supply of soprano, mezzo-soprano, and contralto singers for church choirs, especially in the pope’s Sistine Chapel. Churchmen justified this practice to insure high tone voices for divine praise, because they were in agreement with the Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, that “women should keep quiet in church.” Just a few historic examples. 

Yes change happens; but when speaking about morality, I prefer to avoid using words like “relative” and “situational,” because they have become hot potatoes and impede dialogue. Nevertheless, morality deals with our ongoing human reality that is never static. Historical circumstances change, so too our understanding of appropriate and inappropriate moral behavior. In every age, moral reflection must be anchored in concrete human experience and circumstances. Sometimes developments in human understanding lead to a better appreciation for traditional moral norms. Sometimes, however, the norms themselves must change, as has occurred when we look at moral issues linked with slavery, misogyny, personal freedom, human mutilation, genocide, and human sexuality.  

A key focus in my professional life, for many years, has been Christian ethics and Christian moral behavior. Here I have big concerns and strong feelings. Our Christian moral life is much more than simply being obedient to a set of moral norms. For some it may sound strange, but the most fundamental moral reality for the Christian is not obedience to God’s commands but the discernment of God’s presence in our daily lives and our response to that presence. Not just observing a set of laws but pursuing an all-inclusive way of life: what we have traditionally called the life of grace. 

Sin, for instance, cannot be identified merely with actions against the Ten Commandments. Sin is the breakdown of our multiple relationships with God, neighbor, world, and self. Christian ethics differs from philosophical ethics precisely because it understands that our moral life, informed by the message of Christ and animated by his Spirit, is a grateful response to the Devine presence in our lives: God with us. Christian morality, therefore, springs from an authentic Christian spirituality. (Many years ago, one of my favorite professors in Louvain insisted that if we had a healthy spirituality there would be no need for courses in theological ethics.) 

Our Christian understanding of reality calls for a broader and more universal love that embraces the poor, the marginalized, and the needy. It stresses that in our complex world, our moral responsibilities are not just interpersonal. They involve our collaboration, our critique, and our continually challenging the organizations, structures, and institutions that constitute a vital part of our local and global existence.  

One cannot claim, for instance, to be a Christian leader and at the same time denigrate women and legislate against them, make fun of the physically impaired, despise “foreigners,” degrade black people, dismiss people from a non-Christian background, promote personal fantasies as statements of objective truth, and understand self-promotion and self-gratification as more important than service to one’s neighbor. 

Last week, Johan Bonny, the current Roman Catholic Bishop of Antwerp, Belgium, reiterated his position that homosexual couples, divorced and remarried Catholics, and cohabiting couples should be given some sort of Church blessing as part of a “diversity of rituals” that would recognize the “exclusiveness and stability” of their unions. He went on to stress: “There is no way we can continue to claim that there can be no other forms of love than heterosexual marriage. We find the same kind of love between a man and woman who live together, in gay pairs, and lesbian couples.” Bishop Bonny, whom I know and for whom I have great respect, understands very well the developmental nature of our moral understanding; and he has the courage, as a bishop, to publicly acknowledge it. 

Today I am less concerned about a dictatorship of relativism than I am about a dictatorship of ignorance, closed-mindedness, and socio-cultural barrel vision. 

Warmest regards to all.  

Jack at Another Voice  

Poetic Anthropomorphisms

 7 October 2016

(This week’s reflection was written by William Joseph, a good friend and a priest scientist currently living in London. He wrote this reflection a couple weeks ago, as he was traveling on the Eurostar from Paris to London. He sent it to me because of my recent observations about God-talk and antropomorphisms. I post it today with his permission.)  

The sky slowly becomes luminous. A small brush stroke of red grows on the horizon and swells into a sphere of bright white light illuminating a new day. The child thinks: Time to get up, eat and see my friends. The mystic thinks: Thank you God for another day which you begin here with such beauty and hope-filling regularity. The scientist thinks: Thank you Isaac Newton for describing how I could trust that this morning would dawn for me again.  

Each thought is a different poetry, each with a worthy degree of anthropomorphism. The child is thinking not too far ahead with only a shallow memory of the past. Those spiritually minded envision a personal presence of the Devine who has arranged things in ways we cannot perceive and is ever willing to acknowledge our requests if not always respond to them positively. The scientist, being able to see a beauty in equations and poetry in the mathematical expressions of physical reality, is not unappreciative in what sounds like a sterile welcome to another day.  

All three are, however, based on anthropomorphisms, making our universe act in the only human way we know. But an anthropomorphism must be seen as an aid to understanding and not a description of what is happening in reality. To the child, everything is simply what happens in their world with no interpretation or judgement, only uncomplicated and short term anticipation. In traditional spirituality, the universe is uncomplicated by physical realities or theories but relies only on insights framed in myths and metaphors. To the scientist God is not needed to give us another day any more than to keep the Earth in rotation on its axis at its constant rate. Newton has that well in hand even if he cannot explain how it all started.  

The child wants only to know the when. The religionist and philosopher is concerned about the why. The scientist is interested in the how of the universe but understands the limitations involved. It may take all three to cover every possibility. The Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, in his Hymn to Matter, saw the universe as a “triple abyss of stars and atoms and generations.” In one unified concept he embraced the macrocosm, the fundamental particles of the physical microcosm and all humanity in the noosphere. He also championed the evolutionary nature which characterizes this universe.  

Soon, but not before its time, the light dims and darkness embraces our world. Could there be humanity even beyond or independent of this cycle of dawn to dusk and the darkness of night? While everyone does not think about it, anticipate it or view it as possible or necessary, we have all passed through moments in which we perceived it as an appealing thought and even a desire. If it is reality then eligibility must extend to humanity and not to some mechanism of membership. The Divine willed creation of a universe and that will not be limited by anthropomorphisms.  

Reality and Religious Realities

2 October 2016

The Public Religion Research Institute, in Washington, DC, has published an updated report about the “nones”: the religiously unaffiliated. Today 24% of all U.S. Americans, and 39% of young adults aged eighteen to twenty-nine, say they have no religious affiliation. The “nones” are now the largest “religious” group in the United States

Linked with the rise of the “nones” is yet another trend: an ongoing exodus out of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. U.S. Catholics have now experienced the largest membership decline of any Christian group in the country. While about one third (31%) of U.S. Americans indicate they were raised Catholic, less than a quarter (21%) currently identify as Catholic. When John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, 25% of the U.S. adult population was Roman Catholic. 

Mainline Protestant churches are showing a decline in membership as well; but nothing compares with the current Catholic exodus. Daniel Cox, the Director of Research at the Public Religion Research Institute, notes that 36% of all U.S. Americans who have left their childhood religion were Roman Catholic. While, as I indicated above, 21% of the total U.S. population currently identifies as Catholic, only 15% of young adults ages 18–29 say they are Catholic. Not a particularly encouraging trend for Roman Catholic leaders, strongly Republican but now scratching their heads about what to do about a presidential race between one candidate whose views on immigration clash with decades of Catholic pro-immigration work, and another who supports same-sex marriage and expanded access to abortion and contraception. 

Today 60% of those who have left their U.S. church of origin say it was because they stopped believing that church’s teachings. Interestingly, the “nones” who were raised Catholic — more than the people who have left some other religious tradition — cite the Roman Catholic Church’s negative treatment of gay and lesbian people (39%) and the still festering clerical sexual-abuse scandal (32%) as their primary reasons for leaving their church. Sorry to say, given the high rate of Catholic disaffiliation and the fact that one-third of Catholics indicated clergy sex-abuse as their primary reason for disaffiliation, the Catholic exodus can be expected to continue as more revelations about hidden abuse scandals become public.  

Another point that the Public Religion Research Institute study makes clear is that while the “nones” are often portrayed as “seekers” or “spiritual but not religious,” the data presents a more uncertain picture of what is happening. Nearly 60% of the unaffiliated are what the Public Religion Research Institute calls “rejectionists”: they “say religion is not personally important in their lives and believe religion as a whole does more harm than good in society.” Another 22% are “apatheists. ” They say “religion is not personally important to them, but believe it generally is more socially helpful than harmful.” Contrary to what one often reads about the “nones,” only 18% were found to be “unattached believers.” That means that religion is unimportant for a good 80% of the “nones.” As Daniel Cox observes: “The bulk of the unaffiliated are not carrying on faith traditions or seeking different types of spiritual activity. Most don’t give a lot of thought to religion and God in general.”  

Is there a future for the Roman Catholic Church? Of course there is; but then some important remedial steps have to be undertaken. Church leadership has to constructively and effectively respond to what I call level one big issues and level two big issues. If this does not happen, the Catholic eclipse will be pervasive and long-lasting. 

I begin with the level two big issues. 

At the top of this list is human sexuality. The institution, whose key leaders are mostly old men who – from the time they were very young men — have officially signed-off on sex, has a major difficulty understanding human sexuality as a human good. We are all sexual people; and our sexuality is more than just genital procreative behavior. It is the way we experience ourselves, the way we express love and affection, the way we bring life to each other and bring new life into the world. It is the way we experience human pleasure and find contentment. It is natural and good; and some people are “gay” and some people are “straight.” Most people, my sexologist friends tell me, are somewhere between being totally one way or the other.  

While 86% of the baby boomers consider themselves “completely heterosexual,” one third of the Millennial generation consider themselves “less than 100% straight.” According to recent studies by the Pew Research Centre, ABC News, and the Washington Post, well over 80% of the Millennial generation say they believe gay and lesbian individuals should be accepted by society and allowed to get married if they so choose. 

Related to the human sexuality issues of course are issues of gender roles and gender identity. I wish we could move beyond discussions about “women’s roles” and “men’s roles” in the church. This is not a healthy way of thinking or speaking. We are a community of faith; and all believers in the community share and participate in the community’s life and ministry. Galatians 3 reminds us: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Establishing separate categories and ranks in the church is not what we should be about. 

The final issue in my list of level two big issues is gender identity. As an old observer of human life, who tries to stay current as well, it is very clear to me that human beings are much more than simply individuals who were born with a penis or a vagina. One of my classmates, when I was a freshman in high school, was a young man. Many years later we met again. He – SHE – is now a married professional woman, leading a very happy life. My eyes were opened in more than one way. Gender identity is an important issue for thousands of people. There is nothing decadent or immoral about it. Some people scoff at or make fun of Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce Jenner the Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete. I think we still have a lot to learn about human identity….. 

Now moving on to the level one big issues: 

As individual believers and as institutional leaders, we need to seriously and honestly reflect about who God is for us today. Too much of our traditional talk about God does not connect with people today. Perhaps we forget that all God-talk is anthropomorphic. God is just as much “Mother” as “Father.” For me God is more like a traveling companion. Nevertheless, there is no Heavily Father sitting on his throne up there above the clouds. There is Reality right here and right now.  

Connecting with us, loving us, and sustaining us from the deepest dimension of Reality is the Sacred. It is deeply personal and intimate. All the great mystics attest to this. We need to adjust our perspectives on Reality and how we describe and live with it. How we travel in time with it and celebrate it. The old dichotomies – as my older priest-philosopher friend often reminds me – are no longer appropriate or acceptable: dividing Reality into “transcendent” and “immanent.” Or into the “physical” and the “metaphysical.” Or even cutting Reality into “sacred” and “profane.” Reality is a unity. There we discover “God with us.” Now we need to explore and explain and better express that for ourselves and for contemporary people. It is the number one task for contemporary theologians. 

Helping us with our level one big issues of course is the absolute necessity of an historical/critical understanding of our scriptures; but not just our scriptures. We need an historical/critical understanding of church teachings, church structures, and moral imperatives as they have developed and changed over the centuries. No small task. And not always easy because some new discoveries can be temporarily disorienting and disconcerting. I still remember being a terribly upset little boy, sitting with my parents restlessly staring at our Christmas tree, when it dawned on me that Santa was a fantasy. Later I began to smile, when I realized all the more that I had a very loving mom and dad.  

We are never too old to realize that we still have much to learn. This is a grace not a vice. 

We can resonate with T. S. Eliot’s famous observation: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” 

Peter: Facts and Suppositions

22 September 2016

Another historical reflection? A somewhat annoyed reader asked why I am getting “bogged-down with so much history.”

I am sorry some find it boring or annoying. I am convinced that good history clarifies our human understanding today and builds a more humane and rational road into tomorrow. And this is particularly true when it comes to religious and ethical issues. 

Roman Catholics, for instance, have long maintained that the Bishop of Rome – the pope – is a successor of Peter the Apostle. Contemporary historians and biblical scholars would say the issue, however, is complex. One needs to make some important distinctions. When it comes to Peter, we are dealing with biblical texts, a bit of history, and a fair amount of legend and historical imagination. Perhaps, today, we have more Petrine questions than answers. 

Simon Peter was a fisherman from Bethsaida. When he met Jesus he was about eighteen or nineteen years old, married, with probably one or more children. His parents had named him Simon or Simeon, but Jesus gave him a new name, a sort of nickname: Cephas, “the rock” in Aramaic and Peter in English.  

Clearly Peter was seen as a key leader among the group of apostles and disciples. In all of the Synoptic Gospels, Peter is named first in the lists of the apostles (Matt 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16); the same is true for the book of Acts (see 1:13). This is reaffirmed in the post-resurrection narrative inserted into the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 16:18) that Peter is the rock on which the “ekklesia” the congregation of Jesus’ followers is built. (Later as Christianity becomes much more institutionalized the word “ekklesia” gets translated as “church.”) Some exegetes would say that the rock on which Jesus’ congregation is built is not Peter but Peter’s confession of faith: “You are the Christ the Son of the Living God.” (Matt 16:17)  

Nevertheless, Matthew says nothing about Peter’s apostleship being passed down to future successors. Nor is there any indication that Jesus was establishing a permanent apostolic see for future bishops. As I stressed last week, the historic Jesus did not lay down any blueprint for ecclesiastical structures. 

When we look at the history and biblical testimony about the early post-Resurrection apostolic community of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, clearly the leader was James the “brother of the Lord.” Peter played a role in the Council of Jerusalem, around 50 CE. Then according to the epistle to the Galatians 2:11, Peter went to Antioch. There he tangled with Paul, who rebuked him for treating Gentile converts as inferior to Jewish Christians.  

There is a tradition that Peter and Paul went to Rome and were put to death at the hands of Nero probably between 64 and 68 CE. According to an old legend, he was crucified upside down; and other folklore fills out the details of Peter’s life and death in Rome — his struggles with the magician and father of heresy, Simon Magus, his miracles, his attempted escape from persecution in Rome, and a flight from which he was turned back by a reproachful vision of Christ, the ‘Quo Vadis’ legend. 

By the second and third centuries, we see stories about Peter springing from unquestioned historical suppositions, legends, and much creative historical imagination by people like Irenaeus of Lyons (died 202 CE). In the New Testament, for instance, we have two epistles attributed to him: 1 Peter and 2 Peter. Most scholars, however, have concluded that Peter was not the author of these two epistles. According to the Roman Catholic biblical scholar Raymond E. Brown, 1 Peter should be dated to between 70 and 90 CE, clearly after Peter’s death. No biblical authorities defend the Petrine authorship of 2 Peter, which is believed to have been written by an anonymous author in Rome about 150 CE. 

Contrary to what some think, neither Peter nor Paul brought Christianity to Rome. Before they would have arrived, there were a number of elders and house churches in Rome; and there was no central administrator. No bishop. At some point Peter may have been one of these elders. We really do not know for certain; but Catholic and Protestant historians would stress that Peter was never a bishop of Rome. Raymond Brown, again, and John P. Meier, from the University of Notre Dame, are emphatic in their book Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Christianity, (Paulist Press 1983): 

“As for Peter, we have no knowledge at all of when he came to Rome and what he did there before he was martyred. Certainly he was not the original missionary who brought Christianity to Rome, and therefore not the founder of the church of Rome in that sense. There is no serious proof that he was the bishop, or local ecclesiastical officer, of the Roman church: a claim not made till the third century. Most likely he did not spend any major time at Rome before 58 CE when Paul wrote to the Romans, and so it may have been only in the 60s and relatively shortly before his martyrdom that Peter came to the capital.” 

Peter’s bones:     Between 320 CE and 327 CE, Constantine the Great built the first St. Peter’s Basilica on top of an early Christian burial site that was purported to be Peter’s final resting place. Since at least the ninth century the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome has held in its reliquaries what are believed to be the heads of Peter and Paul. Between 1939 and 1949, a Vatican archaeological team uncovered a complex of 2nd and 3rd century mausoleums under the foundations of the current St. Peter’s Basilica. They found a small niched monument built into a wall from around 160 CE. Bones found there, believed to be those of Peter, were put in a safe place. Years later Pope Paul VI was informed about the belief that these remains were those of St. Peter. Bone testing revealed that the remains were of a sturdy man from around the time of Peter.

On June 26, 1968, just a month before releasing his birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI announced that the relics of St. Peter had been discovered. Moving ahead to the current pope, on November 24, 2013, these relics were held up by Pope Francis and publicly displayed during the closing of the “Year of Faith.” Peter’s bones? Possibly. Will we ever know for sure? Possibly; but I doubt it.  

Peter the pope:     Although, especially after Constantine and the influence of his relics-collecting mother Helena, Peter and the memory of Peter were held in high regard in Rome, historians are in general agreement that Peter was never pope. 

The first great acclamation of Peter as a pope came from Pope Leo I, also known as Saint Leo the Great, who was pope from 440 CE until his death in 461 CE. Leo the Great greatly contributed to the development of the doctrine of a papal Petrine succession based on his personal devotion to St. Peter. By the 400s CE the bishop of Rome had gradually become understood as the chief patriarch in the Western church; but only as “the first among equals,” along with the other patriarchs, who by the way were also called “popes.” 

Pope Leo I pushed Roman papal authority into a new realm. In 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, after Leo’s teaching about the two natures of Christ was proclaimed, the bishops participating in Chalcedon shouted out: “This is the faith of the fathers … Peter has so spoken through Leo.”  

As I mentioned last week, after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West in 476 CE the bishop of Rome became tremendously powerful, as he took on the rituals, pageantry, and organizational structures of the earlier Roman emperors. 

Yes, one can understand the popes as successors of Peter in faith, witness, ministry, and leadership. One can understand many bishops, Catholic and Protestant, sharing in that tradition, as successors of the apostles. It is only with a bit of creative theological imagination, however, that one can call Peter the first pope. 


Christianity’s Infancy Narrative

16 September 2016

I have always liked a quotation attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”

By profession and calling, I am an historical theologian. The focus of my curiosity and my research has always been how believers, across the centuries and in a variety of cultures, have experienced their Christian Faith and how they gave expression to it in words, symbols, rituals, and institutional structures. 

Periodically – especially if he is a bit annoyed by something I have written — a bishop friend reminds me that while I may “perhaps” know more about the church’s history than he does, he, nevertheless, has the fullness of priesthood and possesses complete “sacramental power.” He stresses that at the Last Supper Jesus ordained the first bishops and he, as a “successor of the apostles,” has that same ordination. My old friend is doing exactly as Napoleon observed: presenting the version of past events that he and more than a few of his colleagues have decided to agree upon.  

I would suggest that today’s historical theologians would have a more nuanced understanding of what the historical Jesus actually did at the Last Supper and what happened in the early Christian Church.  

Historians see three major periods for the early Church, as it developed from the primitive Christian community animated by the Easter experience, until the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. It was a church that experienced growth, cultural change, and significant modifications over a period of about 500 years. We have: 

1) The Apostolic Community: from time of the Death/Resurrection of Jesus, probably sometime between 27 and 34 CE, until around the year 100 CE.   

2) Greco-Roman Christianity as distinct from Judaic Christianity: from around 100 to 313 CE when the Edict of Milan gave Christianity legal status in the Roman Empire.  

3) Post Constantinian Christianity: from Constantine until the Fall of Rome in 476 CE.  

THE APOSTOLIC COMMUNITY – until around 100 CE. 

In the Apostolic Community, certainly in the beginning, there were still some who had experienced Jesus with their own eyes. The community was an “ekklesia,” an assembly or gathering of Christians animated by the Spirit of Christ, often referred to as “The Way,” based on the well-known statement by Jesus: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” In the beginning they were Jewish Christians who attended synagogue on the Sabbath and gathered in their homes on Sunday to pray and reflect on the life of Jesus and celebrate “the breaking of bread” (Eucharist) in his memory.  

Those who presided over the house churches and early Eucharistic celebrations were the men and women who were heads of the households. Ordination did not yet exist. The historical Jesus never spoke of ordination, did not ordain anyone; and he did not lay down any institutional blueprint for the church. Life in the Apostolic Community was charismatic and free-form.  

As the Apostolic Community began to grow and create its own structures, “elders” (presbyteroi) were appointed for local communities, “deacons” (diaconoi) ministered to groups with special needs; and “overseers” (episkopoi) were chosen to provide broader-based supervision. While Peter “the Rock” had a major role among the Apostles and Jesus’ disciples, James “the brother of the Lord” became the key leader of the Apostolic Community in Jerusalem.  

The Apostolic Community strove to live in harmony but was not without controversy. Around the year 48 CE a major issue arose in Antioch. (Its ruins lie near the modern city of Antakya, Turkey.) The issue was whether or not circumcision was required for “Christians,” the non-Jewish converts to the way of Christ. The new Gentile converts did not follow all “Jewish Law” and refused to be circumcised, because circumcision was considered repulsive in Hellenistic culture. 

Paul and Barnabas were not inclined to impose the Jewish rite of circumcision on Gentile converts to Christianity. The community in Antioch decided to consult the Christian community in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas, together with Titus their Greek companion, as well as some others, were sent to Jerusalem to attend what we call the Council of Jerusalem, around 50 CE. 

At the Council of Jerusalem, Simon Peter (Acts 15:7–11 and Acts 15:14) argued that since God had demonstrated divine approval of Gentile converts by giving them the Holy Spirit, no other burdens should be placed on them. Paul and Barnabas were then invited to give an account of their ministry among the Gentiles (Acts 15:12). In the end it was James who submitted a proposal, which was accepted by the council and became known as the Apostolic Decree: 

It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:19–21) 


During this period, we see the establishment of ordination not for the sake of giving a person special power but for the sake of church order: a form of quality control for those who exercise leadership in the Christian community. To safeguard the community of faith, only leaders with proven and accepted faith, good Christian knowledge, and proven leadership skills would be authorized – ordained – for ministry in the community of faith. 

In the Greco-Roman period, we see as well a growing institutional distinction between the ordained and the non-ordained; and a gradual limitation on the role of women in the community of faith, thanks to the influence of people like the Christian theologian Origen (185 to 254 CE) who observed: “For it is improper for a woman to speak in an assembly, no matter what she says, even if she says admirable things, or even saintly things, that is of little consequence, since they come from the mouth of a woman.” During this period, we also see the influence of Platonic philosophy in a tendency to stress the spiritual over the physical. Nevertheless, there is still a strong sense of being a collaborative community of believers. 


Under the reign of Constantine the Great, from 306 to 337 CE, Christianity became the legally accepted and dominant religion of the Roman Empire. It became the official religion of the Roman Empire, with the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE. 

In the post-Constantinian period, Christianity became a full-fledged institutional church. It took over the Roman Empire’s governmental structure, like dioceses for instance. The pomp and ceremony of the old Roman imperial court became the official ceremonial ritual for the Bishop of Rome. (And for many popes thereafter.)  

Bishops during this period became regional civil judges. The church’s liturgy and sacraments became more standardized. Women were edged even more to the background; and we see disturbing signs of misogyny in great churchmen like St. Augustine the Bishop of Hippo (354 to 430 CE) who observed: “What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman… I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.” And, perhaps not so surprisingly, we see the beginning of a real clerical culture. 

Most importantly in this post-Constantinian period, church authorities approved which books belong to the official canon of the New Testament. Major decisive moments came in the Synod at Rome in 382 CE and the synods at Hippo in 393 CE and Carthage in 397 CE which ratified the Synod at Rome.  

Concluding observations

(1) We cannot reverse the clock, nor should we, even if we could. We are contemporary people living in contemporary time. “We are not on earth as museum keepers,” Pope John XXIII said, “but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life and to prepare a glorious future.” 

(2) It would be greatly beneficial, however, if we could live and minister with the open-minded spirit and creativity of the Apostolic Community. In this way we would best respond to the signs of our contemporary times….. 

(3) Sorry this blog post is longer than usual.  

(4) Next week some brief but to the point thoughts about Peter as “the first pope.” 

Three Kings?

10 September 2016

Labor Day is over. Schools are in session. The frost will soon be on the pumpkin. Just over a hundred days until Christmas.

A few readers have asked about biblical interpretation as it involves the New Testament. Since this is still early September, I thought I would offer a reflection about the Infancy Narratives..  

Years ago I learned, in a parish Bible-study group, that it is difficult to comment about Jesus’ birth close to Christmas. Once the manger scenes are in church and the herald angels are singing, it is impossible to rationally discuss the creative imagery, historical questions, and theological belief about Jesus’ infancy, which often gets mixed with non-biblical (but often understood as biblical) legends and folklore. 

First of all, any Bible-study should begin with the acknowledgement that we know more today about our history and our scriptures than we did forty years ago….And of course we are still learning. 

We have a better understanding of ancient languages, ancient cultures, and the origins and historic evolution of texts. Before 1943, for example, official Roman Catholic teaching was that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch: the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. TODAY we know this was impossible. Moses lived around 1648 BCE. The Pentateuch (first five books of what we used to refer to as the “Old Testament”) was written between 950 BCE and 400 BCE. 

Yes there is history in the Bible, but our Sacred Scriptures focus more on faith and belief than history. Biblical scholars help us distinguish historic fact from the creative and imaginative imagery often used to convey theological belief. And here the Infancy Narratives are a good example. 


The only place in the New Testament where the birth of Jesus is described is in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Paul, whose writings predate Matthew and Luke, provides no information about Jesus’ birth, although he mentions it in three letters (Romans 1:3, Galatians 4:4, 7, and Timothy 2:8). 

The Infancy Narratives in Matthew 1:18-2:23 and Luke 2:1-3 present more of a theological understanding of Jesus than a strictly historical one, although they offer, of course, no challenge to an historical Jesus. That is why theologians speak about “infancy narratives” not about infancy stories. 

Right from the beginning, the purpose of the Infancy Narratives has been to preserve and present a theological understanding of Jesus of Nazareth. 

The infancy narrative in Matthew was written around 85 CE and was written for Jewish converts to Christianity. The infancy narrative in Luke was written around between 85 and 90 CE possibly as late as 95 CE and was written for highly educated Gentile converts to Christianity.  

The infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke are in some respects quite different from one another. Some differences…….. 

– Luke mentions the census which requires Joseph to go to Bethlehem.

– Matthew, however, gives no details of how Joseph and Mary came to be in Bethlehem

– In Luke, shepherds guided by an angel find Jesus in the manger.

– In Matthew, wise men from the East, guided by a star, come not to Bethlehem but to Jerusalem to worship the Infant.

– In Matthew Joseph flees with his wife and child to Egypt where they live until Herod’s death; then they return to Nazareth instead of Bethlehem.

– Luke, on the other hand, does not mention the descent into Egypt. Instead, he describes how the Infant is brought to Jerusalem for the ritual of the first-born.

Luke and Matthew are not necessarily contradictory, but they are certainly different from one another. AND there are some historical problems, if one sees them as strict history. Herod died in 4 BCE. There was a local census in Syria by Quirinius when he was governor in 6 CE; but there is no historical record of Caesar Augustus’ decree that “all the world should be enrolled” (Lk. 2:1). The Romans kept very detailed records of such events. 

By the way, there is no mention of “three kings” in either infancy narrative. ONLY Matthew mentions “some wise men.” No specific number of them and no names. The “traditional names” Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar are probably derived from a Greek manuscript composed in Alexandria around 500 CE. A Shrine of the Three Kings can be seen in Cologne Cathedral. According to an old tradition it contains the bones of the Three Wise Men. An old tradition says that the Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena (250 – 330 CE), found the bones during her famous pilgrimage to Palestine and the Holy Lands. She was a great collector of religious artifacts. An old legend says she also found the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Helena packed up the bones and took them, first of all, to the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. They were later moved to Milan, before being moved, by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I in 1164 , to their current resting place in Cologne. (One of my now deceased old professors at the University of Louvain had a look inside the reliquary in Cologne Cathedral and told us his students: “Yes I saw a bunch of bones, but I don’t think they were human.” But that is a relics story for some other time.)  

Back to the theology of the Infancy Narratives. 

The great expert on the Infancy Narratives was the U.S. Roman Catholic biblical scholar, Raymond Brown. He supported the present day consensus of scholars that the Infancy Narratives were created by the early Christian community primarily to express its theology. The central element in the earliest Christian Proclamation was the Holy Spirit’s designating Jesus as the Son of God in association with his resurrection. As the Christian community reflected on Jesus as the Son of God, this belief was projected back into Jesus’ birth and infancy. The Hebrew Scriptures were then re-interpreted as pointing to Jesus. The authors of Matthew and Luke, therefore, who probably did not witness the birth of Jesus, imagined the birth of Jesus to have occurred in a certain way that would support their religious belief about Jesus. 

Some specific examples and comments: 

Matthew makes use of the story of Moses to explain Jesus as the New Moses. Matthew tells of the murder of infant boys by King Herod. Actually there is no historical evidence for this event. From the writer Flavius Josephus, the first-century Romano-Jewish scholar and historian, we have a long list of Herod’s cruel misdeeds but no mention of this mass murder. Rather than strict history, the imaginative episode reveals Matthew’s theological interest in relating the early life of Jesus to that of Moses.  

Matthew also re-interprets the prophecy that King Ahaz (742 BCE) will have a son and then applies it to Jesus. In Isaiah 7:14 we find a verse in which the prophet Isaiah, addresses King Ahaz of Judah. Isaiah predicts that a young woman of marriageable age will shortly give birth to a child whose name will be Immanuel, “God is with us.” (Where the Hebrew Scriptures used a word that meant “young woman,” the Septuagint Greek translation of the same text from Isaiah used a word which meant “a virgin.”) 

Matthew also constructs a highly stylized genealogy to show a direct line from Abraham, father of the Jewish people, down to Joseph father of Jesus. Matthew also has the wise men following the star of Jesus, because in the ancient world every important person had his special star. Theological imagination: Jesus would certainly have had his star. 

Luke focuses more on Mary, the shepherds, and the angels. His audience did not have as much background in the Hebrew Scriptures as Matthew’s audience. 

Creatively adjusting the imagery of their message to the backgrounds of their audiences, the authors of Matthew and Luke proclaim the unique revelation of God in the birth of his Son Jesus of Nazareth. 

As I said last week, the Bible is not a collection of fairy tales. Nor is the Bible, strictly speaking, a history book. It is a book about people’s faith experiences across many centuries, written in a variety of literary styles. When one knows the languages and literary forms of Sacred Scripture, ancient texts come alive, as statements of profound belief and theological truth: God is with us in every dimension of our existence.  

Thinking of Noah

Ark Encounter is a fundamentalist Christian theme park that opened in Grant County, Kentucky on July 7, 2016. The date (7/7) was chosen to correspond with Genesis 7:7: “And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood.”

When a friend sent me some information about Ark Encounter, last week, I remembered a quote from the Irish-American New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan:  “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”

Ark Encounter is operated by Answers in Genesis, a Young Earth Creationism group. The park’s centerpiece is a full-scale model of Noah’s Ark from the Genesis flood narratives. Yes. Just as there are two creation stories in Genesis, there are also two flood stories in Genesis.

Ark Encounter has attracted a lot of visitors. In its first six days of operation, the park drew about 30,000 visitors; and planners project about 1.6 million visitors in its first year of operation.

Thinking about the new school year, Ken Ham, the founder of Answers in Genesis, said he would encourage public school groups to visit the ark by offering a low admission fee of $1 per child, and no charge for accompanying teachers, for the remainder of 2016.

Ark Encounter doesn’t dwell on it, but biblical scholars tell us that the flood narrative of Genesis 6:5-9:17 is a composite of two, once separate, flood stories. A later biblical redactor wove together two independent and different traditions of the Noah flood narrative, in an attempt to preserve both of them.

Unlike the two creation accounts, however, where both traditions are preserved in Genesis one after the other, the two flood stories have been stitched together to produce a single narrative, which therefore contains a number of inconsistencies and contradictions. Some examples:

Was Noah commanded to gather 7 pairs of clean animals OR only 2 of each animal? (Genesis 7:2 vs Genesis 6:19-20, 7:8, 7:16) 

Did the flood last for 40 days and 40 nights OR 150 days? (Genesis 7:4, 7:12, 8:6 vs Genesis 7:24, 8:3) 

Did the flood start 7 days after Noah entered the ark OR on the day Noah entered the ark? (Genesis 7:7, 10 vs Genesis 7:11-13) 

Was the flood caused by rain OR by releasing the waters above and below the earth, as imagined in the old Hebrew cosmology? (Genesis 7:4, 7:12 vs Genesis 7:11, 8:2) 

And did Noah release from the ark a series of doves (three) OR only a raven once? (Genesis 8:8-12 vs Genesis 8:7) 

And why the flood? It appears that an overly stern God was so angry at sinful humanity that he decided he had to destroy most of humankind, and most of the animal world, and start all over again.

Noah was quite the man. According to Genesis 5:32, when he was five hundred years old, he begot his sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Post-flood-Noah became in effect a new-Adam. In Genesis 9: 28-29, we read as well that Noah died 350 years after the flood, when he was 950 years old.

Biblical and historical scholars tell us that the myth of a global flood, that destroyed all life on earth, began to appear in the Old Babylonian period (2000 to 1600 BCE). The flood story closest to the Genesis stories of Noah is the Epic of Gilgamesh. In the Hebrew narrative, the flood comes from God’s judgment on a wicked humanity. In the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the flood appears to have come from the impulsive and unpredictable behavior of the gods, looking for a way of reducing human over-population. (In the twentieth century, impulsive and unpredictable humans did that with two world wars.)

These days I am not sure how many Americans really believe that the account of Noah and the Ark is literally true. In 2014 it was about 60% and, that same year, 12% believed that “Joan of Arc” was Noah’s wife. [For the uncertain, Joan (1412 – 1431 CE) nicknamed “The Maid of Orléans” has been considered a French heroine for her role during the Hundred Years’ War; and she has been canonized as a Roman Catholic saint.]

Back to Noah….History or mythology? Most contemporary Jewish and Christian biblical scholars would agree that the accounts of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, and the Tower of Babel are religious mythology. They would remind us that not every text in our scriptures – or anyone’s sacred books for that matter – should be taken literally. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and in the Quran, we find a combination of various kinds of literature: some history, some pious legends, symbolic and poetic language; and yes we find mythology.

I must quickly add, however, that one should not equate mythology with falsehood. In some respects, many people today have become so terribly empirical that their openness to deeper human experiences, and how one expresses those experiences, has become narrow and impoverished.

In Genesis 9, we read that Noah hugs his family and the animals are once again put back on dry land. The most important passage in that chapter, however, is this: God says “From each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made humankind.”  

Let people visit and enjoy Ark Encounter, if that is their thing. Personally I have problems with the amount of money being poured into the project, at least some $172 million to date. And the project’s expensive next phase, with a Tower of Babel, is yet to come…. Biblical Disneyland.

Well I guess Ark Encounter might, all in all, be good for Kentucky tourism. Nevertheless, I would ask the Ark Encounter people to attend to the deeper truth conveyed in the Noah story: We human brings can truly mess things up. Nevertheless, God says human life is our responsibility and God asks from each and every human being an accounting for the life of another human being.  

No. The Bible is not a collection of fairy tales, as one of my friends said rather cynically not so long ago. Nor is the Bible, strictly speaking, a history book. It is a book about people’s faith experiences across many centuries; and a lasting testament to God’s presence in human life. No small thing.

When one knows the languages and literary forms of Sacred Scripture, ancient texts come alive, as statements of profound belief and theological truth: God is with us in every dimension of our existence. Alleluia.

We need to have eyes that really see and ears that really listen.

[We also need to think realistically about what contemporary science tells us about our earth. The earth is a little over 4.5 billion years old; and the history of life on earth began about 3.8 billion years ago. Our ancestors, those Homo Sapiens people, appeared only 200,000 years ago.] 


A Prophetic Bishop

26 August 2016

When church leaders speak out courageously and prophetically, they deserve to be acknowledged and supported. I wish to do that with Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen, of Parramatta, a suburb and major business district in the metropolitan area of Sydney, Australia.

Vincent Long Van Nguyen was born in Vietnam and is an Australian Roman Catholic bishop. He and his family came to Australia as refugees in 1980. This year, Pope Francis appointed him the fourth bishop of the Diocese of Parramatta, on 5 May 2016 and he was installed just two months ago on 17 June 2016. 

As reported by Bob Shine, from New Ways Ministry, in his blog “Bondings 2.0,” Bishop Long gave a talk last week titled “Pope Francis and the Challenge of Being Church Today.” In that address he explored the meaning of real church inclusiveness.  

Bishop Long:  

“By that (inclusiveness) I mean there must be space for everyone, especially those who have been hurt, excluded or alienated, be they abuse victims, survivors, divorcees, gays, lesbians, women, disaffected members. The church will be less than what Christ intends it to be when issues of inclusion and equality are not fully addressed. That is why you heard me say that I am guided by the radical vision of Christ. I am committed to make the church in Parramatta the house for all peoples, a church where there is less an experience of exclusion but more an encounter of radical love, inclusiveness, and solidarity. 

“We cannot be a strong moral force and an effective prophetic voice in society if we are simply defensive, inconsistent and divisive with regards to certain social issues. We cannot talk about the integrity of creation, the universal and inclusive love of God, while at the same time colluding with the forces of oppression in the ill-treatment of racial minorities, women, and homosexual persons. It won’t wash with young people especially when we purport to treat gay people with love and compassion and yet define their sexuality as ‘intrinsically disordered.’ This is particularly true when the church has not been a shining beacon and a trail-blazer in the fight against inequality and intolerance. Rather, it has been driven involuntarily into a new world where many of the old stereotypes have been put to rest and the identities and rights of the marginalized are accorded justice, acceptance, affirmation and protection in our secular and egalitarian society.” 

In his closing remarks, the Bishop of Parramatta stressed that the church must reform itself by becoming:   

(1) Less a role of power, dominance and privilege but more a position of vulnerability and powerlessness.  

(2) Less an experience of exclusion and elitism but more an encounter of radical love, inclusiveness, and solidarity.  

(3) Less a language of condemnation but more a language of affirmation and compassion. 

You can express your support for Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen, by writing to: 


Speaking of God…..

19 August 2016

Yuri Gagarin, who died in 1968, was a Soviet cosmonaut and the first human in space, on 12 April 1961. I remember the day well. Commenting about Yuri’s time in space, Premier Nikita Khrushchev told the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party: “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see God there.” Today I guess we would say, Nikita’s statement was more about an old cosmology than about theology. The question of God and God’s presence, of course, is more than ever contemporary. 

How people contemplate and speak about God has critical consequences. It shapes people’s identity and behavior. People who see God as a warrior, and praise the way he smashes his enemies to bloody pulp, end up promoting and justifying their own aggressive behavior: “kill the bastards.” Or they see God sending flooding waters to Louisiana to punish people for living the gay lifestyle. People, who understand God more lovingly, are motivated toward care for their neighbor and mutual peacemaking. Pick your cause and then pick your god? 

Theologians today – thanks to the increased number of women theologians — are much more conscious that the old patriarchal conception of God, in the image and likeness of the powerful ruling man, had the effect of legitimating strong male authority in social, religious, and political structures. The male Lord, King, and Father God ruled over all; and it gave men the justification to control, dominate, and marginalize women. 

Actually, the human mind can never really and fully know the essence of the Divine. We can never satisfactorily wrap our minds around this great mystery. Nor can we exhaust the divine reality in our words, concepts, symbols, and rituals.

Thinking about God is not primarily a matter of using our intellect but of connecting with our experience. How do people experience and live their faith in different historical periods and in different cultures? 

Traditional African religions, for instance, suggest names for God that are shaped by strong communal experiences: “Wise One, the One who sees all, the Greatest of Friends, the Great Spirit,” etc. 

If we turn to the ancient Hebrew tradition, we see God, in the Book of Exodus, promising to be with his people throughout their future troubles: God is “I am who I am,” as well as “I am who I will be.” This understanding of God was much richer of course than the highly anthropomorphized God on his heavenly throne high up at the summit of the Hebrew three layered earthly cosmology. 

The God questions are essential spiritual questions for us today: “How do we experience God? Do we experience God? How do we conceptualize God? Father? Mother? Ground of being?” 

A number of twentieth century thinkers, with whom I resonate, would say that God is not a person, but that God affects us personally: The French philosopher Merleau-Ponty described God as “a force that is not compromised with the world of adversity, and who agrees with us against it.” The second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, remarked: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity; but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder the source of which is beyond all reason.” 

I cannot understand God as external to our life and in that sense “super-natural”…a God who periodically intervenes in our world from outside…..Yet I have absolutely no doubts about my experiences of God. 

Nevertheless, I cannot relate to a God who is a macho-man.  

For some nineteen hundred years, institutional Christianity (to whatever degree it was authentically Christian) lived quite comfortably with prejudices based on gender, race, and sexual orientation. They saw it as God’s way. Yet when we look to Jesus Christ, we get a very different perspective. 

My old professor at the University of Nijmegen, Edward Schillebeeckx, called Jesus Christ the “sacrament of the encounter with God.”  

In the the Fourth Gospel, for instance, we read…”I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus restrict the “they” to only men, only whites, or only heterosexuals. Nor does Jesus restrict the “they” to just one religious group. 

Prejudices do strange things to the human imagination. They distort reality. It struck me last week that all those people who believe Barack Obama is a sinister Muslim are the very same people who believe Donald Trump is a good Christian. 

In her wonderful book Quest for the Living God, Sister Elizabeth Johnson courageously delineated the spiritual and institutional problems created by a conception of God that limits God to male images, patriarchy, and male superiority. I can understand why so many bishops have condemned her book. It pulls the carpet from beneath their feet. 

How easily we forget the message and the meaning of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit came down on that group of men and women, gathered in fear in the upper room. The manifestation of God’s Spirit on that group of disciples broke through every human boundary of language, culture, and geography. The disciples were called to a new life and a mission to promote a humanity open to all people, because that is where one encounters the living God. That is the gift of Jesus: calling people to step outside of their defenses, to courageously move beyond fear, and their feelings of insecurity, to embrace in a new way of living what it means to be human.  

Thanks to Jesus, divinity is seen in the fullness of humanity: when prejudicial limits are removed, hatred fades away, and what the Apostle Paul calls “a new creation” emerges. 

Christianity’s message is not just about being. It is about human evolving and becoming: where the human enters the very life of God. Tremendously exciting. 

Now….younger theologians need to work this out for the millennial generation…..