Putting Christ Back Into…..

A few days ago I heard again the old annual refrain: “We need to put Christ back into Christmas.” My immediate reaction was to say: “Ok fine, but first of all, let’s put Christ back into Christianity.” 

A distorted Christianity proclaims a distorted moral vision. It can justify — often with popular applause — racism, xenophobia, and misogyny. It happens now and of course it happened in the past. Saint Albertus Magnus, for example, the “great” 13th century Dominican theologian, was fond of proclaiming: “Woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison to his. Therefore she is unsure in herself. What she cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil. … Thus in evil and perverse doings woman is cleverer, that is, slyer, than man. Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good.”

In every age there have been and must still be prophetic men and women who courageously critique “Christian”  behavior and call for conversion and reform.

An important part of that critique is a strong reminder that authentic Christ-based Christianity is anchored first of all in spirituality. We live here and now as Christ: in and with the Spirit of the living God. Christian moral behavior – not a list of rules or narrow self-serving gestures but a pattern of life — flows from that spiritual reality. We live in the Spirit of Christ with personal dignity and respect and compassion for the other. All others! 

More thoughts about Christ and Christianity in the next couple weeks of Advent. Today just an introduction with some observations about Jesus of Nazareth. My immediate thoughts and prayers right now are more with family and friends in quarantine with Covid-19. The pandemic has now claimed more than 264,800 lives in just the USA. 

I have done a lot of reading and study about the “historical Jesus.” My favorite author is the Irish-American New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan. We know more about the historic Jesus but still don’t know a lot. Jesus was not white, like so many of those images so often showing an androgynous white European male. He was a dark-skinned Galilean. He could have been gay or straight. We really don’t know. Jesus, however, was probably very close to Mary the Magdalene, whom many scholars now consider the “beloved disciple.” I often think about Jesus in his early thirties with a group of disciples, young men and women in their late teens. Teachers like Jesus touch people deeply. They stimulate, support, and help them mature.

Certainly the historical Jesus was intelligent and wise. Like about 97% of the population at his time, Jesus may very well have been illiterate. Jesus was, however, very well versed in an oral culture and knew the foundational narratives, basic stories, and general expectations of his religious tradition. Last week I was thinking about the image of the teenage Jesus described in Luke 2:46-48: “After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished.” Jesus still astonishes. 

We really don’t know much about Jesus’ parents, although there is of course a great body of Marian devotional literature and traditions. Jesus did have brothers and sisters. His brother James was the key leader in the Jerusalem community of believers.

The four gospels are not historical biographies but theological reflections about the life, message, and meaning of Jesus the Christ. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were most likely written between 66 CE and 110 CE. At the early councils of Hippo (393 CE) and Carthage (397 CE), they became the ecclesiastically approved biblical interpretations of the life of Jesus, each adapted to a specific audience. Today we know there were also other gospels, other interpretations. The aim of all was not so much to present historically accurate biographies but to pass on to early (and later) Christian communities the message and meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Jesus the Christ is our companion and trustworthy guide in our human journey. In the next two weeks I would like to explore: (1) Jesus and the God experience, and (2) Jesus and institutional religion.

Warmest regards


Happy 2020 Thanksgiving

As we celebrate Thanksgiving 2020, we still have much to be thankful for, even if at times it does not appear that way. For my family this is a particularly poignant Thanksgiving because my older brother, Joe, passed from this life to the next life on November 15. We are sad and yet so very thankful for brother Joe.

For a great many people, Covid-19 worries and separation, the loss of family members and friends, and Covid-related financial worries raise dark clouds. But the sun does rise each morning. The sunrise photo I am using today was taken at Goguac Lake in my old hometown, Battle Creek, Michigan, by my friend John Zuk. I use it with John’s permission. John’s photo reminds us that even on cold mornings and with wintry leafless trees the sun does indeed still rise: the Creator’s reminder that, even if we have occasionally cloudy vision and dark days, the Source of Life has not abandoned us. And we cannot abandon each other.

While looking for a Thanksgiving reflection for 2020, I came across a poem by Takashi “Thomas” Tanemori. Takashi was eight years old when, on August 6, 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb was dropped on his home city, Hiroshima. The explosion immediately killed an estimated 80,000 people. Tens of thousands more later died of radiation exposure. Tanemori survived. He is still with us. He wrote this poem called “Looking into Heaven with Love and Gratitude” on Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 2006  

Turning my face to Heaven

I sense rather than see

the endless blue.

Beyond the dancing leaves and soaring hawk,

its immeasurable stillness

reflects the wonder of all Creation.

Morning dew glittering in the dawn,

like precious jewels;

and twinkling stars echoing in the silent night,

like the songs of angels,

We gather the fruits of the earth,

till the barn is overflowing with bounty.

My heart fills with countless blessings:

food, shelter, clothing and friends to be encircled.

Looking back, I see how

my stumbling steps have become a path

and how, on this lonely road,

I have never been alone.

The kindness of many has been

like a spring rain,

bringing new life to my heart,

as a “Blade of Grass” ever emerging

from the ashes of the Past.

I stand, Amazed at my blessings,

grateful for God’s Wonders!


A very Happy Thanksgiving.

Thank you for traveling with me on Another Voice.


26 November 2020

Religion and Reality

A short reflection about religion and reality, with a contemporary  Catholic nuance.

Our word “religion” comes from the Latin root lig, meaning “to connect,” and the prefix re, meaning “again.” We find for example the root lig in the word “ligament,” which connects muscles to bones. 

Religion, ideally, connects us to reality in all of its depth and mystery.

It happens of course that people can also use religion to try connecting to a long-gone past, the good old days, or to an artificial reality, by denying contemporary reality and creating their own truths. Cultic groups, for example, venerate the artificial reality created by authoritarian leaders. 

A contemporary Catholic religious distortion struck me this week, as I read news reports about the Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. He served as the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States from 19 October 2011 to 12 April 2016. He is well known for his conspiracy theory criticism of the pope and has now criticized Archbishop José Gomez, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for congratulating Joseph Biden on his election as the soon-to-be second US president who is Catholic. (Yes, Gomez later said he was concerned about Biden’s position on abortion; but he also praised Biden for his policy proposals regarding immigration reform, refugees, the poor, racism, the death penalty, and climate change. These are truly pro-life issues. I hopeArchbishop Gomez and his episcopal colleagues can truly enter into respectful conversation with the new president and further dismantle US polarization.)

Viganò, however, who has strongly supported the current president has been strongly condemnatory of the president-elect. In a letter sent for publication to LifeSiteNews he stressed that “Covid and Biden are two holograms, two artificial creations, ready to be adapted time and time again to contingent needs or respectively replaced when necessary with Covid-21 and Kamala Harris.” 

“Let us allow light to be shed on the deceptions of Biden and the Democrats,” Archbishop Viganò continued. “The fraud that they have plotted against President Trump and against America will not remain standing for long, nor will the worldwide fraud of Covid, the responsibility of the Chinese dictatorship, the complicity of the corrupt and traitors, and the enslavement of the deep church.” 

When it comes to religion and reality, Viganò and his Catholic supporters twist and mix facts and fantasy. They are “alt-Catholics,” who have found ways to integrate sexism, bigotry, xenophobia, and isolationist nationalism with their religion.Their distorted Catholicism has a seductive appeal. It asks no questions, and it blesses their unwillingness to navigate in the world of contemporary reality. 

Healthy religion focuses on today’s questions and concerns about human meaning, identity, and purpose. The goal is to better understand all human contexts in which faith arises: philosophy, history, literature, sociology, psychology, anthropology, economics, and the arts. No single discipline has a corner on the truth. We draw from all and we learn and live together. We strive for collaboration not polarization. 

Healthy religion, above all, recognizes the depth of the mystery of life and allows the God-mystery to stand as the horizon for all learning. God is disclosed in the human journey even when some humans cannot find or refuse to find God. We are never dismissed or abandoned by God. When we open our eyes and hearts to the people around us, we open the way to God’s revelation.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945), pastor and theologian, said it so well in one of his Advent reflections: “Living WITHOUT mystery means knowing nothing of the mystery of our own life, nothing of the mystery of another person, nothing of the mystery of the world. It means passing over our own hidden qualities and those of others. It means remaining on the surface, taking the world seriously only to the extent that it can be calculated and exploited, and not going beyond the world of calculation and exploitation. Living without mystery means not seeing the crucial processes of life at all and even denying them.”

Take care. With healthy religion we can dialogue, collaborate, and move ahead. Religion is at its best when it forces us to ask the hard questions. May we ask and listen and learn together.



I want to thank all who have so far responded to my annual Another Voice appeal. Today’s post is my last notice for anyone who still wishes to contribute. Any amount is appreciated. There are four ways readers can contribute:

(1) With a US dollars check, from a US bank, sent to: 


 Geldenaaksebaan 85A    3001 Heverlee    BELGIUM

(2) By ZELLE using: jadleuven@gmail.com

(3) By US bank transfer to: 

 Account 7519230887 in name of John A. Dick

 Routing number 072400052


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 IBAN: BE83 2300 3923 6015


Some brief (and non-political) thoughts this weekend about biblical translations. 

Over the years I have done a lot of translation work and have learned that a translator must try to understand the context, meaning, and nuance of the original text and then pass that on in the new other-language version. It is not always easy. For many years I was the ghost translator for a now deceased cardinal, who wrote in French and Dutch. We became good friends and he said he liked my work because I understood what was going on in his head: I understood his nuance and context. 

SAME WORDS DIFFERENT MEANINGS: If one does not understand the contextualized meaning of the original words, sometimes rather humorous mistakes can be made as well. Years ago while shopping in London, I discovered much to my surprise that the word “pants” in British English means underwear. British “trousers” are what Americans call “pants.” I had told the fellow in the London men’s clothing store that I wanted a “nice pair of pants” to visit the Archbishop of Westminster. He just started laughing. 

INTERPRETATION: Translation is also a work of interpretation which can become especially significant if one is translating Sacred Scripture. When the Hebrew version of the Old Testament (what we prefer to call today the “Hebrew Scriptures”) was translated into Greek, there was interpretation. When Jerome translated the Greek New Testament into the Latin Vulgate, he did a lot of biblical interpretation, nuanced occasionally by his own misogyny. 

JEROME: Jerome (c.342 – 420 CE) did profoundly influence the early Middle Ages. He often stressed how a woman devoted to Jesus should live her life and, somewhat ironically perhaps, he had close non-sexual patron relationships with prominent female ascetics who were members of wealthy Roman families. Personally, however, he was strictly anti-sex. He advocated and praised virginity. He found women too often vain and demanding and denigrated their sexuality. Here are a couple examples: In the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39, where she attempts to seduce him, the original Hebrew text narrates the story in a straightforward, non-judgmental way. The woman says to Joseph “Lie with me,”and the Hebrew text says simply “and he refused.” Not so in Jerome’s translation: “And he refused” becomes in Jerome’s translation “by no means agreeing to this wicked deed.” And then in Jerome’s translation of Genesis 3.16 we read that God has been addressing severe words to the serpent in the garden and God finishes with a warning to Eve in these words: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” While “he will rule over you” makes clear the husband’s predominance over the wife, the impact is softened somewhat by the other half of the verse, “Your desire will be for your husband.” The Hebrew word for “desire” here has a sexual nuance. In Jerome’s version, however, that half of the verse is changed to “You will be under the power of your husband” and “he will rule over you.” The complete subjection and subordination of the woman is now clearly stressed in Jerome’s interpretive translation.

SEPTUAGINT – FROM HEBREW TO GREEK INTERPRETATION: In the Hebrew language version of Isaiah 7:14, we read the prophet Isaiah, addressing King Ahaz of Judah (763 – 710 BCE) promising the king that God will destroy his enemies. As a sign Isaiah says that a specific “young woman” (almah in Hebrew) will conceive and will bear a son whose name will be Immanuel, “God is with us,” and that King Ahaz should not worry because the threat from his enemy kings will be ended. When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek however, in what is called the Septuagint, the Hebrew word for “young woman”: almah was translated as the Greek word parthenos meaning “virgin.” And so we end up in Matthew 1:23 with no mention of Ahaz and the re-worked translation from Isaiah 7:14:  “Behold a virgin will conceive and bear a son and they shall call his name Immanuel.” And ever since the text has been understood as a prophecy about Jesus’ “virgin birth.”

NEW TESTAMENT BROTHERS AND SISTERS: Many New Testament books and letters are written to or about people called adelphoi in Greek. The word is often translated in English as “brothers.” Many translators have argued that, since the Greek says “brothers,” texts using that word should always be translated “brothers” in English. In fact, however, the Greek does not say “brothers.” The plural Greek word adelphoi refers to siblings in a family. In New Testament usage, depending on the context, adelphoi may refer either to men or to both men and women who are siblings (brothers and sisters) in the Christian community. 

CONTEMPORARY INCLUSIVE PRACTICE: Contemporary biblical translations AND all who read or proclaim the Scriptures in public should always use inclusive language: “humankind” in place of “mankind,” “brothers and sisters” in place of “brothers,” “men and women” or “all people,” when the meaning is clearly about men and women. The practice should be followed by writers of church documents. I once told a bishop friend, when we were both attending a conference, that it would be better if he used inclusive language in his pastoral letters. He thought that was a bunch of  “feminist foolishness.” When I got back to my hotel room and my laptop later in the day, I took the first two pages of his most recent pastoral letter and changed all of his masculine nouns, pronouns, and adjectives to female nouns, pronouns, and adjectives and sent it to him as a friendly “inclusive language meditation text,” starting with his opening greeting “My Dear Sisters in the Lord…” He was not amused.

MOVING AWAY FROM PATRIARCHAL INTERPRETATIONS: Just because the Bible has sometimes been used to reinforce patriarchy does not necessarily mean that that was the original intention of the biblical authors. For many years, the only voices that were heard when interpreting and describing the experiences of biblical personalities were the voices of men. Even passages about women were often interpreted from the male perspective. When one looks at life through male-tinted glasses, one writes about and interprets life in that light. Moreover, women’s experiences can be depicted in such a way as to justify their subordination, as we occasionally see in Jerome. Fortunately today we have a great number of biblical scholars who are women and who are correcting earlier patriarchal and misogynist translations of Scripture.

A FINAL OBSERVATION: Many biblical translations have interpreted words in ways that reinforce an institutional understanding of Christianity. Some items that immediately come to mind: the words ekklesia in Greek and ecclesia in Latin should not be translated as “church” but as a “gathering,” “assembly,” or “community of believers.” The words “episcopos” and “episcopus” should not be translated as “bishop” but as “overseer.” The development of the monarchical bishop in the second century had a big impact on reinforcing what one can call institutional translation interpretations.The historical Jesus did not found an institutional church. He called together a group of followers. After his death and resurrection those followers became an energetic faith community. The institutional church came later and expanded along Roman imperial structural lines.


Annual Donation

Once again, between now and December 20, I invite my readers for a contribution to keep Another Voice speaking. This annual donation helps cover computer upgrading (needed) and internet and website costs. It is especially helpful because my retirement income is limited. I don’t use PayPal but here are four ways readers can contribute:

  • With a US dollars check, from a US bank, sent to: 


                      Geldenaaksebaan 85A

                      3001 Heverlee


                      Account    7519230887 in name of John A.  Dick

                      Routing  number   072400052

                      SWIFT CODE    FTBCUS3

  •  By international  bank transfer to my Belgian bank:   

                     BNP Paribas Fortis Bank

                     SWIFT CODE     (BIC): GEBABEBB    

                     IBAN: BE83 2300 3923 6015

To Make an End is to Make a Beginning

Ordinarily I would not have posted another reflection until the end of the second week in November. But as I stressed last week, we are now in a time of transition and in many ways in an extra-ordinary phase. 

The major news outlets announced on November 7th that Joseph R. Biden, Jr. has won the 2020 US Presidential Election and Kamala Harris the Vice Presidential Election. This is a major and significant event. It marks an historic transition for the United States as well as the entire world.

Now we need to put political rhetoric aside for a while and confront polarization with its violent destructiveness. We need thoughtful and respectful conversation and peaceful collaboration – without demeaning or denigrating one another. One can agree or disagree with a former or future president; but we all need to collaborate in constructing and maintaining “the common good.” T.S. Eliot’s words in “Little Gidding” call out to us strongly: 

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language

And next year’s words await another voice.

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

In the coming months, I hope to offer clarifying theological and ethical perspectives anchored in ongoing historical research and discovery.  I greatly appreciate the observations of all who have journeyed with ANOTHER VOICE so far this year…..That being said, it is time once again for my annual financial appeal. 

ANOTHER VOICE is offered without a fee. That will not change. Between now and the first week of December, however, I invite my readers for a contribution to keep ANOTHER VOICE speaking. This annual donation helps cover computer upgrading (needed) and internet and website costs. It is especially helpful because my retirement income is limited and Covid-19 has halted some of my part-time teaching revenue. Small or big I appreciate what you can do.

I don’t use PayPal but here are four ways readers can contribute:

(1)       With a US dollars check, from a US bank, sent to: 


                      Geldenaaksebaan 85A

                      3001 Heverlee


(2)       By ZELLE  using:        jadleuven@gmail.com

(3)       By US bank transfer to:  

                      Account    7519230887 in name of John A.  Dick 

                      Routing  number   072400052 

                      SWIFT CODE    FTBCUS3

(4)       By international  bank transfer to my Belgian bank:   

                     BNP Paribas Fortis Bank

                     SWIFT CODE     (BIC): GEBABEBB    

                     IBAN: BE83 2300 3923 6015

Many thanks for your support and warmest regards.


Transition: Time to Change the Conversation and Change Course

November 5, 2020

The election of 2020 remains a major event, regardless who is eventually and officially proclaimed the winner. Much more than the election of 2020, however, we are clearly in an historic transition, with socio-cultural and political change not just in the USA but everywhere around the globe. It comes too often with violent eruptions. 

In this national and global transition, we really have to start working together to change the conversation and change course. We need new directions for church and civil society. We need confidence, courage, and creativity. It has not yet happened but we can and will overcome Covid-19. Just in time for climate change: our next big challenge?

At home in the USA, we have urgent issues: health care, jobs, financial security, and civil unrest. We need to reassure people, deflate violence, and conquer ignorance and falsehood. We need to reaffirm our commitment to truth and honesty. We have had enough empty political rhetoric and headlined falsehoods.

Changing the conversation and charting a new direction means moving beyond self-centered “my group” expediency to a more genuine human 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. It means moving beyond racism and hateful behavior. It means humbly and honestly acknowledging that big changes are reshaping our lives, our environment, and our understanding. 

What are my conversation and course change topics right now? 

POLARIZATION: The 2020 election has revealed the alarming depth and extensiveness of societal polarization. Well, we need to seriously reflect, converse, and change course. We are all part of formal and informal interlocking institutions: schools, neighborhoods, churches, companies, families, and political parties. Each comes with personal and group collaborative roles and responsibilities. Polarization destroys collaboration and could very well be the national dysfunction destroying our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness…Either Trump or Biden will win but with unresolved polarization America’s deepest problems will remain. 

A WARNING: It has happened in highly polarized (and “civilized”) countries that conversation stoped, collaboration ceased, and one group led by a cultic authoritarian dictator, warning of chaos, assumed control. Patriotism became unquestioned obedience and loyalty to the dictator. The “disloyal” were set aside and one way or another eliminated.

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? How do we live with the new reality?

AMERICAN DIVERSITY: 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 US 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. The US Asian population grew 72% between 2000 and 2015 (from 11.9 million to 20.4 million), the fastest growth rate of any major racial or ethnic group.

LGBTQ: 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. Now even Pope Francis sees the importance of same-sex civil unions, because “They are children of God.” The Catholic Church has a lot of catching up to do. It is still officially anti-gay and yet thousands of the church’s priests are gay. By the way, that includes a lot of bishops.

INTER-RELIGIOUS DIALOGUE AND RESPECT: Another important element in changing course and changing our conversation must be inter-religious dialogue. As we chart a new course, we need to start building bridges with Islam.  By 2050, the number of Muslims in our world will nearly equal the number of Christians. 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.” Let’s not forget Judaism either. Antisemitism is on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic. Muslims, Jews, and Christians are brothers and sisters in the same Abrahamic tradition. With one God who is Father and Mother of all.

CHURCH LEADERSHIP: We need a change of course in church leadership. Protestant theologian and professor of sociology at the University of Giessen in Germany, Reimer Gronemeyer, recently concluded that Protestant and Catholic Churches will only survive amid the multiple crises currently gripping Christianity and the world to the extent that they open up their leadership to non-white, non-male people. He stressed that the church will have a future “only if it frees itself from the rule of old white men.” I thought immediately about the old men at the Vatican and the Roman Catholic college of cardinals…

Well enough thoughts for today. (I am still pondering the election.) I have quite a list of topics for change, but these are at the top. 

Even if it is hard to see it right now, a new age is being born. Now is the time to look ahead with courage and creativity.



Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time we stand up for an ideal, or act to improve the lot of others, or strike out against injustice, we send forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” — Robert F. Kennedy, 1966

Human Wisdom

October 29, 2020

As the 2020 election day draws near, we are bombarded with wordiness, Covid-19 expansion and uneasiness, and electoral hopes and fears. Never has a US election been so meaningful because the stakes are so high. Emotions are frazzled.


I wanted to offer a peaceful and brief reflection. Thanks to Steven, my insightful and poetic nephew, I found this reflection by the US poet, and African-American civil rights activist, Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014). 


Maya Angelou reminds us that we are all people, and so much more alike than different. Imagine the change we could see in the world if we all lived this Human Wisdom. – Jack

Human Family

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I’ve sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I’ve seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I’ve not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England’s moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

Originalism and Interpretation

October 22, 2020

Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett is a self-proclaimed “originalist.” I have no desire here to discuss Judge Barrett but I do have a special interest in “originalism,” because it resonates with my concerns about biblical interpretation.

In terms of United States law, “originalism” is a way of interpreting the US Constitution. It asserts that all statements in the constitution must be interpreted according to the original socio-cultural understanding when it was adopted. As Judge Barrett explained recently, the Constitution’s “meaning doesn’t change over time.” 

“Originalism” is in contrast to the interpretive understanding that the Constitution should be interpreted in the context of current socio-cultural realities, even when such an interpretation is different from the original interpretation of the document.

My field of course is not jurisprudence but historical theology. As an historical theologian I do have problems with “originalism.” Understandings do change. The old context is not necessarily the contemporary context. The meanings of words change as well. For example, the word “gay”was originally synonymous with happy or cheerful. In the later 20th century it gradually came to designate someone who is romantically or sexually attracted to someone of the same gender or sex. 

“Originalism” understood as “the original meaning theory,” is closely related to literal textualism. It maintains that interpretation of the written constitution or a law should be based on what people, living at the time of its adoption, would have understood as the ordinary meaning of the text. Most legal originalists, like  Antonin Scalia — Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court from 1986 until his death in 2016 — hold this view. Scalia was in fact the intellectual anchor for the originalist and textualist interpreters in the US Supreme Court’s conservative wing. 

When speaking or writing about “originalism,” I have often used the famous phrase from the US Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men…….” Words and their meanings…

If one goes back to the lived reality understanding of the signers of the 1776 document, they – all white MEN — certainly did not accept that native Americans and African slaves were equal to them. Nor did they think that women were equal to men. 

The inequality of women and men in US society, for example, has lasted a long time. Almost a hundred years after the Declaration of Independence, Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded, in 1869, the National Woman Suffrage Association. In 1872 Susan B. Anthony then attempted to vote in the presidential election in Rochester, New York. She was arrested, convicted, and fined. Finally, in 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, guaranteeing women the right to vote in federal elections. 

When understanding a legal document – or a biblical text – one must consider: (1) the understanding of the people back then when the document was written, (2) how that text affected human behavior back then, and (3) how we understand such a text in terms of socio-cultural understandings today. I value tradition but have one foot in earlier tradition and the other in contemporary lived experience.

How, for instance, do “originalists” understand Hebrew Scripture texts like these from Chapter 20 of Leviticus (which reached its present written form between 538–332 BCE) “If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death….If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife–with the wife of his neighbor–both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death….If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, …They must be put to death.”

Or, for example, these New Testament texts: Matthew 5:29: “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” Or Matthew 5:30: “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to depart into hell.”

More recently in the news, thanks to Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett and her far right “Catholic” group People of Praise, there has been much discussion about their interpretation of Ephesians 5: that men are divinely ordained as the “head” of the family and that it is the duty of wives to submit to them. 

The textual interpretation of Judge Barrett’s group is very authoritarian and certainly tainted with a dose of patriarchal misogyny. Ephesians 5:22-24 (most likely written not by Paul but a student of Paul the Apostle) really did not say that wives are inferior to their husbands; but the text does reflect the cultural understanding of the time. The household of the first century Greco-Roman world was hierarchical, with the adult male firmly entrenched at the top and his wife, children and slaves below. Submission meant a woman was expected to center her life around her husband, avoid the assertion of her own desires, and conform herself to her husband’s will.

When first century authors of Scripture penned their words and first century audiences heard them they did so in the first century socio-cultural context. Contrary to what Judge Barrett says, we do grow in our understanding and we should not be controlled by a static and unchanging cultural understanding. Textual interpretations are provisional. We can and should understand the past and its cultural setting and language. We must, however, live in the present, with our contemporary cultural understandings, perspectives, and language.  And on that foundation we move toward the future, often speaking with another voice.


Polarization and Public Morality

October 15, 2020

There is no debate today….When I think about today’s extreme polarization in US society, however, I become concerned about public morality. It has nothing per se to do with being a Republican or a Democrat, or being left or right of center. It has everything to do, however, with our survival.

Public morality – what some call civic virtue — refers to ethical standards for public behavior. The survival of democracy depends on it. A democracy is a social system in which citizens are bound to fellow citizens, with each individual bearing social as well as personal responsibilities. Public morality governs everyday life: the decisions we make, how we treat ourselves and others, and what we think about the world — about nature, business, culture, religion, family life, and so on. Openness is essential as well as serious reflection and engagement.

Without a healthy public morality, democracy collapses into either chaos or authoritarian dictatorship.

Those dangers are very real today. Public morality is often cast aside in authoritarian dictatorships because social order is maintained not by adherence to shared public values but by fidelity to the dictates and wishes of the authoritarian leader. Authoritarian leaders like chaotic situations in which people living in fear can be kept obedient and dependent on the leader. 

In a healthy democracy there are certain generally held moral principles. Key primary values, for example, are that murder is immoral, theft is immoral, harming innocent people is immoral, and lying is immoral. When these immoral actions are turned into social virtues or social normalities, society is in trouble. Think about contemporary militia and vigilante groups. 

Public morality insures, in effect, the survival of the human spirit. By the “human spirit” I mean those positive aspects of humanity that people show toward one another: empathy, respect, generosity, connection, emotional bonding, and identifying with the other. These elements require a sense of equality and a demand for human rights and justice in all domains of life, especially social and economic justice. Extremely self-centered righteousness leads to conflict, not cooperation; to fear, not hope; to aggression, not mutual respect; and to suspicion, not trust.

People set and adjust their public morality through interaction with family and friends, and with social, religious, political, and educational groups with whom they identify. 

After the next presidential election, regardless who wins and becomes president in January, we will still need to safeguard our democracy based on shared common-good public morality. Maintaining the common good means caring not just for ourselves but taking responsibility for the well-being of others.

As the American philosopher, George Lakoff, stressed in a recent book: “Houses fall apart if they are not maintained, so do democracy and the gifts of democracy that we barely notice and take for granted: the right to vote, public education, human rights, due process, unbiased news, clean water, clean air, national parks, safe food, good jobs, ethical banking practices, affordable mortgages, fair elections.” [The Little Blue Book: Talking and Thinking Democratic]

And a closing thought from the French philosopher and writer Voltaire (1694 – 1778): “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

It’s all part of public morality and avoiding polarization and chaos. – Jack

US Catholics in National Politics

After this week end, the 2020 US presidential election will be just three weeks away. Since Catholics – e.g. the anti-abortion crusade and Biden and the Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court appointment – are much in the news, I thought it might be helpful to get a perspective on contemporary US Catholics. If Joe Biden Jr. is elected president, he will be the United States’ second Catholic president. The first of course was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35thpresident of the United States, elected in November 1960. 

In the United States today, Christians make up 65% of the total adult population; and 43% identify as Protestants and 20% as Catholics. (In 1960 about 25% were Catholic.) According to the Pew Research Center, about one-fifth of the total US adult population today is Catholic; but Catholicism in the United States has experienced a greater net loss, due to religious switching, than has any other US religious tradition. Already in  2015 a Pew Research report noted that nearly 13 percent of all Americans are former Catholics. That loss continues today especially among the young. Those who currently identify as Catholic are generally older and more conservative. Today’s priests and bishops educated and trained under the influence of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI tend to be right or very right of center. And they tend to oppose Democrats on issues of abortion, birth control, and gay marriage.

There still are, however, a great many US Catholics who say they want to see their church make significant changes, even when most US Catholic bishops oppose those changes. For example, six-in-ten US Catholics  say they think the church should allow priests to marry and should allow women to become priests. Just about 50% of US Catholics say the church should recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples.

Catholics in the United States are racially and ethnically diverse. Roughly six-in-ten Catholic adults are white, one-third are Latino/a, and smaller shares identify as black, Asian American, or belong to other racial and ethnic groups. 

The US political climate for Catholics has changed considerably since the days of JFK. Former Vice President Joe Biden Biden was born into a Catholic family, baptized a Catholic, went to Catholic schools, attends church, and presents himself to the world as a Catholic. He is hardly right of center. On the far right, however, is Amy Coney Barrett. If she ends up in the US Supreme Court, replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she will bring the number of Catholic supreme court justices up to six out of the nine. (Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch is Episcopalian but was raised Catholic.) Barrett has been strongly endorsed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York. Cardinal Dolan also likes to boast about his friendly relationship with President Trump.

Currently there are 22 Catholics in the United States Senate, and 141 Catholics in the United States House of Representatives, including the current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Vice President Mike Pence, who describes himself as a “born-again, evangelical Catholic” was raised Catholic and a Democrat; but he converted to Protestantism in college and became a “Ronald Reagan conservative” Republican. 

Newton Leroy “Newt” Gingrich, who served as the 50th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999, became a conservative Catholic in 2009. Newt, who is a co-chair of the advocacy group Catholics for Trump, became a Catholic thanks to his third wife, the conservative Catholic, Callista Gingrich, who is the United States Ambassador to the Holy See. William Barr, United States Attorney General, like Amy Coney Barrett is an extremely far-right Catholic; and Stephen K. Bannon, former chief strategist in the Donald Trump administration is also an arch conservative Catholic. And, last but not least, First Lady Melania Trump is a Catholic, making her the only Catholic First Lady since Jacqueline Kennedy.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, in 2016, 52% of US Catholics backed Republican Donald Trump while 44% voted for the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Catholics also narrowly backed the Republican George W. Bush over the Democrat John Kerry in 2004.

How does one characterize US Catholics today? 

According to the Pew Research Center, today’s US Catholics are split down the middle politically. Around half of Catholic registered voters (48%) describe themselves as Republicans or say they lean toward the Republican Party, while roughly the same share (47%) identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party. 

White and Latino/a Catholics are very different politically. Nearly six-in-ten white Catholic registered voters (57%) identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, marking a big shift since 2008, when four-in-ten (41%) supported the GOP. Most Latino/a Catholic voters (68%), meanwhile, identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, a share that has remained fairly stable in the past decade. 

In a Pew Research poll conducted in late July and early August of this year, 54% of white Catholics said they approve of Trump’s performance as president, but 69% of Latino/a Catholics said they disapprove of the way he is handling his job. And 59% of white Catholic registered voters said they would vote for Trump, or lean that way. (What would they say today?) Among Latino/a Catholic registered voters, 65% said they would vote for Biden. 

I think it is helpful to understand that US Catholics are often more aligned with their political party than with the teachings of their church. On abortion, for example, 77% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning Catholic adults say they think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 63% of Republican and Republican-leaning Catholics say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. The official position of the Catholic Church of course is strongly opposed to abortion. 

Partisanship also colors US Catholics’ perception of Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Around six-in-ten US Catholics (59%) say they think Joe Biden is “very” or “somewhat” religious, according to a February 2020 survey. Far fewer Catholics overall (37%) say Trump is at least somewhat religious, though the gap between Republicans and Democrats on this question is huge (63% Republican vs 10% Democratic).

President Trump and his brand of Republicans have worked hard to attract those Catholics who have made  opposition to abortion the key issue above all other issues. This strategy likely will be on vivid display in coming days as Donald Trump pushes for the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the  Supreme Court. 

Over the years, former vice president Biden, in fact, has earned much criticism and correction from US bishops because of his positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. Foremost among them have been the former Bishop of Wilmington Michael Saltarelli, Archbishop Charles Chaput from Philadelphia, and Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence. Tobin suggested in a tweet on August 11, 2020 that Biden is not even a Catholic: “Biden-Harris. First time in awhile that the Democratic ticket hasn’t had a Catholic on it. Sad.”

Biden, however, continues to stress his background as a Catholic and to build affinity with more open-minded Catholic voters. He stresses other aspects of Catholic teaching, not just abortion, like caring for the poor and vulnerable, welcoming immigrants and refugees, and supporting labor unions and welfare programs.

Hoping that Biden will become the second Catholic president of the United States, three dozen Catholic lawmakers, ambassadors, educators and nonprofit leaders have signed on to serve as national co-chairs of “Catholics for Biden.”  A further Catholic endorsement for Biden has come from Sr. Simone Campbell and the NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice. Campbell noted: “Catholics cannot be true to their faith and vote for Donald Trump in November. Every day, I see the cracks in our nation’s foundational values growing wider. President Trump is doing everything in his power to divide us, while our economy and health care systems collapse under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a spiritual crisis, and our faith and patriotism compel us to speak and to act.”

While President Trump pushes the anti-abortion agenda and reversing Roe vs Wade, presidential candidate Joe Biden wants to build on the progress made by the Affordable Care Act, which covers access to preventive care and contraceptives. He proposes that “the public option will cover contraception and a woman’s constitutional right to choose.” He has no difficulty reconciling that with his Catholic faith. As of 2019,  83% of religiously unaffiliated US Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do nearly two-thirds of black Protestants (64%), six-in-ten white mainline Protestants (60%) and a slim majority of Catholics (56%).

Contemporary US Catholics are quite a religio-socio-political mix. The old political theory of a “Catholic vote” is dead. There is no “Catholic vote” in the sense of a bloc that moves predictably toward one party or the other. Despite a certain convergence of views among Catholics—a concern for social justice, a collective dedication to the value of the family—Catholics haven’t voted as a bloc since the early 1960s, when they solidly backed the Catholic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. I suspect Biden realizes this. I am not so sure about Donald Trump.