Religious Discourse and Dynamics: Signs of the Times

On the Friday before Pentecost 2020, a contemporary theological reflection: What are the religious discourse and dynamics that shape our contemporary lives?

Religious people today, especially as society grows ever more divided, have very differing perspectives on belief and God. Some make God in their own image and likeness, adjusting their God-image to fit their ideological agenda. What they don’t like, God doesn’t like. Ask no questions.

For some, God is an angry judgmental God, who has sent the Coronavirus as punishment for homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, pornography, and abortion. A right-wing pastor in Florida even proclaimed, recently, that the spread of the Coronavirus in synagogues is God’s way of punishing the Jewish people for opposing Jesus of Nazareth. Bizarre, but antisemitism is flourishing these days….. People who shape God in their own image and likeness know what their God likes, and what their God dislikes…..

Some Catholic clergy, on the other hand, like the former Papal Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Viganò, and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Once known as the “Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal INQUISITION”) have launched an appeal, warning that the Corona pandemic is not a punishment from God but a sinister and evil human creation being used by world leaders so that “centuries of Christian civilization” can be “erased under the pretext of a virus” and establishing an “odious technological tyranny” in its place. Viganò and Müller stress unquestioned faith over science; and they stress fidelity to “traditional” religious doctrine.

The Viganò and Müller focus has not been on dynamic pastoral life but always on strict dogmatic rigidity. Both men belong to the traditionalist Catholic group that has condemned Pope Francis for being weak in proclaiming Catholic doctrine, thereby contributing to “the fraud of the anti-Christ.” The Viganò-Müller God-image too is that of a stern judgmental task master demanding unquestioned obedience.

We really do need to reflect on the religious dynamics that guide people’s lives. Over the past several months, of course, we have been witnessing a lot of religious dynamics — from bad advice and nonsense about the Corona virus to fundamentalist objections to anti-measles and anti-polio vaccinations.

What are the religious attitudes and religious values that shape our human actions? I see three: (1) Reward and punishment, (2) Narcissism, and (3) Jesus-based acceptance. These values shape and direct how religious people behave. They can be the basis for a deep and serious self-examination.

(1) Reward and Punishment

Some religious people believe – and at one time many religious people believed – that God rewards or punishes people, here and now, for their behavior.

Reward-Punishment-preachers remind us that Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden because of their sinfulness. They remind us about Noah and the flood. Just a few years ago, remember, various religious leaders in the United States suggested that Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,836 people, was sent as a divine punishment for the sins of New Orleans.

For far too long, many Christians have seen the crucifixion and death of Jesus of Nazareth as a necessary supreme sacrifice to appease a judgmental and vengeful God. We can thank Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) for pushing this “atonement theology.” That kind of God-image, however, is so very distant from the Loving Father, about whom Jesus spoke. In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), the prophets called for justice in the face of evil and for reliance on a gracious and loving God. Abraham, recall, was told by God’s messenger that God did not want the human sacrifice of his son Isaac. In Isaiah chapter I, we read that God does not want sacrificial offerings, but says: “Take your evil deeds out of my sight. Stop doing wrong. Learn to do right. Seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless., Plead the case of the widow.”

Actually the concept of the reward-and-punishment-God works best for anxiety-plagued religious people who are still in an early stage in human development. If I don’t behave well, Mommy and Daddy will punish me.

(2) Narcissism

In Christian history, God’s fidelity to God’s people has too often been seen in a tribal way: God was faithful just to God’s chosen people. Religious narcissism. Many Christians even taught that one of the joys of the chosen was to see the annihilation of the unchosen. This viewpoint inspired the Crusades of course and the religious wars in the sixteenth century. Even today, some fundamentalist Muslims, Jews and Christians still operate with this kind of religious narcissism.

The notion that God’s grace is for some and not others is not just problematic. It is pernicious. Quite frankly, however, Western imperialism and colonialism have been one of its most powerful manifestations. Today of course “white supremacy” is a key example. Annihilation of the unchosen by the chosen is always very tempting. Blacks. Mexicans. Muslims…I am thinking right now about George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis…

(3) Jesus-based Acceptance
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As a Jewish fellow of his own time, I suspect Jesus of Nazareth had to work-through his own understanding of God and grow and mature as a believer. Perhaps it took him thirty years to do that. Jesus had a human mind, a human will, human emotions, and a human body, etc.

Looking at the life and ministry of Jesus, what stands out in amazing clarity is his sense of God’s love and grace for all. That is the golden thread that links us to the historical Jesus and connects all Christian history – even when Christians, at times, have been miserable failures at living it out.

With the men and women who were his disciples and apostles, Jesus believed in and longed for the Reign of God. And if we pay close attention to the life and message of Jesus it becomes absolutely clear that for us today, if we are truly his followers, there can be no talk of divine vengeance, condemnation, repudiation, or of religious rejection or exclusion of anyone for any reason whatever. All men and women are radically equal before God. And this is Good News for certain. It is also our Christian challenge……

Come Holy Spirit!

Jack

Short-Sighted Moral Vision

Christopher White, national correspondent for the online Catholic newspaper Crux, reported that President Donald Trump made a conference call, at the end of April, to an estimated 600 US Catholic leaders, among whom were: Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York; Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston; Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB); Bishop Michael C. Barber of Oakland, Chair of the USCCB committee for Catholic Education. Also among the 600 were superintendents of Catholic schools in Los Angeles and Denver, and a variety of other US Catholic leaders.

In his message to these prominent US Catholics, the President reiterated his pro-life (meaning for him ‘anti-abortion’) position and his support for Catholic schools. Clearly begging for support from Catholic leaders, President Trump repeated his warnings of dire consequences for the Catholic Church in the United States, if he would not be reelected.

On April 26, the Sunday following this presidential conference call, Cardinal Dolan, from his pulpit in St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, offered friendly and great praise for Mr. Trump: “The president has seemed particularly sensitive to the religious community…..I’m in admiration of his leadership.”

Meanwhile, Father Frank Pavone, Catholic priest and National Director of Priests for Life and President of the National Pro-Life Religious Council, announced that he enthusiastically supports President Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection.

Pavone, one may recall, made national headlines in 2016 when he strongly endorsed Donald Trump for President. In his 2016 pro-Trump video-propaganda, he used a dead aborted baby, laying naked and bloody on an altar, as a campaign prop. Quite a sign of being a pro-life priest.

These days Pavone is a key leader in the “Catholics for Trump Coalition.” In a recent interview he stressed that while Trump is “trying to protect the right to life,” the president is acting on other issues as well in ways “completely consistent with Catholic teaching.” He went on, “He’s protecting our people by strengthening borders, not to stop immigration but to stop crime, to protect families, to protect neighborhoods,” He sounds just like a Trump speech writer….

Some may doubt me, but very honestly I am not interested in playing politics in Another Voice. If people ask, I acknowledge that I am a Democrat. Frankly, I come from an active and solidly Republican family background. (In grade school in 1951, I was an avid supporter of Dwight David Eisenhower’s Republican presidential campaign. “I Like Ike” was my theme song and I proudly wore one of his campaign buttons to prove it.)

These days I am not a political activist. I am an historical theologian. My theological DNA has been strongly shaped by both my Catholic mother and my Protestant father….My now rather long academic career, however, has been in mostly Catholic institutions.

As a Christian believer and an historical theologian, I am very critical of the current US President. I find his values and behavior morally repugnant. If he is a “Christian” I suspect that must be a personal quality in name only. I am also very critical, therefore, of Catholics who support the policies of our current chief executive. Whether bishops, priests, or lay people, I believe they have succumbed to a very distorted moral vision. I find their behavior in supporting the current chief executive disorienting, disruptive, and disconcerting. I find it difficult, for instance, to reconcile continued public lying, no compassion for the distressed, self-centered admiration, xenophobia, promoting racist stereotypes, mocking people with disabilities, and denigrating women with any sense of healthy Christian virtue.

They and we urgently need some contemporary values clarification discussions and exercises.

Some fundamental questions that should be asked: What are the person’s basic beliefs, principles, and attitudes? What are they based on? Are they humane? Are they Christian? Are they good and healthy values? How does one know? If these are one’s values, is one’s behavior consistent with them? If institutions or institutional leaders do not have good values, are values re-education and transformation possible? Is it enough to inform the emperor that he has no clothes? Or maybe one needs a new emperor….one who has better moral sense and sensitivity.

Opposing abortion is not enough for a genuine Christian response to today’s human life situations. Over the years I have encountered a great number of anti-abortion demonstrators who were cruel, crude, and inhumane. Fortunately there have been, as well, Catholics – even bishops — who have demonstrated broader Christian beliefs and behavior.

In 2011, by way of example, the then Catholic bishops of the United States issued a “Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities” which advocated a consistent broad-based ethic of life. This is material for good values clarification discussions and exercises for contemporary Catholics, regardless of their political party affiliations. In that document issued almost ten years ago, we read: “Opposing abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care…”

Now THAT reflects authentically Christian values!

Jack

A New Virus….

These days in the big picture, I remain an optimist. However, I am also a realist. Populist, political, and media reactions to the Corona pandemic reveal the presence of yet another deadly virus. Out in the open. Not even hand-washing and face masks offer protection.

Officially this other deadly virus is called “Agnotology”  (from Greek roots for ignorance and speech). 

Agnotology is the planned and willful human endeavor to spread ignorance, confusion, and deceit.

It is used to sell an ideology or to win support for a socio-political cause. It is very cultic with sinister propaganda banners and symbols. Agnotology is a resuscitated old phenomenon. It has become very much an active contemporary virus. As an historian, I would not say that history repeats itself. Rather, I suggest that people do not always learn from history, until it is often just about too late. Agnotology is a key example.

Institutional leaders and populist agitators often promote ignorance and spread false information as ways to exercise power over people or to protect and promote the power of their authoritarian leaders. They gradually mutate people’s brains, weaponizing them against dissenting voices. Efforts to communicate the truth to modified-brain people, become for them acts of aggression against the one they see as the chosen one. No one can criticize the chosen one. Some, in this cult, even believe their leader was sent by God.

When people abandon or reconfigure facts, Agnotology rules life. As Yale University professor, Timothy Synder, wrote in his little book On Tyranny: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”  

Down the slippery slope to deadly Agnotology: 

(1) People begin to succumb to the disease when they renounce the difference between what they want to hear and what is really the case. “Conservatives” do it; but “liberals and progressives” do it as well. Denigrating people and launching conspiracy theories is a symptom.

(2) We need to be aware of the seductive character of leaders who promote ignorance through an endless repetition of certain phrases that cloud and conceal reality or turn individual people into dangerous stereotypes. Continually repeated executive tweets, and only watching Fox News cloud and disfigure one’s sense of reality. Continual refrains of anti-abortion rhetoric, for example, distort and conceal the reality of anti-abortion politicians who are NOT pro-life in any way. 

(3) When people begin to base their big decisions on feelings rather than reason, the disease has begun to metastasize. Feelings can be positive or negative but cannot replace the importance of critical reflection and rational argumentation. 

(4) Infected Agnotology people reject all personal responsibility for maintaining the common good. Feeling insecure, they blame social and economic problems on science, homosexuals, blacks, foreigners and (once again) Jews.  

(5) Clear signs of Agnotology are: when influential people begin to despise the accepted truths of daily existence; when clever slogans appeal to fearful feelings and resonate in popular rhetoric like a new religion; and when convenient myths replace facts, history, and critical journalism.

(6) Infected people become religious militants who reject traditional religious values and preach racism, misogyny, and xenophobia in their place. Some claim to be exemplary Christians but the spirit of Christ has no presence in their hardened hearts.

And Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)

Truth. Honesty. Critical thinking. Compassion. Mutual respect. We have a lot of work to do….Challenging Agnotology..

Jack

Christianity in a Time of Sickness

Today some thoughts inspired by words from Tomas Halik professor of sociology at Charles University, Prague and university chaplain. During the Communist regime Tomas Halik was active in the “underground church,” in the former Czechoslovakia.

After this global Covid-19 experience, which may last a couple years, the world won’t be the same as it was before. We will never again return to “normal life.” At best, perhaps, there will be a new normal. As an historical theologian, I ask what kind of challenge this situation presents for Christianity, for Christian believers, and for the institutional church.

Pope Francis said the church should be a “field hospital.” Tomas Halik observed: “as a good hospital, the church must also fulfill other tasks. It has a diagnostic role to play (identifying the “signs of the times”), a preventive role (creating an “immune system” in a society in which the malignant viruses of fear, hatred, populism and nationalism are rife) and a convalescent role (overcoming the traumas of the past by forgiveness).”

Currently there are no services in thousands of churches on several continents. Thinking about this, while listening to the bells calling from a local church, the thought struck me: those empty churches today are truly a special sign for all who call themselves Christian.

Maybe empty church buildings symbolically expose a contemporary problem that many “Christians” are rather empty themselves. They talk of Christianity but their actions hardly reflect the Spirit and message of Christ. The daily news and social media feature these people every day. Some make a lot of noise even within the White House.

I belong to a church reform organization. For decades I have been very active in “church reform” movements. But the bells have been ringing in my head — perhaps my reform efforts and those of my reform-minded colleagues have been out of focus. Structural reforms (women in ministry, moving beyond clericalism, welcoming and affirming LGBT people, etc.) are of course very important. They mean absolutely nothing, however, unless they spring from changed hearts, changed attitudes, changed behavior…..all from renewed spirits and a clear Christian vision.

Maybe the empty churches should remind us of the empty tomb we pondered this past Easter. Recall, for example in Mark 16, the women at the empty tomb: “He is not here! See the place where they laid him. Go tell the disciples he is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him….”

Now, we live in Covid-19 estrangement, fear, uncertainty, and yes, sorry to say, dangerous angry protests and demonstrations. Symbolically, but really, this is perhaps our contemporary Galilee. The message remains clear, even if people have clouded eyes and shaky nerves. We have not been abandoned by God. Jesus raised from the dead lives here and lives with us right now.

Some are already saying, as a friend said yesterday, empty and silent churches are a temporary situation, soon to be forgotten. Frankly, I don’t think so….The pandemic may indeed last into 2021; but the emptiness can last much longer.

Like my local church bells still ringing on the hour, the call now is to renew ourselves with a new Christian identity in a world which is being radically transformed before our eyes. Yes we can live with a new spirit, a new heart, a new security that is anchored in active Christian faith, hope, and care. Genuine Christianity is not about authoritarian power over people. It is not about observing, on TV or Facebook, solitary rituals carefully executed by colorfully dressed clerics. It is about people interacting (now safely) with other people. It is about human and humane behavior: compassion, empathy, forgiveness, acceptance, mutual support.

Let’s not forget Matthew 25: “I was a stranger and you did not take me in, I was naked and you did not clothe me. I was sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” And they too will reply,”Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then the Lord will answer, “I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

And so with faith and hope we strive to be Christian in this time of sickness…….

Jack

Care, Compassion, and Civility

May First, 2020

Another Voice is back after a post-Easter break for a bit of R&R and taking care of the home front. How our pandemic-shaken world has changed since Easter! 

Pandemic history and folklore are something I grew up with. My paternal grandfather, Alonzo William Dick, an authentic hoosier schoolmaster, died in the Spanish flu pandemic in 1919. That pandemic lasted almost 36 months from January 1918 to December 1920. My grandmother, Mary Elen Jarrett, and their five boys survived but Mary Ellen and most of the boys could not attend Alonzo’s funeral because they were bed-ridden and critically ill with the flu. In my childhood I found this a frightening  story.

I was very close to my grandmother because she lived about a hundred yards from our home in a small house my dad had built for her. She was often housemother, housekeeper and cook. My mother and father were very active people.

Maryellen was a courageous and strong woman, but what characterized her (and her five sons) the most were the virtues of care, compassion, and civility.

Care, compassion, and civility are what I appreciate so much from my family and helpful friends in these Covid-19 days BUT exactly the very humane virtues I miss in today’s angry demonstrators, and so many religious and political “leaders.” They talk Christ but display none of his spirit.

Civility means much more than politeness, although politeness is indeed an important first step. Civility is about interpersonal respect and seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue. It is about moving beyond preconceptions and listening to the other and encouraging others to do the same.

Civility is hard work because it means staying present to people with whom one can have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. It is political in the sense that it is a necessary prerequisite for civic action. Civility means collaborating for the common good. It is about negotiating interpersonal power in such a way that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s voice is ignored. Civility means that despite different perspectives we still have a shared vision and collaborate to make it a reality.

When civility is replaced by mockery, dishonest accusations, and abusive slogans, people become monsters. History amply demonstrates that monsters create more monsters. History also reminds us that such a scenario never has a happy ending.

The message this week is small. The task awaiting us is enormous. Civility begins with you and me, with family and friends, with neighbors and colleagues, etc. We gradually construct what I like to call coalitions of transformation: communities of faith, hope, and support.

At the end of this week, we can all reflect on the message in Luke 10:25-37: On one occasion an expert in the law, who wanted to justify himself, stood up to test Jesus and so he asked Jesus “And who is my neighbor?”

Be healthy and safe!

Jack

Alonzo William and Mary Ellen on their wedding day 1902

Living Easter in the 2020 Pandemic

This week end’s reflection is a prayer written by Michael Graham,S.J. We do not just commemorate the Resurrection. We live it.

After today’s posting, I am taking a couple weeks off to take care of things at home. I will be back in the beginning of May. – Jack

May we who are merely inconvenienced remember those whose lives are at stake.

May we who have no risk factors remember those most vulnerable.

May we who have the luxury of working from home remember those who must choose between preserving their health or making their rent.

May we who have the flexibility to care for our children when their schools close remember those who have no options.

May we who have to cancel our trips remember those who have no safe place to go.

May we who are losing our margin money in the tumult of the economic market remember those who have no margin at all.

May we who settle in for a quarantine at home remember those who have no home.

As fear grips our country, let us choose love.

During this time when we cannot physically wrap our arms around each other, let us yet find ways to be loving embrace of God to our neighbors.

Reflection for the Sixth Weekend in Lent: Participation not Performance Observation

We will soon enter Holy Week 2020. Probably the most unusual and anxious Holy Week many of us have ever experienced. The themes move from a joyful Palm Sunday to the intimate sharing and community bonding of Holy Thursday, and then to angry condemnation, suffering, and a painful death on Good Friday.

We can resonate today with all of these themes. The Corona situation is now changing dramatically and will probably get much worse before getting better. I am not a prophet of doom. Just a realist. Many people are carrying crosses today….

BUT……There is of course the big Holy Week theme that we cannot allow ourselves to forget: resurrection and new life. The message of Easter is that life is changed not taken away. The message of promise and hopefulness.

In Jesus, people experienced the face and heart of God. They participated in and with the Divine. They didn’t just look on from the distance. Christianity is not about being a spectator but about being a participant. We are, and must remain, community, whether big or small, inspired and animated by the One whose life was changed not taken away.

A small danger, arising from so many virtual liturgies on Facebook, Internet, and TV, during the Corona crisis, is that people slip into patterns of thinking that observing Christian rituals is about as effective as being actively involved in participating in and doing them. A friend said in an email how happy she was to be able to watch her solitary bishop, in an empty cathedral, standing at the altar, in full bishop’s regalia, “saying Mass.” There may be some value here, but these kinds of projections raise in me the fear of the old distorted magical ritualism: watching the priest perform.

If I were a pastor (easy to say because I am not) I would give my parishioners materials, guidance, and encouragement for small group scripture and simple rituals that could be done at home, in safe small groups, rest homes, etc. One of my Jesuit friends, in fact, announced, a couple days ago, that his community has prepared home liturgy booklets for Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. They can be easily downloaded and printed. Excellent move.

We find a clear reference to a simple early Christian liturgical experience in Luke chapter 24: the post-Resurrection account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus and their encounter with the living Jesus in the “breaking of bread.”

“Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?'”

Jesus then has a talk with them: “…beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” Later the two disciples invite Jesus to join them at table. There they recognize him in the “breaking of bread.” Jesus later disappears but the disciples observe: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” Participation in the life and spirit of Jesus raised from the dead…

This narrative is a key example of Christian participation in the life journey to a deeper faith. It is an invitation, as well, to help all of us on our life journeys.

Over the last couple weeks, cut off from friends and quarantined in my home, two quotations I jotted down years ago bobbed in my head. One from the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995). The other from the Christian mystic Teresa of Avila (1515-1582).

Levinas said the only thing that really changes people deeply is “an encounter with the face of the other.” And Teresa reminded people long ago that “Christ has no body now but your’s. No hands, no feet on earth but your’s. Your’s are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world.”

May we believe and be well. – Jack

Reflection for the Fifth Weekend in Lent: Christian Faith and Hope in Corona Times

[Today’s reflection is from from Richard Hendrick, an Irish Capuchin. I hope all Another Voice readers are doing ok in these difficult days. – Jack on March 27, 2020 (77th birthday) in quarantine with wife Joske; but the sun is shining and we are moving toward a new spring.]

Lockdown

Yes there is fear.

Yes there is isolation.

Yes there is panic buying.

Yes there is sickness.

Yes there is even death.

But, they say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise you can hear the birds again.

They say that after just a few weeks of quiet the sky is no longer thick with fumes but blue and grey and clear.

They say that in the streets of Assisi, people are singing to each other across the empty squares, keeping their windows open so that those who are alone may hear the sounds of family around them.

They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.

Today a young woman I know

Is busy spreading fliers with her number through the neighborhood so that the elders may have someone to call on.

Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples are preparing to welcome and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary

All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting.

All over the world people are looking at their neighbors in a new way.

All over the world people are waking up to a new reality…

To how big we really are.

To how little control we really have.

To what really matters.

To Love.

So we pray and we remember that,

Yes there is fear.

But there does not have to be hate.

Yes there is isolation.

But there does not have to be loneliness.

Yes there is panic buying.

But there does not have to be meanness.

Yes there is sickness.

But there does not have to be disease of the soul.

Yes there is even death.

But there can always be a rebirth of love.

Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.

Today, breathe.

Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic

The birds are singing again

The sky is clearing,

Spring is coming,

And we are always encompassed by Love.

Open the windows of your soul

And though you may not be able

To touch across the empty square,

Sing.

A Reflection for the Fourth Weekend in Lent — Looking for Security and Reassurance in Fearful Times: Four Examples of Early Pastoral Theologies

[Today’s reflection is a bit longer. Something you can read or re-read over several days. Though long, I hope you will still take time to read and think about it. Jack]

As early Christianity developed and spread in the Middle East, there was a great need to explain Christian belief to people with different religious backgrounds, cultures, and geographic locations. This led to the four Gospels. The development of their final written forms took a period of about forty years from c.70 CE to c.110 CE.

The Gospel According to Mark

All four Gospels evolved from oral traditions, passed on from person to person and from place to place. More than one single person (i.e. Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) composed the final versions of the four Gospels, as we have them today.

What we call Mark’s Gospel was composed around 70 CE, probably after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70. Mark was written for Gentile Christians in Rome. They suffered Roman persecution but also discrimination from Judaeo-Christians, who felt superior to Gentile converts.

In Mark’s Gospel we see, very early, a Jesus confronted with difficulties and rejection. It is a Gospel for those who are suffering and need to find consolation: people who resonate with the fearful cry of those disciples in the sinking boat (Mark 4). They were frightened by the storm. They woke-up the sleeping Jesus and asked him if he is just going to let them all drown. Jesus calms the storm, and then says to his disciples “Why are you so frightened? How is it that you have no faith?”

Having faith in difficult times is key to Mark.

In Mark 6 when Jesus visited his hometown together with his followers, Jesus observed “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” And the Gospel writer observes about Jesus: “He was amazed at their lack of faith.” 

Perhaps Mark has a special significance for us today with our fears about Covid-19?

Fear and uncertainty, if one allows them to take control, can disable, blind, and paralyze people; but Christianity is not a religion of fear. We are challenged to be alert and faithful to the Good News. Already in Mark 8:18-21 Jesus had reprimanded his disciples: “Do you not yet understand? Have you no perception? Are your minds closed? Have you eyes that do not see, and ears that do not hear?”

The Gospel According to Matthew

Mark’s Gentile Christians in Rome feared persecution and death at the hands of Roman authorities. They endured negativity and discrimination from Judeo-Christians living in Rome. Matthew’s Christians were very different.

The Gospel According to Matthew, was most likely written by a Judeo-Christian scribe in the mid-80s CE, probably in ancient Antioch, whose ruins today lie close to Antakya, Turkey. The community was STRONGLY Judeo-Christian. There were Gentile Christian members, but they were expected to obey Torah norms. Some scholars say even circumcision. The Matthean Jesus came, therefore, “not to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it” (Matthew 5:17).

In Matthew Jesus is the great embodiment of all preceding Hebrew history.

The author constructs an infancy narrative that begins with “A genealogy of Jesus Christ, Son of David, son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1-17). Matthew’s genealogy features four notable Hebrew women, a number of “fulfillment” passages that relate Jesus to prophetic texts; and allusions to famous Hebrew men of the past. Note for instance that Jesus, like Moses, was rescued as an infant from a murderous king (Matthew 2:16-18). In Matthew’s creative narration, Jesus’ ministry begins with three temptations in the desert. They correspond to the experiences of Israel in the desert, after the Exodus. Jesus is God’s great liberator, the new Moses.

What strikes me as I re-read the Gospel According to Matthew, is Jesus the rabbi: the great teacher. In Matthew 5:1-10, Jesus goes up a hill with his disciples and begins to teach what we have come to know as the “Sermon on the Mount.” It is truly a charter for Christian life today: Authentic followers of Jesus realize that greatness is achieved through service not domination. They are neither so arrogant nor so self-centered that they see only what they want to see. They have compassion. They can feel the pain of another. They put an arm around the fearful and the oppressed. They are not phony believers who love to denigrate and oppress their critics, in reality showing that they love not their neighbor but only themselves.

We have many contemporary examples where Rabbi Jesus’ message can be applied…..

Mark focused on the mostly Gentile Christian community in Rome. Matthew was much focused on the Judeo-Christian community in Antioch. Luke, however, stresses that Christianity is a way of life for Gentile as well as Judeo-Christian believers; and that it warrants legal recognition in the Roman Empire.

The Gospel According to Luke

Luke is about healing and reconciliation: actions greatly needed in our own contemporary society.

Luke’s author was a highly educated Gentile Christian who came from a thoroughly Greco-Roman environment. Unlike Matthew’s author he is NOT well-grounded in the Hebrew tradition. Luke and the Acts of Apostles make up a two-volume work often called simply Luke–Act. Textual analysis suggests that Luke-Acts was written not earlier than 80–90 CE; and quite possibly as late as 90–110 CE. The text was still being revised well into the 2nd century.

While Matthew saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Hebrew history, with a genealogy of Jesus from Abraham down to Joseph and Mary, Luke understands Jesus as the high point in ALL HUMAN HISTORY. His genealogy runs backwards from Joseph to Adam. 

What strikes me, as I re-read this gospel? Three themes catch my attention: a stress on women, building bridges, and religious hypocrisy.

Prominence of WOMEN: In Luke Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:38-39), a 12-year-old girl (Luke 8:41-42, 49-56); a woman with a 12-year infirmity (verses 43-48); and a woman who had been crippled 18 years (Luke 13:10-17). In Luke we see Mary, an early disciple of Jesus. When her sister Martha complains to Jesus that Mary should be helping her with serving, Jesus replies: “Martha, Martha…Mary who has chosen the better part.” (Luke 10:38-42). In the Resurrection accounts, women not men are most important.

BUILDING BRIDGES NOT WALLS: Luke’s stress on peace-making implied a new relationship with the Roman Empire. Dialogue had to start. Destructive polarization had to end. In Luke’s infancy narrative, angelic messengers proclaim: “Good news of great joy for ALL PEOPLE. To you is born this day . . . a Savior! . . . Peace on earth among those whom God favors!” (Luke 2:10-11,14) These words echo and go far beyond the Roman monument inscriptions, at the time, which praised Augustus Caesar as “god” and “savior.” Luke hereby stresses that Jesus had completed more fully and uniquely the work of Augustus. Later in this Gospel, Luke even offsets the fact that Jesus was executed by the Romans, by having the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate declare Jesus innocent three times (Luke 23:4,14, 22). 

RELIGIOUS HYPOCRISY: Some observers accuse Luke of antisemitism, because he regularly shows Jesus criticizing Jewish religious leaders. I think these critics miss the point. Jesus was strongly critical of the arrogant religious hypocrisy of the religiously elite in his day. When invited to dine in the home of a Pharisee, for example, the religious leader accused Jesus of not washing ahead of time. Jesus replied: “Now then, you clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness…. Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” (Luke 11:37-44)

Luke speaks strongly to our own contemporary society, in which prominent religious people too often praise God and ignore the poor, the oppressed, the diseased, and the marginalized. They seem more interested in power not people.

The Gospel According to John

The Gospel According to John differs from the Synoptics (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) in style and content in several ways.

John’s Gospel omits a large amount of material found in the Synoptic Gospels, like the temptation of Jesus, Jesus’ transfiguration, and the institution of the Lord’s supper. In John we do not see proverbs and parables but symbolic discourses. Jesus’ miracles are designed to provide symbolic insight into Jesus’ identity and his relationship to the Father. In John, Jesus is clearly the Wisdom of God, the source of eternal life, and STILL CONTINUALLY LIVING within the community of faith.

This Gospel uses a “post-resurrection” point of view. The author looks back on the Jesus events and emphasizes the inability of the apostles to understand the things that were happening at the time they occurred. See for instance: John 2:17-22, where there are obvious references to the Resurrection, “He was speaking of the sanctuary that was his body, and after he rose from the dead his disciples remembered.” John 12:16-17, “At the time his disciples did not understand this but later, after Jesus had been glorified, they remembered….” And John 20:9, “Until this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” Perhaps we do not always clearly understand?

The old tradition, from the second century, was that the author the Gospel According to John was the Apostle John, son of Zebedee. Most contemporary scholars are not of this opinion. They suggest that the original author of an oral tradition, that evolved into the John’s Gospel, was indeed a companion of Jesus, the “Beloved Disciple,” who formed a community, most probably in Ephesus. Scholars call this “the Johannine community.”

An oral tradition of eye-witness recollections of the Beloved Disciple evolved and began being written down around 90 CE. The final redaction occurred ten to twenty years later, giving us a Gospel composition date of between 90 and 110 CE. We don’t know who the “Beloved Disciple” was. There is quite a variety of scholarly opinions: a truly unknown disciple, the Apostle John, James the brother of Jesus, or even Mary the Magdalene.

The Johannine community was greatly concerned with hot issues in the church–synagogue debate and defined itself primarily in contrast to Judaism. The final version of the Gospel was composed after the crisis created by the expulsion of Christians from the synagogue in the 90s. The Judean criticism is strong; and, over the centuries, some have incorrectly used John’s Gospel as an excuse for antisemitism. It is unfortunate that English translators have so often used the words “Jew” and “Jews,” when “Judean” and “Judeans” would have been more correct and less problematic. For example, the text on Jesus’ cross should be translated “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Judeans.” (John 19: 18-22)

What stands out for me in this Gospel? Jesus in John is STRONG AND COURAGEOUSLY CONFIDENT. The Johannine account of the crucifixion does not stress Jesus as one who suffers, as we saw for example in Mark. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is the one who is exalted, “lifted up” in his moment of glorification. 

The Jesus who stands before Pilate is strong. On the way to Golgotha Jesus carries his own cross. He does not need the help of a Simon of Cyrene as we saw in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Also in John, unlike the other three Gospels, Jesus’ crucifixion occurs on the day of preparation for the Passover (John 19:14) rather than on the Passover feast itself. Here Jesus prepares himself for the departure to the Father and seems to be in complete control of his destiny, even to the extent of commending his mother to the Beloved Disciple (John 19:26–27).

As members of the Christian community of faith, may we sustain each other with courage and confidence. That is the message in our fearful Covid-19 days — and as we look forward to Easter 2020.

May you all be well! – Jack

Reflection for the Third Weekend in Lent: The One True Church

History clarifies and teaches. Unfortunately not everyone hears it and not everyone learns from it. 

I have indeed learned a lot from history, but the process has sometimes been slow….

Without telling my age, let me just say that I was in elementary school in the early 1950s, in SW Michigan. My teachers were Dominican sisters, from Adrian, Michigan. I liked them. They were warm and wonderful women and great teachers. 

In grade school I learned from Sister Mary Angelo that “the only true church is the Catholic Church.” All other “churches” I learned were “false religions.” Protestants, Mary Angelo said, were defective and distorted in their beliefs. Our parish priest even told our class one day that, if there was a Protestant Bible in our homes, we had to be good Catholic boys and girls and remove it and throw it in the trash….

My Dad, whom I loved and greatly admired, was a Protestant. That started me thinking…..Dad a defective believer in a false religion? Nevertheless, I was also still a pious little kid. Our parish priest kept pushing me. One day I tried to remove my Dad’s Bible from the bookcase. My Dad caught me and asked “What on earth are you doing?”  I told him Father Ceru told us to get ride of Protestant Bibles, because they are part of a false religion. “Put it back,” my Dad very calmly said. “The Bible, whether Protestant or Catholic, is the Word of God. And…Fr. Ceru is a kind man but a very stupid old fool.”

Yes….Since the 1950s, I have learned and changed a lot, thanks to my own critical thinking and exposure to historical scholarship. I have acquired a much better understanding about early Christianity and the development of institutional Christianity. I now realize as well that all of us in the church are still learners and need continual biblical, historical, and theological updating. I remain open to new perspectives and change.

Over the years I have taught a lot of classes and given a lot of lectures about ecumenism. I have often begun with this little story: A man goes to heaven, and St Peter shows him around. They go past one room, and the man asks: “Who are all those people in there?” “They are the Methodists,” says St Peter. They pass another room, and the man asks the same question. “They are the Anglicans,” says St Peter. As they’re approaching the next room, St Peter says: “Take your shoes off and tiptoe by as quietly as you can.” “Why, who’s in there?” asks the man. “The Catholics,” says St Peter, “and they think that they’re the only ones up here.”

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1997, the Catholic Church is the “sole Church of Christ.” The official Catholic understanding has long been that only the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ, who choose Twelve Apostles to continue his work and appointed them as the Catholic Church’s first bishops. Well, as I said above, all of us in the church need continual historical, biblical, and theological updating. With all due respect, some upper administrative people — including popes — greatly need remedial theological education. I remember a bishop friend, close to retirement at age seventy-five, who confided in me that he had not read any book about theology or church history since his ordination as a twenty-six years old priest. (I immediately wanted to say “well that is obvious” but decided to take a less combative approach with him….)

The historical Jesus did not found any church. He gave no blueprint for church structure and organization. Jesus did not ordain anyone and probably had no idea what ordination even was. Many decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus’ followers began to organize, ritualize, and structure Christian communities. Initially they had great freedom and creativity. They did not establish ordination as a way of passing on sacred powers but as a kind of quality control. The ordained had a kind of seal of approval as trustworthy and competent Christian ministers. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, the Christian Church became a powerful social and political institution; and it took on many organizational structures, customs, and pageantry from the Roman Empire.

In 382 CE the Council of Rome first officially recognized the Biblical canon (i.e. those texts considered as authoritative scripture). The same council commissioned Jerome to compile and translate those canonical texts from Greek into the Latin Vulgate Bible. Today many of our better English translations bypass Jerome’s Vulgate and work directly with Greek texts.

Most people today rely on biblical translations, of course, but we really need to be alert to shades of meaning and nuances that sometimes get lost in translation. 

The word “church” as we understand it does not appear in the Gospels. The Greek word used is ekklesia which is often incorrectly translated as “church.” Ekklesia really means “a gathering” or a “congregation.” Nuance is important here. Ekklesia has the nuance of a gathering of believers = a community of faith. The word “church” has the nuance of a structured hierarchical institution. The historical Jesus did not establish a church. His young followers organized themselves into a community of faith.

All of us today – Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, etc. — who strive to live and grow in the Spirit of Christ are members of his body. We make up a large community of faith which is truly the one true church. A variety of traditions is an enrichment. Our perspectives can vary, as do our backgrounds. We all can listen to each other and learn and grow.

The Council of Nicaea in 325 CE taught that the church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” For centuries the Catholic Church understood that only it had these attributes in their fullness. Today of course we understand that all Christians make up ONE body of believers, as they strive to live in the HOLY Spirit of Christ. We understand that Christianity is CATHOLIC in the original meaning of that word “universal,”  despite varied locations, languages, ethnicities, races, or denominations.We understand as well that the “apostles” were more than “the Twelve.” Many early Christian women and men were apostles (“messengers” or “envoys”) sent out to preach the Good News. Faithful to their faith, witness, and example, Christians today are APOSTOLIC. This much more than a theoretical succession of hands-on ritual ordinations is what we most properly call “apostolic succession.”

New understandings take time. Perspectives do change. Official teachings do change over time. Yes even in the Catholic Church. With respectful dialogue and collaboration, we grow and we learn together.

How I would have loved to be able to sit down with my, now deceased, grade school teacher, Sister Mary Angelo, and discuss all of this….I think she would have understood.

Or…maybe today she does understand it … and much better than Jack……