An Introduction to the Old Testament for Deacons: The Relationship of Text and Context

Chapter 4 of Reading the Old Testament by Boadt, Herrington, and Clifford, speaks of the oral tradition, higher criticism, lower criticism, form criticism, tradition history, and rhetorical criticism.  There are other biblical tools of ideational analysis as well.  The person who uses these tools to correctly interpret and properly apply the meaning of biblical texts is called an exegete (pronounced ex-ah-jeet).  Her/his efforts are called exegesis (pronounced ex-ah-jee-sis) or is called contextual biblical analysis.

Contextual biblical analysis and application is the opposite of what are called literalism or fundamentalism.  What the literalist or fundamentalist does is impose on a text some preconceived doctrinal or moral ideas to which the literalist or fundamentalist is already attached.  When a person interprets and applies biblical texts through this preconceived ideational haze, that person is called an eisogete (pronounced ice-oh-jeet), and what she or he is doing is called eisogesis (pronounced ice-oh-jee-sis).  The preconceived moral and doctrinal ideas adhered to by the eisogete become an ideational haze through which the eisogete views the text and which necessarily limits his/her understanding of the meaning of that text.

The exegete, using contextual biblical analysis, is attempting to understand the meaning of the text on its own terms, as it was understood by the person who wrote the text and as it was understood by that author’s original intended audience.

Exegesis, contextual biblical analysis, is an offshoot of or manifestation of a phenomenological attitude toward texts.  In phenomenology, a branch of philosophy, one attempts to see the thing/person/event/text as it is in itself.  One uses ideational tools to remove from consideration those extraneous ideas (those eisogetic ideas) which keep one from seeing the thing/person/event/text as it is in itself.  The eidetic reduction performed by phenomenology helps one avoid perceiving/taking-in the thing/person/event/text through a haze of extraneous preconceptions.

Things like maps and timelines, things like information regarding culture and history, give the context of the Bible.  These give us a broader picture, a context, which allows us and helps us understand the passages found in the Bible.

Context helps us understand, and even value, a Bible passage such as that found in the book of Joshua, chapter 6, verses 15 through 21

“On the seventh day, beginning at daybreak, they marched around the city [of Jericho] seven times in the same manner; on that day only did they march around the city seven times.  The seventh time around, the priests blew the horns and Joshua said to the people, “Now shout, for the LORD has given you the city.  The city and everything in it is under the ban [doom].  Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are in the house with her are to live, because she hid the messengers we sent.  But be careful not to covet or take anything that is under the ban; otherwise you will bring upon the camp of Israel this ban and the misery of it.  All silver and gold, and the articles of bronze or iron, are holy to the LORD. They shall be put in the treasury of the LORD.”  As the horns blew, the people began to shout. When they heard the sound of the horn, they raised a tremendous shout. The wall collapsed, and the people attacked the city straight ahead and took it.  They observed the ban by putting to the sword all living creatures in the city: men and women, young and old, as well as oxen, sheep and donkeys.”

There are many things which are confusing and troublesome about this passage.  One of the easier conundrums of this passage is that it presents to us the madam of a house of prostitution who will be, with her family, the only resident of Jericho saved.  Another problem for us about this passage is that it indicates Jericho was destroyed at a time when archaeology has definitively shown that the city of Jericho was not destroyed.  But most troubling about this passage, revolting even, is that God commands Israel to commit genocide; the killing of every person, young and old, regardless of gender and physical condition.

Without a knowledge of the context of this passage, many very strange things can be justified by the reader.  Only with a knowledge of the context of this passage can one understand it, and even come to value it.

As we gain some contextual understanding, it becomes possible for us to correctly understand and usefully apply this passage in our homilies and catechesis.  For example, when we learn archaeology has determined Jericho was not destroyed at the time this passage indicates, this helps us in that it indicates God might not have commanded genocide.  However, this contextual fact does not help because it leaves unresolved why the writer of Joshua would have thought it good to depict God as one who commands his people to commit genocide.

Further, contextual investigation is needed.  This investigation can best be done by asking the questions, “During what period, according to this biblical narrative itself, was this genocidal command given?”  The answer is, immediately following Israel’s experience of being in slavery for many generations.  We should also ask the question, “During what periods of Jewish history was this story written?”  The answer to that question is that it was written when Israel was experiencing either the Assyrian destruction of the Northern Kingdom or the Babylonian captivity of the Southern Kingdom.  We now ask, “What do these real and perhaps mythic events have in common?”  The answer is that the audience to which these words of Joshua were written were themselves experiencing tremendous political oppression.  During these times their own thinking was slavish in many respects.  Like the abused animal, all they could understand was lashing out at any opponent.  In this/these contexts, it makes sense that God would not have delivered the Jesus’ message of “love your enemies”.  At these times in Jewish history, the Jews/Israelites would simply not have been able to understand, and absolutely not able to accept such a message from God.  So, God had to work with this people (or this writer) in the mental and emotional condition in which they actually existed at the time of the writing (at the time of the experience).  God works with people, where they are at.  God does not expect people to be capable of doing what they are not capable of doing.  This is the message of incarnation theology.  God entered the human condition as it is; in its messy potential-filled reality.  As people begin to embrace the message of love, then the morality of the people is elevated.

A text is anything used to communicate meaning.  A text can be a word or words, a book, a picture, a sculpture, a gesture, even music.

Context is that, within which a text is found, and which gives the text its meaning.  A context is made up of the information we get from things such as timelines and maps and commentaries and concordances and dictionaries and atlases and articles from biblical periodicals.

What follows now are some rules about the relationship of text and context.

A text has meaning only within a context.  Or, to say the same thing in a different way, without a context, a text has no meaning.  Without contextual information, not only can we not discover what the meaning of a text is; we cannot even determine if it is a text.  Only with the addition of context can we determine the meaning of the related text

If the context changes, or if our understanding of the the context matures, the meaning of the text will change.

As an example of one’s understanding of a text necessarily changing as one’s understanding of the text’s associate context matures, consider the nursery rhyme Ring Around the Rosie:  “Ring around the Rosie, pockets full of poesy.  Ashes, ashes.  We all fall down.”   This is a nice children’s rhyming song, which brings a smile to the child’s face as they dance around the maypole.  But, when for the first time the child or adult learns that the words were formulated during the Black Plague, that smile becomes very sad.  “Ring around the Rosie”—a ring on the cheek, one of the first signs of having contracted the plague.  “Pockets full of posey”; stuffing the pockets with plants and flowers and herbs to ward away the plague.  “Ashes, Ashes”—bodies were burned outside the city, but inevitably, winds blew the ashes back into the city.  “We all fall down”—people literally died as they walked along the street.

But we can control the child’s or adult’s feelings again, by helping them understand a further context of this nursery rhyme—that is, by telling them that the reason this song was created by adults was to help children cope with the horror of the bubonic plague—this song was created as an act of love.  By informing the hearer of this new contextual fact, the nursery rhyme’s meaning (the meaning of the text) is again changed for the hearer; this time from something macabre to something still sad by consoling.

Again, “As one’s understanding of the context changes or matures, the meaning of the text will necessarily change for that person.”

Another interesting corollary of the relationship of text and context is that “whoever controls the context, controls the meaning of the text”.

Also, “a rigid attachment to an inadequate interpretation of a text, reveals a pre-existing attachment to some incorrect contextual assumptions.”

And finally, as was written a number of times by Saint Thomas Aquinas, “Whatever is perceived, is perceived in the manner in which the perceiver perceives it.”

These ideas about the relationship of text and context have practical applications for the homilist and catechist when addressing an audience attached to an inadequate interpretation of some given text.

First, the homilist or catechist must gain an understanding of the contextual assumptions of the intended audience.  This is an applied meaning of Saint Thomas’ “Whatever is perceived is perceived in the manner the perceives perceives it.”  If I want to help an audience gain a better understanding of a given text, my primary focus should not be on getting them to accept my understanding of that text.  Rather, I must first come to understand the contextual understanding out of which the intended audience is perceiving the text.  Once I understand that, I will be better able to formulate and articulate a contextual presentation which will make the intended audience more intellectually flexible.  So first things first; figure out the contextual assumptions of one’s intended audience.

Second, having ascertained the contextual assumptions of my intended audience, I can begin to loosen its rigid attachment to some inadequate understanding and application of a text, by gently asking questions which causes the audience to come face to face with contradictions found in their contextual understandings.  A good place to learn this type of questioning is by reading the Dialogues of Plato in which one is exposed to what are called Socratic questions.  Here one learns how to ask questions which reveal self-contradictory assumptions.

Third and finally, if an audience is particularly rigid in its inadequate understanding and application of a given text, I may have to avoid saying what the correct understanding of the text should be and instead, clearly present the correct contextual facts behind that text.  If a rigid audience’s inadequate understanding of a text is not challenged, the audience might be more open to listening to what the speaker has to say.  If then, the speaker shares with the audience a correct understanding of the context within which the text is found, the audience will not be able to get that context out of their minds.  It becomes like a melody you hear which you cannot get out of your mind.  The audience might for a brief time be open to hearing new ideas about the context in which the given text is found.  As they think about that new understanding of the context, on their own they will begin to discern inadequacies in their textual understanding.  It is at this point that the audience will begin to react and reject almost blindly various things then said by the catechist or homilist.  At this point, the catechist or homilist must not resist its rejection.  In fact, the catechist or homilist should just let the audience articulate its objections.  It might even be good to invite objections.  The reason this is a useful strategy is that the audience’s rejection is evidence the audience understood the matured contextual understanding presented by the catechist or homilist.  Not being able to get this matured contextual description out of their minds, after the catechetical presentation, the audience will begin to mull in their minds the matured context presented them.  This will lead them to a full appreciation of the correct meaning of the associated text; at which point they will choose to accept that meaning or not.

These three practical applications were based on the insight that it is very important for the presentor/speaker to first understand the contextual assumptions under which or out of which his/her intended audience is operating.  The way in which one comes to this understanding is through dialogue.  Hundreds of times in his various writings, Pope Francis has stated the importance of the homilist and catechist to engage in dialogue.


An Introduction to the Old Testament for Deacons: I am a Jealous God

In the book. Reading the Old Testament, the authors and editors (Baodt, Clifford, Herrington) tell us that God’s living word is revealed in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament.

The Old Testament has important and valuable and useful things to reveal to us.

In the New American Bible, we find the following translation of Deuteronomy 5:1-10:

“I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.  You shall not have other gods besides me.  You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them.  For I, the Lord, your God am a jealous God, inflicting punishments for their fathers’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation but bestowing mercy down to the thousandth generation, on the children of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

According to the timeline presented in the Bible itself, the situation and events to which the words of Deuteronomy 5:1-10 were addressed, appear to have been shortly after the exodus event, perhaps around 1200 B.C. in Canaan when it was still largely occupied and controlled by groups other than the twelve tribes of Israel.

In reality, these words were written five to six hundred years later, around 650 B.C., by a writer referred to as the Deuteronomist.  To understand the Deuteronomist, a quick timeline composed of several parts will be helpful.

  • 1000 to 921 B.C. is the time of the Unified Kingdom of all the tribes of Israel under the leadership of Kings David and Solomon.  The capitol city in which David and Solomon live is Jerusalem which is in the southern area of Israel.
  • In 921 B.C., after the death of Solomon, the Unified Kingdom of Israel split into two parts, the Southern Kingdom composed of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and the Northern Kingdom composed of the other ten tribes.  The name of the Southern Kingdom was Judah.  The name of the Northern Kingdom was Israel.  This Divided Kingdom lasted until 721 B.C..
  • The Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria in 721 B.C.  From that point on, all that remains of the once Unified Kingdom of Israel is the weakened Southern Kingdom of Judah.  There is no longer  a Divided Kingdom.  What remains is the seriously weakened Southern Kingdom.
  • In 587 B.C. the Southern Kingdom of Judah is conquered by Babylon.  The Kingdom of Judah ceases to exist.  All of Israel as a nation state ceases to exist.
  • The period form 587 to 537 B.C. is referred to as the Babylonian Captivity of Israel.
  • In 537 B.C. Persia conquers Babylon.  One of the first acts of King Cyrus of Persia is to allow those Jews in Babylon who wish, to return to Israel and start over.  This event is sometimes called The Restoration.

During the Unified Kingdom, the people of Israel were united in the understanding that their covenant with Yahweh was rooted in and centered upon the land of Israel, the messianic Davidic royalty, and the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.  Writing around this time of the reigns of Kings David and Solomon, an author referred to as the Yahwist, wrote in exactly these terms.  This period around 950 B.C. was a prosperous and safe time to be a resident of the land of Israel.  The monarchy was strong.  The members of the somewhat autonomous tribes of Israel were loyal to the King of Judah who lived in Jerusalem.  Religious events and religious consciousness of the faithful were organized around the Jerusalem Temple, envisaged by David and built by Solomon.  It seemed clear to everyone that the promised land on which they lived, the messianic Davidic royalty they followed,  and the Jerusalem Temple in which they worshipped; that these were central to the Jewish religion, Jewish culture, and Jewish identity.

However, this religious and spiritual centrality of land, king, and temple begin to erode once the Kingdom splits in 921 B.C.  Sometime later, between 800 and 700 B.C., we see another writer, called the Elohist, redefining Jewish religion and culture and identity around sites and practices and ideas other than the land, the temple, and the messianic Davidic kingdom.

By the 650s B.C. we see this reduced emphasis on land and king and temple, even more strongly in the writing and editing of the Deuteronomist.  Consider, for example, this Deuteronomist quote from Judges 21:25, “In those days there was no King in Israel; everyone did what was best in his own eyes.”  During this time of uncertainty and upheaval following the Assyrian destruction of the Northern Kingdom and the weakening of the Southern Kingdom to vassal status, we see the Deuteronomist continuing the Elohist’s trend of redefining Jewish religion and spirituality.  The Deuteronomist’s writings indicated that God’s grace and covenant did not require the possession and control of land to be valid.  A focus on interior spiritual qualities replaced the exterior attachments to temple and political association.  The focus now was on law, purity, holiness, justice and faith based on interior devotion and on written documents of revelation as a spiritual guide which will become parts of what we now call the Old Testament.  Israel was changing from a religion and culture of stone and government authorities to a religion of the written word and of individual interior devotion.

And then, the land of Israel, the royalty of Israel, and the Jerusalem temple actually cease to exist.  In 587 B.C. Babylon conquers the Southern Kingdom.  Babylon destroys the Temple and the land.  Babylon exiles those members of the royal family, they did not kill, to captivity and slavery in Babylon.

A few years later, having also been exiled to Babylon, a writer whom we now call the Priestly source, appears.  The Priestly author will also reorganize Jewish attachment to God and covenant around things other than the Temple, the land, and the messianic Davidic kingship.

The Priestly author, traumatized by his own experience of the Babylonian exile and captivity, focuses on rigid understandings and practices of personal piety and religious worship in more local settings.  Laws, now better matched to the reality of a people in exile, will become a focus of religious practice.  His writing emphasizes the Sinai-Exodus events more than kingship.  Instead of a focus on a permanent temple and King, there is emphasis on a tent which travels with the people within which is found the Ark of the covenant; a traveling covenant; not a stationary covenant.

With the loss of the Davidic kingdom, the Priestly author changes the focus to the study of law, the right ordering of one’s lived-life, and the universal rule of God over all aspects of life.

The Priestly author speaks about practicing one’s faith in times of hardship.  To this end, the Priestly author writes a story about creation which begins with a description of a chaotic earth which is without form and void, and is an abyss flooded with darkness over which the wind howls.  We see this writer appropriate the stories of the homeless wandering family of Abraham and of the slavish behaviors of the Israelites in an exodus.  The Priestly author is writing and appropriating these stories, not to glorify past events.  Rather, the Priestly author is using these stories to describe what his audience is actually experiencing in their current reality; their exile and captivity and slavery in Babylon.   The Priestly author writes and appropriates and uses these older events to convince his people in Babylon, that God is now with them in the actual conditions of the exile, and that they can be as close, if not closer to God now, then when their ancestors were once idolatrously attached to the externals of land, temple, and royalty.

Around the time the Priestly author is doing these things, the prophets of Israel appear and in their writings, they too emphasize the necessity of individuals and families to focus on religious and spiritual interiority so as to know and follow God’s will.

Having been released from their Babylonian captivity soon after 537 B.C., many Jews return to Israel to start over.  Many; however, feel just as comfortable starting lives and forming Jewish communities in other parts of the world.  Though separated from the land of Israel, this diaspora, still retain all of their spiritual and religious impulses and desires.  The land and temple and kingship no longer forming a significant element of their spirituality, the diaspora transfer their religious and spiritual urges and desires to individual spirituality, family religious practices, and community religious and social observance focused on local synagogues.  In these places, in these groups, in these ways they concretize what they have learned about spiritual interiority from the Deuteronomist, the Elohist, the Priestly author, and the prophets of Israel.  

Perhaps a century later, around 450 B.C., a writer or group of writers associated with the person named Ezra, will gather and organize the writings of the Yahwist, Elohist, Deutronomist, the Priestly author, and the prophets.  This Ezra Consolidator will create what we will one day be called Torah or the Pentateuch, the Prophets, the Historical Writings, the Wisdom writings; the Old Testament.  And embedded throughout this consolidation and editing is the opinion that a covenantal relationship with God is not based on externals such as land, kingship, and temple; but on a spiritual interiority expressed religiously in a community of faith.

For centuries, beginning around 1000 B.C., the religion and spirituality of the Jews had been percolating.  Some times the religious cauldron boiled.  Sometimes it only simmered.  One set of attachments and ideas, such as the covenantal relationship with God being associated with land and temple and kingship, lessened.  Other, more interior attachments grew.  This interior spirituality flowered into exterior practices of service and community.

I am sure it was a dark sad day as each Jew in his/her individual spiritual interiority began to realize that religion no longer involved external attachments to the land of Israel, the Jerusalem Temple, and the messianic Davidic kingship.

Not many days ago, many became sad when they learned that the names of three hundred Roman Catholic priests who had sexually or physically abused over a thousand children had been released in a statement by the Attorney General of the State of Pennsylvania.  Over the next two months, a number of other instances of sexual and physical abuse of minors and vulnerable adults, similar in type and number, were revealed to the public.

Reactions to these revelations included:

  • In many ways, some parishes seemed immune to the ongoing and current sexual abuse crisis.  These parishes had more members than ever before.  Some were now multi-ethnic and multi-racial parish.  Many of these parishes were beehives of activity with dozens of different enrichment and ministerial groups and programs active within the parish.  The parish schools attached to some were thriving.  Financial contributions continue to be adequate.  Good pastoral leadership teams were present in these parishes and their dioceses.
  • In regard to this example of seeming parish normality in response to the sexual abuse crisis, Nicolas L. Bottan of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Ricardo Perez-Truglia of Harvard  “report the shock of the scandals didn’t shake people’s faith”, [and that the scandals] “had no significant effect on personal belief in God and the afterlife.”
  • It seems that many traditional practicing Catholics do not see this crisis as an existential threat to the Church.  They believe the Church will respond to this terrible situation and correct it, just as it has responded to many crises within the Church in its two thousand year history.
  • However, there are very few young adults present in our parishes.  Once teens leave home, and before they have their own children; this segment is nearly absent from the parish.
  • Opinion sections of major newspapers and online news networks have had a number of recent articles in response to the sexual abuse crisis, by young single and married adults who no longer participate in the Roman Catholic Church nor consider themselves Roman Catholic anymore.  One referred to the current Roman Catholic Church  as a “cesspool of hypocrisy”. These persons seem to consider the current sexual abuse crisis to be an unique existential indictment of the Roman Catholic Church; that the Church is not or at least is no longer, a community instituted by Jesus Christ.
  • The exodus from the Church might include older adults as well.  Forty years ago, when Pope John Paul II visited Ireland, 90% of all Irish Roman Catholics went to mass weekly.  When, last month, Pope Francis visited Ireland, it was reported that under 40% go to mass weekly.
  • Different studies report that, in the United States, the number of participating Roman Catholics dropped from 82 million in 2014 to 74 million in 2017, that those who self-identify themselves as Roman Catholics has dropped from 55 million in 2007 to 52 million in 2015, and that today 30 million persons in the United States identify themselves as former Catholics.
  • Around 4 billions of dollars have been paid in sexual abuse reparations by dioceses in the United States alone.  Due to these payments, many dioceses are facing bankruptcy.  The significance of diocesan bankruptcy is that many pastoral and catechetical works cannot be performed.
  • This financial crisis is not just felt in chanceries but has rippled out to all parts of the Church.  In a report written by Charles Zech, an economics professor at Villanova University’s Center for Church Management and Business Ethics, is the statement, “The bottom line is that the U.S. Catholic Church is in financial distress on nearly every level.”
  • In a 2015 parish-by-parish analysis, Bottan and Perez-Truglia show that the scandals caused contributions to the church to decline by an estimated average of $2.36 billion per year.  This may represent about a 20% reduction.
  • And finally, in terms of current reactions to this most recent flare up of the sexual abuse crisis within the Roman Catholic Church, there are indications that ideological factions within the hierarchy are using the sexual abuse crisis to support their ideological views.  One group wants the Church to re-embrace its historical traditionalism by reenforcing moral doctrines in regard to homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, gender selection, and other current social movements.  Another group wants the church to become more pastorally open to these same groups by means of including toleration of their chosen lifestyles.  Both groups seem to want to use this crisis to concretize their ideological views into the doctrinal and moral and pastoral teachings and practices of the Church.

A few days after the Attorney General of Pennsylvania released his report, on August 15th, the conservative magazine National Review published an article by a Michael Brendan Daugherty.  Daugherty wrote,

“If the Church cannot govern itself from within, then it will be governed from without.  That’s not a policy, but the iron law of history.”

Daugherty’s comments imply a monumental change to the governance of the Roman Catholic Church may come.  Daugherty’s statement is correct; it is “an iron law of history” that any institution which cannot govern itself from within will be governed by someone else from without.  History has many examples of large and powerful institutions which, when hollowed out from within by political or social decay or conflict, are eventually occupied by someone or some group who takes over and redirects the activities of those institutions.

This sexual abuse crisis will lead to a response or responses on the part of the hierarchy of the church or on the part of the Roman Catholic laity or on the part of non-Catholic persons and/or groups.  At this point, we do not know if the current leadership of the Church will retain its control, or if some other group will assume control of the Church; nor do we know in what direction those in control will direct the Church.

Four possible responses are:

  • The Church continues in its current hierarchical and diocesan structure.  The Church continues to limp along, struggling to balance those who favor a pastoral approach with those who favor a conservative-clerical approach.  It is likely the Church will hemorrhage membership and money.  The ability of the Church to assume a significant presence at various political and economic discussion tables will be diminished.  The Church’s responses to social needs will be diminished.  Or,
  • The official hierarchy of the Church embraces the merciful pastoral style of Pope Francis.  There will be a liberalization of some or many of current Church laws and teachings regarding divorce and reception of communion, marriage of homosexuals, acceptance of gender selection and redefinition, married clergy, the ordination of women, and other modern social movements.  This will entail a hierarchically controlled repudiation of clericalism.  This may lead to a schism. Or,
  • The Church hierarchy will largely abdicate its presence among the wealthy of, and in, the 1st and 2nd worlds.  It will focus its efforts and energies among the poor, and especially the poor within the 3rd and 4th worlds.  The Church will become hyper-conservative in moral and doctrinal teachings.  Power will be retained among the clergy.  Or, 
  • The episcopacy and the papacy could cease to exist, in which case the Roman Catholic Church would adopt a lay-leadership-priesthood-of-all-believers as it is manifested in evangelical and protestant churches.

Whatever form the response or outcome takes, some, perhaps many, ordinary faithful-Church-going-Roman Catholics will be confused by that response or outcome.  Some may be deeply troubled.  The faith of some may be shattered.  It is possible the confused and troubled and shattered may include those Catholics for whom things such as papacy, the episcopacy, traditional laws and doctrines, the largeness and political influence of the Church, the Church’s presence in the 1st and 2nd worlds; for whom things such as these are nearly as central to their faith as are the Eucharist and Jesus.

If it should happen that central aspects of Roman Catholicism change as they have never changed before, Roman Catholic Christianity will survive, just as Judaism survived the loss of land, temple, and kingship.  People will always carry with them their religious and spiritual needs, desires, and urges.

We may learn, that like the Deuteronomist’s jealous God, our God may be utilizing the current trauma in our Church to help us learn what it means to not be attached to externals but to the interiority of a covenantal relationship with God.

Some of these confused and troubled and shattered ones may need your help; the hope and guidance which you can give them, to help them return to a relationship with God.  If their prior relationships with God were focused on external attachments, your job might be to help these persons find a personal covenantal relationship for the first time.

For these hurting persons and to these hurting persons, you can share the example of Israel and the Jews learning to let go of attaching their spirituality to things such as land and the Temple of Solomon and messianic Davidic kingship.  You can share with them that these people never lost their spiritual desires and urges.  Their faith remained.  You can share with them that over time, these people learned to develop their spiritual interiority.  They learned that land, and temple, and political power and social pre-eminence were not central to faith.

Perhaps using these Old Testament examples, you can help our hurting-shattered-ones learn that they too can develop a consoling, healing, empowering, joy-filled relationship with God without needing the externals to which they were once attached.  And in learning they no longer need these externals, they can discover the joy of interior spiritual devotion, the joy of being with a faith community, the joy of identifying and serving the needs of others.

An Introduction to Philosophy for Deacons: Issue #13

(The following are the written notes/texts of four, three hour, online session presentations given in the months of February through May in A.D. 2018.  A similar set of presentations was given to a previous group some years earlier.  The group consisted of diaconal aspirants, spouses, and diocesan officials of the Diocese of Pueblo in Colorado, United States.  The fifteen articles found here will include thirteen specific philosophical issues, covered in those four online sessions.)

Let us now turn to Issue #13:  Essence and the Rejection of Essence

A distinguishing feature of moderate realism is the belief that things are real and that each thing has its own essence, its own nature.

With modernity, beginning around A.D. 1250, we see a growing disbelief in, and disregard for the reality of essences or natures.

A distinguishing feature of modern science, in contrast to the open ended considerations of philosophy, is the strict limit science places on what it considers.

Modern science limits itself to causality, the relationship of cause and effect, the belief that all that can be known about things are their external causes.  By contrast, the natural philosophy of classical science and the belief of Roman Catholic philosophy, is that the essences of things are made up of four internal causes referred to as material, formal, efficient, and final.  This doctrine of moderate realism and natural philosophy is called causation.

Being only interested in external causes, modern science has no interest in discussing the essences or natures of things.  And, in fact, when you talk with real scientists who have no bones to pick with religion and philosophy, you will notice they almost never use the words essence and nature.

A second rejection of essences or natures involves the social and political and philosophical attitude referred to as historicism.

Historicism is quite prevalent in how most people think and talk today.  Historicism states that things don’t really have essences or natures.  The truth which one can discern regarding the things with which one interacts is not found by discovering the internal causes which make up their essence or nature.  Rather, historicism asserts that any truth, if we can call it truth; any truth which can be known about any given thing can only be known when the story, the history, of that thing is fully played out and known.

In the words of George Wilhelm Frederic Hegel, whose writings, according to Hannah Arendt, are nothing but a philosophy of history; according to Hegel, “the owl of Minerva spreads her wings only with the falling of dusk”.

The owl of Minerva in Greek mythology was the symbol of knowledge and wisdom.  Dusk represents the end of the story; the history, of some thing one considers.  Only when the story of that thing is ended, can we really know what that thing is about.  Only then does the owl of wisdom spread its wings.

We live in an age in which people have real doubts about whether or not things have actual essences, which are valuable to know.  The people to which we preach have real doubts about whether or not we can actually know things as they are in themselves.

One important manifestation of this modern doubt in the existence of essences, and doubt in our ability to known things as they are in themselves, involves issues related to human rights; the natural rights possessed by persons.

In Roman Catholic social science, the word rights refers to those things which persons need to attain those goals which are uniquely human.  In order to become free, to be creative, to be happy, to attain eternal life; persons must have certain things; things such as food, shelter, education, health care, freedom, family.  Persons’ rights to these things are called natural.  These rights are called natural because they are related to those goals which are part of human nature.

We can only know what the goals of human nature are, if we can discern and display what human nature is; the essence of human kind.  If there is confusion about what human nature is, or if there is doubt that we can identify essences; it necessarily follows that we cannot identify the natural rights of persons.  

In order to correctly identify the natural rights of persons, we must first clearly understand human nature.  In order to understand human nature, we must be certain that things in general, and persons in particular, have essences or natures which can be discerned and displayed.

An Introduction to Philosophy for Deacons: Issue #12

(The following are the written notes/texts of four, three hour, online session presentations given in the months of February through May in A.D. 2018.  A similar set of presentations was given to a previous group some years earlier.  The group consisted of diaconal aspirants, spouses, and diocesan officials of the Diocese of Pueblo in Colorado, United States.  The fifteen articles found here will include thirteen specific philosophical issues, covered in those four online sessions.)

Let us now turn to Issue #12, The Ego-Centric Predicament

When we see an apple, when we smell the scent of apple blossoms, when we hear music; it is true, that that of which we are aware are images of these things within our minds.  Our awareness is of these mental image constructs.  These images in our minds are due in part to electrical and chemical impulses in and through the sense organs, and within the brain.

Rene Descartes provided us the philosophical language to state and understand this truth.

Descartes also pointed out that such mental-images could be mistakes or illusory.  His examples were mirages and dream images.  Today, we know that near indistinguishable mental images can be formed by means of brain injury, brain damage, hallucinogenic drug use, interaction with advanced algorithmic based software systems.

We have become use to the real possibility that all the mental images of which we are aware exist only in our minds.  Movies regularly invite us to consider the possibility that not only is synthetic experience preferable to real experience; they invite us to consider that all experience is actually, only neuro-electrico-chemical synthetic experience.

Monsignor Robert Sokolowski of The School of Philosophy of The Catholic University of America refers to this in the following manner, “Consciousness is taken to be like a bubble or enclosed cabinet; the mind comes in a box.  Impressions and concepts occur in this enclosed space, in this circle of ideas and experiences, and our awareness is directed toward them, not directly toward the things “outside”…we are not in any direct contact with them…we are caught in an ego-centric predicament.  It seems unquestionable that everything cognitional must happen “inside the head,”  and that all we could possibly be in touch with are our own brain states.  I once heard a famous brain scientist say, almost tearfully, that after so many years of studying the brain, he still could not explain how “that avocado-colored organ inside our skulls” could get beyond itself and reach out into the world.  I would venture to say that almost everyone who has gone to college and taken some courses in physiology, neurology, or psychology would have the same difficulty.”

If all individual awarenesses are of various brain states, we then do not sense a world outside our own brain states.  We no longer have a world in common.  Sokolowski continues, “If we do not have a world in common, then we do not enter into a life of reason, evidence, and truth.  Each of us turns to our own private world…we do our own thing….the truth makes no demands on us.   We know this relativism cannot be the final story…but philosophically and culturally we find it difficult to ratify our naive acceptance of a common world and our ability to discover and communicate what it is.”

If we do not have a world-in-common, if we are unable to discover and display realities outside of ourselves, we then begin to avoid dialogue.  Dialogue is the use of speech to display truths.

Beginning in the mid A.D. 1800s, a growing realization of the ego-centric predicament and a response to the ego-centric predicament arose.  This response to the ego-centric predicament is now known as phenomenology.  The founder associated with phenomenology is an Edmund Husserl.

Because the ego-centric predicament had many moral, social, and political ramifications, phenomenology was adopted by many Christians, many Roman Catholics, and persons who became Roman Catholics.  I wish to mention only three.

Edmund Husserl was a teacher of Edith Stein.  Edith Stein earned her Ph.D. summa cum laude under the direction of Husserl in A.D. 1913.  Stein was born a Jew,  Later, she also became a Roman Catholic, being baptized in A.D. 1922.  In A.D. 1933, Edith Stein entered a religious order and became known as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.  In A.D. 1942 she was executed at Auschwitz because she was a Jew.  In A.D. 1987 she was beatified and in A.D. 1988 was canonized a Saint by Pope John Paul II.

Pope John Paul II, also a canonized saint, as the Polish priest Karol Woytyla, earned a Ph.D. in philosophy with an emphasis on phenomenology.

Robert Sokolowski, a professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., has the sobriquet of “the other Polish phenomenologist” in reference to the Polish phenomenologist Woytyla.

Phenomenology invites us to “get back to the thing itself”.  Regardless of what we are considering, a thing such as gravity, or the person in our pastoral care who is suffering emotionally, or an event such as opioid addiction; phenomenology invites us to “get back to the thing itself”.  Phenomenology invites us to discover and display in dialogue the essences of things.

Phenomenology refers to “getting back to the thing itself” as eidetic imaging.  This eidetic imaging causes phenomenologists to realize that awareness ia always awareness of something; consciousness is always consciousness of something.

Essences and natures are always the ultimate route and source of all mental impressions.  The discovery and display of the essences of things, persons, and events is what truth is.  Dialogue is the means by which truth is displayed.

An Introduction to Philosophy for Deacons: Issue #11

(The following are the written notes/texts of four, three hour, online session presentations given in the months of February through May in A.D. 2018.  A similar set of presentations was given to a previous group some years earlier.  The group consisted of diaconal aspirants, spouses, and diocesan officials of the Diocese of Pueblo in Colorado, United States.  The fifteen articles found here will include thirteen specific philosophical issues, covered in those four online sessions.)

Let us now turn our attention to Issue #11:  Material Reductionism

Roman Catholicism, in its theology and philosophy, states that the human person is an indivisible unity of body and soul.

In his Discourse of Method, Rene Descartes articulates the idea that the human person is composed of a res cogitans (the thinking thing) and a res extensa (a body thing).  He states that the res cogitans (the thinking thing) resides within the res extensa (a body thing).  He states that the res cogitans is the spiritual component of the human person, is the place where the person is found, and is the place where thinking is located.

Further, in his Discourse on Method, Descartes gives birth to the concept and practice of medical technology.  He states that the best way to deal with the illness and physical needs of the human person is to understand that the human body is a machine and should be treated as a machine.  We would say today, that Descartes gives birth to the idea that the human body is a carbon based machine in contrast to those machines/tools which are composed of silicon (e.g. eyeglasses, computer components) or of metal (shovels, tractors).

Modernity, modern western culture, largely embraces the Cartesian ideas that the human person is a spirit in a body, a ghost in the machine; and that our physical needs are best met by treating the human person as an electro-chemical machine.  This idea of the person as a ghost-in-the-machine is called Cartesian dualism.

Material reductionism is a result of the modern adoption of the ideas of the ghost-in-the-machine and of the human body as an electro-chemical machine.

Material reductionism is the attitude that the ideas and images in our minds can be accounted for by chemical and electrical modifications within our physical brains.    We know that, to a degree, this is true.  We know that the actual apple at which I am looking; that the light by which we see that apple is changed into optical electrical impulses and chemical impulses in the material brain which contribute to creating an image of the apple in our minds.

Further, we know that people taking hallucinogenic substances or who suffer from brain injuries or diseases, see (feel, smell, taste, hear) things which are only present in the mind.  For example, a victim of war related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and alcoholism may begin to see snakes which aren’t real.

If the snakes I see are nothing more than some neuro-electrical-chemical activity in the brain, then it becomes possible to assume that other things, such as love, can also be just a neuro-chemical-electrical activity in the brain.

As persons resign themselves to a material reductionist possibility; they become more materialistic, consumptive, self-serving, utilitarian, hedonist.

Sometimes material reductionism will adopt a mental-gymnastics to develop reasons to suggest that the human machine can generate values and virtues which transcend the human machine; which are more than neuro-electrical-chemical states.  Such attempts fail due to being, ultimately, self-contradictory.

A final necessary consequence of the idea that human values and virtues are the products of neuro-electrical-chemical activity, is the belief that non-human entities can also have similar neuro-electrical-chemical values and virtues; non-human animals, human-animal chimeras, advanced algorithmic machines.

Because it is true that the images in our minds of things outside ourselves are, in part the result of optical and cerebral electrical-chemical activity and because synthetic experiences can be created which are indistinguishable from actual experiences; because of these, many persons have lingering doubts about the reality and value of actual human values and virtues.  These doubts coincide with preferences for synthetic experience.  Examples include:

  • phubbing (phone-snubbing) excessive cell phone use in social situations
  • addiction to totally immersive electronic video-gaming
  • doubt of dialogue’s value due to the growing inability to distinguish whether the conversation I am having is with a person or an algorithmic software program.

An Introduction to Philosophy for Deacons

(The following are the written notes/texts of four, three hour, online session presentations given in the months of February through May in A.D. 2018.  A similar set of presentations was given to a previous group some years earlier.  The group consisted of diaconal aspirants, spouses, and diocesan officials of the Diocese of Pueblo in Colorado, United States.  The fifteen articles found here will include thirteen specific philosophical issues, covered in those four online sessions.)

We have now covered ten philosophical issues.  The choice of the content of these issues were

  • first, to provide you a sweeping survey of the 2,500 years of western philosophy, and
  • second, to provide you some exposure to those philosophical ideas which have been impactful upon or related to Roman Catholic Christianity.

Now we turn to contemporary western philosophy.  Here we are interested in three particular and important issues which have social and political ramifications for the world today.  These three issues are called material reductionism, the egocentric predicament, and the rejection of essence.

Contemporary Roman Catholic philosophy has taken notice of these three developments, seeks to understand them, and seeks to provide guidance in how to address and deal with them.  Specifically, it seeks to provide awareness of these issues for and to provide guidance on how to address these issues, to and for those who will be pastoral ministers, catechists, and homilists.

Deviating slightly from the outline I gave you originally, I will now treat these three contemporary developments as separate issues.  Issue #11 will be Material Reductionism.  Issue #12 will be The Ego-Centric Predicament.  Issue #13 will be The Rejection of Essence.

An Introduction to Philosophy for Deacons: Issue #10

(The following are the written notes/texts of four, three hour, online session presentations given in the months of February through May in A.D. 2018.  A similar set of presentations was given to a previous group some years earlier.  The group consisted of diaconal aspirants, spouses, and diocesan officials of the Diocese of Pueblo in Colorado, United States.  The fifteen articles found here will include thirteen specific philosophical issues, covered in those four online sessions.)


Let us now turn attention to the tenth issue: the rediscovery of Aristotelian Realism and Ethics



The Medieval Period, the Middle Ages (c. A.D. 500 to 1200) ends with the rediscovery of Aristotle’s realism.

Due to Augustine’s appropriation of Platonic idealism, Christianity takes a neo-Platonic turn, developing social and political structures which emphasize an immaterial spirituality; things such as God and angels and heaven and prayer.

One manifestation of this neo-Platonic turn is the development of the monastic movement; which represents the choices of many to remove themselves from the work-a-day world to a world which is closer to heaven and God.

However, the occupants of the monasteries are still very much human and need to fill their time.  In addition to food production and prayer, many are involved in the discovery, repair, copying, and preservation of extant texts.

Among those texts preserved are the writings of Aristotle.  Christianity’s turn away from Aristotelian realism and toward Platonic idealism is the means by which Aristotle’s realism is saved for future generations.


Thomas Aquinas:

  • Rediscovers the writings of Aristotle
  • Thomas uses Aristotle’s methods and philosophical concepts to investigate theological matters.
  • The rediscovery of Aristotelian realism will lead to the birth of modern science.
  • Thomas uses Aristotelian social and political concepts to create new ideas and attitudes toward issues of political power, government, and law.
  • And very important is his use of Aristotle to expand upon ideas of Saint Augustine to formulate a Natural Law theory.

Natural Law theory

  • Consistent and compatible with a contingent view of human nature (down-to-earth)(feet on the ground).
  • Consistent and compatible with both the incarnation focus of Roman Catholicism and its faith based soteriological concepts.
  • There are four types of Law: eternal, natural, positive, and divine.
  • The manner in which Thomas discusses these indicates that he, Saint Thomas, fully believes that morality and politics must have human happiness as their focus and must always take into account the changing nature of human contingencies.
    • Eternal Law:  is the plan of God’s wisdom, found in the “mind” of God, by which God is involved in and directs all action and all motion of creation. 
    • Natural Law:  are fundamental inclinations placed by God in the minds of all persons.  Persons become aware of these good inclinations by means of reason directed by the Holy Spirit.  Natural Law is awareness of those aspects of eternal law which apply to human being and action.  Participation in and adherence to the natural law leads persons to their proper ends/goals.
    • Positive Law:  refers to the human ability to use reason to apply aspects of the natural law to social, political, and moral affairs.  (The word Positive is derived from the Latin word posit meaning “he puts/places”.  Sometimes Positive Law is called, somewhat inadequately, Human Law or Civil Law.)
    • Divine Law: refers to special announcements of revelation such as the 10 Commandments or Magisterial pronouncements which seek to fill holes present in positive law.
        • The need for Divine Law is exemplified in Jesus’ parable of the “Weeds Among the Wheat” (Matthew 13:24-30).  Along this line, Aquinas points out that if a lawgiver or law enforcer were too rigid, the application of law would do more harm than good.  Thomas points out that if every evil were legislated against, much harm would be done.  This is Thomas’ way of saying human nature is contingent, messy, broken, and that the lawgiver and law enforcer must make accommodations for those limitations.
  • Sensitivity to human nature as it actually is, will lead Aquinas to articulate (ST, I of II, Q19) his famous articulation of freedom of conscience; the right of the individual to follow his or her own well informed conscience, even when the dictates of that conscience are at odds with civil and/or ecclesial law.



Five hundred years after Saint Thomas, Immanuel Kant will articulate ideas already percolating in western culture between the times of Aquinas and Kant.

Among these Kantian ideas is that morality should not be based upon nor accommodate the contingent, messy, incarnational, actual, down-to-earth, earthy ways of human nature.  Morality should be based on a priori synthetic propositions, which apply to all situations for all humans at all times.

Kant is a return to Platonism.  The un-earthly, non-human, ideal moral ideas of Kant bare a resemblance to the neo-Platonic Christianity of the Medieval/Middle Ages period, to the Platonism adopted by Augustine and to the idealism of Plato.

One manifestation of that Platonic adoption is that morality should be based on ideal concepts of law and morality.  Therefore, a Natural Law based morality, such as that of Aquinas, is to be rejected for two reasons (which we saw earlier):

  • Thomas Natural Law moral theory asks us to be realistic, down-to-earth, and to take into consideration the ever present aspects of human contingency.  Thomas’ morality is an incarnation reality.  Like Jesus, Thomas’ morality seeks to be fully immersed in the actual real human condition; not to have the human condition perfected as a condition for God to enter human history.  Kant rejects such a contingency based morality because such a morality can never be infallibly formalized.
  • Only ideal a priori synthetic ideas, like the algorithms governing an idealized right triangle, can obtain the necessary universality to be right in every instance.  To base morality on nature is to base morality on entities which, like the shapes of actual triangular forms, can never be universally uniform.