PRISON DIALOGUE: LIBERATED FOR THE EXERCISE OF GOOD JUDGMENT

“The Mosaic code included elaborate direction on sacrifices and other cultic observances.  The gospel, however, invites believers to present their bodies as a living sacrifice.  Instead of being limited by specific legal maxims, Christians are liberated for the exercise of good judgment as they are confronted with the many and varied decisions required in the course of daily life.”  (Commentary on Paul’s Letter to The Romans; Page 1276, New American Bible, “The Revised New Testament”; nihil obstat and imprimatur July 27, 1970; copyright 1987)

The letters of Saint Paul to The Romans and To The Galatians state clearly and often that observing religious law is not the path to salvation, to righteousness, to justification, to heaven, to happiness in this life, or to bliss in the eternal life to come.  Rather, faith in Jesus and God is the means by which we obtain all of the blessings listed immediately above.  Specifically, Paul writes, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)

Nuance is important.  It is not that law or the following of religious law are problems.  Rather, the problem is a specific incorrect mind-set about the value of law and an incorrect attitude about how law should be observed.  This incorrect mindset and attitude is called legalism.  Legalism is the observing of laws with the belief that it is the observance which makes one right-with-God.  Legalism demands God’s approval.  One attempts to obligate God to deliver approval in response to one’s rigid legal observances.  This is the magic thinking of believing God’s behavior can be controlled by saying or doing the correct (legal) things.  Such magic thinking is a manifestation of the belief that one can be self reliant rather than rely on God and God’s grace.  One relies on his/her ability to strictly observe a legal code as the means for attaining good things desired.  The legal codes which self-reliant legalists choose to observe can be quite diverse.  One might attempt to control God by means of observing religious regulations.  One might attempt to gain a righteous/justified feeling by being prosperous and fitting in socially.  One might attempt to gain approval by observing a current fashionable set of norms.  One might define him/herself by fitting into an institutional ethos or into a corporate structure and system.  One might feel compelled to engage in ceaseless frenetic activity in which even altruistic behaviors develop addictive characteristics.  The legalities/regulations/norms/mores/ethos to which one adheres for the purpose of controlling divine or societal acceptance and approval can take many other forms besides.  Nevertheless, they are all rooted in the same attitude; an attitude of self-reliance.

The writings of Saint Paul reveal that a self-reliant attitude stands in the way of a living faith with God.  Paul tells us that as one sinks into legalistic self-reliance, one discovers that this legalistic observance fails-to-satisfy.  One is never sure s/he has done all that is necessary to have earned God’s approval.  One begins to realize that a legalistic self-reliance cannot even deliver mental and emotional senses of well-being.  Ultimately, the legalistic self-reliant person discovers that all the law has done for him/her is to make him/her aware of the reality of sin.  For the legalistic self-reliant person, religious law has introduced him/her to the reality of sin and evidences that he/her has entered into the sinfulness of lacking faith.  One might think such a person would have been better off had s/he not been introduced to religious law and regulation at all.  However, this descent into legalistic self-reliance, made possible by having been introduced to religious laws and regulations, serves the purpose of making clear the inadequacy of law as a tool of salvation and makes clear the futility of legalistic self-reliance.

Paul continues that the path of/to righteousness/justification/salvation/happiness/joy is by means of faith.  Faith is a trusting reliance on God’s love and mercy without having to know exactly how God’s manifestations of love and mercy might play out in the messy grind of everyday life within the actual human condition.  The believer has a trust in God which is like the child’s trust in a good parent; like the sheep nestled in the arms of a good shepherd.

The commentator reminds us that the goal of faith-life is not on one’s own salvation.  The goal is to serve others as Jesus served us; to love others as God loves us.  We cease worrying about our own righteousness/justification/salvation; believing that faith in God and Jesus will accomplish that.  We leave that concern to God.  Our time and energy and resources are then devoted to showing love and mercy to others and to our own selves.  By laying aside a legalistic self-reliance, one comes to an actual freedom, as well as a mental and emotional freedom, in which one becomes far better able to freely “exercise good judgment” in response to “the many and varied” realities of actual life within the human condition.  For the person saved by faith, religious laws and regulations are a tool.  There are times that awareness and use of law expresses and effects love and mercy.  Religious law and regulation aims at what is good.  There are times where the good realized fulfills and transcends the good which law itself envisaged.

At other times, in the messy actual human condition, not-observing a given law or regulation might be the best path to manifesting the love and mercy of God to another person or other persons.  If one chooses to do so, s/he should be attentive to the actual effects of this act so as to modify one’s choice should that choice have negative consequences.  Further, due to tendencies toward rationalization and self-reliance, it is good to discuss non-law-observance with another person of faith.

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PRISON DIALOGUE:  HOLINESS

Many years ago, a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest said that the word holiness refers to anything dedicated to God’s use.

Recently, in a Saint of the Day website coordinated by Franciscans, the statement was made that “Holiness is a gift.  Life is a process.”

These two statements have a wonderful power for clarifying our thinking about holiness, morality, and becoming effective instruments of God’s work with other persons.

We tend to think of holiness as being dependent on moral goodness.  That is, we tend to think that a person becomes holy by being a good person, by doing good deeds, by having the right beliefs and attitudes toward God.

For the most part, this statement (i.e. “We tend….toward God.”) is incorrect.  Holiness is not earned.  Holiness is a gift.  Holiness is an act of God dedicating/assigning a person to a specific use/function.  Holiness is about God assigning a person to a specific task in regard to establishing the Kingdom of God on earth.  When God utilizes a person for a specific function to help in accomplishing God’s will, that person is holy.  Since baptism is the introduction of persons to the evangelical ministry of Jesus Christ, every baptized person is holy.  And, an argument can be made that since each person is intentionally created by God, each having a specific nature and essence and purpose; the argument can be made that every person is holy.

Doing good, being moral, engaging in ethical behavior, developing social gentility and manners, attaining professional competencies come into play after one realizes s/he is holy.  Becoming aware of our holiness (our dedication to God’s use) we then ask how we might more effectively become the tool/instrument God intends us to be.  We choose to become aware of our character defects or sins or limitations which stand in the way of our assigned usefulness.  We choose to become aware of these so that we might then work on removing them or moderating their (dis)influence on our spiritual productivity.  Developing our skill sets in the areas of morality, ethics, social refinement and professional training help us soften those defects and enhance the talents/skills/aptitudes God gave us in order to function well as His chosen instruments.  Realizing our essential metaphysical goodness and doing good deeds makes it possible for God to utilize us.

Doing good deeds proficiently and attractively helps us realize the holiness we already possess as unearned gift.

PRISON DIALOGUES:  INTRODUCTION

Near where I live is a federal correctional facility.  Mass is held weekly.  At these masses, one of four diocesan priests, on a rotating basis, is present as the celebrant.  On one such occasion, an inmate asked one of the priests, who also is pastor of my parish, if a bible study could be started, to be held the hour following mass each week.  My pastor asked me to undertake this catechetical ministry.  I readily agreed.

On a near weekly basis, I have been present at this correctional facility to facilitate a bible study.  For over a year now I have been at this facility on a near weekly basis.  However, the bible study, pretty much, went nowhere with only a few participants on two or three occasions.  At other times I would sit in the prison chapel alone praying a rosary for the residents and staff.  At other times, I would just chat about everyday things; relational, social, religious, spiritual, philosophical, theological, biblical with the one, or sometimes two, who would be present with me.

Finally, we landed on the idea of posting a sign on the chapel door when we are meeting which says “Let’s Talk:  Any Topic; Spirituality, Theology, Religion, Philosophy.”  What follows in the upcoming postings on this website/blog are summaries of what we talked about, the topics raised, and ideas prepared for possible discussion at these sessions.

An Introduction to the Old Testament for Deacons: Takeaways

Between September of 2018 and May of 2019, the diaconal aspirant group of the Diocese of Pueblo, Colorado engaged in eight three hour online sessions devoted to the study of the Old Testament.  Each session consisted of two participants giving one hour dialogical presentations of assigned chapters of the book Reading the Old Testament:  An Introduction by Lawrence Boadt, and revised and updated by Richard Clifford and Daniel Harrington.  Each session closed with a dialogical presentation on a topic related to scriptural exegesis and/or pastoral ministry by the group moderator/facilitator.

What follows are some of the highlight-takeaways from those presentations and from materials consulted in the preparations of those presentations.

 

THE IMPACT OF THE EXILE ON OLD TESTAMENT FORMATION

History is written within and from the perspective of the historian and the groups to which the historian belongs.  Imagine the history of that portion of the Americas called The United States, written exclusively by native Americans.

Just so, the Bible is a product of the perspective of the Babylonian Exile and Captivity and the Persian Restoration.  The experience of the exile and captivity, and the events which followed upon the Persian restoration, influenced much of what was written in the Old Testament, influenced what would be included in the canon of the Old Testament, and influenced how the writings of the Old Testament were arranged and organized.  The Old Testament we have today is seen through the filter of the exile and restoration.

 

INERRANCY

The word inerrancy is used qualify the meaning of the word “true” when it is said that “the words of the Bible are true”.  By inerrancy is meant that the texts of sacred scriptures can guide one to salvation.  The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation states “…since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.”

Some parts of sacred scripture are factual.  Other parts are not,  Regardless, all of these parts play a role in guiding the reader to salvation.

 

HOLINESS

A thing or person or action is called holy when, in accord with God’s will, it is dedicated to God’s use.  Holiness means to be set aside for God’s use.  

Modern day discourse considers the words goodness, morality, and ethics to be the primary meanings/metaphors for the word holiness.  At best, these concepts are secondary to, constitutive to, or dependent on the primary sense of holiness which is a thing or person or action dedicated to God’s use.

 

PROPHETIC (BOOK) STYLE

The style of many of the prophetic books of the Old Testament has the prophet beginning by severely criticizing the behaviors and attitudes of the intended audience, and ending on an hope filled upbeat message.

This pattern distinguishes the real prophets of Israel from false prophets and from those who manage cults.  Cults and false prophets act in an opposite manner.  These first speak in hope filled and upbeat ways.  However, over time, the words of the false prophet or cult leader become more demanding, demeaning, and strange; as the person or group is sucked deeper into the cult or sway of the false prophet.

 

 

PROPHETIC (PERSON) STYLE

Some of the prophetic books, such as Ezekiel and Jeremiah and Amos and Hosea, present a good deal of the prophet’s personality and style of thought, speech, and action.  In some cases, the prophets’ speech and behaviors are “over the top”.  They might be highly offensive.  Sometimes they appear mentally unbalanced.

Mental imbalance, and rhetorical styles which are otherwise outré, may be necessary or constitutive aspects of the means by which the prophetic messages are delivered to the intended audiences.  Consider for a moment the possibility that the prophet may be mentally ill.  Such a condition would, in itself, not negate the prophetic power of the messages delivered by the prophets.  On the one hand, the dismissible behaviors of the prophet may be a necessary tool for clearing-the-chaff; that is, for providing an excuse for those who would discount the prophetic message in any case, to so discount and dismiss the message.  On another hand, the person disposed to hearing the prophetic message might in fact be empowered and emboldened by the somewhat unbalanced delivery of the prophetic message.  This person might begin to consider that if God could use this seemingly limited person to assume the prophetic task; that God might well also select her or him to be an instrument of His word and will in both action and speech.

 

TRADITION AND TRANSLATION

Sometimes, the beliefs of a Church, impact and influence how biblical passages are translated into a modern vernacular language.

The doctrinal beliefs of the institutional authority responsible for creating vernacular translations of biblical texts, sometimes, when presented with a number of possibly accurate translation options; will choose a translation which mirrors or supports the doctrinal views of that ecclesial community.

 

SENSUS PLENIOR

A biblical text can have different meanings, for the author’s intended audience and for persons/communities reading the same passage much later in history.  The meaning for the intended audience can be inerrant and useful and meaningful.  At the same time, it can be the case that God desires a meaning to be communicated which will be more important and intended for audiences not known to the original author.  Further, it is sometimes the case that the original important intended meaning, takes on a new and fuller sense when read and understood within the context of a later historical period.  The Latin phrase for “fuller sense” is sensus plenior.

Those former and original events to which and of which the author speaks can be seen as a means for preparing over long stretches of time, the imagination of a faith community so that they will be able to recognize and understand the divinely intended significance and meaning of future events as they happen.

 

ISRAEL

A possible meaning of the word Israel is “one who struggles with God”.  This name was given to Jacob who struggled with God’s angel.  A pastoral application of this word and its etiology is that struggling, or getting upset with God, or even resisting God, can be an important and necessary element for one to establish a close covenantal relationship with God.

 

CREATION STORIES:  THEODICY

The first creation story, also known as the seven day creation story, was written by a “Priestly author” present in Babylon, experiencing the Babylonian Exile and Captivity.  In addition to being an acknowledgement of God’s creation of all things good and of God as caring and loving, the first creation story reveals a conflicted author asking how an all loving all powerful God could let terribly bad things happen to oneself, one’s family, and one’s people.  The harsh words used by the Priestly author to describe the process of creation, and the obsessive controlling style of the writing, reveal a person traumatized by the terrible aspects of the Babylonian Exile and Captivity happen to His Chosen People.

 

CREATION STORIES:  TECHNOLOGY/ECOLOGY

 

  • The first creation, story written about 550 B.C., was written by a person struggling to hang on; enduring the trauma of the Babylonian Exile and Captivity.  The words this person uses are harsh words.  This person, probably due to having few resources and options, was a very controlling ordered person; almost OCD.  It stands to reason that this person would describe creation in terms of the compromised condition of the land and resources of Israel at this time.  It speaks in terms of handling land and resources in the same controlling harsh manner in which the author was experiencing his captivity.
  • The author of the second creation story, written about 400 years earlier, was writing during the prosperous stable secure period of the Davidic and Solomonic reigns when Israel was a unified nation and an international power.  This story is upbeat.  It describes handling creation in the same mindset in which it sees its own condition; an ability to easily reap benefits from land and resources which can be properly maintained and fostered and nurtered.
  • The advent of modern technological science in the A.D. 1500s will see in the first creation story a paradigm and metaphor and justification for treating nature harshly and rapaciously.  In the words of Rene Descartes’ six part (like the six days of the first creation story) Discours on Methode, “man will become the master and possessor of nature”.
  • Later, the ecological movements of the twentieth and twenty first centuries A.D. will see in the second creation story a paradigmatic metaphor and ethic for treating nature in a gentle and nurturing and sustainable manner.

 

ISAIAH/AGING

The historical context of the three parts of the book of the prophet Isaiah, lend itself to “generational” pastoral ministry.  

  • First Isaiah was written when Israel was still an independent nation but was beginning to wilt under the relentless pressure of external threats and internal demands.  Parts of First Isaiah are, therefore, well suited to ministry to/with adults grappling with the familial demands and professional struggles common to those who have many responsibilities and who are beginning to see that their best days of accomplishment are possibly behind them.
  • Second Isaiah was written when Israel was devastated by the effects of the Babylonian Exile and Captivity.  As such, Second Isaiah can serve as a tool for speaking to the emotional and spiritual needs of the older adult who is beginning to find himself unable to meet the needs of those for whom he is responsible, and who has discovered she has no remaining marketable skills desired by others.
  • Third Isaiah was written as a broken Israel returns to Israel following the Persian restoration.  This is well suited to the aged person who has few responsibilities, few resources, mostly dreams of past glories, and no foreseeable excitements.  This person has a sense of relief that many bad life events are now in the past.  However, this person might see the future as promising a boredom and ennui of few opportunities and of limited usefulness to others.

 

HARDNESS OF HEART

The exodus events speaks over a dozen times of Pharoah’s hardness of heart.  The Bible contains over fifty references to a hardness of heart.  Consistently, these passages indicate that this hardness-of-heart-attitude is what stands in the way of a person attaining salvation, a right covenantal relationship with God as Father, a belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior, a life of heavenly bliss.

 

CYCLE OF APOSTASY

The book of Judges depicts a pattern of behavior referred to as the Cycle of Apostasy, which consists of four movements:  (1) things are going so well for the Chosen People (for the faithful, for us) we begin to become self-satisfied and think that this goodness is due to our own efforts, (2) things began to unravel/go bad, (3) things become so bad that we turn to God for help, (4) God sends a judge (angel, insight, etc.) which helps us get out of our downhill path and things begin to go well, (1) things begin to go so well that we begin to become self-satisfied and credit ourselves for these good results…..

This same type of cyclic apostasy appears in many other biblical passages and at various times throughout the history of Judaism and Christianity.  

 

MIRACLES

Biblical narratives which include miraculous events always contain the following elements; (1) getting what one needs, (2) when one needs to obtain it, (3) all of which happens in a way that evidences God’s involvement.

 

CONCERN FOR POOR

References can be found in the literature of cultures surrounding Israel during the Old Testament period advocating just and kind treatment for the poor and needy.  However, with the prophets of Israel, the just and kind treatment of the poor and needy becomes a strongly recurring theme.  With the prophets of Israel, care for the poor and needy becomes a defining national and cultural characteristic.

 

DEFINITION OF JUSTICE

There are many words describing and defining what justice means.  These ideas come under the names of distributive justice, retributive justice, procedural justice, restorative justice, Rawlsian justice, social justice, a preferential option for the poor, and others.  Many of these understandings of justice are found in the prophetic writings of Israel.  However, all of these “other” understandings of justice are derived from or defined in terms of the central notion of justice found in the Old Testament which is “fidelity (faithfulness) to the covenant.”

 

JUST WAR

The bans/dooms in which Israel participated, as described in the books of Joshua and Judges, entailed specific instructions from God to Israel.  Primary among those instructions was that none of the possible benefits of war should accrue to any of the individuals of Israel.  Specifically, they were not allowed to keep any victims of the conquests as slaves, nor to appropriate for personal gain and use any of the possessions of the conquered peoples.  This instruction can be seen as a sensus plenior; an instruction which will take on a fuller meaning later in the histories of Judaism and Christianity.  

Specifically, the Chosen People should not come to see war as a means of immediate and individual benefit.  This instruction removes some of the attractiveness of engaging in war.  In this limited sense only, the bans/dooms can be seen as a later-to-be-understood counter cultural instruction for advocating peace and the cessation of conflict.

 

FRIENDSHIPS/PARADIGMS OF COVENANT

The Old Testament highlights a number of close friendships; David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi.  In these stories can be found words or phrases characteristic of the definition of the word covenant; a bloodlike-familial relationship of loyalty and loving kindness between God and us; words such as bond, loyalty, loving kindness, caring for the other for the other’s own well being.

 

An Introduction to the Old Testament for Deacons: Truth in the Three Cultures

FILTERS: 

Please look at an image of the Buttefly Nebula (NGC 6203) as it appears when imaged through the Hubble Space Telescope utilizing a set of filters in which the colors of specific wavelengths of light emitted by specific elements have been changed.  This set of filters is called a Hubble Palette.  (Images source: http://www.astronomymark.com/hubble_palette.htm )

 Next, please notice a second image of the same nebula which appears lower on the online page.  This image is a simulation which shows how this nebula might appear to the human eye observing it with no filters used.  That is, the second image is how the Butterfly Nebula might appear when viewed through a very large telescope with no filters being used, or how this nebula might appear if we could travel through space and look at it close up through an unfiltered porthole window in our spacecraft.

A problem in regard to the filtered image of the Butterfly Nebula is that it misleads the uninformed viewer to believe this is the Butterfly Nebula’s actual appearance.

On the other hand, the scientist looking at the Hubble filtered image can use the information provided in that filtered image to obtain usefully valid scientific information about the nebula and the star from which the nebula was created.

If one is unaware that a filter is being used, s/he might form incorrect conclusions.  On the other hand, if one is aware that a filter is being used and if one has some understanding of what that filter actually does, s/he can reach correct conclusions.  This truth applies equally to the analysis of astronomical images or to the interpretation and application of biblical texts.

 

THE GREEK TO ENGLISH TRANSLATION FILTER:

In the common koine Greek language in which the New Testament was written, each Greek verb has a staggering number of forms of voice, person, and tense.

The advantage of having all these forms is that it allows the speaker or writer to express subtle shades of meaning.  For example, the Greek verb λύειν, pronounced loo-ane and meaning “to loose/to untie”, has 287 different forms.  The author/writer or, in the case of the New Testament, the evangelist, can choose from among these many forms to articulate the nuances of the idea s/he wishes to communicate.

A disadvantage occurs when one seeks to translate a Greek text into colloquial American English.  English verbs have far fewer forms of voice, tense, and person.  The same verb, “to loose/to untie”, has 168 fewer forms of voice, tense, and person in English.  The translator is forced to use only 119 verb forms to attempt to communicate the original idea appearing in the Greek language text.  (https://www.verbix.com/webverbix/go.php?D1=206&T1=λύω ) .

As an analogy for the difficulty this verb-form-disparity presents to the translator hoping to create a good English translation of a Greek language text, imagine being given a copy of Monet’s Artist’s Garden at Giverny.  Please look at the image found at https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Q3794124 .

 Notice its many shades of color.  Imagine an art instructor hands you white paper and a CRAYOLA 8 PACK (an image of which can be found at  https://shop.crayola.com )

Now imagine you are asked to make a copy of that painting using only those 8 colored crayons.  One might be able to draw a recognizable caricature of the original, but not a photo like rendition.

The disparity between what is found in an original text in one language and the means for creating a translation of the same into another language, represents a filter for one attempting to understand and apply that text.  Knowledge of the original language used or the use of various interpretive tools such as commentaries helps one acquire correct interpretations and applications.

The ways the word “truth” is understood and used in biblical semitic culture, in koine Greek culture, and in modern western culture, represents just such filters impacting correct interpretation and application of biblical texts.

 

TRUTH IN THE MODERN WESTERN WORLD—FACTICITY

In the modern western world, the word truth primarily is understood and used in the sense of “An exact correspondence between something one wishes to describe and the words used to describe that something.”  An example of a statement of facticity being used is “You are reading this text” or “This text is in dark letters on a white background”.  Whenever the question “Is that true?” is asked about some previous statement, that question evidences the use of the word true/truth in the sense of facticity.  The one asking “Is that true?” is seeking a fact.  S/he wants to know if the statement made is correct or not.

Truth as facticity appears when biblical passages are literally interpreted and applied.  The pentecostal (Christian) snake handler incorporates snake handling into worship services so as to demonstrate that God protects the true believer even if s/he handles a snake or even is s/he is bitten by the snake s/he is handling.  Such a practice is based on a literal interpretation and application of Mark 16:18 (“They will pick up serpents [with their hands], and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.”) and Acts of the Apostles 28:1-6 (“…a viper…fastened on his [Paul’s] hand….[H]e shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no harm. They were expecting him to swell up or suddenly to fall down dead but, after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.”).  Similarly, the skopts (members of a Christian sect present in Russia in the A.D 1700s and 1800s) castrated themselves and had their breasts cut off as a way of following Matthew 5:27-30 to the letter, (“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”)

It is easy to assume persons, like the skopts and snake handlers who apply certain biblical passages in a literal factual manner, are ignorant and backward.  However, even educated sophisticated persons sometimes insist the bible adhere to a factual filter.  Consider the case of President Thomas Jefferson, to whom President Kennedy referred at an April 1992 White House Dinner for Nobel Prize Winners, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.  Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.”

Jefferson certainly fit the description of urbanity and intelligence.  And yet, the bible he created, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, evidences this same filter of truth as facticity.  Instead of including both the synoptic gospel narrative that the Last Supper was a Passover meal and the narrative found in John that the Last Supper was not a Passover meal, he chooses to include only one indicating the Last Supper as a Passover meal (“…the disciples came to Jesus, saying unto him, Where wilt thou that we prepare for thee to eat the passover?” (Mark 14:1&12, Matthew 26:17) “And supped being ended” (John 13:2; John 13:1 “Before the feast of Passover…” is left out of Jefferson’s bible passage selections.))  The selection of the one and the removal of the other indicates his belief that one was factually correct and that only the factually correct narrative should be included.

 

TRUTH IN GREEK CULTURE—ἀλήθεια

Koine (meaning “common”) Greek was spoken when the New Testament was written in the Greek language.  In the New Testament, the word ἀλήθεια (pronounced ah-lay-thay-ah) is the word for “truth” which is being used.  For example, in John 14:6 we find,

  • ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ όδὸς και ἡ ἀλήθεια και ἡ ζωή
  • ego ay-me hay hodos kai hay ah-lay-thay-ah kai hay zo-ay
  • I am the way and the truth and the life

 The root word of ἀλήθεια is λήθη.  λήθη, in Greek mythology is a river of forgetfulness or oblivion one passes into/over upon death.  The particle “ἀ” at the beginning of ἀλήθεια is pronounced “ah” and means “not”.  The meaning of ἀλήθεια, derived from combining ἀ and  λήθη, is “to not forget”, “to remember”, “to unconceal”, or “to reveal” (“to reveal the ways things are”)

In 1979, I took a semester course on the gospel of John while living in Jerusalem, Israel-Palestine.  One day, I went to the library and found a book by the biblical scholar Father Raymond Brown entitled The Gospel of John.  As I read this book, I came across a footnote which stated that the concept of truth was missing from the earliest extant Greek literature, the Iliad and Odyssey attributed to Homer.  I was stunned by the thought that any type of story at all could be written without using in some way the concept of truth.  Recently to verify Brown’s assertion, I looked for forms of the word truth, ἀλήθεια, in the Iliad and Odyssey.  As you can see, I found a few Attic Greek forms of the koine Greek ἀλήθεια.  Then I looked up the prevalence of the use of forms of ἀλήθεια in later Greek texts and discovered the use of ἀλήθεια increased greatly over time.  A form of ἀλήθεια was used the following number of times in each of the listed texts:

a form of ἀλήθεια is used 2-times in Homer’s Iliad, written around 800 B.C

a form of ἀλήθεια is used 14-times in Homer’s Odyssey, written around 800 B.C.

a form of ἀλήθεια is used 56-times in Herodotus’ Inquiry (ἱστορία), written around 450 B.C.

a form of ἀλήθεια is used 118-times in Thucydides’ History…, written around 450 B.C.

a form of ἀλήθεια is used 250+ times in the New Testament, written between A.D.48 and 100

The existence and the meaning and the use of the word ἀλήθεια grew and evolved over time.  As its use became more frequent, the understanding developed in Greek culture that ἀλήθεια could be manifested in many different ways, by many different means.  The meaning of other words, understood to be vehicles of communicating ἀλήθεια, also evolved throughout the history of early Greek literature.  Such was the case with the Greek word meaning “story”.

The ancient Greek word meaning “story” is μυθος which is  pronounced moo-thos.  The English word “myth” is phonetically derived from the word μυθος.  At the time of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (c. 800 B.C.), a μυθος was a “telling”, neither true nor false, which got-the-point-across or revealed-the-way-things-are.  About a hundred years later, in the 700s B.C., the idea, that stories/words (μύθοισιν) could be false, appears in the writings of the poet Hesiod.  This appearance strongly indicates that the original meaning of μυθος as being neither true nor false is correct.

Modern western culture tends to distinguish between those literary forms which are factual and those which are not.  If we were to survey a hundred persons at a mall about the truth or falsity of various literary forms, I suspect most would use the word true to describe history, and use the word false or the phrase not-true to describe fable, fiction, poetry, legend, and myth.  To a similar degree, if we were to survey a hundred people in the agora of Athens say around 200 B.C., I am pretty sure they would say all six of these literary forms are ἀλήθεια; that is, capable of equally revealing the way things are.

  • the literary form of “history” such as Ken Burn’s Civil War or Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War
  • the literary form of “fiction” such as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind or Homer’s Odyssey
  • the literary form of “fable” such as the stories found in David Sedaris’ Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk or Aesop’s Crow and Pitcher
  • the literary form of “poetry” such as Ernest Thayer’s Casey at the Bat or the story of Prometheus found in Hesiod’s Theogony
  • the literary form of “legend” such as George Trendle’s and Fran Striker’s Lone Ranger or Ovid’s telling of Midas of the golden touch
  • the literary form of “myth” such as Jerry Siegel’s and Joe Shuster’s Hercules (of D.C. Comics) or Peisander’s Hercules

Just as modern western attachment to fact-speech is a filter, ἀλήθεια may have served as a filter in koine Greek culture, influencing what got into the New Testament.  For example, the synoptics portray the last supper as a passover meal (Mark 14:12-16, Matthew 26:17-19, Luke 22:7-13).  However, John explicitly says it is something other than the passover meal (John 13:1-2).  Though factually contradictory, the reason both are included in the New Testament may be because both are ἀλήθεια.  In the koine Greek mind, both narratives reveal something important about Christology.  The writers of the synoptics understand the meaning of Jesus in one way and use the last supper passover narrative to express that understanding.  The author of John understands Jesus in another way and uses a non-passover last supper narrative to express that understanding.  Since the early Christian faith community felt both revealed essential truths about Jesus’ nature and purpose, that both are ἀλήθεια; both were included in the canon of the Greek New Testament.

 

TRUTH IN SEMITIC CULTURE—אֶמֶת

Like ἀλήθεια in the koine Greek culture of the New Testament, Semitic culture has a word it uses to express a concept of truth.  In the Hebrew language, that word is אֶמֶת (pronounced “eh-meht”), the primary meaning of which is loyalty.  Interestingly, the word “amen” has the same root spelling (אָמֵן) as does אֶמֶת.

The fact that the Hebrew word for truth means loyalty indicates that loyalty is a central aspect of semitic culture in general.  This centrality of loyalty in semitic culture, and this tendency to equate truthfulness and loyalty, filters its way into and impacts much of semitic culture.  Such an influence is evidenced by an A.D. 1978 event at the United Nations.  In response to severe shortages of potable water, in the 1970s, commercial desalination (of sea water) began at the city of Eilat, Israel on the Red sea.  On September 7, 1978, the United Nations held a conference on technological cooperation.  When the Israeli delegate rose to speak, Arab delegates walked out.  To our modern western way of thinking the semitic Arab response and reaction to the Israeli presence is short-sighted, ignorant, arrogant, brutish.  After all, the Arabs’ own children also needed fresh water.  And yet, in a semitic way of understanding truth as loyalty, they are disinclined to accept anything from, and disinclined to trust anything said by, those with whom they shared no loyalty, אֶמֶת.  In the semitic mindset, westerners who attended this conference because they also could benefit from the knowledge of such technology, but who had no special affinity to the Israelis; in the semitic mind such an act of participation would be seen as cold and unloving.  Such an act would be interpreted as valuing facts more than relationships.

This concept of truth-as-loyalty influenced what was eventually included within the canon of the Old Testament.  Consider the example of the Old Testament practice of including retellings of the same story which are often quite different; sometimes containing details which are contradictory.

Genesis 1:1-2:4a and 2:4b-25:  (Priestly and Yahwist creation stories)

  • Genesis 6:19:  Of all living creatures…bring two of every kind into the ark
  • Genesis 7:2-3 Of every clean animal, take…seven pairs…likewise, of every bird of the air, seven pairs
  • Genesis 12:11-15:  [H]e [Abram] said to his wife Sarai…they will say, ‘She is his wife’; then they will kill me, but let you live.  Please say, therefore, that you are my sister”…the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.
  • Genesis 20:2: Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” So Abimelech, king of Gerar, sent and took Sarah.
  • Genesis 26:9-10:  When the men of the place asked questions about his [Jacob] wife [Rebekah], he answered, “She is my sister.” He was afraid that, if he called her his wife, the men of the place would kill him on account of Rebekah, since she was beautiful.  But when they had been there for a long time, Abimelech…

Including multiple tellings of stories with different aspects may be because the focus of semitic truth is not only on the facts of the stories, but on the status of the tellers of the stories.  In the case of the creation stories, the flood ark stories, the Sarah/Rebekah stories, the filter which determined that these differing versions would be included in the Canon of the Old Testament was that they all had authors and tellers who could be trusted; God or Moses.

The effect of this אֶמֶת filter was the same as the New Testament ἀλήθεια filter in that contradictory versions are included, but for a different reason.  The filter criterion of the New Testament Greek was that all the versions revealed some essential aspect about Jesus Christ.  The filter criterion of the Old Testament Hebrew culture was that the tellers could and must be trusted.  Thus, all stories must be included.

An Introduction to the Old Testament for Deacons: Where We Are.

Thirty some years ago I ran across a novel written by a Roman Catholic.  I cannot remember the title.  All I clearly remember is that the novel speaks of a Roman Catholic Religious order made up of members whom the author called “The Used, the Abused, and the Utterly Confused”.

I have often thought that the words “used, abused, and utterly confused” is an apt description for many persons sitting in our pews who do not accept themselves as they are; who imagine or who experience others not accepting them as they are.

Persons participating in diaconal ministry formation know that God comes into our lives and deals with each one of us exactly where we are.  They know and believe God enters into the real brokenness of each and every individual.

My topic today is the biblical foundations of our belief that god deals with each one of us exactly as we are; exactly where we are.

It is good to review those biblical passages which reveal that God deals with us where we are.  As we remind ourselves of these biblical events, over and over, we build up our memory storehouse of these biblical stories.  Then, when we minister to the used, abused, and utterly confused, we will be able to provide them evidence, in the forms of biblical analogies, that God accepts them and deals with them exactly where they are.

[THE INCARNATION]

Philosophy is the use of reason and dialogue to discover and display the way things are.  A recent development within philosophy is the discipline called phenomenology.  Beginning in the late 1800s/early 1900s A.D., phenomenology seeks to refine and clarify the intellectual tools we use to discern the essence of the things of which we are aware.  Using these intellectual tools, one attempts to distinguish between the essential and the trivial aspects of the things of which we are aware.  In order to identify those essential aspects, one of the thinking-tools used by phenomenology is the awareness of absences.  Awareness of absence helps one discern the essential nature of a given thing, person, situation, event.

Central to Christian faith is the event called The Incarnation.  The Incarnation refers to God becoming fully human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary.  In addition to being a core belief of the Christian faith, a full appreciation of the meaning of The Incarnation is central to Roman Catholic morality and pastoral ministry.  Phenomenology, and its emphasis on the awareness of absences, helps us become aware of the essential importance of The Incarnation.

There is a glaring absence related to the Incarnation event.  Though there were many prophetic statements ahead of time indicating the arrival of a Messiah, a Christ; there was never a statement of preconditions.  There was never sent to us, prior to the Incarnation, a divine decree, a statement by God, saying changes had to occur in human behavior in order for the Incarnation to occur.  Prior to the Incarnation, we were not told we had to change our ways.

The conclusion to draw from this pre-Incarnational absence is that God decided to enter the human condition exactly as it is.  God did not demand a fundamental change in humanity, in human attitude and behaviors and thoughts and words, prior to entering the human condition as one of the members of humanity.

God accepted us exactly as we were/are.  Into that exactly-as-we-are state, the Incarnation occurred.

A significant corollary of this Incarnational fact is that God then chose to use only those means which human beings use to communicate.  God chose to use human words the way humans use words to communicate the messages of repentance and the Kingdom of God.  God chose to use human behaviors and physical presence to communicate the messages of repentance and the Kingdom of God.

God could have communicated everything God wanted us to know about repentance and the Kingdom of God, directly by a neural chemical electrical bolt into our cerebral cortices.  But God did not do it that way.  Rather, God adopted the nature of the human condition and used only the means of the human condition to communicate with and to us everything He wanted us to know.

In summary, the Incarnation is proof that God enters our lives and deals with us exactly where we are at.  Further, the incarnation reveals to us that God, through Jesus, uses the immediacy of human speech, touch, and physical presence to let us know God accepts us and deals with us exactly where we are.

[THE DOOM]

The Old Testament contains many stories which imply that God places no pre-conditions on His choice to enter into our lives, as messy as our lives might be, and to deal with us and assist us, exactly where-we-are.  One of the biblical events which attests to this assertion involves the biblical story of the destruction of the city of Jericho and of other similar events found in the books of Joshua and Judges.

The Chosen People escaped the slavery of Egypt.  This was followed by forty years in the desert.  This forty years was a retreat experience in which the Chosen People began to learn how to identify and reject slavish thinking and slavish acting.

After forty years, they leave the Sinai desert and travel toward the promised land of Canaan.  Upon entering Canaan, the Chosen People encounter many peoples and groups who resist them.  Time and again the Chosen People are instructed by God to engage in activities which are called, in the Hebrew language, Herem or Herec, and which are translated in our English language Bibles as the Doom or the Ban.  

Upon encountering peoples or groups which resist them, with God’s permission and at God’s direction, the Chosen People destroy nearly everything.  Those things of value which are not destroyed, are not taken into the possession of any individual but, are dedicated to worship and to God’s use; that is, these things are considered holy.  At the same time, all of the enemy group, including women and children, the old and ill; all are killed.

From the perspective of the Chosen People, the Herem or Herec are Bans; a command of God that they are banned from benefitting from any spoils of war.  From the perspective of the peoples or groups conquered and utterly annihilated, the Herem or Herec is a Doom.

The high school juniors to whom I taught the Old Testament had a great deal of difficulty with the biblical commands of the Ban, the Doom.

For those juniors who tended to see the bible as literally true, the reality of God ordering bans and dooms often led them to question the Bible and their faith in a loving and just God.

For those juniors who accepted a contextual understanding of the sacred scriptures, they were troubled by the fact that some human author understood and portrayed God, as a God who ordered such things.  To these contextualist thinking juniors, it did not help that God did not order the bans and dooms.  It did not help them because the bans and dooms still appeared in the biblical texts as inspired forms of moral and spiritual instruction.

Even when I pointed out that archaeology had proven that the first ban, which was the doom of the city of Jericho and of the people of that city; that this ban/doom could not have actually happened; this provided my juniors no consolation because, once again, the bans and dooms appeared in the inspired biblical texts as forms of moral and spiritual instruction.

To help the juniors deal with the presence of the doom/ban in the biblical texts, I addressed them in the following manner, 

“Years ago, when I was a pastoral associate at a parish, I was called to the emergency waiting room of a local hospital to see and talk with a woman whose child was in emergency surgery.  The child, only a few years old, had been raped a few hours earlier by a boyfriend of the mother of the child.  The surgery was to repair the internal organ damage caused by having been raped.

““The mother was in an emotional mess.  She was feeling tremendous guilt for the harm done to her child.  She was feeling tremendous shame for having failed to identify the harmful tendencies of the boyfriend.  And she had feelings of overwhelming hate for the child rapist.

“Hopefully, I made comments about how God was very present at this exact moment in the operating room with her child and how God was present at this exact moment in the waiting room with her, the mother.  I hoped I said things about how God was guiding the hands of the surgeons to heal her child, and hopefully I said things about how God was present to her at this moment to offer her consolation and strength so that she could get past her strong feelings about herself so she could best serve the needs of her child in recovery.

“Now, imagine what might have happened in that waiting room, what the mother might have said and done if at this exact moment I also shared that God was present in the mind and heart of the rapist, lovingly guiding him to repentance.  Imagine if I would have said that God loves and cares for him just as much as God loves and cares for her and her child.  How might she have reacted to such words?

“Obviously, her reaction might well have been very negative and very strong.  In all likelihood, at this particular moment in time, one thing she was totally unable to hear was that God also cared for and loved the rapist.

“Well, the Chosen People have, in the storyline, just endured generations of brutal treatment as slaves.  Further, the writer of these storylines is also undergoing foreign abuse by Assyrians or Babylonians.  Like the mother in the emergency waiting room, at this moment in their histories, the Chosen People are in no frame of mind to understand, much less accept, the idea that God also cares for and loves the Canaanites or Egyptians or Babylonians or Assyrians.

“Because the Chosen People, at this moment in time, are unable to hear the message that God loves and cares for all people, God limits Himself to a message they can understand; the human author limits himself to a message the used and abused and utterly confused Chosen People can understand; God loves the Chosen People and will protectively care for them.

“Over many subsequent generations, as the experience of freedom and national self identify impact the Chosen People, and as they maturate beyond the slavish ways of thinking and acting they learned in Egypt; over time, other biblical writers will appear, namely the prophets, who will communicate to them that God also loves and cares for other peoples and groups as well.  At that later date, the Chosen People will be able to accept this idea of God’s care for all; their own imaginations having been properly prepared by their experience of God’s care and love for them.

“God’s appropriately limited activity, among the Chosen People portrayed as engaged in the Ban/Doom; God’s appropriately limited instruction can be seen operating in another way.  Consider the ramifications of being told they may not take possession of any of the spoils of war against oppressing peoples and groups.  Being told not to benefit from doing war is a dis-incentive for undertaking war.  In a very subtle and gentle way, by commanding the Ban, God is teaching the Chosen People to avoid engaging in war.

“In conclusion, at the moment in time when the bans/dooms may have happened, at the point in the history of the Chosen People when authors felt it useful to describe God as ordering the bans and the Chosen People as performing the dooms, at these moments in time, clearly understanding what the Chosen People were able and were not able to understand and accept, God dealt with the Chosen People exactly where they were at mentally, emotionally, and relationally.  God limited His guidance to what they, the Chosen People, could understand and accept within their current perspectives, limited as they were by the abuse they had undergone and the confusion this abuse instilled in them.  God gave them only what they could handle.”

[THE CHOSEN PEOPLE]

When we read with a pastoral eye and comprehend with a pastoral heart, the stories about the Chosen People, we see that they constitute a highly dysfunctional family system.  And yet, this is exactly the group of people God wants to associate with, with no pre-conditions.

God initiates an idyllic relationship with Adam and Eve.  Adam and Eve reject God.  Their human existence begins to go awry.  God promises to assist them over time to return to a condition of righteousness, holiness, redemption.

God establishes a covenant with Abraham and Sarah.  These two are deeply impacted, emotionally and intellectually by this invitation.  They never forget this invitation.  They always attempt to live as best they can in accord with this covenant.  And yet, they screw up.  Abraham worries about childlessness.  Sarah provides him a sexual partner to have a child.  Sarah becomes threatened by the influence of the mother of this child and requires Abraham to abandon this child and its mother to their fate.  To forestall a violent attacker, Sarah and Abraham agree to offer her as a sexual object to the attacker.  Later Abraham attempts to murder his son Isaac.  In each case he and they are attempting to do what is correct but we know objectively the acts are wrong.  And yet God continues to be faithful to Abraham and Sarah and Isaac.

Isaac, perhaps due to the trauma of his father attempting to kill him, grows up to be a cold man.  It is difficult for Rekekah to live with him.  Rebekah emotionally bonds with her youngest son.  Isaac dolts upon his first born son and ignores his youngest son Jacob.  Perhaps he is afraid he will become to Jacob the type of father Abraham was to him.  There is familial deceit.  There are hatreds.  There are abandonments.  And yet God chooses to remain faithful to this family.

Jacob finally leaves.  He goes to his mother’s brother, an uncle who cruelly misuses him.  When he comes of age, he chooses to marry one of the uncle’s daughters.  On his wedding night he sleeps with his wife’s sister.  He marries both of them.  Over time, the two wives provide him two other sexual partners.  From these four women are born at least thirteen children.  And again, carrying out a traditional aspect of this dysfunctional family, Jacob showers his affection on his youngest son Joseph, creating deep resentments among his siblings.  The siblings attempt to kill their younger brother.  To cover up the attempted murder, they lie to their parents.  Despite all this dysfunction, God continues to be present in the lives of the members of this family; guiding them through important events in Egypt, the Sinai, and in Canaan.

No person in the Bible is depicted more after-God’s-own-heart than David the King.  And yet David is blind to his own faults.  He has a sexual addiction.  He sexually assaults and commits adultery with a married woman.  He has the husband of that woman murdered.  David, shirking his duty according to Jewish Law to be celibate during war, has this non-Jewish husband murdered who is acting according to Jewish law by being celibate during war.  David’s arrogant pride causes him to forget the evil he did, until his political advisor Nathan reminds him of his sins.  David repents.  God continues to be intimately involved in guiding David on his spiritual journey and the spiritual journey of his people.

[THE NEW TESTAMENT]

The New Testament is full of stories where Jesus interacts with individuals who are experiencing significant pain, discouragement, sadness in their fractured and broken and chaotic lives.  Such events are recorded in the narratives of the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the man born blind, et alia.

[THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH]

At a parish meeting, an accomplished and highly intelligent business person asked why there were so many more alcoholics among Roman Catholics than were found in other religious denominations.

I do not know if this assertion is statistically correct or not.  However, I do know that the Roman Catholic Church, in addition to being the Church instituted by Jesus Christ and in addition to being Holy; I do know that the Roman Catholic Church is messy, having members whose lives are chaotic, and led by leaders who are sometimes dysfunctional.  The Roman Catholic Church has skeletons in its closet.

I am willing to say that it is possible that of all Christian denominations, the Roman Catholic Church may be the most dysfunctional, the messiest, with the most members who are used and abused and utterly confused.

And if this assertion is true, it makes perfect sense that this is the way things are.  After all, God chose to enter the human condition exactly as it is, exactly where people are.  It then follows that when Jesus instituted a Church, he would choose to institute the Church from and among and of those persons who will prove to be fully human, messy, chaotic, dysfunctional, used, abused, and confused.

This makes sense because if the salvation and redemption of the Christ can be accomplished in this type of community, then we have proof that the entirety of humanity, in and outside the Roman Catholic Church, can gain righteousness and redemption; joy and peace.

An Introduction to the Old Testament for Deacons: Dialogue

In his public statements, Pope Francis uses the word dialogue often.  In Laudato Si, he used the word dialogue 25 times.  In Lumen Fidei, he used this word a dozen times.  In Evangelii Gaudium, the word dialogue is used 59 times.

His emphasis on dialogue is a treat for me.  At age twenty, I entered philosophy studies at The Catholic University in Washington, D.C.  Dialogue was expected in our classes.  At this same time, I lived at Theological College on the campus of The Catholic University.  One of the first days there, we were handed a document which stated that Theological College was a dialogical community; a community which discovered insights and reached decisions by means of dialogue.

Because of these experiences, every class I have taught has been conducted in a dialogical fashion.

However, over my thirty plus years of teaching, I have discovered certain obstacles to building and facilitating a dialogical environment.

One obstacle are talk-a-holics who speak without stopping.  These persons don’t use speech to state ideas, but speak so as to find ideas.  They sometimes just like to hear themselves speaking.  And, instead of coming to a conclusion when an idea has been stated, they seamlessly slip into talking about another idea.

A second obstacle is the person who begins a lecture (or homily) in an organized manner but then loses track of her/his train of thought and because of an embarrassed dis-ease, will talk until they find a conclusion.

A third obstacle happens often in R.C.I.A. settings.  An important part of R.C.I.A. is to encourage catechumens and candidates to talk about their faith, about their religious practice, and about their life experience.  What often happens is that the sponsors and/or members of the presenting team do most of the talking.

A fourth obstacle is the person who often, or exclusively, uses speech to preach at others.  For this person, a discussion is not a dialogue but a series of monologues.  This person does not listen to what others have to say.

To counteract these and other obstacles, I have learned to use a number of behaviors in the classes I teach and groups I facilitate.  I model the dialogical behaviors I seek to encourage.  For example, I let people talk.  In order to let people talk, I have become comfortable sitting with a group in silence until members of the group not use to speaking in a group begin doing so.  Or, sometimes, to get these persons to talk, I might create a gentle sequestration rule following a question, such as, “Since this question deals specifically with the experiences of those new to Catholicism, I would like to hear the thoughts of those here who are catechumens.”

I also begin some of my classes and groups by introducing the participants to the history of dialogue in the western tradition.  I will speak of Socrates and Plato who modeled dialogical investigation, recorded in Plato’s works aptly called The Dialogues.  I will share quotes by Mortimer Adler and Alfred Maynard Hutchins stating that the spirit of the west is the spirit of the Dialogue.  Using ideas of a Thomas Prufer of The Catholic University’s School of Philosophy, I will suggest to the group present that what we are about to do is sitting at a timeless table of discourse at which real persons and ancestral voices (represented by their primary source texts) gather in dialogue about ideas of enduring importance.

And then, near the end of these comments, I might share what I call The Rules of Dialogical Courtesy.  I may share some of these rules a second or third time, as their repetition is needed during the days or weeks or months the group meets.  I might post some on the walls and draw attention to them.  I try to avoid specifically pointing out specific rules to specific persons as they act in a dialogically discourteous manner.  However, with a bit of levity or self-deprecation, I may, challenge an individual.  For example, in order to stop the talk-a-holic, I might share (when the opportunity presents itself) how once I was into a long boring monologue until I noticed one of my students snoring.

Dialogue is the use of disciplined speech, among friends, in a leisure environment, to discover and display ideas of enduring importance.

By means of dialogue we come to discover and display new insights.  By teaching and modeling dialogue, we help our audience become attentive to those insights which may change their thinking and behavior.  The experience of dialogue and the awareness of insights gained as a result of dialogue may change the thinking and behavior of one’s intended audience.

It is valuable to understand the difference between dialogue and rhetoric.  Dialogue is the use of disciplined speech to discover and display ideas.  Rhetoric is the use of disciplined speech (and the use of other techniques) in order to persuade.  

Dialogue presents and displays ideas, after which the other participants to the dialogue are allowed to accept the idea presented or to not accept it.

Rhetoric uses a number of ploys to coerce the audience to agree with the statement made.  These ploys include not speaking, speaking too much and too often, asking questions instead of making statements, repeating statements, rambling on, creating distractions or disruptions, not reading assigned material, not listening to the person speaking, speaking in a loud voice.

THE RULES OF DIALOGICAL COURTESY:  

  1. SPEAK:  Each person should speak.  No one should remain silent.
  2. MAKE STATEMENTS/AVOID ASKING QUESTIONS:  When one speaks, s/he should avoid asking questions, rhetorical or actual.  Instead, one should make statements.
  3. AVOID REPEATING STATEMENTS:  One should, in general, not repeat one’s own statements.  (There are times when a repetition is necessary; say, for example, when someone was unable to hear a statement due to a door being loudly shut.)
  4. CLEARLY FINISH STATEMENTS:  The speaker should clearly indicate when s/he is done speaking.  Colloquially, we might say the speaker should put a definitive period on his/her comments.  The speaker should avoid trailing off in an unfinished manner.  Speakers should avoid rambling on so as to find a conclusion.
  5. DECIDE WHAT YOU WANT TO SAY AND SAY IT:  It is best for the person who wishes to speak, to first clearly decide what s/he wants to say and then, when s/he has the opportunity to speak, to concisely state what it is s/he wanted to say.
  6. AVOID DISTRACTIONS/BEING DISTRACTED:  No one should engage in distracting or disrupting actions which draw attention away from the person speaking.
  7. ALLOW SPEAKERS TO FINISH:  One should speak only when the person currently speaking is clearly finished talking.
  8. PROVIDE SUMMARY REPETITION:  When one speaks, it is good, before sharing one’s own thoughts, to concisely and clearly and accurately repeat the ideas shared by previous speakers about which one wishes to comment.
  9. MODERATE SPEECH:  One should moderate the amount of time and number of times s/he speaks.  A general rule is that each individual should speak less and less often than the rest of group as a whole speaks.
  10. LEISURE ENVIRONMENT: A dialogue should take place in a room free from noise and disruption.  If possible, children should not be present.
  11. FACE TO FACE:  Dialogue requires physical presence.  Avoid, if possible, conducting sessions online.
  12. AVOID TIME CONSTRAINTS:  Ideally, the dialogue should have no set amount of time.  The dialogue should be allowed to continue as long as the group wishes to discuss the topic at hand.
  13. HAVE REQUESTED ITEMS:  Each participant should come with all required texts and with the means to take notes.
  14. DO ASSIGNED READINGS:  If a document was assigned for reading prior to the dialogue, each participant should read that material ahead of time.
  15. SILENTLY REREAD:  If a document of many passages/paragraphs will be read aloud during the dialogue,  it is best to read it aloud in the following manner.  Person A reads the first passage/paragraph aloud.  Person B will read the second /passage/paragraph aloud, but only after Person B (and the rest of the dialogical group) have first re-read the first passage/paragraph again silently.  Persons C will read the third passage/paragraph aloud, but only after all have silently read the second passage/paragraph.  And so on.
  16. MARK UP TEXT:  When a document is being read aloud, the other participants should also follow along by silently reading the passage/paragraph being read aloud.  (Participants should not read ahead of the section which is being read aloud.)  During those times when previous passages/paragraphs are silently being reread, participants should mark the passages they are silently rereading by highlighting (with a circle or underline) anything which catches their attention.  Also, the participants should place a mark next to each highlighted piece of text.  The mark should take the form of a plus mark (+) if the statement is one with which the participant agrees, a negative mark (-) if the statement is one with which the participant disagrees, or a question mark (?) if the statement is one which is unclear to the participant.  Participants might also add comments near these marks, explaining why they caught his/her attention.
  17. PROVIDE TEXT DIRECTIONS:  When one wishes to comment about a statement found in the text all participants have on hand, it is good to first direct everyone’s attention to exactly where the passage to be commented upon is found.  (For example, “I took issue with what was said on page fifteen, in the second full paragraph, in the sentence beginning with the words (so and so).”  Then one pauses briefly while others find this passage and once they seem to have done so, then the speaker continues with his/her comments about that textual statement.)  In dialogue it is valuable to display courtesy toward ancestral voices (i.e. primary source texts) with the same courtesy one displays toward and with other persons with whom we engage in dialogue.

The detailed and nuanced manner in which I presented these rules of dialogue may have seemed pedantic to you.  Perhaps you found the excessive focus on detail irritating and offensive.  Perhaps you were justified in feeling so.  I apologize.

On the other hand, I want you to have in one place every detail of what constitutes dialogue.  On your own you can decide to use or not use, in part or in whole, what was just shared with you.  I have displayed for you ideas presented to me about dialogue and ideas I have about dialogue.  You are free to use or reject them.

Should you choose to use my material on dialogue with groups with whom you work in the future, I would like to offer a few more general comments for your consideration.

I find it easy to teach this stuff on dialogue to adolescents and young adults.  Because I am so much older, they often assume that it is important and that they should be attentive to what I am saying.

Older adults might not be receptive.  Nonetheless, it is usually just this group who needs to know what dialogue is and how dialogue manifests itself.  Thus, I use a version of an old homiletics trick, which is, if you want to make sure the adults in an audience will listen to your words, all you need to say is, “What I am now about to say is meant only for the children present.”

So, with an older adult group I might start out with a statement about the emphasis Pope Francis puts on dialogue.  I follow this by saying the following, “I have found there is confusion about what dialogue actually is.  In response to this confusion, I have come up with statements about what dialogue is and what it is not.  I call these statements The Rules of Dialogical Courtesy.  I often share these rules of Dialogical Courtesy with groups of teenagers and young adults whom I teach.  These are those statements which I share with groups of teenagers.”  And then I simply tell the adult group the points I wish to make about dialogue.

I want to close by returning to the definition of the word dialogue and pointing out some remarkable aspects about the words used in that definition.

I defined dialogue as “the use of disciplined speech, among friends, in a leisure environment, to discover and display ideas of enduring importance.”  There are four phrases in that definition, “disciplined speech”, “among friends”, “leisure environment”, “ideas of enduring importance”.  I will take these one by one and make a comment or two about each.

Ideas of enduring importance refer to important ideas which re-surface, time and again, in millennia long human conversations and writings; ideas such as beauty, freedom, eternity, love, death, government, law, and the like.  There are many such ideas of enduring importance.  “Hailey likes ice cream” is an idea.  But it is not an important idea.  “What will Hailey do when she grows up?” is an important idea, but it is not an idea of enduring importance.  In all likelihood, a century after Hailey is dead, no one will think of Hailey; much less about what she did with her life.  However, if in one of her homilies, Hailey says something new and valuable about freedom or love, it is possible that idea will be repeated in the future.  That would be an idea of enduring importance.

By leisure environment, we mean things which are conducive to holding a dialogue.  We mean being able to control the noise, and not placing constraints on the length of time it will take to fully discuss a given topic.  In this regard of creating an environment which is leisurely, it is interesting to note that the ancient Greek language word which meant “leisure” was pronounced sko-lay.  Sko-lay is the Greek word from which the words school and scholar are phonetically derived.  The words school and scholar are derived from a word which meant leisure.

The word “friends” is key in the phrase that a dialogue occurs among friends.  By friends, we do not mean that the participants to the dialogue like each other.  They may, in fact, have no feelings at all for one another.  By friends, we mean that all present agree to not engage in rhetoric; we do not attempt to coerce, manipulate, or control the thinking of the others present.  We agree to display our ideas and allow others to pick those ideas up, examine them, accept or reject them.

By “the use of disciplined speech”, in general we mean that “we say what we mean and we mean what we say”.  More specifically, we speak clearly and concisely.  We avoid mumbling.  We avoid all forms of rhetorical manipulation.  We avoid equivocation; that is, we make sure the entire dialogical group has similar understandings of the words we use.  We use our speech to state the ideas we have.  We use speech to discover insights.  We use speech to display the insights we have.