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.

 

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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.

An Introduction to the Old Testament for Deacons: The World Explained by a Man

Public Broadcasting has been running its version of the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle as the TV series entitled Sherlock.

In the episode entitled The Six Thatchers, Mary, the wife of Doctor John Watson, is shot dead.  A different woman with a hand gun, enraged by the ridicule of Sherlock Holmes, shoots at Sherlock.  Mary, knowing this was about to happen, dives in between Sherlock and the discharging gun, taking the bullet in her own chest and dies.

In the next episode, entitled The Lying Detective, we see that Doctor John Watson is traumatized by Mary’s death.  In an opening scene, John is riding in the back of a cab to an appointment with a psychological therapist.  Next to him in the back seat is the very alive looking ghost of his dead wife Mary.  John knows she is dead.  And yet they speak with each other as if Mary is fully alive.

In their conversation, we learn that John is enraged at Sherlock.  He blames Sherlock for his beloved Mary’s death.  He has come to hate everything about Sherlock.  In particular, he has come to resent Sherlock’s ability to explain the meaning of every clue that presents itself in every crime they have investigated.  John resents Sherlock’s accurate observational skills.  John resents Sherlock’s unerring insights into the reality of events.  John resents Sherlock’s clear and concise explanations of everything.

John hates that Sherlock is the only one doing the talking all the time.

Mary asks John about the therapist he is seeing.  John tells Mary that the therapist is a woman.  Mary sits quietly looking at John, betraying no facial expression in reaction to his comment.  John, quickly adds, that before he selected her as his therapist, he interviewed and rejected four male therapists.  To this statement regarding John’s rejection of the four male therapists, Mary, knowing full well of John’s dislike of Sherlock’s habit of constantly explaining things whether asked to or not; to this, Mary says the following words,

“You were done with the world being explained to you by a man.   Who isn’t?”

[In secular society, what indications are there that women (and men) are “done with the world being explained by males”?]

[Within the Church, what indications are there that women (and men) are “done with the world being explained by males”?]

………………………………..

The Vatican recently held a synod of Bishops dealing with issues related to youth in the Church.  This synod of Bishops on youth produced a declaration approved by vote.  The normal voting members of such synods of bishops are bishops, the official leaders of the Church.  Among those allowed to cast ballots at this synod, were two Superiors General of Religious Orders of men.  These two Superiors General are unordained brothers.  Thus, according to Canon Law, these two Superiors General are members of the laity.

Among the invited attendees to this conference was a nun.  This specific nun is, also, the Superior General of her religious order.  Further, like the two male Superiors General, she is also unordained.  Thus, her status according to Canon Law is that she, like them, is both the leader of a religious order and a member of the laity.  This woman was not allowed to vote on the declaration of the synod.

A Dutch bishop defended the practice of reserving voting privileges at episcopal Synods to episcopal leaders and equivalent leaders of the Church because of Jesus’ own decision to name only men as apostles.

The Superior General of the Jesuits, acknowledging that the rules of episcopal synods only allowed male leaders of episcopal status to vote, made the statement that this is the way it will be unless this rule is changed.

[Was the decision to forbid the nun/woman to vote a manifestation of allowing only males to have a voice?  or was the decision a manifestation of a correct understanding of Church Tradition?]

[Should councils and synods and convocations of the Church, in which decisions are made by voting, allow women to be included and vote?]

[Should positions of authority, in which decisions are not made by voting, be open to women?]

…………………………..

In the Roman Catholic Church, only men give homilies.  An exception to this is that lay catechists may explain the gospel at children’s Liturgies of the Word.  All official declarations of the Church are made by male clerics of the Vatican and Diocesan sees.  Most articles in most diocesan newspapers and Church websites and blogs are by men.  Many, if not most, speakers at various parish and diocesan convocations are men.  All of the books of the Bible were written by men.  Most of the words in the Bible were stated by men.  Predominantly, the Bible is filled with narratives of men who have freedom to speak and act.  Of the 150 or so women mentioned in the Bible, among the Chosen People only the judge Deborah unequivocally had her own voice; she was in a position which allowed her to speak her own mind.

[To what degree are people in the pews engaging in some type of passive-aggressive feigned attendance to what is being spoken to them by men?]

[Do you sense that certain groups, whose membership in the Church is declining, are avoiding Church participation due to the predominance of men doing the talking?]

[Is it your sense that most people in the pews actively listen to male Church speakers; evidencing a spiritual maturity which looks past the gender and biological status of those speaking and listens to the meaning of the words being said?]

[Have you seen or heard homilies, catechesis, liturgical texts, doctrinal texts seeming to water down their observations and insights and explanations, or avoid certain topics, or make accommodations because the intended audience might be sensitive to “the world being explained by men”?]

[If people being “done with the world being explained by men” is a reality, how might we help parishioners become aware of this reality operating within the Church and how might we help them adjust to this new normal? this new reality?]

[Should women be allowed to be ordained to the permanent diaconate?]

[Should men refrain form ordination to the permanent diaconate until such time as women are allowed to the permanent diaconate?  why or why not?]

[When a man is ordained to the permanent diaconate, is this also the ordination to the permanent diaconate of the spouse with whom he was made one flesh by the sacrament of matrimony?]

[Should faithful practicing Roman Catholics who are male by gender reassignment be allowed to be ordained to the permanent diaconate?]

[Should an ordained permanent deacon of the Roman Catholic Church who later becomes female by gender reassignment, be allowed to continue to function as a permanent deacon?]

[Gender reassignment is seen by some as a non-natural means of altering one’s gender or sex.  Currently, the female who becomes male still retains the female XX chromosomal structure.  Jesus only biological parent was Mary.  From Mary he could not have gained the genetic male chromosomal material.  Thus his biological maleness must have been a result of the activity of God (Holy Spirit) through a process different from the normal natural process of genetic sexual determination.  Does Jesus’ non-natural means by which he attained maleness provide a paradigm for the ordination of gender-reassigned-males?]

[We may, within a few generations, be entering a world of broader body augmentation?  For example, one possibility is that It may become possible to change a person’s chromosomal sex (i.e. XX to XY, or XY to XX).  Should much broader forms of body augmentation become common and accepted, what ramifications might this/these have in regard to pre-conditions for ordination?]

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.