Why I Am a Small ‘c’ catholic

The word catholic comes from the Greek phrase kath’ holen ten oekoumenen, “throughout the whole inhabited world.” To be a catholic Christian means you follow the faith that is accepted and practiced throughout the whole world. The word ecumenical comes from the same phrase. To be catholic and to be ecumenical mean the same thing. It means you share the faith Christians down through the ages and throughout the whole world have followed.

That faith centers in what God has done for the world through Jesus Christ. God sent his son into the world to show us the way of peace and love, to bear our sins on the cross so we can be forgiven and reconciled to God and to one another, to rise again conquering death on our behalf so we can be assured of eternal life, and to give us the Holy Spirit to empower us to live lives of love and peace, anticipating the final transformation of this world into the kingdom of God.

This faith is summarized in a confession known as the Apostle’s Creed. It contains the words, in addition, “I believe in the one, holy, catholic church.”

All followers of Christ belong to that church. It is not perfectly one or holy or universal as we see it now. But because it is claimed by Christ and because he works through those people, it is one, holy, and catholic.

I say small ‘c’ without meaning any disrespect to large ‘C’ Catholics or Orthodox. In fact, I have a growing respect for the Roman Catholic Church and the various Orthodox churches who are also Catholic. I have a lot of respect for the popes I have known in my lifetime, especially St. Francis. Some of his recent predecessors did not do enough to deal with a horrible problem in the church, and I don’t excuse that. But that is a problem the authorities in Rome and in America and other countries will have to deal with.

I keep a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on my desk and receive a lot of benefit from it. The catechism gives better answers than some of my conservative Protestant and Evangelical brothers and sisters (I have to say and sisters, although women theologians are fairly new in those circles) to questions about science, sexuality, economic justice, ecology, world religions, human rights, and the modern historical study of the Bible.

Once I had a student who freaked out when he heard the term “free church catholic” at a conference. I could use that term to describe myself. I remain free to follow my own conscience and hold my own convictions. In other words, I remain free to disagree with the catechism or the teachings of the church. For example, when I say Rome gives better answers on sexuality, I still disagree with its teaching that celibacy is the only option for those who accept a religious vocation, for those who have been divorced and remarried, and for others. But the place for that conversation would be at the Boji Stone (our local coffee shop), in a friendly, respectful atmosphere.

The Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann has spent his life engaging in dialogue with Catholics, Protestants, Marxists, atheists–anyone who will sit down and talk to him. He says you don’t have to give up beliefs that are important to you to have a conversation. In fact, he says, if you suppress your differences, you deprive the other person of a genuine conversation partner. Today I am emphasizing what I have in common with all followers of Christ, and why I am a catholic Christian.

And so, I am free to participate in the long-established participation of Ash Wednesday and Lent. To some extent, participating in a season of fasting, self-denial, and reflection also reflects a bit of solidarity with Jews, who observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and other fasts; and Muslims who fast during Ramadan and other times.

The deprivations we catholics undergo during Lent are pretty mild compared to the fasts the other children of Abraham endure. During Lent we can choose what to give up. I suggest either giving up something you don’t need anyway, or something you enjoy but that is not really essential. I visited with a lady yesterday who told of a friend who gave up smoking every year during Lent. She said he was aware of it every moment, constantly reaching for his empty shirt pocket. But that constantly reminded him of Jesus and what he suffered for us. (I wondered why he didn’t just stay quit–but that is another story).

There is one other kind of fasting, mentioned by the prophet Isaiah. It’s not really giving up something ourselves, but it is thinking of others in need.

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house,

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Advertisements

Why Small Miracles?

Happy Hanukkah!  Jesus never heard of Santa Claus, but he celebrated the Festival of Dedication (John 10:22), which is what Hanukkah means.  When a brutal Syrian dictator persecuted the Jews and tried to forbid them from worshipping One God and keeping his Law in the traditional way, they finally fought back.  One of the shock and awe weapons Antiochus’s army used was the elephant.  But one of the freedom fighters, at the cost of his own life, ran underneath one of the beasts of burden and rammed a spear into his belly, making the soldiers vulnerable.

The Maccabean freedom fighters won against great odds.  But that is not the miracle Hanukkah celebrates.  After the enemy army was driven off, they needed to rededicate the temple, which Antiochus the mad man had desecrated.  And they needed pure oil to light the lamps for the ceremonies.  Antiochus had made sure he had defiled all the oil in Jerusalem–except that someone had stashed away a small jar, enough for one day.

They lit the lamp and sent a runner to buy more.  The round trip took eight days, but “a great miracle happened there!”  The small supply of oil lasted eight days until the new supply came.

Sonja and I have seen some small miracles in the last few weeks.

But do you ever wonder why God does small miracles but we don’t often see the big ones?

Miracles are signs, not to convince unbelievers, but gentle reminders to the faithful.

When God put humans in charge of the earth, evidently, he was serious about it.  He does not intervene in big ways very often–maybe a few significant times.  How can you believe in God when you see the suffering in Syria, Sudan, a dozen other places?

God didn’t start those wars.  War is man’s business.  It is man who starts it and it is up to man–sorry about the gendered pronouns, but in the history of the world the aggressor is usually male–to end it.  We won’t negotiate to prevent a war; that would be weakness.  But after thousand or millions on both sides are dead, after there is nothing left to fight for, the old men sit down to negotiate an “honorable peace.”

The Maccabees had to fight their own war, which was a brilliant success; then they had to govern, which was much more difficult.  But none of that is the miracle Hanukkah celebrates.  It is the small miracle of light.

God does not intervene often in our world.  He is already there; he is present everywhere.  He is present in the cries of the children of Syria.  He is present in the prayers and the contributions and the good works of people of good will.  Those who believe in him and call ourselves his followers (and maybe some others who don’t think of themselves in those terms) are his hands and feet, eyes, ears, and heart in the world.  For them God does small miracles as signs that their work is not in vain.

Conference Next Weekend

The Western Fellowship of Professors and Scholars meets Oct 19-20 in Manhattan, Kansas.  I will be posting the rest of the schedule, but here are the themes for the breakfast panel discussion.

1.  New Interest in Modern Pentecostalism’s Kansas Origins, Dr. Robert D. Linder

Professor Linder is Kansas State University Distinguished Professor
(Ph.D., University of Iowa, 1963): History of Modern Christianity from the Reformation to the Present; History of Religion and Politics in Europe, Australia and the United States.

Greatest quote: “History, religion, politics, baseball! These are the important things of life. What else is there?” — Professor Bob Linder

2.  Renaissance Adorations and the Black Magus: Interpreting an Iconographic Transformation, Tamica L. Lige

 Until the middle of the fifteenth century the iconography of the Adoration of the Magi remained fairly consistent, with three white kings shown arriving to pay homage to the Christ Child. Around 1450, however, a shift in representation occurred, and one of the magi was now portrayed in the guise of a black African. Scholars have put forward various reasons for the appearance of the Black Magus. One view suggests that the Magi are thought to represent the three known continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa and that the “blackness” of the Magus symbolizes his native land. A second links the Black Magus to sin and heresy due to medieval associations of blackness with death, the underworld, and witchcraft. Another examines the Queen of Sheba as an archetypal figure to the Magi and suggests that written descriptions of her blackness inspire the adaptation of a Black Magus in Adoration scenes. This paper builds on these theories, but argues that representations of the Black Magus also need to be analyzed within the contexts specific to individual works of art. To further this end, this study examines several European examples of the Adoration of the Magi through various lenses to discern meanings specific to each. In order to interpret the meaning of the Black Magus in these works, I will explore the relationship between the Queen of Sheba and the Magi, the effects of reformist ideas in Northern Europe at the time, and the role a patron’s interests play in the iconography of works they commission.

Tamica Lige, of Manhattan KS, is an Italian Renaissance art historian. Her work thus far has explored art patronage by elite families, iconography, and methodology. Ms. Lige’s interests generally surround religious works commissioned by lay patrons and range from architecture to painting.

The Underground Railroad in Kansas: Cooperation of God’s People, Karre L. Schaefer

 We will explore the little-known Underground Railroad in Kansas. Recently, scholars have found that contrary to original belief, African-Americans ran most of the Underground Railroads in the Eastern United States. However, as usual, Kansas is unusual.

Because of the lack of African-Americans in Kansas, the Underground Railroad was run by white Americans. Mostly, these consisted of various Protestant denominations who joined together to help African-American runaway slaves escape to Canada and Mexico.

Congregationalist members, such as the Beecher Bible and Rifle Church, while believing that the United States was an authority in place by God, chose to run the UGRR contrary to that authority. Working with the Quakers in Harveyville and other churches, an alternate route was created to throw the slave-hunters off track as they traveled up and down the well-known route. These men and women who ran this railroad believed they did so by authority of God Almighty. This was no small thing – harboring a fugitive slave in Kansas meant immediate death. This Railroad is a case where God’s people put their lives on the line so that others could be free. I will leave us considering whether we would do the same thing.

Karre Schaefer is a graduate student in the Political Science Department at Kansas State University. After receiving her BA in history, she set out to explore why people did what they did, and found herself concentrating in Political Thought. Ms. Schaefer combines political thought, religious thought, Biblical principle as well as enlightenment to seek answers to why social movements occur and their long-term effects.

More from Lamin Sanneh

I re-read the interview with Lamin Sanneh in Christianity Today from 2003, and was again moved with a great sense of admiration for him and the way God has worked in his life.  I urge everyone to read the interview (by clicking above).  I plan to read a couple of his books this summer.

In the last post I referred to him with regard to Bible translation and the classics of English literature.  Here are three quotations from the interview:

The overwhelming majority of the world’s languages have a dictionary and a grammar at all because of the modern missionary movement.  …

More people pray and worship in more languages in Christianity than in any other religion.

I grew up reading the classics of Islam, with religious and historical accounts steeped in the vindication of the things of God. As a child I remember stumbling on Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life, which had a profound influence on me. It made me resolved to pursue the world of learning and scholarship. I became a voracious reader. Later on at school I read the works of the Western masters, such as Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Keats, Longfellow, Flaubert, Goethe, and so on. All that unlocked the teeming world of the imagination to me, just as Helen Keller intimated.

There are some disturbing descriptions in the interview.  Sanneh tells how when he came to a living faith in God who revealed himself through Jesus Christ, both protestant and catholic church leaders were suspicious and tried to keep him at arms length.  I thought of Saul of Tarsus after his Damascus Road experience.  But it seemed Lamin Sanneh had a hard time finding a Barnabas to come to his aid.

He also described western Christianity as feeble because of its captivity to the West.  At the same time he describes a vibrant faith arising in Africa and Asia.

A True Story from Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea is home to thousands of distinct tribes speaking  830 living languages.  It is one of the most diverse places on the globe in terms of peoples, geography, ecology, and linguistics.  Many of the 830 languages have never been written down, have never had an alphabet.

My friend John Relyea gave his life learning, analyzing, and describing one of those languages–Aruamu–and translating the Bible into it.  His wife Marsha gave twenty-three years of her life working with John as his partner in learning and translating and in literacy training.

John died of a sudden heart attack in January of 2005, just after completing his life’s work and sending it to the printers.  In fact, April of that year was to be the celebration of the arrival of the Aruamu Bible.  After returning to the United States for John’s funeral, Marsha went back for the combined celebration and memorial service.

John and Marsha worked with Pioneer Bible Translators.  A few years before John’s death, I remember talking to a friend about their work.  I was asked, “Will they be translating Shakespeare and other great literature?”

I had two thoughts:  “I don’t see any English majors risking malaria and other dangers to bring Shakespeare to the tribes,”  and “It is certain no one will do that until they have an alphabet and literacy.”  Then I also realized, “They may have a great oral literature–but the rest of the world will never have access to it until their language is written down.”

Yale historian Lamin Sanneh argues that missionaries have done more than anyone else to preserve indigenous languages and cultures.  I remember John telling me about the adventure of learning the ways of the Aruamu people.

But don’t missionaries change native cultures? Not nearly as much as western corporations and entertainment do.  Modern missionaries are trained to respect indigenous cultures, traditions, and ways.  Do they sometimes encounter aspects of those cultures that need changing?  Of course.

About two years ago I met another Bible translator working with a different tribe in Papua New Guinea, who told of a man who said, “I wish you had brought us the Bible sooner.” He described how as a boy of about eight years he witness his mother being strangled to death by the village elders.

Why?  The boy’s father knew he was dying and couldn’t bear the thought of his wife going to another man.  One taboo of the traditional religion they then practiced involved an idol.  If any woman looked at the idol, she had violated the taboo and death was the penalty.  The dying husband asked his friends to place the idol in a location where his wife would see it–and then catch her in the act–as soon as he was buried.  The friends carried out the man’s wishes, and a little boy saw his mother cruelly taken from him.

Many traditional ways are beautiful and meaningful.  Some are deadly.  If you have the opportunity to enjoy a visit to an island paradise and enjoy the hospitality of the island people,  thank a missionary that you are not on the menu.

Less Stuff Next Christmas

I have decided to make an earnest attempt to buy less mass produced, battery operated stuff next year for Christmas presents.  One thing I might give is chickens, cows, goats or buffaloes–through charitable organizations to poor families around the world, in the name of one of my loved ones.

I am also going to try to buy hand-made local craft items.  And I may try to make some gifts of my own.

I’ll tell you in twelve months how successful the plan turns out to be.

The Bible in the City of New Orleans

The annual conference of the Society of Biblical Literature is winding down.  I have had a great time, but I am ready to move on.  In the wee hours of the morning I will fly back to Kansas City and spend some time with my grandchildren before driving down to Arkansas to spend the Thanksgiving Holiday with Sonja and her mother.  It seems like it would be more efficient if they would just give me a parachute and drop me off as we fly over.

One of the first sessions I attended featured Robert Jewett, who in addition to writing a book on Captain America is a leading student of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.  He spoke on the wrath of God in Romans 1:18 and concluded that we are all under the wrath of God–and all under his mercy.  God judges us for the way we spurn his will, frustrate his purposes, hurt each other, and damage ourselves–because he loves us.  Professor Jewett said Paul was convinced that ultimately God’s love will win out over his judgment–but not until we respond to his love as he manifested it by sending his Son for us.

That is a brief summary of twenty years of work.

I also attended several sessions dealing with hard-core philology, the study of ancient writings from the laws of Hammurabi to amulets consisting of verses from the Bible that people wore for good luck.

It has been a challenging and rewarding time.  I have enough new ideas to ponder and leads to follow up on to keep me busy for at least the next year.

I also enjoyed meeting some old and new friends from exotic places like Australia, South Africa, London, Germany, Kentucky, and New Orleans itself.

I came a day early and spent some time with my friend Archie England, Professor of OT and Hebrew at New Orleans Baptist Seminary.  Archie and his colleagues survived Katrina and it took a toll on them.  He should me some of the damaged areas that still have not been rebuilt.  Last night I also saw a very moving film about Katrina called Trouble the Water–it was about the world’s neglect and one woman’s faith and work to help herself and others recover.