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?

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.

The World Needs More Madrasas

Shari'ah Law: An Introduction

I’ve been reading about Shariah law because I don’t want to be ignorant, and the book is very enlightening.  I have learned that there is a long history of Islamic scholarship, and that there are four or five major schools of interpretation.  Some of these schools emphasize the letter of the law, while others emphasize the intention and purpose.  All recognize the historical context in which the laws arose, and all recognize to some degree the place of reason in understanding the laws.

Professor Kamali points out some plain statements in the Qur’an that are often ignored by advocates of harsh punishments.  For example, passages prescribing amputation of a hand for thieves or flogging for adultery, are followed by the words “unless they repent.”  Who wouldn’t repent for stealing when their hand was on the chopping block?

Kamali also frequently quotes the verse “there shall be no compulsion in religion.”  He also frequently discusses issues related to gender equality, supported by laws in the Qur’an and examples from the prophet’s life.

One of the most remarkable sections of the book, to me at least, was on the “Decline of the Madrasahs.”  The last two chapters of the book discuss the need for reform and challenging issues.  The decline of Islamic schools means that a generation of young Muslims is growing up ignorant of the Qur’an and the other sources of Shariah, as well as the history of Islamic scholarship. Consequently their ignorance makes them vulnerable to ignorant fanatics who recruit them for suicide missions.

In the discussion of that issue, Kamali makes it clear that Islamic law universally condemns both suicide and the intentionally targeting of civilians.

In reading this book I was reminded of a statement of Rabbi Gamaliel,

An ignorant person cannot be pious.  [http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter2-6.html  — the whole article is worth reading!]

I used to think this was snobbish, and I thought of Jesus appealing to fishermen, farmers, and day laborers.  But now I realize, Jesus called people from all walks of life to follow him and learn from him.  He called them to become disciples.  Jesus taught the people of the land.  In this sense, I think it is true that a Christian who willfully remains ignorant cannot be devout.

I also think of the difficulty conservative Christian centers of learning, such as Bible colleges, have in remaining conservative.  We knew a sociologist years ago who wrote his dissertation on “goal displacement” in Bible colleges.  He studied the inevitable drift away from specific doctrinal commitments and from a narrow curriculum to broader and more liberal curricula.  Most leaders of such institutions see this as a problem.  But maybe it’s not.  Maybe being narrow and dogmatic is not a virtue.  Maybe an educated person cannot remain dogmatic.  Maybe it is impossible to study the Bible (or the Talmud or the Qur’an) without raising serious questions about traditional understandings.

My colleague Wes and I went to hear a distinguished professor of genetics who has devoted his waning years to destroying something he doesn’t understand.  I asked him what background he had in the study of theology or philosophy.  He replied, “I don’t believe in fairies, so I don’t study fairiology.”

If I believed fairiology was the greatest threat to our civilization, I would study it.

Ignorance is a threat not only to civil society and peace, it is a threat to faith.  I think Hillel was right after all.

Religious Extremists Burn Holy Books

On Halloween the spiritual adviser of a neo-traditionalist sect in Georgia invited his followers to join him in a book burning (the group’s website is here).  In addition to burning recording of “Satan’s Music” (country, Jazz, Gospel, etc.) the group took special pride in burning the holy books of adherents of another religion, books considered holy, or the Word of God by those who read them.

You may recall that during the abuses at Abu Ghraib there were reports of copies of the Qur’an being defaced.  The outrage led to several attacks on innocent people.  Police in Georgia, however, are not expecting any retaliation.  The people whose holy books are being burned are followers of an ancient faith whose founder taught nonviolence.  He taught them to bless those who persecute them, to turn the other cheek, and to pray for those who insult them.

Is Compromise Possible?

trembling1

I am stuck between two generations. Many people of my father’s generation cannot comprehend why anyone would approve of homosexual relationships–and many of my kids’ generation cannot fathom why anyone could possible be opposed to two people loving each other just because they happen to be of the same sex.

The Film “Trembling Before G-D” is a documentary about orthodox Jewish rabbis caught in this same bind.  They are trying to remain faithful to their binding traditions and laws; and at the same time to give compassionate spiritual guidance to gay members of their congregations.

Their Holy Book–the book of Leviticus in particular, the central book of the Torah–is responsible for the prohibition against “a man lying with a man as with a woman.”  They can’t deny the teachings of the Torah without denying their faith; nor can they deny their responsibility to teach the Torah in a way that enhances life and affirms human dignity.

They various rabbis struggle with multiple possible answers, none entirely satisfactory.  Two of their answers in particular intrigue me.  One said to the man he was counseling,

Everything you do throughout the day for your partner, acts of kindness, taking care of him, being faithful–that’s all good, it’s mikvot.  It’s just  that one thing you do that’s forbidden–

The other rabbi said,

“A woman comes to me with a question about a chicken.  I first say to her, ‘Tell me about your family.'”

I assume the question is whether the chicken is kosher, whether she can serve it to her family.  Maybe it fell out of a grocery bag into the street or something.  But his questions about her family mean his answer must be tailored to her needs and circumstances.  If her family is wealthy enough to buy another chicken, maybe he will counsel her to give it to a gentile neighbor.  But if her family is poor and her children need the nourishment, he will find a way to make the chicken kosher.

[Disclaimer: I saw this film over a year ago; the quotes above are from memory, and may not be verbatim.  See it yourself and tell me how close I got!]

HISTORICAL INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE–I

This will be the first of two or three posts on understanding the Bible historically.

Eternal Torah and Historical Torah

Christians inherited their first Bible from the Jews. In Judaism the Torah is the original and most authoritative part of the Bible. The Torah contains the 613 commandments (mitzvot) that every Jew must learn and observe upon coming of age and becoming a bar or bat mitzvah.

As an expression of God’s character and will, the Torah must be eternal. Some of the Rabbis even said God consulted the Torah when creating the universe. The eternal Torah is expressed in two forms: the written Torah and the oral Torah.

Because it expresses God’s will for humans, the Torah must be historical. The Torah is written in human language–but the word “language” is an abstraction. There is really no such thing as language in general; there are only the particular languages spoken by particular people at various times and places. Language is intimately tied to history and culture, to the understanding available at any point in history, to the natural and social realities of any point in history.

The rabbis recognized the historical nature of the Torah, and they recognized the difficulties of reconciling the historical with the eternal nature of God’s revelation. For example, as the expression of the eternal will of God, the Torah is universal; yet it was given to Israel, not to the Gentiles. Only Israel is required to observe all 613 commandments; the Master of the Universe will be pleased if the Gentiles keep about seven of them: the laws against murder, incest, adultery, and so forth.

The Torah contains God’s commandments, but as a book written at a point in history, it must have a human author. Since Moses is the intermediary through whom God gives the commandments, he is considered the author of the whole collection of five books, even though at the end of Deuteronomy there is a third-person account of the death of Moses. Some of the rabbis said that Moses wrote those words with tears in his eyes, following a vision God had given him. Others said it is better to be silent about the fact.

The oral Torah also is considered eternal. The oral Torah includes the interpretations of the laws as ultimately codified in the Talmud. Even though the Talmud reports the individual discussions and debates and names the rabbis who gave various rulings at particular points in history–these rulings are still considered part of the eternal Torah.

The rabbis recognized one other conflict between the eternal Torah and the historical Torah. Changing conditions call for flexibility in interpreting and applying the commandments. This is found even within the Torah. In Exodus Moses commands that a debt-slave must be released “freely, without any charge” at the end of six years. The similar law in Deuteronomy goes beyond this and commands the master to be generous and pay a newly-released slave for his services.

Since Moses taught that by keeping the commandments “you will live,” Judaism established the rule that commandments must be interpreted in a way that advances life, never in a way that threatens life.

The rabbis would not say that there are contradictions among the commandments; but they did recognize contradictions in life. Because the world is not right, the commandments must be interpreted in a way that repairs the world.

THE CRITICAL SPIRIT IN THE BIBLE

What do fundamentalists and atheists have in common? Fundamentalists sometimes quote the Bible and say, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Atheists assume this attitude is taught in the Bible itself. Both groups assume the Bible is an authority to be accepted by blind faith whether it makes sense or not. Both groups assume that the meaning and interpretation of the Bible is simple. Both ignore the historical aspect of the Bible and its interpretation.

Apart from a few passages, such as the Ten Commandments, the Bible does not claim to be dictated by God. The Bible portrays the complex interaction between God and humans over long periods of time. The interaction includes presence and absence, revelation and mystery on the part of God. It includes human seeking, groping, and grasping for God along with human resistance, dullness, and stubborn refusal to accept God’s will. It includes a process of learning and growth, punctuated by periods of regression.

Does the Bible stifle critical thinking or encourage it?

People who have a fundamentalist attitude toward the Bible, whether they are believers or atheists, have never read the Hebrew wisdom literature–or at least they have never read it with any literary sensitivity. The book of Job deals with the problem of suffering; but it does not solve the problem or answer the question why. Rather, the book invites the reader to enter the debate. The book of Ecclesiastes raises questions about the meaning of life and avoids giving easy pious answers.

Jesus challenged people to think. He taught that the commandments of God are not to be enforced in an irrational or inhuman way: A farmer would pull a lost sheep out of a ditch on the Sabbath day; in the same way followers of Jesus are allowed to do good on the Sabbath day, to heal, to save life.

The rabbis likewise interpreted the commandments in a way that is intended to preserve life rather than to harm. The Mishnah teaches that the commandments must be interpreted in ways that repair the damage in the world. (See Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ article at http://www.zeek.net/706tohu/).

Those who ignore the historical nature of the Bible assume it endorses slavery and capital punishment for trivial crimes. Both are untrue. The Bible recognized the existence of slavery and gave laws to mitigate its abuses and provide protection for slaves. For example, the fugitive slave law of the Torah forbids returning a runaway slave to his master and commands providing sanctuary. Those who ignore the type of rhetoric used in the Middle East assume that the ancient Hebrews actually stoned rebellious sons; yet Jewish sources record no record of that law actually being carried out.

The Bible encourages critical thinking on several levels. Biblical texts criticize theological traditions. In the ancient world the sun, moon, and stars were worshiped as deities. In Babylon the sun is Shamash the god of justice. The moon was the favorite deity of Abraham’s one-time home of Haran.

When the creation of the heavenly bodies is reported in the Bible, they are not even given names; the sun and moon are simply the big light and the small light. The stars are almost an afterthought, “moreover, God made the stars.”

The prophets challenged the religious practice of their times. God is not impressed with loud praises and sacrifices. He desires justice.

The Bible is also critical of nationalism and military pride. The whole critique of idolatry is not only about the theological question of who is the true god. Idols are symbols and instruments of oppression.

The writers of the Bible never tell us to turn off our brains. Instead they challenge us to think through the implications of faith in an unseen God who sides with slaves, refugees, immigrants, the poor, and the crucified.

NEXT WEEK: The Historical Interpretation of the Bible