Saturday, December 24, 2011

Some Have Unknowingly Entertained Angels

       It is often said that Jesus’ birth would be insignificant apart from the Resurrection. But is this really true? If we took the mystery of the Incarnation in isolation, could we truly understand it? Could Jesus’ birth have any meaning for us without any knowledge of the events that followed? Two thousand years ago, “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14A). This Word was the Logos – the meaning of life. In other words, God came into the world as a human person. At the very moment of his conception, Mary very literally became the Mother of God. How can such a miraculous birth be insignificant for us? That God didn't just suddenly appear on Earth as a fully grown man never ceases to baffle me. If Jesus hadn't died on the cross and risen victorious on the third day, his birth would have been just as miraculous as it is for us today. God would still have become man and many people would still have been healed. The trouble, though, with a hypothetical scenario like this one is that the event is just that – hypothetical. It fails to take into account the real experiences of the people who were contemporary with Jesus. It is true that Simeon and Anna recognized the real identity of the baby that they held in their hands, but always in full knowledge of what was to come. They were prophets who were given the gift of foreknowledge. On Christmas Eve two thousand years ago, the inn-keepers, centurions, and ordinary passers-by were not given the gift to recognize the true identities of the pregnant woman and her unborn child. For as Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards.” What astounds me about the disciples is that without knowing the end of the story, they lived in obedience to Jesus, with only their faith to guide them. They dropped their nets, abandoned everything, and followed a man whose words they didn’t fully comprehend but who promised life and life to its fullest” (cf. John 10:10). The Gospels continually remind us of the ignorance of the disciples.

      Maybe, instead of creating hypothetical situations that disregard the ignorance of humanity, we should ask ourselves a different question. Namely, if life can only be understood backwards, how must one live forwards? The author of Hebrews writes, “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” (13:2). Here, we are reminded of Abraham and Sarah who fed angels without recognizing who they were feeding. Without in any way undermining the importance of faith in the lives of the disciples, we must never forget that the reason why we care for the poor, the sick, and the prisoner is because Jesus had a unique kinship with such people. Jesus was born in a stable to poor parents, lived a life of absolute poverty, and died the death of a criminal. Good works are important not because they give us fuzzy feelings or are meritorious (even if they may do all these things) but because without them, one cannot truly have faith.

    The disciples did not fully understand Jesus’ life before the Resurrection. They did not understand all his parables or realize that his life was a fulfillment of the Law.  But it would be false to say that Jesus’ birth was insignificant before the Resurrection. Not for the disciples anyway. The disciples were able to follow Jesus without knowing what we know today because they realized that faith means obedience. They realized that it is only in being open to another’s needs that one is open to God and it is only in being open to God that one can truly know how to love his neighbor. Jesus shows us that a human person’s life has significance regardless of what we may or may not know about that person because only God knows the end of the story. Any one of the thousands of babies that Herod slaughtered could have been the Son of God. We do not always know the way God reveals Himself but our ignorance should only lead us to love more. And we can only love more if we trust God and live to serve Him. Pope Benedict reminded people in November 2008 that “faith is not opposed to charity.” In fact, apart from charity, faith is impossible. The inn-keepers, the centurions, and the ordinary passers-by may not have been fully able to see who Jesus was, but they (like us) were given sufficient Grace to follow God in obedience. The question is: Will we accept the Grace in faith knowing that faith requires obedience in love? “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” – or the Son of God.

                I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!! 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What Luther Got Wrong: Rediscovering the Real Aquinas

In some earlier posts, I introduced you all briefly to a book by Franz Posset called Pater Bernardhus. Posset showed how Luther was influenced by the writings of St. Bernard. There is another theologian though whom Luther encountered in his studies, a theologian whom he ultimately opposed. This opposition lead to the Protestant Reformation and the theologian was Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas has often been seen as the enemy of Protestant theology but Steinmetz, in the article below, argues that Luther was influenced by Gabriel Biel's interpretation of Aquinas whose theology tended toward Pelagianism. I find this article incredibly edifying because it is further evidence that Lutheran scholarship is still in its birth-pangs. A closer re-reading of Aquinas may in fact further Protestant-Catholic dialogue. 

What Luther Got Wrong
by David C. Steinmetz
David C. Steinmetz teaches church history at Duke Divinity School. This article appeared in The Christian Century, August 23, 2005, pp. 23 and 25. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Thomas Aquinas has had a long but, on the whole, not very happy history among Protestants. While some early Protestant reformers were well versed in Thomistic theology, Martin Luther was not among them.
Most of Luther’s important teachers were disciples of the Franciscan theologian William Ockham. The Occamists taught a theology of grace that tilted in a decidedly Pelagian direction. Pelagianism is theological shorthand for a theology that deemphasizes the role played by grace in human salvation and overemphasizes the role played by human free will. Gabriel Biel, the Occamist theologian Luther knew best, even argued in a burst of anthropological optimism that human beings were able to love God perfectly without the assistance of grace. While Biel admitted that the human intellect and will were fallen, he thought they were nevertheless largely undamaged by sin. He concluded therefore that acts of extraordinary moral heroism, unassisted by grace, merited divine favor. Not surprisingly, Luther found no authorization inSt. Paul or St. Augustine for such a rosy view of human nature, and he rejected all Occamist accounts of salvation.
A prominent early-20th-century Roman Catholic historian, Joseph Lortz, agreed with Luther that Biel’s theology of grace was thoroughly "uncatholic" and he thought Luther was quite right to protest against it. The problem, from Lortz’s perspective, was that Luther seemed unaware of the best Catholic antidote to the Pelagianizing tendencies of Biel -- the thought of Thomas Aquinas.
If only Luther had been trained in Thomistic theology, argued Lortz, he would have had at his disposal all the resources he needed to oppose Bid and to do so without drifting into what Catholics regard as heresy. Had Luther studied Aquinas at Cologne rather than the Occamists at Erfurt and Wittenberg, he would have found a better way through his theological crisis and would have avoided the tragedy of the Reformation.
Lortz’s thesis was immensely influential but not altogether satisfying. The principal difficulty was that it presupposed a state of affairs that did not exist -- namely, that only one Thomas Aquinas was on offer in the 16th century. Actually, there were at least three.
The Dominican theologian John Capreolus (d. 1445) portrayed Aquinas as a thoroughly Augustinian theologian. Whenever readers encountered ambiguous passages in Aquinas that might be interpreted in a less than fully Augustinian way, Capreolus advised them to remember this simple rule: always choose the reading closest to the spirit of St. Augustine. That would uncover the mind of St. Thomas.
Thomas de Vio Cardinal Cajetan (d. 1534) -- also a Dominican -- was not so sure, He was far more impressed by Aquinas the Aristotelian philosopher. In Cajetan’s view, Aquinas, more than any other scholastic thinker, had success-hilly adapted the vocabulary and categories of Aristotle for Christian use. This was not an easy task, and Cajetan could only admire what Aquinas had achieved. Whereas Capreolus read Thomas as a faithful disciple of Augustine, Cajetan read him as the foremost Christian interpreter of Aristotle.
Biel (d. 1495) offered a third version of Aquinas, this one in complete agreement with the Pelagianizing tendencies of the school of Ockham. When Luther read Biel’s account of Thomas’s theology, he encountered a theologian whose doctrine of sin and grace differed in no significant way from the Occamist teaching Luther had come to despise.
In short, Lortz misread the situation. The problem was not what Luther did not know, but what he did know. Far from offering Luther resources to combat the Occamist account of sin and grace, the Aquinas that Luther knew reinforced it.
Nor would Luther have been helped by paying closer attention to the Aristotelian Aquinas offered by Cajetan. Luther thought that Christian theology could be renewed only by breaking free from Aristotle. The problem with Aristotle from Luther’s perspective was not that he believed in the eternity of the world and the mortality of the human soul (which he did), but that his philosophical vocabulary was ill-suited for theological use. Grace cannot be understood as habits and acts, and the Aristotelian notion that the repetition of good acts makes anyone who performs them righteous turns St. Paul’s theology on its head.
In Luther’s view, theology deals with God in his relationship of judgment and grace toward sinners, and deals with sinners in their relationship of faith and faithlessness toward God. Therefore the proper vocabulary of grace is relational rather than metaphysical. One does not become a theologian with Aristotle, cried Luther, but only without him.
In his early lectures on the Psalms, Luther insisted that the word substance in the Bible refers not to the quiddity or whatness of a thing but to what "stands under and supports it," The substance of a human being, therefore, is defined by the foundation on which he or she rests. Who human beings are is determined by what they trust, by what -- when push comes to shove -- they are willing to risk their lives on.
In other words, the vocabulary of the philosophers obscures, willy-nilly, the intention of the Bible, which defines human beings not by their quiddities and qualities but by their faith and hope. No philosophical description of human beings, resting as it does on what can be seen and measured, can reach the profundity of biblical anthropology, which rests upon invisible relationships.
The most important thing about a human being for Luther is what that human being trusts, loves and expects. Human beings are defined by things that cannot be seen, things that in the nature of the case can only be hoped for. When Luther asked, "What, then, is a human being?" he answered that a human being is not a rational soul individuated by a body, as Aquinas might have put it, but a creature who trusts either the true God or an idol. On this question Aristotle can offer no useful insights.
While Protestant thought before Kant found its own uses for the philosophy of Aristotle, Protestant thinkers remained haunted by the ghost of Luther. Aquinas was for them either a Pelagianizing theologian who relied too little on grace and left too much to human free will or a philosophical theologian who counted too heavily on human reason and too little on divine revelation. Biel and Cajetan had succeeded in driving Capreolus’s account of Aquinas from the Protestant imagination.
Aquinas was not helped by his increasing prestige among Catholic theologians outside the Dominican order -- including, of course, the Jesuits. Since Protestants characteristically thought that Catholic theology was insufficiently Augustinian, they were not surprised that Catholic theologians admired a theologian who embodied this deficiency. There were even some Protestant theologians who thought that Aquinas had constructed an immense philosophical substructure based on reason alone, to which he had added a flimsy theological superstructure grounded in divine revelation.
Other developments made matters worse. Kant put an end to metaphysical speculations for many Protestants, while Friedrich Schleiermacher developed a new kind of liberal dogmatics that took Kant’s critique fully into account. Liberal Protestants in the 19th century were quick to reject all things Greek (that is, metaphysical) and embrace all things Hebraic (that is, ethical).
The heart of the Christian gospel for many liberals from Albrecht Ritschl to Adolf Harnackwas an ethical message. Jesus was a preacher of the kingdom of God in which a new ethic was to be followed, a fact some thought had been obscured by Nicaea and Chalcedon. The ancient councils had lost in their metaphysical categories the liberal Protestant vision of a "young and fearless prophet of ancient Galilee, whose life is still a summons to serve humanity." Not surprisingly, there was no room for Aquinas in this particular theological inn.
The correction to liberal theology made by the dialectical theology of the early 20th century scarcely improved Protestant approaches to Aquinas. Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Friedrich Gogarten and Emil Brunner turned to the teaching of the Protestant reformers of the 16th century for inspiration, and while these so-called neo-orthodox theologians did not simply repristinate the theology of Luther and Calvin, they saw no reason to abandon the prejudices of the reformers against scholastic theology.
Barth was particularly hostile to Aquinas’s appeal to natural theology. He argued that Calvin had rejected natural theology (which was true) and concluded that he had rejected all natural knowledge of God (which was false). Similarly, he argued that Aquinas had affirmed a role for natural theology (which was true) but had overestimated its role in theology (which was false). Aquinas made it clear from the very beginning of theSumma Theologiae how limited was the scope he assigned to natural theology.
As Aquinas understood matters, natural theology could be pursued successfully only by trained people who had both the intellectual power and the leisure to extract from nature, by reason alone, what the natural order has to tell about nature’s God. Even then, whatever they could learn would be fragmentary and inevitably mixed with error. Furthermore, reason could not wrest from nature the mysteries of the Trinity or the two natures of Christ. Indeed, without the self-revelation of God, reason alone could never discover what it most needed to know: namely, how God redeems wayward and erring humanity.
There were intimations by the middle of the 20th century that the old Protestant stereotypes of Aquinas might be crumbling around the edges. Per Erik Persson in 1957 published Sacra Doctrina: Reason and Revelation in Aquinas. The book was notable in treating Aquinas as a theologian rather than a religious philosopher and in offering a sympathetic account of Aquinas’s views not only on reason and revelation, but on a broader range of theological issues central to his thought. Persson pushed aside Biel and Cajetan and engaged Aquinas directly.
Since then, other Protestant thinkers have joined Persson in his direct engagement with the source. Christian ethicists like Stanley Hauerwas have utilized what Aquinas wrote about the cardinal and theological virtues in their own work on the formation of Christian character. Other theologians, newly liberated from the Kantian prejudices of the Enlightenment, have found Aquinas’s subtle and nuanced account on metaphysical questions bracing.
Even the biblical work of Aquinas on Romans and Job has elicited the interest of Protestant historians, who have found his commentaries to be sources of wisdom and insight into the biblical drama of redemption. In short, Aquinas the Augustinian theologian has emerged from behind the older Protestant stereotypes. Protestants have rediscovered the Aquinas Luther never knew -- the Aquinas of John Capreolus.
It would be too much to assume that Aquinas will ever be as central a theologian for Protestants as he has been for Catholics. But Protestants have begun to put an end to their own self-imposed impoverishment. They have opened the ranks of the theologians with whom they are in regular conversation to include Aquinas. It is a development long overdue.

The article was taken from:

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Lamentations 3, Martyrdom, and the Certainty of Hope

“The favors of the LORD are not exhausted,
his mercies are not spent;
They are renewed each morning,
so great is his faithfulness.
My portion is the LORD, says my soul;
Therefore will I hope in him.”

This passage, taken from Lamentations 3:22-24 and made famous by the hymn Great is Thy Faithfulness, comes surprisingly from the book of Lamentations. In this book, the poets cry out to God for liberation from their Babylonian captors who have brought Jewish women even to the point of infanticide and cannibalism. While the poet in Lamentations 3 accepts the Babylonian captivity as God-willed, he has hope that God’s anger will not last forever. The poet, a personification of Israel, pours out his anguish and suffering to the LORD. “He has broken my teeth with gravel,/ pressed my face in the dust” (3:16). The poet lists the many different ways that God has punished him and permitted suffering in his life, and yet he still hopes that God will have mercy on Israel. This hope is not a superficial hope but one grounded in a certainty based on faith. When the poet says, “therefore will I hope in him(v.24), the poet is not expressing a wish but a conviction that God will not abandon him. We use the word “hope” so casually in everyday conversations that the poet’s words are not so easily understood today. From the rest of Lamentations 3, however, it is clear that when the poet says that he has “hope” he means that he has faith in God’s promise. “For the Lord’s rejection/does not last forever;/ Though he punishes, he takes pity,/ in the abundance of his mercies” (vs.31-32). The poet’s praise of the LORD in vs. 22-24 must be read in the context of the captivity. When Israel’s existence as a nation is threatened, when it seems as if God has rejected the Jews, the poet has hope that God will have mercy on His chosen people. In other words, the poet trusts in God’s promise to Israel (has hope in the LORD) even when it seems as if God has abandoned Israel. The poet has hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. This hope, grounded in faith, helps the poet continue living in the midst of such suffering without either losing faith in God or in life. The Jewish poet does not have hope just in a heavenly promise but also has hope that God will free Israel in his lifetime.

The poet of Lamentations 3 is a man of great faith – a man who trusts in God when it seems the most absurd to do so. Is not this man like all Christian martyrs throughout history? I have thought often about these martyrs and their faith. Even when faced with the “cross”, the martyrs still trusted in God; they still had hope. But it would be wrong to argue that all the martyrs gave up hope in this life and only focused on heaven. Certainly, they definitely had hope in the heavenly promise, but they also had a desire to continue living. One must never forget that martyrs were not suicidal people who wanted to escape from the world but people who loved God and the gift of life. Instead of giving up on life, their words were those of Jesus: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42)

The next time you find yourself singing Great is Thy Faithfulness think of the poet in Lamentations 3, think of the Christian martyrs. Hope is not a wish but a certainty. God will keep His promise - even in this life.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Saint Francis of Assisi - the Man Behind the Legend

I found this interesting article in the most recent (October) edition of Commonweal Magazine.

A Suffering Servant: Francis of Assisi's Shadow Side
Paul Moses

The fact that Francis of Assisi hated to be put on a pedestal does not stop us from doing so as his annual feast arrives today. He is fondly remembered for his love of animals and nature, and for his generous spirit -- all of which deserve to be honored. But, as is often the case with saints, we would do well to take Francis down from his pedestal and get to know him as the man he was rather than through his pious image. Before I began researching a book about Francis, I’d had the idea that, given his powerful sense of God’s presence, he was always carefree and happy.
The truth is more complicated: Francis’s life was encumbered by dark shadows, to the point that he experienced long periods of anguishing separation from God.
His psychological trauma began with his military service in Assisi’s war against its more powerful neighbor, Perugia. He saw men he knew since childhood torn limb from limb in a devastating battle, and was taken prisoner for a year, thrown in a dark, damp hole in the ground.
This left Francis a broken man. His earliest biographer, Thomas of Celano, indicates as much when he recounts that Francis, after his release, felt nothing when he looked at fields and mountains that once thrilled him. We can’t expect Celano to put this in modern psychological terms, but from what we now know, Francis was traumatized. He was a physical and emotional wreck, too ill and depressed to go out of the house. Some experts believe he had contracted malaria, which would return periodically for the rest of his life. 
Francis tried once more to go to war, this time to help Pope Innocent III defend papal lands in southern Italy against imperial forces. Beset with the memory of his gruesome experience on the battlefield, Francis turned back, laid down his arms and, after a period of solitary prayer, began his transition to a life of voluntary poverty. This offered Francis a path to healing but a close reading of the medieval texts shows that the dark shadows in his life never disappeared completely.
For example, the Assisi Compilation, a collection of anecdotes compiled by the Franciscan order in the 1240s, quotes Francis on the “demons” that gave him sleepless nights: “If the brothers knew how many trials the demons caused me, there would not be one of them who would not have great piety and compassion for me,” he said. The account continues: “As a result, as he often said to his companions, he was unable by himself to satisfy the brothers or sometimes to show them the friendliness which the brothers desired.” 
One senses that Francis felt isolated in his role as leader of a growing order -- that he felt he couldn’t be the man the other brothers wanted him to be. Clearly, he had to have been a great inspiration for the order to grow so swiftly in those years, but Francis in such moments was down on himself. 
Celano recounts a prolonged spiritual depression that occurred later in Francis’s life: “At one time, a very serious temptation of spirit came upon the holy father, surely to embellish his crown. Because of it he was filled with anguish and sorrow; he afflicted and chastised his body, he prayed and wept bitterly. He was under attack in this way for several years."
Francis was filled with anguish and sorrow for several years before he could finally find tranquility. It is surprising that Thomas of Celano would write about that. The hagiographer’s task was to burnish Francis’s reputation as a saint, but such prolonged spiritual anguish would hint, at least in the medieval era, at the sin of acedia. This is one of the seven deadly sins, also called sloth.
According to Thomas of Celano, Francis put great emphasis on avoiding this sin. “The devil is most delighted when he can steal the joy of spirit from a servant of God,” he quoted Francis. “He carries dust which he tries to throw into the tiniest openings of the conscience, to dirty a clear mind and a clean life.” Celano adds: “He avoided very carefully the dangerous disease of acedia, so that when he felt even a little of it slipping into his heart, he quickly rushed to prayer. For he used to say, 'When a servant of God gets disturbed about something, as often happens, he must get up at once to pray and remain before the most High Father until he gives back to him the joy of his salvation. But if he delays, staying in sadness, that Babylonian sickness will grow and, unless scrubbed with tears, it will produce in the heart permanent rust.'"
In our enthusiasm for Francis, there is a tendency to almost divinize him. Pope Pius XI wrote in 1926, marking the seven hundredth anniversary of Francis’s death, that “there has never been anyone in whom the image of Jesus Christ...shone forth more lifelike and strikingly than in St. Francis.”
I don’t dispute that shining portrayal of Francis, but his all-too-human darkness deepens my appreciation for him and makes him all the more a model for the Christian life. From his brokenness, Francis found the insights that led him to oppose warfare, promote an alternative to the greed rampant in the church, and to identify with the poor, lepers, and other outcasts -- all those “scrubbed with tears.” 
Art: St. Francis of Assisi Contemplating a Skull, by Francisco de Zurbaran

Monday, September 5, 2011

Excerpt from Self-Examination – How to Read the Bible

I have not commented on the Bible in quite a long time. I have been focusing much on doctrine and differences between churches. I want to return to the Scriptures, however, I thought to first post an excerpt from Søren Kierkegaard's edifying discourse Self-Examination. Here, he uses the metaphor of a lover attempting to read a love-letter from his beloved to explain to Christians what it really means to read the Bible. Biblical scholarship has contributed positively to our understanding of the message contained in the Scriptures; however, there is a growing group of scholars who don't study the Bible to understand what God is telling them, but try to disprove it. I find that I too have a tendency to read the Bible as a history book or as a book addressed to people living thousands of years ago rather than read it as a the Word of God addressed to me. I must read the Scriptures to hear what God wants me to do today and then I must go off and do it right away. The excerpt is below. 

Imagine a lover who has received a letter from his beloved – I assume that God’s Word is just as precious to you as this letter is to the lover. I assume that you read and think you ought to read God’s Word in the same way the lover reads this letter.
Yet you perhaps say, “Yes, but Holy Scripture is written in a foreign language.” But it is really only scholars who need to read Holy Scripture in the original language. If, however, you will not have it any other way, if you insist upon reading Scripture in the original language, well, we can still keep the metaphor of the letter from the beloved, except that we will add a little stipulation.
I assume, then, that this letter from the beloved is written in a language that the lover does not understand, and there is no one around who can translate it for him, and perhaps he would not even want any such help lest a stranger be initiated into his secrets. What does he do? He takes a dictionary, begins to spell his way through the letter, looks up every word in order to obtain a translation. Let us assume that, as he sits there busy with his task, an acquaintance comes in. He knows that this letter has come, because he sees it on the table, sees it lying there, and says, “Well, so you are reading a letter from your beloved” – what do you think the other will say? He answers, “Have you gone mad? Do you think this is reading a letter from my beloved! No, my friend, I am sitting here toiling and moiling with a dictionary to get it translated. At times I am ready to explode with impatience; the blood rushes to my head and I would just as soon hurl the dictionary on the floor – and you call that reading – you must be joking! No, thank God, I am soon finished with the translation and then, yes, then, I shall read my beloved’s letter; that is something altogether different. But to whom am I speaking…..stupid fellow, get out of my sight; I would rather not see you – how could you think of insulting my beloved and me by calling this reading a letter from her! And yet, stay, stay – you know very well I am only joking. I would ever so much like to have you stay, but, to be honest, I have no time. There is still something left to translate and I am so impatient to begin reading it – therefore do not be angry, but please go so I can finish.”
So, then, with regard to the letter from his beloved, the lover distinguishes between reading and reading, between reading with a dictionary and reading the letter from his beloved. The blood rushes to his head in his impatience when he sits and grinds away at reading with the dictionary; he becomes furious when his friend dares to call this learned reading a reading of the letter from his beloved. Now he is finished with the translation – now he reads his beloved’s letter. He regarded, if you please, all these scholarly preliminaries as a necessary evil so that he can come to the point – of reading the letter from his beloved.
Let us not discard the metaphor too soon. Let us assume that this letter from the beloved contained not only an  expression of affection, as such letters ordinarily do, but that it contained a wish, something the beloved wished her lover to do. It was, let us assume, much that was required of him, very much; any third party would consider that there was good reason to think better of it, but the lover – he is off at once to fulfill his beloved’s wish. Let us assume that after some time the lovers met and the beloved said, “But, my dear, that was not at all what I asked you to do; you must have misunderstood the word or translated it incorrectly.” Do you think that the lover would now regret rushing off straightway that very second to obey the wish instead of first entertaining some doubts, and then perhaps getting the help of a few additional dictionaries, and then having some more misgivings, and then perhaps getting the word translated correctly and consequently being exempt – do you believe that he regrets the mistake, do you believe that he pleases his beloved less?
Now think of God’s Word. When you read God’s Word in a scholarly way – we do no disparage scholarship, no, far from it, but do bear this in mind: when you are reading God’s Word in a scholarly way, with a dictionary etc., then you are not reading God’s Word – remember what the lover said: “This is not reading the letter from the beloved.” If you happen to be a scholar, then please do see to it that in all this learned reading (which is not reading God’s Word) you do not forget to read God’s Word. If you are not a scholar, do not envy him: be glad that you can start reading God’s Word right away! And if there happens to be a wish, a command, an order, then – remember the lover! – then off with you at once to do what it asks. “But”, you perhaps say, “there are so many obscure passages in the Bible, whole books that are practically riddles.” To that I would answer: Before I have anything to do with this objection, it must be made by someone whose life manifests that he has scrupulously complied with all the passages that are easy to understand; is this the case with you? Yet this is how the lover would respond to the letter – if there were obscure passages, but also clearly expressed wishes, he would say, “I must immediately comply with the wish – then I will see about the obscure parts. How could I ever sit down and ponder the obscure passages and not comply with the wish, the wish that I clearly understood.”

Excerpt taken from For Self-Examination, translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton 1990

Monday, August 22, 2011

Following Christ in Obedience - the Vocation of a Lay Person

“If however, you want to attribute both of these, the flowers and the fruit, to the one person according to their moral sense, understand the flower as faith, the fruit as action. Nor do I think that this will seem wrong to you, if, just as the flower by necessity precedes the fruit, so faith ought to come before good works. Without faith, moreover, it is impossible to please God, as Paul attests. And he even teaches that ‘whatever does not proceed from faith is sin’. Hence there is neither fruit without a flower nor a good work without faith. But then, faith without good works is dead, just as a flower seems vain where no fruit follows” (191).

The above passage was taken in full from Franz Posset’s book Pater Bernhardus: Martin Luther and Bernard of Clairvaux, and St. Bernard’s sermon on the Song of Songs. If you recall from my previous post, Posset argues that Martin Luther’s reformation theology was greatly influenced by the twelfth century Cistercian Church Father, St. Bernard – more so even than St. Augustine to whom Luther has often been compared. History books often explain that a major difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is that the former teaches that a person is justified by faith and good works while the latter argues that justification is through faith alone. But what is the real difference between the two? Surely, Protestants are not against helping others. So, what is the issue?

One must remember that Martin Luther was responding to the issues of his time. Living in the midst of the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages, a huge chasm had been built between the often wealthy, politically inclined bishops and cardinals on the one hand and the poor, highly uneducated lay people on the other. Authentic Church teachings were eclipsed by teachings that sometimes, unfortunately, reflected more the interests of the pope than those of God or the souls of his children. For a myriad of reasons, the lay people and even religious of Luther’s world were more familiar with a strict, unloving Jesus who obviously found pleasure in damning people than they were with the Christ of the Gospels whose sacrificial love reconciled the world to God. People were taught that only a few holy people (exceptional Saints) had found favor with God and were thus in Heaven. Everyone else had no right to presume that they could get to Heaven. Purgatory was the best anyone could hope for. Luther’s primary criticisms were aimed at a particular pope and his bishops who falsely taught that grace could be merited. In trusting in Christ’s mercy and following him in obedience through love, Christians were often taught that a person could only be relatively saved (spend less years in purgatory) through pilgrimages, almsgiving, and the buying of indulgences. In this context, it is understandable that someone like Martin Luther would fall into despair (besides he suffered from clinical depression as well). He felt like he never could do enough to merit heaven. And he was right. It struck Luther one day that a person is justified by ‘faith alone.’ But what does Luther mean by this statement? Let’s listen to him in his essay On the Freedom of a Christian:

“We may see the same thing in all handicrafts. A bad or good house does not make a bad or good builder, but a good or bad builder makes a good or bad house. And in general, no work makes the workman such as it is itself; but the workman makes the work such as he is himself. Such is the case too with the works of men. Such as the man himself is, whether [122] in faith or in unbelief, such is his work; good if it be done in faith, bad if in unbelief. But the converse is not true--that, such as the work is, such the man becomes in faith or in unbelief For as works do not make a believing man, so neither do they make a justified man; but faith, as it makes a man a believer and justified, so also it makes his works good…We do not then reject good works; nay, we embrace them and teach them in the highest degree. It is not on their own account that we condemn them, but on account of this impious addition to them, and the perverse notion of seeking justification by them.”

Luther and Bernard both agree that justification is through faith alone. God gives Grace to a Christian as a free, unmerited gift, and the Christian in turn responds in faith which is obedience to Christ. The difference between a person who believes in faith alone and one who believes in faith and good works is that the former seeks God’s face in the person of Jesus Christ and in attempting to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, inevitably does good works. The latter on the other hand only sees good works as a burden or an occasional necessity, only necessary for salvation in the next life. A person who believes in justification through faith and good works believes also that these works are extra special works that a Christian must do to fulfill Christ’s commandment in Matthew 25. Instead, a person who believes in justification by faith alone is freed from the law that condemns and instead turns to Christ who is the only one who can save. Instead of works being an extra, a Christian who trusts Christ in faith alone, actively engages in the suffering of this world like Christ did and continues to do. Instead of looking at good works as a way of entering Heaven, Christians should do these same things out of love for God and His people. Christ calls all people to follow him in obedience and that means that all people must follow in his footsteps. What does this mean for Catholics today?

Christian lay people must actively engage in the problems of their societies. It seems to me that too many "serious" Catholics are more interested in living their own private, pious lives than accepting the responsibility of living in the midst of a suffering world. Catholics should realize that followers of Christ must respond, and not just with prayers. Faith is active engagement in this world as a result of a complete obedience to Christ. I am reminded of Oscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who saw social-justice not as an extra good work - a once-in-a-while occurrence - but as something that must be the natural response of faithful Christians in this world. The term "progressive" that is often used to refer to "social-justice Catholics" makes me wonder. What are these Catholics progressing towards if not towards God? I really believe that unless all Catholics come to believe that each and every one of them is called to be actively engaged in the problems of this world, the chasm in the Church (between the so-called Conservatives and the so-called Progressives) will always remain. Then, the Catholic faith ceases to be defined as obedience to the Christ of the Gospels.

Too often, when a Catholic spiritual director finds promise in a Christian, he advises that person to become a religious or a priest. But maybe, people are approaching vocations incorrectly. Of course, the Church needs priests and religious but she also needs faithful lay Christians living in the secular world. For too long, the Church has been solely preoccupied with religious vocations without realizing that the vast majority of Catholics are lay people. Fortunately, at least in the last 50 years, more emphasis has been placed on the lay people and their call to holiness. A person does not need to be a monk or a nun to be Christian. In fact, the way I see it, a shift from the cloistered life to the active life may be necessary to respond to the signs of the times. Could not a doctor or a lawyer or a custodian or a construction worker be a faithful Christian too? Instead of seeing some Christians as the “prayerful” type and others as the “social justice” type I suggest we bridge the chasm and urge all Christians to worship the Christ of the Gospels in obedience. There are hundreds of millions of Catholic lay people in the world. There is so much that a lay person can and should do.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Martin Luther and Saint Bernard - Surprising Similarities

I have recently finished reading a book I bought from a gift shop at the famous Gethsemane Abbey in Trappist, Kentucky. Pater Bernhardus: Martin Luther and Bernard of Clairvaux, written by the German Catholic theologian Franz Posset is a study in the theologies of the last of the Church Fathers, St. Bernard, and the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. As you may have guessed from my previous posts, I tend to focus on Christology through an ecumenical (particularly Lutheran-Catholic) lens to understand Christ and the Church in the modern world. Posset’s thesis is that Martin Luther, though a Protestant reformer, was greatly influenced by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the twelfth century Cistercian. Although Luther eventually abandoned monasticism altogether, Luther was knowingly (and unknowingly) influenced by Bernard. Sixteenth century libraries, unlike libraries today, contained Bernardine works alongside pseudo-Bernardine ones, making difficult a correct understanding of the medieval saint. In addition to a handful of authentic Bernardine sermons, Luther leaned much about this Church Father from The Golden Legend written by the hagiographer Jacobus de Voragine and the Vita Bern. Posset breaks down Pater Bernhardus  according to the Reformation solas (Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Christ Alone, Evangelization Alone), and by comparing the two men, attempts to prove that the Reformation cries (the solas) were not Lutheran inventions but were sometimes adopted from Bernard’s own teachings, given nearly four hundred years earlier. Posset argues that Luther and Bernard hold in common what the author calls an “affective christocentrism.”  

When one reviews Luther’s deep appreciation of Bernard’s sermons on the advent, incarnation,  and passion of Christ, and of the bernardine concepts of contrition, humility, self-knowledge, God-knowledge, self-judgment, grace, faith, and Christ’s double right to heaven – which taken together we call his affective christocentrism – one can better understand why the reformer ranked Bernard ‘higher than any monk or priest on earth’ and could state unequivocally that ‘Bernard is above all the teachers in the Church.’(337).

Of course, Luther was not in complete agreement with Bernard, but hostility was often a result of a false understanding of the monk’s teachings, taken from pseudo-Bernardine sources. Interestingly, though an enemy of the cloister, Luther was more influenced by monastic tradition than he was by scholasticism, which Luther openly attacked shortly before his 1517 Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. Martin Luther is certainly a complex character, one whom many people have attempted to understand. Like Bernard, de-mythologizing the life of Luther can be challenging.  Posset has also written a biography of Martin Luther (The Real Luther), another recent attempt to understand this complex man. Posset is convinced that Lutheran scholarship is still in its birth pangs because a huge aspect of Luther’s theology has been overlooked. By acknowledging Luther’s monastic influence, the author hopes that his books will help further ecumenical relations, help Catholics come to a better understanding of St. Bernard and his teachings, and help Lutherans come to a better understanding of the man they claim as the founder of their churches.  I will outline some of Posset’s arguments in the next post. It is not common for a Catholic theologian to invest so much time and effort into understanding the life of an excommunicated “schismatic”, but Posset hopes to help Christians approach ecumenical dialogue responsibly and honestly, with a good understanding of each other’s traditions.

Perhaps the bernardine/cistercian tradition is predestined – because of its specific bernardine spirituality and its affinity with Reformation concerns – to become the agent of further redintegratio between the two separated streams of western Christianity, Catholicism and Protestantism. There is no doubt that ‘Bernard can be a meeting ground for catholic-protestant dialogue’. In the future, the two streams may again flow together to form one gospel-centered Catholic Church by reappropriating these two giants of western spirituality. (393-394).

I definitely recommend this book not so much because of its great writing style (the writing is okay) but because of its content and the questions that this book explores. Copies of this book are admittedly expensive though (I own a cheap, faulty copy), so I hope to comment further on this book in the future so that others too may feel inclined to join in the dialogue.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Saint Gianna Beretta Molla

Not many daughters can claim that their mother is a canonized saint, but Laura Molla can. To many, it seems absurd and maybe even stupid that a woman would choose death over the abortion of her unborn child, but Saint Gianna Beretta Molla did just that. To be sure, it would have been understandable if Jesus had hated the people who crucified him, but the fact that Jesus died for sinful people and forgave his executors is proof that he is God. It would have been understandable if Gianna had agreed to the abortion seeing that her life was in grave danger, but the fact that she didn't proves that she was and is a saint. Saint Gianna was obedient to Christ to the end. Because of her mother's sacrificial love, Laura Molla lives. 

Read article here: Saint's daughter hopes to follow her mother's example of loving life

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Understanding Lutheranism - Luther's Vision & The Evils Of State-Church

Here is an interesting article about the three phases of Lutheranism. The Three Lutheranisms.

It seems to me that all three types of Lutheranism need each other. I am afraid, though, that Bob Benne, the friend mentioned at the end of the article, may be right (to a certain degree). It does seem to me as well that Lutheranism (the church Luther started) is dying, but I would have to disagree that it is "an exhausted tradition." Luther's theology has influenced and continues to influence almost all Christians in the modern world, even the Catholic Church. From a questioning of the immaculacy of scholasticism to a re-emphasis on Christology, the Bible, unmerited Grace, and the suffering God of the cross, the Church (particularly the post-conciliar Church) has adopted much of Luther's earliest reforms. This is because, in the midst of corruption, the Church had forgotten what she had always believed to be true. I tend to think of Luther as a man who tried to reform the Church from the inside. It is the early Luther whom I like because he is what I call a "noble heretic". He spoke out against corruption in the church because he "[could] do no other". Luther urged everyday lay Catholics to make the faith their own.

However, Luther did not see the real evil in the Church. The real evil was the fact that the pope had political power, land, and was basically a monarch. It is because the Church was tied to the state (the Holy Roman Empire) that there was so much corruption. As seen in the Joint Agreement on Justification signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church in 1999, both churches agree that Grace is unmerited. There are of course theological differences as I pointed out in a previous post (Concupiscence as Defined by Catholics and Protestants), but Luther was excommunicated  mainly because he was seen as a political threat to Pope Leo X (who was quite a pathetic Catholic anyway).

But Luther did not understand the evils of state-church. He fell into the same trap. Luther's Lutheran Church was the German state church, established in solidarity with the HRE princes. It is this state-church that saw its own demise during World War II when the Nazis took over the church. German Lutherans reasoned that to be German meant that you were Lutheran (in the same way that many English reason that to be English means that you are Anglican). It was natural that a German would be a Lutheran, without even a personal appropriation of faith. Hitler exploited the Lutherans' weak faith. Hitler questioned the Germans understanding of being German. Who is the true German? For, only the true German could be a true Lutheran. And didn't Luther himself condemn Jews in his last years? (A very physically sick and depressed Luther believing the world was soon coming to an end unfortunately promoted violent antisemitism towards the end of his life). Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth spoke out against this claim, but their pleas often fell on deaf ears. The story of the German Lutheran Church is not just a Lutheran phenomenon as mentioned earlier. The Catholic Church also fell into this trap, but the Catholic Church was not established as a state-church and was able to escape, not unscathed. There are still Catholic nations especially in Latin and South America that tend to see Catholicism as an ethnicity as opposed to faith in Jesus Christ.   History bears witness to the fact that state-church promotes "couch-potato" Christianity at best and a "demonic" church at worst. Lutheranism, if it will survive, will have to reject Luther's idea of a state-church. Maybe, the Lutheranism experienced in America is the best alternative. But what is a Lutheranism that is not affiliated to the state?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Get Your Teddy Bear Jesus Today!!!

I am quite annoyed by the kind of homilies and sermons we hear in our churches today. It is true that in the past pastors only spoke of Hell and ignored the mercies and love of our Lord Jesus. This of course was because people weren’t very Christocentric. The Christ of the Gospels is both love and justice, and this was often overlooked in the past.

It seems that today’s churches are becoming more and more centered on Jesus. However, while people are become more Jesus-centric they are not really Christocentric. Allow me to explain.I often have to wonder, “What sort of Jesus do we follow today?” Are we really worshipping the Jesus of the Gospels or are we worshipping what I call a “teddy bear Jesus”? The teddy bear Jesus is more like a comfort toy whom people turn to when they “need” him, but otherwise he is only a Sunday thing. It is on Sunday that we decide to think about Jesus, and even then we do not think about or pray to the correct Jesus. We pray to the social justice Jesus who preached love and forgiveness, but deliberately overlook or water down his harder teachings because well, “we just can’t believe in a God like that.” But then, why read from the Gospel at all? Church is seen only as a social event, and sermons must reflect the atmosphere or else the pastor is a “fundamentalist.”

I fear that my post today is too angry, but the homily I heard today just got me thinking. Who is God? Do we really believe that Jesus is God or is he only a good man?  If Jesus’ parables were only speaking of love and peace (which everyone incidentally supports but hardly anyone understands from a truly Christian perspective) then why did people try to stone him to death every time he gave a parable? Maybe the Jesus of the Gospels challenges us to, yes! , be actively engaged with the world but also to know that apart from God we can do nothing, and that someday we will have to render an account of our lives to God. People are so devoted to the historical Jesus that they have forgotten that he was God, something that history can never prove. Almost every Christian wants to follow Jesus, but our churches don't know who Jesus is. The Jesus that pastors preach is the tolerant, socially acceptable Jesus who never existed. 

“To be sure, most people do have religiousness; they have it in the form of an idea, but they have not made up their minds about when it actually is to be used. Is it to be used on the day of need? No, then it is natural to become impatient and to despair halfway. Is it to be used on the day of joy? No, then it is not needed. Is it then for everyday use? No, then there is no proper occasion for it. Then when is it to be used!”   - Søren Kierkegaard (Book On Adler)

Of course, it might just be better to go beyond mere religion to faith...

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I Am Starting A New Blog On The Works Of Søren Kierkegaard addition to this blog. I am starting a new blog on Søren Kierkegaard. Because I feel so strongly about his message and it's relevance for modern day Christians, I am starting this blog to introduce his works to those who may not have the time to read his writings. I will offer personal reflections as well. Kierkegaard does not offer any new theology or philosophy; rather, he argues that the true Christian is the one who makes him/herself contemporanious with Christ. This my personal journey, but maybe you too could come along.

Check it out at

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mary of Nazareth or the Holy Spirit?

Below is an excerpt from the book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God by Sr. Elizabeth A. Johnson, PhD.  Reflections to follow in the future.... For anyone who like me  has been confused by the Hispanic devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the passage below may be quite enlightening (at least it has been for me).

One group of theologians questing for understanding goes further and queries the knot tied so tightly between Hispanic images of the Virgin and the actual first-century Jewish woman Mary of Nazareth, mother of Jesus. Orlando Espín, for one, argues for a different interpretation. “When I am confronted by the depth of trust and affection that Latinos have for the Virgen, and when I see the beautiful, reverential relationship they nurture with her, and also how deeply touched and empowered they are by her, then as a theologian I have to wonder.” His wonder leads him to suggest that instead of an encounter with Mary, what is taking place is a superbly inculturated experience of the Holy Spirit.

Espín is not implying that Mary is the Holy Spirit, or that in some way she mediates the feminine face of God. He is arguing that the historical Mary has nothing much to do with this phenomenon at all. It is not the Jewish woman Miriam of Nazareth whom Latino and Latinas venerate in their devotion to La Virgen de Guadalupe. It is rather the Holy Spirit of God, expressed not in the categories of Greek myth or European culture and philosophy but now in categories fused from conquering Spanish and conquered Mesoamerican peoples. Ecclesiastical authorities in colonial times insisted on a Marian interpretation in an understandably defensive move to protect doctrinal purity, since the only female imagery for the divine that they knew was associated with the religion they were trying to stamp out. Besides, too much talk of the Holy Spirit could bring on the unwanted attention of the Inquisition. But in the experience of the people then and now, references to the Mary of the gospels are notably absent in connection with devotion to Guadalupe. What is mediated instead is a profoundly engaging experience of sacred love and compassion that gives heart, wisdom, and fortitude to adherents. Therefore, might it not be the case, reflects Espín, that “what we have here is not Mariology but pneumatology [study of the Holy Spirit] in an unexpected and brilliantly achieved cultural mediation?” The Marian practices of Hispanic Catholicism may thus come to signify an orthodox pneumatology, superbly inculturated (p.142).

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why the Chronicles of Narnia Are Not Allegorical

I am in the process of rereading The Chronicles of Narnia and will blog about each of the seven books. I will focus on a single theme from each book and discuss it in light of Christianity. It is important to note, however, that Lewis never wanted The Chronicles of Narnia to be read as an allegory. Rather, Lewis wondered what would happen if instead of God becoming incarnate in our world, He had been the Lord of an imaginary place called Narnia. While the distinction between allegorical fantasy and what Lewis calls a “supposition” may seem insignificant, Lewis has an important reason for placing emphasis on that distinction. To understand further what he means, we need to be introduced to another famous work by C.S. Lewis. The Screwtape Letters are a series of letters written by a senior devil named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood. Wormwood is in charge of destroying the faith of a newly baptized Christian whom the devils call the Patient. Why is it that Lewis chooses to write from the devils’ perspective and not from God’s? The answer can be found in the preface to his book:

 “Readers are advised to remember that the devil is a liar. Not everything that Screwtape says should be assumed to be true even from his own angle.

To write definitively about God when it comes to matters of salvation is always a dangerous endeavor. After all, Lewis is not a prophet. From the scriptures and from his own personal experiences, Lewis has ideas about how a person is ultimately saved or why a person suffers, but as neither of us living know fully the details of God’s workings in the world (for God works in mysterious ways), neither of us can definitively know why people are put to the test (whether or not they always are) or what we will experience on the other side of the grave. This is not to say that Truth is relative because it is not. But some things have not been revealed to us.
When an author like Hal Lindsey or a man like Harold Camping write and speak definitively about the end times or about how God works in people’s lives for their ultimate salvation, they speak with false authority. At best, they simplify others’ sufferings. At worst, their failed promises discredit Christianity in the eyes of non-believers. The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters speak of suffering, salvation, temptation, and the end-times – issues that we do not fully understand. When Lewis writes The Screwtape Letters from the devils’ perspective he acknowledges the fact that he may not be fully correct, and that is alright since the devil is “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). To write about Aslan’s workings in an imaginary place called Narnia as a thought experiment rather than as an allegory liberates Lewis to write as a fictional author who happens to be Christian rather than as a prophet.

Sometimes false prophets don’t even know that they are speaking falsely. For example, most of us have probably seen billboard signs with quotes like ”Don’t make me come down there – God” as if this is how God feels about the world, as if we don’t wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ (Roman Missal). As I write posts on the seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia keep in mind that the books are a supposition and not an allegory. In many places, Aslan seems to quote Jesus and circumstances in Narnia may seem to echo passages in the Bible, but C.S. Lewis’ fictional books never replace the Bible or claim to no more about God than has been revealed to us. This is what impresses me the most about Lewis. Let us not be afraid to question the author. Let us not confuse Aslan with Jesus Christ.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Some Wisdom From Pope John XXIII

The passage below is taken from Pope John XXIII’s opening speech to the Second Vatican Council: Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (a.k.a. Mother Church Rejoices).

The Origin and Reason for the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council

As regards the initiative for the great event which gathers us here, it will suffice to repeat as historical documentation our personal account of the first sudden bringing up in our heart and lips of the simple words, "Ecumenical Council." We uttered those words in the presence of the Sacred College of Cardinals on that memorable January 25, 1959, the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, in the basilica dedicated to him. It was completely unexpected, like a flash of heavenly light, shedding sweetness in eyes and hearts. And at the same time it gave rise to a great fervour throughout the world in expectation of the holding of the Council.

There have elapsed three years of laborious preparation, during which a wide and profound examination was made regarding modern conditions of faith and religious practice, and of Christian and especially Catholic vitality. These years have seemed to us a first sign, an initial gift of celestial grace.

Illuminated by the light of this Council, the Church–we confidently trust–will become greater in spiritual riches and gaining the strength of new energies therefrom, she will look to the future without fear. In fact, by bringing herself up to date where required, and by the wise organization of mutual co-operation, the Church will make men, families, and peoples really turn their minds to heavenly things.

And thus the holding of the Council becomes a motive for wholehearted thanksgiving to the Giver of every good gift, in order to celebrate with joyous canticles the glory of Christ our Lord, the glorious and immortal King of ages and of peoples.

The opportuneness of holding the Council is, moreover, venerable brothers, another subject which it is useful to propose for your consideration. Namely, in order to render our Joy more complete, we wish to narrate before this great assembly our assessment of the happy circumstances under which the Ecumenical Council commences.

In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.

We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.

In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men's own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfilment of God's superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.

It is easy to discern this reality if we consider attentively the world of today, which is so busy with politics and controversies in the economic order that it does not find time to attend to the care of spiritual reality, with which the Church's magisterium is concerned. such a way of acting is certainly not right, and must justly be disapproved. It cannot be denied, however, that these new conditions of modern life have at least the advantage of having eliminated those innumerable obstacles by which, at one time, the sons of this world impeded the free action of the Church. In fact, it suffices to leaf even cursorily through the pages of ecclesiastical history to note clearly how the Ecumenical Councils themselves, while constituting a series of true glories for the Catholic Church, were often held to the accompaniment of most serious difficulties and sufferings because of the undue interference of civil authorities. The princes of this world, indeed, sometimes in all sincerity, intended thus to protect the Church. But more frequently this occurred not without spiritual damage and danger, since their interest therein was guided by the views of a selfish and perilous policy.

In this regard, we confess to you that we feel most poignant sorrow over the fact that very many bishops, so dear to us are noticeable here today by their absence, because they are imprisoned for their faithfulness to Christ, or impeded by other restraints. The thought of them impels us to raise most fervent prayer to God. Nevertheless, we see today, not without great hopes and to our immense consolation, that the Church, finally freed from so many obstacles of a profane nature such as trammeled her in the past, can from this Vatican Basilica, as if from a second apostolic cenacle, and through your intermediary, raise her voice resonant with majesty and greatness.

The complete address can be found here: Opening Speech to Vatican II Council

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Catholic But Not Roman

Mary and Child - Icon
I am guessing that as you read the title of this post you thought that I meant Christians of other traditions like Protestants or the Orthodox. However, I am merely speaking of Catholics who are not Roman – Catholics who do not belong to the Roman Rite. I haven’t conducted a survey but I am probably right in saying that the vast majority of Catholics in the West are not aware of the fact that there are six major rites in the Catholic church that are broken down further depending on the areas of the world in which they are found: Roman, Alexandrian, Antiochian, Armenian, Chaldean, and Byzantine. Catholics belonging to any of these rites are equally Catholic. 

A few years ago I happened to interview a Hindu priest who explained to me the difference between Hinduism and (what he called) “western religions.” Over the years, I have meditated quite a lot on this priest’s comments. I find them to be at once enlightening and disturbing. Is Christianity - is Catholicism - a western religion? 

While the Roman Rite is the largest rite in the Catholic Church, I believe that those of us who live in the West must not forget about the other rites, some of which exist in countries of the world like Iraq in which churches are bombed and Christians are tortured for their faith. The word “catholic” means universal – not just Western. There is always a tendency for people to divide up the globe and assign different religions to different parts of the world, but Christ has called all people, not just those in the West. When we fail to recognize the rites in the East we send a message to non-Christians that Christianity is a Western religion and thus not appropriate for the East. But, as the great Episcopalian hymn proclaims, “In Christ there is no East or West,/ In Him no South or North;/But one great fellowship of love/Throughout the whole wide earth.” After all, the first Christians lived in Jerusalem, a city of the near east.

The Second Vatican Council is responsible for many reforms in the Catholic Church, but one reform that is often overlooked in the West dealt with the relationship between the West and the East, not just between Catholics and the Orthodox but between Roman and Eastern Rite Catholics. Many non-Catholic Christians find Saint Cyprian’s statement  “Outside the Church there is no salvation” (Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus) to be quite offensive when referring only to the Catholic Church as the one True Church in which all must belong to be saved. But, the old interpretation of this statement was even more offensive. Often, Catholics were taught that outside of the Roman Church there was no salvation. In other words, Catholics who did not belong to the Roman Rite were either completely ignored or else were considered inferior Catholics. During the council, the Melchite Patriarch Maximos IV Saigh spoke on behalf of all Eastern Catholics, reminding Rome that while he was Catholic he was not Roman. Participating in a council where all the prelates spoke Latin, the Melchite Patriarch,however, spoke French.  Latin is not the language of the Catholic Church but the language of the Roman Rite. The patriarch wanted the Church to recognize the East because the Orthodox would never consider unity with Catholics if they had to become Roman. Largely because of Maximos IV, today there are even Eastern rite Cardinals in the Church. 

It may surprise you (at least it surprises me) that there have been Eastern rite popes in the past. But for so many centuries this has not been the case. Is it possible, though, to have an Eastern rite pope today? After all, the pope is also the Bishop of Rome. What does that mean for the East? I have only started learning recently about the Eastern rites. Does anyone know whether an Eastern rite Catholic could be pope? If the pope has to be the Bishop of Rome as well, would an Eastern pope be allowed to celebrate mass in his own rite or would he have to celebrate mass in the Latin rite? Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Jesus We Know and the Jesus We Do Not Know… (yet)

It is always nice to take walks in a large city. There are many people to see. Apart from getting fashion ideas from my promenades, I come face-to-face with reality. As a man walks by me, I notice how ordinary he looks. Dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt, he is just another man. Later, as I’m eating lunch at a cafe, I notice that the same man is standing in line to buy a salad. Nothing fancy. As I get up to leave, I notice that he has a few friends with him. They are all sitting round a table, eating and talking about this, that, and the other. I am certainly not eaves-dropping or spying, so I walk past with only a quick glance. Later, I will forget them altogether. Especially, the man in jeans whom I’d seen twice that day. I forget him after a few hours. And if he was the King, I certainly wouldn’t have known it from his physical appearance.

2,000 years ago, an ordinary man walked the Earth.
This man “Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
 something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
 and found human in appearance,
 he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8).

Thus, when the disciples met Jesus by the shores of the Sea of Galilee, they did not see a man surrounded by glory with a halo on his head but an ordinary man, not even a Temple Elder. “Is he not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother named Mary and his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Are not his sisters all with us? Where did this man get all this?” And they took offense at him.” (Matthew 13:55-57a). But surely he did miracles. There was no question of his identity then. Right?

I will continue to maintain that miracles can only be seen through the eyes of faith. At most, miracles can convince someone “on the fence”, but those who do not want to believe won’t believe. So, how do we know that this ordinary carpenter’s son is God? If we do not know from any external evidence then how can we know? We know Jesus was and is God because He said so. It is natural to question this claim. How do we know that this man is who he claims to be? The answer is not logical and does not use reason. The answer is faith. “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). It is only faith that proves to us that this man who will eventually be crucified for treason is God. This faith, Paul admits, is “a stumbling to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23b). There were many false prophets prior to Jesus. In our time, there have been many false prophets as well.

It is on the cross that we come to know God face-to-face because only God would accept the cross. All other false prophets would recant if faced with the cross. However, I must admit that I never cease to be awed by the disciples who believed in Jesus even when their Master was living - who believed just because He said He was the One Israel was seeking. Like the man in the blue jeans and tee-shirt who I hypothetically encountered, Jesus was an ordinary man with an extraordinary claim. In Israel, everyone had their own view of who the Messiah was supposed to be, and many overlooked the ordinary Rabbi whose only weapon was Love. While theologians have created and continue to create logical explanations for the existence of God or the divinity of Jesus, we are continually reminded of the fact that the disciples were not Biblical scholars. They did not receive a doctorate in philosophy. We worship a God who spoke and the world was created. One of the most powerful lines in the entire Bible is Genesis 1:3 in which the author writes, “Then God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light.” Whether the world was created in a few thousand years or over 3.5 billion years, you can be sure that it was God who willed it. Jesus in the New Testament is the Word incarnate. Whatever Christ says is the Truth whether or not it makes logical sense. What do you read in the Gospels that you cannot logically accept? Do you believe that Jesus is the Word? For me, it helps to say to Christ, “I believe because You said so.”

Christ too recognizes the fact that faith is an illogical leap. “And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me” (Luke 7:23). Let us not forget all the martyrs of the early Church and all those who die today for their faith. Most of Jesus’ disciples were killed for following Christ so how were they blessed? Once again, the blessing is not necessarily something we can see but something we believe in through faith. We believe that because Jesus was who He said He was, He had the power to die for the sins of the world. We believe that because Jesus was who He said He was, we too will experience the Resurrection. After all, because we believe Christ, we believe in His Resurrection. The Resurrection is only seen through the eyes of those who already believe in Him. The blessing is not necessarily health, wealth, and earthly happiness but everlasting life with God. “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). All these things Jesus promised his disciples so long ago, even while he was walking the Earth and looked like an ordinary human. If we do not know the human Jesus then we cannot know or recognize the glorified Jesus when he comes again.

It is true that Jesus will come again. But the proof of Christ’s divinity is found in faith. The glorified Jesus we do not know yet, but the human Jesus we do. And this human Jesus who was at once God and man – this Jesus was the fullness of God. In the meantime, there is much that we need to do to help Christ accomplish what He wants to accomplish on Earth. Even if Jesus does not return in your life time or even in the next 2,000 years, Jesus’ words are enough. For, it is in His words that we find the fullness of life. I believe, Lord, because You said so.  Because of faith, I know that my sins can be forgiven and that death does not have the last word. Because of faith, I know that there is hope even in seemingly hopeless situations.

As Blessed John Paul II once said, "Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song."

Recommended Reading: Training in Christianity by Søren Kierkegaard