Last week we looked at how people grow in their faith experience or become rigid or even static fundamentalists. This week a brief look at belief, religion, and the need for change – reformation.

FAITH EXPERIENCE: In the Faith Experience people do have an experience of the Divine, often described under various names: God, Creator, Father, Mother, Allah, the Ground of Being, etc. Sometimes people cannot put a name on their deepest human experiences. I still remember the observation by Dag Hammarskjöld who served as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations from April 1953 until his death in a plane crash in September 1961. He wrote: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder the source of which is beyond all reason.”

And these days I resonate more and more with the words of Karl Rahner (1904-1984) one of the most influential Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century: “I must confess to you in all honesty that for me God is and has always been absolute  mystery. I do not understand what God is; no one can. We have intimations, and inklings. We make faltering attempts to put mystery into words. But there is no word for it, no sentence for it.”  

BELIEF: Belief is the attempt to put into words the meaning of our faith experience. Belief is really theology which is “faith seeking understanding.” 

RELIGION: Religion is an attempt to interpret and systematize belief. Any religion is a system of beliefs and practices that helps people understand and live their faith experience. Religion therefore gives people: rituals, ritual places, ritual  leaders, sacred books, sacred places, sacred days and seasons, codes of morality and creedal statements. Religion provides helpful aids – MEANS – that point people to the Divine. That’s good and proper. But religion is not Faith. (Sometimes very religious people can be very ungodly.)

RELIGION LIFE-CYCLE: All religions go through a four-stage cycle

(1) They begin with the charismatic foundational state, e.g. the primitive Christian community. Here men and women had such a vivid lived awareness of the Faith experience that they had little need for institutional structure. They relied on do-it-self and charismatic ways of praying, speaking, and celebrating. Men and women presided at Eucharist.

(2) Then when people start thinking and asking  “how do we safeguard what we have and how do we pass this on to the next generation?” a religion enters stage two. This is the stage of institutionalization: important things are written down (e.g. writing the Gospels), set ways of praying are established (official sacramental rituals and gestures are established), properly authorized leaders are established (e.g. ordination is created as a kind of quality control mechanism to make certain that the Christian leaders are competent and reliable. Ordination was not originally about sacramental power!)

(3) After some time, a religion enters stage three. I call it the stage of self-focused short-sightedness. The institutional religion becomes so self-centered and so self-protective that it becomes less a means and path to the Divine and more and more the OBJECT of religious devotion. This stage comes close to idolatry. The church institution and certain institutional leaders, religious objects, and teachings are treated like IDOLS. People get so involved in acts of religious veneration that they miss or distort the Divine. 

(4) When stage three happens, the only solution is REFORMATION. This demands a serious effort to regain the vision and focus on the Divine. To recapture the vigor and creative enthusiasm of stages one and two.

All religions need periodic reformations. The old saying in Latin ecclesia semper reformanda est was true yesterday and is certainly true today: “the church must always be reformed.” 


So… how do we move ahead in the reformation process? 

We need to be – and invite our friends to be – critical observers and prophetic change agents. We need to OBSERVE, JUDGE, and ACT. 

The “Observe, Judge, Act” methodology was developed in the 1920s by the Belgian priest and later cardinal, Joseph Cardijn (1882 – 1967) in an attempt to mobilize laborers at a time when there were major industrial abuses affecting the dignity and well-being of laborers. 

For us today, we need to Observe what is happening in the church, Judge what should be done about it, and then Act in reforming actions. (The same is true of course in politics. But my focus today is religion.)

Clues that we need reformation are found in signs of unhealthy religion:

1. Healthy religion is grounded in contemporary Reality with all of its ups and downs. Unhealthy religion is grounded in fantasy and longs for the “good old days,” which were not so great for most people. Unhealthy religion imposes, as well, the antiquated and discredited historical and theological understandings of the “good old days.”

2. Healthy religion builds bridges between people. Unhealthy religion builds walls and creates barriers separating people into qualitative classes of people. It demonizes “those who don’t fit in” and validates hatred and cruelty through racism, misogyny, and homophobia.

3.  Unhealthy religion imposes power OVER people in often dismissive and demeaning ways through abuse, control, repression, and coercion. It uses guilt, fear, and overly-strict rules. 

4. Healthy religion promotes hope-filled love, compassion, and collaboration.

May we all be alert and courageous reformers.


PS   As I have now done for several years, starting next week I will be away from my blog for some late spring R&R and travel with my wife, as we celebrate 53 years of happily married life. I hope to return at the end of June with fresh thoughts. I often worry about becoming just another babbling old man.

Why Do People Believe the Way They Do?

Reflecting on religious authoritarianism and fundamentalism in a variety of contemporary religions, I went back to the analysis of human growth and faith development by James W. Fowler (1940 – 2015). 

For many years now I have been interested in Fowler’s thinking. He was Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University. Fowler argued that the development of people’s spiritual awareness runs parallel to other aspects of human development. His research into stages of faith development has helped me understand my own development and has greatly influenced my own approaches to faith formation and continuing education. At Emory University in Atlanta, he was director of both the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics until he retired in 2005. He was also an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. Fowler is perhaps best known for his book Stages of Faith, published in 1981, in which he outlined his understanding of the developmental process in “human faith.”

Fowler proposed a multi-stage understanding of faith development. His analysis is closely related to the work of the developmental psychologists Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980), Erik Erikson (1902 – 1994), and Lawrence Kohlberg (1907 – 1987). He defines faith as an activity of trusting, committing, and relating to reality based on a set of assumptions about how one is related to others, the world, and the Divine.

According to Fowler, there are seven primary stages of faith development (including Stage 0) in the life of an individual. They are as follows:

Stage 0 – “Primal or Undifferentiated” faith: From birth until about age 2, people are greatly shaped by their experiences of a safe or unsafe environment. A child at this stage learns to trust the goodness or badness of the world based on the way the child is treated by his or her parents. But situations of neglect or abuse can lead to the formation of feelings of distrust and fear of the universe and the Divine. How important the early childhood environment! And the kind of day care centers in which they are placed.

Stage 1 – “Intuitive-Projective” faith: From ages 3 to 7. Spiritual awareness is learned primarily through experiences, stories, images, and the people with whom one comes in contact. What kind of people? What kind of parents? Again day care personnel? In this stage, children begin to use symbols and their imagination. Children at this stage tend to take ideas about right and wrong very literally. The ability to distinguish the real from fantasy is not yet well developed. Also, they are generally not yet able to see the world from another person’s perspective.

Stage 2 – “Mythic-Literal” faith: At this stage, elementary-school-aged children develop an anthropomorphic sense of the Divine. Metaphors and symbolic language are often taken literally. This second stage starts around the sixth or seventh year of life and continues until about the twelfth year of life. In this stage beliefs are interpreted literally. Religious truth is communicated through stories, in which morality is legalistic. But some people stay in this phase for their whole lives.

Stage 3 – “Synthetic-Conventional” faith: From about age 12 to adulthood. This stage is characterized by conformity to religious authority and the development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one’s beliefs are ignored at this stage. One fears inconsistencies and what challenges authority. It is better not to question. Some people have arrested development at this stage; and we find them quite often ending up in fundamentalist movements. They don’t move beyond this stage.

Stage 4 – “Individuative-Reflective” faith: From the mid 20s to mid 30s. This is a stage of angst and struggle as one begins to take personal responsibility for his or her own beliefs. One begins to see that life issues are not so easily clear cut. One becomes open to the complexity of faith and more aware of conflicts in one’s belief. One also begins to question existing authority structures within one’s religious institution. This stage is an important turning point as one either accepts ambiguity and the need to explore or one simply shuts the door to faith challenges. Is this why some young people become missionaries and care-givers, while others become terrorists and suicide bombers?

Stage 5 – “Conjunctive” faith: This is the time of the mid-life crisis. People in this stage acknowledge the paradoxes found in human life and can begin to resolve conflicts about reality through a complex understanding that human life is grounded in a multidimensional and interdependent “truth” that can be neither controlled by nor completely contained in any particular institution. Everyone is a truth-seeker. Many people who have reached this stage are beginning to become more and more open to the religions and beliefs of other people. This is not because they distance themselves from their own faith, but because they believe that the faith of others can inform, deepen, and enrich their own.

Stage 6 – “Universalizing” faith: Some call this “enlightenment.” The individual realizes that all people — regardless of their sex, gender, age, religion, nationality, or culture – must be treated with compassion, guided by universal principles of love and justice. I think Jesus of Nazareth arrived at this stage when he was close to 30. And he hoped his followers would arrive there as well. Some did of course. And some still do. People who are at this stage have the potential to become important religious figures. That’s because they have the ability to interact with anyone at any stage of faith development without being condescending. People in this phase cherish life, but do not take life too seriously. They put their faith into action, challenge the status quo, and work to create justice in the world.


Closing reflection. In all segments of the community of faith – members, teachers and leaders in the church – we need to ask: How are we alert to and ministering to babies, children, teenagers, young adults, and older adults? In not just what we say, but in what we do, are we stimulating and promoting healthy human development and growth in authentic faith? 

Or…are we, by actions or inaction, contributing to interpersonal environments that stunt human growth and faith development, and distort individual and group religious understanding? Last week’s thoughts about authoritarian fundamentalism are of course part of this question. 


Authoritarian Power and Control

This week I am returning to some thoughts and concerns about authoritarian leaders. A critic told me recently that I should not get into politics but, as he said, “just stick with the theology stuff.” I understand his concern. I have no desire to argue about either U.S. political party, both of which I know quite well. I am currently a Democrat but grew up in a very Eisenhower-Republican home. My Dad, in fact, was a Republican county commissioner in lower Michigan and I worked on his political campaign. Today, as an historical theologian, I am very concerned about safeguarding human dignity and authentic Christian values. “Theology stuff” as my critic would say. My concern is the degree to which supporters of the forty-fifth U.S. president, are pushing the United States toward an authoritarian regime. Not just banning books but banning people and restricting civil rights. 

Across the globe in countries with long-established democracies, authoritarian leaders have taken advantage of people’s fears and anxieties in a rapidly changing world. They condemn the “problematic” people and have become advocates of hatred, violence, and passionate demagoguery. We see a similar development in some fundamentalist religious movements.

Authoritarianism is hardly a new phenomenon. In the early twentieth century there were repressive authoritarian regimes in countries like Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, and the Croatian fascist Ustasha movement. While some researchers debate the causes of authoritarianism, the public and institutional behavior of authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers is rather clear-cut.

ADDICTION: Just like drug dealers and their “clients,” authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers sell and promote authoritarian addiction. It happens when followers stop thinking for themselves and submit to the emotional rhetoric of authoritarian leaders. We now see classic examples in our daily news. The primary focus of the authoritarian leader is the leader. The authoritarian leader uses and manipulates people to achieve the leader’s goals. The leader’s campaign message is often loaded with dishonest fabrications and emotionally charged bully-talk.

SUBMISSIVE: Authoritarian followers are highly submissive to authoritarian leaders and aggressively insist that everyone should behave as dictated by the authority. They are fearful about a changing world and a changing society which they neither understand nor want to understand. They would rather turn the clock back to some imagined golden era.

BLIND OBEDIENCE: Easily incited, easily led, and reluctant to think for themselves, authoritarian followers don’t question. They obey. They are attracted to and follow strong leaders, who, in often theatrical style, appeal to their feelings of fear and anxiety. And they respond aggressively toward “outsiders.” Blind faith is substituted for critical reason. The unknown and the different become the enemy.

ANTI-CHRISTIAN: What authoritarian leaders want to implement is undemocratic, tyrannical, and often brutal. Authoritarianism becomes even more sinister, when authoritarian leaders begin to proclaim their message in the name of Christianity. Then, in reality, it becomes an anti-Christian social cancer starting to metastasize across the society. Blurred vision and bizarre rhetoric are the result. There is indeed a strong correlation between religious fundamentalism and authoritarianism. 

FUNDAMENTALISM: Authoritarian fundamentalists see themselves as part of a cosmic struggle between good and evil. They consider themselves – and their authoritarian leaders – as messengers sent by God. They seize on historical moments as prophetic and reinterpret them in the light of this cosmic struggle. They believe that God hates those who do not conform to the fundamentalist worldview. They therefore condemn and demonize their opposition as evil. By way of By way of example, on April 28th in Cleveland, Texas, five victims, including a nine year old boy, were killed in an attack which began when the family asked their neighbor to stop firing his gun because their baby was trying to sleep. The far-right, authoritarian governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, demonized the victims of the Texas shooting in a tweet calling them “illegal immigrants.”  

Also in Texas, in Grapevine 20 miles northwest of Dallas, some religious and political leaders have called a school board election this week a spiritual battle between forces of good and evil. During a Sunday worship service, Robert Morris, a megachurch pastor and spiritual adviser to former President Donald Trump, warned his congregation that Satan was at work in area schools.

FAULTY THINKING: All authoritarians go through life with barrel-vision and impaired reasoning. Their thinking is sloppy and they are slaves to a ferocious dogmatism that blinds them to evidence and logic. As Adolf Hitler reportedly said, “What good fortune for those in power that people do not think.” I often think about a good example of faulty-thinking, given many years ago by my college logic professor: “All fish live in the sea. Sharks live in the sea. Therefore, sharks are fish.” Today of course one hears faulty-thinking authoritarian politicians and their supportive religious leaders asserting: “All Muslims are terrorists” … “African Americans are lazy”…“Feminists are undermining male and female identity”… “Gays are destroying marriage and family life.” And on and on it goes. Falsehood and nonsense that denigrates and kills people.


Certainly we need to confront authoritarianism, because it is a malignancy that threatens and polarizes society. We need to speak-out now or forever hold our silence. But it is not enough to talk about it or write articles about it. Too many people are simply standing on the sidewalk, quietly staring at the authoritarian parade as it marches on.

We need to take courageous leadership to clearly inform and organize others. We need to inform and motivate voters to elect well-informed and critical-thinking political leaders. Ignorance is neither civic nor religious bliss; and prejudice is based on ignorance.

The best way to confront ignorance is through real education that emphasizes critical, analytical thinking skills. Real education teaches the importance of gathering evidence and then proceeding to conclusions. Authoritarians and fundamentalists work in opposite fashion.

We need to establish channels for dialogue. If people are telling lies or spreading falsehood, on social media, we need to be clear about what is truthful information and help spread that. When I see falsehood on Facebook, for example, I point that out. I am not speaking about opinions but about truthfulness and honesty. Social media can indeed spread falsehood but it can be used to spread truthfulness as well. 

Asking “why?” is a virtue. Questioning is healthy and mature. Unquestioned loyalty and obedience force authoritarian followers into servitude. If your religion makes you hate someone, you need a new religion. Empathy and compassion are Christ-like; but authoritarian hatred and denigration are anti-Christ.

[For further reading, I recommend Twilight of Democracy, a book by Anne Applebaum, Polish-American journalist and historian.]


PS “The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in an illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.” – Walter Brueggemann (Born: March 11, 1933) U.S. Hebrew Scriptures scholar and theologian

Christianity’s Ebb and Flow in the United States

In 1741, the young Puritan preacher and theologian, Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758), warned that only God’s mercy prevented sinners from sizzling in hellfire like spiders over a candle flame. Edwards helped launch the first Great Awakening, a revival of Christian engagement and practice that lasted throughout much of the 18th century. Historians point to four waves of U.S. religious awakening between the early 18th century and the late 20th century. Each of these “Great Awakenings” was characterized by widespread revivals led by evangelical Protestant ministers. 

I wonder what Edwards would be thinking about U.S. Christianity today. In 2000, 80% of U.S. adults were Christian, with 54% of them Protestant and 25% Roman Catholic. The latest analysis of U.S. religious trends by the Pew Research Center, however, says U.S. American Christians could make up less than half of the U.S. population within a few decades. The 2015 report had projected that two-thirds of Americans would be Christian in 2050. But the 2022 analysis has projected that just 47% of the population would be Christian at midcentury under the likeliest scenario, and 39% by 2070. 

Although it is difficult to get a precise figure, currently in the United States about 4,000 churches close down each year. Some get repurposed as shops, theaters, community centers, or apartments. Others just get demolished. Some are also closed, demolished, and the property sold just because the real estate has become so valuable.

For me one of the most interesting changes in U.S. Christianity concerns Latinos, where Roman Catholicism continues to decline. Although Catholics do remain the largest religious group among Latinos, their share among Latino adults has steadily declined over the past decade. At the same time, the percentage who are religiously unaffiliated has grown substantially over the same period. In 2022, 43% of Latino adults identified as Catholic, down from 67% in 2010. 

When it comes to Catholicism in the U.S., major reconfigurations are already underway, especially when one looks at Roman Catholic ordained ministers (priests). New vocations and seminarians these days come most significantly from outside the USA. As CRUX editor and journalist John L. Allen Jr. wrote in CRUX  on February 13th of last year: “If the church in the U.S. tomorrow had to kick out all the Mexican, Colombian, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, Nigerian, Ugandan, and Congolese priests serving in American dioceses, not to mention all the religious women from those places, it might as well put a ‘going out of business’ sign on the front door of almost every diocesan cathedral in the country.” 

Since 1970, according to the Pew Research Center, weekly church attendance among U.S. Catholics has dropped from 55% to 20%, and the number of people who have left Catholicism has increased from under 2 million in 1975 to over 30 million at the start of 2022. 

Thinking and talking about the great decline in U.S. Catholic involvement, one of my bishop friends observed, very much off the record, “My God who will pay our bills?” I chuckled and said “Maybe you have to start down-sizing. Sell your suburban episcopal mansion near the golf course and move into a small apartment in the city near the cathedral.” He was not amused. “But most importantly,” I said “My friend, we really do have to ask why people are leaving.” I also added “And, unfortunately, when speaking about many contemporary issues, church leadership has a credibility problem: politics, women, gay rights, and of course sexual abuse.”

Thinking about Christianity in general, another area where we see significant change is looking at young people and their belief. 

The “Zoomers,” Generation Z, people born mid-to-late 1990s, is now the least religious generation yet. Today 34 % of Generation Z are religiously unaffiliated, a significantly larger proportion than among Millennials, born 1981 to 1996, at 29 %, and Generation X, born early 1960s to late 1970s, at 25%. 

Fewer than 18% of the Baby Boomers, people born 1946 to 1964, are religiously unaffiliated. But only 9 % of the Silent Generation are religiously unaffiliated. The Silent Generation, also known as the “Traditionalist Generation,” is the generation preceding the Baby Boomers, people born from 1928 to 1945.

Certainly, new patterns of religious change can emerge at any time. Some of my friends say we have to get ready for the fifth Great Awakening. Could be. There are so many issues in our contemporary society: increasing gun violence, rising authoritarianism, homophobic hatred or antipathy, worsening economic conditions, etc. So many issues that can launch sudden social, political, and religious upheavals.

We always need to read the signs of the times, and then reflect on their implications for contemporary belief and behavior. “There are tranquil times, which seem to contain that which will last forever,” the German-Swiss philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883 – 1969) once observed. “And there are ages of change, which see upheavals that, in extreme instances, appear to go to the roots of humanity itself.” I resonate with Jaspers, and I would say that we indeed are in an extreme socio-cultural upheaval. So far the U.S. is setting a record pace for mass killings in 2023, replaying the horror on a loop roughly once a week so far this year. The carnage has taken 88 lives in 17 mass killings over 111 days.

Reading Acts of Apostles a few days ago, I read once again: “God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17) Yes. We need to share Visions and Dreams today. I thought as well about the young university student I mentioned last week. I truly believe we need to support and encourage young men and women to pursue their visions of a future Christian understanding, in times of great change. That’s my dream. I am not a pessimist. Church leaders should have listening sessions, inviting young men and women to share there thoughts about life and church today. We should not lecture to them. We should listen to them. Constructive dialogue begins with listening to the other. Asking “what?” and asking “why?”

Listening to the other was a key element in the ministry of my friend Archbishop Jean Jadot (1909-2009) whom I thought about this past week, while re-reading and sorting some old files. Jean Jadot was Apostolic Delegate to the United States from 1973 to 1980. (Two years ago my book about the Archbishop was published and is still available on Amazon: Jean Jadot: Paul’s Man in Washington.) From the time he was a young child, his family called him “Mr. Why?” because he was always asking questions. Shortly after his arrival in Washington DC in 1973, the “whys” of appropriate pastoral ministry for Catholics in the United States began to churn in Jadot’s head as he travelled, observed, and reflected. 

Jadot had been appointed by Pope Paul VI (pope from 1963 to 1978). The more than a hundred men Jadot selected for U.S. Catholic bishops were ordained ministers attuned to the pastoral needs of people in their dioceses. After Pope Paul’s death in 1978, his successor, John Paul II, gradually became more and more  displeased and perturbed at Jadot. He did not like the Jadot bishops. He told Archbishop Jadot he did not want “creatively pastoral” bishops. He wanted bishops who were “loyal and obedient to me in Rome.” Certainly Pope John Paul II and then Pope Benedict XVI did their best to eliminate Jadot-type bishops.

I remember visiting Jadot after he was removed from the United States by John Paul II. I asked him how he felt. He smiled and said “It is winter now. But spring will return.” 

Jean Jadot, right from the start of his U.S. ministry, was strongly pro-American yet saw major American social problems developing; and he was committed to shaping an appropriate American Catholic response. In my visits and interviews with him over many years, Archbishop Jadot often spoke about his being present at grandiose, impressive, and yet almost medieval liturgies in cathedrals like St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. 

The Archbishop said he often looked at the faces of young and older Catholics in the congregation and saw immediately that that kind of liturgy, for them, was just about meaningless. “Why?” he said, “Why can’t we be more creative with liturgical celebrations that truly engage and speak to contemporary people?” I nodded my head in agreement and added “Why can’t we be more creative in many ways: women in ministry, married ordained ministers, lay men and women in leadership positions, dialogue with Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, etc.” Jadot nodded his head in complete agreement.

I look to today’s younger Christian thinkers and activists to answer Jadot’s questions and many others. Perhaps the first thing we need to do is start listening more closely to them and to the disaffiliated. We must humbly admit that we may not have the best answers…and quite possibly they do. We cannot dialogue and work together to resolve problems and shape the future until we first of all practice attentive listening.


Theological Twists and Turns

Not so long ago I met a young energetic and inquisitive university student, when he was visiting mutual friends. He knew I was a retired professor and asked what my field was. I told him theology. He stared at me, then chuckled, and said that he no longer believed in Santa Claus and the old Deity up in the sky. I laughed and said “I don’t either.” Then, surprisingly, we got into a very serious discussion about
belief, Jesus, and God. That discussion, I hope, will continue.

Over the past two thousand years, Christianity has gone through a lot of
theological twists and turns. Most involve a shifting focus on either “orthopraxy” or “orthodoxy.” In a life-centered Christian theology, the primary focus is orthopraxy which means “correct conduct.” Orthodoxy, on the other hand, means and emphasizes “correct belief.”

Orthopraxy was certainly the focus in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth: being courageous, compassionate, and inspiring in the midst of life’s ups and downs. And Jesus certainly experienced life’s ups and downs. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) In orthopraxy the Christian is like the Good Samaritan and embodies and lives out the Sermon on the Mount by
caring for the marginalized, promoting compassion and peace, and sharing God’s love.

Certainly in Roman Catholic history the focus on unquestioning acceptance of orthodoxy created an atmosphere of thought control and, quite often, fear for those who dared to question. Growing up as a pious Catholic teenager, I remember regularly saying the Act of Faith prayer, in which I so fervently prayed: “…I believe these and all the truths which the Holy Catholic Church teaches because you have revealed them, who are eternal truth and wisdom, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. In this faith I intend to live and die.” My high school classmates called me “Pious Dick.”

Orthodoxy is not life-centered but doctrine-centered. It is about correct teaching. When orthodoxy is stressed, people are taught the official doctrine and must then unquestioningly accept that doctrine.
From 1910 to 1967, by way of example, all Roman Catholic “clergy, pastors, confessors, preachers, religious superiors, and professors in philosophicaltheological seminaries” had to take the Oath Against Modernism. Theological modernism interpreted Christian teaching by taking into consideration modern knowledge, science and ethics. It emphasized the importance of reason and experience over doctrinal authority. The Oath marked a high point in Pope Pius X’s campaign against “modernism” which he denounced as heretical. Although Pius X
died in 1914, his very far right influence on Catholic thought control lasted a long time.

In the fullness of time, Pious Dick grew up and became an open-minded professor of historical theology in a “philosophical-theological seminary.” Fortunately he never had to take the Oath Against Modernism. He did occasionally have to confront a couple bishops who strongly resonated with Pius X’s narrow vision and accused him of heretical teachings. One even tried, without success, to get him
fired from the Catholic University of Leuven.

The focus on a strongly enforced orthodoxy in Christianity began actually in 310 CE when Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in his Roman Empire. Although he was not baptized until close to death in 337, Constantine was very pragmatic about Christianity and wanted to use it for his own political agenda.

Constantine called the First Council of Nicaea in 325. The bishops had to attend. Most significantly, the Council of Nicaea issued the very first uniform statement of Christian doctrine, called the Nicene Creed. Anyone who refused to obediently accept the Nicene Creed was excommunicated and exiled…or worse. I have always found it noteworthy that the Nicene Creed says nothing about actual
Christian living, i.e. orthopraxy. After Nicaea “faith” very quickly became a matter of intellectual assent.

Actually, “faith” had its original meaning in the Greek word pistis, which means trust, commitment, and personal engagement. Faith in God, therefore, was a trust in and a commitment to God. Faith in Christ was an engaged commitment to the call and ministry of Jesus. It was a commitment to do the Gospel, to be a follower of Christ. Originally therefore, “faith” meant active living — orthopraxy. Between 383 and 404 CE, however, when Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, the Greek word pistis was translated as the Latin word fides (belief): a matter of intellectual assent.

By the late fourth century and early fifth century the church was becoming an authoritarian institution demanding obedience: faithful assent. The church’s understanding of God, thanks to Bishop Augustine of Hippo’s doctrine of original sin, became that of a heavenly judge seated on HIS throne. Augustine taught that humans have a sinful tainted nature passed on through sexual intercourse. About
five hundred years after Augustine, another bishop, Anselm of Canterbury, made the perspective on God even much worse with his Satisfaction Theory of Atonement. Bishop Anselm said that God was so greatly offended by human sinfulness that God demanded the crucifixion and death of his own son Jesus to atone for humankind’s sin. A strange view of God. A very severe orthodoxy. Anstrange understanding of the historical Jesus.

A more healthy theological perspective — the Jesus perspective — has no sinister view of God but sees God as the Divine Presence. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” we read in the First Epistle of John (1 Jn 4:15). Jesus revealed the Divine Presence within the human. His dream was for people to see the Divine Presence within them. So very different from Bishop Anselm of Canterbury’s vision of an offended and vengeful God up in heaven who chose to disconnect from sinful Humanity.

In his book It’s Time: Challenges to the Doctrine of the Faith, the Australian theologian Michael Morwood stresses: “It is time to break from the worldview of two thousand years ago with its notions of a Supreme overlord God who lived in the heavens and who disconnected access to “Himself” because of some supposed sin by the first human.”

Yes. It is time to make a significant shift in our perspective on “God.” We need to move to an appreciation of the Divine Presence always here, always and everywhere active in an expanding universe, and in the evolution of life on this planet. This changed perspective resonates with contemporary science which finds itself speaking in terms of mystery and wonder, as it tries to explain the how and why of reality. And the problem of evil. Our contemporary understanding of Humanity realizes that Humanity is capable of destroying itself and everything around it.

Indeed, Humanity can give its best expression to the Divine Presence
only when it frees itself from destructive activity and behavior that destroys people and damages the natural world.

Humans can only truly experience and give expression to the Divine Presence within them when they follow the universal life-giving patterns of co-operation and working together. We, not a God in heaven, have to overcome evil. And the only thing needed for the triumph of evil is for good people to stand by and do nothing.


Theology and the Universe Through Ancient Hebrew Eyes


Taking a walk in my yard and staring into the sky on a clear spring night, my thoughts turned first of all to the complex immensity of the universe. What a delight to look at moon and stars after far too many cloudy days and nights.

Almost all of the stars I could see, the astronomers say, are close to Earth in galactic terms. Most are within a hundred light-years or so. Some are visible from 1,000 light-years away. But even then, that’s only 1% of the distance across our galaxy which we call “The Milky Way,” a slowly rotating cluster of more than 200 billion stars! 

Our Milky Way galaxy is one of many. And galaxies like the Milky Way probably have about 17 billion Earth size planets. Just a few years ago, researches estimated that there were between 100 and 200 billion galaxies in our observable universe. Today, however, research astronomers suggests that the total size of the universe is unknown and could very well be infinite, implying there could be an infinite number of galaxies. And, they stress, the universe is still expanding.

Coming back into the house, I thought about Psalm 19 “The heavens declare the glory of God.” I thought as well, with fascination and amazement, that with such an immense and expanding universe perhaps we need to expand our perspectives on Creator God.

Despite our contemporary scientific and technological progress, our religious thinking is sometimes remarkably undeveloped. Much of our official God imagery is rather dated and still influenced by the ancient Hebrew understanding of the universe.

The ancient Hebrews envisaged our universe as a flat Earth with Heaven above and the Underworld below. Humans inhabited Earth during their lifetimes and the Underworld after death.

The flat disk-shaped Earth was immovable and set on a foundation of pillars. Above the Earth was the “firmament” on which the stars, planets, sun and moon revolve. Heaven or the realm of God was understood as a set of chambers just above the firmament. A special passage, like a tunnel through the clouds, led from Earth up to Heaven. The firmament dome surrounded the Earth, with its edge meeting at the horizon. (See Genesis 1:7 “Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so.”) The firmament was supported by “pillars” or “foundations,” thought to be the tops of mountains, whose peaks appeared to touch the sky. The heavens had doors and windows through which God could send rain and let waters above flow down on Earth. And also control waters from below. (See Genesis 7:11 “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month, on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.”)

The Underworld, the realm of the dead was located under the Earth. The most frequent term for this place was Sheol. (See for example Proverbs 9:18 “But he does not know that the spirits of the dead are there, And that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.”) The graves dug by humans represented gateways to the Underworld. Below the Earth and the Underworld were the lower seas or “the Great Deep.”

The ancient Hebrew understanding of the universe had a long-lasting impact on the Christian understanding of the universe. After his death, the  Apostles Creed says that Jesus “descended into the Underworld.” (Most people know only the very faulty translation of the Creed which says Jesus “descended into hell.” Very unfortunate. Good and correct translations are so important.)

The Ascension of Jesus, according to Luke 24:51 and Acts 1:1-9, was a journey in a cloud up to Heaven. In their Hebraic universe understanding, early Christians no doubt pictured the Resurrected Jesus passing through the tunnel in the clouds up to heaven to sit on a throne at the right hand of God the Father.

Much later, in the seventeenth century, elements of the ancient Hebrew universe perspective, maintained by the Catholic Church, led to the trial and condemnation of Galileo Galilei by the Roman Catholic Inquisition in 1633. The reason: Galileo supported heliocentrism in which the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun. 

Some old images last a long time. I remember November 1, 1950, when Pope Pius XII solemnly proclaimed in his apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus, that in was: “…a dogma revealed by God that the immaculate Mother of God, Mary ever virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven.” Body and soul.

Well, today we need to move beyond ancient cosmology and ancient theology based on it. So much of our religious perspective has been anchored in outdated ideas about the universe and planet Earth’s place in the universe.

Clearly, a major paradigm shift is already underway: a major re-visioning of Christianity. The older conventional way of seeing Christianity was dominant for hundreds of years. And, in an important sense, it worked. Nevertheless, over the last thirty to forty years, it has become unpersuasive to millions of people in our culture. Certainly young people do not connect with it. But not just young people. Churches are becoming echo chambers.

In an ever expanding universe, we need an expanded image of Creator God and a broader theology about God. That theology should be like poetry, which takes us to the end of what words and thoughts can do and redirects our minds and hearts. All  religious language must reach beyond itself into a sort of silent awe and amazement. It is like describing being in love. We realize of course that God is always greater than anything we can understand.

Sometimes people get so wrapped up in their religious words and rituals that they miss what those words and rituals are actually pointing toward.

I believe we all have moments of awe, wonder, and excitement that lift us beyond ourselves. We realize, if only for a short time, that something — someone— is touching us very deeply within. We need to spend more time reflecting on those kinds of experiences. Spiritual reflection. Meditation. And this has to be a major part of the so greatly needed re-visioning of Christianity going on in our time.

Well, this is my first reflection after Easter 2023. And it cuts across all religious traditions and addresses the non-religious as well.








A Brief Easter Meditation


As we saw a couple weeks ago, John’s resurrection narrative stresses (as does Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 and Luke in the Damascus road event in Acts 9:5) that Jesus Christ raised from the dead continues to be present and active in our own lives and experiences — alive in the Christian community itself, and in the community’s actions of preaching the Word, celebrating Eucharist, and Ministering to the needy. Jesus no longer has a fleshly mortal, historical body.

Life is changed but not taken away, as Paul stressed in First Corinthians: “But whenever this perishable body puts on incorruptibility and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will take place: Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting.” (1 Corinthians 15:54)

Christian spirituality is an ongoing exploration of the existential meaning of Jesus’ promise: “I will not leave you orphans. I am coming to you.Yet a little while and the world sees me no longer, but you see me, for because I live you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in the Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14: 18-20

That spirituality of course delineates genuine Christian behavior. Genuine followers of Christ are not self-righteous users and abusers of other people.They do not denigrate “others” because, for example, they are women, or Jews, or people of color, or people with LGBTQ identities. They do not create scapegoats and normalize prejudices that stimulate inhumane violence.

Yes. The Easter message is our consolation. But it is also our challenge.

Thank you for traveling with me in Lent 2023 and HAPPY EASTER!

  • Jack

PS  For a couple weeks, I will be away from my computer for some Easter R&R.

Historical-Critical Method


Observations from an Older Historical Theologian

The historical-critical method, also known as higher criticism, investigates the origins and nature of ancient texts in order to understand the world behind the text. While often discussed in terms of Hebrew and Christian writings from ancient times, historical criticism has also been applied to other religious writings from various parts of the world and various periods of history. (It applies to secular documents as well of course.) The primary goal of the historical-critical method is to discover the text’s primitive or original meaning in its original historical context. The next stage is to explore the text’s contemporary meaning.

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. (1940 – 2014), who served as professor of New Testament and chair of the Biblical Studies department at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, formerly known as Weston Jesuit School of Theology, defined biblical historical criticism as “the effort at using scientific criteria, historical and literary, and human reason to understand and explain, as objectively as possible, the meaning intended by the biblical writers.”

As we have seen in the last four weeks, biblical texts contain a variety of literary forms such as history, symbol, folklore, and presumed or imagined historical scenarios. The Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke are good examples.

One legacy of biblical criticism in U.S. American culture was the fundamentalist movement of the 1920s and 1930s. Fundamentalism in the USA began, at least partly, as a response to the biblical criticism of the nineteenth century. Some fundamentalists believed that historical-critical believers had invented an entirely new religion “completely at odds with the Christian faith.” There were also conservative Protestants who accepted biblical criticism. This too is part of biblical criticism’s legacy.

In terms of my own Roman Catholic Christian tradition, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Roman Catholic theology avoided biblical criticism because of its reliance on rationalism, preferring instead to engage in traditional exegesis, based on the narrow-focused works of the “Church Fathers.” The Catholic Church showed strong opposition to biblical criticism during that period. Frequent political revolutions, bitter opposition of “liberalism” to the Church, and the expulsion of religious orders from France and Germany, made the Catholic Church suspicious of any new intellectual currents.

The Roman Catholic dogmatic constitution Dei Filius (“Son of God”), approved by the First Vatican Council in 1871, rejected biblical criticism, reaffirming that the Bible was written by God and that it was inerrant. But that began to change in the final decades of the nineteenth century when, for example, the French Dominican Marie-Joseph Lagrange (1855–1938) established a school in Jerusalem called the École prátique d’études biblique, which became the École Biblique, to encourage study of the Bible using the historical-critical method.

At the same time, my alma mater the Catholic University of Leuven was exploring the historical-critical methodology that would become its hallmark. A major step was taken in 1889 with the creation of a Leuven course entitled “Critical History of the Old Testament” by Albin Van Hoonacker (1857 – 1933). This course was an early attempt to apply the historical-critical method to biblical texts. At a time when the historical-critical exploration of the Bible among Catholics was still highly controversial, Van Hoonacker became the first professor to teach an historical-critical understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. On 18 November 1893, Pope Leo XIII, pope from 1878 to 1903, promulgated the encyclical letter Providentissimus Deus (“The most provident God”). That letter gave the first formal authorization for the use of critical methods in biblical scholarship.

The situation changed greatly, however, after Leo’s death and the election of Pope Pius X in 1903. A very staunch traditionalist, Pius X, who was pope from 1903 to 1914, saw biblical criticism as part of a growing and destructive “modernist” tendency in the Church. The École Biblique was shut down and Lagrange was called back to France.

Finally, in 1943, the lights came back on. Pope Pius XII, pope from 1939 to 1958, issued the papal encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (“Inspired by the Holy Spirit”) sanctioning historical criticism and opening a new epoch in Catholic critical scholarship. The dogmatic constitution Dei verbum (“Word of God”), approved by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1965 further promoted biblical criticism. Pope Paul VI was pope from 1963 to 1968.

Raymond E. Brown (1928 – 1998), Joseph A. Fitzmyer (1920 -2016), and Roland E. Murphy (1917 – 2002) were the most famous U.S. Catholic scholars to apply biblical criticism and the historical-critical method in analyzing the Bible: together, they authored The Jerome Biblical Commentary in 1968 and The New Jerome Biblical Commentary in 1990.The latest version, The Jerome Biblical Commentary for the Twenty-First Century was published in 2022, edited by John J. Collins, Gina Hens-Piazza, Barbara Reid OP, and Donald Senior CP (1940 – 2022).

And so we move forward in faith and understanding.

  • Jack

(Next week a biblical Easter meditation.)




The Courageous and Confident Jesus.

Opening observations: The Gospel According to John differs in several ways from Mark, Matthew, and Luke in style and content. John’s Gospel omits a large amount of material found in the Synoptic Gospels like the temptation of Jesus, Jesus’ transfiguration, and the institution of the Eucharist. The sermon on the mount and the Lord’s prayer are not found in John’s Gospel. Nor do we see proverbs and parables. We see, rather, symbolic discourses. John uses the language of symbolic “signs” to talk about Jesus’s miracles because they point beyond themselves to provide insight into Jesus’ identity.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is clearly the Wisdom of God, the source of eternal life, and, very importantly, still continually living with us in the community of faith.

According to the Gospel of John, Jesus’ public ministry appears to extend over a period of at least three years. During that time, he went, several times from Galilee to Jerusalem. The Synoptics, on the other hand, have Jesus making just one journey to Jerusalem — his final one.

The Gospel of John also includes a considerable amount of material not found in the Synoptics. All the material in John chapters 2 to 4, Jesus’ early Galilean ministry, is not found in the Synoptics. Visits of Jesus to Jerusalem before his passion week are mentioned in John but not found in the synoptics. The raising from the dead of Lazarus, in John 11, is not mentioned in the Synoptics, and the extended Farewell Discourse, in John 13 – 17, is not found in the Synoptic Gospels.

The Gospel of John uses a “post-resurrection” point of view. The author looks back on the Jesus events and emphasizes the inability of his disciples to understand the things that were happening at the time they occurred. See for instance: John 2:17-22, where there are obvious references to Jesus’ Resurrection, “He was speaking of the sanctuary that was his body, and after he rose from the dead his disciples remembered.” See John 12:16-17, “At the time his disciples did not understand this but later, after Jesus had been glorified, they remembered…” And see John 20:9, “Until this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” Perhaps we today do not always clearly understand? We do indeed, like the early disciples, grow in our faith and understanding.

The Gospel of John’s prologue (John 1:1-18) is most likely an elaboration of an early hymn. Interestingly, the rest of John’s Gospel does not speak of Jesus as the pre-existent, creative Word. Many biblical scholars suggest, therefore, that the prologue was added after the Gospel of John had been completed.

Authorship and locality: The old tradition, from the second century, was that the author of John’s Gospel was the apostle John, son of Zebedee. Most contemporary scholars are not of this opinion. Scholars such as Raymond E. Brown (1928-1998)  believed that the original author of an oral tradition, that evolved into the Gospel of John, was a companion of Jesus. That author was the “Beloved Disciple,” who formed a community, most probably in Ephesus. Scholars call this “the Johannine community.” An oral tradition of eye-witness recollections of the Beloved Disciple evolved in that community and began being written down around 90 CE. The final redaction occurred ten to twenty years later, giving us a gospel composition date of between 90 and 110 CE. We don’t know who the “Beloved Disciple” was. There is quite a variety of scholarly opinions: a truly unknown disciple, the Apostle John, James the brother of Jesus, or even Mary the Magdalene.

Scholars like Pheme Perkins, at Boston College, emphasize, that the author of John’s Gospel presumes that much of the narrative about Jesus and its people and places was already well known to the Johannine audience. They would have been familiar with the various titles for Jesus, with Baptism, Eucharist, and the Spirit. They were already Christians, entering the second century of Christian life and experience.

The Fourth Gospel then is a call to early Christians to re-examine their lives as followers of the Risen Lord. That challenge of course rings true for us today as well.

John 13:1-4 is the big turning point in this gospel. Jesus’s “hour” had come “for him to pass from this world to the Father…he had come from God and was returning to God.” The occasion in John 13 is the Last Supper. Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John has no mention of Eucharist, but Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. “I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.” (John 13:15) (Perhaps we forget that people wore simple sandals back then and people’s feet got really dirty. Hebrews did not wear sandals indoors. They removed them upon entering the house and washed their feet.)

Rereading this scripture, I think we sometimes forget that Jesus also said: “Whoever welcomes the one I send, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (John 13:20) This is the key.The author of John’s Gospel did not mention the Eucharistic bread and wine because he wanted to emphasize that Jesus is present in the Community of Faith. Jesus promises that his Spirit (the Advocate) will be with them. (John 14:15-16, 15:26, 16:15)

For centuries, in my Roman Catholic tradition, people have debated about Jesus’s eucharistic “Real Presence.” John’s Gospel is very clear: the primary real presence of Jesus is in the community. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches (John 15); and we are to love one another. The branches cannot survive without the vine. But the vine cannot survive without the branches. The profound mystery of life. No one can do it alone.

In Mark, Matthew, and Luke the stress was on divinity taking on humanity. That is true in John as well, of course. In John, however, we see another emphasis: humanity taking on divinity. God is truly with us: in the very heart of our being.

Some of the old images of God might no longer speak to contemporary people; but God has not abandoned us. We should not abandon God. We simply need to reflect on better ways of conceptualizing and speaking about our experiences of the Divine. We all have a theological task, because theology is faith seeking understanding.

I find it especially noteworthy that John’s account of the crucifixion does not stress Jesus as one who suffers, as we saw for example in Mark 15.25–39. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is the one who is exalted, “lifted up” in his moment of glorification. Jesus in the Gospel of John is courageous and confident.

In John 13 to John 16, Jesus prepares his disciples for his imminent departure, followed by his “high priestly prayer” in John 17. Here we see a very strong and confident Jesus. “I have glorified you on earth and finished the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, it is time to glorify me…” (John 17:4-5)

John’s final chapters contain the accounts of Jesus’s trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. The Jesus who stands before Pilate is courageous and strong. On the way to Golgotha Jesus carries his own cross. He does not need the help of a Simon of Cyrene as we saw in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Also in John, unlike the other three gospels, Jesus’ crucifixion occurs on the day of preparation of the Passover (John 19:14) rather than on the Passover holiday itself. Here Jesus prepares himself for the departure to the Father and seems to be in complete control of his destiny, even to the extent of commending his mother to the Beloved Disciple (John 19:26–27).

The Gospel of John concludes with the discovery of the empty tomb by the women and other disciples (John 20:1–10), Jesus’s appearance to them (John 20:11–18), and the narrative of “Doubting” Thomas (John 20.24–29). The last two verses of John 20 contain what many scholars think may have been the original gospel’s ending: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)

Appendix: Many scholars consider John 21 to be a later addition to the JohannineGospel. It not only contains resurrection appearances in Galilee, but it also emphasizes the authority of the Beloved Disciple, who likely died a normal death in contrast to Peter’s martyrdom (see John 21.15–23). Quite possibly, this appendix reflects a controversy among the second or third generation of believers’, who may have considered the Beloved Disciple inferior to Peter. Chapter 21 clearly reinforces the Beloved Disciple’s role as the authorized witness of the Jesustradition for the Johannine community.

I subtitled today’s For Another Voice reflection “Courageous and Confident Jesus.” That is how I perceive Jesus in John’s Gospel. With courage and confidence, Jesus approached the end of his life. And with the same courage Jesus spoke out against the hypocrisy of the religiously self-centered and arrogant. In conflicts with Judean religious leaders he stressed that religiosity is not faith.

Today we encounter the same kinds of hypocrisy. We are confronted with unChristian religiosity from religious and political leaders.

As members of Jesus in the community of faith, may we sustain each other with courage and confidence.

That is John’s message as we prepare for Easter 2023.

  • Jack


Next week, because people have asked me, some brief observations about historical-critical biblical understanding.













The Gospel According to Luke

This week we move to observations about the Gospel of Luke.

While the Gospel of Mark focused on the mostly Gentile Christian community in Rome and the Gospel of Matthew was more focused on the Hebrew-Christian community in Antioch, the Gospel of Luke stresses that Christianity is a way of life for Gentile as well as Hebrew-Christian believers; and that it warrants legal recognition in the Roman Empire.

The Gospel of Luke therefore stresses building bridges between groups rather than polarization. Yes, Luke is about healing and reconciliation: actions greatly needed in our own contemporary society.

Luke’s author was a highly educated Gentile Christian who came from a thoroughly Greco-Roman environment. Unlike Matthew’s author he was not well-grounded in the Hebrew tradition. Scholars speculate on whether his “ordered account” was written for a Christian community in Antioch or some other location in Asia Minor, like Ephesus or Smyrna. Luke and Acts of Apostles make up a two-volume work often called simply Luke – Acts; and they are addressed to the “most excellent” Theophilus, who was presumably a Gentile of some social standing. Interestingly, we never hear about Theophilus again, neither in Scripture nor anywhere else in ancient literature. The author of Luke -Acts wrote to Theophilus to assure him “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4).

Some writers say the unknown author of the Gospel of Luke may have admired Paul (c. 5 – c. 64 CE), but in many ways Luke does not resonate with Paul. Yes, Paul was a pharisee and believed in the resurrection of the dead, and he certainly believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Paul, however, did not need an actual physical resuscitation of a corpse in order to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. According to Paul, the earthly body: the physical body had to die in order for the heavenly or the spiritual body to be born. “A natural body is sown, and a spiritual body is raised up.” (See 1 Corinthians 15.)

Luke’s portrayal of Jesus raised from the dead, however, is not Pauline. It is highly imaginative and Jesus is portrayed more like a resuscitated corpse, than someone transformed into a new form of life. Luke’s post-resurrection Jesus tells the disciples to touch him: “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” (Luke 24:39) Then Luke’s Jesus asks the disciples if they have anything to eat. “They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.” (Luke 24:42 and 43) Acts continues the story of Christianity in the 1st century, beginning with the ascension of Jesus. Later chapters tell of Paul’s conversion, his mission in Asia Minor and the Aegean, and finally his imprisonment in Rome, where, as Acts ends, he awaits trial.

For background documentation, Luke’s author drew from the Gospel of Mark, the sayings collection called the “Q” source, and a collection of material called the “L” for Luke source, an oral or textual tradition. The author is not named in either the Gospel of Luke nor Acts of Apostles, but a tradition dating from the 2nd century suggested that the author was the Luke who was a companion of Paul. While this view is still occasionally put forward, many biblical scholars today question that supposition. Textual analysis suggests that Luke-Acts was written not earlier than 80 – 90 CE. It uses Mark, as a source, looks back on the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and does not show any awareness of the letters of Paul, which began circulating late in the first century. The text was still being revised well into the 2nd century.

Last week I stressed that Matthew saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Hebrew history. He began his infancy narrative with a genealogy of Jesus from Abraham down to Joseph and Mary. Luke, on the other hand, understands Jesus as the high point in all of human history. His genealogy is presented at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and runs from Joseph to Adam. Luke is also more Mary-oriented than Joseph-oriented. In Matthew’s infancy narrative the light is on Joseph. In Luke’s account, it is Mary who shines. She is the one who hears and keeps God’s word.

What strikes me, as I re-read this gospel? Three themes hold my attention: women, building bridges, and religious hypocrisy.

WOMEN: In Luke Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:38-39), a 12-year-old girl (Luke 8:41-42, 49-56); a woman with a 12-year infirmity (verses 43-48); and a woman who had been crippled 18 years (Luke 13:10-17). In Luke we see Mary the Magdalene, an early disciple of Jesus. She is mentioned by name twelve times in the canonical gospels. In 2016, Pope Francis made July 22 Mary the Magdalene’s universal liturgical feast day and said she should be called the “Apostle to the apostles.” That designation was actually first made by Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) in the thirteenth century.

In Luke, Mary the Magdalene sits before Jesus and listens to him. Her sister Martha complains to Jesus that Mary should be helping her with serving. Jesus replies: “Martha, Martha…it is Mary who has chosen the better part.” (Luke 10:38-42) In the Resurrection accounts, women and not men are most important: Women were among those who observed the crucifixion (Luke 23:27, 49). Women prepared spices to anoint Jesus’ body (verses 55-56). Women were the first to find Jesus’ tomb empty (Luke 24:1-3) and angels told them Jesus had been raised from the dead (verses 4-8). Women were the first to proclaim the Resurrection to Jesus’ other disciples (verses 9-11).

Reading these verses in Luke, I thought how ironic it is that the question of women’s ordination is still being debated in the RCC. And I also had to reflect on the misogyny of Pope Gregory I (c.540 – 604), who began the distorted portrayal of Mary the Magdalene as a repentant prostitute and a promiscuous woman. Not surprisingly, Gregory I, who was pope from 590 to 604 CE, believed that women are only fit either for prostitution or for maternity. Despite that, his supporters later proclaimed him “St. Gregory the Great.” Some “saints” were very strange people.

BUILDING BRIDGES NOT WALLS: Luke’s stress on peace-making implied a new relationship with the Roman Empire. Dialogue had to start, and destructive polarization had to end. In Luke’s infancy narrative, angelic messengers proclaim: “Good news of great joy for all people. To you is born this day . . . a Savior! . . Peace on earth among those whom God favors!” (Luke 2:10-11,14) These words echo and go far beyond the Imperial Roman monument inscriptions that had praised Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, as “god” and “savior.” Luke hereby stresses that Jesus had more fully and more uniquely completed the work of the first Roman emperor.

Thinking about building bridges, later in this gospel, Luke offsets the fact that Jesus was executed by the Romans, by having the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate declare Jesus innocent three times (Luke 23:4,14,22). Only Luke, unlike Mark and Matthew, has the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross exclaim: “Surely, this man was innocent.” (Luke 23:47) In Luke’s narration, Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate become unlikely friends, after being in Jesus’ presence (Luke 23:12). And finally, only in Luke’s Gospel does Jesus pray for forgiveness for his crucifiers (Luke 23:34).

RELIGIOUS HYPOCRISY: Some observers accuse Luke of antisemitism, because he regularly shows Jesus criticizing Hebrew religious leaders (Pharisees, scribes, and Levites). I think these critics miss the point. Jesus was strongly critical of the arrogant religious hypocrisy of some of the religiously elite in his day. When invited to dine in the home of a Pharisee, for example, the religious leader accused Jesus of not washing ahead of time. Jesus replied: “Now then, you clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people!… give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean for you…you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God…Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” (Luke 11:37-44)

Luke speaks strongly to our own contemporary society, in which the religiously elite and “Christian” political activists praise God yet ignore the poor, the oppressed, the diseased, and the marginalized.

Unfortunately today the word “pharisee” has taken on a pejorative meaning. In fact the Pharisees were a Hebrew movement concerned with establishing a clear and consistent Hebrew identity in everyday life. Interestingly, it was the Pharisees who believed in an afterlife and resurrection of the dead. If one reads the New Testament closely, one sees that Jesus had sympathetic supporters and followers from the ranks of the Pharisees. Nicodemus, for example, who visited Jesus at night to ask him questions, and then provided money and spices to give Jesus’ body a proper Hebrew burial after the crucifixion, was a Pharisee (see John 3). And in Luke 13:31, a Pharisee comes to warn Jesus that Herod wanted him killed.

Concluding thoughts: The Gospels are a call to follow Jesus by living as he did, open to the Spirit always and everywhere. Thinking about Luke and responding to that call, how do we deal with respecting the place and role of women today? In our contemporary church and society are we bridge builders or wall builders? And of course, how do we deal with and correct religious hypocrisy?


Next week we will begin with a look at the Gospel According to John, a gospel very different from the synoptics. And here I don’t mean the 2003 film with Christopher Plummer as the narrator.

  • Jack

PS A correction. At the end of last week’s post, I referred to Matthew 25:52. That should be Matthew 26:52. My mind is good but my fingers are old.