Sunday 29 April 2018

For many people, contemporary religious belief is twisted and distorted by two contending and often exaggerated tensions: Static Belief and Short-Sighted Humanization.

Static belief advocates simply revert to and reproduce the old static theology: they unquestioningly defend the beliefs and practices of earlier ages. For them historical critical reflection is not only unnecessary but dangerously unorthodox. They consider the old theology, clothed in the language of an earlier culture, to be self-evident, authoritative, unchanging, and exclusive. In my own Roman Catholic tradition, static belief cardinals and bishops are openly denouncing Pope Francis, whom they consider dangerous and most probably heretical.

For static believers, truth is obedient conformity to time-locked sacred stories, doctrinal understandings, and moral directives. Nothing changes. They insist that no one should question their “traditional” truth and morality. Nor should there be openness to new theological, historical, or biblical discoveries. Many contemporary Catholic and Protestant fundamentalists, for example, are locked in a static literal understanding of Sacred Scripture and are avid static believers. For them, Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark were historic events. Curiously, 60% of the today’s Americans believe the Biblical account of Noah’s ark to be literally true. (About 12% of today’s adult Americans believe that “Joan of Arc” was Noah’s wife. But that is another issue….) These literal believers are repulsed by the very thought of biblical mythology. Obviously they cannot resonate with biblical scholar John Dominic Crossman’s famous observation: “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”

Today’s static believers have a number of challenges coming from respected contemporary New Testament scholars and church historians. So much has been discovered since the middle ages, even since the nineteenth century. Four examples: (1) ORDINATION. The historic Jesus did not ordain anyone. Jesus had no understanding of ordination. Nevertheless, one of my cardinal friends still loves to tell the story, in his ordination homilies, that Jesus, at the Last Super, ordained the apostles as bishops. Well in fact ordination did not arrive until decades after Jesus’s death and resurrection; and it was not about some kind of “sacramental power” to “confect the sacrament.” It was more about quality control — an assurance to Christian communities that their designated leaders were trustworthy. (2) WOMEN APOSTLES. Among Jesus’s followers there were women disciples as well as male disciples; and yes, there were also women apostles, like Mary the Magdalene, Prisca, and Junia. (3) WOMEN AND EUCHARIST. The people who presided at Eucharist in early Christianity were the heads of households. Some heads of households were women. Yes, that means women presided at Eucharist. (4) JESUS’S SIBLINGS. About the historic Jesus, a number of biblical scholars would agree that he had brothers and sisters. His brother James was in charge of the Christian community in Jerusalem. Were they Mary’s sons and daughters as well?

And there are still more questions…….Something for future reflections……

Turning quickly to short-sighted humanization, we also see today a profusion of barrel-vision humanized responses to theological questions. “Experts” who see the human being as just a material object and substitute physical and psychological theory for genuine theological thinking. I contend they have scientific barrel-vision because they cannot see the breadth and depth of Reality. I am thinking in particular about people like the best-selling authors Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell) and Sam Harris (The End of Faith).

Many of these “post-theistic theologians” (if one can really call them “theologians”) are strongly influenced by the postmodern thinking of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). They celebrate the creative capacities of autonomous human beings by deconstructing all that is considered sacred.

Radical “post-theistic theologians” fall victim to what can be called a short-sighted humanization of theological questions. It is really extreme secularism. The signs of the sacred are simply reduced to signs of linguistic, political and often repressive social theories. In the end, it is but a short step to nihilism.

TODAY, we need to find a way to articulate the human experience of the Divine that reduces it neither to the extreme secularity of the post-theistic theologians nor to the unthinking certitude of static believers.

NEXT WEEK: A Constructive Contemporary Theological Agenda


10 thoughts on “Contemporary Belief and Reality

  1. Jack, well done and very relevant!! I’ve been reading John Shelby Spong lately (finishing “Jesus for Non-religious’) and trying to give context to my own thoughts along these lines. Quite an experience.

  2. Welcome back, Jack. It always makes me breathe a sigh of relief to know that someone, as learned as you are, believes as I do about religious “stories”. Thank you for making me feel like I still have a community in Catholicism.

  3. “We need to find a way to articulate the human experience of the Divine.” Thank you for showing us the way for so many years. Your body of work is worthy of a book on the subject!

      1. We need a good venue to articulate that experience. I think the Sunday pulpit would be a good start, providing said providers have a little enthusiasm, creativity and imagination and is able to keep heavy theological talk at bay. However, I am presuming they have a little training in homiletics and a good background in the theology underpinning their homilies. I suspect your theological personnel offer that, but where the tire hits the road, it’s not a common experience. Truth is, it isn’t an experience at all for te most part.

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