Order, Disorder, Reconfiguration


Confronted with an ongoing Covid-19 & DELTA pandemic, life-endangering anti-vaxxers, and far right agitators, many people today feel both confused and powerless. They find it much easier to look for someone to blame when they see no coherent meaning or divine purpose in the world. Perhaps it comes as no big surprise that the religious landscape of the United States continues to change at a rapid pace. The big loser is institutional Christianity: Catholicism in first place but Protestantism as well. The basic explanation is lost credibility. In the church increasing numbers of people find less support and meaning.

Tucker Carlson of Fox News has led the anti-vaxxer charge among the right-wing set, ignoring the fact that 99.5% of those people who died of COVID-19 in the last six months were unvaccinated. Far too many disoriented people are reverting to the mythic “good old days” or, even worse, to racism, xenophobia, and white Christian nationalism. Consider QAnon, which has shifted from being an Internet message board hoax to becoming a quasi-religion. QAnon offers its followers convenient explanations for their social anxieties as well as evil villains to blame. Some QAnon cultists claim to be Evangelical followers of Christ. But QAnon beliefs and behavior are totally incompatible with healthy and authentic Christianity.

Patriotism has become divisive rather than inclusive. The spread of violence throughout society is frightening. In my favorite US city, Chicago, over the 2021 Fourth of July weekend, at least 100 people were shot, including five children age 13 and younger. 

Last week closer to my current home, dikes broke and raging rivers burst through their banks in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany: killing people, submerging towns, leaving all of us shellshocked at the intensity of the destruction. Now the big clean-up….Not far from my house a dike needs to be rebuilt.

In my US homeland last week, the northern Rocky Mountains were bracing for another heat wave, as wildfires spread across 12 states in the US American West. We seem neither prepared to slow down climate change, nor able to live with it. Too many people still say that climate change is a myth created by liberals. “Truth” often becomes unrelenting rhetoric.

Perhaps we need to teach and relearn the wisdom of life. We are now facing a crisis of meaning. Our world seems so complex. We seem so small. Historically, Modernism, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, believed that reality is ordered. Times changed. Postmodernism, in the mid-to-late 20th century, proclaimed there is no order at all. 

We are now moving into post-Postmodernism. People are searching for values and for authenticity. We are entering a new age. Living in a transitional age can be scary. It can lead to cynicism, anxiety, and pandemic violence. But it can also be a hopeful time. New avenues? New perspectives? The  writer Linda Kinstler asked in The New York Times this week: “Can Silicon Valley Find God?” Many people, actually, would like to find God.

As an older student of history, I am convinced that one of the greatest qualities we must bring to the present malaise is a sense of history. Extremes, good times, and bad times have been interwoven throughout history. During the best of times, they balanced each other. We are not in that balance today. The opposing players in our highly polarized society are incapable of self-criticism or appreciating the other players. Does humility still exist? Many people feel that the traditional institutions in our society are impotent and incapable of communicating believable patterns of wisdom and truth. 

A power and confidence vacuum has opened the doors for the far right to seize and exploit the language of religion. That is not a very good position from which to proclaim the Good News of Jesus the Christ. As a Catholic I often feel that the church tries to speak the Gospel but church structures have remained monarchical and unaccountable. Most often, when confronting serious problems like clerical sexual abuse, it still adheres to policies promoting secrecy and protecting the church’s reputation. No. I am not anti-Catholic; but I often have to remind people of that, because some find it so convenient to label and box me in. Ignorant arrogance. 

The church should first of all listen to the Gospel: “Put new wine in fresh wineskins, and both are preserved” (Matthew 9:17). Authentic Christianity is not passive but active. It is not secretive but out in the open. It is energetic and alive, helping people move beyond despair, by providing credible and supportive help and guidance.

Time for rebuilding. We need new imagination and new configurations. We need to remember that Jesus spent much of his ministry trying to reform religion. It is still an ongoing process. Disorder is only a temporary stage calling for reconstruction. Sometimes I think that even though the church proclaims the Christ, it is, in fact, afraid of Christ. I call it self-protective institutional idolatry. 

As the Franciscan spiritual guide, Fr. Richard Rohr (b. 1943), stresses in his book The Wisdom Pattern, reconstruction — transformation — has to be based on a positive and fully human experience of God as a loving Presence. “When religion is punitive and acts as if it can lead someone to God through threat and coercion,” Richard stresses “this is junk religion.” Just like junk food, it only gratifies momentary desires but feeds neither the intellect nor the heart. And it contributes to more hatred and violence.

Next week I would like to continue this reflection under the theme of “transformation.”

  • Jack

Christianity and LGBTQ Issues

LGBTQ issues today are raising hopes for some Christians as well as anguish, confusion, and anger for others. 

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has voted, in the past decade, to allow the ordination of LGBTQ people, to permit the performing of same-sex marriages in church buildings by Presbyterian ministers, and to advocate for equal rights in church and society for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

The Episcopal Church in the United States has allowed gay marriage since 2015 and is open and welcoming to the LGBTQ community. 

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has passed repeated resolutions to welcome LGBTQ people since 1991.

In fact, a growing number of organized religious groups in the United States have issued statements officially welcoming LGBTQ people as members and extending marriage rites to them.

In my Catholic tradition, there is now a mixed LGBTQ message for sure. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated in 1992, characterizes homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered” and “acts of grave depravity” contrary to natural law. In March 2021 the Vatican’s orthodoxy office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), stressed again that Catholic clergy may not bless same-sex unions because God “cannot bless sin.” The CDF statement was approved by Pope Francis. 

Bryan Massingale, an openly gay Catholic priest and professor of theology and social ethics at Fordham University, said priests who want to engage in pastoral outreach to the gay and lesbian community “will continue to do so, except that it will be even more under the table … than it was before.”

Pope Francis, over the years, has sent ambivalent LGBTQ messages. In July 2013, on his flight back from Brazil, when asked about gay priests during a spontaneous exchange with the press, he responded, “If they [gay priests] accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?” Nevertheless, a Vatican decree on training for Roman Catholic priests in 2016 stressed the obligation of sexual abstinence, as well as barring gay men and those who support “gay culture” from holy orders. In May 2018 Pope Francis told the Italian bishops to carefully evaluate priesthood applicants and to reject anyone suspected of being homosexual.

In December 2018, Pope Francis expressed his deep concern about what he described as the “serious issue” of homosexuality, saying that being gay is a “fashion” to which the clergy is susceptible. Speaking about candidates for priesthood, he said: “The issue of homosexuality is a very serious issue that must be adequately discerned from the beginning with the candidates….In our societies it even seems that homosexuality is fashionable and that mentality, in some way, also influences the life of the church.”

In the 2018 book The Strength of a Vocation, by Pope Francis and Fernando Prado, Francis considers gay clergy “a very serious issue.” He further emphasizes: “In consecrated and priestly life, there is no room for that kind of affection. Therefore, the church recommends that people with that kind of ingrained tendency should not be accepted into the ministry or consecrated life.” Nevertheless, in a handwritten letter dated June 21, 2021, Pope Francis praised and thanked the Rev. James Martin —  Jesuit priest and author, and high-profile LGBTQ advocate – for reaching out to LGBTQ Catholics. 

As a positive development, in July 2021, one of Germany’s most senior Catholic bishops, Bishop Felix Genn of Münster, has called for an official Catholic Church apology for the way its pronouncements “over years and decades” have deeply hurt homosexuals.

When asked recently about gay priests in the United States, Fr. James Martin, replied: “I think that if you had suddenly all the gay priests in the United States come out, I think the Church would be forced to look at the question of homosexuality in a very different light.” When asked how many priests are gay, he replied  “I’m guessing maybe 40 percent. Who knows?….If it was 40%, I wouldn’t be surprised; if it was 80%, I wouldn’t be surprised.” Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, a retired Catholic bishop in the Archdiocese of Detroit, has consistently been a supporter of New Ways Ministry for LGBTQ Catholics and  has also called for homosexual priests and bishops to “come out” and be truthful to themselves and others. 

A friend reprimanded me recently for being LGBTQ supportive, stressing that I apparently ignore “the clear condemnations of homosexual behavior in the Old Testament and in the New Testament.” I suggested to him that I am not ignoring Sacred Scripture and that historical consciousness is particularly important in drawing biblical conclusions. I find it impossible to agree that the texts so often used to assert the immorality of homosexual acts are unambiguous and provide solid foundations for condemning same-sex behavior.

In determining contemporary moral values and behavior, a realistic understanding of human life requires an historically conscious worldview, because human reality is dynamic, evolving, and changing. We certainly see this when it comes to medical science. People do not always apply this to moral values. As our human understanding develops and changes, so too do our human concepts, theories, and courses of action. This is not a matter of relativism but of changing human perspectives. There is indeed a human thread from generation to generation that links faith and moral values. People in every age reflect, evaluate, and interpret that faith and moral values tradition in terms of their contemporary culture and understanding.

When people determine moral obligations from “nature,” they are really deriving them from their human interpretation of “nature.” The challenge with “natural law”and “human nature” is that our understanding of human sexuality – with its biological, emotional, psychological, relational, and spiritual dimensions — has developed historically and it continues to develop. I learned this years ago from my  Louvain (Leuven) professor, Louis Janssens (1908 – 2001), founder of the Louvain tradition of personalism. Janssens made an original contribution to the study of the human person through the approach which he coined as “the human person adequately considered.”

Personalist moral philosophers and theologians stress that the old “traditional” biological and strictly physicalist understanding of traditional natural law and human “nature” must be transformed into a contemporary personalist, relational understanding. The former defines the morality of acts based only on the physical, biological structure of those acts. The latter defines the morality of acts based on the meaning of those acts for persons and relationships. Marital sexuality in a personalist relational understanding, for example, is about much more than simply linking genitalia to produce progeny.

The ethical criterion for human choices and actions therefore is the extent to which these choices and actions respect and enhance a person’s living together in time and space, in all the many different dimensions of a person’s life world and life history: familial, social, material, environmental, spiritual, physical, and psychological. The human person adequately considered.

What did the historical Jesus say about sex? A strong case can be made that Jesus did not directly discuss sexual activity at all. The biblical record is totally silent about his attitudes towards the sexually-related religious controversies of the present day: equal rights for homosexuals, same-sex marriage, transgender, etc. Jesus did stress the fundamental moral principle of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. That really covers ALL human actions.

Now, I return again to those “homosexuality texts” in the Bible. The context in which both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament condemn homosexual acts is shaped by the socio-historical conditions of the times in which they were written. Probably the most influential Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) text leading to the condemnation of homosexual acts is the interpretation given to the biblical story of Sodom in the Book of Genesis. Scholars agree that contextual exegesis shows that the homosexual interpretation of the Sodom story is not accurate and that the sin in both the Hebrew text and its literary context is the sin of inhospitality. 

As far as the New Testament is concerned, the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans has been seen traditionally as the New Testament’s clearest condemnation of same-sex relations – both male and female. Recent scholarship, however, suggests a different interpretation. Paul, the religious Hebrew, is looking at life in the capital of Greco-Roman culture. Homosexuality itself is not the focus of his condemnation. Rather, Paul’s criticism falls upon paganism’s refusal to acknowledge the true God. Paul, actually, probably did not understand a homosexual orientation. A number of contemporary highly respected biblical scholars suggest in fact that Paul struggled personally with his own “thorn in the flesh” — his own same-sex desires. 

I strongly resonate with those moral theologians who state very simply that homosexual sexual acts are “natural” for people with a homosexual orientation, just as heterosexual sexual acts are “natural” for people with a heterosexual orientation. Sexual acts are moral when they are natural, reasonable, and expressed in a truly human, just, and loving manner. In today’s churches we need to sit down face-to-face and dialogue about this.

To some extent we are all involved in what I call a process of moral conversion: progressively understanding the present situation, exposing and eradicating our individual and societal biases, constantly evaluating our scales of preferred values, paying attention to criticism, and listening to others. 

Human change and growth can and do happen for the human person adequately considered.

  • Jack

Identity and Equality

This week end no more reflections about Jack the historical  theologian. Today you find my post-Fourth of July reflection about identity and social trends in US society.

Although I currently live abroad, I am still very much a born-in-Michigan patriotic US citizen; and for many years now, my academic research and teaching have focused on religion and values in US society. I still work hard to stay up to date, through research visits (limited most recently by Covid-19) and close contact with research institutes and historians.

These days I also have a different US vocabulary than a few years ago. Not everyone agrees with my position, but I try to refrain from speaking and writing about “Americans” when the focus is clearly about “US Americans.” I see it as an important identity issue for all Americans, because ALL people born in North and South America, from Canada to Argentina, are “Americans.” I am a US American and have friends in Canada and Mexico who are Americans. 

Changes in the words and phrases we use to describe each other reflect whatever progress we make on the path toward a world where everyone feels respected and included. 

In language usage, we change and grow. Years ago in my Catholic elementary school, Sister Stella Maris told our class one day that the world had two kinds of Christians: “Catholics” who have “the one true faith” and “Non-Catholics” who think they do but actually are “defective” believers. Then she told me – in front of the class – that it was very sad that my mother was Catholic but my father was a “Non-Catholic defective believer.” Later I told my father what had happened in school. With a short expletive he quickly replied: “Stella is nuts. Your mother is a Catholic Christian and I am a Protestant Christian. Neither of us is defective. We just have different traditions.”

Well, times do change. One very positive result of the liturgical reforms from the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) is that Catholic Christians and mainline Protestant Christians now share almost the same readings of the Word of God on the same Sunday, or at least the same Gospel.

Words, perceptions, and realities. What strikes me about US society today is how much it has changed in the last fifty years. Part of the tension and polarization in the contemporary United States comes from the tremendous growth of a multiracial and multicultural USA. White Christian nationalism is a backlash to this, but it will not change the demographic reality. The USA is no longer demographically or culturally a majority white, Christian nation; and the  United States will continue moving along the multiracial and multicultural roadway. The USA Census Bureau has made it official: White births are no longer a majority in the United States. A good book to read in connection with this is The End of White Christian America  by Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. 

And the United States and US Americans need to adjust to how dramatically the world has changed in just the past 20 years. On Thursday, July 8th, President Biden announced that the US war in Afghanistan, “the military mission of the United States,” will end on August 31, 2021.

That “military mission” began in October 2001, to go after Taliban terrorists. Today, as US Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas  have  stressed, the terrorism danger in the United States is homegrown and comes from “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists.” Issues of identity and equality for  sure.

Some observers also suggest that contemporary US Americans are facing a new generational conflict, in which young people think the old have sold them out; and the old think the young are arrogant and foolish. I am still wondering about that. In general, these days, I tend to be rather positive about young people.

Recognizing and accepting one’s socio-cultural identity, however, is not always easy and painless. There is a current movement in US society to neither teach nor speak about troubling or painful identity issues. As of the end of June 2021, nine US states have passed “divisive concepts” laws. Seventeen more states are considering passing similar laws. 

“Divisive concepts” laws are attempts to control how teachers talk about issues of race, sex, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin. The assertion is that such discussions are “divisive.” These laws promote a distorted understanding of reality. Regardless of political identity, age, race, gender or education level, these so-called “divisive concepts” do in fact provide essential historic information. They are appropriate and should be part of every school curriculum. Teaching should be broad-minded and honest.

The “divisive concepts” laws are about more than just schools of course. They contribute to the destruction of accurate history. They shape self-determination and restrict one’s freedom to make good decisions about his, her, or their life.

This past Fourth of July weekend I read a fascinating book, America in Crisis and Renewal, by George Parker, staff writer at The Atlantic. The book is provocative in every good sense of the word. It is short and to the point. Whether one agrees with him or not, Parker asks the right questions.

Parker’s main observation is that, in the post-Trump era, US inequality has undermined the common faith that US citizens need to create a successful multi-everything democracy. 

What we now have in the USA, according to Parker, is a “cold civil war” between four incompatible narratives that now dominate US life: (1) “Free US America,” which imagines a nation of separate individuals and serves the interests of corporations and the wealthy; (2)  “Smart US America,” the world view of Silicon Valley and the professional elite; (3) “Real US America,” the white Christian nationalism of the heartland; and (4) “Just US America,” which sees citizens as members of identity groups that inflict or suffer oppression.

Packer stresses that none of these narratives can sustain a truly well-functioning democracy. Indicating a more hopeful way forward, he looks for a common US identity and finds it in the US passion for equality, what he calls “the hidden code” that US Americans of diverse persuasions have in fact long maintained. How to achieve that is the contemporary problem. 

All four narratives, Parker suggests, have emerged from the United States’ failure to enlarge the middle-class democracy of the postwar years as a multi-everything democracy. All four narratives respond to real problems. Each offers a value that the others need and lacks values  that the others have. But the narratives still divide us up, pitting tribe against tribe. These divisions impoverish each narrative and create ever more extreme version of each. More polarization.

So how do we interpret this today? At the heart of contemporary US divisions are almost fifty years of rising inequality and declining social mobility. US citizens tolerate more economic inequality than citizens of any other modern democracy. The United States is one of the richest countries in the world. It is also one of the most unequal. According to a 2020 report from the Pew Research Center, income inequality in the United States is highest of all the G7 nations. 

Education is not equal in the United States. Educational inequality contributes to a number of broader US problems, including income inequality and expanding prison populations. A number of studies have found that US states are spending less money on students from low-income communities than they are on students from high-income communities. Students from minority backgrounds, immigrant origins, and economically disadvantaged families leave school earlier. They receive fewer degrees and certificates; and they exhibit lower academic skills than their more privileged peers.

There must be changes at the US national and individual citizen levels: in economic structures, in education for all, and in habits of thinking and acting. An economy for truly equal US Americans is one that gives everyone a chance not just to survive but to live and participate with dignity. Human dignity.

Packer says again: “Schools that congratulate themselves on achieving numerical diversity, while they sink into intellectual mediocrity, degrade the value of equality and merit.” We need to reexamine and revamp education at all levels. When  curiosity dies, when the quest for knowledge dies, when the desire to see beyond the obvious dies… what more remains to struggle and live for.

Creating the conditions of equality requires new structures and new policies — new ways of thinking and living.

  • We need journalism that is independent and imaginative enough to go to places that Mark Zuckerberg and Fox News never see. And never care about.
  • We need citizens who can listen to one another respectfully while thinking for themselves. We need correct information not fabricated news and “reality.” We need critical thinking and education that passes on critical thinking skills. Just because something appears on Facebook or Twitter doesn’t mean it is true and accurate. There is helpful and good information on the Internet. But there is also a bundle of pure nonsense and phony information, presented as “truth.”

The document of  July 4th 1776 is memorable and remarkable in many ways. Now two hundred and forty-five years later we need not just to read it again but to implement it in its fullness.

ALL people are created equal: men and women; indigenous peoples and immigrants; gay, trans, and straight people; Nones, Muslims, Jews, and Christians; yellow, black, and white people. ALL have dignity. We are all human, we are born with certain inherent, natural, and unalienable rights. Those rights include “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” No one is born with a natural right to rule over others without their consent.

This applies to governments and to churches as well. In my religious tradition, equality is often not considered a virtue….but that is a discussion for another day. Jesus, fortunately, was not that way. He is our hope, our guide, and our inspiration. 

We can and we must build communities which enable us, in the words of Sr. Joan Chittister in a July 8th NCR article, to “learn from the other what we do not know and to supply for the other what they need. We are there to do together what we cannot possibly do alone — which means come to the depth of ourselves and the growth of the world around us, both psychologically and spiritually. We are there to go beyond our self-centeredness to the gift of self-giving and immersion in the presence of God.”

  • Jack

Being an Historical Theologian

On numerous occasions, people have asked me for a reflection about my life as an historical theologian. On June 26th my wife and I celebrated our 51st wedding anniversary. Maybe now is a good time.

History examines the evidence of the past; but the process is not so simple. There are facts and there are beliefs which are not always based on factual reality. I remember my excitement, now many years ago, when as a young man I visited Germany’s Cologne Cathedral and stood before the “Tomb of the Three Magi.” Construction of the present Cologne Cathedral began in 1248 to house these important relics. In my later education, however, I learned that there could be old bones in the ornate Cologne reliquary, but the “Three Magi” story is more post-Constantine mythology than historic fact.

History and facts. History and truth. Today of course there are big questions about history and truth. Right now almost two-thirds of US Republicans believe that the 2020 presidential election of Joseph Biden was “stolen.” And a quarter of those people believe that our world is run by Satan-worshiping pedophiles. Documentation? Truth?

I remember the US astronomer and author, Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996), writing a year before he died: “when people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority, (with)……critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”

Are we now in a post-truth state of mind? Certainly the internet is a goldmine of information as well as a minefield of misinformation and distortion. Facebook and Twitter are hardly the sources of always reliable truthful statements. What are the criteria for making reliable judgments about truthfulness? I look for reliable reporters, trustworthy news sources, and well-documented reports. I don’t trust undocumented reports. Primary sources are crucial. We need to discern and help people discern the difference between fabricated stories and reality. We need to steer clear of fake history and fake news, but it is not always easy.

My own truth-seeking journey has taken a number of turns. As a small child I was a curious research examiner. One of my first explorations, when I was about four years old, was taking a small screw driver and tearing apart my Dad’s pocket watch to see how it worked. As an adolescent I tore apart old telephones, radios, old clocks, etc. My Dad thought that was fine as long as I didn’t touch his watch. I was good at taking things apart. Reassembly was more difficult. But I could see how things worked. Or used to work.

In high school and college, I spent eight years – 180 miles from my home — at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. The country boy became quickly urbanized, and his intellectual and socio-cultural world expanded tremendously. In high school I reached the point at which I could write a term paper in Latin. I then moved on to learn Greek and Spanish. I studied German for a year but couldn’t warm up to it. I also learned how to play the seminary pipe organ, with hands AND feet. It felt great. If he could have seen me, Bach would probably have laughed.

Seminary was a new world of experiences. I got used to showering every day with a bunch of naked guys but never found it a turn on. I did wonder however about some of my fellow students who had very strong “particular friendships.” Some of those guys were also among those seminarians who mysteriously disappeared, usually while the rest of us were at morning prayer and mass. After breakfast we would  see their clothes lockers open and empty. In the dormitories even their beds would disappear.

Philosophy intrigued me, especially existentialism. The search for the authentic. I had to study Thomas Aquinas of course but read as much as I could about  Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980). At the same time I was very religious. My classmates called me “Pious Dick.” I resonated with William James (1842 – 1910) and his The Varieties of Religious Experience. In many ways I was – for a while — a Catholic fundamentalist. I had questions but my spiritual director stressed that I should never question and never doubt. Those questions would later bombard me. 

In the 1960s the “generation gap” was also very real for me. I was strongly opposed to the then developing US involvement in Vietnam. My parents supported US engagement. At one point my parents feared I was  becoming a “pinko,”  a communist like so many “university people.” It was all so very strange. My parents were alert and well-read people. Their WWII history played a big role here as well. They later saw the foolishness of the US war in Vietnam. Difficult times. Many of my friends died in Vietnam. I saw them as victims not heroes. Their parents thought I had betrayed them. Deep wounds last a long time. The Vietnam War, from 1955 to the fall of Saigon in 1975, tore the US apart much more than the nineteenth century Civil War.

When I graduated from college, my bishop, who had gone to The American College seminary in Belgium at The Catholic University of Louvain (founded 1425) sent me to Louvain, better known today as Leuven. For me it was a tremendous  eye-opening and mind-expanding experience. My Dad would often comment, with a chuckle, in later years: “Jack was never the same after Louvain.”  I began to question everything. It began in my first year when a dogma professor, Gustave Thils (1909 – 2000),  asked: “If tomorrow archeologists in Jerusalem would find the bones of the historical Jesus, would that destroy your belief in the Resurrection?” I thought it would, but asked him how he would answer that question. He said: “Of course not….Resurrection is not resuscitation.” 

And so the questions began. It was in December of my second year in Louvain (1966) that the British theologian Charles Davis (1923 – 1999), whom I greatly respected, announced he was leaving the Roman Catholic Church. Davis explained that the church had become too powerful and too dehumanizing: “a vast, impersonal, unfree, and inhuman system.” I went back to Professor Thils. I told him how upset and how very sad I was and that I had always considered Father Charles Davis an excellent theologian. Thils smiled and said: “Yes and he still is an excellent theologian.”

Gradually I also came to a better understanding of “faith” as it appears in the Bible. It means first and foremost trust and confidence in God. That understanding of faith still sustains me.

After three years in major seminary, and just one year away from priesthood ordination, I decided I wanted to become a non-ordained theologian and did not want to spend my life as a celibate priest. I informed my bishop. He was not happy. A couple of his priest friends sent me advice-letters to help me “think more clearly” about my vocation. They stressed that many married men were basically unhappy and that even as a priest there would always be ways for me to “have sex” when I “needed it.” I was disappointed and angry; and I was amazed that they could be so blind to human love and intimacy. I wrote back to the chief letter writer that love and marriage were much more than just having sex “when one needed it.” 

With the friendly help and support of professors Gustave Thils, in Louvain, and Edward Schillebeeckx (1914 – 2009) at the University of Nijmegen, I began my journey toward becoming an historical theologian. I have never had any regrets. 

In Louvain my classes were in French. Going to Nijmegen, however, I had to learn Dutch. I went to a Dutch language school and there I met a charming young teacher, who has now been my teacher and loving wife for more than 51 years. A remarkable human journey.

Historical theologians ask what was the life experience and belief of people back then and how do we best understand that today. One has to distinguish fact from folklore, fake news, and fantasy. One has to understand the local cultures and languages that shaped people’s understandings.

Doing historical research it is also important to understand that those who report “facts” often report just the facts they want people to know. They narrate only part of the story. Recent contemporary and unsettling revelations about the fate of Indigenous children in Canada certainly show a selective presentation of Canadian history. Critical and careful historians need to consult and report many voices from various points of view. Even when unpleasant and disheartening.

Historical narratives are often interpretive narratives. What, for example, relatives in Michigan call the “Civil war” is what my relatives in Virginia call the “War Between the States” and the “War for Southern Independence.” Those narratives shape perceptions of truth and shape what and how people think and believe.

I have done a lot of genealogical research about my paternal family line. I discount much family folklore, because it is often a confusing mismatch of facts and fantasy. I rely on birth records, marriage records, property deeds, last wills and testaments, etc. I have documentation and know that a couple of my gr gr grandfathers were slave owners in Virginia. No historic records told me, however, that my gr gr grandfather, John Dick (1787 – 1865), had at least one Afro-American mistress. I discovered the truth about him when I discovered an Afro-American relative who was also doing genealogical research. Her gr gr grandfather was also my gr gr grandfather John Dick. DNA research confirmed the family link. She sent me photos of her family….all very, very dark. When I mentioned this to my white Virginia relatives, they said “well yes he had a slave lover but we did not want to mention that.” Historical narratives are often interpretive narratives. And DNA research greatly helps one find genealogical truth.

Historical theologians need to listen to all versions of what happened and then make wise decisions about what is truthful. It is not always easy.

Historical theologians need to be attentive as well to the role played by myth in religious history. Not all religious narratives are strict historical narratives. Prime examples are the “Infancy Narratives” found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Here myth is used to convey theological belief about Jesus Christ. In the Hebrew Scriptures of course we find religious myths about Adam and Eve and of course Noah and the great flood. A few years ago, one of my relatives sent me a photo of a chunk of wood which she said was part of Noah’s Ark. I asked her if she also had photos of the six years old George Washington chopping his mythological cherry tree. No response. These days we don’t talk about religion anymore….

There is absolutely no scientific evidence that Noah’s Ark ever existed as it is described in the Bible. There is also no evidence of a great global flood. Most scientists agree, in fact, that it would be impossible. About George Washington, the cherry tree myth and other myths about him were invented by the nineteenth century traveling minister and bookseller Mason Locke Weems (1759 – 1825).

Myth and understanding the use of myth is important. Some myths are pure fantasy. Other myths do convey human and religious values. I find it too bad that the word “myth” is too often understood negatively. 

Historians should pursue serious open-minded research, in conversation with other historians. When they discover falsehood or purveyors of falsehood they need to report that as well. And…if and when historians make mistakes they need to humbly acknowledge that. Some historians are bright people but they are not infallible.

When it comes to the history of Christianity, I do have a recommendation, for those looking for a reliable history. It is A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by the British church  historian Diarmaid MacCulloch (b 1951). The book begins – for important background information — a thousand years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. MacCulloch is Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford.

In his Introduction, Diarmaid MacCulloch writes: “There are two thousand years’ worth of Christian stories to tell …. I have given the book a subtitle which invites the reader to consider whether Christianity has a future (the indications, it must be said, can hardly be other than affirmative); yet it also points to the fact that what became Christian ideas have a human past in the minds of people who lived before the time of Jesus Christ. As well as telling stories, my book asks questions. It tries to avoid giving too many answers, since this habit has been one of the great vices of organized religion.”

And so we continue our historical explorations, with faith, moving ever closer to ultimate truth.

  • Jack