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Archive for October 30th, 2006

A Fifth Option

Further Thoughts on Faith and Violence

While I appreciate all the comments in response to my recent post
Reason, Religion and Violence, in the end they all reiterated one or
another of the four unsatisfactory explanations of the problem of violence in
the Old Testament, where God is seen commanding the death of the innocent,  that
I had sketched.

There is, however, a fifth explanation, which occurred to me when I was in
Alabama last weekend for the marriage of Maclin’s daughter, my godchild.

Before I explore that with you, though, I’d like to clarify something: that
I recognize the problem with certain Old Testament texts which attribute
commands to kill to God does not mean that my faith was threatened by this. Nor
was I trying to undermine anyone else’s faith. Jesus Christ is unique in history
for the sublimity of His teaching and the purity and integrity of His life, a
uniqueness peaking in His resurrection and ascension. Whatever dissonance I
might perceive in certain scriptural texts there is none in Him nor in His
teaching.

Also, let me preface my remarks by noting that I am half-educated at best,
a hick among the theologians, and if I stray into error it is
unintentional.

And I submit all my conclusions to the judgement of Holy Church, without
which I am lost.

So, then, the fifth option:

When the Catholic Church approaches the claims of visionaries, it does so
with the understanding that whatever God has revealed to them has been revealed
within the context of their personalities, limitations and sins and in a
particular cultural milieu. Thus even a valid revelation can be colored by the
seer’s prejudices and imagination.

So, for example, when the seers of Fatima claimed that more souls perish
because of sins of the flesh than any other, they contradict St Thomas Aquinas,
who taught that sins of weakness were not as deadly as sins of malice: greater
in shame, lesser in blame, as the saying goes.

Direct revelation, after all, is not propositional. It is a fundamental
intuitive apprehension of Truth, wrapped in Mystery. When this is translated
into words it is transformed in some degree into a human construct. Granted, we
are talking here of "private revelation", but even public revelation is by
definition first personal revelation.

Church teaching, too, reflects this dynamic, and modern attempts at
dialogue with other Christian communions largely consist of trying to get to the
underlying meaning of the language used. Sometimes, notably with the Oriental
Orthodox Churches, this has led to the recognition of unity where our ancestors
saw heresy.

There is a distinction between dogma, the truth, and doctrine, the
explanation of that truth.

Or think of the doctrine of Purgatory.

The fundamental revealed truth is that the soul’s journey into God
continues after death, that imperfections can be purified in the afterlife, and
that the soul is aided in this process by the prayers of the living. (I
recognize that this explanation is itself inevitably a human construct).

In the hands of Roman Catholics of the counter-Reformation era, though, all
this takes a legalistic turn, in keeping with the juridical Latin mindset. Thus
we have the familiar outline of a Divine Judge needing to satisfy His sense of
justice. "Purgatory" becomes a "place" where the soul goes to endure the
temporal sufferings needed to atone for its sins, sufferings not fulfilled in
its earthly sojourn, until the Judge decides it has paid its price in
full.

This is not a caricature; that is the way the teaching was generally
presented for centuries and is still presented in certain circles. It is not
hard to see why the Orthodox renounced "Purgatory", though they too believe in
the soul’s continued pilgrimage and they too pray for the dead.

This is not to say there were not more sublime and- dare I say it-
spiritual expressions of the nature of Purgatory in the West; St. Catherine of
Genoa’s Treatise on Purgatory coming to mind, and in contemporary times
the Anglican C. S. Lewis’ The Great DIvorce.

And fortunately the Catechism of John Paul has left the juridical Purgatory
behind and outlines a process of spiritual growth more akin to Orthodox
understanding.

The principle that non-propositional revelation must of necessity be
translated into human language, that it requires a human construct to be
communicated, by nature affected by human limitation, is the key to
understanding the apparent contradiction in the Old Testament of a good God
commanding objective evil (the slaughter of children, for example).

Thus the warlike Hebrew tribes, having apprehended the revelation that God
is One and idolatry an abomination naturally took this as a command to
annihilate the polytheists according to the customs of war with which they were
familiar.

Or Abraham,  the desert wanderer, having encountered the Living God and His
relentless demand to be adored, and perhaps intuiting that the ultimate
sacrifice would be for a father to give up his only son, translated this as the
demand that he, Abraham, must sacrifice his long-awaited and much-beloved son as
the sign of the totality of his submission to God.

His hand, of course, was stayed by the angel.

But doesn’t what I propose present the same problem that the historical
critical method does? Isn’t revelation judged by human reason? Doesn’t anything
that offends modern sensibility get jettisoned? Isn’t this, in the end, just a
species of that "solution"?

Not at all.

The historical critical method measures only what can be empirically
determined and is by nature reductionist. It begins with a low Christology,
viewing Christ only in human, historically verifiable terms, just as it begins
with skepticism regarding the reliability of Scripture.

The "fifth option", on the other hand, is born of a high Christology, the
faith that Jesus Christ is the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, incarnate in
the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.

Thus, unlike the historical critical theologians we do not critique His
words, for He is transmitting revelation through a human nature unmarred by
sin and unshackled from cultural prejudice.

Thus, the teaching of Jesus Christ, not human reason, is the
standard by which all transmission of revelation is measured

Along with this goes a high ecclesiology, the certainty that the Church
faithfully interprets the words of Christ and their meaning.

And of course, all of this is rooted in an exegesis which assumes that the
writers of the Gospels reliably transmit the words and deeds of Jesus
Christ.

I may, of course, be blind to some fatal ramification of what I have
proposed, may not see some heretical logical conclusion to it.

I trust, my friends, that you will be faithful in kindly pointing it out if
that is the case, and those of you who are more theologically astute than I can
assist me in working out any problems inherent in this "fifth option".

Daniel Nichols

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