The Revealing

We are celebrating these days the Christian feast of the Epiphany. I heard someone, I think it was George Hooke on Ireland’s Newstalk radio show, describe it yesterday as about ‘three fellas on camels following a star’. Crude, but broadly accurate. The Gospel indeed tells a story about three wise men who followed a star and came to the place where Jesus, as a tiny infant, slept in a cave. Who knows where this myth/story was originally crafted? Who knows who originally told the story around a campfire or at a table? Who knows what unknown scribe first copied it out on papyrus? Who knows what tiny echo of a primitive Gospel tradition lies behind it? So many known unknowns!

What is important, though, is the message that we, some two thousand years hence, can discern in this story. This message is available to us because, as Christians, we live within a tradition that allows us to glimpse the intention of the original storytellers.

The Epiphany message opens up for us the cosmic dimensions of the story of Jesus, what we frequently call, the Incarnation. God has become manifest as intentionally present within the history of the world, of the cosmos, of the Universe (even the multiverse). This is not a ‘fact’ of history. It is what emerges in the mystery of the world’s coming to be. But although a mystery, the story is underlining for us that it is a ‘knowable’. Why? Because there are people who witness to it, not as a brute fact of history, but as mystery that which makes history possible in the first place. First the shepherds, then the wise men of the East, and now the two thousand year old history of Christian belief.

But this this mystery is finding it increasingly difficult to speak its name. The closed world of contemporary secularism will have nothing to do with it. Why? Because it is clearly preposterous. This argument is not new. St. Paul encountered it in the Agora of ancient Greece when he preached a sermon in Athens. The hellenised elites of his day mostly refused to hear him. Witnessing to the mystery was, as we say in contemporary parlance, a ‘tough ask’.

T. S. Eliot in his beautiful poem about the Epiphany, Journey of the Magi, offers a reflection on this contemporary reality. He was writing as a committed Anglican Christian in the full daylight of contemporary secular liberalism. In the poem he speaks of the ‘folly’ of following the Star of Bethlehem.

A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all
night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,
saying
That this was all folly.

Franz Rosenzweig, the Jewish philosopher, in his monumental classic, The Star of Redemption (1921), invites us to penetrate the intense life-affirming truth that is offered by the Jewish and Christian understanding of the divine mystery. Rosenzweig essentially challenges us to see creation, revelation and redemption as the ultimate categories for thinking about the cosmos.

So, the feast of the Epiphany with its outwardly simple story, is, in fact, a profound statement about ultimate reality. Reality. as we encounter it in our histories and experience, is open to rational scientific investigation, but it is also universally open to the mystical vision of stargazers, shepherds, wise men, street crazies, poets, artists, philosophers, believers and saints. It remains closed to ideologies based on the human will-to-power.

The Magi, Stained Glass Window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Photo: Patrick Comerford, 2016.
The Magi, Stained Glass Window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Photo: Patrick Comerford, 2016.
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Biblical Interpretation

This morning I took down from my shelves the slim volume, The Bible without Illusions by the two Hanson Brothers, Bishop Richard and Professor A. T. Hanson (it was their last book together since Bishop Richard died before its publication in 1989). I purchased the book for €1 from Milltown Institute when it’s library closed in 2012.

The topic of the book is essentially biblical hermeneutics. It dispels early on the notion, popular among some fundamentalists, that a pure interpretation of the biblical text, unmediated by other forms of interpretation, is not only possible but is the only valid way to read the Bible. The authors are at pains to stress early on that there is no such thing as an un interpreted biblical text. There is no such thing as an un interpreted Bible.

It speaks to my poor knowledge of scriptural hermeneutics that I was until now largely unaware that the LXX introduced a certain accommodation of the original Hebrew text to the circumstances of the day in its translations. Hanson notes, for example, that the LXX translation of the Psalms tends to emphasise the universalist dimensions of revelation, a perspective more suited to the context of the spread of Judaism to the Diaspora and beyond. He also points out the ways in which the LXX sought to tone down the cruder anthropomorphises when referring to God in the Hebrew text. Clearly, we can see here the influence of the more philosophically aware prevailing Greek culture.

In the second chapter of the book he provides some examples of how the New Testament writers interpreted Old Testament texts from within the tradition of first century Judaism. Furthermore, he points out how Jesus himself did the same. The example in this regard is the discussion of the Sabbath where Jesus refers to a text from Samuel concerning David. Jesus speaks about David and his little band. However, the biblical text contains no mention of ‘a.little band of followers’. But this was the interpretative tradition in first century Judaism. Clearly, Jesus was aware of it, as were his hearers, and so it served to underpin the point he was making concerning the Sabbath.

The chapter refers to many other examples showing how the New Testament writers consistently interpreted the OT in light of the prevailing rabbinical tradition of their day. All of which reinforces the main point: there is no such thing as an uninterpreted bible.

At the end of the chapter Hanson notes the progress in the development of an ecumenical understanding of the Bible in the twentieth century. He refers to Pope Leo XIII’s attempt through the 1902 establishment of the Biblical Commission to provide authoritative interpretations of biblical texts that would assist Catholics who were confronted by the initial phase of post-Enlightenment thinking and the findings of historical criticism. In Hanson’s view this was a total failure. The Biblical Commission no longer exists and is incorporated into the Pontifical Institute with a relationship to the CDF.

On a more personal note I discovered that Father Fearghas O’Fearraill, the amiable and learned parish priest of Windgap in County Kilkenny, is a member of the Pontifical Institute.

All Things were Cast Down

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8th. If you live in Ireland, you will know that this was a traditional pre-Christmas shopping day. People from ‘the country’ (that is anyplace outside the M50 Dublin motorway!) got on the train to come to Dublin to spend the day shopping and, hopefully, get home in time for tea. It was a happy day, full of expectation and warm feelings about family. Mothers, of course, were on the frontline braving queues and armed with Santa lists.

Theological Considerations

But there is also the deeper and more tangled side of this Feast of Our Lady.

There was a time when theologically the interpretation of the feast-day biblical and doctrinal texts all cohered and made sense in a way that the traditional school catechism could explain so clearly. That is the ‘clarity’ of the old days that many conservative Catholics miss so keenly. What was the basis of this clarity? It all went back to Adam and the original sin. Sin is the overarching category that casts a long shadow on everything. According to the catechism understanding what we celebrate today, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, is the first sign of retreat of our ‘original condition of sin’ in the anticipation of the coming of Christ, the Saviour of the World, God Incarnate.

Today, words like ‘original sin’, ‘sin’, and ‘redemption’ are uncomfortable, to say the least. They drift through our minds like so much ancient debris from a great primeval flood.

Most of the time what we try to do with these concepts and ideas that seem no longer to fit is to either ignore them or refashion them into something more amenable, something less edgy. But they are difficult to set aside, especially, if, like me, you continue to pray in traditional forms, using traditional words, because they are familiar, because they have shaped one’s spiritual life, because in some inexplicable way they continue to nurture hope, faith and belonging. They are the words from our two thousand year old tradition. Still hanging around and unwilling to just drift away on the secular tide.

Anselm again, God help us!

This morning I looked at the texts from my Benedictine Daily Prayer with some trepidation, my mind expecting to fight with the words. But that did not happen. Instead, armed with all my recent reading on the story of the Universe, the story of evolution, my struggles with Richard Dawkins, and wonderful memories of time spent with John Feehan, geologist, botanist and author of The Singing Heart of the World, I found myself in a good space. To use contemporary hermeneutical speak, I began to pay attention to the text beyond the text. It was an opening to that ‘fusion of horizons’ which Gadamer described so well in his challenging work Truth and Method. When we see to understand something we alway bring to it our own ‘horizon of understanding’.

The Office of Readings has its first text the Discourse by Saint Anselm. I ‘bracketed’ my rejection of Anselm’s well-known atonement theory and allowed the text to speak within a new horizon, within the horizon of my awareness of cosmological time and of the evolutionary story of nature itself. Anselm had no clue of any of these things but probably had his suspicions.

Anselm says:

Heaven, stars, earth, day, night, and all that serves humankind has been raised up and newly graced in you, our Lady. All things died, as it were, for they had ceased to serve the needs and will of those who praise God, they were cast down and degraded to servants of idolaters.

All was cast down. Something has gone wrong with creation. Anselm goes on in the text to speak of Mary as the mother of ‘the new creation’.

A New Horizon of Understanding

Of course, the reflexes of my youth would prompt me to make a smooth transition to ‘catechism language’ but my new horizons allow me to see the new text emerging from behind the words. The text behind the text. There is always a text behind the text. And even a text ‘before’ the text, the new horizon of meaning.

I can sense Anselm’s joy in reflecting on the mystery of the Incarnation and Mary’s role in it. He summons a cosmological perspective, one limited by his own cultural and pre-scientific knowledge. Within that he intuits that something momentous is at work. He perceives it happening in the miracle of the Incarnation and the work of redemption. Everything is transformed, including nature itself. That perspective is one that Paul takes up in Romans 8 and it has informed Eastern theology ever since.

For me, as I read, I am aware of the struggles in Paris at the COP21 conference and I can still hear the fading murmur of Storm Desmond passing over Ireland. Anselm presents a picture of a fundamental alienation from the cosmos, from nature, and, indeed, from ourselves. Nature, he perceives, has become degraded, become simply an instrument for ‘idolators’. It is we humans, our human consciousness, that enslave the natural world and its species. It is our ‘degraded’, ‘unredeemed’ consciousness that is bringing about the death of the natural world.

Towards an Emerging Understanding

Were Anselm alive today I have no doubt that he would read the biblical texts with a different mindset. He would understand the absolute necessity for a new redeemed relationship with nature itself, one that cannot wait for the ‘end times’, but must take place now and be given expression now in the birth through a new ecological awareness of a new appreciation of our graced relationship with the totality of the natural world, and, indeed, with the universe itself.

This is a cosmic vision on a grand scale. In this feast of Our Lady we celebrate the possibility through the Incarnation of just such a new world. But we need to shed the prejudices and naïvetés of the past.

This is what John Feehan, along with Thomas Berry and others, articulates so beautifully and so clearly in The Singing Heart of the World. What is important is the new horizon of meaning that we bring to the text, from whatever age the text comes. Gadamer was correct when insisted on the inevitability of the hermeneutical challenge. Our texts remain at once both wonderfully original and provisional. And that is the reason why they can prompt a re-calibration of our own mindset.

Maurice Blondel

Maurice Blondel

When I was a student at the Institut Catholique in the 1980s, I participated in a course by Dominican priest, Bernard Quelquejeu, a course entitled, “Action”. My theological education at that point was eclectic that I failed, at least, initially to make the connection to Maurice Blondel’s 1893 seminal work of the same title. To this day, the word ‘action’ in this context leaves me confused. I had thought of the term as referring to ethics, to the how we answer questions about what is the good and just thing to do. That was a kind of Aristotelian response to my question. More recently, re-reading old essays of mine, I have begun to see that the term refers to some thing more like the ‘work of human hands’ in the liturgy. It is about the connection between the divine and the human in world of human affairs.

However, I now know that it is more precisely about the relationship of human subjectivity to the objectivity of divine revelation. One writer, William Portier, an American, refers to the Baltimore Catechism definition of faith: faith as the assent to revealed truths on the authority of God. My own Maynooth Catechism was equally a reflection of the Neo-Scholastic position on these matters. If I had read Garigou-Lagrange’s Reality (1949) I would have heard exactly the same definition of faith.

It seems that the question revolves around those twin poles of objectivity and subjectivity. On the one hand, the search for truth presumes that there are objectively knowable religious truths and on the other hand there is the human subject who appropriates these truths. It was Blondel’s historic insight to appreciate, probably one of the first to do so, the fundamental importance of the subject in the assent of faith. I am presuming that Newman was also on to the same thing.

The opposition to Blondel was in large measure prompted by the Church’s total opposition to the turn to the subject that took place in the nineteenth century, a reaction that was in large measure against Immanuel Kant. All of the calamities that the Church experienced in the nineteenth century were laid at the door of subjectivism. It was the Jesuits of La Fourvières in Lyon who were among the first to read Blondel sympathetically, among them the famous Henri de Lubac who published his famous Le Surnaturel in 1940. This book and de Lubac himself contributed significantly to Vatican II.

What I found interesting in reading Portier’s essay was the later connection to John Paul II’s encyclical Fiedes et Ratio which appeared in 1998. This encyclical was intended both to reconnect with De Lubac and also a rehabilitation of Blondel.

See William Portier’s Blondel paper in Communio here.

See the following for notes from Notre Dame on Fides et Ratio.

See also John Fagan’s commentary and summary of Fides et Ratio on the CERC site here.

Thinking about Marriage

The heady days preceding Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum seem very distant. Now the focus, from a Catholic perspective, is the Synod on the Family, currently taking place in Rome.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the Archbishop of Dublin, referred to Ireland’s experience of the same-sex marriage debate in his three-minute intervention at the Synod which is reported in part in the Irish media and elsewhere. His main point concerns the issue of language. The success of the same-sex marriage campaign, he suggests, was because its advocates framed their case in language that was once that of the Church, the language of love, mercy, compassion and inclusion. By contrast, those who took up a contrary position came across as heartless and lacking empathy.

Another dimension highlighted by him and other Synod contributors focused on the contemporary experience of individualism. We no longer think conceptually in terms of moral principles. We think mainly in terms of the individual case, of the hard ones. We are moved by individual testimony rather than by abstract philosophical arguments. The strengthening case for euthanasia in Western countries derives its strength in great measure from the power of the individual stories of men and women confronting the reality of catastrophic illness. By contrast, abstract arguments based on moral and philosophical positions appear weak and lacking in humanity.

Complexity is a shared feature of most contemporary moral issues, whether it be issues to do with human sexuality, family life, end of life challenges, responding to the migrant crisis or, as in the case of the Synod, the family. It is interesting that the Synod participants, for the most part, are not only aware of this dimension of complexity but openly acknowledge it. How do you square the contemporary realities of diverse families with the moral perspectives of the Gospel, let alone those of the Church. Resolving this issue lies at the heart of the Synod’s dilemmas and debates. Traditionalists fear moral relativism. Synod progressives fear pastoral irrelevance.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s newsletter, The Pilot, in its current issue contains an article by writer Kathy Finley in which she reviews three books on marriage from an American perspective. One of them, Marriage Markets, despite the fact that it is from a non-faith perspective, she commends. In her article she suggests that in considering contemporary marriage and family we ignore the dimension of its complexity at our peril.

The authors of the book, June Carbone and Naomi Cahn, argue that contemporary family life is impacted significantly by the social reality of inequality. In the 1950s through to the 1970s when jobs for men were plentiful and salaries adequate a stable family was supported strongly by social and economic realities. With the increase in our times of social inequality due to the loss of traditional jobs in manufacture, the decline in the earning power of the middle-classes, and the widening gap between the poor and the rich, marriage and family life are both under severe threat. Marriage breakdown has increased. Family life is experiencing greater stress.

The writers observe:

At the bottom, men and women have lost ground in society. Their interests are largely unrepresented in the political system, and they enjoy less support than they once did from community and extended families.

The ultimate losers are the children involved in marriages that can’t make it because of economic challenges. This is clearly a dimension of the complexity shaping contemporary family life. And not just in the United States, but right throughout the Western world.

Kathy Finley, the reviewer, concludes:

One of the effects of a book like Marriage Markets is to challenge us to think differently about what is right before us, so that we remember to bring a sociological and economic lens to issues that have a faith and moral dimension to them and which aren’t all that simple, after all.

There is another, more in-depth from an economic analytical perspective, review in the Wall Street Journal. It can be found here.

The Time is Now

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I believe that the time is now for resolute and inspired action in the Church. The Cardinals gathered in Rome need to take seriously the presence of the Holy Spirit among the community of believers as well as among themselves. They need to let go once and for all of an outdated understanding of revelation as something fixed in dogmas, rigidly cast in the aspic of timeless eternities.

In his 1926 Lowell Lectures the great philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said:

Religions commit suicide when they find their inspirations in their dogmas. The inspiration of religion lies in the history of religion. By this I mean that it is to be found in the primary expressions of the intuitions of the finest types of religious lives. The sources of religious belief are always growing, though some supreme expressions may lie in the past.

Niebuhr, in his book The Meaning of Revelation, has argued that religion and religious beliefs arise within the lived history of people. Neither metaphysics nor science have given us religious beliefs. Quoting Luke’s Gospel (1:1) Niebuhr points out that the origin of Christian faith are “those things which happened among us and to us”. What we believe as Christians is as much about the conclusions we reach on the basis of a shared reflection on our stories as believers as it is on what is set down in the catechism. Whitehead, by the way, in his Lowell Lectures was at pains to point out that there is a role for dogmas in the shaping of religious beliefs.

So, back to the Cardinals, it is my own personal hope that the Cardinals will give time to discernment, reflection and talking. They should not be limited to whatever is presented by way of ‘official guidance’, whether this should come in the form of an official sermon or by any rigidity in the interpretation of their task as electors.

Let us hope that they will give all the necessary time required to reflect on what the times are saying, what the people of God are saying, and what recent events are saying. It is only in this way that they can possibly understand what is ‘revealed’ to them.