Monday, 19 July 2010

Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and truly lacking in social graces

Yesterday's gospel was about Martha and Mary - probably the topic on which I've heard some of the best and worst sermons. I was restless on Sunday, and attended the early Eucharist, and, since the homilist was a new priest whom I do not know at all, I certainly hope he intended his references to be witty, because I was laughing quite a bit (in recognition of his points, not disdain.) I'm a bit weary for exegesis at the moment, but, though my sympathies are primarily with Mary (being a disciple does tend to give one the unfair tag of 'lazy'), I've 'done a Martha' many times. Yet it had never really occurred to me, as the homilist emphasised, that this is one of several gospel passages in which Jesus is extremely rude.

I'm smiling - remembering Pasolini's film about the Gospel of Matthew, which many critics hail as a masterpiece, but which viewers sometimes found offensive because Jesus seems very blunt and crude... at least until they realise the text and action are taken entirely from Matthew's gospel itself.

John Dominic Crossan is no favourite of mine, to be sure, and I disagree with nearly all of his presentation of doctrine. (I have to admit I rather enjoy him - he reminds me of a sly rogue, and he has a brilliant mind - but consult his works for superb details about first century Palestine, full stop.) Yet I must admit that he was spot on, in discussing Jesus' trial and death, in commenting that this Galilean was a 'peasant, nuisance nobody.' (I can identify with this... takes one to know one, I suppose...though I always wash my hands, and only would help myself to others' corn in the most desperate of circumstances.) By worldly standards, that is quite true.

I'm thinking of the stories we heard in school - and even of the 'scriptural epic' films, which Monty Python later would spoof so brilliantly. One would have received the impression that Jesus walked the earth surrounded by people who resembled the pictures on soppy greeting cards, the lot of them in awe of his every word. (I've said it before, but it merits repetition. We seemed to think that holiness would leave everyone loving the holy, yet forgot that perfectly natural circumstances were the cause of Jesus' crucifixion. I suppose we thought that he'd only gone to the cross because God willed this.) I'm the more impressed, today, that the Church ever began - and know (and this with full acknowledgement of Jesus' divinity!) it only could have been because of the resurrection and Holy Spirit.

There were many miracle workers, itinerant preachers, and undoubtedly quite remarkable, devout Jews in first century Palestine. Jesus was distinguished mainly for applying words about God to himself. His followers were few enough, and he was not a man of great learning (though indeed of brilliance) or achievement. Perhaps he was a good carpenter, but it appears he spent his adult life, or at least the time of his ministry, dependent on the good will of others.

Raymond E. Brown, in his work on New Testament Christology, commented, again aptly, that most of us accept only as much of Jesus' humanity as we wish. Somehow, we seem to think we are insulting his divinity if we admit just how very human he was. I sometimes can all but feel the sense of futility he must have endured at times. ( Howard Marshall notes how Luke’s narrative of the Last Supper is “impregnated with apostasy, self-seeking, denial, and betrayal – attendance does not transport the disciples to Paradise or lift them out of trial and temptation. The grim narrative heightens Jesus’ self-giving, and the promise that, through his death, salvation and the heavenly banquet are offered to weak, fickle disciples.” And what followed that night is not anything upon which I'm sure the apostles later cared to dwell.)

On another note, I was just telling a friend today that I'm caught up in what might be termed "Martha tasks" (as well as such bizarre diversions as 'liking' things on Facebook in the wee hours, or dozing over Lifetime films, if only to remember that no one has a more complicated life than those in the latter). The Jesus who was 'too real' for his rudeness to be accepted by those in our congregation (who may not know that I think 'politeness' can cloak distance, and does not necessarily mean virtue...) was speaking to me, because, since I'm in one of my tense periods, I can't deal with what is totally real! I stumble through my prayers, cannot study or write essays, cannot find inspiration, write disjointed and dreadful blog entries if any at all. I can't even read the great literature I love, or listen to the high-brow music that is my passion. I'm sure this is common: what is troubling us can't be shaken at times, and we can lose ourselves in silliness because what is too genuine leaves us in a muddle. And this though we were created to be as real as it gets!

So bear with this diversion, if you will. Jesus of Nazareth indeed was lower class in his ways (in fact, I'm sure my mother wasn't the only one who thought him cheeky even by the standards of our class, especially with reference to a particular incident that occurred when he was 12.) But I'll take his ways over those of the 'polite.' He was always willing to heal and forgive (in fact, Martha and Mary, in particular, would see a most striking example of that - under circumstances where some would have shrunk anticipating the stench.) He never lacked compassion, or sent away those in pain with 'you're feeling sorry for yourself!' I would imagine, were he in church today, that he wouldn't raise his eyebrows if someone were choking, thinking they had no manners and should leave because they were spoiling the music. He might not be appalled that babies cry and spit up (and might even know that, at that age, they can do little else), even though it's far better form to have children who are hatched, fully formed, at the age to be sent away to school. He would even deal with that adults sometimes cry, or call out in pain, or utter the equivalent of "Son of David, heal me!" even when the hearer is so tired he'd like to take off on a boat over the Sea of Galilee, and respond to their pain rather than calling for a security guard or reproaching them for unseemly behaviour.

No inspiration today, my friends - but take heart, if you are in a muddle as well, that you're not alone. Now, off for me to compose an answer to someone who wanted to share the enormous grace she believes she received in the 'gifts of tears and tremors.' Aside from that, if my soggy memory serves me, most writers on that topic were speaking of repentance (a gift, indeed, but I doubt that is the sort of gift to which she was referring), I'm trying to find a delicate way to say that I've heard other things can cause tears and tremors... and I don't want to be rude.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

"Take what you like and leave the rest" - especially if it's medieval

Needless to say, as one who maintains an Internet site about medieval topics, I tend to forget how confusing approaches of that era (and many others... including our own) can appear to those unfamiliar with the approaches and terminology. Cliché though it is, I not only find "take what you like and leave the rest" to be an especially wise approach in theology and philosophy. (I'm so used to doing so that I don't even realise how much I 'edit' when I'm studying.) I'm sorry that, in my own adult years, the idea of 'adapting to the times' so often meant nonsense, so what I'm about to say is not in the category of "make sure not to offend anyone, thereby sacrificing integrity." I've found it essential to always recall what a theologian or philosopher was either refuting or defending.

I have been participating in a discussion/reading group, where the current selection is Thomas Aquinas' Conferences on the Apostles' Creed. I love at least one idea in each chapter (and scrap the rest), but the anti-Semitism, emphasis on considering damnation, and so forth make me cringe. Then again, it seems to me there are at least three 'faces' of Aquinas. There is the mystic that I love, who wrote such glorious (and forever after misinterpreted) passages as those for Corpus Christi. There is the philosopher, about whom I've written extensively in the past. (One must always recall how much hands are tied by having to be careful not to even appear to forget or contradict doctrine or even devotion.) This particular work shows Thomas the homilist - and that is a confusing task for any day. Until well into the modern era, the purpose of sermons was seen as to call the hearers to repentance from sin. It's not that I think that is such a bad idea (...I not only think it's no accident that liturgical texts include a spot for daily contrition, but believe the most charitable action often can be when one has the insight and courage to 'do a Nathan' on us), but that it slants a great deal.

Last week's chapter was on 'He descended into hell.' I loved two elements of this exposition: that "no matter how anyone may be in affliction, he should not despair nor lose trust in the assistance of God," since "nothing can be so dire as being in hell." Of course, this is not the standard hell... it is the vestibule for patriarchs and such who couldn't be admitted to Paradise until the resurrection since the gate was locked at the fall of Adam. Considering that concepts of heaven, hell, and purgatory which had arisen by Thomas' time would have been a total puzzle in first century Palestine, let alone in the days of Abraham, and that concepts of the after-life were vague and, at least amongst Pharisees, centred on the ultimate resurrection, I'm still wondering how the apostles would have composed a creed which treated of descent into hell. The idea of Sheol dates back further, of course - we all remember the OT passage where someone indiscreetly summoned Samuel to appear - but none of the rabbis then or earlier patriarchs had read Augustine on 'the fall,' and presumably neither knew they were locked out nor knew a distant Incarnate Lord had the keys.

Paul of Tarsus, in a way, had it easy. His writings that had to do with our being redeemed in Christ don't condemn those other than the Christians, because he wasn't thinking of them in the first place - his words encouraged and inspired the fledgling Church, who, as heretics themselves, weren't likely to be distracted by the duties of the Inquisition and such. Poor Thomas! He had to make sure there was no doubt about all redemption coming through Christ (perfectly true, of course - but what about those unbaptised?) - and the cheeky 1970s feminist in me was tempted to say "if those not baptised were saved by circumcision, did God let Abraham out but not Sarah?"

The second part I liked immensely was about Christ as an example of love. I may not be big on the medieval concept of purgatory, but our being all one Church, with love enduring through all stages of our life in Christ, is one immensely appealing overall.

Coming from an entirely Catholic background theologically, and since Thomas is about as positive about creation and humanity as any western theologian, I had not realised that some of those in attendance would be quite uncomfortable with Thomas' throwing in our need to be afraid of hell (to avoid presumption), or the suggestion that we frequently descend into hell in thought, since consideration of death can keep us from mortal sin. I, of course, am an over-educated lover of the mystical but not a priest, superior, or anyone else in authority (thanks be to God...) I loathe any emphasis on hell! Thomas would set forth elsewhere that one should act in love for God, not out of fear of punishment, but sermons had to bring forth the pragmatism of the priest. It never occurs to me that, though acting out of fear (whether of divine punishment, social disapproval, criminal penalties) is far from practising virtue or growing in love, if (this is going to sound so pre-Vatican II pulpit, but it expresses the idea well) the only thing that can separate people from sanctifying grace is mortal sin, one tries to keep the flock from it in any way he can.

Lord knows I wish I had 1% of the saintliness that Thomas possessed, but (though I'm far better at studying mystic and ascetic theology than living it) I must laugh at myself that I tend to dwell in outer space. It doesn't matter that I'm a garden variety sinner. (I tend to forget that those such as Thomas or Alphonsus, who wrote wisely of casuistry, intended this for the clergy when they were in the role of confessor, not penitent. I'm in no way scrupulous, yet it takes me an hour or so to prepare for my periodic sacramental confessions. Five minutes to call to mind the messes I've got into since the last penitential season... then 50 of Thomistic mental gymnastics to convince myself I didn't act with reflection and consent.. then thirty seconds to finally admit that I did...) I really and truly think that everyone is focussed on virtue! (This has led to some dangerous situations in the past. I'm lucky I'm half behind the grille, considering that, were Jack the Ripper to speak of divine mercy and his own trust in this, I would never see that he had no conscience, but instead think "what faith this man must have, to so trust in divine mercy after all those murders!," then invite him in to join me for Vespers and a cigar.)

When it comes to my personal spirituality (hodge podge though it is), I actually favour the patristic writings most of all. I'm much more into deification than 'the fall' (I love Augustine in many ways, but not on that!). That does not mean that I'm unaware that scoundrels or the average but basically innocent existed in that supposed hey-dey of Christian thought (when most Christians were surrounded by pagans.) Those who were putting off baptism to get in plenty of sin before that one shot at total forgiveness were in huge numbers. Debates about whether forgiveness was possible after baptism, or whether only the holy could be considered still part of the Church, are less brutal to our eyes when we remember that the penitents were bishops who sacrificed to pagan gods, or solitaries who were escaping military service or taxes but selling pardons in the false names of those martyred.

Thomas may have used this chapter to refer to Jesus' defeating Satan on his own turf (even though, long before Thomas' day, the Evil One presided over a far more horrifying, and unquestionably permanent, kingdom than the patriarchs' waiting room... and even Thomas won't let the unbaptised babies have free passage to paradise, lest, I suppose, anyone doubt Christ as Redeemer or the importance of baptism, especially with non-Christian invaders not too far off and the need for an objective standard of who was Christian), but Thomas, however young, would have been far too wise to think we could blame Satan for all that much. We do most of it well enough on our own. I shudder at how 'evil does not exist' is a constant pastoral disaster, but love how Thomas thought that we were good, and that even evil is a failure to achieve potential, not depravity as in the minds of a few theologians I could think of from a later time.

Lord have mercy... it just struck me, and this for the first time in my life! I think everyone is trying to practise virtue - and that fear of hell doesn't grasp love - and that we are missing... our potential when we sin! Pastoral disaster or not, it is just this minute that I realised that it looks as if I essentially think evil is the absence of good! I'd best go get a nap.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Great fun to 'do a David and Goliath'

I had a quite ambitious idea a few days ago, about writing of William of Ockham and his opposition to the scholastic theologians - indeed, a good mental workout for one who is happy that the warm breezes have thawed her brain. I am declining to do so because proper form for such a presentation is a massive amount of work, which I would devote to a lecture, paper, or dissertation, but not to a blog which I doubt anyone reads. Still, I smiled to recall what a Franciscan friar used to tell me (and accurately - and this was many years before I had eight years of Jesuit education) : "You always sound like a Franciscan arguing with a Domiinican."

I can sympathise with William of Ockham, though his political prudence must have been even worse than my own if he denied the temporal authority of the papacy in view of that Christ reigns in heaven. I can well understand his seeing philosophy as not dealing with the 'real world,' not only because (as I've addressed elsewhere) brilliant philosophical arguments, taken in anything beyond the limited sense in which they were formulated, lead to pastoral disasters, but because so much that is 'logically possible' is impossible, and it all tends to be counter-intuitive outside of philosophy books. (Bear with me. I'm writing this on a library computer with a faulty keyboard and cursor.)

Much in scholastic theology could be puzzling, if not chilling! God is whatever it happens to mean to be fully God, though all we can determine is what God is not. Evil seems to be denied, because it doesn't exist and only appears as such because God's priorities are not ours. God has power over us but no responsibility, and one would shudder to think of what seems to be good to God since it wouldn't meet the lowest human standards of love and morality. (I am hugely exagerrating, of course - but just try taking a single sscholastic argument out of context.)

William probably created the worst havoc of his century with nominalism (which somehow had the secondary effect of messing up worship and having canon law impose legalism just to assure uniformity and doctrine.) William based everyything, whether in regard to us or to God, on the will. God could have saved us without the cross - He could have produced another universe and just might after the last judgement - there is none of the working backwards from effect to cause of the scholastics. (In all fairness to William, he only said that God could have done things differently, not that he did.) Yet, in a nutshell, his affective approach, with an emphasis on will common amongst Franciscans, can leave one with the weird impression that we never can know what is real, or that the will can respond to what the mind hasn't even grasped as a good in the first place.

(You are probably wondering why I became Franciscan in the first place. I have no idea.)

Yesterday, I heard a comment about a young theologian who created a stir by a writing that questioned the 100% Catholic status of Hans urs von Balthasar. I'm jealous - that must have been great fun. I'm too shy, and still infected by the Franciscan worm of inferiority, to do it in person, but I just love the exercise of refuting theologians for whom I have the greatest respect (as I do for Hans if not exactly for William.) It isn't that I have any illusions of having a fraction of their brilliance or learning, but that 'doing a David and Goliath' is so enriching. It means gathering the wisdom from varied areas, finally getting insight, exploring the history and traditions, exploring what one truly believes - and then setting forth an argument that is as much a song of praise as an Alleluia that a Franciscan just might still have a brain and show it in public. (Many Franciscans were and are brilliant, but Bonaventure and Anthony were only being brilliant under obedience, when the need arose as they were washing dishes or pulling the weeds. The down side of this, of course, isn't just the'worm' thing again, but that those who...don't sound like they are arguing with Dominicans can base everything on inspiration at the dish pan.)