Wednesday, August 31, 2005

On Faith and Education

It is consistent with the long development of liberal education since Plato that it should thrive in an atmosphere of enlightened, informed, and inquisitive faith. Poverty-stricken Puritans were quick to start Harvard College whereas their more materialist counterparts in the midwest were slow to found even agricultural and mechanical arts colleges (and then with Federal aid). The liberal arts flourish in a spiritual environment, or wherever the urge to contemplation and disinterested inquiry is strong within us.

From a long-abandoned integrated plan for liberal education of the Christian person, at the school where I currently teach.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

My other project

I've mentioned a few times that I am privileged to be involved in a new Catholic college. It's called Transfiguration College, and it will be a Byzantine Catholic Great Books college. If you look over to the right, there are links both to our college website and to a weblog where I and a few other folks have posted some reflections on why we are doing it.

If you'd like to be on the email list to get updates about our progress, send me a note at news at transfigurationcollege dot org. Just translate the "at" to "@" and the "dot" to "."

Thursday, August 25, 2005

And you will see your Life hanging before your eyes: on the need for literal translations

St. Athanasius sees in Deuteronomy 28:66 a prophecy of the crucifixion. The text, as the Douay Version has it, is " And thy life shall be as it were hanging before thee. Thou shalt fear night and day, neither shalt thou trust thy life." Athanasius sees the word "life" as referring to Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It is an interesting interpretation of the passage, which occurs in a curse give by Moses if the Israelites are not faithful. The word "life" which Christ uses to refer to himself is also the word used in both the Hebrew and Septuagint text, and it caused St. Athanasius to make a most fruitful connection.

But would you ever have thought of this interpretation if the bible you read is the official Catholic New American Bible? Let's take a look and see:

You will live in constant suspense and stand in dread both day and night, never sure of your existence.


Let me repeat a constant theme of mine: any serious student of Christianity will be hampered should he or she use the NAB.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Imagine if there were a Muslim University

and at official functions, there was nary a mention of Allah or Mohammed. Imagine if the prayers at these functions were so vanilla that, had you not seen the crescent on the seal, you wouldn't know it was a Muslim school. Imagine if there were abundant imams and other Islamic clergy at the assembly, but the prayers were read by laity. That's what I experienced last weekend.

Oh, it wasn't a Muslim school. I teach at a Catholic university. We had a medallion ceremony for our incoming freshmen in order to welcome them to the university, where Christ was mentioned once (by a crusty nun, a friend of mine), but never in any of the prayers. There were two priests in the audience, but the medallions were blessed by the lay campus minister. (Well, they weren't blessed, but she tried to bless them.) The prayers were written especially for the occasion, but contained nothing of the traditional forms of prayer for the Catholic Church. There was no sign of the cross, no "through Christ our Lord," no mention of the Trinity, no intercessory prayer to the Virgin Mary. In fact, the prayers were hardly prayers at all, directed to those of us present rather than to a transcendent God.

None of this is unusual, of course. It happens at most Catholic colleges in the USA. But if it happened at a hypothetical Muslim school, what would you think? Would you think they were faithful? That they were embarassed by Islam? If you would conclude that for the Muslim school, you must also conclude it for the Catholic schools. They are, in large part, embarassed by the Gospel, and are not at all interested in spreading it.

(All the more reason to found a new college.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

In whom we live, and move, and have our being

In St. Athanasius' De Incarnatione, he uses the concept of nature in an unsettling way. We are used to thinking of "nature" as something permanent. Your cat has cat nature, and will remain a cat, and isn't in imminent danger of becoming a dog. But Athanasius speaks of nature differently. If God created everything out of nothing, then everything really is made out of nothing, and therefore is by nature nothing. Thus, humans naturally tend to nothing, and sin just leaves us back in our true nature.

I am sure that this is perfectly obscure. Let me explain. God is Being, the source of the existence of all things, and is in fact the only thing that has real existence in the most absolute sense. God exists, has existed, and will exist, so much so that his name is "I am." He is the only one who has a permanent nature, since everything else depends on the divine will in order to exist. We all exist at God's pleasure. "God has made man, and willed that he should abide in incorruption," says Athanasius. It is more than that--not only are we to live forever, but we are to partake in God himself: "For God has not only made us out of nothing; but He gave us freely, by the Grace of the Word, a life in correspondence with God." We are partakers in the divine nature, as 2 Peter says. By nature, we are nothing, but by gift, we are Godlike.

What happens when we sin? When we reject the gift? Athanasius repeats the answer that the Christian faith gives: death comes when we reject the gift. But this death is not something imposed by God, as an arbitrary punishment, but is instead the ordinary fate of anything created. Out of nothing, back to nothing. "For transgression of the commandment was turning them back to their natural state, so that just as they have had their being out of nothing, so also, as might be expected, they might look for corruption into nothing in the course of time." Death is only natural!

I wax Thomistic for a moment to note that this seems to conflict with the Christian understanding of human nature, which is that it is perfected in Christ. Jesus is the true human, the true representative of human nature, the cause and end of our existence. But I don't think it conflicts, as long as we are careful to distinguish different meanings of nature. Athanasius uses nature here to mean that which an entity has of itself. Later writers use nature to refer to the destiny willed by God. This second sense is the meaning behind natural law, which is the rational creatures participation in the eternal law of the world, which law includes the transcendent destiny of the human being.

Monday, August 15, 2005

On the need for Marthas

Tonight at the liturgy for the feast of the Dormition, the gospel reading was about Martha and Mary. You know the one, where Martha does all the chores, and Mary sits at the feet of Jesus. This is a very challenging reading, since most of us find it difficult to sit like Mary, and instead are busy running around like Martha. We generally console ourselves by saying something like this: "Well, we can't all be Marys. The world needs Marthas!"

But, if you read the passage closely, you will find that Jesus doesn't seem to agree. Look at it again:

38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house.
39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching.
40 But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me."
41 But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things;
42 one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her."
Does Jesus ever say "The world needs Marthas?" Does he make it easy on those of us who would rather be busy with the world rather than with contemplation of Christ? Or does he just assert that what Mary has chosen is the good?

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Scandal: it takes two to tango

There's been yet another high-profile clergy sexual scandal, involving a much-respected monsignor from Manhattan. If you want to read about such things, look to Amy Welborn.

I browsed through a few of the comments, and saw the same sorts of responses one always gets, full of doubts about the faith as a result. I know of people who lost faith because of the Macfarlane divorce, because of the pedophile scandals, because of their parish being closed, because of this, that, and the other thing ad infinitum.

The problem with this is that if some scandal can cause you to lose your faith, it means that you never had faith to begin with. Real faith is not faith in the personal virtue of your priest, bishop, or pope. It is faith in Christ. This means that the personal failings of your priest, bishop, or pope should have no effect at all on your spiritual well-being. ISocrates says in the Apology that good men cannot be harmed by bad men: real harm can only be done to you by yourself, when you choose to do something wrong. All others can do is provide you the opportunity. So, if your priest is caught at a hotel with his secretary, it can only cause you to lose faith if you choose to lose your faith.

For more on this, see an old post of mine.

Read bibles without footnotes

I have a question: how does the "two-source" theory of the synoptic gospels help faith? If you aren't familiar with it, the two-source theory says that Matthew, Mark, and Luke can all be traced to two sources, the gospel of Mark and another source, called Q, which is a currently non-existent collection of the sayings of Jesus. It is commonly presented as fact in introductions to the bible (and certainly in the introductions and footnotes of the New American Bible).

Why? Why is it presented so prominently in books and bibles produced for the public? How does it build up the Church?

My issue is not whether the theory is true or not. I tend to think it isn't, or at least that the evidence for it is largely conjecture, but it could be the case, I suppose. My issue is with presenting the canonical texts of the bible to the faithful with all sorts of apparata of interpretation. Rather than giving someone the gospels as the word of God, one gives the gospels as collections of historical texts. The suppositions of textual criticism may be true (or they may not be--there is no way to test the claims of scripture scholarship), but what purpose is there to present these suppositions first, before one gets to the book itself?

Here's what I think happens: interested person buys bible, and begins reading. He's interested in the faith. Then he reads the introductions, say to the New American Bible, and finds presented as facts various claims about the authorship and development of the texts. Then interested person thinks "Hey, these books aren't anything special. The intro says they weren't eyewitness accounts! Just a bunch of sayings edited together." Now, certainly the innerancy and inspiration of Scripture can coexist with two-source theory and the other theories of authorship--the Holy Spirit can inspire through a Johannine School as much as through the apostle John--but this is a later conclusion reached through reflection on the nature of inspiration. It's not something that the average reader is going to be able to handle.

When I taught scripture in high school, the students had a one-sentence summary of what they learned of the bible: "We learn that nothing that the bible says really happened really happened." That's the impression they got from four years of historical criticism. Perhaps such considerations should be left till later? Perhaps we should presented the inspired word of God as first the inspired word of God?