Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Why the Bible Needs Philosophy for Interpretive Purposes

One of my frustrations is talking to or listening to Christians who take the Bible literally or who believe in the Bible only. What they have to say often winds up making no sense to me. And, as far as I'm concerned, the Bible has to make sense. It does make sense. It's all about correct interpretation of the texts.

I just read a blog post at Domine, da mihi hanc aquam! titled, "Without philosophy all we have is story..." This post and one of the comments made in response help me see the connection between faith and reason.

Here is the complete text:
Let's say you are having marital problems. Being a good Catholic, you go to your pastor for some advice on how to improve communication. You patiently tell Fr. Bob what you see as the problem. Fr. Bob nods and reaches for his bible. He flips it open to John 2.1-11 and reads to you the story of Jesus' first miracle at the wedding in Cana.

When he finishes the story, he snaps the book closed and looks at you as if all your problems have been solved. It takes you a moment to realize that Fr. Bob believes that he has addressed your problems. You have a few questions about how the story applies to your situation. When you are done asking your questions, Fr. Bob gives a slightly annoyed look, opens his bible, and re-reads John 2.1-11.

OK, at this point you are starting to feel as though Fr. Bob is trying to teach you some sort of Kung-fu-Zen-Master-Grasshopper-Wax-on-Wax-off-lesson about listening or sitting quietly or something like this. . .who knows?! Anyway, try one more time.

You reel off several very reasonable questions about applying the Wedding at Cana story to your particular situation. There's a pleading tone in your voice and you throw in a dash of desperation to help convince Fr. Bob to help. And to your horror, all he does is re-read the Wedding at Cana story to you!

Assuming that violence is not an option, what should you do at this point? Why is Fr. Bob behaving this way? What are you expecting from Father that he is apparently unwilling or incapable of giving?

The title of this post gives a hint at the direction of my thinking here. . .

If this were me, I'd probably bid Fr. Bob farewell and move on. I'd look for someone more helpful and more capable of addressing my situation. But the author of the post uses this example to get us thinking.

One person who commented had a great response, which I will include here:
Anthony Kennedy said...

Let me try a stab at this...

Fr. Bob's approach to the story assumes that the Bible is a self-interpreting form of literature. There is no need for interpretation, no need for textual or contextual critical exegesis, in short, he assumes that the meaning itself is bound in the very text--that the text IS the meaning. Since, however, a word (with a little "w") can only point to meaning and as such cannot embody meaning, there need be some rational, intelligible means discerning that meaning and applying that meaning to a concrete situation.

The written Word of God, thus, must be interpreted through a rational and intelligible means. The meaning of Scripture is not bound in the text, it is bound in the Word (capital "W") who is the one true key to interpreting the text. And since this Word is Himself the author and source of reason and intelligibility, the narrative account of God's revelation--Scripture--can only be understood by use of solid philosophical principles and methods.

Thus the question, "What does the Wedding at Cana have to do with my marital problems?" must be answered by 1) understanding the Scriptural context of the passage in light of the entirety of Scripture (how the Gospel of John unfolds in a manner similar to the creation narrative, and how the Wedding Feast of Cana is situated in this context), 2) what the Wedding Feast of Cana says in terms of the nature of marriage, and most importantly 3) how Christ, in this episode, relates to the Scriptural context (Water becomes wine as husband and wife become a "New Creation" effected and presided over by Christ Himself).

I know there are some gaps, but I think that's the gist of it. Without a solid philosophical interpretive key, the stories of Scripture would remain, well, just that.
Amen, to those remarks!

Source is Fr. Philip Neri Powell, O.P., Ph.D.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Private Litany of Humility — People For Others

Are you thinking about New Year's resolutions? Check this out for some good ideas under the categories of Christian spirituality and virtue.

A Private Litany of Humility — People For Others

Why I Am Catholic: Because My Pope Said This

On an almost daily basis I like to read the blog started by Webster Bull and who has been joined by Frank Weathers. Both men are converts to the Catholic faith from Protestant backgrounds, and the blog is called Why I Am Catholic. Each and every post gives a reason why each has chosen the Catholic faith. Having been a Catholic since my infancy, I find it interesting to learn why others have freely chosen to become Catholic. While I am well-versed and well-educated in the Catholic faith, I learn so much from listening to the stories of those who found the faith later in life.

The post I highlight here was written by Webster, and it is about his admiration for our current pope, whom he calls, My Pope. In it he quotes from a series of interviews of the pope when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger by Peter Seewald. I, too, admire our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, and I love to wrap my mind around his writings.

Here is an excerpt from the post. I have color coded the three parts: green = Peter Seewald, black = Webster Bull, and red = Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

In the course of two thousand years of Christian history, the Church has divided time and again. In the meantime, there are around three hundred distinguishable Protestant, Orthodox, or other churches. There are way over a thousand Baptist groups in the United States. Over against these there is still the Roman Catholic Church with the pope at her head, which claims to be the only true Church. She remains at any rate, and despite every crisis, indeed the most universal, historically significant, and successful Church in the world, with more members today than at any time in her history.

This question asked by a skeptical young journalist, no Catholic at the time he asked it, might seem to be what Frank would call a “fat pitch.” Did Ratzinger, in his answer, knock Protestantism out of the park in a grand slam of triumphalism? No, the cardinal laid down a thoughtful bunt single—then stole second, third, and home:

I think that in the spirit of Vatican II we ought not to see that as a triumph for our prowess as Catholics and ought not to make much of the institutional and numerical strength we continue to enjoy. If we were to reckon that as our achievement and as our right, then we would step outside the role of a people belonging to God and set ourselves up as an association in our own right. And that can very quickly go wrong. A Church may have great institutional power in a country, but as soon as faith is no longer there to back it up, the institution will break down.

Perhaps you know the mediaeval story of a Jew who traveled to the papal court and who became a Catholic. On his return, someone who knew the papal court well asked him: “Do you realize what sort of things are going on there?” “Yes,” he said, “of course, quite scandalous things, I saw it all.” “And you still became a Catholic,” remarked the other man. “That’s completely perverse!” Then the Jew said, “It is because of all that that I have become a Catholic. For if the Church continues to exist in spite of it all, then truly there must be someone upholding her.” And there is another story, to the effect that Napoleon once declared that he would destroy the Church. Whereupon one of the cardinals replied, “Not even we have managed that!”

I believe that we see something important in these paradoxical tales. There have in fact always been plenty of human monstrosities in the Catholic Church. That she still holds together, even if she groans and creaks, that she is still in existence, that she produces great martyrs and great believers, people who put their whole lives at her service, as missionaries, as nurses, as teachers, that really does show that there is someone there upholding her.

We cannot, then, reckon the Church’s success as our own reward, but we may still say, with Vatican II—even if the Lord has given a great deal of life to other churches and communities—that the Church herself, as an active agent, has survived and is present in this agent. And that can only be explained by the fact that He grants what men cannot achieve.
H/T: Why I Am Catholic: Because My Pope Said This

Monday, December 28, 2009

Who did Adam & Eve's Children Marry?

Fr. Robert Simon blogs using the pseudonym, Reverend Know-it-all. That's a clue that he writes truth in a humorous way. Sunday he responded to a child's question concerning the marriages of the children of Adam and Eve. In answering he touches on the topic of Biblical interpretation. How are we to understand the Bible as God's Word? Especially, in this context, how are we to understand the early chapters of Genesis? The following is an excerpt of Fr. Simon's response.

The Bible isn’t a history textbook, though it has history in it. It is God’s commentary on the nature of humanity. I’ve said it before and will say it again. The Bible, especially the first chapters of the Bible, are God’s view of real events. He sees them in a fuller and more meaningful way than we can. Perhaps Adam and Eve were a couple of cave persons. God saw more. Perhaps the ark was a flat boat on a flooded Mesopotamian plain. God saw more. Perhaps the Tower of Babel was just a three-story mud hut where a family had a really bad fight. God saw more. Perhaps Abraham was just a greasy desert wanderer. God saw more. Perhaps you and I and your little students are just short-lived blips in the cosmic scheme of things. God sees more.

That’s the point. We look at things and pretend we can take in the whole reality. We can’t. That’s why God gives an interpretation of these great realities and then says, “Trust me.” He tells us just enough to get us to heaven. We want to pick apart the text in a way hides its meaning rather than reveals its meaning. I’m not saying that scholarship is a bad thing. The more we understand about the language and the context of the Scriptures, the more fully we will be able to hear what the Holy Spirit is telling us. However, a lot of so-called scholarship assumes that if you can’t see it or touch it, it isn’t real and has no meaning. That was the very sin of Adam and Eve, the original sin.

Read the text before you pull it apart. Eve looked at the fruit of the tree and saw that it was good for food and for the gaining of knowledge. In other words she believed that she would be God’s equal and not have to be His child. She would no longer have to trust Him. So it is with us old folks, and believe me I have met some very old fourth graders, real cynics. Mary, our Blessed Mother, when confronted with an impossibility, “Behold the Holy Spirit will overshadow you” said. “Okay. I’ll trust God. Whatever He wants.” The new Eve trusted. The old Eve connived. What the text says is so much more important than what the text leaves out. When the devil gets us to look at what the text doesn’t say, he manages to keep us from hearing what the text says and says so beautifully.

I am reminded of W.C. Fields, the great comedian. A friend came to visit it him as he lay dying. He found Fields reading the Bible. He said “I thought you didn’t believe any of the that stuff. Why are you reading the Bible?” Fields responded, “I’m looking for loopholes....” Sometimes, when we try to find out what the Bible doesn’t say instead of hearing what it says, we are doing exactly the same thing, looking for loopholes.

As I have said before, some people have the souls of poets, others have the souls of appliance repairmen. When a poet says “her lips were like roses, her eyes like flame,” the literalist will say, “How did she keep from burning her eyebrows? And did she have thorns to go with roses? That’s gotta hurt.”

So tell your little cynics this: God only tells us the things in the Bible that we need to know. When science describes things one way and the Bible describes them another way, God is being a little bit poetic in order to help us understand, but He’s telling us more about the story than even scientists can.
Reverend Know-it-all: Who did Adam & Eve's children marry?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Taking a Hiatus from Blogging

There are just 10 or 11 days left until Christmas, depending on how you count. I will refrain from doing any blogging for the duration. I need some solitude to stay in the Advent spirit and to prepare my mind and heart to welcome the Divine Infant.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Saint John of the Cross

The universal Church honors Saint John of the Cross tomorrow. St. John is a Catholic Carmelite Doctor of the Church, and a giant in the field of mystical theology. For a brief summary of his life go here: St. John of the Cross | Saint of the Day | This quotation resonated with me:
John in his life and writings has a crucial word for us today. We tend to be rich, soft, comfortable. We shrink even from words like self-denial, mortification, purification, asceticism, discipline. We run from the cross. John’s message—like the gospel—is loud and clear: Don’t—if you really want to live!
This past week I realized what a comfortable and soft lifestyle I live when a snowstorm felled trees and left us without power for a day. We had no modern conveniences except indoor plumbing, minus hot water, and cell phones. By dusk we had to use candles. We wrapped ourselves with layers of clothes and blankets to stay warm. There was no television, radio, or Internet to keep us entertained or informed.

I stared at the burning candles and simply pondered what life was like for our ancestors of a hundred years ago or more. Their ability to survive was more challenging than ours. It certainly built character. So, as the hours passed my husband and I tried to take the inconveniences in stride. But there was much uncertainty about just when power would be restored. So, we ventured out and looked for a hotel. I think Saint John might have been more willing to embrace the cross that had been handed to us, whereas we were more willing to avoid it when we had the opportunity.

In the remaining days of Advent I will take a closer look at how the Lord invites me to carry the crosses of daily life, both large and small. Saint John would encourage that. Saint John of the Cross, pray for me, and pray for all of us.

For more details about Saint John's life and works look here, and here.

Images: top, left: Saint John of the Cross; bottom, center: St. John's drawing of Christ on the Cross

Happy Saint Lucy Day!

Image of Saint Lucy from Holy Cards for Your Inspiration

There is a good summary of what is known about St. Lucy at the Saint of the Day webpage at Here is an excerpt:
The single fact survives that a disappointed suitor accused Lucy of being a Christian and she was executed in Syracuse (Sicily) in the year 304. But it is also true that her name is mentioned in the First Eucharistic Prayer, geographical places are named after her, a popular song has her name as its title and down through the centuries many thousands of little girls have been proud of the name Lucy.

Because her feast day falls on a Sunday, the Sunday liturgy supersedes that of this saint.