Over the past year, I have made slow progress toward deepening my grasp of moral philosophy. As a philosopher, I am still not ready to join all the discussions that swirl around the Internet.
But when people began to wrangle about Pope Francis’s comments on the death penalty, I noticed a few points that I could contribute as a theologian. Here are some key lines from the Holy Father’s remarks:
It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity. It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which—ultimately—only God is the true judge and guarantor.
St. Augustine was confident that the Beatitudes are the key to the Sermon on the Mount. They lay out the goal toward which the entire Christian life—and so, implicitly, the entire Sermon—is ordered, and they describe the person who attains the goal. When Augustine commented on the Our Father, the model for all Christian prayer, he was similarly confident that the Beatitudes must somehow be the key. Our prayer should be directed to the goal of our life, right?
This past week, I took part in the continual feast that was the Wyoming School of Catholic Thought. All us profs were asked to bring a side, so my contribution was a lecture on “The Life of Moses.”
In just under an hour, I recounted the story of Moses in a way that not only pulls his “biography” together but also provides a key to the story of the Exodus. You can download the lecture here, or listen using this audio player (you can’t see the audio player while viewing this post in your e-mail):
I had dreamed that today, as I turn 40 years old, I would ship out my finished book to a publisher. But God had other plans. As I round the pole and head on back toward the finish line of life, I have:
a beautiful, snugly baby boy
two (close to three!) teenagers who enjoy me and like to talk with me
a whole pack of middle kids who want to sing songs and hear stories
fifty or so fun and thoughtful students who are committed to learning (except for the day before Thanksgiving Break)
a new lead on solving these health issues
a wife who is still sane despite everything I just listed.
Oh, and I have a draft of the book. It’s a theology of Scripture inspired by St. Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine. Footnotes need work (bother footnotes), and the last chapter is just a ta-a-ad incomplete, but it’s a book.
Emotion colors perception wonderfully. The same aspen tree, with the same white bark and the same golden leaves fluttering in the same wind, is one tree to the moonstruck lover, another tree to the poet in search of joy, and still a third to the dismal soul doubting whether life has meaning. The same sensory input offers either a happy companion, or a wistful finger pointing to another realm, or a bleached-out bit of wood. Continue reading “The color of reading”
While Mark’s beginning is strange to those who think about it carefully, his ending is strange to anyone who reads. In the oldest and best manuscripts, Mark’s Gospel ends like this:
And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.
That’s it. No meeting the resurrected Jesus, no moment of glory, not even a moment when the petrified women actually tell someone what happened. “They were afraid”—and the curtains drop.
The longer ending printed in our Bibles was written very, very early on, so early that it is canonical and considered an inspired text in its own right. But the very fact that the longer ending is so ancient demonstrates that even the earliest Church found Mark’s ending strange. No resurrection scene? We gotta fix that.
The first verse of Mark’s Gospel poses a question. “The beginning of the gospel,” it says, “of Jesus Christ the son of God.” Of course this is the beginning: it’s the first verse, after all. But Mark goes out of his way to insist that this right here, this thing he is about to say, is “the beginning of the gospel.” This is where the story starts.
What is even more curious, Mark then begins his gospel from a point no one else would choose. Matthew and Luke start with Jesus’ conception and infancy, and John takes us back to Jesus’ pre-existence with the Father before time began. I have asked groups of students to outline what they would put in their ideal gospel, and every group has shown the same inclination to seek out roots: they want a gospel that tells more about Jesus’ childhood, or more about Mary’s family, or more about Joseph, or more about the eternal life of the Trinity. Everyone thinks the gospel story should somehow introduce us to Jesus by explaining his background.
But Mark insists that “the beginning of the gospel” is Jesus’ baptism under John the Baptist. After introducing John the Baptist, Mark has Jesus simply show up, without explanation, and then the heavens are torn open, the Spirit descends, and the voice says, “This is my beloved son.”
Over the past two weeks, I have led four groups through an intensive four-day introduction to Mark’s Gospel. We looked at how Mark presents Jesus’ geographical movements, the development of characters, the structure of the story, and the peculiar “shorter ending” of Mark. The high point of the class was a read-aloud of the whole text.
Most Christians did not own a copy of the Bible prior to the invention of the printing press. Manuscript copies had in fact become more common in the centuries leading up to that point, but in the early Church owning even one book of the Bible was rare. Mark’s original congregation would normally have experienced his Gospel by hearing it.
By chance, a senior at WCC saw me in the office hallway yesterday and hailed me down. Would I be able to tell him anything about the book of Hosea?
A good teacher never just answers the question, but asks more questions to find out what was behind the question. As it turned out, this student was inspired by my recent lecture, by the earlier lecture by Tim Gray, and by a chance exchange with another professor—inspired, he said, to read the Bible as addressed personally to him. In other words, he had begun to practice lectio divina. Continue reading “Funny things happen when you try lectio divina”