Three notes on the death penalty

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.

This is a strong argument, to be sure.  I hope to do some justice to the strength of the argument below.  But as a Catholic biblical scholar, I see three points that might deserve consideration: Continue reading “Three notes on the death penalty”

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The Life of Moses

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.”

Moses_Lecture
Photo credit: Wyoming Catholic College

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):

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The color of reading

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”

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The Strange Beginning of Mark’s Gospel

[This is the second in a three-part series on Mark’s Gospel.  The other parts are 1. Hearing Mark’s Gospel and 3. The Strange Ending of Mark’s Gospel.]

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.”

Why is this scene so important, so pivotal, that this and no other is “the beginning of the gospel”?  Mark gives us seven clues: Continue reading “The Strange Beginning of Mark’s Gospel”

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Funny things happen when you try lectio divina

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?

Lectio DivinaA 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”

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How Noah brought home the bacon: the riddle of Genesis 5:29

I love senior thesis time at Wyoming Catholic College. Students jump in over their heads, take on bold ideas, thrash around, and eventually ask their teachers the most wonderful, fundamental, and challenging questions. This year one of the women is writing about how the Eucharist relates to the importance of food in general—how cool is that?—and found herself dealing with the passage in Genesis 9 where Noah receives permission to eat meat. Her thesis director sent her to me for help, and….

Well, it’s time to expose myself. For years now I have read that passage in a way I have never seen in any commentary and yet in a way which seems more obvious to me with time. Never having an occasion to talk about it, I have never bothered to submit my interpretation to scrutiny and possible refutation. Maybe I have been deluded all this time? Maybe I’m off the map? Or maybe, just maybe, I’m on to something? Judge for yourself. This write-up is for Alexis. Continue reading “How Noah brought home the bacon: the riddle of Genesis 5:29”

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The Breath of Adam

[This is the second in a series of posts about the Holy Spirit. To see the first post, click here.]

My last post on the Holy Spirit had to do with how God brings things into some share in his word. Once God has already brought things to a share in his wisdom through the Spirit, we find that texts about the Holy Spirit fall under a second heading. Genesis 2 portrays God giving life to the first man by breathing into him a breath of life, suggesting that the life of the man is a share in God’s own breath. The word for “breath” there is not the same word in Hebrew as the word for “spirit” in Gen 1:2, but one could surmise a connection. Psalm 104 is more explicit: the psalmist says about created, living things, “When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” (Psalm 104:29-30) Here the word for breath is ruah both times, and the connection is clear: God sends forth his breath and renews the breath of life in animals and men.

When God creates us to begin with, we have no say in the matter: God brings us into being on the pattern of his Wisdom through his Spirit without any prior contribution on our part. But once we exist as a share in the life of the Son, we also have a share in the life of the Spirit. As God has a “breath” within him, so creatures have a “breath” or impulse within them through which they move and act. And so we find a second set of “Spirit texts” in which creatures are said to have something in them that resembles procession of the Holy Spirit.

Paul speaks of something like this in his first letter to the Corinthians, asking, “For what person knows a man’s thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” (1Cor 2:11) Paul takes for granted a parallel between “God’s Spirit” and “the spirit of the man which is in him”. While the Spirit’s impulse brings a man into existence on the pattern of son, even on the natural level, on that same natural level a man has in him an impulse and a life that is like the Holy Spirit. In a parallel way, while reception of the grace of the Holy Spirit conforms one to the Incarnate Word, so the indwelling of the Spirit causes one to live and act as he did (see for example Roman 8, especially verses 9 through 11).

Despite the scarcity and vagueness of texts about the Holy Spirit, the conclusions I have drawn in this post and the previous one seem clear from Scripture: when we look at how God creates the world, we see him driving things toward the pattern of his Son as though by a might wind; when we look at creatures already living in the world, we see that their own interior impulse toward their fulfilment—and ultimately, toward the glory of God—is a likeness of the Holy Spirit.

Next time, I’ll take a look at what all this means about God’s own interior life, that is, the Trinity.

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The Breath of the Word

[The is the second in a series of posts about the Holy Spirit.  To see the second post, click here.]

For the Scripture project, I will eventually have to write about the Holy Spirit: Scripture = in-spired = in-spirited = from-the-Holy-Spirit. So I have to, but I’ll admit that it’s an intimidating assignment.

Compared to the Holy Spirit, revelation concerning the Son of God is pretty clear. “Son” is a word we use all the time, and its everyday use clearly illuminates its meaning in theology. The Son became a man like us, walking around and talking in plain language just so we would know him. The New Testament features lengthy and carefully written passages directly about the mystery of the Incarnation, such as the prologue to the Gospel of John or the hymn in Philippians 2. In the end, the procession of the Son is a mystery, for sure, but as mysteries go it is nicely laid out.

The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is mysterious from beginning to end. Even the word “spirit” is less than clear: what are we supposed to make of the “breath of God”? Everybody knows that a son is a person; what do we say about a hypostatic wind? What’s more, the biblical witness concerning the Spirit is scattered over innumerable books of the Old and New Testament, with no one passage simply opening the mystery in an overt way. One is left to gather the pieces together as best as one can.

All that said, I hope to offer an approach that seems to me both faithful to the biblical witness and complementary to the interpretations offered by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. The result will inevitably be a little less than satisfying, because the basis for any interpretation of the Holy Spirit is so vague and scattered to begin with, but there is no way around making the attempt.

My idea starts with the notion that the Son is the wisdom of God, the Father’s interior Word, the pattern to which God looks in creating the world. That much is clear from Scripture. From there, I think we can gather up what Scripture says about the Spirit under two headings, the first of which I’ll present in this post. Continue reading “The Breath of the Word”

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Some thoughts on goodness

One thing I hope to do for myself in my Scripture project is to take various principles that have been at play in my mind for many years and put them in order. Which ones are more fundamental? Which ones are in fact governed by others? What relationships emerge?

A strong contender for “central principle” is the notion of a “common good.” By a common good, I mean a good that can be shared among many persons without in any way being diminished or divided. Let me unpack that idea a bit.

A cookie is not a common good; it is a private good. My cookie can only be shared by breaking it into parts so that I get less cookie at the end of the deal. And when you look more closely, it turns out cookie isn’t really sharable: the part you get is a part I can’t have, and the part Choco_chip_cookieI keep is a part you will never eat. What I really do when I break my cookie up is I create a bunch of smaller things, and then I keep one of them and I give others away. So I can give cookie away, but I can’t share it.

Friendship is a common good. Not only can I share my friendship with a friend, I can’t actually have friendship without sharing it. My portion of it is not diminished when another’s is increased; instead, my portion is actually increased by sharing it more. Of course, the kind of friendship we usually have in mind when we use the word is not a perfectly common good: a person can have only a few very close friends, and even though it is perfectly shared between them there is a limit to how many people can share in it.

But this is to be expected. Goods come in different kinds, and they fall on a spectrum from purely private to most common and everywhere in between. Any time we find a common good, we’ll find that even though it is common it has its limits. It will be more or less sharable, and more or less diminished when it is shared. The common good of the United States of America, for example, even though it is a great good and much more “sharable without diminution” than my personal friendships, can only extend to its people; the good folks in Argentina are excluded.

The reason is simply that goods fall on a range from less good to most good and everywhere in between. A good that is better is, so to speak, more powerfully burningsungood. As a hotter fire not only heats a person up more but also heats up more people, so a better good is not only better for a person but is a good for more people: it is more common. So more common goods are better goods, and the better a good is the more common it will be.

The only absolutely common good is the good that is goodness itself: God. Every creature in the entire universe has God as its good; in fact, every conceivable creature in every conceivable universe would have God as its good, because his goodness is never used up, so to speak, by what he has created. God is not only the good of every person, but he is more intimately the good of each person than that person’s best friends. God can be not only the friend but even the lover of every person in creation, and it never dilutes,  the way human friendship dilutes when spread too far.

But revelation tells us there is even more. Even though reason rightly tells us that there is only one God, one being that is the source of every being and one good that is the good of every good, still revelation tells us that three persons are this one being. The word “share” explodes at this point, because the three persons are each identical with the divine being rather than sharing in it, but something happens that is more “sharing” than sharing itself. Rather than three friends who each have a share in the group’s friendship, and rather than three citizens who each have a share in the country’s peace, there are three persons who are each identical with the divine goodness without being identical to each other.

Fallen creatures that we are, this is the opposite of what we expected. We listened to the voice of the serpent, who whispered to us that God clings jealously to his divinity, that he wants no one but himself to be like God. But when the second person of the Trinity at last came to respond to the serpent, he did not think equality with God something to be grasped at, to be clutched like a merely private good: rather, he emptied himself, and took the form of a servant. The Incarnation of the Word revealed the Word’s eternal way of being, as the unimaginably best and therefore inconceivably communicable good.

Our reason cannot grasp it, and our sinful inclinations run counter to it, but the revelation of the Trinity tells us clearly: Goodness is even better than we thought.

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Good eisegesis

Yesterday, I described a “magic” that happens with writing.  Along the way, I mentioned the particular magic that seems to happen when you practice eisegesis, that is, “reading into” the text instead of just “receiving from” the text, or exegesis.

It’s a phenomenon related to what I have called the Reality Enhancement Factor.  We are built to see a dim and sketchy scene and flesh it out mentally until everything seems clear and bright.  Even though this can lead us astray if we lack self-awareness, it can also draw our attention to important facts:  what was first a guess, a creative filling of the gap, makes us pay closer attention to evidence that is actually there and verifies the guess.

The act of making up a story kicks the REF into high gear.  Consequently, the story writer who starts from a biblical text is not turning on a faculty of creation ex nihilo, but what turns out to be a faculty built for seeing things.  Eisegesis can yield exegesis.

Done in the right spirit, eisegesis can yield striking insights because it is an exercise of creativity within limits.  It begins with the text as a given set of dots and tries to connect them to make a picture; it begins with the text as a series of pictures and tries to supply the story line.  In one way or another, creativity goes places it would never have gone without the specific limits imposed by this particular text, and the eisegete actually learns from his reading.  Anyone who has done creative work knows what I mean.

As a result, the text itself ends up expressing itself through the eisegete’s work.  Good reading into the text does not dominate in the end but serves it.

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