Archive for February, 2010


Faith and Revelation: A Primer

February 26, 2010
Caravaggio, The Crowning With Thorns

Caravaggio, The Crowning With Thorns

Fr. Larry Young of Our Lady’s Church at Medley’s Neck in Maryland put this together. Puts the cart and horse together rather nicely.

 Man can have true knowledge of his Creator through his experience of creation, apart from supernatural revelation.

  • “The same holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God, the origin and end of all things, can be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason from the things that he created”
    (Vatican I, Dei Filius, 58)
  • “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.”
    (Romans 1:20)
  • “From the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.”
    (Wisdom 13:5)
  • “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork… There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”
    (Psalm 19:1-4)

Man is severely limited in his capacity to know God without the help of supernatural revelation.

  • “Only God possesses a comprehensive knowledge of God; for the infinite Being can be completely comprehended by an Infinite Intellect only.”
    (Dr. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 1,2,3)
  • “Our intellect is related to the prime beings, which are most evident in their nature, as the eye of an owl is related to the sun.”
    (Aristotle, Metaphysics, Ia, 1)
  • “Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty? It is higher than heaven— what can you do?… Behold, God is great, and we know him not”
    (Job 11:7; 36:26)
  • “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
    (Isaiah 55:8-9)
  • “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”
    (Romans 11:33-34)
  • “If this truth were left solely as a matter of inquiry for the human reason, three awkward consequences would follow. The first is that few men would possess the knowledge of God… Some do not have the physical disposition for such work… Some men must devote themselves to taking care of temporal matters… Finally, there are some who are cut off by sloth… The second awkward effect is that those who would come to discover the abovementioned truth would barely reach it after a great deal of time… If the only way open to us for the knowledge of God were solely that of reason, the human race would remain in the blackest shadows of ignorance. For the knowledge of God, which especially renders men perfect and good, would come to be possessed only by a few, and these few would require a great deal of time in order to reach it… The third awkward effect is this. The investigation of the human reason for the most part has falsity present within it, and this is partly due to the weakness of our intellect in judgment, and partly to the admixture of images. ”
    (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 4, 2-5)
  • “Our knowledge is imperfect… For now we see in a mirror dimly… Now I know in part”
    (1 Corinthians 13:9-12)

Man, as a fundamentally religious being, instinctively seeks revelation. In his acknowledgment of the deep mystery that encompasses him he looks for the will or the word of another to offer meaning, explanation, direction, help, assurance, salvation. This is evident in his endless and timeless pursuit of: fortune telling, horoscopes, channeling spirits, clairvoyance, magic, casting of lots, omens, oracles, signs, portents, interpretations of dreams. He seems to be aware at some base level of his limitations in and of himself, to understand the answers to the ultimate questions that haunt him.

  • “In many ways, throughout history down to the present day, men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behavior: in their prayers, sacrifices, rituals, meditations, and so forth. These forms of religious expression, despite the ambiguities they often bring with them, are so universal that one may very well call man a religious being.”
    (CCC, 28)
  • “From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him— though indeed he is not far from each of us. For ‘in him we live and move and have our being.’ (Acts 17:26-28)”
    (CCC, 28)
  • “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
    (St. Augustine, The Confessions, I,1,1)

In His divine wisdom, God chose to reveal Himself in ways that far surpass man’s natural ability to know Him.

  • “Man experiences many difficulties in coming to know God by the light of reason alone… This is why man stands in need of being enlightened by God’s revelation”
    (CCC, 37-38)
  • “It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should by a knowledge revealed by God, besides philosophical science built up by human reason… Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and then after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might by brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation.
    (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I,1,1)
  • “By natural reason man can know God with certainty, on the basis of his works. But there is another order of knowledge, which man cannot possibly arrive at by his own powers: the order of divine Revelation.”
    (CCC, 50)
  • “Man’s faculties make him capable of coming to a knowledge of the existence of a personal God. But for man to be able to enter into real intimacy with him, God willed both to reveal himself to man and to give him the grace of being able to welcome this revelation in faith.”
    (CCC, 35)

God teaches and leads the human race back to Himself patiently and mercifully like a Father training up child.

  • “The divine plan of Revelation… involves a specific divine pedagogy: God communicates himself to man gradually. He prepares him to welcome by stages the supernatural Revelation that is to culminate in the person and mission of the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.”
    (CCC, 53)
  • “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you.”
    (Deuteronomy 8:5)

God humbles himself to speak to us in our own human language.

  • “In order to reveal himself to men, in the condescension of his goodness God speaks to them in human words: ‘Indeed the words of God, expressed in the words of men, are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like men.”
    (Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 13; CCC, 101)

God speaks to us through both word and deed.

  • “This economy of Revelation is realized by deeds and words, which are intrinsically bound up with each other. As a result, the works performed by God in the history of salvation show forth and bear out the doctrine and realities signified by the words; the words, for their part, proclaim the works, and bring to light the mystery they contain.” (Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 2)
  • “The economy of the Old Testament was deliberately so orientated that it should prepare for and declare in prophecy the coming of Christ, redeemer of all men, and of the messianic kingdom, and should indicate it by means of different types.”
    (Vatican I, Dei Verbum, 15)
  • “The ancient Jews discerned deeper currents of divine purpose and action in history. And tracing such currents calls for faith in God’s providential governance of nature and the events of history… the prophetic nature of the biblical narrative of salvation history must be understood… In other words, God ‘writes’ the world like men write words, to convey truth and love. So nature and history are more than just created things— God fashions them as visible signs of other things… This is the purpose and value of typology, which studies how Christ was foreshadowed in the Old Testament (Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Melchizedek, Passover Lamb, temple), thereby revealing the profound unity of the Old and New Covenants. Thus, typology is what enables us to discern ‘in God’s works of the Old Covenant prefigurations of what he accomplished in the fullness of time in the person of his incarnate Son.’”
    (Dr. Scott Hahn, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, 21-23)
  • “This catechesis unveils what lay hidden under the letter of the Old Testament: the mystery of Christ. It is called ‘typological’ because it reveals the newness of Christ on the basis of the ‘figures’ (types) which announce him in the deeds, words, and symbols of the first covenant. By this re-reading in the Spirit of Truth, starting from Christ, the figures are unveiled. Thus the flood and Noah’s ark prefigured salvation by Baptism, as did the cloud and the crossing of the Red Sea. Water from the rock was the figure of the spiritual gifts of Christ, and manna in the desert prefigured the Eucharist, ‘the true bread from heaven’.”
    (CCC, 1094)

Faith is required of us to embrace this Divine Revelation, but this faith rests on the absolute authority of God as the One who is revealing.

  • “What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe ‘because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive or be deceived.’”
    (CCC, 156)
  • “Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie. To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but ‘the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives.’”
    (CCC, 157)
  • “That your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God… we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification… God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 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. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit. The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned… But we have the mind of Christ.”
    (1 Corinthians 2:5-16)

The Characteristics of faith:

  • “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”.
    (Hebrews 11:1)
  • “Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed.”
    (CCC, 150)
  • “Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him.”
    (CCC, 153)
  • “Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace.”
    (St. Thomas Aquinas, ST, II-II,2,9)
  • “Man’s response to God by faith must be free, and… therefore nobody is to be forced to embrace the faith against his will. The act of faith is of its very nature a free act.”
    (Dignitatis Humanae, 10)
  • “Faith is man’s response to God, who reveals himself and gives himself to man, at the same time bringing man a superabundant light as he searches for the ultimate meaning of his life.”
    (CCC, 26)
  • “To live, grow, and persevere in the faith until the end we must nourish it with the word of God; we must beg the Lord to increase our faith; it must be ‘working through charity’ (Galatians 5:6), abounding in hope, and rooted in the faith of the Church.”
    (CCC, 162)

Faith and reason are complimentary and mutually beneficial in coming to knowledge of God. They both ultimately arrive at the same truth, but one through the supernatural help of grace and the other through our own natural efforts.

  • “The proofs of God’s existence, however, can predispose one to faith and help one to see that faith is not opposed to reason.”
    (CCC, 35)
  • “Faith presupposes natural knowledge, even as grace presupposes nature, and perfection supposes something that can be perfected.”
    (St. Thomas Aquinas, ST, I,2,2)
  • “Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.”
    (Vatican Council, Dei Filius, 4)
  • “For although faith is above reason, still there can never be found a real opposition or disagreement between them, since both take their origin from one and the same source of unchangeable and eternal truth, the great and good God; and thus they are mutually helpful. As a result, right reason demonstrates, safeguards, and defends the truth of faith, while faith frees reason from all errors and wonderfully enlightens it, strengthens it, and perfects it with a knowledge of divine things.”
    (Pope Pius IX, Qui Pluribus, 1635)
  • “’Faith seeks understanding’: it is intrinsic to faith that a believer desires to know better the One in whom he has put his faith and to understand better what He has revealed; a more penetrating knowledge will in turn call forth a greater faith, increasingly set afire by love. The grace of faith opens ‘the eyes of your hearts’ to a lively understanding of the contents of Revelation… In the words of St. Augustine, ‘I believe in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe.’”
    (CCC, 158)
  • “And Trypho said, ‘Look, my friend, you made yourself master of these truths with much labor and toil. And we accordingly must diligently scrutinize all that we meet with, in order to give our assent to those things which the Scriptures compel us to believe”
    (St. Justin Martyr, The Dialogue with Trypho, 68)

In Gods plan of Revelation he willed that there be aspects that remain accessible to our natural power of reason in order to confirm us in our faith.

  • “So that the submission of our faith might nevertheless be in accordance with reason, God willed that external proofs of his Revelation should be joined to the internal helps of the Holy Spirit. Thus the miracles of Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church’s growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability are the most certain signs of divine Revelation, adapted to the intelligence of all; they are ‘motives of credibility’, which show that the assent of faith is by no means a blind impulse of the mind.”
    (CCC, 156)
  • “The signs worked by Jesus attest that the Father has sent him. They invite belief in him. To those who turn to him in faith, he grants what they ask. So miracles strengthen faith in the One who does his Father’s works; they bear witness that he is the Son of God.”
    (CCC, 548)
  • “That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about the things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him… And he said to them, ‘O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!…’ And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself… They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?’”
    (Luke 24:13-35)
  • “There existed, long before this time, certain men more ancient than all those who are esteemed philosophers, both righteous and beloved by God, who spoke by the Divine Spirit, and foretold events which would take place, and which are now taking place. They are called prophets. These alone both saw and announced the truth to men, neither reverencing nor fearing any man, not influenced by a desire for glory, but speaking those things alone which they saw and which they heard, being filled with the Holy Spirit. Their writings are still extent, and he who has read them is very much helped in his knowledge of the beginning and end of things, and of those matters which the philosopher ought to know, provided he has believed them. For they did not use demonstration in their treatises, seeing that they were witnesses to the truth above all demonstration, and worthy of belief; and those events which have happened, and those which are happening, compel you to assent to the utterances made by them, although, indeed, they were entitled to credit on account of the miracles which they performed, since they both glorified the Creator, the God and Father of all things, and proclaimed His Son, the Christ [sent] by Him: which, indeed, the false prophets, who are filled with the lying unclean spirit, neither have done nor do, but venture to work certain wonderful deeds for the purpose of astonishing men, and glorify the spirits and demons of error.”
    (St. Justin Martyr, DT, 7)

Jesus Christ is the fullness of Revelation.

  • “The Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book,’ Christianity is the religion of the ‘Word’ of God, not a written and mute word, but incarnate and living.”
    (CCC, 108)
  • “Through all the words of Sacred Scripture, God speaks only one single Word, his one Utterance in whom he expresses himself completely.”
    (CCC, 102)
  • “Christ’s whole earthly life— his words and deeds, his silences and sufferings, indeed his manner of being and speaking— is Revelation of the Father.”
    (CCC, 516)
  • “No one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
    (Matthew 11:27)
  • “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.”
    (John 1:18)
  • “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him.”
    (John 14:6-7)
  • “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
    (2 Corinthians 4:6)
  • “For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
    Ephesians 1:9-10)
  • “In giving us his Son, his only Word (for he possesses no other), he spoke everything all at once in this sole Word— and he has no more to say… because what he spoke before to the prophets in parts, he has now spoken all at once by giving us the All Who is His Son. Any person questioning God or desiring some vision or revelation would be guilty not only of foolish behavior, but also of offending him, by not fixing his eyes entirely upon Christ and by living with the desire for some other novelty.”
    (St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, 2,22,3-5)
  • “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life.”
    (CCC, 1)

A Biblical Renewal In The Catholic Church

February 25, 2010

Dr. Mary Healy

The following is adapted from an interview Irene Lagan did with Mary Healy and formed the basis of a 2008 ZENIT article. One of the difficulties I have found in learning my faith is the absence of well written, insightful exegesis. It is as though I almost run across it from time to time rather than knowing where to find it. If I were younger, I might be inspired enough to pursue a few degrees that would help me interpret scripture but I’m just old enough to know that there are too many trees in that forest and I would get sidetracked. Instead I just want a few AH moments when I read about scripture, times when I realize what the Lord meant.

For example, I know very few people who truly understand the beatitudes and are not really moved by Fr. Barron’s writings on them. You can find that, about a third of the page down, under Addiction And The Beatitudes here. The Chesterton quote there is also amazing.  Why are those things so rare though? Why have so few been able to speak so openly and clearly? Why the gap between faith and exegesis? When the gap isn’t there, it as if we are walking down that road in Emmaus.


Although there has been increased interest in the Bible since the Second Vatican Council, most Catholics are still not “drinking deeply” of the Word of God, says theologian Mary Healy. Healy, an associate professor of sacred Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology is one of the two general editors of Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (CCSS), a series of 17 volumes of commentary on the books of the New Testament.

She is also the author of the first volume of the series on the Gospel of Mark. An example of her biblical exegesis, The Anointing at Bethany (Mark 14:3-9), follows this intro but I found an interview with her that brought up some very cogent points concerning Catholics and the Bible.

Healy is convinced that we’re on the verge of a biblical renewal in the Catholic Church, and that it will be part of the “new springtime” prophesied by Pope John Paul II. There is a growing recognition that Catholics need to become much more deeply rooted in the Word of God, and that preaching and theology need to be more thoroughly biblical. The world Synod of Bishop on the Word of God, which took place recently, is a sign of what a high priority this is for the Church.

Over the last half century there have been some tremendous advances in biblical scholarship, deepening our knowledge of the world of the Bible — its languages, customs, culture, and historical context. Yet at the same time there have been some missteps and some dead ends. One of them is a widening gap between exegesis and faith, due to the drastically mistaken idea that if we want to interpret the Bible objectively, we have to leave our faith at the door and read it like any ancient document.

There has also been a neglect of tradition: the great heritage of biblical interpretation by church fathers, saints and scholars who have prayed and studied the Bible and experienced its power over the last two millennia. We have lost sight of how to read Scripture as they did — as a living word from the heart of God.

There is a delight in studying Scripture and experiencing our “hearts burning within [us],” like the disciples who walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus.

Even though there has been a surge of interest in the Bible since Vatican II, there are few Catholics who actually read it on a regular basis, and even fewer who are familiar with its content. That means there is a spiritual hunger that is not being met, a “famine for hearing the word of the Lord” (Amos 8:11). And that situation has a dramatic impact on catechesis, theology, evangelization, spirituality and every aspect of the Church’s life.

“Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ,” as St. Jerome said. There is a weariness and boredom with the Catholic faith that comes with not drinking deeply of the Word on a regular basis.  Some modern Scripture scholars, such as, for example, N.T. Wright, have been promoting the idea of the story as an interpretive principle for understanding the message of the Gospel. Part of the crisis of our time is that people have lost a sense of the “grand narrative,” the storyline that makes sense of all history from creation to the end of time, and into which our own life stories are woven.

For Christians, of course, the center of history is Jesus Christ. Everything, both the past and future, finds its intelligibility in him, in the love of God that he revealed in his own flesh. That biblical worldview is what has shaped Christian culture for two millennia. When people lose a biblical worldview, they become much more vulnerable to the surrounding secular worldview, in which life is meaningless and the most important thing is to accumulate possessions and avoid suffering. So there is a real insight in the new methods of interpretation that study the Bible, and especially the Gospels, as narrative with all the elements of good narrative: plot, character, setting, point of view, and so on. There has been a lot of good fruit from these approaches.

But there have been many more dangers exposed. One danger is that people can sometimes so emphasize the idea of story that they neglect the fact that these narratives, for the most part, intend to report historical events. Christianity is about a fact — God entering time and space — not about a “narrative world.” Another danger is that the interpreter can sometimes substitute his own version of the storyline for the one given to us in the Bible itself.

Another mistake of many of the critical methods has been to dissect the Bible into small pieces and analyze each one separately in terms of its sources and historical background. But of course once you “dissect” something it is no longer alive!

It is no wonder that people have often found the results of these methods spiritually sterile and sometimes even damaging to faith. The opposite error –often in reaction to the first — is to treat the Bible as if there is nothing human about it and we can understand it without any regard for the human authors and their historical context. As Pope John Paul II once said, to do that is to fail to take seriously the realism of the incarnation.

We need to take full account of the twofold nature of Scripture as both divine and human, the Word of God in human words. That is the basic principle that the Church gives us in “Dei Verbum” (No. 12) and the Catechism (109-114). “Dei Verbum” presents a marvelous balance: It makes very clear that we need to take into ‘account all the human, historical aspects of the biblical text. “The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed … in the situation of his own time and culture” (“Dei Verbum, No. 12).

Some Catholics want to simply dispense with these methods. But the Council fathers recognized that to do that would be unfaithful to Scripture itself. Biblical inspiration is not dictation. In his wisdom, God chose to use human authors — Jews of particular time periods in history — with all their own thought processes, linguistic expressions, and cultural limitations. That is what makes interpreting the Bible so challenging, yet so fascinating!

Yet for Scripture to be understood adequately, it also must be “interpreted in the same spirit in which it was written.” For that, faith and prayer are necessary, and fidelity to the community of faith in which the Scriptures were formed, the Church.

There are many examples of the pastoral and theological questions that are relevant for Christian life today. For example, a theological question would be what does the Gospel narrative of the agony in the garden reveal about Jesus’ union with the Father, both in his eternal divine Sonship and in his human nature? There are pastoral questions, also, for example, what does the New Testament teach about marriage and parenting, and how can we apply those principles for a renewal of Catholic family life today.

There are apologetics questions — what are the biblical roots of Catholic teachings on the Virgin Mary, the sacraments, or the priesthood? There are questions touching on the spiritual life — what does the story of the Syrophoenician woman teach us about how to approach Jesus in faith? And overshadowing all these, what does Scripture reveal about Jesus Christ — who he is, what he did and said, what pleases him, and how we come to know him?

I think you will see a lot of the principles Ms Healy enunciated above in the following exegesis, The Anointing at Bethany (Mark 14:3-9). It comes from her book The Gospel of Mark, which is part of the projected 17 volume Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture.

The Anointing at Bethany (Mark 14:3-9)

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. 4But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. 8She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

In stark contrast to the malicious scheming of the thief priests and scribes (14:1-2) is the tender gesture of the anonymous woman recounted here, In his typical sandwich technique, Mark frames this story between the account of the treachery of the religious authorities (vv 1-2) and the treachery of Judas (vv. 10-11), accenting two diametrically opposed responses to Jesus. Those from whom we might naturally expect the most — the religious leaders and the specially chosen friends of Jesus — turn out to be the perpetrators of the worst evil. The woman, in contrast, represents the exemplary response of a disciple.

14:3 The anointing takes place in Bethany, where Jesus and his disciples are lodging during their stay in Jerusalem (11:11). Simon the leper may have been someone healed by Jesus and known by name to the early Church. That they were reclining at table suggests a formal banquet, and recalls the earlier scenes of Jesus’ table fellowship: his supper with sinners (2:15) and messianic banquets in the desert (6:35-44; 8:1-10). In the midst of the meal a woman comes onto the scene with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil. Mark does not tell us who the woman is (though John identifies her as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus; John 12:2-3). Nard, an aromatic oil made from a root native to India, appears in the Song of Songs as the bride’s perfume for the banquet of the king (Song 1:12). Such a treasure might have been a family heirloom. Completely unconcerned about expense or decorum, the woman breaks the alabaster jar and pours the perfumed oil on the head of Jesus. Her baldness in doing so, risk­ing the indignation of host and guests, stands out against the stealth of the chief priests and scribes (14:1). The word for break is literally “shatter”; the woman gives up any possibility of reusing the flask or saving some of its contents.

What did she mean by this gesture? On one level, it was her way of giving Jesus the very best she had. To anoint someone’s head with oil was a gracious and hospitable gesture (see Psalms 23:5; Luke 7:46). This woman must have experi­enced Jesus’ healing, forgiveness, or unconditional love, and wanted to express her love in return. But for Jews steeped in the Old Testament, to anoint the head with oil also has another unmistakable significance: it is the way to crown a king (1 Sam 10:1; 16:13) and to ordain a priest (Exodus 29:7). This woman’s gesture is a symbolic recognition of Jesus the messianic king and high priest! Although she may have been only vaguely aware of the significance of her act, Jesus recognized and affirmed it. It is the only time in the Gospel that he is literally anointed (the meaning of “messiah”), and it takes place just days before he completes his messianic mission.

14:4-5 But some of the banqueters, perhaps including the disciples (see Matt 26:8), are indignant at what they consider a breach of propriety and a waste of valuable resources. Mark notes the vehemence of their reaction by adding they were infuriated with her, which could also be translated “they snorted at her:’ “they rebuked her harshly” (NIV), or “they scolded her” (NRSV). On the surface their complaint may seem logical. Jesus, in the tradition of the Old Testament, had taught and modeled the importance of generosity to the poor (Mark 10:21; see Luke 14:13; 16:19-31). It was customary to give alms on feast days, and the Passover was near. But like the disciples on many occasions, the woman’s critics are oblivious to the true significance of what is happening (Mark 6:49, 52; 8:17; 10:13). “Waste” implies giving more than is due for something of little value. But how could anything given to the Messiah be a waste? The woman, with deep intuition, had recognized the primacy of devotion to Jesus over all other works of charity. With her gesture she proclaimed that Jesus is worthy of all, worthy of her whole life being poured out.

14:6-7 Jesus, in response, commends the woman and reproaches the grumbling men. They have no authorization to judge her according to their worldly reasoning. She has done a good thing (literally, a beautiful thing) for me — that is, she has shown Jesus the honor and devotion of which he is worthy. Jesus alludes to a teaching of Moses (Deuteronomy 15:11): The poor you will always have with you. This statement is in no way an excuse to ignore the plight of the poor. Jesus, like Moses, affirms that the perpetual presence of the poor, far from being a reason for complacency, is a constant reminder of our obligation to do good to them. God’s plan for human life is that no one be in need (Deuteronomy 15:4), but he wills to involve us in carrying out that plan. But Jesus now reveals what the critics have missed: you will not always have me. Like his earlier words about the bridegroom being taken away (Mark 2:20), it is a veiled prophecy of his passion.

14:8 Jesus then interprets the woman’s action: She has done what she could. Like the impoverished widow (12:44), she gave everything she had to give, holding nothing back, Where others were moderate, balanced, arid measured in their response to Jesus, this woman was extravagant: she poured out on him what was most precious to her. Moreover, her anointing was a prophetic gesture, anticipating his death. Because Jesus would die like a common criminal, his body would not be properly anointed for burial. In fact, the passion account ends with women going to anoint his body (16:1) — but only this woman succeeds, because she has done it beforehand. On a deeper level, she has prepared Jesus for his burial by affirming the unspeakable value of the life he was about to pour out. Whereas Peter had tried to hinder Jesus from his messianic vocation (8:32), this woman prophetically affirms and opens the way for it. She is the first person in Mark, other than Jesus himself to have an intuition into the meaning of his passion.

14:9 Jesus concludes his praise of the woman with a solemn pledge. The assurance that the good news would be proclaimed to the whole world is a pointer to his ultimate triumph. Like many exemplary characters in the Gospel the woman remains anonymous, perhaps because Mark invites every reader to identify with her. But her gesture will be remembered and always linked with what Jesus himself did. As an act exemplifying the Church’s response to Jesus’ passion, it will be told as an essential part of the proclamation of the gospel. Indeed, it will lead many others to do what she did: to recklessly “waste” all that is most precious on Jesus.

The anointing at Bethany parallels the widow’s offering (12:41-44), forming a frame around the discourse of chapter 13.2. The two stories are closely connected. Both women give generous gifts at great sacrifice, despite the monetary difference (a penny versus three hundred days’ wages). In each case Jesus alone recognizes the value of the gift. He praises both women, beginning with his solemn “Amen” formula — the only times in the Gospel where Jesus gives praise to a person. And both cases offer a contrast with evil men: the scribes who devour widows’ houses (12:40) and the scribes who plot Jesus’ death (14:1). Each woman’s gift foreshadows the death of Jesus, the widow by giving “her whole living” (literally, “her whole life”) as Jesus was about to do, the other woman by anointing him for his burial.

Immediately after this episode, Jesus will again recline at table, and there will be another ritual action that is a symbolic anticipation of his death the institution of the Eucharist. There too is a reference to Jesus’ body and a solemn pronouncement, “Amen, I say to you.” Mark has placed these two actions in close proximity so that they shed light on each other. The woman’s gesture anticipates what Jesus himself will do: she breaks and pours out her greatest treasure on him, as he would break and pour out his life for all humanity.


Teaching of Modern Popes regarding the Bible
“The calm and fair consideration of what has been said will clearly show that the Church has never failed in taking due measures to bring the Scriptures within reach of her children, and that she has ever held fast and exercised profitably that guardianship conferred upon her by Almighty God for the protection and glory of His holy Word…”
(Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, On the Study of Sacred Scripture, 1893).

“Nothing would please us more than to see our beloved children form the habit of reading the Gospels – not merely from time to time, but every day.”
(Pope St. Pius X)

“Our one desire for all the Church’s children is that, being saturated with the Bible, they may arrive at the all-surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ”
(Pope Benedict XV, Spiritus Paraclitus, On the Centenary of the Death of St. Jerome, 1920).

“Let also the minds of the faithful be nourished with this same food, that they may draw from thence the knowledge and love of God and the progress in perfection and the happiness of their own souls.” “…This author of salvation, Christ, will men more fully know, more ardently love and more faithfully imitate in proportion as they are more assiduously urged to know and meditate the Sacred Letters, especially the New Testament…”
(Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, Promotion of Biblical Studies, 1943).


Reading Selections from “Fides Et Ratio” – John Paul II (Part II)

February 24, 2010


In tracing Christianity’s adoption of philosophy, one should not forget how cautiously Christians regarded other elements of the cultural world of paganism, one example of which is Gnosticism. It was easy to confuse philosophy — understood as practical wisdom and an education for life — with a higher and esoteric kind of knowledge, reserved to those few who were perfect. It is surely this kind of esoteric speculation which Saint Paul has in mind when he puts the Colossians on their guard: “See to it that no-one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe and not according to Christ” (2:8). The Apostle’s words seem all too pertinent now if we apply them to the various kinds of esoteric superstition widespread today, even among some believers who lack a proper critical sense. Following Saint Paul, other writers of the early centuries, especially Saint Irenaeus and Tertullian, sound the alarm when confronted with a cultural perspective which sought to subordinate the truth of Revelation to the interpretation of the philosophers.

Theology’s Engagement With Philosophy
A pioneer of positive engagement with philosophical thinking — albeit with cautious discernment — was Saint Justin. Although he continued to hold Greek philosophy in high esteem after his conversion, Justin claimed with power and clarity that he had found in Christianity “the only sure and profitable philosophy”. Similarly, Clement of Alexandria called the Gospel “the true philosophy”, and he understood philosophy, like the Mosaic Law, as instruction which prepared for Christian faith and paved the way for the Gospel. Since “philosophy yearns for the wisdom which consists in rightness of soul and speech and in purity of life, it is well disposed towards wisdom and does all it can to acquire it. We call philosophers those who love the wisdom that is creator and mistress of all things, that is knowledge of the Son of God”.

For Clement, Greek philosophy is not meant in the first place to bolster and complete Christian truth. Its task is rather the defense of the faith: “The teaching of the Savior is perfect in itself and has no need of support, because it is the strength and the wisdom of God. Greek philosophy, with its contribution, does not strengthen truth; but, in rendering the attack of sophistry impotent and in disarming those who betray truth and wage war upon it, Greek philosophy is rightly called the hedge and the protective wall around the vineyard”

The name “theology” itself, together with the idea of theology as rational discourse about God, had to this point been tied to its Greek origins. In Aristotelian philosophy, for example, the name signified the noblest part and the true summit of philosophical discourse. But in the light of Christian Revelation what had signified a generic doctrine about the gods assumed a wholly new meaning, signifying now the reflection undertaken by the believer in order to express the true doctrine about God. As it developed, this new Christian thought made use of philosophy, but at the same time tended to distinguish itself clearly from philosophy. History shows how Platonic thought, once adopted by theology, underwent profound changes, especially with regard to concepts such as the immortality of the soul, the divinization of man and the origin of evil.

Augustine’s Preference
“From this time on, I gave my preference to the Catholic faith. I thought it more modest and not in the least misleading to be told by the Church to believe what could not be demonstrated—whether that was because a demonstration existed but could not be understood by all or whether the matter was not one open to rational proof—rather than from the Manichees to have a rash promise of knowledge with mockery of mere belief, and then afterwards to be ordered to believe many fabulous and absurd myths impossible to prove true”…

Though he accorded the Platonists a place of privilege, Augustine rebuked them because, knowing the goal to seek, they had ignored the path which leads to it: the Word made flesh. The Bishop of Hippo succeeded in producing the first great synthesis of philosophy and theology, embracing currents of thought both Greek and Latin. In him too the great unity of knowledge, grounded in the thought of the Bible, was both confirmed and sustained by a depth of speculative thinking. The synthesis devised by Saint Augustine remained for centuries the most exalted form of philosophical and theological speculation known to the West.

The Task Of The Early Church Father’s
As I have noted, theirs (The early Church Father’s) was the task of showing how reason, freed from external constraints, could find its way out of the blind alley of myth and open itself to the transcendent in a more appropriate way. Purified and rightly tuned, therefore, reason could rise to the higher planes of thought, providing a solid foundation for the perception of being, of the transcendent and of the absolute.

It is here that we see the originality of what the Fathers accomplished. They fully welcomed reason which was open to the absolute, and they infused it with the richness drawn from Revelation. This was more than a meeting of cultures, with one culture perhaps succumbing to the fascination of the other. It happened rather in the depths of human souls, and it was a meeting of creature and Creator. Surpassing the goal towards which it unwittingly tended by dint of its nature, reason attained the supreme good and ultimate truth in the person of the Word made flesh. Faced with the various philosophies, the Fathers were not afraid to acknowledge those elements in them that were consonant with Revelation and those that were not. Recognition of the points of convergence did not blind them to the points of divergence.

Saint Anselm: The Intellect Must Seek That Which It Loves
For the saintly Archbishop of Canterbury the priority of faith is not in competition with the search which is proper to reason. Reason in fact is not asked to pass judgment on the contents of faith, something of which it would be incapable, since this is not its function. Its function is rather to find meaning, to discover explanations which might allow everyone to come to a certain understanding of the contents of faith. Saint Anselm underscores the fact that the intellect must seek that which it loves: the more it loves, the more it desires to know.

Whoever lives for the truth is reaching for a form of knowledge which is fired more and more with love for what it knows, while having to admit that it has not yet attained what it desires: “To see you was I conceived; and I have yet to conceive that for which I was conceived (Ad te videndum factus sum; et nondum feci propter quod factus sum)”. The desire for truth, therefore, spurs reason always to go further; indeed, it is as if reason were overwhelmed to see that it can always go beyond what it has already achieved. It is at this point, though, that reason can learn where its path will lead in the end: “I think that whoever investigates something incomprehensible should be satisfied if, by way of reasoning, he reaches a quite certain perception of its reality, even if his intellect cannot penetrate its mode of being…

But is there anything so incomprehensible and ineffable as that which is above all things? Therefore, if that which until now has been a matter of debate concerning the highest essence has been established on the basis of due reasoning, then the foundation of one’s certainty is not shaken in the least if the intellect cannot penetrate it in a way that allows clear formulation. If prior thought has concluded rationally that one cannot comprehend (rationabiliter comprehendit incomprehensibile esse) how supernal wisdom knows its own accomplishments…, who then will explain how this same wisdom, of which the human being can know nothing or next to nothing, is to be known and expressed?”

St.Thomas Aquinas: Faith Is In A Sense An “Exercise Of Thought”
Thomas recognized that nature, philosophy’s proper concern, could contribute to the understanding of divine Revelation. Faith therefore has no fear of reason, but seeks it out and has trust in it. Just as grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfillment, so faith builds upon and perfects reason. Illumined by faith, reason is set free from the fragility and limitations deriving from the disobedience of sin and finds the strength required to rise to the knowledge of the Triune God. Although he made much of the supernatural character of faith, the Angelic Doctor did not overlook the importance of its reasonableness; indeed he was able to plumb the depths and explain the meaning of this reasonableness. Faith is in a sense an “exercise of thought”; and human reason is neither annulled nor debased in assenting to the contents of faith, which are in any case attained by way of free and informed choice

St.Thomas Aquinas: The Role Of The Holy Spirit In How Knowledge Matures Into Wisdom
Another of the great insights of Saint Thomas was his perception of the role of the Holy Spirit in the process by which knowledge matures into wisdom.
From the first pages of his Summa Theologiae, Aquinas was keen to show the primacy of the wisdom which is the gift of the Holy Spirit and which opens the way to a knowledge of divine realities. His theology allows us to understand what is distinctive of wisdom in its close link with faith and knowledge of the divine. This wisdom comes to know by way of connaturality; it presupposes faith and eventually formulates its right judgment on the basis of the truth of faith itself: “The wisdom named among the gifts of the Holy Spirit is distinct from the wisdom found among the intellectual virtues. This second wisdom is acquired through study, but the first ‘comes from on high’, as Saint James puts it. This also distinguishes it from faith, since faith accepts divine truth as it is. But the gift of wisdom enables judgment according to divine truth.”

Yet the priority accorded this wisdom does not lead the Angelic Doctor to overlook the presence of two other complementary forms of wisdom—philosophical wisdom, which is based upon the capacity of the intellect, for all its natural limitations, to explore reality, and theological wisdom, which is based upon Revelation and which explores the contents of faith, entering the very mystery of God.

Towards A Crisis In Rationalism: A Philosophy Separate And Independent Of Faith
Saint Albert the Great and Saint Thomas were the first to recognize the autonomy which philosophy and the sciences needed if they were to perform well in their respective fields of research. From the late medieval period onwards, however, the legitimate distinction between the two forms of learning became more and more a fateful separation. As a result of the exaggerated rationalism of certain thinkers, positions grew more radical and there emerged eventually a philosophy which was separate from and absolutely independent of the contents of faith….

In short, what for Patristic and Medieval thought was in both theory and practice a profound unity, producing knowledge capable of reaching the highest forms of speculation, was destroyed by systems which espoused the cause of rational knowledge sundered from faith and meant to take the place of faith….

In the field of scientific research, a positivistic mentality took hold which not only abandoned the Christian vision of the world, but more especially rejected every appeal to a metaphysical or moral vision. It follows that certain scientists, lacking any ethical point of reference, are in danger of putting at the centre of their concerns something other than the human person and the entirety of the person’s life. Further still, some of these, sensing the opportunities of technological progress, seem to succumb not only to a market-based logic, but also to the temptation of a quasi-divine power over nature and even over the human being.

Nihilism: The Search Is An End In Itself
As a result of the crisis of rationalism, what has appeared finally is nihilism. As a philosophy of nothingness, it has a certain attraction for people of our time. Its adherents claim that the search is an end in itself, without any hope or possibility of ever attaining the goal of truth. In the nihilist interpretation, life is no more than an occasion for sensations and experiences in which the ephemeral has pride of place. Nihilism is at the root of the widespread mentality which claims that a definitive commitment should no longer be made, because everything is fleeting and provisional. It should also be borne in mind that the role of philosophy itself has changed in modern culture. From universal wisdom and learning, it has been gradually reduced to one of the many fields of human knowing; indeed in some ways it has been consigned to a wholly marginal role. Other forms of rationality have acquired an ever higher profile, making philosophical learning appear all the more peripheral. These forms of rationality are directed not towards the contemplation of truth and the search for the ultimate goal and meaning of life; but instead, as “instrumental reason”, they are directed — actually or potentially — towards the promotion of utilitarian ends, towards enjoyment or power.

Precious And Seminal Insights
Yet closer scrutiny shows that even in the philosophical thinking of those who helped drive faith and reason further apart there are found at times precious and seminal insights which, if pursued and developed with mind and heart rightly tuned, can lead to the discovery of truth’s way. Such insights are found, for instance, in penetrating analyses of perception and experience, of the imaginary and the unconscious, of personhood and inter-subjectivity, of freedom and values, of time and history. The theme of death as well can become for all thinkers an incisive appeal to seek within themselves the true meaning of their own life.

But this does not mean that the link between faith and reason as it now stands does not need to be carefully examined, because each without the other is impoverished and enfeebled. Deprived of what Revelation offers, reason has taken side-tracks which expose it to the danger of losing sight of its final goal. Deprived of reason, faith has stressed feeling and experience, and so run the risk of no longer being a universal proposition. It is an illusion to think that faith, tied to weak reasoning, might be more penetrating; on the contrary, faith then runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition. By the same token, reason which is unrelated to an adult faith is not prompted to turn its gaze to the newness and radicality of being.


The Magisterium Of The First Vatican Council: Against Rationalism And Fideism
If the Magisterium has spoken out more frequently since the middle of the last century, it is because in that period not a few Catholics felt it their duty to counter various streams of modern thought with a philosophy of their own. … The positive elements of this debate were assembled in the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius, in which for the first time an Ecumenical Council — in this case, the First Vatican Council — pronounced solemnly on the relationship between reason and faith. The teaching contained in this document strongly and positively marked the philosophical research of many believers and remains today a standard reference-point for correct and coherent Christian thinking in this regard. …

The Magisterium’s pronouncements have been concerned less with individual philosophical theses than with the need for rational and hence ultimately philosophical knowledge for the understanding of faith. In synthesizing and solemnly reaffirming the teachings constantly proposed to the faithful by the ordinary Papal Magisterium, the First Vatican Council showed how inseparable and at the same time how distinct were faith and reason, Revelation and natural knowledge of God.

The Council began with the basic criterion, presupposed by Revelation itself, of the natural knowability of the existence of God, the beginning and end of all things, and concluded with the solemn assertion quoted earlier: “There are two orders of knowledge, distinct not only in their point of departure, but also in their object”. Against all forms of rationalism, then, there was a need to affirm the distinction between the mysteries of faith and the findings of philosophy, and the transcendence and precedence of the mysteries of faith over the findings of philosophy. Against the temptations of fideism, however, it was necessary to stress the unity of truth and thus the positive contribution which rational knowledge can and must make to faith’s knowledge: “Even if faith is superior to reason there can never be a true divergence between faith and reason, since the same God who reveals the mysteries and bestows the gift of faith has also placed in the human spirit the light of reason. This God could not deny himself, nor could the truth ever contradict the truth”.

A Resurgence Of Rationalism And Fideism
In theology too the temptations of other times have reappeared. In some contemporary theologies, for instance, a certain rationalism is gaining ground, especially when opinions thought to be philosophically well founded are taken as normative for theological research. This happens particularly when theologians, through lack of philosophical competence, allow themselves to be swayed uncritically by assertions which have become part of current parlance and culture but which are poorly grounded in reason.

In language as clear as it is authoritative, the First Vatican Council condemned this error, affirming on the one hand that “as regards this faith…, the Catholic Church professes that it is a supernatural virtue by means of which, under divine inspiration and with the help of grace, we believe to be true the things revealed by God, not because of the intrinsic truth of the things perceived by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God himself, who reveals them and who can neither deceive nor be deceived”: Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius, III: DS 3008, and Canon 3, 2: DS 3032.

On the other hand, the Council declared that reason is never “able to penetrate [these mysteries] as it does the truths which are its proper object”: ibid., IV: DS 3016. It then drew a practical conclusion: “The Christian faithful not only have no right to defend as legitimate scientific conclusions opinions which are contrary to the doctrine of the faith, particularly if condemned by the Church, but they are strictly obliged to regard them as errors which have no more than a fraudulent semblance of truth”: ibid., IV: DS 3018.

There are also signs of a resurgence of fideism (vocab: Fideism” is the name given to that school of thought—to which Tertullian himself is frequently said to have subscribed—which answers that faith is in some sense independent of, if not outright adversarial toward, reason)., which fails to recognize the importance of rational knowledge and philosophical discourse for the understanding of faith, indeed for the very possibility of belief in God. One currently widespread symptom of this fideistic tendency is a “Biblicism” (Christian fundamentalism?) which tends to make the reading and exegesis of Sacred Scripture the sole criterion of truth. In consequence, the word of God is identified with Sacred Scripture alone, thus eliminating the doctrine of the Church which the Second Vatican Council stressed quite specifically. Having recalled that the word of God is present in both Scripture and Tradition, the Constitution Dei Verbum continues emphatically: “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture comprise a single sacred deposit of the word of God entrusted to the Church. Embracing this deposit and united with their pastors, the People of God remain always faithful to the teaching of the Apostles”. Scripture, therefore, is not the Church’s sole point of reference. The “supreme rule of her faith”  derives from the unity which the Spirit has created between Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church in a reciprocity which means that none of the three can survive without the others.

Only In The Mystery Of The Incarnate Word
One of the constant reference-points of my teaching: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a type of him who was to come, Christ the Lord. Christ, the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling”.


Auditus Fidei And Intellectus Fidei
Theology is structured as an understanding of faith in the light of a twofold methodological principle: the auditus fidei and the intellectus fidei. With the first, theology makes its own the content of Revelation as this has been gradually expounded in Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Church’s living Magisterium. With the second, theology seeks to respond through speculative enquiry to the specific demands of disciplined thought. Philosophy contributes specifically to theology in preparing for a correct auditus fidei with its study of the structure of knowledge and personal communication, especially the various forms and functions of language. No less important is philosophy’s contribution to a more coherent understanding of Church Tradition, the pronouncements of the Magisterium and the teaching of the great masters of theology, who often adopt concepts and thought-forms drawn from a particular philosophical tradition. In this case, the theologian is summoned not only to explain the concepts and terms used by the Church in her thinking and the development of her teaching, but also to know in depth the philosophical systems which may have influenced those concepts and terms, in order to formulate correct and consistent interpretations of them.

With regard to the intellectus fidei, a prime consideration must be that divine Truth “proposed to us in the Sacred Scriptures and rightly interpreted by the Church’s teaching” enjoys an innate intelligibility, so logically consistent that it stands as an authentic body of knowledge. The intellectus fidei expounds this truth, not only in grasping the logical and conceptual structure of the propositions in which the Church’s teaching is framed, but also, indeed primarily, in bringing to light the salvific meaning of these propositions for the individual and for humanity. From the sum of these propositions, the believer comes to know the history of salvation, which culminates in the person of Jesus Christ and in his Paschal Mystery. Believers then share in this mystery by their assent of faith.

The Concern Of Fundamental Theology
With its specific character as a discipline charged with giving an account of faith (cf. 1 Pet 3:15), the concern of fundamental theology will be to justify and expound the relationship between faith and philosophical thought. Recalling the teaching of Saint Paul (cf. Rom 1:19-20), the First Vatican Council pointed to the existence of truths which are naturally, and thus philosophically, knowable; and an acceptance of God’s Revelation necessarily presupposes knowledge of these truths.

In studying Revelation and its credibility, as well as the corresponding act of faith, fundamental theology should show how, in the light of the knowledge conferred by faith, there emerge certain truths which reason, from its own independent enquiry, already perceives. Revelation endows these truths with their fullest meaning, directing them towards the richness of the revealed mystery in which they find their ultimate purpose. Consider, for example, the natural knowledge of God, the possibility of distinguishing divine Revelation from other phenomena or the recognition of its credibility, the capacity of human language to speak in a true and meaningful way even of things which transcend all human experience. From all these truths, the mind is led to acknowledge the existence of a truly propaedeutic (vocab: Providing introductory instruction) path to faith, one which can lead to the acceptance of Revelation without in any way compromising the principles and autonomy of the mind itself.

Similarly, fundamental theology should demonstrate the profound compatibility that exists between faith and its need to find expression by way of human reason fully free to give its assent. Faith will thus be able “to show fully the path to reason in a sincere search for the truth. Although faith, a gift of God, is not based on reason, it can certainly not dispense with it. At the same time, it becomes apparent that reason needs to be reinforced by faith, in order to discover horizons it cannot reach on its own”

Moral Theology Requires A Sound Philosophical Vision Of Human Nature And Society
Moral theology has perhaps an even greater need of philosophy’s contribution. In the New Testament, human life is much less governed by prescriptions than in the Old Testament. Life in the Spirit leads believers to a freedom and responsibility which surpass the Law. Yet the Gospel and the Apostolic writings still set forth both general principles of Christian conduct and specific teachings and precepts. In order to apply these to the particular circumstances of individual and communal life, Christians must be able fully to engage their conscience and the power of their reason. In other words, moral theology requires a sound philosophical vision of human nature and society, as well as of the general principles of ethical decision-making.

Faith’s Encounter With Different Cultures
Faith’s encounter with different cultures has created something new. When they are deeply rooted in experience, cultures show forth the human being’s characteristic openness to the universal and the transcendent. Therefore they offer different paths to the truth, which assuredly serve men and women well in revealing values which can make their life ever more human. Insofar as cultures appeal to the values of older traditions, they point—implicitly but authentically—to the manifestation of God in nature, as we saw earlier in considering the Wisdom literature and the teaching of Saint Paul….

How are we to explain these dynamics? All people are part of a culture, depend upon it and shape it. Human beings are both child and parent of the culture in which they are immersed. To everything they do, they bring something which sets them apart from the rest of creation: their unfailing openness to mystery and their boundless desire for knowledge. Lying deep in every culture, there appears this impulse towards a fulfillment. We may say, then, that culture itself has an intrinsic capacity to receive divine Revelation…

This means that no one culture can ever become the criterion of judgment, much less the ultimate criterion of truth with regard to God’s Revelation. The Gospel is not opposed to any culture, as if in engaging a culture the Gospel would seek to strip it of its native riches and force it to adopt forms which are alien to it. On the contrary, the message which believers bring to the world and to cultures is a genuine liberation from all the disorders caused by sin and is, at the same time, a call to the fullness of truth. Cultures are not only not diminished by this encounter; rather, they are prompted to open themselves to the newness of the Gospel’s truth and to be stirred by this truth to develop in new ways.

Philosophy’s Circular Relationship With The Word Of God
The relationship between theology and philosophy is best construed as a circle. Theology’s source and starting-point must always be the word of God revealed in history, while its final goal will be an understanding of that word which increases with each passing generation. Yet, since God’s word is Truth (cf. John 17:17), the human search for truth — philosophy, pursued in keeping with its own rules — can only help to understand God’s word better
. It is not just a question of theological discourse using this or that concept or element of a philosophical construct; what matters most is that the believer’s reason use its powers of reflection in the search for truth which moves from the word of God towards a better understanding of it. It is as if, moving between the twin poles of God’s word and a better understanding of it, reason is offered guidance and is warned against paths which would lead it to stray from revealed Truth and to stray in the end from the truth pure and simple. Instead, reason is stirred to explore paths which of itself it would not even have suspected it could take. This circular relationship with the word of God leaves philosophy enriched, because reason discovers new and unsuspected horizons.

Great Christian Theologians And Philosophers
The fruitfulness of this relationship is confirmed by the experience of great Christian theologians who also distinguished themselves as great philosophers, bequeathing to us writings of such high speculative value as to warrant comparison with the masters of ancient philosophy. This is true of both the Fathers of the Church, among whom at least Saint Gregory of Nazianzus and Saint Augustine should be mentioned, and the Medieval Doctors with the great triad of Saint Anselm, Saint Bonaventure and Saint Thomas Aquinas. We see the same fruitful relationship between philosophy and the word of God in the courageous research pursued by more recent thinkers, among whom I gladly mention, in a Western context, figures such as John Henry Newman, Antonio Rosmini, Jacques Maritain, Étienne Gilson and Edith Stein and, in an Eastern context, eminent scholars such as Vladimir S. Soloviev, Pavel A. Florensky, Petr Chaadaev and Vladimir N. Lossky.

Two Aspects Of Christian Philosophy
Christian philosophy therefore has two aspects. The first is subjective, in the sense that faith purifies reason. As a theological virtue, faith liberates reason from presumption, the typical temptation of the philosopher. Saint Paul, the Fathers of the Church and, closer to our own time, philosophers such as Pascal and Kierkegaard reproached such presumption. The philosopher who learns humility will also find courage to tackle questions which are difficult to resolve if the data of Revelation are ignored — for example, the problem of evil and suffering, the personal nature of God and the question of the meaning of life or, more directly, the radical metaphysical question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”.

The second aspect of Christian philosophy is objective, in the sense that it concerns content. Revelation clearly proposes certain truths which might never have been discovered by reason unaided, although they are not of themselves inaccessible to reason. Among these truths is the notion of a free and personal God who is the Creator of the world, a truth which has been so crucial for the development of philosophical thinking, especially the philosophy of being. There is also the reality of sin, as it appears in the light of faith, which helps to shape an adequate philosophical formulation of the problem of evil. The notion of the person as a spiritual being is another of faith’s specific contributions: the Christian proclamation of human dignity, equality and freedom has undoubtedly influenced modern philosophical thought. In more recent times, there has been the discovery that history as event — so central to Christian Revelation — is important for philosophy as well. It is no accident that this has become pivotal for a philosophy of history which stakes its claim as a new chapter in the human search for truth.

Christian Revelation: The Point Of Encounter Philosophical And Theological Thinking
Yet, conscious that it cannot set itself up as an absolute and exclusive value, reason on its part must never lose its capacity to question and to be questioned. By virtue of the splendour emanating from subsistent Being itself, revealed truth offers the fullness of light and will therefore illumine the path of philosophical enquiry. In short, Christian Revelation becomes the true point of encounter and engagement between philosophical and theological thinking in their reciprocal relationship.

It is to be hoped therefore that theologians and philosophers will let themselves be guided by the authority of truth alone so that there will emerge a philosophy consonant with the word of God. Such a philosophy will be a place where Christian faith and human cultures may meet, a point of understanding between believer and non-believer. It will help lead believers to a stronger conviction that faith grows deeper and more authentic when it is wedded to thought and does not reject it. It is again the Fathers who teach us this: “To believe is nothing other than to think with assent… Believers are also thinkers: in believing, they think and in thinking, they believe… If faith does not think, it is nothing”. And again: “If there is no assent, there is no faith, for without assent one does not really believe”

Fr. Robert Barron, Saint Paul, John Paul II and G.K. Chesterton thoughts on Faith and Reason are here.


Reading Selections from Fides Et Ratio – John Paul II (Part I)

February 23, 2010

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth — in a word, to know himself — so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves. With these famous words, John Paul II began his encyclical on the relationship between faith and reason, an impassioned defense of how the two are necessary to complete each other. If faith without reason leads to superstition, John Paul II argues, then reason without faith leads man to nihilism and relativism.

The Fundamental Questions
A cursory glance at ancient history shows clearly how in different parts of the world, with their different cultures, there arise at the same time the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life? … They are questions which have their common source in the quest for meaning which has always compelled the human heart. In fact, the answer given to these questions decides the direction which people seek to give to their lives.

The Church Has The Ultimate Truth About Human Life
The Church is no stranger to this journey of discovery, nor could she ever be. From the moment when, through the Paschal mystery, she received the gift of the ultimate truth about human life, the Church has made her pilgrim way along the paths of the world to proclaim that Jesus Christ is “the way, and the truth and the life” [John 14:6] It is her duty to serve humanity in different ways, but one way in particular imposes a specific responsibility: the diakonia (service) of the truth. …On her part the Church cannot but set great value upon reason’s drive to attain ascertain goals which render people’s lives ever more worthy. She sees in philosophy the way to come to know fundamental truths about human life. At the same time, the church considers philosophy an indispensable help for a deeper understanding of faith and of communicating the truth of the Gospel to those who don’t yet know it.

An Implicit Philosophy
Although times change and knowledge increases, it is possible to discern a core of philosophical insight within the history of thought as a whole. Consider, for example, the principles of non-contradiction, finality and causality, as well as the concept of the person as a free and intelligent subject, with the capacity to know God, truth and goodness. Consider as well certain fundamental moral norms which are shared by all. These are among the indications that, beyond different schools of thought, there exists a body of knowledge which may be judged a kind of spiritual heritage of humanity. It is as if we had come upon an implicit philosophy, as a result of which all feel they possess these principles, albeit in a general and unreflective way.

A One-Sided Concern To Investigate Human Subjectivity
The positive results achieved (by science) must not obscure the fact that reason, in its one-sided concern to investigate human subjectivity, seems to have forgotten that men and women are always called to direct their steps toward a truth which transcends them. Sundered from that truth, individuals are at the mercy of caprice, and their state as person ends up being judged by pragmatic criteria based essentially upon experimental data, in the mistaken belief that technology must dominate all.
It has happened before that reason rather than voicing the human orientation toward truth, has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little has lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights not daring to rise to the truth of being. Abandoning the investigation of being, modern philosophical research has concentrated instead upon human knowing. Rather than make use of the human capacity to know the truth, modern philosophy has preferred to accentuate the ways in which this capacity is limited and conditioned.


Resting Content With Partial And Provisional Truths
While on the one hand, philosophical thinking has succeeded in coming closer to the reality of human life and its forms of expression, it has also tended to pursue issues – existential, hermeneutical or linguistic – which ignore the radical question of the truth about personal existence, about being and about God. Hence we see among the men and women of our time, and not just in some philosophers, attitudes of widespread distrust of the human being’s great capacity for knowledge. With a false modesty, people rest content with partial and provisional truths, no longer seeking to ask radical questions about the meaning and ultimate foundation of human, personal and social existence. In short, the hope that philosophy might be able to provide definitive answers to these questions has dwindled.

A Twofold Order Of Knowledge
The First Vatican Council teaches then, that the truth attained by philosophy and the truth of revelation are neither identical nor mutually exclusive: “There exists a twofold order of knowledge, distinct not only as regards their source, but also as regards their object. With regard to the source, because we know in one by natural reason, in the other by divine faith. With regard to the object, because besides those things which natural reason can attain, there are proposed for our belief mysteries hidden in God, which, unless they are divinely revealed, cannot be known. Based on God’s testimony and enjoying the supernatural assistance of grace, faith is of an order other than philosophical knowledge which depends upon sense perceptions and experience and which advances by the light of the intellect alone. Philosophy and the sciences function within the order of natural reason; while faith, enlightened and guided by the Spirit, recognizes in the message of salvation the “fullness of grace and truth”

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. [John 1:14]

The Truth About God And God’s Life Is Immersed In Time And History
The truth about himself and his life which God has entrusted to humanity is immersed therefore in time and history, and it was declared once and for all in the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.”  [Hebrews 1: 1-2]

The Constitution Dei Verbum puts it eloquently: after speaking in many places and varied ways through prophets, God ‘last of all in these days has spoken to us by his Son’ For he sent his son, the eternal word who enlightens all people, so that he might dwell among them and tell them the innermost realities about God:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known”
[John 1 1-18]

Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, sent as ‘a human being to human beings,’ ‘speaks the words of God’: “He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.”[John 3:34] and completes the work of salvation which his father gave him to do. To see Jesus is to see his father. For this reason, Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making himself present and manifesting himself: through his words and deeds, his signs and wonders, but especially through his death and glorious resurrection from the dead and finally his sending of the Spirit of truth

….Through this revelation, men and women are offered the ultimate truth about their own life and about the goal of history. As the Constitution Gaudium et Spes puts it: “only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.”

There Is No More Important Act In Life Than The Act Faith
The council (Dei Verbum) teaches that “the obedience of the faith must be given to God who reveals himself.” This brief but dense statement points to a fundamental truth about Christianity. Faith is said first to be an obedient response to God. This implies that God be acknowledged in his divinity, transcendence and supreme freedom. By the authority of his absolute transcendence, God who makes himself known is also the source of the credibility of what he reveals. By faith, men and women give their assent to this divine testimony. This means that they acknowledge fully and integrally the truth of what is revealed , because it is God himself who is the guarantor of that truth. They can make no claim upon this truth which comes to them as gift and which, set within the context of interpersonal communication, urges reason to be open to it and to embrace its profound meaning. This is why the Church has always considered the act of entrusting oneself to God to be a moment of fundamental decision which engages the whole person. In that act the intellect and the will display their spiritual nature, enabling the subject it to act in a way which realizes personal freedom to the full.” It is not just that freedom is part of the act of faith: it is absolutely required. Indeed it is faith that allows individuals to give consummate expression to their own freedom.

Put differently, freedom is not realized in decisions made against God. For how could it be an exercise of true freedom to refuse to be open to the very reality which enables our self-realization? Men and women can accomplish no more important act in their lives than the act faith: it is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth and chooses to live in that truth.

The Sacramental Character Of Revelation
We return to the sacramental character of revelation and especially to the sign of the Eucharist, in which the indissoluble unity between the signifier and signified make it possible to grasp the depths of the mystery. “In the Eucharist, Christ is truly present and alive, working through his Spirit; yet as Christ is truly present and alive, working through his Spirit, yet as St. Thomas said so well, “what you neither see nor grasp, faith confirms for you, leaving nature far behind; a sign that it is now appears, hiding in the mystery realities sublime. He is echoed by the philosopher Pascal: “Just as Jesus Christ went unrecognized among men, so does his truth appear without external difference among common modes of thought. So does the Eucharist remain among common bread….The knowledge proper to faith does not destroy the mystery; it only reveals the mystery more, showing how necessary it is for people’s lives: “Christ the Lord in revealing the mystery of the Father and his love fully reveals man to himself and makes clear his supreme calling,” which is to share in the divine mystery of the life of the Trinity.

Saint Anselm On The Limits (Frustration?) Of Reason
Revelation has set within history a point of reference which cannot be ignored if the mystery of human life is to be known. Yet this knowledge refers back constantly to the mystery of God which the human mind cannot exhaust but can only receive and embrace in faith. Between these two poles, reason has its own specific field in which it can enquire and understand, restricted only by its finiteness before the infinite mystery of God. … To assist our reflection on this point we have one of the most fruitful and important minds in human history, a point of reference for both philosophy and theology: Saint Anselm. In his Proslogion, the Archbishop of Canterbury puts it this way: “Thinking of this problem frequently and intently, at times it seemed I was ready to grasp what I was seeking; at other times it eluded my thought completely, until finally, despairing of being able to find it, I wanted to abandon the search for something which was impossible to find. I wanted to rid myself of that thought because, by filling my mind, it distracted me from other problems from which I could gain some profit; but it would then present itself with ever greater insistence… Woe is me, one of the poor children of Eve, far from God, what did I set out to do and what have I accomplished? What was I aiming for and how far have I got? What did I aspire to and what did I long for?… O Lord, you are not only that than which nothing greater can be conceived (non solum es quo maius cogitari nequit), but you are greater than all that can be conceived (quiddam maius quam cogitari possit)… If you were not such, something greater than you could be thought, but this is impossible”.

You Will Know The Truth, And The Truth Will Make You Free
The truth of Christian Revelation, found in Jesus of Nazareth, enables all men and women to embrace the “mystery” of their own life. As absolute truth, it summons human beings to be open to the transcendent, whilst respecting both their autonomy as creatures and their freedom. At this point the relationship between freedom and truth is complete, and we understand the full meaning of the Lord’s words: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).

Christian Revelation Is The True Lodestar
Christian Revelation is the true lodestar (vocab: a star that is used to find direction) of men and women as they strive to make their way amid the pressures of an immanentist (vocab: of the present or material world) habit of mind and the constrictions of a technocratic logic. It is the ultimate possibility offered by God for the human being to know in all its fullness the seminal plan of love which began with creation. To those wishing to know the truth, if they can look beyond themselves and their own concerns, there is given the possibility of taking full and harmonious possession of their lives, precisely by following the path of truth. Here the words of the Book of Deuteronomy are pertinent: “This commandment which I command you is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, that you can do it” (30:11-14).

This text finds an echo in the famous dictum of the holy philosopher and theologian Augustine: “Do not wander far and wide but return into yourself. Deep within man there dwells the truth” (Noli foras ire, in te ipsum redi. In interiore homine habitat veritas). …. The truth made known to us by Revelation is neither the product nor the consummation of an argument devised by human reason. It appears instead as something gratuitous, which itself stirs thought and seeks acceptance as an expression of love. This revealed truth is set within our history as an anticipation of that ultimate and definitive vision of God which is reserved for those who believe in him and seek him with a sincere heart.


A Profound And Indissoluble Unity Between The Knowledge Of Reason And The Knowledge Of Faith
It is no accident that, when the sacred author comes to describe the wise man, he portrays him as one who loves and seeks the truth: “Happy the man who meditates on wisdom and reasons intelligently, who reflects in his heart on her ways and ponders her secrets. He pursues her like a hunter and lies in wait on her paths. He peers through her windows and listens at her doors. He camps near her house and fastens his tent-peg to her walls; he pitches his tent near her and so finds an excellent resting-place; he places his children under her protection and lodges under her boughs; by her he is sheltered from the heat and he dwells in the shade of her glory” (Sirach 14:20-27)….

What is distinctive in the biblical text is the conviction that there is a profound and indissoluble unity between the knowledge of reason and the knowledge of faith. The world and all that happens within it, including history and the fate of peoples, are realities to be observed, analyzed and assessed with all the resources of reason, but without faith ever being foreign to the process. Faith intervenes not to abolish reason’s autonomy nor to reduce its scope for action, but solely to bring the human being to understand that in these events it is the God of Israel who acts. Thus the world and the events of history cannot be understood in depth without professing faith in the God who is at work in them. Faith sharpens the inner eye, opening the mind to discover in the flux of events the workings of Providence. Here the words of the Book of Proverbs are pertinent: “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps” (16:9). This is to say that with the light of reason human beings can know which path to take, but they can follow that path to its end, quickly and unhindered, only if with a rightly tuned spirit they search for it within the horizon of faith. Therefore, reason and faith cannot be separated without diminishing the capacity of men and women to know themselves, the world and God in an appropriate way.

Opening To Reason The Path That Leads To The Mystery: God’s Self-Revelation In The Book of Nature
There is thus no reason for competition of any kind between reason and faith: each contains the other, and each has its own scope for action…

We may say, then, that Israel, with her reflection, was able to open to reason the path that leads to the mystery. With the Revelation of God Israel could plumb the depths of all that she sought in vain to reach by way of reason. On the basis of this deeper form of knowledge, the Chosen People understood that, if reason were to be fully true to itself, then it must respect certain basic rules. The first of these is that reason must realize that human knowledge is a journey which allows no rest; the second stems from the awareness that such a path is not for the proud who think that everything is the fruit of personal conquest; a third rule is grounded in the “fear of God” whose transcendent sovereignty and provident love in the governance of the world reason must recognize…

In reasoning about nature, the human being can rise to God: “From the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wisdom 13:5). This is to recognize as a first stage of divine Revelation the marvelous “book of nature”, which, when read with the proper tools of human reason, can lead to knowledge of the Creator. If human beings with their intelligence fail to recognize God as Creator of all, it is not because they lack the means to do so, but because their free will and their sinfulness place an impediment in the way.

Seen in this light, reason is valued without being overvalued. The results of reasoning may in fact be true, but these results acquire their true meaning only if they are set within the larger horizon of faith: “All man’s steps are ordered by the Lord: how then can man understand his own ways?” (Proverbs 20:24). For the Old Testament, then, faith liberates reason in so far as it allows reason to attain correctly what it seeks to know and to place it within the ultimate order of things, in which everything acquires true meaning. In brief, human beings attain truth by way of reason because, enlightened by faith, they discover the deeper meaning of all things and most especially of their own existence. Rightly, therefore, the sacred author identifies the fear of God as the beginning of true knowledge: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7; cf. Sirach 1:14).

A  Pauline Text Affirms The Human Capacity For Metaphysical Enquiry.
In the first chapter of his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul helps us to appreciate better the depth of insight of the Wisdom Literature’s reflection. Developing a philosophical argument in popular language, the Apostle declares a profound truth: through all that is created the “eyes of the mind” can come to know God. Through the medium of creatures, God stirs in reason an intuition of his “power” and his “divinity:”

“Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”
[Romans 1:20]

This is to concede to human reason a capacity which seems almost to surpass its natural limitations. Not only is it not restricted to sensory knowledge, from the moment that it can reflect critically upon the data of the senses, but , by discoursing on the data provided by the senses, reason can reach the cause of which lies at the origin of all perceptible reality. In philosophical terms, we could say that this important Pauline text affirms the human capacity for metaphysical enquiry.

Paradox: It Is Not The Wisdom Of Words, But The Word Of Wisdom
God placed the human being in the Garden of Eden, in the middle of which there stood “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” (2:17). The symbol is clear: man was in no position to discern and decide for himself what was good and what was evil, but was constrained to appeal to a higher source. The blindness of pride deceived our first parents into thinking themselves sovereign and autonomous, and into thinking that they could ignore the knowledge which comes from God. All men and women were caught up in this primal disobedience, which so wounded reason that from then on its path to full truth would be strewn with obstacles. From that time onwards the human capacity to know the truth was impaired by an aversion to the One who is the source and origin of truth.

It is again the Apostle who reveals just how far human thinking, because of sin, became “empty”, and human reasoning became distorted and inclined to falsehood: “for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools;” [Romans 1:21-22]. The eyes of the mind were no longer able to see clearly: reason became more and more a prisoner to itself. The coming of Christ was the saving event which redeemed reason from its weakness, setting it free from the shackles in which it had imprisoned itself.

This is why the Christian’s relationship to philosophy requires thorough-going discernment. In the New Testament, especially in the Letters of Saint Paul, one thing emerges with great clarity: the opposition between “the wisdom of this world” and the wisdom of God revealed in Jesus Christ. The depth of revealed wisdom disrupts the cycle of our habitual patterns of thought, which are in no way able to express that wisdom in its fullness.

The beginning of the First Letter to the Corinthians poses the dilemma in a radical way. The crucified Son of God is the historic event upon which every attempt of the mind to construct an adequate explanation of the meaning of existence upon merely human argumentation comes to grief. The true key-point, which challenges every philosophy, is Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross. It is here that every attempt to reduce the Father’s saving plan to purely human logic is doomed to failure. “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the learned? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” [1 Corinthians 1:20], the Apostle asks emphatically. The wisdom of the wise is no longer enough for what God wants to accomplish; what is required is a decisive step towards welcoming something radically new: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise…; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28).

Human wisdom refuses to see in its own weakness the possibility of its strength; yet Saint Paul is quick to affirm: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Man cannot grasp how death could be the source of life and love; yet to reveal the mystery of his saving plan God has chosen precisely that which reason considers “foolishness” and a “scandal”. Adopting the language of the philosophers of his time, Paul comes to the summit of his teaching as he speaks the paradox: “God has chosen in the world… that which is nothing to reduce to nothing things that are” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:28). In order to express the gratuitous nature of the love revealed in the Cross of Christ, the Apostle is not afraid to use the most radical language of the philosophers in their thinking about God. Reason cannot eliminate the mystery of love which the Cross represents, while the Cross can give to reason the ultimate answer which it seeks. It is not the wisdom of words, but the Word of Wisdom which Saint Paul offers as the criterion of both truth and salvation.

The Certitude Of Truth And The Certitude Of Its Absolute Value
The first absolutely certain truth of our life, beyond the fact that we exist, is the inevitability of our death. Given this unsettling fact, the search for a full answer is inescapable. Each of us has both the desire and the duty to know the truth of our own destiny. We want to know if death will be the definitive end of our life or if there is something beyond — if it is possible to hope for an after-life or not. It is not insignificant that the death of Socrates gave philosophy one of its decisive orientations, no less decisive now than it was more than two thousand years ago. It is not by chance, then, that faced with the fact of death philosophers have again and again posed this question, together with the question of the meaning of life and immortality….

Every truth — if it really is truth — presents itself as universal, even if it is not the whole truth. If something is true, then it must be true for all people and at all times. Beyond this universality, however, people seek an absolute which might give to all their searching a meaning and an answer — something ultimate, which might serve as the ground of all things. In other words, they seek a final explanation, a supreme value, which refers to nothing beyond itself and which puts an end to all questioning. Hypotheses may fascinate, but they do not satisfy. Whether we admit it or not, there comes for everyone the moment when personal existence must be anchored to a truth recognized as final, a truth which confers a certitude no longer open to doubt.

Through the centuries, philosophers have sought to discover and articulate such a truth, giving rise to various systems and schools of thought. But beyond philosophical systems, people seek in different ways to shape a “philosophy” of their own — in personal convictions and experiences, in traditions of family and culture, or in journeys in search of life’s meaning under the guidance of a master. What inspires all of these is the desire to reach the certitude of truth and the certitude of its absolute value.

The Thirst For Truth Scientific Or Ultimate
Human beings would not even begin to search for something of which they knew nothing or for something which they thought was wholly beyond them. Only the sense that they can arrive at an answer leads them to take the first step. This is what normally happens in scientific research. When scientists, following their intuition, set out in search of the logical and verifiable explanation of a phenomenon, they are confident from the first that they will find an answer, and they do not give up in the face of setbacks. They do not judge their original intuition useless simply because they have not reached their goal; rightly enough they will say that they have not yet found a satisfactory answer.

The same must be equally true of the search for truth when it comes to the ultimate questions. The thirst for truth is so rooted in the human heart that to be obliged to ignore it would cast our existence into jeopardy. Everyday life shows well enough how each one of us is preoccupied by the pressure of a few fundamental questions and how in the soul of each of us there is at least an outline of the answers. One reason why the truth of these answers convinces is that they are no different in substance from the answers to which many others have come. To be sure, not every truth to which we come has the same value. But the sum of the results achieved confirms that in principle the human being can arrive at the truth.

Living By Belief Through Trusting Acquiescence
Personal growth and maturity imply that these same truths can be cast into doubt and evaluated through a process of critical enquiry. It may be that, after this time of transition, these truths are “recovered” as a result of the experience of life or by dint of further reasoning. Nonetheless, there are in the life of a human being many more truths which are simply believed than truths which are acquired by way of personal verification. Who, for instance, could assess critically the countless scientific findings upon which modern life is based? Who could personally examine the flow of information which comes day after day from all parts of the world and which is generally accepted as true? Who in the end could forge anew the paths of experience and thought which have yielded the treasures of human wisdom and religion? This means that the human being — the one who seeks the truth — is also the one who lives by belief.

In believing, we entrust ourselves to the knowledge acquired by other people. This suggests an important tension. On the one hand, the knowledge acquired through belief can seem an imperfect form of knowledge, to be perfected gradually through personal accumulation of evidence; on the other hand, belief is often humanly richer than mere evidence, because it involves an interpersonal relationship and brings into play not only a person’s capacity to know but also the deeper capacity to entrust oneself to others, to enter into a relationship with them which is intimate and enduring.

It should be stressed that the truths sought in this interpersonal relationship are not primarily empirical or philosophical. Rather, what is sought is the truth of the person — what the person is and what the person reveals from deep within. Human perfection, then, consists not simply in acquiring an abstract knowledge of the truth, but in a dynamic relationship of faithful self-giving with others. It is in this faithful self-giving that a person finds a fullness of certainty and security. At the same time, however, knowledge through belief, grounded as it is on trust between persons, is linked to truth: in the act of believing, men and women entrust themselves to the truth which the other declares to them….

I think immediately of the martyrs, who are the most authentic witnesses to the truth about existence. The martyrs know that they have found the truth about life in the encounter with Jesus Christ, and nothing and no-one could ever take this certainty from them. Neither suffering nor violent death could ever lead them to abandon the truth which they have discovered in the encounter with Christ. This is why to this day the witness of the martyrs continues to arouse such interest, to draw agreement, to win such a hearing and to invite emulation. This is why their word inspires such confidence: from the moment they speak to us of what we perceive deep down as the truth we have sought for so long, the martyrs provide evidence of a love that has no need of lengthy arguments in order to convince. The martyrs stir in us a profound trust because they give voice to what we already feel and they declare what we would like to have the strength to express….

Thanks to the inherent capacities of thought, man is able to encounter and recognize a truth of this kind. Such a truth — vital and necessary as it is for life — is attained not only by way of reason but also through trusting acquiescence to other persons who can guarantee the authenticity and certainty of the truth itself. There is no doubt that the capacity to entrust oneself and one’s life to another person and the decision to do so are among the most significant and expressive human acts.

The Unity Of Truth And The Principle Of Non-Contradiction
This truth, which God reveals to us in Jesus Christ, is not opposed to the truths which philosophy perceives. On the contrary, the two modes of knowledge lead to truth in all its fullness. The unity of truth is a fundamental premise of human reasoning, as the principle of non-contradiction (contradictory statements cannot both at the same time be true ) makes clear.

Revelation renders this unity certain, showing that the God of creation is also the God of salvation history. It is the one and the same God who establishes and guarantees the intelligibility and reasonableness of the natural order of things upon which scientists confidently depend (“Galileo declared explicitly that the two truths, of faith and of science, can never contradict each other, ‘Sacred Scripture and the natural world proceeding equally from the divine Word, the first as dictated by the Holy Spirit, the second as a very faithful executor of the commands of God’, as he wrote in his letter to Father Benedetto Castelli on 21 December 1613.

The Second Vatican Council says the same thing, even adopting similar language in its teaching: ‘Methodical research, in all realms of knowledge, if it respects… moral norms, will never be genuinely opposed to faith: the reality of the world and of faith have their origin in the same God’ (Gaudium et Spes, 36). Galileo sensed in his scientific research the presence of the Creator who, stirring in the depths of his spirit, stimulated him, anticipating and assisting his intuitions”: John Paul II, Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (10 November 1979): Insegnamenti, II, 2 (1979), 1111-1112.), and who reveals himself as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This unity of truth, natural and revealed, is embodied in a living and personal way in Christ, as the Apostle reminds us: “Truth is in Jesus” (cf. Ephesians 4:21; Colossians 1:15-20). He is the eternal Word in whom all things were created, and he is the incarnate Word who in his entire person (30) reveals the Father (cf. John 1:14, 18). What human reason seeks “without knowing it” (cf. Acts 17:23) can be found only through Christ: what is revealed in him is “the full truth” (cf. John 1:14-16) of everything which was created in him and through him and which therefore in him finds its fulfillment (cf. Colossians 1:17).

Part II of the reading selections continues here.


Readings on the topic of TRADITION

February 22, 2010

The Madonna in Majesty (Maestà), Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

A Definition
Literally a “handing on,” referring to the passing down of God’s revealed word. As such it has two closely related but distinct meanings. Tradition first means all of divine revelation, from the dawn of human history to the end of the apostolic age, as passed on from one generation of believers to the next, and as preserved under divine guidance by the Church established by Christ. Sacred Tradition more technically also means, within this transmitted revelation, that part of God’s revealed word which is not contained in Sacred Scripture. Referring specifically to how Christian tradition was handed on, the Second Vatican Council says: “It was done by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received–whether from the lips of Christ, from His way of life and His works, or whether they had learned it by the prompting of the Holy Spirit” (Constitution on Divine Revelation, II, 7).

Reading Selections From The Complex Relationship between Scripture and Tradition by James Akin (Jimmy Akin is Catholic Answers’ director of apologetics and evangelization and a contributing editor to This Rock) 

The Two Source Model
The relationship between Scripture and Tradition comes up regularly in contemporary Catholic apologetics. According to one Catholic view, Scripture and Tradition are two sources of revelation. Some divine truths are found in the Bible, while others are found in Tradition. This “two source” model has a long history, but it also has some difficulties. One is that there is considerable overlap between the two sources.

For example, the Bible clearly contains a command that Christians be baptized (Matthew 28:19). But doesn’t Tradition contain that, too? Wasn’t the command to be baptized passed on orally in the early Church as well as being written down in Scripture? Wasn’t the requirement of baptism already firmly fixed in the life and belief of the churches before the New Testament was written?

Isn’t the same true of the command to celebrate the Eucharist? To worship only one God? To regard Jesus as God? In fact, weren’t most teachings of the Christian faith handed on orally and only later in writing?

Sola scriptura
Speaking of Scripture and Tradition as two sources could lead one to overlook this overlap, which is so considerable that some Catholics have pondered how much of the Protestant idea of sola scriptura a Catholic can agree with. Sola scriptura is understood in different ways among Protestants, but it is commonly taken to mean that the Bible contains all of the material needed to do theology. According to this theory, a theologian does not need to look to Tradition — or at least does not need to give Tradition an authoritative role.

This view is not acceptable to Catholics. As the Second Vatican Council stressed in its constitution Dei Verbum, “It is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws its certainty about everything that has been revealed. Therefore both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence” (DV 9).

Yves Congar’s Opinion
One of the principal architects of Dei Verbum was the French theologian Yves Congar, who thought Catholics could acknowledge a substantial element of truth in sola scriptura.

He wrote that “we can admit sola scriptura in the sense of a material sufficiency of canonical Scripture. This means that Scripture contains, in one way or another, all truths necessary for salvation” (Tradition and Traditions, 410).

He encapsulated this idea with the slogan Totum in scriptura, totum in traditione (“All is in Scripture, all is in Tradition”), which he attributes to Cardinal Newman. According to this theory, Scripture and Tradition would not be two sources containing different material but two modes of transmitting the same deposit of faith. We might call it the “two modes” view as opposed to the “two source” view.

The decrees of Trent and Vatican II allow Catholics to hold the two-mode idea, but they do not require it. A Catholic is still free to hold the two-source view.

Practical Use Of The Two-Mode Approach
Some apologists working with Protestants have adopted the two-mode position, which may help certain Protestants in the process of becoming Catholic. It also may help deflect certain objections that are met in debate. Such an apologist might say:

It is not necessary for a Catholic to claim that the Bible is materially insufficient — that it fails to teach some truths needed for salvation. Scripture contains all that material, and we can agree with our Protestant brethren on this point. But the Bible does not contain this material in a form that makes it easy to derive these truths without risk of error. You need the help of Tradition to do that. Scripture is thus materially sufficient but not formally sufficient.

If he uses this argument, an apologist needs to be careful of several things. Most importantly, he should not speak of this view as if it is a certainty or as if it is the official Catholic position. It is not. It is one possible position that Catholics may hold, but it would misrepresent the teaching of the Church to speak as if all Catholics hold or are expected to hold this view.

He also needs to be careful about what he says regarding the material sufficiency of Scripture. For example, Congar spoke only in terms of the Bible containing “all truths necessary for salvation.” He did not speak of it containing all theological truths. This is an important distinction that comes up in discussions of sola scriptura.

Protestants often define sola scriptura by appealing to the idea that Scripture contains all truths needed for salvation. In practice, though, they often apply the term much more expansively, as if the Bible should be expected to contain all truths of Christian theology.

This is why many Protestants demand, “Where is that in the Bible?” even if the subject is a Catholic belief that has no direct connection to salvation. This means that, although adopting a two-mode theory may provide a measure of convergence in how sola scriptura is commonly defined, it may not help in practice.

Broad and Narrow Paths
Moreover, while it is legitimate in apologetic discussions to point out permitted Catholic views, that does not mean we should adopt a view just because it might be apologetically useful. We need to consider whether Totum in scriptura, totum in traditione holds true. If applied narrowly to truths necessary for salvation in the sense described above, I think that it does. I certainly can’t think of any truths directly connected with salvation that aren’t at least alluded to in Scripture.

But if we apply it more broadly, problems emerge. There seem to be theological truths that are not mentioned in Scripture. For example, the Bible does not state that public revelation is closed. As far as I can tell, it is neither stated nor clearly implied. Nor does the Bible say that God will not inspire any more books of Scripture or that there will be no more apostles. One needed to be a witness of the ministry of Christ to be a member of the Twelve (Acts 1:21-22), but Christ appeared in a vision to name Paul an apostle, even though he was not an eyewitness. If he wanted, Jesus could have kept appearing to people throughout history and appointing them apostles. We know from Tradition that this didn’t happen — that the apostles died out and handed the Church over to their successors, the bishops — but the Bible doesn’t tell us this.

The Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary are often cited as truths not taught in the Bible, although many have thought that there are passages that reflect these truths in some way (e.g., Luke 1:28, Rev. 12:1-14). This raises the question of how a truth that can be known by Tradition may be related to Scripture. It isn’t as simple as a truth being “in Scripture” or “not in Scripture.” There are more possible relationships than that.

A Complex Relationship

  1. Some truths of Tradition are directly stated in Scripture, such as God’s creation of the world. The Bible comes right out and says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).
  2. Other truths of Tradition are not stated directly in Scripture but are implied clearly by the biblical author. For example, while the Bible doesn’t come out and say that the Holy Spirit is a person rather than a force, it is implied in numerous passages, such as those in which the Spirit is depicted as speaking to people (e.g., Acts 13:2), and the biblical authors meant us to understand this.
  3. Some truths of Tradition can be inferred from Scripture even though the biblical authors did not clearly imply them. For example, Christ having both a human will and a divine will can be inferred from his being “true God and true man” (CCC 464). Various biblical passages state or imply that he is true God and true man, but in none does the biblical author state or imply that he had two wills. We have to figure that out by inference.
  4. A truth is sometimes alluded to or reflected in the text even though it can’t be proved from the text alone. The Immaculate Conception may be reflected in what Gabriel says to Mary in Luke 1:28, and the Assumption may be reflected in the wings the woman is given in Revelation 12:14, but you couldn’t prove these truths from the text alone.
  5. Some truths are presupposed by Scripture, such as many of the particulars of how the sacraments are celebrated — their proper form, matter, ministers, and recipients. The sacraments are mentioned in the Bible, but the biblical authors didn’t give many details about their administration. They assumed that the reader would look to the practice of the Church for the answers to these questions. For example, the sacrament of reconciliation is discussed, but the words that need to be used to make an absolution valid are not.
  6. Some truths are not in Scripture at all; not even a piece of the truth in question is indicated. As we saw earlier, the truths that public revelation is ended and that there will be no more apostles fall into this category.

Often it isn’t easy to decide which of these categories a truth falls into, but it is beneficial to think the question through, consider whether the Scriptural basis for a truth is found in the literal or the spiritual sense of the text, and consider how much confidence in the truth can be drawn from the Bible compared to how much must be drawn from Tradition.

While these considerations may be useful as an apologist explores the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, he ultimately will have to decide how he thinks they fit together. So far, the Church has left him considerable latitude.

Reading Selections From The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) by Vatican II

7. In His gracious goodness, God has seen to it that what He had revealed for the salvation of all nations would abide perpetually in its full integrity and be handed on to all generations. Therefore Christ the Lord in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion (see Corinthians 1:20; 3:13; 4:6), commissioned the Apostles to preach to all men that Gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching, (1) and to impart to them heavenly gifts. This Gospel had been promised in former times through the prophets, and Christ Himself had fulfilled it and promulgated it with His lips. This commission was faithfully fulfilled by the Apostles who, by their oral preaching, by example, and by observances handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they had learned through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The commission was fulfilled, too, by those Apostles and apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing. (2)

But in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, “handing over” to them “the authority to teach in their own place.”(3) This sacred tradition, therefore, and Sacred Scripture of both the Old and New Testaments are like a mirror in which the pilgrim Church on earth looks at God, from whom she has received everything, until she is brought finally to see Him as He is, face to face (see 1 John 3:2).

8. And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (see 2 Thessalonians 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (see Jude 1:3) (4) Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.

This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. (5) For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.

The words of the holy fathers witness to the presence of this living tradition, whose wealth is poured into the practice and life of the believing and praying Church. Through the same tradition the Church’s full canon of the sacred books is known, and the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her; and thus God, who spoke of old, uninterruptedly converses with the bride of His beloved Son; and the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel resounds in the Church, and through her, in the world, leads unto all truth those who believe and makes the word of Christ dwell abundantly in them (see Col. 3:16).

9. Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.(6)

10. Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort. (7)

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, (8) has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, (9) whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.

Selections from the GENERAL AUDIENCE Wednesday, 3 May 2006 Pope Benedict XVI speaks to the topic of Apostolic Tradition

The Apostolic Tradition of the Church  
The last time we meditated on the theme of Apostolic Tradition. We saw that it is not a collection of things or words, like a box of dead things. Tradition is the river of new life that flows from the origins, from Christ down to us, and makes us participate in God’s history with humanity.

This topic of Tradition is so important that I would like to reflect upon it again today:  indeed, it is of great importance for the life of the Church.

The Second Vatican Council pointed out in this regard that Tradition is primarily apostolic in its origins:  “God graciously arranged that the things he had once revealed for the salvation of all peoples should remain in their entirety, throughout the ages, and be transmitted to all generations.

Therefore, Christ the Lord, in whom the entire Revelation of the Most High God is summed up (cf. II Corinthians 1: 20; and 3: 16-4, 6), commanded the Apostles to preach the Gospel… and communicate the gifts of God to all men. This Gospel was to be the source of all saving truth and moral discipline.”

Communicated By The Apostolic Community
This is clearly highlighted and visible in certain passages of the Pauline Letters:  “I delivered to you… what I also received” (1Corinthians15: 3). And this is important. St Paul, it is well-known, originally called by Christ with a personal vocation, was a real Apostle, yet for him too, fidelity to what he received was fundamentally important. He did not want “to invent” a new, so-to-speak, “Pauline” Christianity. Therefore, he insisted, “I have passed on to you what I too received”. He passed on the initial gift that comes from the Lord and the truth that saves.

Then, towards the end of his life, he wrote to Timothy:  “Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us (2 Timothy 1: 14).

It is also effectively demonstrated by this ancient testimony of the Christian faith written by Tertullian in about the year 200:  “(The Apostles) after first bearing witness to the faith in Jesus Christ throughout Judea and founding Churches (there), they next went forth into the world and preached the same doctrine of the same faith to the nations. They then in like manner founded Churches in every city, from which all the other Churches, one after another, derived the tradition of the faith and the seeds of doctrine, and are every day deriving them, that they may become Churches. Indeed, it is on this account only that they will be able to deem themselves apostolic, as being the offspring of apostolic Churches” (Tertullian, De Praescriptione Haereticorum, 20:  PL 2, 32)….

The Church transmits all that she is and believes, she hands it down through worship, life and doctrine.

So it is that Tradition is the living Gospel, proclaimed by the Apostles in its integrity on the basis of the fullness of their unique and unrepeatable experience:  through their activity the faith is communicated to others, even down to us, until the end of the world. Tradition, therefore, is the history of the Spirit who acts in the Church’s history through the mediation of the Apostles and their successors, in faithful continuity with the experience of the origins.

This is what St Clement of Rome said towards the end of the first century: “The Apostles”, he wrote, “have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent by God. Christ, therefore, was sent forth by God, and the Apostles by Christ.

A Chain Of Service
“Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God…. Our Apostles also knew, through Our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the episcopal office.

“For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect foreknowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry” (Ad Corinthios, 42, 44:  PG 1, 292, 296).

This chain of service has continued until today; it will continue to the end of the world. Indeed, the mandate that Jesus conferred upon the Apostles was passed on by them to their successors. Going beyond the experience of personal contact with Christ, unique and unrepeatable, the Apostles passed on to their successors the solemn mandate that they had received from the Master to go out into the world. “Apostle” comes precisely from the Greek term, “apostéllein”, which means “to send forth”.

The apostolic mandate – as the text of Matthew shows (Matthew 28: 19ff.) – implies a service that is pastoral (“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…”), liturgical (“baptizing them”), and prophetic (“teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”), guaranteed by the Lord’s closeness, until the end of time (“and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age”).

Thus, but differently from the Apostles, we too have a true, personal experience of the presence of the Risen Lord.

Therefore, through the apostolic ministry it is Christ himself who reaches those who are called to the faith. The distance of the centuries is overcome and the Risen One offers himself alive and active for our sake, in the Church and in the world today.

This is our great joy. In the living river of Tradition, Christ is not 2,000 years away but is really present among us and gives us the Truth, he gives us the light that makes us live and find the way towards the future.


Selections from On War and Apocalypse by René Girard

February 19, 2010

I’ve been featuring various topics on a theory of violence promoted by Rene Girard, who is a French-born literary critic, anthropologist, and theologian. Elected to the Académie française in 2005, he is the author of such books as Deceit, Desire, and the Novel  and Violence and the Sacred . In the following essay originally in First Things, I’ve made selections, provided topics and emphasized significant points.  

A dense and complex essay, On War and Apocalypse, approaches the War on Terror from Girard’s theories of violence and his reading of the Gospels. As one reader wrote of our current situation:

The worst scapegoating episode of all human history took place in the lifetime of many living today. Only sixty-four years ago, hate and ideology combined with technology to “sacrifice” six million Jews. The Nazi “sacrificers” did indeed believe that the elimination of the Jews would solve the problems of their society. And they came so close to total success that Europe is now one of the most “Jew-free” of continents.

But today, sixty-four years later, Europe and the rest of the world (now, sadly, including our own country) are watching with only slight interest the preparations being made for the next round of the Holocaust. Iran, the world’s oldest “Islamic Republic” and arguably the only truly Islamist-jihadist power, is developing the modern weaponry that will permit them to take care of the “problem” of Jews in the Middle East. And thanks to the success of the “Zionist entity”, six million Jews are gathered together in an area the size of New Jersey, within mid-range flying distance of Iranian missiles.

It is clear that the Muslim world, at least throughout its Arab and Iranian spheres, regards Israel as the source of all their problems. Israeli democracy shames their primitive despotisms. Israeli economic prosperity contrasts painfully with their poverty and underdevelopment (even where petro-dollars spring from the very soil, their economies are embarrassingly weak and unproductive.) Israeli respect for human rights and human dignity offers endless humiliating contrasts. Arab citizens of Israel are better off, in every material and political way, than the “citizens” of any of Israel’s neighbors. And since 1947, the Muslim cry throughout the Middle East has been consistent: “Our problems (poverty, ignorance, despotism…) will not be solved until the Jews are pushed into the sea!” This fits Girard’s (or anyone else’s) definition of a scapegoat scenario.

Geo-political “realists” of course argue that a nuclear-armed Iran could be deterred from attacking Israel by the threat of retaliation. This was true of the Soviets, they argue. And it may be true of Iran, too, if the realists are correct in discounting the theology of radical jihad. If Islamist terrorists really don’t believe their own rhetoric, and are simply trying to bluff their way to some position of regional hegemony, then maybe Shoah Two will be indefinitely postponed.

But this “realism” all depends on refusing to take the Islamist Jihad movement at its word and imagining the solution to our Cold War with the Soviet state is going to be replicated again with the Iranian theocracy. European and American “realists” can safely think this way. Israelis cannot. In facing this imminent danger of another mass “sacrifice” of the Jews, Israel at least has its eyes wide open. Unlike Isaac, they do not wonder “Where is the sacrifice for the altar?” They know.

The question for Christians, and for all who recognize the scapegoat mechanism and its underlying injustice, is: Where do we stand? Not with the scapegoaters, of course. But are we content to stand on the sidelines, as spectators? Or do we recognize our obligation to stand against the forces of human sacrifice? Do we take our stand with the victim or, more Christ-like, in the stead of the victim?

The Process Of Hominization
My work has often been presented as a discussion of archaic religion through comparative anthropology. Its goal is to shed light on the process of hominization: the fascinating passage from animality to humanity that occurred thousands of years ago.

In all of this, my hypothesis has concerned mimesis: Because humans imitate one another, they have had to find a means of dealing with contagious similarity, which could lead to the pure and simple disappearance of their society. The mechanism by which they have done that is sacrifice, which reintroduces difference into a situation in which everyone has come to resemble everyone else.

What this means is that humanity results from sacrifice; we are the children of religion. What I call (after Freud) the “founding murder” — the immolation of a sacrificial victim who is both guilty of disorder and able to restore order — is constantly reenacted in the rituals at the origin of our institutions. Since the dawn of humanity, millions of innocent victims have been killed in this way to enable their fellow humans to live together or at least not to destroy one another.

This is the implacable logic of the sacred, which myths dissimulate less and less as humans become increasingly self-aware. The decisive point in this evolution is Christian revelation. Rituals had slowly educated humans; after Christianity, they had to do without. Christianity, in other words, demystifies religion.

And yet, demystification, which is good in the absolute, has proven bad in the relative, for we were not prepared to shoulder its consequences. We are not Christian enough.

The paradox can be put in a different way: Christianity is the only religion that has foreseen its own failure. This prescience is known as the apocalypse. Indeed, it is in the apocalyptic texts that the word of God is most forceful, repudiating mistakes that are entirely the fault of humans, who are less and less inclined to acknowledge the mechanisms of their violence. The longer we persist in our error, the stronger God’s voice will emerge from the devastation. This is why no one wants to read the apocalyptic texts that abound in the synoptic gospels and Pauline epistles. This is also why no one wants to recognize that these texts rise up before us because we have disregarded the Book of Revelation. Once in our history the truth about the identity of all humans was spoken, and no one wanted to hear it; instead we hang ever more frantically onto our false differences.

The Paradox Of Understanding Violence
Two world wars, the invention of the atomic bomb, and all the rest of the modern horrors have not sufficed to convince humanity, and Christians above all, that the apocalyptic texts might concern the disaster that is underway. Violence has been unleashed across the whole world, and our paradox is this: By getting closer to Alpha, we are going toward Omega; by better understanding the origin, we can see every day a little better that the origin is coming closer. Our fetters were put in place by the founding murder and unshackled by the Passion — with the result of liberating planet-wide violence.

We cannot refasten the bindings because we now know that the scapegoats of sacrifice are innocent. Christ’s Passion unveiled the sacrificial origin of humanity once and for all. It dismantled the sacred and revealed its violence. And yet, the Passion freed violence at the same time that it freed holiness. The modern form of the sacred is thus not a return to some archaic form. It is a sacred that has been satanized by the awareness we have of it, and it indicates, through its excesses, the imminence of the Second Coming.

Clausewitz’s On War
War, Heraclitus wrote, “is father of all and king of all.” That law of human relations was reformulated, a few years after Napoleon’s fall, in an office of the Berlin Military Academy. And the reformulation took the shape of a trend to extremes, the inability of politics to contain the reciprocal increase of violence. Its author, Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), left his book unfinished when he died, but it is perhaps the greatest text ever written on war: a treatise that the English, Germans, French, Italians, Russians, and Chinese have read and reread from the end of the nineteenth century until the present day.

Clausewitz’s On War claims to be a work on strategy. It discusses what was at the time the most recent example of the trend to extremes, which had occurred, as always, unbeknownst to those involved. Clausewitz spoke to us about his specialty as if it were not related to everything else that was going on around it, and the result has implications far beyond his discourse. He formulated and helped identify what might be called Prussianism in its most disturbing form, without considering the consequences of what he had identified.

Ours is the first society that knows it can completely destroy itself. Yet we lack the belief that could bear up under this knowledge. It is not theologians who set us on the track of the new rationality; that was done by a man who died in 1831 at the age of fifty-one. He was a military theorist whom France, England, and the Soviet Union detested, a feisty writer who left no one indifferent. His actual theses have no future. Yet there is a subcurrent running beneath them that needs to be read aloud, for it can reveal a hidden reality.

It would be hypocritical to see On War as only a technical book. What happens when we reach the extremes that Clausewitz glimpses before hiding them behind his strategic considerations? He does not tell us. This is the question we have to ask today. Clausewitz had a stunning intuition about history’s suddenly accelerated course, but he immediately disguised it and tried to give his book the tone of a technical, scholarly treatise. We therefore have to complete Clausewitz by taking up the route he interrupted and following it to the end. Completing the interpretation of On War is to say that its meaning is religious and that only a religious interpretation has a chance of reaching what is essential in it. Through Clausewitz’s text, the relevance of the apocalyptic texts becomes apparent with greater force.

We must not turn the author of On War into a scapegoat, as did, in their time, Stalin and one of Clausewitz’s most famous commentators, Liddell Hart. We shall also not be content with the timidity with which Raymond Aron tried to rehabilitate him. The reason the text is not yet fully understood is perhaps because it has been attacked and defended too often. It is as if we have not yet wanted to understand the central intuition that it seeks to hide.

This constant denial is interesting. Clausewitz was possessed, like all the great writers, by resentment. It was because he wanted to be more rational than the strategists who preceded him that he suddenly put his finger on an aspect of reality that is absolutely irrational. Then he retreated and tried to shut his eyes.

Clausewitz conceived relations among men as mimetic, in spite of his philosophical approach being that of Enlightenment rationalism. He provided all the means for showing that the world is tending more and more to extremes, and yet his imagination always thwarted and limited his intuitions. Clausewitz and his commentators are hampered by their rationalism. This is as good a proof as any that a different kind of rationality is needed to understand the reality of what he glimpsed.

Durch diese Wechselwirkung wieder das Streben nach dem Äußersten, he wrote in his first chapter: “War is an act of violence, which in its application knows no bounds; as one dictates the law to the other, there arises a sort of reciprocal action, which, in the conception, must lead to an extreme.” Without realizing it, Clausewitz discovered not only the apocalyptic formula but also that it is bound up with mimetic rivalry. Where can this truth be understood in a world that continues to close its eyes to the incalculable consequences of mimetic rivalry? Not only was Clausewitz right, in opposition to Hegel and all modern wisdom, but what he was right about has terrible implications for humanity. This warmonger alone saw certain things.

Christ And The Apocalypse
Christ allows us to face this reality without sinking into madness. The apocalypse does not announce the end of the world; it creates hope. If we suddenly see reality, we do not experience the absolute despair of an unthinking modernity but rediscover a world where things have meaning. Hope is possible only if we dare to think about the danger at hand, but this requires opposing both nihilists, for whom everything is only language, and pragmatic realists, who reject the idea that intelligence can attain truth: heads of state, bankers, and soldiers who claim to be saving us when in fact they are plunging us deeper into devastation each day.

By accepting to be crucified, Christ brought to light what had been “hidden since the foundation of the world” — the foundation itself, the unanimous murder that appeared in broad daylight for the first time on the Cross. In order to function, archaic religions need to hide their founding murder, which was being repeated continually in ritual sacrifices, thereby protecting human societies from their own violence. By revealing the founding murder, Christianity destroyed the ignorance and superstition that are indispensable to such religions. It thus made possible an advance in knowledge that was until then unimaginable.

Freed of sacrificial constraints, the human mind invented science, technology, and all the best and worst of culture. Our civilization is the most creative and powerful ever known, but also the most fragile and threatened because it no longer has the safety rails of archaic religion. Without sacrifice in the broad sense, it could destroy itself if it does not take care, which clearly it is not doing.

The Protective System Of Scapegoats
Was Paul a megalomaniac when he said in the First Letter to the Corinthians that “none of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory”? I do not think so. The rulers of the age, and all that Paul calls powers and principalities, were state structures based on the founding murder, which was effective because hidden. In the context, the leading power was the Roman Empire, which was essentially evil in the absolute but indispensable in the relative — and better than the total destruction about which the Christian revelation warns us. Once again, this does not mean that Christian revelation is bad. It is wholly good, but we are unable to come to terms with it.

A scapegoat remains effective as long as we believe in its guilt. Having a scapegoat means not knowing that we have one. Learning that we have a scapegoat is to lose it forever and to expose ourselves to mimetic conflicts with no possible resolution. This is the implacable law of the trend to extremes. The protective system of scapegoats is finally destroyed by the Crucifixion narratives as they reveal Jesus’ innocence and, little by little, that of all analogous victims. The process of education away from violent sacrifice thus got underway, but it moved very slowly, making advances that were almost always unconscious. It is only today that it has had increasingly remarkable results in terms of our comfort — and at the same time proved ever more dangerous for the future of life on Earth.

To make the revelation wholly good and not threatening at all, humans have only to adopt the behavior recommended by Christ: Abstain completely from retaliation and renounce the trend to extremes. Indeed, if the trend to extremes continues, it will lead straight to the extinction of all life on the planet. This is the possibility that Raymond Aron glimpsed when reading Clausewitz. He then wrote an impressive work to expel apocalyptic logic from his mind and persuade himself at all costs that the worst could be avoided, that deterrence would always triumph. This budding religious clairvoyance is superior to what most people are capable of, but insufficient. We have to take the interpretation of the text further. The interpretation has to be finished.

A Founding Murder In Reverse
Since the beginning of the “novelistic conversion” in my 1961 study Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, all of my books have been more or less explicit apologies of Christianity. Christianity is a founding murder in reverse, which illuminates what has to remain hidden to produce ritual, sacrificial religions. Paul compared it to food for adults, in contrast with food for children, which is what archaic religions were. Nietzsche himself sometimes had intuitions of this kind regarding the Greeks’ “infantile” character.

To make the situation even more perverse, however, Christian revelation is the paradoxical victim of the knowledge that it provides. Absurdly, it is conflated with myth, which it clearly is not, and doubly misunderstood by both its enemies and partisans, who tend to confuse it with one of the archaic religions that it demystifies. Yet all demystification comes from Christianity. Even better: The only true religion is the one that demystifies archaic religions.

Participating In The Divinity Of Christ
Christ came to take the victim’s place. He placed himself at the heart of the system to reveal its hidden workings.
The second Adam, to use St. Paul’s expression, revealed to us how the first came to be. The Passion teaches us that humanity results from sacrifice, is born with religion. Only religion has been able to contain the conflicts that would have otherwise destroyed the first groups of humans. Mimetic theory does not seek to demonstrate that myth is null but to shed light on the fundamental discontinuity and continuity between the Passion and archaic religion. Christ’s divinity, which precedes the Crucifixion, introduces a radical rupture from the archaic, but Christ’s resurrection is in complete continuity with all forms of religion that preceded it. The way out of archaic religion comes at this price. A good theory about humanity must be based on a good theory about God.

People in the process of being educated, who are not yet fully human, can become so only by measuring themselves against the divine, and there comes a time when God can reveal himself fully to them. It is understandable that Christ frightened the apostles. He is also, however, the only model, the one that places man at just the right distance from the divine. Christ came to reveal that his kingdom was not of this world but that humans, once they have understood the mechanisms of their own violence, can have an accurate intuition of what is beyond it. We can all participate in the divinity of Christ so long as we renounce our own violence.

And yet, we now know, in part thanks to Clausewitz, that humans will not renounce it. The paradox is thus that we are starting to grasp the gospel message at the moment when the trend to extremes is becoming the unique law of history.

The Terrifying Meaning Of History
Christian revelation has confirmed all religions in its relation to the divine that is rejected by the modern world. It confirms what religions have glimpsed. In a way, it is because Christ accepted the mold of false resurrections that he is truly risen. The beneficiaries of archaic resurrections that reestablished peace and order were in a real relation to the divine. There was something Christian in all myths. By revealing the victims’ innocence, however, the Passion makes positive what was still negative in myths: We now know that victims are never guilty. Satan thus becomes the name of a sacred that is revealed and devalued through Christ’s intervention.

At present, the wise and the discerning (which I suppose now refers to academics) are furiously redoubling their attacks on Christianity and once again congratulating themselves on its forthcoming demise. These unfortunates do not see that their skepticism itself is a byproduct of Christian religion. While it is good to get rid of the sacrificial idiocies of the past in order to accelerate progress, eliminating obstacles to humanity’s forward march and facilitating the invention and production of what will make our lives more prosperous and comfortable (at least in the West), it is nonetheless true that sacrificial stupidity was also what prevented us from perfecting ways of killing one another.

Paradoxically, stupid sacrifice is what we are most in need of at present. Few Christians still talk about the apocalypse, and they usually have a completely mythological conception of it. They think that the violence of the end of time will come from God himself. They cannot do without a cruel God. Strangely, they do not see that the violence we ourselves are in the process of amassing and that is looming over our own heads is entirely sufficient to trigger the worst. They have no sense of humor.

Violence is a terrible adversary, since it always wins. Desiring war can thus become a spiritual attitude. We have to fight a violence that can no longer be controlled or mastered. More than ever, I am convinced that history has meaning, and that its meaning is terrifying.

In fact, the apocalyptic moment serves as a link between Clausewitz’s treatise and considerations on the destiny of Europe. If we take to its logical conclusion our analysis of a new global escalation of extremes, we have to consider the complete novelty of the situation since September 11, 2001. Terrorism has again raised the level of violence up a notch. It is one of the last metastases of the cancer that has torn the Western world apart. Terrorism is the vanguard of a general revenge against the West’s wealth. It is a very violent and unpredictable revival of conquest, which is all the more terrifying because it has encountered America along the way.

In this sense, everyone knows that the future of the idea of Europe, and thus also the Christian truth running through it, will be played out in South America, India, and China as well as in Europe. Europe has been playing a role analogous to Italy’s during the wars of the sixteenth century, except worse. It has been the battlefield of the entire world. Europe is a tired continent that no longer puts up much resistance to terrorism. This explains the stunning nature of the attacks, which are often carried out by people on the inside. Resistance is all the more complex because the terrorists are close to us, beside us. The actions are completely unpredictable. The very idea of sleeper cells corroborates everything we have said about the violent mechanisms by which cultures mediate themselves: the identity between people that can suddenly take a turn for the worst.

September 11th Violence
Atta, the leader of the September 11 group who piloted one of the four airplanes, was the son of a middle-class Egyptian family. It is staggering to think that, during the three last days before the attack, he spent his nights in bars with his accomplices. There is something mysterious and intriguing in this. Who asks about the souls of those men? Who were they and what were their motivations? What did Islam mean to them? What does it mean to kill oneself for that cause?

We are witnessing a new stage in the escalation to extremes. Terrorists have conveyed the message that they are ready to wait, that their notion of time is not ours. This is a clear sign of the return to the archaic, a return to the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, which is significant in itself. But who is paying attention to this significance? Who is taking its measure? Is that the job of the ministry of foreign affairs? We have to expect a lot of unexpected things in the future. We are going to witness things that will certainly be worse. Yet people will remain deaf.

On September 11, people were shaken, but they quickly calmed down. There was a flash of awareness, which lasted a few fractions of a second. People could feel that something was happening. Then a blanket of silence covered up the crack in our certainty of safety. Western rationalism operates like a myth: We always work harder to avoid seeing the catastrophe. We neither can nor want to see violence as it is. The only way we will be able to meet the terrorist challenge is by radically changing the way we think. Yet, the clearer it is what is happening, the stronger our refusal to acknowledge it. This historical configuration is so new that we do not know how to deal with it. It is precisely a modality of what Pascal saw: the war between violence and truth. Think about the inadequacy of our recent avant-gardes who preached the nonexistence of the real.

We have to think about time in such a way that the Battle of Poitiers and the Crusades are much closer to us than the French Revolution and the industrialization of the Second Empire in France. The points of view of Western countries are at most unimportant background features for Islamists. They think of the Western world as having to be Islamicized as quickly as possible. Analysts tend to say that this is the attitude of isolated minorities cut off from the reality in their countries. They may be so with respect to action, of course, but with respect to thought?

Despite everything, does such thinking not contain something essentially Islamic? This is a question that we have to have the courage to ask, even though it is a given that terrorism is a brutal action that hijacks religious codes for its own purposes. It would not have taken such a hold on people’s minds if it did not bring up to date something that has always been present in Islam. To the great surprise of our secular republicans, religious thought is still very much alive in Islam. It cannot be denied that some of Muhammad’s theses are active in today’s world.

What we are witnessing with Islam, however, is nonetheless much more than a return of conquest; it is what has been rising ever since the French Revolution, after the communist period that acted as an intermediary. Indeed, Leninism had some of these features, but what it lacked was religion. Our new escalation to extremes is thus able to use all components: culture, fashion, political theory, theology, ideology, and religion. What drives history is not what seems essential in the eyes of Western rationalists.

If we had said in the 1980s that Islamism would play the role it plays today, people would have thought we were crazy. Yet the ideology promoted by Stalin already contained parareligious components that foreshadowed the increasingly radical contamination that has occurred over time. We therefore have to radically change the way we think and try to understand the situation without any presuppositions and using all the resources available from the study of Islam.

The work to be done is immense. Personally, I have the impression that this religion has used the Bible as a support to rebuild an archaic religion that is more powerful than all the others. It threatens to become an apocalyptic tool, the new face of the escalation to extremes. Even though there are no longer any archaic religions, it is as if a new one had arisen built on the back of the Bible, a slightly transformed Bible. It would be an archaic religion strengthened by aspects of the Bible and Christianity. Archaic religion collapsed in the face of Judeo-Christian revelation, but Islam resists. While Christianity eliminates sacrifice wherever it gains a foothold, Islam seems in many respects to situate itself prior to that rejection.

Of course, there is resentment in its attitude to Judeo-Christianity and the West, but it is also a new religion. Historians of religion, and even anthropologists, have to show how and why it emerged. Indeed, some aspects of this religion contain a relation to violence that we do not understand and that is all the more worrying for that reason. For us, it makes no sense to be ready to pay with one’s life for the pleasure of seeing the other die. We do not know whether such phenomena belong to a special psychology or not.

We are thus facing complete failure; we cannot talk about it, and we cannot document the situation because terrorism is something new that exploits Islamic codes but does not at all belong to classical Islamic theory. Today’s terrorism is new, even from an Islamic point of view. It is a modern effort to counter the most powerful and refined tool of the Western world: technology. It counters technology in a way that we do not understand and that classical Islam may not understand either.

Clausewitz is easier to integrate into a historical development. He gives us the intellectual tools to understand the violent escalation. But where do we find such ideas in Islam? Modern resentment never leads all the way to suicide. Thus, we do not have the analogical structures that could help us understand. I am not saying that they are not possible, that they will not appear, but I admit my inability to grasp them. This is why our explanations often belong to the province of fraudulent propaganda against Muslims.

We do not experience this reality; we have no intimate, spiritual, phenomenological contact with it. Terrorism is a superior form of violence, and it asserts that it will win. There is no indication, however, that the work that remains to be done to free the Qur’an from its caricatures will have any influence on terrorism itself, which is both linked to Islam and different from it. We can thus put forward the tentative hypothesis that the escalation to extremes now uses Islam as it once used Napoleonism and Pangermanism. Terrorism is fearsome in that it knows how to use the most deadly technology outside of any military institution. Clausewitzian war is an analogy that can make only imperfect sense of terrorism, but it certainly does foreshadow it.

The Paradox Of Islam
In my 1972 book Violence and the Sacred, I borrowed the idea from the Qur’an that the ram that saved Isaac from being sacrificed was the same one that was sent to Abel so that he would not have to kill his brother: proof that in the Qur’an sacrifice is also interpreted as a means of combating violence. From this, we can draw the conclusion that the Qur’an contains understanding of things that secular mentality cannot fathom: that sacrifice prevents vengeance, for example. Yet, this topic has disappeared from Islam, just as it has disappeared in Western thought. The paradox that we thus have to deal with is that Islam is closer to us today than to the world of Homer. Clausewitz allowed us to glimpse this, through what we have called his warlike religion, in which we have seen the emergence of something both very new and very primitive. Islamism, likewise, is a kind of event internal to the development of technology. We have to be able to think about both Islamism and the escalation to extremes at the same time; we need to understand the complex relations between these two realities.

The unity of Christianity in the Middle Ages resulted in the Crusades, which were permitted by the papacy. And yet, the Crusades are not as important as Islam thinks. The Crusades were an archaic regression without consequences for the essence of Christianity. Christ died everywhere and for everyone. Seeing Jews and Christians as falsifiers is more irremediable. It allows Muslims to eliminate all serious discussion, all comparison among the three religions. It amounts to not wanting to see what is at stake in the prophetic tradition.

Collective Murder: Christianity and Islam
Why has Christian revelation been subject to the most hostile and ferocious possible criticism for centuries, but not Islam? There is an abdication of reason here. In some respects, it resembles the aporia (vocab: a difficulty encountered in establishing the theoretical truth of a proposition, created by the presence of evidence both for and against it.)of pacifism, which can be a strong encouragement for aggression. The Qur’an would thus benefit from being studied in the same way that Jewish and Christian texts have been studied. I think that a comparative approach would reveal that it contains no real awareness of collective murder.

By contrast, there is a Christian awareness of such murder. The two greatest conversions, those of Peter and Paul, are analogous: They are one with the awareness of having participated in a collective murder. Paul was there when Stephen was stoned to death. His departure for Damascus immediately followed that murder, which must have affected him terribly. Christians understand that the Passion has rendered collective murder inoperative. This is why, far from reducing violence, the Passion aggravates it.

Islamism seems to have understood this very quickly, but in the sense of jihad. There are forms of acceleration in history that are self-perpetuating. We have the impression that today’s terrorism is somehow the heir of totalitarianism, that terrorism and totalitarianism contain similar forms of thought and ingrained habits. One of the possible threads of this continuity is the construction of a Napoleonic model by a Prussian general.

The model was later taken up by Lenin and Mao Zedong (referenced by al-Qaeda). Clausewitz’s brilliance lies in his having unknowingly anticipated a law that has become worldwide. The Cold War is over, and now we are in a hot war, given the hundreds, and tomorrow perhaps the thousands, of victims every day in the Middle East.

Violence Belongs To A Form Of Corrupted Sacred
The trend toward the apocalypse is humanity’s greatest feat. The more probable this achievement becomes, the less we talk about it. I have come to a crucial point: that of a profession of faith, more than a strategic treatise, unless both are mysteriously equivalent, in the essential war that truth wages against violence. I have always been utterly convinced that violence belongs to a form of corrupted sacred, intensified by Christ’s action when he placed himself at the heart of the sacrificial system. Satan is the other name of the escalation to extremes. The Passion has radically altered the archaic world. Satanic violence has long reacted against this holiness, which is an essential transformation of ancient religion.

It is thus that God revealed himself in his Son, that religion was confirmed once and for all, thereby changing the course of human history. Inversely, the escalation to extremes reveals the power of this divine intervention. Divinity has appeared and it is more reliable than all the earlier theophanies, but no one wants to see it.

Humanity is more than ever the author of its own fall because it has become able to destroy its world. With respect to Christianity, this is not just an ordinary moral condemnation but an unavoidable anthropological observation. Therefore we have to awaken our sleeping consciences. To seek to comfort is always to contribute to the worst.


A New Anthropos

February 18, 2010

Caravaggio's Salome

Avoiding The Prophetic Tradition’s Old Trap
Throughout the Old Testament the renunciation of sacrifice always took place sacrificially. If we are to take seriously the New Testament’s proposal for a new anthropos — an alternate way of engendering social and psychological stability — the text that proposes it will have to teach us how to avoid the trap into which the prophetic tradition fell from Moses to John the Baptist. It will have to decode and decommission the mechanism by which the old anthropology of sacrifice turned its fieriest critics into its most faithful perpetuators.

As illuminating as it is, it is not enough to recognize how the same mimetic forces that breed discord — the diabolos — restore social harmony at a later stage of the crisis — Satan — by transferring all the social poisons onto one scapegoat victim. We must better understand how even those who have begun to recognize this process and raise moral objections to it still get caught up in the social contagions choreographed by the diabolos and Satan. The New Testament cannot be humanity’s revelatory text par excellence unless it can show us how to keep from turning our moral outrages into newfangled versions of the thing that outraged us.

John The Baptist’s Fatal Collision With The Court Of Herod
If the fiery beginning of John’s prophetic career set in motion Jesus’ own vocation, another important factor in Jesus’ growing understanding of his mission seems to have been John the Baptist’s fatal collision with the court of Herod, the Jewish client monarch who ruled Judea at the time. Both personally and politically, Herod was a repulsive figure embroiled in endless plots and murderous intrigues, and John openly condemned him. Soon John was in Herod’s prison, and not long after that, dead. John’s fate seems to have had an effect on Jesus’ ministry comparable in many ways to the effect of the desert temptations. While in Herod’s prison, John sent his followers to Jesus to ask about the nature of Jesus’ mission:

Now John in his prison had heard what Christ was doing and he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or have we got to wait for someone else?” Jesus answered, “Go back and tell John what you hear and see: the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor; and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me.” (Matthew 11:2-6)

John took his spiritual challenge right to the core of Jewish apostasy and moral decay. With admirable courage, he challenged raw power and exposed himself to its cruelties. And what had Jesus done upon hearing of John’s plight? Had he been as bold to challenge? Had he faced the powers-that-be? Was he prepared to become, if need be, the resurrected John the Baptist, as Herod had feared at one point? Seen from the perspective of Herod’s dungeon, Jesus’ innocuous behavior left some doubt in the minds of John and his followers.

John urged contrition on his listeners and railed against their sinfulness. By contrast, it was Jesus’ conspicuous indifference toward his listeners’ prior moral failures that caused certain righteous elements in Jewish society to regard his mission as socially pernicious. Contrary to John, Jesus seems to have understood that the only real and lasting contrition occurs, not when one is confronted with one’s sins, but when one experiences the gust of grace that makes a loving and forgiving God plausible.

John warned of the approach of the kingdom and passionately enjoined his listeners to renounce their evil ways. Jesus inhabited that kingdom and made it a palpable reality for others by forgiving sins, restoring faith and hope to those around him, and bringing people he touched fully alive. What the encounter between Jesus and John’s disciples makes explicit, however, is that Jesus had consciously chosen not to do what John had done. John had raged at the shamelessness of the Herodian court in so bellicose a manner that the predictable reactions and counter-reactions were set off. Soon, John’s life and ministry became consumed — first morally and then literally — by the very thing he railed against.

Distinguishing Jesus From John The Baptist
When John’s disciples asked if Jesus was the one “who is to come,” using the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus spoke of his ministry of healing and reconciling, and he concluded by saying: “Happy is the man who does not lose faith in me.” In the literal Greek, he says: happy is he who is not scandalized by me. It is in this phrase that we find Jesus’ rebuttal to the critique of his ministry implied by John’s question. The Greek word skandalon is often translated as “stumbling block” or “offense.” There is as well, however, an implication in the word of an almost irresistible compulsion, an obsession.

When Jesus told John’s disciples that “happy is the one who is not scandalized by me,” he was responding to John’s implied critique of his more reticent missionary work. John had allowed himself to be scandalized by the moral and religious shamelessness of the Herodian court. The passion of his contempt eventually entangled him in the very delusions he was condemning. In his well-meaning attempt to usher in the kingdom he sensed- was imminent, John had become a player in the same melodrama whose insubstantiality and moral shabbiness he was condemning. Scandalized by Herod’s depravity, John merely became the occasion for another depraved act.

He accused Herod of the awful things that Herod did, but when the “diabolical” charade became “satanic,” it was John at whom the Accuser pointed. John’s accusations were certainly just, but they just as certainly gave the inevitable counter-accusations a thread of plausibility. John embroiled himself in the kind of sordid melodrama that destroys the moral coherence even of its despisers. If in the wilderness Jesus had come to appreciate something about the diabolical dynamic of mimesis, conflict, accusation, and scapegoating violence, John’s fate would have confronted him with a vivid and horrifying example of exactly that dynamic.

I feel, therefore, that there is in the Gospels a structural link between the diabolos, the skandalon, and the satan. They constitute what we might think of as a demonic trinity by which we humans are forever being drawn into the mimetic scenarios that blind us and lead eventually to violence.

The Fires Of Hell And The Depth Of The Problem Of Mimetic Rivalry
One episode in the Gospel of Matthew helps bring into focus what the New Testament means when it speaks of “scandal” and the need to avoid it if possible. In this story, Jesus’ disciples demonstrate how poorly even they understand his message by jockeying for position among themselves. Jesus rebukes them with what seems to be an extended non sequitur on the subject of scandalization:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.

Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks (stumbling blocks = scandal) Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes! “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble (causes you to stumble = is a scandal to you), cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.
 (Matthew 18:1-9) 

The first thing to notice is how the disciples’ lapse into mimetic rivalry evoked from Jesus a discourse on scandal and scandalizing. As I said, it seems at first a non sequitur. From the mimetic point of view, however, it is the perfect response. Jesus recognized his disciples’ anxiety about their relative social standing for what it was: an indication that they were becoming “stumbling blocks” for one another. They were becoming envious and rivalrous.

Ironically, Jesus here uses imagery that is scandalous in the conventional sense of being shocking in order to stress the dangers of scandal in the scriptural sense of something that arouses envious, covetous, or rivalrous desire. The image of gouging out one’s eye or crippling one self in order to avoid a dangerous possibility is so hideous, in fact, that there is no chance that it would be taken literally. At the same time, it dramatically underscores the scope of a danger of which Jesus’ disciples remain oblivious.

Here, however, it is only Jesus who understands the depth of the problem of mimetic rivalry. Only he had been to the desert. Only he had realized that the sower of discord dispenses satanic forms of camaraderie, and that all the kingdoms of this world owed their coherence to this satanic alchemist and his accusatory recipe for turning discord into harmony.

In the passage, Jesus uses two terms in speaking of the result of scandalization. In one verse he speaks of “endless conflagration” (my translation). Like all conflagrations in which the Bible takes an interest, this conflagration is no doubt a metaphor for violence. It is endless, obviously, because the violence cannot be effectively terminated. In other words, it is apocalyptic violence. The sacralized violence that had always been humanity’s instrument for terminating the deadly reciprocities of ordinary violence would be undermined by the Cross, and, during his lifetime, the man who was murdered on it implored his followers to avoid the scandals that led to reciprocities of rivalry and violence. What Jesus realized was that the only alternative the world would one day have to “endless conflagration” would be the renunciation of the highly flammable mixture of envy, rivalry, jealousy, and resentment for which the word “scandal” is a virtual synonym.

The other term Jesus used in this passage to warn against the effect of scandal was the Greek term here, as elsewhere, translated as “hell.” The Greek word is gehenna. The word has a literal as well as a symbolic reference. It refers to the garbage dump located in New Testament times southwest of Jerusalem. For better or worse, the smoldering fires that burned there “endlessly” gave the later Christian notion of “hell” its most enduring metaphor.

The deeper meaning of this passage surfaces, however, when we learn that gehenna was the Greek term that translated the Hebrew “valley of ben-hinnom” (the place where idol-worshiping Israelites had engaged in child sacrifice), the term that Jeremiah has used as a synonym for cults of human sacrifice generally. Seen against this larger scriptural backdrop, therefore, Jesus’ warnings become anthropologically intelligible. He sees rivalry leading to scandal, and scandal leading either back into the worst forms of cult sacrifice (gehenna) or, in a world whose sacrificial resources have been exposed and destroyed, to the endless conflagration of apocalyptic violence.

In this passage, astonishingly, Jesus responds to the most familiar and seemingly innocuous forms of scandal — the disciples’ petty rivalry for social status — with the direst of warnings about the dangers of human sacrifice and catastrophic violence. Either the passage is illogical or it is coherent at a level deeper than the one at which human behavior and its consequences are usually reckoned. Deciding whether it is one or the other is not a matter of idle curiosity. We live in an age in which we are encouraged from cradle to grave to maneuver for social or economic advantage vis-â-vis others, if Jesus’ rebuke to his disciples is not a clumsy mistake on his part or on the part of Matthew, then we flout his warnings about the need to avoid scandal at our peril.


The Gospel Revelation of the Founding Murder

February 17, 2010


Cain and Abel by Titian

This is taken from The Girard Reader, an anthology of Professor Rene Girard’s work: “The Girardian theory is one of the great intellectual achievements so the late twentieth century — a comprehensive vision of the psychological, sociological, political and religious processes of sin and redemption.”

The capacity of the Bible to suggest ever deeper interpretation is sometimes referred to as its carrying a “sensus plenior.” In Biblical exegesis, the phrase “sensus plenior” is used to describe the “deeper meaning intended by God” but not intended by the human author. The phrase originates from the Latin, and means “fuller sense,” the plenary sense in the mind of its divine author.

The theological basis of such a claim lies in the fact that the Bible has to serve as our guide in the life of faith right until the parousia. Thus we have to believe that God has placed in Scripture a fullness of meaning, which will help and satisfy people very different from ourselves in the future just as it has helped and satisfied people very different from ourselves in the past. Scripture transforms us by turning us toward our ultimate future, our salvation.

Scripture, the word of God, uses the human words, but in terms of transformative power it is infinitely more effective than any purely human language. The word of God in Scripture brings to birth a new person. In more characteristically Catholic language for the life of grace, it generates supernatural faith, hope, and love, and in this way radically alters the pattern of human existence.

It is in this sense that we see the Bible as the Word of God: a very human product that is also a divine gift. In a saying no less true for being oft repeated, the Bible is the Word of God in the words of men. The plethora of meanings to be derived from Scripture illustrate this divine gift and presenting Dr. Girard’s reading of scripture is meant to fulfill that observation. I am not suggesting that it is the sine qua non of exegesis but simply one of many possibilities. I love it for its intelligence and depth.

The Curses against the Pharisees
The truth of the scapegoat is written for all to see in the text of the Gospels. In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, there is a group of texts that used to be entitled the “Curses against the Scribes and Pharisees.” This title is no longer employed because of the embarrassment the reading of these texts usually provokes. In the literal sense, of course, such a title is perfectly valid. But it does tend to restrict unduly the vast implications of the way in which Jesus accuses his audience of Pharisees.

Obviously he is directing his accusations at them, but a careful examination reveals that he is using the Pharisees as an intermediary for something very much larger, and indeed something of absolutely universal significance is at stake. But then this is always the case in the Gospels. Every reading that restricts itself to particulars — however legitimate it may seem on the historical level — is nonetheless a betrayal of the overall significance.

The most terrible and meaningful “curse” comes right at the end of the text in both Matthew and Luke. I quote first of all from Matthew:

Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation.
(Matthew 23:34-36)

The text gives us to believe that there have been many murders. It only mentions two of them, however: that of Abel, the first to occur in the Bible, and that of a certain Zechariah, the last person to be killed in the Second Book of the Chronicles, in other words the last in the whole Bible as Jesus knew it.

Evidently mention of the first and last murders takes the place of a more complete list. The victims who belong between Abel and Zechariah are implicitly included. The text has the character of a recapitulation, and it cannot be restricted to the Jewish religion alone, since the murder of Abel goes back to the origins of humanity and the foundation of the first cultural order. Cainite culture is not a Jewish culture. The text also makes explicit mention of “all the righteous blood shed on earth.” It therefore looks as though the kind of murder for which Abel here forms the prototype is not limited to a single region of the world or to a single period of history. We are dealing with a universal phenomenon whose consequences are going to fall not only upon the Pharisees but upon this generation, that is, upon all those who are contemporary with the Gospels and the time of their diffusion, who remain deaf and blind to the news that is being proclaimed.

The text of Luke is similar, but it includes, before Abel is mentioned a further crucial detail. It identifies “the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah” (Luke 11:50–Si). The Greek text has apo kataboles kostnou, The same expression comes up in Matthew when Jesus quotes from Psalm 78 in reference to himself:

I will open my mouth in parables,
I will utter what has been hidden
since the foundation of the world.

(Matthew 13:35)

On each occasion the Vulgate uses the translation a constitutione mundi. But kata boles really seems to imply the foundation of the world insofar as it results from a violent crisis; it denotes order insofar as it comes out of disorder. The term has a medical use to mean the onslaught of a disease, the attack that provokes a resolution.

We must certainly not lose sight of the fact that, for Jewish culture, the Bible formed the only ethnological encyclopedia available or even conceivable. In referring to the whole of the Bible, Jesus is pointing not only at the Pharisees but at the whole of humanity. Clearly the dreadful consequences of his revelation will weigh exclusively on those who have had the advantage of hearing — if they refuse to take its meaning, if they will not recognize that this is a revelation which concerns them in the same way as it concerns the rest of humanity. The Pharisees to whom Jesus is speaking are the first to put themselves in this difficult position, but they will not be the last. It cannot be deduced from the Gospel text that their innumerable successors will not fall under the same condemnation, even if they belong to a different religion named Christianity.

Jesus is very well aware that the Pharisees have not themselves killed the prophets, any more than the Christians themselves killed Jesus. It is said that the Pharisees were the “sons” of those who carried out the killings (Matthew 23:31). This is not to imply a hereditary transmission of guilt, but rather an intellectual and spiritual solidarity that is achieved by means of a resounding repudiation — not unlike the repudiation of Judaism by the “Christians.” The sons believe they can express their independence of the fathers by condemning them, that is, by claiming to have no part in the murder. But by virtue of this very fact, they unconsciously imitate and repeat the acts of their fathers. They fail to understand that in the murder of the Prophets people refused to acknowledge their own violence and cast if off from themselves. The sons are therefore still governed by the mental structure engendered by the founding murder. In effect they are still saying:

If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.
(Matthew 23:30)

Paradoxically, it is in the very wish to cause a break that the continuity between fathers and sons is maintained.

To understand what is decisive about the texts in the synoptic Gospels we have just been considering, we need to confront them with the text from the Gospel of John that is most directly equivalent:

Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your wilt is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
(John 8:43-44)

Here the essential point is that a triple correspondence is set up between Satan, the original homicide, and the lie. To be a son of Satan is to inherit the lie. What lie? The lie that covers the homicide. This lie is a double homicide, since its consequence is always another new homicide to cover up the old one. To be a son of Satan is the same thing as being the son of those who have killed their prophets since the foundation of the world.

N. A. Dahl has, demonstrated that calling Satan a homicide is a concealed reference to the murder of Abel by Cain. It is undoubtedly true that Abel’s murder in Genesis has an exceptional importance. But this importance is due to the fact that it is the first founding murder and the first biblical account to raise a corner of the curtain that always covers the frightful role played by homicide in the foundation of human communities. This murder is presented to us, we have seen, as the origin of the law that sanctions murder as a sevenfold reprisal, the origin of the rule against homicide within the Cainite culture, and in effect the origin of that culture.

So the synoptic Gospels refer to Abel’s murder because it has an exceptional significance. But we should not wish to bring the Johannine text back at any price to the literal meaning of the synoptic text, which refers to a certain person called Abel or to a category of victims called “the prophets.” In writing “he was a murderer from the beginning” John’s text goes further than the others in disentangling the founding mechanisms; it excises all the definitions and specifications that might bring about a mythic interpretation. John goes to the full length in his reading of the text of the Bible, and what he comes up against is the hypothesis of the founding violence.

Biblical specialists are misled on this point in much the same way as ethnologists, and all other specialists in the human sciences, who move invariably from myth to myth and from institution to institution, from signifier to signifier in effect, or from signified to signified, without ever getting to the symbolic matrix of all these signifiers and signifieds — that is, to the scapegoat mechanism.

It is indeed the same mistake. But there is something more paradoxical and exclusive about the blindness of the biblical experts compared with those in the human sciences, because they have right under noses, in the text which they claim to be able to decipher, the key to the correct interpretation — the key to every interpretation — and they refuse to make use of it. They do not even notice the unbelievable opportunities staring them in the face.

Even with John’s text, the danger of a mythical reading is still present, clearly so, if we do not see that Satan denotes the founding mechanism itself — the principle of all human community. All of the texts in the New Testament confirm this reading, in particular the “Temptation” made by Satan the prince and principle of this world, princeps huius mundi. It is no abstract metaphysical reduction, no descent into vulgar polemics or lapse into superstition that makes Satan the true adversary of Jesus. Satan is absolutely identified with the circular mechanisms of violence, with man’s imprisonment in cultural or philosophical systems that maintain his modus vivendi (way of living, implies an accommodation between disputing parties to allow life to go on) with violence. That is why he promises Jesus domination provided that Jesus will worship him. But Satan is also the skandalon, the living obstacle that trips men up, the mimetic model insofar as it becomes a rival and lies across our path. For more on  skandalon in connection with desire read here. (Scroll down to Skandalon And Satan on the page.

Satan is the name of the mimetic process seen as a whole; that is why he is the source not merely of rivalry and disorder but of all the forms of lying order inside which humanity lives. That is the reason why he was a homicide from the beginning; Satan’s order had no origin other than murder and this murder is a lie. Human beings are sons of Satan because they are Sons of this murder. Murder is therefore not an act whose consequences could be eliminated without being brought to light and genuinely rejected by men. It is an inexhaustible fund, a transcendent source of falsehood that infiltrates every domain and structures everything in its own image, with such success that the truth cannot get in, and Jesus’ listeners cannot even hear his words. From the original murder, men succeed in drawing new lies all the time, and these prevent the word of the Gospel from reaching them. Even the most explicit revelation remains a dead letter.

Despite differences in style and tone, the Gospel of John says exactly the same thing as the synoptic Gospels. For the majority of modern commentators, the work of exegesis consists almost exclusively in trying to find the difference between the texts. Girard, on the other hand, looks for the convergence, since he believes that the Gospels represent four slightly different versions of one and the same form of thought. This form of thought necessarily escapes us if we start off from the principle that only the divergences are worthy of attention.

These divergences do indeed exist, though they are minor ones. Yet they are not without interest. In a number of cases they allow us to discover what might perhaps be called particular minor defects in respect to the entirety of the message that they are obliged to transcribe.

The Metaphor of the Tomb
We must now come back to the “Curses.” They testify to a concealed relation of dependence on the founding murder; they demonstrate a paradoxical continuity between the violence of past generations and the denunciation of that violence in contemporaries. Here we are getting to the heart of the matter; in the light of this mechanism the very one that has preoccupied us from the outset of these discussion — a great “metaphor” within the Gospel text becomes clear. This is the metaphor of the tomb. Tombs exist to honor the dead, but also to hide them insofar as they are dead, to conceal the corpse and ensure that death as such is no longer visible. This act of concealment is essential. The very murder in which the fathers directly took part already resemble tombs to the extent that, above all in collective and founding murders but also in individual murders, men kill in order to lie to others and to themselves on the subject of violence and death. They must kill and continue to kill, strange as it may seem, in order not to know that they are killing.

Now we can understand why Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees for putting up tombs for the prophets who have been killed by their fathers. Not to recognize the founding character of the murder, whether by denying that the fathers have killed or by condemning the guilty in the interests of demonstrating their own innocence, is to perpetuate the foundation, which is an obscuring of the truth. People do not wish to know that the whole of human culture is based on the mythic process of conjuring away man’s violence by endlessly projecting it upon new victims. All cultures and all religions are built on this foundation, which they then conceal, just as the tomb is built around the dead body that it conceals. Murder calls for the tomb and the tomb is but the prolongation and perpetuation of murder. The tomb-religion amounts to nothing more or less than the becoming visible of the foundations, of religion and culture, of their only reason for existence.

Woe to you! for you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and consent to the deeds of your fathers; for they killed them, and you build their tombs.
(Luke 11:47-48)

“For they killed them, and you build their tombs”: Jesus at once reveals and unambiguously compromises the history of all human culture. That is why he takes to himself the words of Psalm 78: “I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world — apo kataboles kosmou” (Matthew 13:35).

If the metaphor of the tomb applies to all forms of human order taken in their entirety, it can also be applied to the individuals formed by that order. On the individual level, the Pharisees are absolutely identified with the system of misrecognition on which they rely as a community.

It would be foolhardy to call “metaphorical” our usage of the term “tomb,” since we are so close to the heart of the matter. To speak of the metaphor is to speak of displacement, and yet no metaphorical displacement is involved here. On the contrary, it is the tomb that is the starting point of the constitutive displacements of culture. Quite a number of fine minds think that this is literally true on the level of human history as a whole; funerary rituals could well, as we have said, amount to the first actions of a strictly cultural type. There is reason to believe that these rituals took shape around the first of the reconciliatory victims, on the basis of the creative transference achieved by the first communities. This also brings to mind the sacrificial stones that mark the foundation of ancient cities, which are invariably associated with some story of a lynching, ineffectively camouflaged.

Archaeological discoveries seem to suggest that people were really building tombs for the Prophets in Jesus’ period. That is a very interesting point, and it is quite possible that a practice of this kind suggested the “metaphor.” However, it would be a pity to limit the significance generated in our text by the different uses of the term “tomb” to a mere evocation of this practice. The fact that the metaphor applies both to the group and to the individual clearly demonstrates that much more is involved than an allusion to specific tombs, just as much more is involved in the following passage than a mere “moral” indictment:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like white-washed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.
(Matthew 23:27)

Deep within the individual, as within the religious and cultural systems that fashion the individual, something is hidden, and this is not merely the individual “sin” of modern religiosity or the “complexes” of psychoanalysis. It is invariably a corpse that as it rots spreads its “uncleanness” everywhere.

Luke compares the Pharisees not just to tombs but to underground tombs, that is to say, invisible tombs — tombs that are perfect in a double sense, if we can put it like that, since they conceal not only death, but also their own existence as tombs.

Woe unto you! for you are like graves which are not seen, and men walk over them without knowing it.
(Luke 11:44)

This double concealment reproduces the way in which cultural differentiation develops on the basis of the founding murder. This murder tends to efface itself behind the directly sacrificial rituals, but even these rituals risk being too revealing and so tend to be effaced behind post-ritual institutions, such as judicial and political systems or the forms of culture. These derived forms give away nothing of the fact that they are rooted in the original murder.

So we have here a problem of knowledge which is always being lost, never to be rediscovered again. This knowledge certainly comes to the surface in the great biblical texts and above all in the prophetic books, but the organization of religion and law contrives to repress it. The Pharisees, who are satisfied with what seems to them to be their success in the religious life, are blind to the essentials and so they blind those whom they claim to be guiding:

Woe to you lawyers! for you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves and you hindered those who were entering.
(Luke 11:52)

Michel Serres saw the importance of this reference to the “key of knowledge.” Jesus has come in order to place men in possession of this key. Within the perspective of the Gospels, the Passion is first and foremost the consequence of an intolerable revelation, while being proof of that revelation. It is because they do not understand what he proclaims that Jesus’ listeners agree to rid themselves of him, and in so doing, they confirm the accuracy and the prophetic nature of the “curses against the Pharisees.”

They have recourse to violence, to expel the truth about violence:

As he went away from there, the scribes and the Pharisecs began to press him hard, and to provoke him to speak of many things, lying in wait for him, to catch at something he might say.
(Luke 11:53)

Human culture is organized around a more or less violent disavowal of human violence. That is what the religion that comes from man amounts to, as opposed to the religion that comes from God. By affirming this point without the least equivocation, Jesus infringes upon the supreme prohibition that governs all human order, and he must be reduced to silence. Those who come together against Jesus do so in order to back up the arrogant assumption that consists in saying: “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.”

The truth of the founding murder is expressed first of all in the words of Jesus, which connect the present conduct of men with the distant past, and with the near future (since they announce the Passion), and with the whole of human history The same truth of the founding murder will also be expressed, with even greater force, in the Passion itself, which fulfills the prophecy and gives it its full weight. If centuries and indeed millennia have to pass before this truth is revived, it is of little consequence. The truth is registered and will finally accomplish its work. Everything that is hidden shall be revealed.


Jesus’ Real Miracles

February 16, 2010

Lombard, The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes

The miracle of the loaves and fishes was not getting a few loaves and dried fish to multiply – it was far more than that, as Gil Bailie points out in this wonderful piece of exegesis. Seen in the broader context of Jesus’ ministry, what the miracle actually was is very different from the obvious.

Avoiding Impurity
There is abundant evidence suggesting that both during Jesus’ life and at the time the New Testament was written the flash point of Jewish religious orthodoxy was the dietary laws. These proscriptions were an elaboration of the passages in the book of Leviticus whose original function had been to regulate the selection, preparation, and consumption of animals used for ritual sacrifice. The dietary laws to which the Pharisees and other orthodox Jews carefully adhered prescribed meticulous ritual washings deemed necessary to avoid contamination, and they carefully regulated how food was to be prepared and eaten and with whom it might be safely shared. Scrupulosity about defiling contact with sinners and the fear of ingesting unclean food combined to make the sharing of meals a particularly touchy issue.

For observant Jews of the time, it was a perilous thing to share a meal with those about whose moral and religious status they were uncertain. Conscious intention had nothing to with the all-important matter of avoiding impurity. Contact with sinners or the ingestion of forbidden or unsanctified foods would defile one and make it necessary to submit to ritual cleansings, regardless of how inadvertent the exposure to the impurity might have been. The safest course, under the circumstances, was to avoid all contact with outcasts and sinners and with pagans and non-observing Jews. For those who strove to observe every detail of the elaborate dietary regulations, meals shared with anyone other than one’s most intimate kin and co-religionists were occasions fraught with moral and religious dangers

In the first century, Greek and Roman influence in Palestine was pervasive, and mingling with non-Jews became a fact of life for Jews living in the cities of Judea and Galilee. Consequently, orthodox Jews found  the task of adhering to the dietary proscriptions more challenging, while at the same time they felt adherence to these customs more than ever essential for the preservation of Jewish cultural identity It is only by understanding the moral significance of sharing meals for the Jews of Jesus’ time, therefore, that one can fully appreciate what was one of the distinguishing features of his ministry: table fellowship. Again and again, the Gospels show Jesus and his disciples sharing meals, and Jesus’ eagerness to share these meals with “sinners” and the “outcasts” may have been the most conspicuous feature of his ministry.

By simply sitting at table with those widely regarded as morally contemptible, Jesus earned the scorn of the Pharisees and other strict observers of Jewish custom. By sharing meals with those considered by the religiously righteous to be outcasts and sinners, Jesus challenged “the central ordering principle of the Jewish social world.” As Geza Vermes put it, Jesus “took his stand among the pariahs of the world, those despised by the respectable. Sinners were his table-companions and the ostracized tax collectors and prostitutes his friends.” The meals Jesus shared with the outcasts were not, therefore, simply the occasion for the delivery of his message. They were the message. They served as “prophetic signs” meant to manifest the meaning of Jesus’ ministry. They involved what Borg speaks of as a “radical relativizing of cultural distinctions.” It is in this context of Jewish dietary concerns that I think one can best understand the miracle of loaves and fishes.

The Miracle of Loaves and Fishes
It seems clear to me that Jesus’ burning passion was to free those he encountered from the grip of religious mystification and scandalous delusion whose effects were to harden the human heart and turn people into accomplices in cruelty and lovelessness. In trying to bring about this liberation, Jesus seems to have found the popular appetite for miracles exasperating. At times he fled from crowds looking for a miracle worker, and he resolutely refused to perform miracles simply for the purpose of demonstrating his ability to perform them.

It is important, therefore, to remember that for a miracle to have genuine religious significance it must transform the human heart and that it was a transformation of the heart that Jesus brought about in those he deeply touched. Curing a crippled leg is not as miraculous as curing a hardened heart or a despairing soul. In approaching the miracles, therefore, we should look to their spiritual effect primarily and strive to understand them on that level first. The great miracle of Jesus’ ministry was reconciliation — with God and with others. This, I think, is the starting point for understanding the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and the other miracles as well.

The various Gospel accounts of Jesus feeding large crowds from scant supplies may be versions of one memorable event for which several accounts survived. In the present form, the accounts presuppose that those who had come to hear him, some from considerable distance, brought no food with them. Jesus’ audience would have been almost exclusively made up of Jews, and, as I pointed out, most religious-minded Jews of the time would have taken the precaution of bringing with them enough bread or dried fish to insure that they would not be forced to eat food whose ritual purity was in doubt.

But taking the precaution of bringing a supply of ritually clean food would have been only one hurdle, and perhaps not the largest one. For eating these provisions while in the company of others of uncertain moral and religious character would have placed one in jeopardy of moral contamination from sinners and pagans. The fact that Jesus had a reputation for attracting and tolerating the socially marginal would have added to the anxiety of observant Jews in this regard. Not knowing the moral and religious status of those sitting nearby would have made many reluctant to bring out whatever provisions they had with them.

In all the accounts of Jesus feeding the multitude, it is Jesus who takes the initiative and invites the people to sit down and prepare for a meal. Sharing a meal together was his idea, not theirs. For reasons I have already stated, Jesus’ audience probably found the idea unsettling. This wariness, on the other hand, would have been symptomatic of the niggling religious apprehensions from which Jesus was trying to liberate them. Given the role of table fellowship in Jesus’ ministry, it is my view that it was not primarily the lateness of the hour that made the unexpected sharing of a meal necessary, but rather that Jesus decided to drive home the points he had been making in his preaching by inviting his audience to sit down then and there for the purpose of sharing a meal with those around them. The point of the feeding, in my opinion, was not food; it was the breaking down of religious and social barriers that Jesus had been challenging as spiritually inconsequential in his preaching. It was hands-on learning. It was practice for living in the kingdom.

All the Gospel accounts speak of Jesus praying a blessing before the miracle occurred. In other words, he didn’t just go to the few loaves and dried fish and cause them to multiply; he gave thanks to God in words to which the people listened carefully. It was then that the miracle occurred. By now the reader will have guessed what I think the miracle was. Jesus opened their hearts, and they, in turn, opened their satchels, and the greatest miracle of all occurred.

Following a pattern that is still today embedded in the Catholic Mass, Jesus preached of a God of love and forgiveness and then invited those who heard his message to sit down together and live for a moment in the “kingdom” about which he was preaching. Changing the human heart and liberating those trapped in religious superstition is simply a greater miracle than pulling loaves and dried fish out of a basket. The feeding of the multitude was a real miracle. The miracle was a new kind of community, one generated by prayer and inclusion, a “new generation.” Transitory as it may have been, it remains a model for a new community, one on which all human culture will one day have to be based. The social bond that gave the community that Jesus inspired its coherence had one conspicuous feature: the breaking down of religious prejudice.

Jesus performed other miracles. He cured the sick and cast out demons from those possessed by them. Just as in the case of the feeding of the multitude, however, we must not allow the greater — sometimes subtle — miracle to be eclipsed by more blatant but lesser miracles. Nothing deserves the name of miracle that does not renovate the human heart, and anything that does, deserves the name. Miraculously restoring a blind man’s sight is surely a most startling thing, inasmuch as it happens in defiance of what we think of as natural laws. But in and of itself simply making a blind man see may have little spiritual significance. In King Lear, old Gloucester, his eyes gouged out, says, “I stumbled when I saw.” On the other hand, Elias Canetti attributes the elation and conviction of a mob turning on its victim to “the excitement of blind men who are blindest when they suddenly think they can see.” This is the blindness that Jesus strove to cure.

Jesus cured those thought to be possessed by “demons,” but these cures were all features in his overall mission of exposing the perversities and ending the reign of “prince of this world” — the “Diabolos-Satan.” In New Testament times, to be diseased — whether physically or mentally — implied sinfulness. The good prospered materially and were rewarded with robust health, while the sinners, outcasts, and religious backsliders were fated to suffer for their apostasy and wickedness.

The logic of the underlying moral principle easily worked in reverse. A physical affliction was thought to be a divine punishment, perhaps for some sin that remained undetectable but that could be deduced from the fact of the affliction. A person in poverty or in ill-health or mentally ill or psychologicalIy distraught was thought to be marked by sin. Those with psychological or physical disorders suffered from a social stigma that may have been a greater source of distress than the. physical or mental affliction and that almost certainly placed the afflicted one in at least some social jeopardy.

Just as designation of a social crisis as a “plague” is often an early sign that a scapegoating episode is in the making, so the diagnosis of demonic possession indicates that those who have arrived at this diagnosis are slipping into the grip of the uncanny forces of primitive religion, forces whose eventual manifestation will be accusatory and violent.

When Jesus expelled the demon from the madman of Gerasene, the demon revealed his real name: Legion. The real demonic force under whose sway the “possessed” one begins to fall the moment his community designates him as “possessed” is the mob, which will eventually form to rid itself of the contaminated one. What is demonic is not the person suffering from this or that distress. What is demonic is the diagnosis of demonic possession. In healing the one possessed, Jesus effectively overrules the diagnosis or cancels its social consequences. He disarms the satanic (accusatory) power by restoring the dignity and social standing of those most in danger of becoming scapegoats.

Jesus’ whole life, ministry, and death had the effect of restoring to their senses those who had eyes but could not see and ears but could not hear. If the healing of disease or the. curing of afflictions involves a suspension of the “laws” of nature, softening the human heart or refashioning the human self requires that social and psychological reflexes relied upon and reinforced “since the foundation of the world” be overridden. So tenacious are these reflexes that they have often enough been thought synonymous with “human nature.” Transcending these reflexes, or suppressing their influence, is at least as arduous a feat as manipulating objects in the material order, and vastly more spiritually significant.


Diabolos And Satan

February 15, 2010




In this reading selection from Violence Unveiled, Gil Bailie explains the heart of Jesus’ uniqueness in terms of Girardian theory.

and Satan bowing ‘ow
His grey dissimulation, disappear’d
Into thin Air diffus’d…
John Milton, Paradise Regained

 Christ came so directly from silence into the word…that the whole world between silence and language — the world of mythology — was exploded and bereft of its significance and value. The characters in the world of myth now became demons stealing language from man and using it to cast demonic spells. Until the birth of Christ they were the leaders of men, but now they became the mis-leaders, the seducers, of men.
Max Picard

From an anthropological point of view the uniqueness of the Gospels is structural. They perfectly reproduce and then decode the “Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism” by which human cultural systems have been structured since “the foundation of the world.” The Gospels show, for instance, the underlying relationship between the conviction of the crowd and the “convict” at its center, between adulation and accusation, between violence and religion, and so on.

At the narrative level, the level at which Christian believers revere the texts, the Gospels present us with a man whose relationship with God was so utterly profound, unique, and mysterious that the ordinary meaning of the word “relationship” broke down under the weight of it; a man whose incomparable understanding of the human dilemma could in no way be explained by reference to learning or genius or wisdom or experience. I wish to reflect here on the issue of Jesus’ understanding of his own mission and the forces against which he had to contend in trying to share that understanding with the rest of us.

John the Baptist, one of the most charismatic figures of his age, slammed into first-century Palestine’s cauldron of religious and social agitation with shattering force. The role he played in the onset of Jesus’ ministry was profound. John’s effect on Jesus’ awareness is summed up in the first words John speaks in the New Testament. Preaching in the outlying regions of Judea, John proclaimed: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is dose at hand.” Upon his own return from a period of desert solitude, one probably modeled on John’s, Jesus repeated these words virtually verbatim.

When Pharisees and Sadducees came to John for baptism, he rebuked them: “Do not presume to tell yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ because, I tell you, God can raise children for Abraham from these stones” (Matthew 3:7-9). For John, the religious pedigree was next to worthless as an amulet for warding off the historical reckoning he sensed was about to occur.

Just as Israel’s great prophets of an earlier age had appeared at a time of crisis to challenge the religious and social routines of their age, so John stood as an unmistakable rebuke to the conventional Judaism of his day. “Implicit…in John’s whole movement,” writes Edward Schillebeeckx, “is an unprecedented disavowal of the Jerusalem Temple cult and propitiatory sacrifices.” To pious fellow Jews — whether of the Temple cult, the sectarian, or the politically zealous variety — John’s dismissal of Jewish distinctiveness represented a vehement attack on the centerpiece of their religious lives.

In the physical isolation of the desert, John had been far enough removed from the routine social fascinations to see how ultimately meaningless were the social and religious melodramas for which these fascinations served as the thematic warp and woof. Immediately after his baptism by John, Jesus headed straight for the lonely wilderness from which John had so recently returned with his vision of another reality.

The Devil and Satan
There can be little doubt that the most profound religious experience of Jesus’ early ministry — the one that brought that ministry into existence and into public view– was Jesus’ baptism by John at the Jordan. As embarrassing as it was for the early Christian community to have to admit that the man they claimed to be the messiah had so publicly deferred to another popular religious reformer, we can be sure that the story was not fabricated. Most likely, Jesus later reminisced with his friends and followers about the baptism and how it figured in his subsequent mission and the evangelists worked these reminiscences into the narrative accounts of Jesus’ baptism as they now appear in the Gospels. Were Jesus to tell his listeners that it was at the Jordan baptism that he first felt the power of God’s call, it would be quite natural for Matthew to express it the way he did:

As soon as Jesus was baptized he came up from the water, and suddenly the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. And a voice spoke from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved my favor rests on him.”
(Matthew 3:16-17)

Practically while these words calling him God’s son were still echoing, the Gospels tell us that Jesus went to the desert to be alone, to pray, and to struggle with the practical implications of the profound experience that accompanied his baptism in the Jordan. Since Jesus was alone during his desert retreat, had he not later spoken of it to his friends and disciples, nothing would be known of it. Furthermore, both Jesus and his disciples would have tended to understand his desert experience in terms of its religious and scriptural reverberations.

Jesus’ forty-day period of trial, for instance, obviously parallels the Israelites’ forty years of Exodus wanderings and the numerous scriptural echoes of it. And yet, as we shall now see, it is as much with the book of Genesis as with the book of Exodus that the wilderness story coincides. Matthew’s version of Jesus’ trials in the wilderness begins:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by
the devil.
(Matthew 4:1)

According to the synoptic accounts, at his baptism Jesus experienced being called “God’s son.” The devil begins each of his temptations with the words: “If you are the Son of God….” The devil tempts Jesus in precisely the same way that the serpent tempted Eve in the Genesis story.  Just as Adam and Eve — made in God’s image — were lured into envying God and striving to acquire that which would make them God’s equal, Jesus is tempted to “grasp at divinity” by a dazzling display of messianic power. The devil in the wilderness and the serpent in the garden both advertise their alluring offerings in the same way. In both stories, the “tempter” tempts by mimetic suggestion, and both stories revolve around whether or not one can remain God-centered enough in the presence of these mimetic decoys to be able to resist them.

In the desert, Jesus was tempted by the devil, the diabolos in Greek. This was a fairly common term for the demonic force in New Testament times, but it is a particularly apt one for understanding the forces against which Jesus contended throughout his public ministry. The prefix dia means across, and bollo means to throw or cast. It means one who maligns, or slanders, or sows discord and division. The devil breeds animosity; he sows resentment.

The New Testament personifies the diabolic force, and there is a good argument for doing so. By personifying the diabolic, we can better appreciate the autonomous way in which it actually functions. Since, however, demonizing is one of the devil’s most devious tricks, the mere fact that we personify the demonic involves certain dangers. Care must be taken. If, according to André Gide, the greatest ruse of Satan is to convince us that he does not exist, according to René Girard his second greatest ruse is to convince us that he does. In any case, one gets closer to the reality of this strange and compelling force by speaking and thinking of “the devil,” as the New Testament often does, than by trying to account for it in abstract terms or by invoking the familiar sociological or psychological idioms of our time. I will therefore follow the New Testament and personify the demonic force.

There is an unmistakable link between the call Jesus experienced at his baptism and his solitude in the desert that immediately followed the baptism. The story of the “temptations” is a story about Jesus wrestling with the nature of his vocation. It is as valid an affidavit as we will ever have for the mental and moral breakthrough that was to set Jesus’ ministry apart from that of other religious reformers of the time. In the desert, he rejected the temptations to turn his vocation into a religious sideshow, or to undertake yet another campaign of social or religious reform. He was tempted to turn stones into bread, to throw himself down from the parapet of the Temple, and to worship the devil in return for “all the kingdoms of the world.”

Matthew and Luke relied on the same source in constructing their respective accounts of the wilderness temptations. In Luke’s version of the temptations, we read that “leading him to a height, the devil showed him in a moment of time all the kingdoms of the world” (4:5). Luke understood that what appears as a “very high mountain” in Matthew’s Gospel was a metaphor, not for a panoramic vista, but for a moment of lucidity. He used the Greek word stigme, which comes from the verb meaning “to prick” or “to pierce,” and is often translated as “in a moment of time.” I feel that Luke provides the better account of the moment of clarity with which the trial by diabolic suggestion was brought to an abrupt end, while Matthew provides the better account of the reply that explodes out of the mouth of Jesus at that moment.

If it is not just a frivolous figure of speech, what might the gospel mean when it says that Jesus saw all the kingdoms of the world in an instant? Since Luke has replaced a spatial reference with a temporal one, the reference to “all” kingdoms implies all that have ever existed and all that ever will. To see all such kingdoms in an instant of time can refer only to one thing, namely, a flash of insight into the nature of these kingdoms, a revelation about the nature of human culture itself.

With the sketchy accounts of the wilderness temptations as a hint and with the whole of Jesus’ public ministry as a ramification of that hint, one can say that in the desert Jesus decoded the metaphysics of power and came to understand the demonic mechanisms by which culture itself is convened and perpetuated. Please note: this revelation need not have been a conceptual one in order to have been decisive for the life of the man to whom it was revealed. It wasn’t so much that Jesus had a concept, but rather that he apprehended the illusory and beguiling nature of the pre-conceptions upon which all cultures depend. All that the Gospels tell us of this revelation is that the kingdoms with which Jesus was “tempted” were at the disposal of the devil. Whatever the “kingdom of God” meant — and it was Jesus’ central proclamation — it did not mean a more magnificent or more Jewish version of the kingdoms of “this world.”

There was nothing in Jesus’ subsequent ministry to suggest the kind of Gnostic contempt for the material order that some later Christian sects adopted, but neither did Jesus concede any ultimate significance to conventional human culture. As Marcus Borg writes, “the Teaching of Jesus is world denying; indeed, the world of culture as the center of existence comes to an end.” According to Borg, “Jesus called his hearers to a life grounded in Spirit rather than one grounded in culture.” The poet W. H. Auden remarked wryly that culture was one of the things that belong to Caesar. Like nature, it is to be given its due, and one ought to be grateful for its blessings, but the worship of culture is just as pagan as the worship of nature, and just as likely to lead to the sacrificial altars.

What was really at stake in the wilderness comes to the surface at the end of the temptations. In Matthew’s version, the last temptation evoked from Jesus a powerful repudiation:

Then Jesus replied, “Be off, Satan! For scripture says:
You must worship the Lord your God
and serve him only.”
Then the devil left him, and angels appeared and looked after him.
(Matthew 4:10-11)

This is the first use of the term Satan in Matthew’s Gospel. Until this moment, the tempter was referred to only as “the devil,” the diabolos The fact that the terms satan and diabolos are used interchangeably in the New Testament has tended to obscure the structural significance of their interplay in Matthew’s account of the wilderness temptations. The force with which the exclamation “Be off, Satan!” exploded from Jesus cannot be explained merely as moral exasperation. For that matter, one could argue that morally exasperating temptations hardly qualify as temptations at all.

The force of Jesus’ “Be off, Satan!” is not the result of exasperation or moral revulsion alone. It is the result of a sudden recognition. It is spoken by one who has just fully recognized the identity of his interlocutor.

As I said earlier, Satan is a Hebrew term that means “the accuser.” The two terms — diabolos and satan — can be seen as the two complementary manifestations of the forces of delusion, despair, and violence. The diabolos sows discord by arousing mimetic passions and then exacerbating the social tensions and the psychological apprehensions that accompany such passions. The diabolos produces all the psychosocial complications for which Girard’s mimetic theory so ably accounts. The fundamental tool of the diabolos is what the author of the book of Wisdom called “the devil’s envy,” the mimetic incentives that generate the delusions and distractions of the social melodrama.

At the critical moment, when these passions have sown enough frenzy and reduced a society to pandemonium, the diabolos changes its modus operandi. The diabolos becomes the Satan. Suddenly, the accusing finger points, and a violent avalanche is set in motion, the end result of which is a pile of stones, a glorious memory, and the rudiments of yet another of the kingdoms of “this world.” What Hamerton-Kelly calls the Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism — a synonym for diabolos/satan — “generates” such kingdoms, but if its spellbinding myths were ever shattered, “this generation” would have to account for all the blood it shed since the foundation of the world.

What the diabolos divides, satan unites, minus the victim that makes the union possible. It makes sense, then, to say that in the desert Jesus discovered that social division and social unanimity had the same source, and that it was demonic. By recognizing both the essential link between the diabolos and satan and the subtle difference in their roles, Jesus of the synoptic Gospels accomplished an unparalleled anthropological breakthrough, and much of his ministry can be understood in light of it.

The English poet John Milton wrote of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness in his Paradise Regained. For Milton, it was in renouncing the temptations in the desert that Jesus destroyed the satanic power. For Milton the crucifixion was the public exposé of the perverse truth of human sinfulness that Jesus had deciphered and conquered in the wilderness. After Jesus renounces Satan, the narrator in Milton’s poem simply adds: “his snares are broke.”

As I said, however, the breaking of these snares is by no means an intellectual feat. It was not Jesus’ superior understanding that made it possible for him to repudiate the tempter and his gaudy lures; rather it was his God-centeredness. Girard’s groundbreaking examination of the central role of mimesis in human experience may be the most important contribution to our understanding of the doctrine of “original” or universal sinfulness since Augustine, but the mimetic hypothesis does not replace the traditional idea that sin is alienation from God; rather it demonstrates the anthropological validity of that notion.

When the Christian tradition insists that Jesus was like us in all things but sin, what are we to think? As I have said, Jesus was no doubt a moral paragon, but as long as we understand the sinlessness of Jesus only on the level of behavior, we do not go to the heart of his uniqueness, which was his God-centeredness. As the story of the wilderness temptations shows, the essence of his sinlessness was his immunity to the contagion of desire.

His triumph over demonic snares in the wilderness was a triumph over the glamour of mimetic suggestion, but it was an achievement made possible, not by Jesus’ strength of will, but by the superior strength of another mimetic desire: the desire “to do his Father’s will,” to become the image and likeness of the One in whose image and likeness he knew himself to have been made. The temptation to emulate another’s desire — the devils — was unable to lure him away from his desire to imitate the God of powerless love in rapport with Whom he lived and moved and had his incomparable Being.


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