RonRolheiser,OMI

On Reading Difficult Passages in Scripture 

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A colleague of mine shares this story: Recently, after presiding a Eucharist, a woman from the congregation came up to him with this comment: “What a horrible scripture reading today! If that’s the kind of God we’re worshipping, then I don’t want to go to heaven!”

The reading for that day’s liturgy was taken from Chapter 24 of the Second Book of Samuel where, seemingly, God gets upset with King David for counting the number of men he had for military service and then punishes him by sending a pestilence that kills seventy thousand people.

Is this really the word of God?  Did God really get angry with David for doing a simple census and kill seventy thousand people to teach him a lesson? What possible logic could justify this? As it stands, literally, yes, this is a horrible text!

What do we do with passages like this and many others where God, seemingly, demands violence in his name? To cite just one example: In his instructions to Joshua when they enter the promised land, God orders him to kill everything in the land of Canaan, all the men, all the women, all the children, and even all the animals. Why? Why would God so grossly want all these people destroyed? Can we believe God would do this? There are other similar examples, as, for instance, in the Book of Judges, where God grants the prayer of Jephthah, the Gileadite, on the condition that he sacrifices his own daughter on the altar of sacrifice. Texts like this seem to go against the very essence of the nature of God as the rest of scripture reveals it. 

God, in scripture, is sometimes seemingly shown to be arbitrary, heartless, violent, demanding violence from believers, and completely calloused about the lives of anyone not among his chosen favorites. If one were to take these texts literally they could be used to justify the exact type of violence that extremist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaida carry out under the belief that God loves them alone and they are free to kill others in his name.

Nothing could be further from the truth and nothing could be further from the meaning of these texts. These texts, as biblical scholarship makes clear, are not to be taken literally. They are anthropomorphic and archetypal. Whenever they are read they could be preceded by the kind of disclaimer we now often see at movies where we are told: No real animals died while making this film. So too, no real people die in these texts.

First of all, these texts are anthropomorphic, meaning that in them we attribute our own emotions and intentions to God. Hence these texts reflect our feelings, not God’s.  For example, when Paul tells us that when we sin we experience the “wrath of God”, we are not to believe that God gets angry with us when we sin and sends positive punishment upon us. Rather, when we sin, we punish ourselves, begin to hate ourselves, and we feel as if God has gotten angry with us. Biblical writers frequently write in this genre. God never hates us, but, when we sin, we end up hating ourselves.

These texts are also archetypal, meaning that they are powerful, primordial images that explain how life works. I remember a man coming up to me one Sunday after a liturgy, when the reading had proclaimed God’s order to Joshua to kill all the Canaanites upon entering the Promised Land.  The man said to me: “You should have let me preach today. I know what that text means: I’m an alcoholic in recovery – and that text means ‘cold turkey”.  As an alcoholic, you have to clean out your liquor cabinet completely, every bottle, you can’t be having even a single drink. Every Canaanite has to be killed! Jesus said the same thing, except he used a softer metaphor: New wine, new wineskins.”  In essence, that’s the meaning of this text.

But even so, if these texts are not literal aren’t they still the inspired word of God? Can we just explain them away because we feel them inconvenient?

Two things might be said in response to this: First, all individual texts in scripture must be seen within the larger, overall framework of scripture and our overall theology of God and, as such, they demand an interpretation that is consistent with the nature of God as revealed overall in scripture. And, in scripture as a whole, we see that God is non-negotiably all-loving, all-merciful, and all-good and that it is impossible to attribute bias, callousness, brutality, favoritism, and violence to God.  Moreover, scripture is binding and inerrant in the intentionality of its message, not in the literalness of its expression. We do not, for example, take literally Jesus’ command to “call no one on earth your father”, nor Paul’s command: “Slaves be subject to your masters.”

Context and interpretation are not rationalizations, they are sacred duty. We may not make scripture unworthy of God.

A Shirt of Flame 

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They say that the book you most need to read finds you when you most need to read it. I’ve had that experience many times, most recently with Heather King’s book, Shirt of Flame, A Year with Saint Therese of Lisieux.

The title of the book is borrowed from T. S. Eliot’s, Four Quartets, where he famously suggests that Love itself, God, is behind the torment we often feel in our fiery desires and that the burning we feel there is an “intolerable shirt of flame.”

King writes this book from a fiery context within her own life: She is a free-lance journalist and writer, single, divorced, an alcoholic in recovery, reconciling some darkness in her past, dealing with a paralyzing obsession because the man she is in love with will not respond to her, risking the financial stability of a career in law for the insecurity of being a free-lance writer, and struggling with the sense of being an outsider to normal family, marriage, and community, an orphan at all the banquets of life. And so she sets off for a year to immerse herself in one of the most intriguing saints of all time, Therese of Lisieux, in an attempt is to see whether Therese might be a moral and spiritual compass by which to sort out her own life. The result is a powerful, deeply insightful, adult, book.

King recognizes in Therese’s soul, inside the soul of a saint, inside someone who could seemingly give up everything for God, the same fiery desires that she feels within her own soul. And King recognizes too that those fires can both purify or destroy, redeem or torment, turn someone into a great saint or a great sinner. So she lets Therese’s fire shed light on her own fires. And since what is most personal and private inside of us, if revealed, is also the most universal, by revealing her own deep, private struggles, her book sheds light on the universal human struggle. However, the book is self-revealing but never exhibitionist, a tricky formula that she handles well.

For example, drawing upon a famous incident in Therese’s life when as a little girl, asked by her older sister who presented her with a velvet sewing-basket full of color balls to pick one thing from a basket, Therese said: “I choose all!” and took the entire basket and walked away. King reflects upon her own struggle to, as Kierkegaard said, will the one thing: Here’s the parallel she draws to her own life”: “’I choose all!’ said Therese, and the further I progressed, the more I saw that the human dilemma is to want it all. I wanted to be celibate, and I wanted wantonly to give myself to a spouse, I wanted dark secrets, noise, lights, mania, and the stimulation of a city, and I wanted to plant a garden, tend animals, and live on a farm. I wanted to live in the same place all my life, and I wanted to travel every inch of the globe before I died. I wanted to sit utterly still, and I was also driven to be constantly on the move. I wanted to be hidden and anonymous, and I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be close to my family, and I wanted to leave my family behind. I wanted to devote my life to activism, and I wanted to devote my life to contemplation. I wanted to give everything to God, and I didn’t know how! I longed to give my undivided self, and I couldn’t!”

Reflecting on Therese’s vow of poverty, King writes: “Poverty is never, never voluntary. Poverty consists precisely in all the ways you absolutely don’t want to be poor.”  Drawing upon the German poet, Gertrud von le Fort who wrote that when her soul was most in anguish everything around her in effect said: “But you are nothing!”, Kings writes: “At last someone had told my story. For the last ten years especially, I had been in anguish and ‘they’ – my husband, the person I loved, the legal profession, the medical profession when I had cancer, the publishing industry – had said in so many words: ‘But you are nothing.’ Everywhere I turned: a blank wall. Everything I had hoped for: ashes. Everything I had worked for: ‘But you are nothing’.  … One morning in the shower, I wept to Christ: ‘I don’t love you and you don’t love me either!’” We’ve all been there.

If you are struggling with faith, with brokenness in your life, with an obsession, with an addiction, with a gnawing sense that your life is not what it should be, with the sense of being the outsider, an orphan at all the banquets of life, and, most of all, with the sense you don’t love Jesus and he doesn’t love you either, that you are nothing, then let this book find you. It’s a book for those who think they might be too sick to be helped by a doctor.

The Kiss of God on the Soul

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What is the real root of human loneliness? A flaw within our make-up? Inadequacy and sin?  Or, does Augustine’s famous line, You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you, say it all?

Augustine’s adage, for all its merit, is not quite enough. We are infinite souls inside finite lives and that alone should be enough to explain our incessant and insatiable aching; except there is something else, that is, our souls enter the world bearing the brand of eternity and this gives all of our aching a particularized coloring.

There are various explanations of this: For example, Bernard Lonergan, the much-esteemed theologian and philosopher, suggests that human soul does not come into the world as a tabla rasa, a pure, clean sheet of paper onto which anything can be written. Rather, for him, we are born with the brand of the first principles indelibly stamped inside our souls. What does he mean by this?

Classical theology and philosophy name four things that they call transcendental, meaning that they are somehow true of everything that exists, namely, oneness, truth, goodness, and beauty. Everything that exists somehow bears these four qualities. However these qualities are perfect only inside of God. God, alone, is perfect oneness, perfect truth, perfect goodness, and perfect beauty. However, for Lonergan, God brands these four things, in their perfection, into the core of the human soul.

Hence we come into the world already knowing, however dimly, perfect oneness, perfect truth, perfect goodness, and perfect beauty because they already lie inside us like an inerasable brand. Thus we can tell right from wrong because we already know perfect truth and goodness in the core of our souls, just as we also instinctively recognize love and beauty because we already know them in a perfect way, however darkly, inside ourselves. In this life, we don’t learn truth, we recognize it; we don’t learn love, we recognize it; and we don’t learn what is good, we recognize it. We recognize these because we already possess them in the core of our souls.

Some mystics gave this a mythical expression: The taught that the human soul comes from God and that the last thing that God does before putting a soul into the body is to kiss the soul. The soul then goes through life always dimly remembering that kiss, a kiss of perfect love, and the soul measures all of life’s loves and kisses against that primordial perfect kiss.

The ancient Greek Stoics taught something similar. They taught that souls pre-existed inside of God and that God, before putting a soul into a body, would blot out the memory of its pre-existence. But the soul would then be always unconsciously drawn towards God because, having come from God, the soul would always dimly remember its real home, God, and ache to return there.

In one rather interesting version of this notion, they taught that God put the soul into the body only when the baby was already fully formed in its mother’s womb. Immediately after putting the soul into the body, God would seal off the memory of its pre-existence by physically shutting the baby’s lips against its ever speaking of its pre-existence. That’s why we have a little cleft under our noses, just above center of our lips.  It’s where God’s finger sealed our lips. That is why whenever we are struggling to remember something, our index finger instinctually rises to that cleft under our nose. We are trying to retrieve a primordial memory.

Perhaps a metaphor might be helpful here: We commonly speak of things as “ringing true” or “ringing false”. But only bells ring. Is there a bell inside us that somehow rings in a certain way when things are true and in another when they are false? In essence, yes! We nurse an unconscious memory of once having known love, goodness, and beauty perfectly. Hence things will ring true or false, depending upon whether or not they are measuring up to the love, goodness, and beauty that already reside in a perfect form at the core of our souls.

And that core, that center, that place in our souls where we have been branded with the first principles and where we unconsciously remember the kiss of God before we were born, is the real seat of that congenital ache inside us which, in this life, can never be fully assuaged. We bear the dark memory, as Henri Nouwen says, of once having been caressed by hands far gentler than we ever meet in this life.

Our souls dimly remember once having known perfect love and perfect beauty.  But, in this life, we never quite encounter that perfection, even as we forever ache for someone or something to meet us at that depth. This creates in us a moral loneliness, a longing for what we term a soulmate, namely, a longing for someone who can genuinely recognize, share, and respect what’s deepest in us.