I should have been a theologian 25 years ago. Things were simpler then. Theologians published books and catechisms which clearly explained everything. Everyone knew what the church taught and what was right and wrong. It’s all changed now. Biblical and historical criticism and a half dozen kinds of hermeneutics have come along, like the atomic bomb, and theologians live under that cloud. Nothing will ever be simple again. I attended a theology conference recently. We were discussing something which should have been simple, the first question in the Baltimore Catechism: “Who made you? … God made you!” It wasn’t simple at all! “God made you,” it says. But what do these three words – “God,” “made,” “you” – mean? A renowned linguist, a Dr. Barrett English, teed off first:
“Since Wittgenstein and Ayer, anyone even remotely acquainted with philosophical analysis knows that it is nonsensical to naively use the word God as it had a simple empirically verifiable referent. Moreover, the very word ‘God’ is already a linguistic confusion, mixing as it were a generic and an individual referent.” I was very impressed. I had never thought of that. The good doctor went on: “A recent article in the Journal of Applied Grammatology hints at some of the consequences latent in this type of undifferentiated approach: To begin a catechism without first seriously looking into the grammar of the word, ‘God’ launches a theological endeavour which remains ambiguous and arbitrary. “Besides one wonders whether it is indeed wise to attempt a catechism at all in the English language. The structure of all Indo-European languages renders theological thinking difficult. Amerindian and Chinese are much more ideal.” I was stunned. I know neither Chinese nor Amerindian. But there was more. A Claude-Levi French was having some trouble with the concept of God “making” us.
“When one says ‘God made you’ what precisely is implied here? We see in the creation accounts in Genesis that the Hebrew word BARA is used to depict God’s creative activity. “Now, prescinding entirely from the ex nihilo controversy, that verb remains fundamentally problematic. Does it imply an action which happened for once and for all, with a definitive terminus ad quem, or does it connote an on-going action? “Examining the Septuagint translation we see that the Greek text has the verb in either the global or the inceptive aorist. Now, if the verb is an inceptive aorist, and the suspicion lies in that direction, then the implications for our creative activity are enormous and constitute a virtual catechesis in themselves. “Is God making us in the global or inceptive aorist sense? And, more importantly, if the author had intended the global aorist why did he not use a perfect or even a pluperfect tense?
“It is the uneducated Catholic’s proclivity to render BARA in the global or pluperfect sense that has so impoverished our theology of creation. Small wonder we are little more than eschatological runts!”
How awful! And to think my mother died thinking BARA was global or pluperfect! How could we have been that wrong! The final demolition of my first naiveté of faith was left to a Klaus Niederstrasse. He had less trouble with the phrase “God made,” but he had difficulties with the word “you.” Quoting from a recent article he had published in the prestigious German Journal Der Anknupfungspunkt, he scored the following point: “One would have thought that after Husserl’s definitive demolition of the isolated cogito of Descartes, a contemporary catechism would be more sensitive to the whole issue of social context and structuralism. Until Husserl, we naively believed that we could speak of an isolated ego, a simple ‘I,’ or a definite ‘you.’ “That, as the phenomenological method has irrevocably demonstrated, is quite impossible. Heidegger’s Dasein is not ein mensch, but ein mit-mensch. We are not simple persons and may not so simply use the word ‘you.’”
“I fail to grasp why Father Baltimore would revert implicitly to a Cartesian outlook. One cannot hope that a catechism which lacks a firmly hermeneutically disciplined consciousness can ever hope to appl7 to the ordinary believer. “But, then, what can one expect when the final control of catechesis lies in the hands of the bishops and not in the hands of the theologians!” At this point I needed a beer. Stumbling from the conference room, humiliated and worrying about my mother’s eternal salvation, I found myself in the local theological watering-hole, a place called Aqua Sanctissima. I whispered desperately to the bartender: “A beer please.” “Generic or premium?” asked the obviously hermeneutically disciplined bartender. “Forget it!”