Tag Archives: Augustine

Christian Story

The problem with the Bible is anybody can “interpret” it. As a book of unrivaled status in the American imagination, it can be tapped for anything from advertising to justifying pedophilia. So when stories of Roy Moore’s sexual dalliances with minors emerged, Alabama’s state auditor, Jim Zeigler drew the comparison with Mary and Joseph from his half-hearted knowledge of the Bible. There is no auditor for Bible interpretations. It’s the ultimate free market. Many, including evangelical clergy, were quick to jump on the inappropriateness of the analogy. What they didn’t see is that the Bible can justify just about anything. Despite what it says. That’s the problem with worshipping a holy book.

What the Good Book says about Mary and Joseph is very, very little. We do not know their ages—they are never mentioned in the Bible. The tradition about Joseph being older seems to go back to having to explain his continence to preserve Mary’s perpetual virginity—also not in the Bible. The church, in the early days, had issues with ideas such as “original sin.” When Augustine suggested it passed, along with bodily fluids, during sex, it became clear that Mary could have none of that. Even if she was a virgin by misquoting Isaiah, then she still had original sin from her parents. So Mary had to have been immaculately conceived. The Bible, of course, knows of none of this. Anybody can interpret it. And what senator-to-be wants to be bothered with consulting a Bible scholar? They’re hard to find. And besides, they might not interpret it the way you want it.

GOPolitics have sunk so low as to pressgang the Bible into justifying pedophilia. What’s more, the faithful don’t seem to mind. The Bible’s big enough that you can find just about anything in there. Except morality, apparently. You’d think that anyone running for public office would examine his—and it’s usually a guy problem—life pretty closely for possible scandals. We’ve lived to see the radical right, diligently groomed and oh-so-righteous, go after anyone who can spout insanity and be counted on to vote against women’s rights. You can be sure Roy Moore will be forgiven—already has been by many—because the Bible swings that way. We’ve already seen what happens when people like Moore take public office. They make America grope again. For the Bible tells them so.

The Problem with Love

As far as we can tell, historically there is no Saint Valentine that is particularly connected to February 14. Even if there were, it is difficult to imagine a saint promoting what we know as love. Love is a slippery topic. The ancient Greeks (who did not marry for love) were so perplexed that they came up with three different words for it, and the nascent Christian community tended to prefer agape-type love. Love that expresses well-being for the community and has little to do with the physical attraction that people everywhere find so compelling. It is safe to say that Christianity has always been uncomfortable with the kind of love that Valentines Day celebrates. The holiday, because of its associations, has often been removed from the liturgical calendar a time or two. People are already prone to express their biological urges, so it is best not to give them an excuse, sanctioned by the church.

This is an odd situation, thinking love is wrong, or at best, tolerated. As far as we can tell, the earliest Christians had no particular concerns in this way. We can’t measure, of course, how people loved their spouses, but there was nothing inherent in the new religion to suggest physical attraction was bad. By the time Paul of Tarsus started writing his letters a couple of decades after Jesus’ life, at the earliest, some doubts had crept in. They seem to have been largely personal. We know little of Paul’s life, but we are aware that he saw the kind of love known as eros to be a problem. Concession had to be made to those who couldn’t control themselves, but otherwise, in good stoic fashion, love was to be ignored. By the time of Augustine of Hippo, some three centuries later, sex passed on original sin and love had become decidedly dark.

St-Valentine-Kneeling-In-Supplication

Attitudes change with time, of course. After two millennia a certain practicality sets in. We have moved through the troubadours and courtly love to psychology and deep human needs. Arranged marriages are, for the most part, considered like shackles from the past. And love, that feeling that we never completely outgrow, is believed to be a positive thing. Saint Valentine (and there were at least two of them) would likely have disagreed. While the Romans celebrated sexuality, they also believed in restraint most of the time. Valentines Day, however, still has something to teach us. Despite the commercialization of the holiday, in a world with a surplus of hatred, any kind of love is, as long as it’s mutual, is worth celebrating.

Somewhere, Out There

With Pope Francis’s impending visit, the New York-Philadelphia corridor is abuzz with discussions of traffic and commuting disruptions. From a little further away, Irish Central is reporting that the Vatican chief astronomer has gone onto record stating that he believes in extraterrestrial life. (Despite the headline, the article doesn’t say anything about UFOs, and the astronomer, Fr. Funes, is noted as saying that he doesn’t believe extraterrestrials are flying here.) The real issue, however, is metaphysical, rather than physical. How would life elsewhere impact theology? Long ago the Vatican expressed some comfort with the idea of evolution. As early as Augustine of Hippo, thinkers have noted that reason cannot contradict truth and still be convincing. The evidence for evolution, overwhelming as it is, falls under that rubric. Life in space, at least according to orthodox science, is more a matter of mathematical certainty rather than experiential. And like any scientific idea, not all scientists agree with the astronomical odds in favor of life in space.

Funes, according to the article by Frances Mulraney, believes that aliens are not fallen races in need of salvation. The grand master plan laid out in the Bible was unique to this world only. Human beings sinned, we required divine intervention, and, as you’d expect from a Christian source, the incarnation, death, and resurrection of God’s only son. It does raise interesting questions about what the aliens might think of a chosen race. How could you not think yourself superior if you had no need of God’s special attention? One can only hope that ET isn’t the jealous sort.

Photo credit: John Fowler, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: John Fowler, Wikimedia Commons

For years those who speculate about non-earth-based life have argued over how religions would handle the news that humanity isn’t alone. Would religious observance increase or decrease? It might depend on what our fellow universalists have to tell us. This, in a nutshell, is the dilemma of ancient religions. Founded when worldviews were pre-scientific, back when the earth was the center of everything, they didn’t add an infinite universe into the equation. And infinity always complicates things. Fr. Funes says the Bible isn’t a science book, and indeed, biblical scholars have long known that to be the case. It’s the contingencies outside the ordinary of two millennia ago that are most worrying to literalists. Even with all we have learned of science, we have a great deal yet to comprehend. Religion is a uniquely human response to an uncertain universe. And since ours is apparently infinite and expanding, religion may very well be something we’ll need to take with us to the stars.

My Beloved Monsters

OurOldMonsters copyOnce upon a time I felt radical in claiming that monsters and religion shared a pedigree. Having grown up fascinated by Universal, as well as much cheaper and more tawdry, monster movies, I always experienced a twinge of guilt. My family was very religious, and these monsters were, well, evil, weren’t they? Yet I couldn’t let them go. Although college, seminary, and graduate school each took their toll on this early fascination as I was restructured as a more rational man, the monsters always lurked. In college a friend and I named an invented monster “the lurking.” In seminary and graduate school, demons and ghosts still captured my imagination. Brenda S. Gardenour Walter has, quite unintentionally, vindicated my outlook. Our Old Monsters: Witches, Werewolves and Vampires from Medieval Theology to Horror Cinema just about says it all. Not limiting herself to witches, werewolves, and vampires, Gardenour Walter has given us a novel thesis: monsters come from theology.

Well, not exactly. Medieval theology, as many of us learned in seminary, continued the ancient Greek practice of dividing the universe into four substances: air, fire, water, and earth. Each was associated with a humor in the human body: blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile. Keeping these humors in balance led to healthy bodies. Gardenour Walter, who teaches history in a Pharmacology school, shows how monsters were often viewed against this paradigm. As she notes, this Weltanschauung was not friendly to women. Seeing man as the perfect, rational being, women were considered less rational and more controled by their base urges, leading to the concept of witches. Witches were also associated with demons at a later time, and there is a considerable discussion of that transition.

Vampires were often associated with black bile. Although there are vampiric beliefs going back to very ancient times, Gardenour Walter shows how the modern vampire indeed derives from medieval theology as eastern ideas met western. Unfortunately, in unenlightened times, the concepts were anti-semitically applied, with unwonted liberality. Werewolves were generally dismissed as illusions wrought by demons, although, there always remained an ambiguity. I have to admit not having known that even Augustine discussed werewolves in The City of God, which, it comes to mind, would make an excellent horror movie. The book brings each of these medieval monsters up to the silver screen and considers how their theological pedigree plays out in modern times. This is a book I would have enjoyed as a college student, but maybe, secretly, enjoy even more now as an adult.

Exposed or Expelled

I live in a relatively small town. Having grown up in communities of 10,000 or less, I am used to the ways of those who live close to their neighbors. Even in small towns people live secret lives. Returning to my small town from Iowa, the headlines for New Jersey’s largest newspaper feature a coaching assistant at Immaculata High School, the Catholic school in my town. Patrick Lott, Assistant Principal at another local school, is an assistant football coach at the aptly named Immaculata. He is accused of videotaping boys in the shower. As if not disturbing enough, this is the third Immaculata individual to be arrested for sex crimes in the last twenty years. While each individual instance is bad enough, it is the long-term pattern that is even more disturbing.

The setting of a Catholic school has long been a trope for abuse of power. In this respect it mirrors ecclesiastical history. Such is the way of human institutions. When they are placed on a pedestal and proclaimed divine, trouble starts. The problem arguably began as long ago as Augustine, and before him with Paul, the architect of Christianity. Both men spewed many negative words about sexuality, with or without abuse need not matter. Their views—which one might be tempted to call perverted were they not from religious men—perceived sex as a bizarre form of divine punishment. Funnily, neither one has much to say about why a good God designed such a sinful system for animals to propagate as well.

Sexual predators, of course, are not limited to Catholic schools and parishes. It does seem, however, that those religious institutions that most vocally castigate sexuality are the ones most often caught with their metaphorical pants down. Why such things happen is better answered by psychologists and sociologists than it is by theologians. What is always interesting is observing the response by religious leaders. The shock and distress may be real enough, even when one school claims a hat-trick of the sexual kind. I have no answers to proffer, merely some lay observations. If religions dropped their pretensions instead of their pantaloons, the world might quickly become at least a more honest place. If individuals with problems sought medical help rather than theological forgiveness, we might actually begin to make some progress.

Is this the right message?

Go and Dust No More

Finally getting around to reading Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (I hate to admit that it took the movie ads to prod me into reading the book), I have been surprised by the depth of the story. Spoiler warning! From the very first chapter I have been pondering what dust might be, and I have just discovered that it is Pullman’s metaphor for original sin. In the chapter where this is finally revealed to the protagonist, Lyra, her father reads an explanatory passage from Genesis 3 (somewhat altered). Indeed, dust drives the plot of the story.

With apologies to the magisterium

With apologies to the magisterium

Pullman’s treatment of the topic once again throws into relief a popular, but mistaken, concept. “Original sin” is simply not a biblical idea. Nowhere in either the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Scriptures does the text suggest that people are born with the taint of a physical liability passed on from the first human coupling, as Augustine hypothesized. In fact, the Bible hosts several potential explanations for the origins of human troubles. One solution that it never reaches is a genetic passing on of an original sin.

Tradition often makes Scripture into its own image. Ideas are inevitably read back into the story and a chimera of hazy concepts emerges. Pullman’s treatment of the human condition is to be applauded, and to his credit he does not attribute the concept of original sin directly to the Bible. Although he alters the text a bit he doesn’t add this most damaging concept to it. The belief that people are inherently defective has allowed for some of the worst crimes imaginable against our species. As a concept original sin is dust in the wind.