Sunday, July 19, 2009

Changing Gears, Helping With RCIA

A course on "Deeper Participation in the Mass" is no longer my vehicle for the "Supervised Ministry Experience" required of me by the Kino Institute. Numerous reasons demand that I use participation in the RCIA program at my parish instead. I'll be helping with the lectionary reflections.

Obviously, I'll be most involved in helping students break open the Word in dialog, but I see every encounter as an opportunity to impart some practice or concept that will enable more-fruitful nourishment from the Word.

Concerning practices, I don't see how we can avoid talking about and practicing Lectio Divina, especially meditative and contemplative prayer. Concerning concepts, the list of concepts is rather long and interrelated. (There will be some effort involved in serializing them!)

I think there will be a common theme through all the concepts I propose to introduce: Incarnation. Jesus, the "Word made Flesh" is fully human and fully divine. Likewise, the Bible, the "Word made Words" is also fully human and fully divine. Catholicity demands that we keep humanity and divinity in intellectual tension. The moment we neglect the Bible's humanity we become fundamentalists. The moment we neglect the Bible's divinity, we become skeptics. In both cases, it seems more like a sin of omission rather than a sin of commission.

There is also a great deal of material for me to re-read. There is the abundantly useful The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. There is also Dei Verbum, Divino Afflante Spiritu, the Catholic Encyclopedia articles on the various senses of scripture, and the the introductory essays from the NAB.

Let's get started!

Ontological in Distinctions in Man

Faith and experience bear witness to man's unity, but who can ignore the distinctions within this unity? Of utmost relevance to uncovering the truth about man are the ontological distinctions. In other words, the "levels of being", or the relative degrees of "realness" within the human person.

* * *

The first distinction is extremely accessible to experience. I am speaking of the distinction between the physical, material body and the part of man that thinks, which we'll call his "mind".

This distinction is most apparent in the sleep-wake cycle, especially at its transitions. When I am asleep, my mind does not exist. As I progress into the dreaming and waking phases, my thinking self emerges out of nothingness into something having definite form. As I drift off to sleep, my mind disintegrates once again.

My physical, material body survives the death and rebirth of my mind, night after night, and even through the occaisional afternoon nap. There is clearly some distinction between the two.

But there is also a very close relationship between mind and body. We know that the brain is the organ of thought, and that there is a physicality to thought. Thought is an activity enabled by electro-chemical reactions in the brain. If anything unfortunate were to happen to my brain, my mind would suffer (to say the least).

In our culture, I think we are accustomed to thinking of the mind as superior to the body, but from the perspective of ontology it's quite easy to see the mind is actually dependent upon the physical body to the point of contingency.

If the body (especially the brain) is like a candle, the the mind is like a flame. This candle is lit and extinguished and re-lit for the duration of our lives on Earth. Which is "more real"? The candle or the flame?

* * *

If my suggestion that the mind is less-real than the body disappoints, I think it is because we intuitively grasp the transcendence of man. We grasp there is something immaterial, spiritual, and mysterious about him. Many, including myself, believe the "soul" of man survives the death of his physical body.

The simplest solution that presents itself is to disentangle the soul from the mind, to recognize physical death as the experience that discerns soul from body, and to assign the soul to the highest ontological category (even higher than the body). I realize that's a mouthful, so let me break things down a little further.

When we "sleep" (which is a Biblical euphemism for death) the immobilization and degeneration of the body is very much like the disintegration of the mind that occurs when we fall asleep. The resurrection of the body is then very much like a reawakening not of mind-in-body, but mind-in-body-in-soul.

Just as mind is to body as flame is to candle, body is to soul as flame is to candle. Man exhibits three, distinct ontological categories within himself. Mind is contingent upon body. Body is contingent upon soul. The complex unity of all three (soul, body, and mind) are contingent upon God. The three-part temples the Jews constructed since the Exodus revelation appear to be patterned after the "temple of the body".

I don't think discernment of this second distinction absolutely requires the death of the body, (which is fortunate). I think there is plenty of "death" in the form of sin that will suffice!

The Word of the Cross is extremely rich and complex message and I think this is one of the things it is saying. It brings death into focus and gives us the opportunity (demands, really) to make a choice to set things into their proper order. Without some experience of "death" (in the broadest sense I used above), Fallen human beings seem incapable of doing this. Death, which is the punishment for the Fall, becomes the very instrument for lifting us out of the Fall.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Conversion Fragment 4: Justification

At some point in my journey I was moved powerfully by a side-by-side comparison of the Protestant and Catholic salvation theologies. That is, the abundantly important answer to the question of, "How we are saved?" I assented to the Catholic position on Justification well before my "conversion event".

Beginning with my experience of Protestant justification theology, it was an encounter of numerous ideas. The idea of "once-saved-always-saved" (OSAS) was extremely popular but not universal. The ideas that we are saved by "faith alone" and "not works", and that salvation was a purely extrinsic, purely juridical event (rather than process) was, however, universal. Despite the juridical tone, there was also a great deal of talk about "personal relationship with Jesus Christ".

My experience with Catholic justification theology was incredibly different. Where Protestantism was speaking in terms of an event, Catholicism acknowledged an event, but emphasized a process. This process was a dynamic (personal) relationship with God that had a direct impact upon the interior condition of the person being saved. This relationship (and by extension, the person) thrived when nurtured and degenerated when neglected or abused. Every single thought, word, and action had consequences for this relationship.

While Protestant justification concepts appeared founded in microsamples of Pauline writ, the Catholic justification theology impressed me with its harmony with the Exodus narrative in the OT, the spousal language of the prophets, and really, the Bible as a whole.

Catholic salvation theology looks rather strange through the lens of micro-texts. Catholic salvation theology looks even stranger through language designed for the express purpose of making it unintelligible. But with a view of the entire Scriptural canon (the Protestant canon will suffice) Catholic salvation theology emerges as something astoundingly beautiful and astoundingly salvific.

Let's begin with the Exodus parallel. Exodus is the archaetypical story of salvation. It's in Exodus that God first saves in a big way. Specifically, He saves an entire community through a rather elaborate process. First came the saving-out-of Egypt---a sort of "negative salvation" by removal from danger. Then came the testing and purification in the desert. (Not everybody passed.) Finally came the saving-into the Promised Land, the "positive salvation" of possessing God's blessing. God indeed "gave" them this Promised Land, but get this: He required that participate in the gift by picking up their swords and fighting for it.

Catholic salvation theology exhibits remarkable fidelity to the Exodus narrative. Catholics recognize the communal nature of salvation. Baptism is a sort of the crossing of the Red Sea and release from bondage. Our lives, from Baptism to final purification are a desert pilgrimage. There is even a concept of "Church Militant" to describe those of us who haven't died, and are fighting day after day. Salvation, in the Catholic system, isn't fully realized until resurrection into a glorified body.

Moving now to the Spousal language of the Prophets, the Scriptures frequently speak of the relationship between God and man as a husband-wife relationship. Relationships are dynamic. They change according to the commitment level of the partners. Catholic salvation theology follows this pattern of a spousal love relationship. We can trust in God's commitment, but committed are we ourselves? Entry into the Church is very much like a wedding, and the Eucharist has a very Spousal character to it. In the Catholic mind, God is a God who wants no boundaries with us so ever, He is so humble that he desires to unite his Divinity to our Humanity, changing it from the inside out. This is very, very, very (did I say "very"?) different from the relationship between a judge and the criminal he acquits.

Here, I recognized, is a paradigm I can actually live, has an extremely broad base in the Sacred Scriptures, has no anxiety about "works", is even more "personal" than the Protestant system, and goes so far as to "theologize" my marriage. Could it be true? I am a hopeful person. I believe the truth exists, that it is attainable, and that it is the best possible thing for all. For this reason I think I assented quickly---it's far too sublime to be solely a human work.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Category of Mystery

"Mystery" seems to be an indispensable category, especially for the language of Catholic Christianity. My own concept of mystery, which follows, is rooted in the nature of persons...

A mystery is some hidden truth that is difficult (but not impossible) to attain. A mystery is hidden within the interior privacy of a person. A person reveals his- or herself only voluntarily---no force can extract it! Furthermore, the recipient must be attentive to the revelation.

This personal truth is hidden in another sense because a mystery revealed remains a mystery. We never come into full intellectual possession of a person, no matter how many times he or she self-reveals. The same is true of mystery. The encounter with mystery is itself mysterious.

And this personal truth is hidden in yet another sense because a mystery is very difficult to mediate to a third person. We can point to it with words, pictures, and dramatization, but these things are very easy to ignore or distort on the receiving end. The mediation of a mystery to a third person is also mysterious.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


I really like this post because I think something really important is being said.

1. Words indeed carry intellectual/historical content.

2. Shared expectations of that intellectual/historical content is one of the things that makes communication work. Without communication, there can be no community and there can be no peace.

3. The coupling between the spoken/written word and its content is rather delicate. People sometimes "meddle" with the meanings of words, consciously or unconsciously with destructive consequences.

4. The particular meddling I'm thinking of is the reduction of a word to a sort of blunt instrument, a general-purpose swear word for an out-group, a sort of effigy to burn in one's mind and one's speech.

5. There is also the opposite kind of meddling in which a word is idolized in order to lavish praise (or flattery) upon the "in-group".

6. Both of these words become tools for emotionally steering people and undermining inter-group dialog. They are, in a way, idols in the dimension of language (rather than wood, stone, or gold).

7. When you have two groups oriented in opposition to each other, one group's effigy is the other group's idol.

8. Another destructive consequence is the loss of cultural wisdom.

What do these language patterns reveal about the human heart? How can we (at the very least) avoid unwitting participation in this evil? At best, how can we participate in dissolving this "malediction" in order to replace it with authentic communication?