An Essay in Aid of a Neo-Orthodox Solipsistic Fideist on a Slippery Slope

Here are five leading indicators about the assessment that I make about “how my mind changed,” i.e., about my mind’s development over the sixty-three years since I reached the age of reason. These leading, not lagging, indicators of “change” unveil the combined and specific quality of the development of my mind as a reinforcement and intensification of judgment, but not as a replacement of “this” judgment by “that” judgment. 1) In 1998, I dreamed that I was hiking up a mountain with Pope John Paul II. I pleaded about my way of believing, “Is it okay to be neo-orthodox?” Of course, I woke up. Had I not, I think that he might have referred me to Newman’s An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. (2) On the occasion of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s death in 1988, at a faculty seminar at Loyola University, New Orleans, a faculty member critiqued Balthasar as a “fideist.” Another colleague suggested that I was a “solipsistic fideist.” If Balthasar’s theology is fideist, I would be glad to be in his company. Of course, he would have objected to the use of such a term for his own work. (3) I noted that Bill Shea, in a book review, surmised that neo-orthodoxy was a pit-stop on the way to unbelief. (4) I commiserated that we both stood half-way down the slippery slope toward unbelief, the question being whether we slid further or climbed back. Thus, (5) I recall Dante’s conversation with Virgil at the entry to the mountain of purgatory:

“‘But if it please you, I should willingly
learn just how far it is we still must journey;
the slope climbs higher than my eyes can follow.’

botticelli_virgil_danteAnd he to me: ‘This mountain’s of such sort
that climbing is hardest at the start;
but as we rise, the slope grows less unkind.

Therefore, when this slope seems to you so gentle
that climbing farther up will be as restful
as traveling downstream by boat, you will

Be where this pathway ends, and there you can
expect to put your weariness to rest.
I say no more, and this I know as truth.”

The Base Line

In 1962 in seminary high school as a sophomore, I wrestled mightily with Frank Sheed’s Theology and Sanity, especially his treatment and explanation of the persons of the Holy Trinity. That year, the first theological paper I did was on “The Inadequacy for the Modern World of the Devotio Moderna,” written out in long-hand with a fountain pen! I still have it and still agree with the premise. In seminary college from 1964-1969 I plumbed the philosophical depths of Jacques Maritain’s epistemology in The Degrees of Knowledge. I also note two books that influenced me to go deeper, Bouyer’s The Meaning of the Monastic Life and Erikson’s Gandhi’s Truth. Bouyer taught me that the cosmos contains active and invisible angelic presences, and Erikson taught me about the quality of the integrity with which one must be true to oneself.

For a master’s degree in theology, from 1969-1971, at Saint John’s University in Jamaica, New York, I studied Origen and Athanasius; Raymond Brown on the sensus plenior; Karl Rahner and the ontological argument; Hieronymous Noldin and Josef Fuchs on human act. My thesis was a comparative study of Hans Kung’s Structures of the Church and his The Church. I discovered that Kung’s, Rahner’s, and perhaps Bernard Lonergan’s, earlier works were superior to their later. At least I did not follow their later developments. I found out that Origen and Athanasius are not dated in any essential way. I am not a Whig historian of theological progress. With Newman, I stress that the development of doctrine is change for the sake of preservation. It is certainly not development by subtraction, nor replacement by “something better.”

At Fordham University and at the Riverdale Center for Religious Research from 1971 to 1976, I did my doctorate with Thomas Berry, the single most formative intellectual influence on me. With him I read Teilhard de Chardin whose insights about the biology of spirit and the importance of temporal process I accept. I studied the great texts of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. (1) The world religions have conflicting soteriologies that include contradictories. For the next forty years, this conclusion placed me at odds with the prevailing currents in the theology of religions. Only with the emergence of comparative [and contrastive] theology has a countervailing assumption been given a hearing. (2) Berry worked from the style of cultural history of Christopher Dawson.  Berry maintained that the problematic of the present time is cultural, not theological. He stated that there was nothing basically wrong with the classical theology of God. Characteristically he bragged that he had never read anything by Karl Rahner. (3) I learned: go deeper in theology, do not innovate. I would add that Ewart Cousins also taught me that Paul Ricoeur was perhaps naïve about second naïveté, since there was nothing naïve about first naïveté. Depth is not to be achieved by revision.

Four Representative Changes of Mind

My mind has changed many times. Sometimes I have gone with the flow, other times rowed upstream. The following four changes of my mind—changes with continuity—changes for the sake of preservation—intensifications, rediscoveries, renewed conversions, are illustrative of my journey. I say that “I” changed my mind, but that misses the tension between activity and passivity; sometimes my mind changed me.

(1) As a historian of religion, I studied the forms of Hinduism closest to Judeo-Christian monotheism, e.g., the Bhagavata Purana [8th century] and the monotheistic theology of Madhva [1238-1317]. I am convinced that the most significant doctrine differentiating Christian faith and Hindu teaching is the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, which determines the orthodox doctrines of God, Trinity, and Christology. My conversations with Berry in the nineties were in this vein about Aquinas and Cajetan on creation and the analogy of being. Although Berry was remarkably silent in public, he was convinced the universe was caused, had a transcendent cause, and had a beginning. Further the doctrine of creation premises the answer to the Baltimore Catechism’s question six that I had learned about the purposefulness of a human life across this world and the next. Being made to know, love, and serve God in this world and to be happy with him in the next is certainly untrue if God did not create the world. It may be that the immanentization of the eschaton is a particular challenge to Christian orthodoxy without parallel since the Gnostic crisis of the first and second centuries.

(2) Like many who studied Catholic theology in the sixties and seventies, my understanding of Scripture was influenced by reading the studies of Raymond Brown, and thus by deep immersion in his application of the historical-critical method. However, I now find that his hermeneutics of “scholarly liberal, non-scholarly liberal, non-scholarly conservative, and scholarly conservative” is dated. Without excluding its validity, many conclusions of historical-critical scholarship were framed on implausible premises about the historically credible. My understanding of the plausibility of the resurrection of Jesus shifted toward the positive. My excitement at reading scholars like N.T. Wright and Richard Bauckham was refreshing, and, after Brown, unexpected. Theologians need not assume the resurrection is implausible, an assumption based on a “presentism” judging the past on insecure present criteria. The Gospels are on firmer historical ground than previously assumed.

(3) In 1976, in a conversation with my wife, I noted I was agnostic about the possibility of the ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood. I proposed that theologians study the question for forty years and not decide until an orthodox theology of Jesus as a male human being was developed. The kind of flesh that the Word was made is not adventitious. For two decades I got it from those who were pro and took me to be con, and from those who were con and took me to be pro. Since 1996, following the example of Avery Dulles, “in view of the force of the convergent argument and the authority of the papal office,” I give my full assent to the teaching of the magisterium.

(4) As a tenured academic, I am free to be solipsistic. As a person of Catholic faith I am not so casual. In the summer of 2010, in preparation for ordination to the diaconate, I signed the required profession of faith. After the Creed, I carefully considered its three additional paragraphs: (1) revealed truths, “With firm faith I believe as well everything contained in God’s word, written or handed down . . . as divinely revealed and calling for faith”; (2) doctrines definitively taught, “I also firmly accept and hold each and every thing that is proposed by . . . the Church definitively”; and (3) authoritative teachings that are neither revealed nor inseparably connected with revelation, “I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings . . . even if they proclaim those teachings in an act not definitive.” I used Lonergan’s transcendental precepts; I tried to be as attentive, to be as intelligent, to be as reasonable, and to be as responsible as I possibly could be. I made the complete profession of faith. I am all in.

It is my judgment that the contemporary crisis of the Church will pass, but until it does, orthodoxy must be preserved at the personal level, even if by the free choice of an informed will: only in this sense “neo-orthodoxy.” The patient scholarship of intellectuals has a modest role in that preservation, perhaps against the common grain of the scholarly community: only in this sense “solipsism.” I expect that I will keep the faith, although I am not going to live long enough to understand it: only in this sense “fideism.” My mind may change further, with God’s help, for the sake of preservation. However, the best direction on a slippery slope is up, because the climbing gets easier. Yet I wish I had a Beatrice to send me a Virgil to lead me up the mountain!

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College and former Director of the Online Theology Program. He is a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Portland.

Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

They said to them,

Marlett Easter“Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here, but he has been raised.”

Is this not the core of our faith which God graciously gives?  The tomb is empty and He is risen.  This day is just another day—it is the same length as any other day—and yet it is not another day.  It is the day, that by which all other days—and all the days of our lives—are measured.  Christ is risen and thus death, the end which awaits us all, has been vanquished.  Christ suffered and died, just as we all will.  Our baptism into that death, though, also promises which this day proclaims, that Christ’s death was not final and thus will not be final for us.  Easter proclaims the Resurrection.  It is Christ’s now, and someday it will be ours, too.

The Church knows this day comes at a great price.  On Holy Thursday our hearts rejoiced at the institution of the Eucharist, the Last Supper.  The next day, though, demolished that joy as we hear again the account of Christ’s Passion.  Good Friday ends abruptly with Christ entombed.  Holy Saturday dawned with everything apparently lost.  Carmina Chapp’s reflections unite our anxieties with those of Mary and the apostles:

Holy Saturday is a very long day for me. I imagine what it must have been like for the disciples and Mary during that time between the crucifixion and the resurrection. What they hoped for had never been done before – a man would rise from the dead. Plus, the Romans would be after them soon, too. What if this really was the end? What if they had been duped? What was it all for? What if they stopped trusting themselves and their own experience of Jesus? Did he really heal and feed all those people? Could they trust their own memories? What if it was all in their imaginations?

The Rosary

Over a month ago the movie Risen appeared.  Tracing the experience of a Roman legionnaire Lucius (played superbly by Joseph Fiennes), the movie covers the Crucifixion and the aftermath of the Resurrection.  Seeking to dispel annoying rumors that Jesus, whose execution he oversaw, Lucius crashes a gathering of Christ’s disciples. In the tumult Lucius glimpses the resurrected Christ Himself.  Lucius sees, but neither understands nor believes. From this scene Bishop Robert Barron discusses the tendency of mainstream theologians to downplay and discredit the Resurrection as a merely emotional experience within the disciples’ own subjectivity.  In other words, non-believers did not see, and would not have seen, the Resurrection because they did not experience Christ as resurrected.  This is a fancy way of denying the Resurrection’s historicity.  It did not really happen, but in the disciples’ minds it did happen.  Barron details all this quite well, and then brushes it all aside.  Working with N. T. Wright, Barron notes that the Resurrection’s reality undergirds the entire realty of the Gospels and St. Paul’s epistles.

The great English Biblical scholar N.T. Wright is particularly good at exposing and de-bunking such nonsense. His principal objection to this sort of speculation is that it is profoundly non-Jewish. When a first century Jew spoke of resurrection, he could not have meant some non-bodily state of affairs. Jews simply didn’t think in the dualist categories dear to Greeks and later to Gnostics. The second problem is that this post-conciliar theologizing is dramatically unhistorical. Wright argues that, simply on historical grounds, it is practically impossible to explain the rise of the early Christian movement apart from a very objective construal of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. For a first-century Jew, the clearest possible indication that someone was not the promised Messiah would be his death at the hands of Israel’s enemies, for the unambiguously clear expectation was that the Messiah would conquer and finally deal with the enemies of the nation. Peter, Paul, James, Andrew, and the rest could have coherently proclaimed—and gone to their deaths defending—a crucified Messiah if and only if he had risen from the dead. Can we really imagine Paul tearing into Athens or Corinth or Ephesus with the breathless message that he found a dead man deeply inspiring or that he and the other Apostles had felt forgiven by a crucified criminal? In the context of that time and place, no one would have taken him seriously.

It is hard to imagine such fervor and evangelical joy—with which the Holy Spirit enlivened the Church–stemming from mere good feelings and hopeful postmortem wishes.  Granted, we were not there, we do not see the empty tomb ourselves, but we can surely know that something happened, and that something was Christ’s resurrection.  Bishop Barron notes:  “What you sense on every page of the New Testament is that something happened to the first Christians, something so strange and unexpected and compelling that they wanted to tell the whole world about it.”  Its inescapability pursues us just like the risen Christ’s gaze follows us from Pieter Coecke van Aelst’s tapestry in the Vatican Museums.

And yet, as the photo shows, the blur of modern life bustles past our crucified and resurrected Lord.  Jesus emerges from the tomb victorious, and the tapestry’s soldiers turn away.  After all, Christ stands triumphantly atop the door He knocked down.  We, though, shuffle past, blurry and otherwise preoccupied.  Reflecting on this image gave me pause for another reason:  Christ’s obvious stigmata.  Once a focus for intense popular devotion, Christ’s wounds on hands, feet, and side appear only rarely on the most pious and simple souls, great saints like St. Francis of Assisi and St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina.  These wounds serve as anti-triumphal rewards God bestows on whom He pleases.  They are not ‘rewards’ so much as graces given freely, through which the saint and those following might receive even more graces.  They certainly are not bragging rights, or if they are, bizarrely reversed ones.  Both St. Francis of Assisi and St. Padre Pio suffered the doubts and outright hostility to their new evangelical endeavors, whether it was hearing confessions (Padre Pio heard an estimated five million confessions during his life, roughly seventy per day) or preaching the Gospel, joyfully and in poverty, to all who would hear, including birds and Saracens (as St. Francis did).  Who would want painful, bleeding signs as a reward and thus a call to such work?

Well, we do.  We are those people.  Hans Urs von Balthasar reminds us:  “In all reality, Easter occurs on earth, but it does not lead away from the Cross but always to it.  The whole Pasch—the whole passing-over from death to life—is a perennnially present reality” (The Threefold Garland, p. 114).  Precious few, if any, of us will receive the stigmata, but that does not exclude us from emulating the work of those who did and asking for their saintly intercession in our lives now.  The Paschal Vigil’s fifth reading (Isaiah 55: 1-11) proclaims the mystery—and the confidence to Israel:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
As high as the heavens are above the earth,
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts.

For just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
and do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
so shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
my word shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.

The stigmata now makes sense only with today’s Easter good news, the original eu angelion.  Christ has died, Christ is Risen, and Christ will come again.  Those are three distinct realities, and the stigmata merely indicate that, being linked intimately with Christ’s death, the other two realities follow soon.  The Resurrection we celebrate today.  Thus the Parousia, Christ’s return in power, has started already but has yet to come fully.  St. Paul wrote his great letters in this “already but not yet” zwischen den Zeiten “between the times.”  God sustains us as this age passes and the new one dawns.  That dawn starts with Christ’s resurrection.  Thus we do not save or sustain ourselves.  What we do in and through the Church comes through God’s gracious action first, and the empty tomb indicates what God accomplishes among us.

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Worth Revisiting Wednesday – This post originally appeared April 14, 2014.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! While most consider Christmas to have that honor, I think the Easter Triduum takes it – hands down.

In the next few days, the universal Church will celebrate the reason for her existence. We will remember the moments in the life of Jesus that make the kingdom of God our reality. I use the present tense intentionally here because the memory of these events is of a very particular kind – an anamnesis. Such a remembrance implies a making present of the event, as well as a participation in the event. Though we have this experience at every Mass, during the Easter Triduum, we have the opportunity to travel the road of the disciples in the same time frame that they did – over the course of three days. The Easter Triduum is actually one extended liturgical celebration, not three separate ones. For me, the most powerful moments come in the waiting between our times in the church.

On Holy Thursday, we sit with Jesus at the Last Supper. Here, Jesus gives new meaning to the Passover ritual gestures that fulfill God, the Father’s plan of salvation. The sharing of bread, which bonded those present at the Passover celebration, is “My Body”, indicating that the unity of his disciples lies now in His Person, not merely common food. The cup of wine blessed by Jesus is the Cup of Elijah, the Messiah. This cup is “My Blood”, by which Jesus both claims his Messianic identity and indicates the way in which salvation will be won. Furthermore, the cup is shared, indicating the sharing in Christ’s suffering that the disciples will undergo – suffering which will have the same redemptive effect as that of Christ’s own. Thus, we can say with St. Paul, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Colossians 1:24)

We then go off with Jesus into the Garden of Gethsemane. Traditionally, we visit local parishes to visit with the Blessed Sacrament throughout the night – entering into the mind and heart of Jesus, pondering the thoughts and feelings that caused him to sweat blood, staying awake with him as best we can. I always appreciated not having to go to work on Good Friday because it enabled me to truly enter into this moment, and, the next morning, to feel the anticipation of the trial of Jesus to be remembered at the Good Friday service.

tomb mosaicOf course, on Good Friday, we are present at the trial, condemnation, and crucifixion of Jesus, playing our role in His suffering, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Leaving Good Friday service, I am always left with a keen awareness that the tabernacle is empty, that all tabernacles are empty. I must admit, it scares me a bit – to think that Jesus is not here! Yes, I know he is in my thoughts and in my heart, but that makes his presence dependent on me. In the Eucharist, he is here in a much fuller capacity (indeed, the fullest) than I could ever imagine spiritually – and I can feel that presence in front of the Blessed Sacrament. It is a grace far beyond me. With that presence gone, I feel the inadequacy of my own memories of Jesus.

Holy Saturday is a very long day for me. I imagine what it must have been like for the disciples and Mary during that time between the crucifixion and the resurrection. What they hoped for had never been done before – a man would rise from the dead. Plus, the Romans would be after them soon, too. What if this really was the end? What if they had been duped? What was it all for? What if they stopped trusting themselves and their own experience of Jesus? Did he really heal and feed all those people? Could they trust their own memories? What if it was all in their imaginations?

Slowly, the church illuminates with the light of the Easter fire, then pew by pew until the darkness is lifted, and we are bathed in the light of Christ at the Easter Vigil. Halleluah! He is risen! Jesus is the Messiah. He has conquered sin and death. The kingdom of God IS our reality! And we are here, present in this anamnesis, at its founding. We can trust our own memories of Jesus because we have been present to and participated in the Paschal Mystery.

So tell me, is there a more wonderful time of the year?

Carmina Chapp is Associate Director of Online Theology Programs and teaches sacraments and liturgy for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

“I am spiritual but not religious”

A Washington Times headline on December 6, 2010 read: “Religious strength tied to well-being” (Wetzstein 2010).  The headline is gleaned from a Gallup-Healthways Well-Being survey of 550,000 participants.  The survey, as reported by the Washington Times, found a direct connection between “emotional health, physical health, life evaluation and work environment” with praying and studying Scriptures and the sense of belonging to a “moral community based on religious faith.”  Additionally, the survey finds that “Christianity, the dominant religion of the United States, embody tenets of positive relationships with one’s neighbors and charitable acts, which may lead to a more positive mental outlook.” Lastly, the Washington Times article, quoting another survey from the American Sociological Review on religious behaviors and well-being, reported that “people who attend religious services weekly and have three to five close friends in their congregation are most likely to say they are ‘extremely satisfied’ with life” (Wetzstein 2010).

Often we hear the statement, “I am spiritual but not religious” which really means the person seeks spirituality aside from a faith community.  Interestingly, the surveys conducted by Gallup and the American Sociological Review, connect spirituality and participation in a faith community together as a key ingredient for one to be “extremely satisfied with life.”   It appears that a journey of faith within an ecclesial (Church) community of faith really does matter!  Expressions of faith, making prayer a part of our daily life and praying in community enables us to discover true and lasting hope.

Fellowship in a faith community matters because we find support for the journey of life. The Gospel of Matthew reminds us Jesus is present wherever two or more are gathered in his name (cf. Mt. 18:20). Community prayer and support help individuals become “extremely satisfied with life” because it ought to lead us to an encounter with Jesus.

Part of our spiritual DNA is the quest for meaning and purpose.  So the heart longs for the answers to such questions as “what (or who) are we really made for”or “what is the meaning of life” and “is there more to life than meets the eye”?   Other questions unfold before us as we confront life’s situations and world events that perplex us and perhaps cause disquiet within our being.  Who of us has not pondered the question, “why do bad things happen to good people,” or “how is it that the ‘innocent’ seem to suffer so much evil?”

Today we begin our annual pilgrimage into the heart of the Pascal mystery. The drama of jesus enters jerusalemthe Passion, death and resurrection of Christ is where we can and ought to bring our questions and our restless heart. Let this Holy Week with all of its readings, prayers, symbols, rites and rituals seep deep within our inner most being.   Let the Church’s worship and our meditation become for us the lens through which we examine our actions and interpret life’s events.  Reflecting on the crowds laying palm branches before the humble Christ entering Jerusalem on a donkey, St. Anthony of Crete offers this spiritual pearl to us:

Let us run to accompany him as he hastens toward his passion, and imitate those who met him then, not by covering his path with garments, olive branches or palms, but by doing all we can to prostrate ourselves before him by being humble and by trying to live as he would wish. Then we shall be able to receive the Word at his coming, and God, whom no limits can contain, will be within us. (Oratio 9 in ramos palmarum: PG 97, 990-994).

The last line of St. Anthony’s reflection gets at the heart of what it means to be “extremely satisfied with life.”  The key to our quest for meaning and satisfaction, our longing for community, and love is found in our encounter with Christ.  Our God is a transcendent God who wishes to make his home within us.  Holy Week reminds us to what lengths God went to do just that…to make his home within us.   Today, on Palm Sunday, let us be present, with all of our questions, hopes, doubts and faith so we can

… spread before his feet, not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither, but ourselves, clothed in his grace, or rather, clothed completely in him. We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments that we spread before him. Now that the crimson stains of our sins have been washed away in the saving waters of baptism and we have become white as pure wool, let us present the conqueror of death, not with mere branches of palms but with the real rewards of his victory. Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children’s holy song: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the king of Israel.  (Oratio 9 in ramos palmarum: PG 97, 990-994)

Great will our satisfaction be in this life and the next if we open our souls and welcome Christ who is indeed our Savior and the answer to all of our questions and our longings. Let us now be on our way to accompany Christ that he may accompany us.

Lisa Gulino teaches pastoral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Where Does Your Loyalty Reside?

Do you truly love God with your whole heart, soul and mind? Or do you place your own agenda first and God’s second? Would you stand by God at all costs, or would you be more likely to give in to temporal needs and pleasure?

In today’s first reading from Daniel, we hear of an interchange between King Nebuchadnezzar and three gentlemen named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These three men refuse to worship the King’s man-made statue, because they know the One, true God and worship Him alone. These three men are willing to put their full faith and trust in God claiming,

If our God, whom we serve, can save us from the white-hot furnace and from your hands, O king, may he save us! But even if he will not, know, O king, that we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue that you set up (Daniel 3:17-18).

Did you catch that one phrase, “But even if he will not…?”  These men know that their fate Shadrach%2c Meshach%2c and Abednegotruly rests in God’s hands and not the King’s hands. If it be God’s will they will be spared. However, if God chooses to let the King’s deeds be carried out, then so be it; for these three men place God’s will first, rather than their own. The King decides to throw them into a fiery furnace. There they meet a fourth figure, a man looking like the son of God.

Unlike Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, how often do we put conditions on God; seeking our own will rather than God’s will for our temporal comfort and pleasure? Do you realize that when we do so, we are actually breaking the First Commandment? Anything that comes between us and God to satisfy our wants and desires means that we place prominence on such things over God, and thus break the First Commandment.  It could be fame, fortune, sex, or even personal security. However, when a person can truly put God first, loving Him with one’s whole heart, soul and mind, as did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, then nothing can enslave the person; not even the threat against one’s life. That is what Jesus tries to teach in today’s Gospel reading.

Where Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego believed that the God of Israel deserved their full faith and trust, Jesus now lays claim to that loyalty in the fulfillment of His mission when He states, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32), where the “truth” is salvation through Jesus and “freedom” is freedom from death caused by sin. Jesus is telling the people that the way to the God of Israel is through Him. However, the Jews are skeptical. For millennia, they have placed their loyalty in the God of Israel. Who was this Jesus, that He should now lay such a claim? Because of their suspicions, the Jews plotted to kill Jesus. All along, Jesus knew what they were doing and why. He closes this teaching with a powerful punch:

Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and am here; I did not come on my own, but he sent me” (John 8:42).  For the Jews to be plotting to kill Jesus, these thoughts of murder go against the Fifth Commandment given to the Israelites by the God of Israel: “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex 20:13). By Jesus’ statement of “If God were your Father…” He is stating that the God of Israel would never condone such evil, and therefore, they do not follow the precepts of the God of Israel, as they so claim. Such thoughts of murder could only come from the evil one. Therefore, the Jews of Jesus’ era were placing their loyalty elsewhere, and not with the God of Israel.

So, here is the big question: Are you like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, yet with the full knowledge of Jesus as the Son of God, and you love Him with your whole heart, soul and mind? Or, are you placing something of temporal value between you and God? Think carefully before you answer this question, and don’t deceive yourself. Then, during this Lenten season, make it to the Confessional and ask Jesus for a heart like that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Virginia Lieto teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. Her new children’s book Finding Patience was recently published (and makes a great Easter gift!). She blogs at


Biblical Wisdom and the Problem of Physician Assisted Suicide

The practice of physician assisted suicide assumes that we may use the power of medical technology to end suffering by ending a life.  Of course we use medicine to end suffering, for that is its purpose, but the difficulty lies how we use the power of technology. Physician assisted suicide expresses an ethos about how we handle the power to end life, a difficulty with which humanity has surely struggled from the beginning, but one which modern medical technology appears to simplify through scientific precision (a sedative and a lethal drug) and professional practice (a legal medical procedure for assisting suicide). This combination appears to provide a peaceful “final exit.”

But the Christian understanding of suffering should temper the impulse for assisted suicide. In Salvifici Doloris, Pope John Paul II recalls Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus in John 3:1-21 to illustrate that, in the Christian tradition, confronting suffering ultimately has the meaning of overcoming sin and expressing love. In the biblical story, Jesus teaches Nicodemus that Jesus’s suffering will bring eternal life like “Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness” (Jn 3:14). Jesus overcomes human sinfulness by confronting death, as Moses risked death by lifting a serpent by the tail. Like the serpent, sin brings the risk of harm and death. Like Moses, Jesus’ willingness to place himself between the forces of good and evil demonstrates the kind of love capable of revealing the meaning of suffering.

In Salvifici Doloris, John Paul II focuses on the verse illustrating this love: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16) With these words, Jesus seeks to temper Nicodemus’ enthusiasm for the divine power that Nicodemus recognizes in Jesus. Notice that Nicodemus is attracted by Jesus’ power: “these signs that you do.” (3:2) But Jesus teaches that there is “condemnation” (3:17-18) in this power when it is used for anything other than salvation, “deeds wrought in God” (3:21).nicodemus

Divine power is ultimately directed to overcome sinfulness and unite each human being with God. Limited in his vision, Nicodemus imagines only worldly uses for every power. When Jesus teaches Nicodemus that “one must be born again to enter the kingdom of God,” Nicodemus does not comprehend the forgiveness of sin in baptism. Rather, he immediately, or perhaps facetiously, thinks of returning to the womb. The Pharisee’s response displays a vision limited to the actions that humans, rather than God, perform. Thus it seems more accurate to read Jesus’ condemnation here as a warning, perhaps exaggerated for effect, of Nicodemus’ attachment to powerful human works. It is the same kind of exaggerated warning that Jesus gives Peter–“get behind me, Satan!”–when the latter insists that Jesus employ his power to avoid suffering. Jesus tries to turn the minds and hearts of Peter and Nicodemus away from the power of earthly means to eliminate suffering and toward the salvific power of suffering to overcome sin.

The power of modern medicine has presented us with a new form of the ancient dilemma over how to direct human power to end life. The Christian understanding of suffering offers us a reason to limit that power.

Grattan Brown teaches Ministry to the Aging, Sick, and Dying for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

New Evangelization: Short Take on the Long View

Worth Revisiting Wednesday! This post originally appeared on May 21, 2014.

St Theresa of Avila School BrooklynIn Brooklyn, New York in 1951, in the second grade at Saint Teresa of Avila School, I committed to memory Question Six and its answer from the Baltimore Catechism, “Why did God make you?” “God made me to know, love, and serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.” Although advanced to a much nuanced position, my mind has not changed, but has been greatly challenged. We have not lived in a culture premised on the answer being true. I also memorized Question Ten and its answer, “How shall we know the things which we are to believe?” “We shall know the things which we are to believe from the Catholic Church, through which God speaks to us.” I have been pondering this question and its answer for sixty-two years. This answer is still true for me. From the Catholic Church I have learned the things which we are to believe. Do we not live in a culture, even within the Church, that does not ask the question? Thus, the disappearance of the answer!

Every morning we recited the pledge of allegiance, although “under God” was not added until 1955. America was a good place to which I could pledge allegiance. Yet I did not believe in America. Allegiance and belief differ. Belief is more important than allegiance. This judgment places America’s goods within the goodness of God. Without that goodness, America’s goods were not as good as they could be. Without that goodness of God, an American catechism would instead ask: “Why were you made?” “I was made to be happy and flourish in this country, and to help others be happy and flourish before we all die.” For the second question, “How are we to know the things we need to know?” “We shall know the things we need to know from the schools and social media of the American culture of secularity.”

Of course, in America we have the private option to believe what the Catholic Church teaches. However, we must respect those who don’t take this option, and we must be careful when we act on this belief, lest we interfere with the others or give them offense. Increasingly, we are asked not to say anything, or to keep it to ourselves. This is unsatisfactory for Catholics. We have become the resident aliens. We have a problem with culture!

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

Take a Walk

I just came back from a few days of retreat – what a gift! While on retreat, I prayed with a book I had picked up last year, Walking with Jesus: A Way Forward for the Church, by Pope Francis. It is simply a well compiled gathering of some of the Pope’s daily homilies, general audience teachings, and allocutions to different groups; only five sections, it is not a big book, but it is well edited and good food for thought and prayer. As with all things that Pope Francis presents, it is steeped in scripture and the life of Christ.

I purchased the book because the title intrigued me: Walking with Jesus. Sounds like a good idea! But very quickly I discovered the depth of the relationship that God has in store for us through this invitation. Early in the book I came to see this … In Abram’s first encounter with God, he was invited to walk in God’s presence (Gn 12:1). We see Abram as the father of faith and we talk about sharing in the inheritance, the promises God made with him (Lk 1:55), but the promise comes after the invitation – Come, walk with me and I will make you into a great nation …

Later, Micah says it very plainly: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:8, NIV).

And these are just two examples! It is becoming clearer to me how central this invitation is – to walk with God.


Through the incarnation, Jesus came to walk with us; to show us what it is, means, and can feel like to walk with God; to give us that human experience.

Further into the book, there are the Pope’s general audience teachings on the Sacraments and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. As placed in this book, it highlights how these gifts of the Spirit in and to the Church and the people of God are means to help us to continue to walk with God and with one another.

We’ve all been inspired at one time or another by the poem “Footprints in the Sand,” and it is a beautiful image, but more than looking back and noticing that there were two sets of footprints – that God chose to walk with us, can I hear the invitation to walk with God and to choose to do so?

IMG_0838When I want to spend time with someone, away from work or TV or a crowd, I say “let’s take a walk.” Well, from the beginning, that is what God’s invitation to me [and to each of us] has been. It cannot always be a real “walk in the park,” but for me to intentionally choose to be in God’s presence whether I’m walking, driving, reading, sleeping … because God desires to be a part of my life, my whole life.

So I am renewed in desire to be attentive and to walk with God. I have no greater wish for you than for you to take a walk!

Sr. Kelly Connors, pm, teaches Canon Law for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

To Be Like a Child…Again

In his gospel account St. Matthew describes a moment in which Jesus interrupts His preaching to bring a child before the crowd. He commands them, “unless you turn and become like children you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” It’s easy to gloss over this statement as simply a call to trust in God. After all, children are the epitome of trusting. They look up to us adults who are bigger, stronger, and know lots of things they don’t. Children place themselves in our hands and believe we’ll take care of them. Likewise, we should trust that our heavenly Father knows better than we do, and that He’ll take care of us. All of this is true of course; but there’s much more to Jesus’ words.

It was during the Divine Liturgy on the Sunday before the Fast began that Jesus’ words about being children suddenly struck me. Perhaps it was the convergence of hearing the Koshute 3 2day’s Propers (recalling Adam and Eve, who were both the Original Children and First Parents), Fr. Popson’s homily on the importance of mercy and forgiveness, and the sound of children crying, cooing and laughing. It all got me to thinking about how I approach the Fast, and my relationship with God in general. The Fast is not just my chance to repent, but to begin the process of living a converted life. To do this requires not only personal discipline and the guidance of the Church, but childlike wonder. Consider the snow, which for adults is a back-breaking commute spoiler. But a child sees in the snowflake a world of wonder. Put many flakes together and new possibilities open up. Children make angels, snowmen, forts, and projectiles with which to torment friends and siblings. The point is that where adults first see obstacles and nuisance, the child sees novelty, beauty and creative opportunities Of course we have responsibilities, and things like snowstorms do require our attention. Our maturity and experience are necessary to protect children and ourselves; but it can also wear away at our own sense of wonder.

We’ve all experienced a child’s meltdown. Either as a parent or an observer, we know that sometimes a child needs a moment (or twenty) away to calm down. Yet when I heard the sounds and watched the movements of children on that Cheesefare Sunday I thought of my own proper and often mechanical disposition before God. I know when to sit, when to bow, and when to bless myself. Children aren’t as well disciplined because they’re still learning (and we have a duty to teach them), but the wonder they possess – even if it’s only in fleeting moments throughout the hour – are moments of praising God I can only hope to achieve. Children look at the icons (really look – not just stare straight ahead at Father’s back). They point up to the ceiling at the larger-than-life Jesus watching them, and they wave at Father when he emerges from behind the mysterious screen to bless. They turn up their little faces and open their mouths to receive Jesus just the way they receive their nourishment at breakfast or dinner. Children aren’t always still or quiet, but they are often engaged in the Liturgy in a way I’m not. The child wonders what’s going on, while I take it for granted – and check my watch a few times. Sure, the child doesn’t understand most of what’s going on. But when the priest brings out the chalice and we say to a child, “There’s Jesus,” he actually looks for Him.

The Fast is interminably “slow” when I mistake rigid adherence to the law (leaving no room for the “surprise” of encountering the living God), with authentic spiritual maturity. No, I shouldn’t get up in the middle of Father’s homily, babbling and waving. And, no, I shouldn’t throw a tantrum on a Lenten Friday and demand a burger and piece of chocolate cake. To act in such childish ways is not proper to who I am as an adult, or a person striving in the Faith. Adults must be adults; children are counting on it. But as I make my way through the Fast, seeking God’s mercy – and learning to love Him and others more intimately – I won’t be successful unless I heed Jesus’ words and become childlike. If I squash the wonder and pure delight found in seeking and meeting Christ, then I will never grow up to be God’s own precious child.

“To be a child means to owe one’s existence to another, and even in our adult life we never quite reach the point where we no longer have to give thanks for being the person we are.”  Hans Urs von Balthasar

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.