Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Anti-Toxin

Since I am on the road most of the time these days, with little or no time for attending to this weblog, I have essentially abandoned blogging for the time being. Occasionally, however, something catches my eye which I think worthy of passing along. The following is such an item. It is a withering, but I think accurate, comment by the wit at the Catholic World News "Off the Record" website -- who goes by the name "Diogenes" -- about a homiletic tone which is all too familiar. If I could, I would hand a copy of this to every priest, every seminarian, every diaconate candidate, and every lector. (Feel free to do so.) Diogenes paints with a broad brush, sometimes too broad, and in primary colors, but there is substantial truth in what he says.

Here it is:


Below is Fr. Andrew Greeley's homiletic "background" to yesterday's gospel of the Transfiguration. It's a fine illustration of progressivist discourse, and will explain the dread that grips believing Catholics whenever their pastor climbs into the pulpit.
The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus in today's gospel is one of the stranger stories in any of the Gospels. Evidently Jesus had a powerful "religious experience" at some point in his public life, an experience which had a profound effect on him and on the apostles who were with him. As the story of this experience was related among the early Christians it took on a heavy overlay of theological symbolism. In the context of St. Matthew's Gospel it becomes a turning point in Jesus' life, an experience in which he saw that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer and die while he was there. Since Jesus was human he was fated to die just as all of us are fated to die. In his death, however, there would be something more. Since God was present in Jesus in a special way, God would also go down into the valley of death to show us how great was his love for us, to assure us that He would be with us at the time of our own deaths, and how all of us should face death. The manner of Jesus' death was not fated. He could have declined to go to Jerusalem without sin. Yet he came to see that he had to go there and so he did.
The clear implication of Greeley's account is that the Transfiguration didn't really happen, but instead Jesus underwent some kind of spiritual invigoration that he and his disciples attributed to divine favor. The Gospel account is (in this scheme) an expression of later Christians' symbolic understanding of their experience of the apostles' experience of Jesus' experience of God -- or at least of what he took to be God. What is of interest, for Greeley, is religious narrative technique of second century Palestine. Please stand for the Creed.

Even considered in its most positive light, this is a form of spiritual voyeurism, and it's characteristic of liberal dilettantes that they derive a second-hand thrill by observing at a distance the unfeigned piety of genuine believers. Dr. Rowan Williams gives voice to this enthusiasm in describing the effect viewing an Orthodox liturgy had on him as a boy: "I felt I had seen and heard people who were behaving as if God were real ... If people worshipped like this, I felt God must be a great deal more real than even I have learnt him so far." See the epistemic buffering? Not, "I was touched by God," but, "I was moved watching others who were touched by God." As a first step to faith that would be edifying, but it's clear that progressives never get beyond the voyeurism. For them the second-hand kicks are what religion is all about.

"God was present in Jesus in a special way," says Greeley. That's not how Christians speak. Sure, it can be construed in such a way as to acquit him of heresy, but what spiritual good does he invite us to embrace? He begins his exposition of this "strange story" by throwing ice water on our faith by undermining our belief in the face-value reliability of the Gospel. Does he then go on to restore that faith by removing some important misunderstanding? No, he makes the typical liberal move and focuses on the community of believers instead of on the truths those believers believed -- and all of it is presented within a framework of mundane cause and effect ("since Jesus was human, he was fated to die ...").

This smug professorial didacticism would be more excusable if it were part of a university seminar wherein all religions are treated as dead religions and where the grad students could make allowances for Greeley's approach. But these are things we hear at Mass, and that's what rankles. There was a time when Catholics could come to the Eucharist with the understanding that what took place was intended to deepen their Christian faith. Of course, fewer than a third of Catholics regularly attend Sunday Mass these days, yet those that do show up have to coach themselves and their loved ones not to pay attention to the twink in the pulpit, precisely because he's out to take something important away from them.

Re-read Greeley's remarks above, and ask yourself what impression they'd be likely to make on a 14- or 15- or 16-year-old in the pews. Even the word "story" (how often have we heard that term from the pulpit?) communicates the conviction that the gospel is fiction and not fact. So put yourself in the place of the parents who succeed, against the odds, in convincing their teenagers to get out of bed and put on some clothes and take off the Death Crew t-shirt and get in the van and come to Mass -- having answered or parried all the whining objections in the meantime -- and who THEN have to explain to them why they should ignore Father's preaching.

One of the glories of Pope Benedict's extraordinary book Jesus of Nazareth is how completely it overturns the facile reductivism we've been spoon-fed for so long. Benedict takes modern scripture scholarship seriously -- more seriously than many of its practitioners -- yet there's scarcely a page in which he does not give back to us, as fact, some event in the life of Jesus that had been taken away from us by the critics. And he does this not by some appeal to fideism (or even to conciliar teaching) but by reading the Scriptures as a unity, by obliging the critics to account for the whole of revelation and not just for the particular problem that snagged their attention. Pope Benedict examines the same process of composition and redaction that the union-card-holding critics do, yet argues that the only adequate explanation for the emergence of the biblical text in the form we now have it is that Jesus was God. In brief, Benedict is Greeley's anti-toxin.