Tag Archives: Judgement

“What is lost by letting go of the ‘Happenedness’ of the Gospel?”

A Conversation across Time with Marcus Borg – Part 2

baldIf I were teaching a beginner’s class on contemporary theology, I would use Clark Pinnock’s book Tracking the Maze (Harper & Row – 1990) as the text.  I have long appreciated Clark Pinnock as a theologian, and this book is probably my favorite of the many that he wrote and that I have profitably read.   In the Introduction, after naming the incredibly “pluralistic and diverse” state of modern theology, Clark Pinnock lined out on a continuum the broad theological options that are available to us ranging from a “dogmatic” and “close-minded” “Modernism” on the left pole to an equally “dogmatic” and “close-minded” “Fundamentalism” on the right pole, with “Evangelical Liberalism” and “Conservative Evangelicalism” in-between.  And then Clark Pinnock observed that the middle positions “are often more open to discussion.”  In fact, he said that it had been his experience as an Evangelical theologian that “it often proved possible to have a very worthwhile discussion between evangelical liberals and conservative evangelicals but not at all easy to have one with either modernists or fundamentalists” (11).  It all came down, in his judgment, to just how “open” or “closed” the conversationalists were to what the other had to say, and he believed that one’s capacity for being able to do this decreased the closer to either of the extremes that you moved.

Since his death two weeks ago, I have been having a conversation with Marcus Borg in my weekly blog as part of my tribute to him.  He was part of the “faithful opposition” to my particular brand of Christian faith, and that’s why I read him and kept him around the household of my faith.  While he challenged some of my core convictions, I always felt like he did so reverently and respectfully.  He was “open” to the conversation, as am I, and so, with his passing, I feel like I have lost a friend.  Many of my colleagues and peers in recent days have been posting their tributes to Dr. Borg online, heralding him as the teacher who “saved” their faith.   That was not my experience with Marcus Borg.  When Clark Pinnock died on August 15, 2010, or Donald Bloesch nine days later on August 24, 2010, I lost two of the contemporary theologians who had decisively “shaped” my thinking and believing.  What so many of my friends are now saying about Marcus Borg I could have just as easily and authentically said about Clark Pinnock and Donald Bloesch then.  But as an “open” “Conservative Evangelical,” I am not oblivious to the way that Marcus Borg had an important hand in helping to refine what it is that I believe and proclaim, and so I have taken up the challenge of one of his last essays to try to explain from my faith perspective what is lost by letting go of the “happenedness” of the Christ event as the Gospels report and the rest of the New Testament bears witness to it, as the best way for me to honor his memory.

E. StanleyJones described the theological battles in the church of his day as “long-distance dueling.” He explained –

We have shelled each other’s positions, or what we thought were the positions, but there has been much smoke and confusion and not a little un-Christian feeling.  Why not sit down at Round Tables as Christian men and women… where we could listen reverently to what the other man would say [his faith’s convictions] were bringing to him, and we would share what it was meaning to us.  At the close we might not be agreed, but we would be mutually enriched, and certainly we would be closer to the real issues.  (Christ at the Round Table – Abingdon Press – 1928).

And so I write. DBS+

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The Next Step in the Argument:  The Trustworthiness of the Testimony
“That you may come to believe…and through believing that you may have life in His name…”

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Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

– John 20:30-31

In last week’s “Borg Blog” I simply observed that the New Testament reads as if it were eyewitness testimony, the observations of people who were claiming to have had “a historical experience of the great event of salvation” (Rudolf Schnackenburg).  In that posting I pointed out that these people could have been completely mistaken about what they said they saw, or deliberately deceptive, or creatively embellishing, or certifiably crazy, seeing things that weren’t there and hearing things that weren’t said.  Last week I didn’t address the question of the trustworthiness of the testimony that the New Testament offers, I just wanted to establish the fact that the New Testament reads as if it were eyewitness testimony.  This week in my “Borg Blog” I turn my attention to the question of the reliability of what the New Testament authors are telling us, and next week in my last “Borg Blog” I will try to explain why it matters so much to me that what they say happened actually did.

blindFor years at youth rallies and retreats, high school camps and conferences, it was a standard part of one’s bag of youth ministry tricks to divide everybody up into pairs and then to send them off on a trust walk.  The instructions were simple.  One member of the pair was told to close their eyes, or better yet, was blindfolded, and the other member of the pair was then asked to verbally guide their unseeing partner across the campground without running then into trees or off of cliffs.

The teaching point of this exercise was that faith involves this kind of trust.  As Peter put it in his first letter: “Though you have not seen Christ, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him, greatly rejoicing with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls” (I Peter 1:8-9).  We haven’t seen Christ, but somebody did, and we now believe in Him “through their word” (John 17:20).  This was the whole point of those verses from the end of the Gospel of John with which I began this posting (20:30-31).  John explained that the selected and interpreted stories about Jesus Christ that he told his readers in his Gospel were there to move them toward a decision of faith about Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, “and that through believing you may have life in his name.” 

oldIt was because of verses like these that Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), came up with “his” distinctive definition, which in turn became “our” distinctive definition of faith.

No testimony, no faith: for faith is only the belief of testimony, or confidence in testimony as true.  To believe without testimony is just as impossible as to see without light. The measure, quality, and power of faith are always found in the testimony believed.   Where testimony begins, faith begins; and where testimony ends, faith ends. (“Faith” – The Christian System – 1839).

And this makes the “trustworthiness” of the New Testament witness a matter of critical importance to faith.  The argument is succinctly and clearly stated in 2 Peter 1.

  • In verses 13-15,  Simon Peter (the named author in 1:1), told his readers that he felt a certain urgency in stirring up their remembrance of the things that he’d previously taught them because he sensed his approaching death, and after his departure he wanted them to be able “to call these things to mind.”
  • And in verses 16-18, Simon Peter told his readers that the things that he had previously told them about Jesus Christ “were not cleverly devised tales,” but things that he himself had a seen and heard about Jesus Christ as an “eyewitness.”   In other words, Peter was extending an invitation of faith to his readers based on the trustworthiness of his own testimony as an eyewitness, and this whole argument collapses if the things to which Peter bore witness never happened, or if Peter didn’t actually see them as he emphatically insisted that he did.  Peter was telling his readers to “trust” him and to believe that what he was telling them about Jesus Christ was accurate and true, and if it turns out that I can’t, well then, I’m converting to Buddhism, or Judaism, or Islam, or to almost anything other than Christianity.  You see, I believe in Jesus Christ on the basis of the apostolic word of testimony, on the basis of their “memoirs” of the Christ Event and their explanation of its meaning.

Marcus Borg pointed out that “conflict about the Bible is the single most divisive issue among Christians in North America today,” and I completely agree!   In fact, I think that  Andrew Wilson (a leader in the British “New Frontiers” Movement) is exactly right when he says that “the biggest theological debate of the next twenty years” is going to be the church’s doctrine of Scripture – how we read, understand and apply the Bible.

Much modern discussion about hell isn’t really about what specific texts say, but how (or even if) we should form our theology of judgment, or God, from them (from the text of Scripture).  Much modern discussion about the roles of men and women isn’t really about what specific texts say, but about whether or not the situation in which they were written was different enough from ours to allow us (or compel us) to apply them (the Biblical texts) differently today. As such, although the debates seem to be about one thing – hell, gender roles, gay bishops, the atonement, or whatever – they are actually about something else: how we understand and apply these ancient texts in the modern world. (http://thinktheology.co.uk)

The issue here is how the New Testament is going to function as the authority for the church’s faith and practice today. And the crucial question concerns just how much confidence we can reasonably have in the claims that are made by the New Testament documents.  Are they deserving of our trust as reliable witnesses to the Christ Event and as faithful interpretations of its normative meaning?

treesSpend a little time on the internet or in the library of your local seminary, and the complexity and diversity of the issues involved in sorting through this question will quickly become apparent.  There are a number of “forks in the road” that will send you down the path towards either confidence in or suspicion of what the New Testament reports.  Included among the issues that are vigorously debated are-

  • The question of the nature of the New Testament texts themselves – what is their “genre”?  How did the authors of the Gospels actually intend their readers to understand what it was that they were writing? What kind of literature are we looking at?
  • The questions of the accuracy and authenticity of the established New Testament texts?  Since we don’t have any original New Testament manuscripts – nothing from the actual hand and pen of Paul, or John, or Luke, or Peter – how much trust can we actually put in the copies of texts that we do have in our New Testaments?  Aren’t there wild variations between the different copies of the New Testament books that we do possess that substantially change the meaning of what is written depending on which one you are looking at?
  • And how about all those contradictions, discrepancies and inaccuracies between the accounts of the events that are reported in the New Testament as we have it, and the irreconcilable differences between the meaning of those events as they are explained by other New Testament writers?   Things like Matthew and Luke saying that Mary was a Virgin when she conceived and gave birth to Jesus, and Mark, John and Paul not mentioning it all? Or the number of angels at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning?  Or Paul’s insistence that we are saved by faith and not works, and James teaching that faith without works is dead?
  • Another hotly debated topic are the seeming parallels between what the Gospels tell us about Jesus and what we find in the mystery religions of the ancient Middle East about dying and rising saviors and the stories of divine births from the mythologies of other ancient peoples?  How much of what the Gospels report are just borrowed categories from these sources?  Familiar ways of symbolically talking about matters of spiritual significance and transcendence?
  • And isn’t the New Testament as we have it just the “victor’s” account of things?  Early Christianity was crowded with competing versions of the faith, this take on things says. There were other books with other interpretations about Jesus that “lost” the contest for ascendency as the official faith of the church.  These books were “lost” and their teachings suppressed, but now, thanks to archeology, we are finding them and they provide us with entirely new ways  of thinking about Christianity.  Therefore the New Testament documents must be stripped of their “privileged” position as the authoritative source for our faith and practice as Christians and room made for these “new/old” voices.
  • And finally, there is the big question of competing worldviews – the closed universe of naturalism in which Divine action is rejected from the outset making what the New Testament claims impossible versus the open universe of supernaturalism which the in-breaking of the Divine in the Incarnation, Atoning Death, Resurrection, Ascension and promised Return of Jesus Christ which the New Testament documents assume and affirm.

These are all the topics for doctoral dissertations and the subjects of thousand page scholarly volumes.  As wise King Solomon observed long ago, “Of the making of many books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12).   I am a working pastor, a practical theologian, which is to say that I read some of the books and understand the broad outlines of the arguments.  And what I know is this: For every argument made there is a counterargument that can be offered.  Every point has a counterpoint. I have found intelligent and articulate scholars on either side of all of these “fork in the road” issues, and this fact has lowered my expectations about what this process can deliver.

Intellectual certainty is a myth.

No question is beyond doubt, no argument is final. Both the “dogmatic” and “close-minded”  “modernists” and the “dogmatic” and “close-minded”  “fundamentalists” at the poles of Clark Pinnock’s continuum of contemporary theology make this same mistake.  They make their arguments, state their case and then drop the microphone and walk away, acting as if the question is thereby settled and the case is forever closed by the brilliance and indomitability of their logic.  It should be apparent by how I write that I have settled opinions on all of the “fork in the road” questions that I have listed above.  I have read the arguments and drawn my own conclusions about all of these matters that I think make the best sense of things.  But I hold those conclusions “modestly” and with a real appreciation for the “mystery” of it all.  The conclusions I have drawn are all “plausible,” or else I wouldn’t have drawn them.  But because we walk by faith and not by sight, my conclusion cannot be “absolute.”   And for me this means that I cannot act as if somebody who disagrees with me and my conclusions is stupid or wicked.  Their settled conclusions are “plausible” too, or else they wouldn’t have drawn them.  And it seems to me that this is the best we can hope for in the contest of ideas; a stalemate.

Faith cannot be compelled by logic, by the persuasiveness of some argument. And so John G. Stackhouse, Jr., urges Christians to adopt what he calls the approach of “humble apologetics” when fulfilling our I Peter 3:15 obligation to “give an account for the hope that is in you… gently and reverently.”  His whole book is an important read (Humble Apologetics – Oxford University Press –  2002), but this principle is at its very core –

Given historic Christian teachings regarding the finitude and falleness of human beings and of our thinking in particular, we must be careful not to claim too much for what we believe.  We Christians should not need postmodernists to tell us that we do not know it all.  We should not need anyone to tell us that all human thought is partial, distorted, and usually deployed in the interest of this or that personal agenda. 

…This we are as committed as we can be to what we believe is real, and especially to the One whom we love, worship and obey as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  We gladly offer what, and whom, we believe we have found to be true to our neighbors in the hope that they also will recognize it, and him, as true.  We recognize that there are good reasons for them not to believe, even as we recognize that there can be good reasons for our own doubts. Indeed, we can recognize that God may have given them some things to teach us, and we gratefully receive them in the mutual exchange of God’s great economy of salvation.

[But] we recognize, ultimately, that to truly believe, to truly commit oneself to God, is itself a gift that God alone bestows.  Conversion is a gift.  Faith is a gift.  God alone can change minds so that those minds can both see and embrace the great truths of the Gospel, and the One who stands at their center.

And this opens the door on the last room in my “Borg Blog” that I want to walk through with you next week.  Suffice it for now to say that I think that the things that the New Testament tells me about the Christ Event, about what actually happened and what it normatively means, makes the most sense when it is taken at face value, as the eyewitness reports of “a historical experience of the great event of salvation.”  And I can direct you to the scholars and their works that I have read that makes this choice “plausible” – intellectually respectable and acceptable.  But when push comes to shove, the reason why I take what the New Testament reports at face value, is because it is what the New Testament tells me that Jesus Christ said and did that has convinced me that He is “the Messiah, the Son of God,” and it is through believing this that I have personally received “life in his name.”

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“Credo ut intelligam”

“Credo ut intelligam” (alternatively spelled “Credo ut intellegam”) is Latin for “I believe so that I may understand” and is a maxim of Anselm of Canterbury (Proslogion, 1), which is based on a saying of Augustine of Hippo (“crede, ut intelligas,” “believe so that you may understand”; Tract. Ev. Jo., 29.6) to relate faith and reason. In Anselm’s writing, it is placed in juxtaposition to its converse, “intellego ut credam” (“I think so that I may believe”), when he says “Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam” (“I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but rather, I believe in order that I may understand”).

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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Changing Laws ~ Changing Hearts

monument

 

Dr. Bill Baird, my professor of New Testament at Brite Divinity School, and the reason why I wanted to go to seminary in Ft. Worth in the first place, used to say that our natural reflex is to use Biblical texts as “springboards” to Washington D.C.

What he meant by this was our tendency to move immediately, unhesitatingly and uncritically from Biblical teachings to some specific public policy proposal. We get political in the blink of an eye and become partisan in a heartbeat. Both the Christian right and the Christian left pronounce their particular take on a pressing social issue of the day and leave the distinct impression that it is the only conscientious position that a serious Christian can take.  We call it being “prophetic,” and we think that it’s how we speak truth to power.

As Christians, we use the Bible politically to speak to the world. But when I read my Bible, in context, more often than not, what I encounter is not a word that’s being spoken to the world at large, but a word that’s being spoken instead to the community of faith, both to whole congregations and to individual Christians.  When He was in front of Pontius Pilate, Jesus Christ explicitly disavowed the suspected grab for worldly power through a political strategy that made Him a cause for concern to Rome.   “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said (John 18:36).  And when addressing a problem about sexual expression in the Corinthian Church, Paul explained –

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. 12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. [1 Corinthians 5:9-13]

I know, I know, these verses beg many important questions, but for right now try to focus just on the inside/outside distinction that Paul was making here; the difference between what the church is supposed to say to “anyone who claims to be a brother or sister,” and what the church is supposed to say to “the people of this world.”

“What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” Paul asked, assuming that his readers knew that the answer was “none” — that it’s not our “business” to hold people in the world accountable to the moral and spiritual standards that we who have surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ hold sacred.  “Are you not to judge those inside?” And again, Paul assumed that his readers knew the answer to this rhetorical question as well. “Yes,” we are supposed to hold ourselves accountable to each other within the community of faith for the things that we say we believe are true, and right, and good.

Don’t try to play the trump card of Matthew 7:1-6 here. Even in context, Jesus’ “judge not lest ye be judged” assumes a capacity on our part to be able to identify “specks,” “logs,” “dogs” and “swine.” And within a mere 8 verses of this teaching, Jesus was warning His disciples about “false prophets” and the necessity for His disciples to be able to know who they were by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-20).  The appeal to Matthew 7:1 as a universal prohibition to judging that we like to use to avoid the hard work of getting clarity for ourselves or being challenged by others about what it is that we believe and value ignores what the verse actually says in context and attempts to have it bear more freight than it was designed to hold, which brings us back around to the inside/outside distinction and to the question of who the Bible is talking to?

The reason why we use Biblical texts as springboards to Washington DC is because we think that the primary way that the world will be changed, made more just and compassionate, will be through legislation. And while I’m not unaware of the necessity of political action or unappreciative of the way that good legislation and responsible government can serve the establishment of justice and liberty for all, neither am I naïve.  I’m truly glad that racial segregation and discrimination was officially outlawed in the United States by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but as the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, 50 years later have painfully shown us, it’s one thing to change the law and another thing to change hearts.

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The “takeaway” from Carl F.H. Henry’s 1964 book Aspects of Christian Social Ethics for me was his strong emphasis on Christianity’s “supernatural resources” for social change. This was his restatement of Pietist Christianity’s traditional approach to addressing social problems and fueling social improvement.

The twentieth century has cherished high hopes for socio-politico-economic reconstruction. First it trusted mass education to propound a new vision of society, then domestic legislation and possibly even international jurisprudence, and more recently it has looked to mob pressures and revolutionary techniques to being about rapid social fulfillment. (9)

But the Christian Church ought to rely on the spiritual regeneration of individuals to transform society. (72)

History shows that the thought of Christ on the cross has been more potent than anything else in arousing a compassion for suffering and indignation at injustice. (29)

Supernatural regeneration is the peculiar mainspring for the social metamorphosis latent in the Christian movement… Evangelism and revival remain the original wellsprings of evangelical humanitarianism and social awakening. To ignore or lay aside this chief armor of apostolic Christianity for reliance on other social dynamics means retreat from the peculiar glory of the New Testament to the world-wisdom and world-power of the Greeks and the Romans.  Those who in social agitation sponsor a morality of compulsion, or simply trust the word and will of unregenerate men, thereby betray their skepticism of the adequacy of spiritual reserves latent in the Christian religion. This gnawing doubt is manifest in the notion that social problems are not wholly responsive to spiritual solutions. Consequently, the Church has often turned aside from its evangelistic and missionary priorities, attempting to chart a socio-political thrust alongside rather than in and through the evangelistic thrust. (26-27)

The Gospel of Christ is the Church’s peculiar “dynamis” (power) for facing the entire world. Christian social action condones no social solutions in which personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is an optional consideration. Personal regeneration and redemption are inherent in its hope for the social order.  (25)

The Gospel is the Church’s distinctive message and its distinctive dynamism for social transformation. (79)

When the New Testament addresses a social issue like slavery in Paul’s letter to Philemon, what it says was not being offered as a plank in the platform of a political party, or as some specific political policy proposal. Rome wasn’t listening.  The Emperor didn’t care.  What the New Testament had to say about social justice was a word that was addressed to the hearts of believers who then as salt and light and leaven would penetrate the world around them.  And my hope as a Christian today for the emergence of a more just and compassionate social order still depends less on the persuasiveness of a political argument and the results of the next election than on the spiritual transformation of people by the power of the living, loving God in their lives through the Word and the Spirit.  As Edward Beecher, Lyman’s son, put it –

Great changes do not begin on the surface of society, but in prepared hearts; in men (and women) who by communion with God, rise above the apathy of the age, and speak with living vital energy, and give life to the community, and tone to the public mind. (Wirt 147)

In closing, I put into evidence in support of this argument a story that J. Mack Stiles told in his book Marks of the Messenger: Knowing, Living and Speaking the Gospel (IVP 2010).

When our missionary friend, Mike McComb, tried to introduce protein into the diets of the largely illiterate Guatemalan farmers, it was a masterful combination of expertise, training, and strategy. He started his work towards the end of the murderous civil war. During that time Mike also faithfully shared the gospel. And Mike noticed it was the gospel that allowed protein to get to the people.

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When the gospel was understood and accepted in villages, Mike reported, men stopped getting drunk and beating their wives. As they attended church, they started to attend to their crops and their children’s education. Tomas, the mayor of Nebaj, told me that it was only when the gospel came to the Ixil lands that real change happened. Mike says that the preaching of the gospel did more to eliminate hunger than fish farms or crop rotation ever did. We must never forget that the Gospel brings more long-term social good than any governmental aid program ever developed.

Changed hearts change the world.  DBS+

 

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We have no Right to Scorn

Fr. Benedict Groeschel has had a profound influence on me.  There are very few living spiritual teachers whose writings have more consistently informed and inspired me than have Fr. Groeschel’s.  My first encounter with him was through his book Spiritual Passages: The Psychology of Spiritual Development “for Those Who Seek” (1983).  This was the book that first and best introduced me to the threefold path of the Christian mystical spirituality: the purgative way, the illuminative way and the unitive way.  A short version of this book – Questions and Answers about your Journey to God (2007) – is one that I actually travel with (it is always in my backpack) because I am constantly consulting it — it is just that basic to my spiritual being, thinking and doing.  His book on the Creed, Praying with the Creed (2007), is one that I have used devotionally with great profit more than once, as is his book of Advent devotions, Behold He Comes (2001), and his book of Communion meditations, Praying In the Presence of the Lord (1999).  His book on the persistent necessity of reform and renewal in the Spiritual life and the church, The Reform of Renewal (1990), is a book that has directly informed my approach to ministry.  His book, Arise from Darkness: What to do When Life Doesn’t Make Sense (1995), is on my beside table right now and is about half read, and his book The Journey to God: Following in the Footsteps of the great Spiritual Writers is in my stack of “next reads,” just waiting for me to get to it — about three books away.  But deserving of special mention because of their profound and continuing impact on me are two of Benedict Groeschel’s books: Praying to the Lord Jesus Christ: Prayers and Meditations Through the Centuries (2004) and I am with You Always (2010). 

                                      

I spent most of last year (2011) with I am with You Always.  This is the kind of book that I really love – a historical survey – of a subject that I am really passionate about – Christian Spirituality.  Broadly ecumenical, generous in spirit and Christ-centered, this book just may be the best survey of Christian Spirituality that I have ever read.  I can’t speak highly enough of this book.  As I read it I was constantly being introduced to spiritual guides from other parts of the church in different eras of her history.  I would regularly find what Fr. Groeschel said about these spiritual guides to be so compelling that I would have to stop reading him, go and read them for a while, only to come back to Fr. Groeschel for more when I was finished with them.  It took the better part of the year for me to work my way through I am with You Always reading it this way, but it was a rich and deeply satisfying process.

 

Next to the Book of Common Prayer, Praying to the Lord Jesus Christ is the most frequently used spiritual resource that I have.  I just love this book!  Again, it has the feel of a historical survey to me, but it is not a history book. It is a devotional guide.  It gives shape and content to the New Testament’s witness to the church’s apostolic experience of worshipping the Lamb (Revelation 5).  I found this book at about the same time that I was reading Larry Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianityand it transformed that read for me from a rich intellectual exercise to a profound act of devotion.  Martin Luther said that all theology should be done from our knees, and Praying to the Lord Jesus Christ enabled me to do this while reading some of the most important theology that has been written in the last decade.

 As I said, Fr. Benedict Groeschel has had a profound spiritual impact on me.  In fact, I can’t think of another living spiritual guide who has spoken to me as often or as profoundly as has Fr. Groeschel.  And so, I was very sad to hear this report on the news one evening recently –

 NY priest apologizes for sex abuse comments By DEEPTI HAJELA, Associated Press – Aug 30, 2012 

NEW YORK (AP) — A New York priest apologized Thursday after coming under criticism for saying that priests accused of child sex abuse are often seduced by their accusers and that a first-time offender should not go to jail. The Rev. Benedict Groeschel of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal made the comments in an interview with the National Catholic Register published this week. The website for the conservative independent Register then removed the story and posted an apology for publishing the comments. Groeschel and the friars did as well. Asked about working with priests involved in abuse, Groeschel said, “Suppose you have a man having a nervous breakdown, and a youngster comes after him. A lot of the cases, the youngster — 14, 16, 18 — is the seducer.” He also added later that anyone involved “on their first offense, they should not go to jail because their intention was not committing a crime.”

Really? 

In this day when the church’s sad history of sexual abuse is more fully known and the damage it has done is well understood, how could anyone defend and/or try to excuse its perpetrators?  Fr. Groeschel is not just wrong on this, what he said is destructive.  Fortunately, both Fr. Groeschel and his order understand this and the damage that his remarks have done.  Within hours of the interview in which his comments were made, these apologies were issued-

The Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal sincerely apologizes for the comments made by Fr. Benedict Groeschel in an interview released yesterday by the National Catholic Register, online edition. In that interview, Fr. Benedict made comments that were inappropriate and untrue. A child is never responsible for abuse. Any abuser of a child is always responsible, especially a priest. Sexual abuse of a minor is a terrible crime and should always be treated as such. We are sorry for any pain his comments may have caused. Fr. Benedict has dedicated his life to helping others and these comments were completely out of character. He never intended to excuse abuse or implicate the victims. We hope that these unfortunate statements will not overshadow the great good Fr. Benedict has done in housing countless homeless people, feeding innumerable poor families, and bringing healing, peace and encouragement to so many.

Fr. Benedict helped found our community 25 years ago with the hope of bringing the healing peace of Jesus Christ to our wounded world. Our desire has always been to lift up humanity and never to hurt. About seven years ago, Fr. Benedict was struck by a car and was in a coma for over a month. In recent months his health, memory and cognitive ability have been failing. He has been in and out of the hospital. Due to his declining health and inability to care for himself, Fr. Benedict had moved to a location where he could rest and be relieved of his responsibilities. Although these factors do not excuse his comments, they help us understand how such a compassionate man could have said something so wrong, so insensitive, and so out of character. Our prayers are with all those who have been hurt by his comments, especially victims of sexual abuse.

Fr. Benedict Groeschel himself issued this apology, quite likely that these are the last public words that we will ever hear from him –

I apologize for my comments. I did not intend to blame the victim. A priest (or anyone else) who abuses a minor is always wrong and is always responsible. My mind and my way of expressing myself are not as clear as they used to be. I have spent my life trying to help others the best that I could. I deeply regret any harm I have caused to anyone.

I take Fr. Groeschel at his word.  I’m sure that he deeply regrets what he said, and I want to believe what he said about not having the clarity of thought and expression that he once possessed.  One source I read said that his Order, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, have had to treat him in this matter as many of us have had to treat aging parents with diminishing cognitive capacities and motor skills – they have “taken away his car keys.”   And so Fr. Groeschel is finished.  He will not be making any further public statements.  His television appearances have unceremoniously ended.  He has clearly written his last book.  He has conducted his last interview.  Fr. Groeschel will not be heard from again.  His community will surround him with love and care and respect until that day when his faith becomes sight.  But what are we who have looked to him for spiritual counsel through the years to do now?  Have his last words, as mistaken and destructive as they were, forever disqualified him as a reliable spiritual guide for the future?  Can he continue to be read with appreciation and turned to for guidance, or will he now forever sit under a cloud of suspicion and criticism because his last public statement was so far outside the lines?

 Well, following my initial shock and disappointment with what Fr. Groeschel said, my thinking about what I am going to do with him moving forward from this unfortunate and inglorious end has been informed by what two other spiritual guides I look to have written about forgiveness.

 Lewis Smedes in his book on forgiveness Forgive and Forget (1984) – a truly important book with a truly bad and even misleading title – talked about the miracle of “magic eyes” that forgiveness requires.  Nothing undoes the damage that a hurtful action or a hateful word causes.  Forgiveness doesn’t change that. What forgiveness does is to change the way that we look at the person who said the hateful word or did the hurtful thing to us.  Forgiveness doesn’t ask us to somehow pretend that no damage was done.  What it does ask us to do is to see that the hateful, hurtful thing that has been done to us is not the only thing that the person who did it has ever done to us.  That they have hurt us is not the only truth about them, or even necessarily the deepest truth about them.  This is the miracle of “magic eyes.”   Lewis wrote –

 As we forgive, we gradually come to see the deeper truth about them, a truth our hate blinds us to, a truth we can only see when we separate them from what they did to us.  When we heal our memories we are not playing games, we are not making believe.  We see the truth again.  For the truth about those who hurt us is that they are weak, needy, and fallible human beings.  They were people before they hurt us and they are people after they hurt us.  They were needy and weak before they hurt us and they were weak and needy after they hurt us.  They needed our help, our support, our comfort before they did us wrong; and they need it still. They are not only people who hurt us; this is not the deepest truth about them.  Our hate wants to cloak them, top to bottom, only in the rags of their rotten deed.   But the magic eyes of forgiving look beneath the tattered rags and let us see the truth. (27-28)

 What this means is that as misguided as were Fr. Groeschel’s last public comments, I will not permit them to cloud the fact that Fr. Groeschel made other public comments in the course of his long and productive ministry. That he said these hurtful words and that they were wrong is clear.  But that he has said other things, things that are profoundly true and filled with great spiritual understanding, is also true.  And so, while I cannot ignore or excuse Fr. Groeschel’s last public words, I will not let those last public words somehow invalidate all of his other public words.  I choose to see him with “magic eyes,” and to listen to him with “magic ears.”   I am choosing to believe that the words that Fr. Groeschel spoke that have forced him from public life into the seclusion of retirement in his community are not the only words, nor are they truest words, that speak of what is in his depths. That’s the first thing that I am doing with Fr. Groeschel.  I am choosing to remember that there is more to him that this last unfortunate episode.

 The other thing that I am doing with Fr. Groeschel is what Jerry Cook said that forgiveness entails in his book Love, Acceptance & Forgiveness (1979) –

 I like Catherine Marshall’s concept of forgiveness as she develops it in her book Something More.  She suggests that forgiveness is releasing another from your personal judgment. Taking your personal judgment off a person doesn’t mean you agree with what he has said or done.  It simply means that you will not act as his judge.  You will not pronounce a guilty verdict on him… Forgive, and you’ll be forgiven.  Judge not, and you’ll not be judged.  That’s in the Word (see Luke 6:37).  Release people from your personal judgment!  For unless I can be assured of your forgiveness, I cannot really open myself to you.  You see, I know that sooner or later I will disappoint you and fail you.   Not by design or desire, but I am imperfect; I’m still under construction.  I must know that you will not condemn me when my weaknesses and flaws and sins begin to show.  I need the assurance of your forgiveness – a forgiveness with no bitter aftertaste. (20-21)

 Because I know that I am going to need mercy for stupid things that I will no doubt say and do in the future, I choose mercy for Fr. Groeschel.  I take my judgment off of him, and pray that he will know the peace of grace in Christ throughout his remaining days; for that, after all, is what the man taught me so well, so often and so deeply in his books.  DBS+

 

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