Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Virgin Birth—Incarnation

Godfrey Diekmann, OSB,  exploded with this statement in the students’ dining hall at St. John’s.
It’s not the Resurrection, dammit! It’s the Incarnation!
An editorial in National Catholic Reporter reminded me of this story in The Monk’s Tale, a biography of Diekmann by Kathleen Hughes. When I was at the School of Theology, she came onto the Collegeville campus to gather stories for her book about our colorful and inspirational professor, Godfrey, as he was known by students and fellow professors. The first-name basis at SOT is one of my fond memories of those years, and I’m proud to have my own memories of Godfrey Diekmann, who played an important role in contemporary Church history.

Godfrey passionately preached the implications of the Mystical Body—that we share divinity. This is the Incarnation, and Christmas is the feast of the Incarnation. In the traditional Christian perspective, God’s entry into time and history happened at the birth of the Nazarene, Jesus. But let’s not worship an external God-image, which is a form of idolatry. We incarnate or embody the Divine. We are the eyes, hands, and feet of Christ, and I don’t mean a man, and by “we” I don’t mean only Christians. Divinity resides in the heart of the Hindu, Inuit, Muslim, Sikh, animist, whatever. Eternity is enfleshed in all creation, and our distinctly human task is to consciously advance this process of Incarnation.

When I said something like this in a blogspot a long time ago, someone commented that non-Christians would object to being called “the eyes, hands, and feet of Christ.” I have to agree. I’m doing my best here to bridge Christian doctrine with other spiritual systems, and I inevitably offend one side or the other. Speaking as a Christian, I’m comfortable with Christian terms, but I have no patience with traditionalists bent on preserving the literal and exclusive understanding of our religious doctrines.

A Buddhist interviewed in Sacred Journey (summer 2009), said of the Dalai Lama,
He feels that even if someone is beating his body, underneath the cells of his body is the realm of pure light that is blissful. . . . welling up from the core of the reality of life, an infinite sustaining energy, which is what I think all highly spiritually developed people tap into, whatever they call it.
How well this captures incarnational possibility!
I think that, if Godfrey were working in this new century with its wealth of alternative spiritual voices, he would have listened. He would have synthesized the Dalai Lama’s view with Paul’s “Christ lives in me.” And he might even have seen the link with secular humanism, which more than religions has advanced human dignity and human rights around the world.

Carl Jung led the way toward integrating Christian doctrine with secular spirituality. He showed that our thinking I, our ego or conscious mind, needs to become aware of our unconscious totality, our Higher Self. And this inner Self “cannot be distinguished from God-images,” Christ, of course, the prominent example. How do we achieve this union of ego with divinity? Jung, the depth psychologist, said, “God becomes manifest in the human act of reflection.” But I like the Christian image of becoming “the eyes, hands, and feet of Christ.”

We are called to become Mothers of God in a Virgin Birth.
Now a response to my latest posts that came to me by email. I got permission to quote Ron Ohmann because his comment may help others to understand my message:
Thanks, Jeanette. Although we enjoy the prevailing Catholic/Christian "take" on Christmas, we remind ourselves it is largely mythology. It really is beautiful mythology which is why it has such strong cultural appeal, I suppose. But, as thinking Catholics who read Bp.J.W.Spong, yourself, and others, we are, I believe, more realistic regarding Christmas and other aspects of Christianity. It is, I feel, the only way one can truly grow spiritually as a Christian. Happy New Year, Ron

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Virgin Birth

Mary treasured all these things and reflected on them in her heart.
Lk 2:19

After the Holy Spirit has brought forth something new in us, we have to take time out to contemplate the wonder. When the Divine has fertilized our wombs—male and female—we need to ponder these things in our hearts. The wondrous new thing always is a surprise thought impossible until now.

Here I make a sharp turn. When I saw the title “Surprised by Faith,” I thought it possible that a little book sent to me would convey a helpful message, but it echoes hundreds of other books/articles/tracts/letters written by a reconverted former skeptic who returns to childhood faith. Like the hundreds—no, I’m sure it must be thousands—of other such writers, he assumes that the only alternative to atheism is Christianity, and a specific, getting-smaller-but-louder group of Christians—evangelicals, the Christians who avert their eyes from the wealth of spiritual riches outside the Christian box.

It reminds me of a comment to my Times piece Look outside Christian box. I usually don’t read them—too much dross relative to the kernels of value—but someone who applauded my stepping on sacred cows asked about the response. I found this interesting one:
The opinion writer refers to herself as a fellow Christian and then calls the virgin birth a myth. I fail to see how the two are compatible.
By this standard, the pope is not Christian because his knowledge of biblical scholarship must make literal belief in the virgin birth impossible for him.

May the Holy Spirit fertilize your womb this Christmas in a virgin birth, maybe a surprising and new understanding of Christian myth. May the song, “Jesus, rest your head,” sweetly comfort you because you know it is meant for the child in YOURSELF.

A few hours after I posted this, I received the response:
My ‘beef’ with the virgin birth is that it doesn’t respect the human miracle of conception, and the sacredness of the conjugal act.
Excellent comment.
A day later from another reader:
Oh, that we would all know ourselves to be “Mothers of God”!

A reader asked how the Bible disproves the Virgin Birth. It doesn’t prove or disprove anything. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke bestow the title “virgin” on the mother of Jesus but contradict the sexual/biological understanding of the term in their genealogies (see Look outside Christian box). Matthew’s quotation from Isaiah is a Greek mistranslation of the original Hebrew word, which simply meant “maiden.” Matthew 13:55-56 and Mark 6:3 tell us that Jesus had brothers and sisters. Catholic theology used to claim that these passages refer to cousins, but contemporary scholarship has abandoned this lame attempt at upholding the myth. These details illustrate the confusion between literal and symbolic interpretations, and fuller understanding of the Bible’s messages comes from examining the nature of myth.

So what’s the source and meaning of the myth? Pagan Goddesses. Scholars conclude that the virgin designation comes from paganism, where it meant a strong, independent woman. One pagan virgin was Aphrodite, notorious for her lack of sexual/biological virginity. Mythologists give the interpretation of myth that I expressed. It shines forth succinctly and perhaps most beautifully in the last reader comment:
Oh, that we would all know ourselves to be “Mothers of God”!
Getting back to the question of why the pope’s knowledge of biblical study would make literal belief impossible for him, I can’t fully explain here. I refer readers to my writings on myth in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky and in my blogspots as well as my piece in the St.Cloud Times, "Look Outside Christian box." For full understanding, we have to apply the distinction between literal and symbolic language to religious teachings.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why I stay Catholic

I’m often asked why I stay in the Church, and I give answers in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky, but the subject is never exhausted. An article in NCR Reasons to stay renewed the question in me.

Maine’s effort to legislate marriage equality failed recently after Catholic bishops spent thousands of dollars to defeat a bill granting rights to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, despite research showing that 58 percent of Catholics favor acceptance of homosexuals.

A greater rift between hierarchy and most American Catholics exists on the issue of contraception, with most people in the Church ignoring the bishops’ prohibition. That “each sexual act must be open to the possibility of children” violates plain sense, as it would ban sex to all people incapable of having children.

The bishops’ understanding of procreation as the primary purpose of marriage is obsolete by more than 1500 years. When Pope Paul VI imposed the ban on contraception with the encyclical Humanae Vitae, he ignored the majority of moral theologians and the Birth Control Commission advising him. Shortly after the encyclical was issued, over 600 scholars signed a statement dissenting from its ruling. They found the moral arguments against birth control faulty and gave serious reasons for changing the teaching. Widely understood is that the Vatican simply did not want to admit its position was wrong.

Its silly position on contraception robs it of credibility on other issues, including abortion. If the bishops really want to lower the rate of abortions, they will accept the most effective way to accomplish that—contraception—and have the courage to admit faulty judgment in the past.

What keeps me in the Church are the many Catholics who resist official repression and follow their conscience, those who think expansively, give generously, and act hospitably. Most of these broadminded people are not hierarchs. It must be hard to be a clergyman if you really do not agree with the official hard line.