The Equivocal Sense of ‘Complementarity’

Posted in America Magazine, Franciscan Spirituality, Pope Francis, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on November 18, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

puzzleThe term “complementarity” has been referenced frequently this week on social media and in traditional media as the Vatican hosts an international, interreligious conference bearing the title: “The Complementarity of Man and Woman: An International Colloquium.” The aim of the gathering, according to the conference’s website is “to examine and propose anew the beauty of the relationship between the man and the woman, in order to support and reinvigorate marriage and family life for the flourishing of human society.” And the response has been predictably mixed.

Initial reactions have tended toward one extreme or the other, either extraordinarily enthusiastic or unapologetically critical. My reaction, so far, falls somewhere in between. I’m curious to see what arises from this gathering, interested to know what has been and will continue to be said by this group of invited speakers, all of whom represent diversity in culture and religious tradition, but nevertheless all appear to represent a hegemonic view of the meaning of marriage, the identity of the human person, and the role of biological sex and gender in both of those subjects.

The Social & Vocational Sense of ‘Complementarity’

Yesterday I Tweeted an open question about whether or not a true diversity of scholarly and spiritual views would be represented at this gathering, to which one of my colleagues here at America responded with a reference to a line from Pope Francis’s address to the assembly in which the Pontiff cautioned against thinking of complementarity in terms of a “fixed and static pattern.” To understand the full context of that remark, we must appreciate that in the preceding paragraph Pope Francis quotes St. Paul’s writing on the diversity of charisms in the Church (1 Corinthians 12) and then says: “To reflect upon “complementarity” is nothing less than to ponder the dynamic harmonies at the heart of all Creation. This is a big word, harmony. All complementarities were made by our Creator, so the Author of harmony achieves this harmony.”

Pope Francis then ties this general sense of complementarity as a vocational or social reality to the aim of the conference; namely, the complementarity of ‘man and woman’ within the context of marriage:

It is fitting that you have gathered here in this international colloquium to explore the complementarity of man and woman. This complementarity is a root of marriage and family. For the family grounded in marriage is the first school where we learn to appreciate our own and others’ gifts, and where we begin to acquire the arts of cooperative living. For most of us, the family provides the principal place where we can aspire to greatness as we strive to realize our full capacity for virtue and charity. At the same time, as we know, families give rise to tensions: between egoism and altruism, reason and passion, immediate desires and long-range goals. But families also provide frameworks for resolving such tensions. This is important. When we speak of complementarity between man and woman in this context, let us not confuse that term with the simplistic idea that all the roles and relations of the two sexes are fixed in a single, static pattern. Complementarity will take many forms as each man and woman brings his or her distinctive contributions to their marriage and to the formation of their children — his or her personal richness, personal charisma. Complementarity becomes a great wealth. It is not just a good thing but it is also beautiful.

Why am I quoting this at length? The reason is that “complementarity” is being used in very different ways at different points this week, yet treated as if it was a univocal term.

In the case of Pope Francis’s address to the assembly quoted above, his use of “complementarity” arises from the Pauline charismatic or “spiritual gifts” language that, in context, pertains to the harmony and unity of the ecclesia, which is the Body of Christ. Insofar as every woman and man has been gifted with a particular vocation to be used at the service of church and world, then all people do indeed have “complementary” gifts – each different, but nevertheless important – and should therefore view such bestowals as deserving of equal respect and dignity, regardless of who is a teacher and who speaks in tongues.

The way that Pope Francis appears to be using the term “complementarity” here is in a social or communal setting, one that highlights the call we have from God to use our gifts for the service of others and to seek to work together to build up the harmony that God has intended for all creation from the beginning. Concerning the dynamics of marriage, Pope Francis then applies this to the social implications of work, home life, and individual dignity and respect that relates to husband and wife. Drawing on the social or vocational use of “complementarity,” Pope Francis appears to be suggesting that just because one spouse is a “man” and one spouse is a “woman” doesn’t mean that either should be restricted to some preconceived social or vocational role, a static view illustrated by “women stay at home,” for instance, and “men go to the office.”

In this sense, the social or vocational use of “complementarity” by Pope Francis should signal a positive step forward. Culturally and, in some parts of the world, civilly, women are not recognized as having comparable standing in the eyes of the law, their spouses, or perhaps even God. Pope Francis is calling for a more-capacious sense of the social setting and valuation of individual gifts and responsibilities of all women and men, and this is something about which to rejoice for sure.

However, this is not the only way that “complementarity” is being used this week at the conference. Insofar as the title of the gathering, “complementarity of man and woman,” means this social parity that Pope Francis is alluding to – then I suppose this is perfectly fine. But this is simply not the case.

The Ontological Sense of ‘Complementarity’

The other way that “complementarity” is being used – or, perhaps better put, being presupposed – is ontologically as the foundation for the operative theological anthropology undergirding much, if not all, of the discussion.

As I sought to show in a scholarly article published in the journal Theological Studies last March (“Beyond Essentialism and Complementarity: Toward a Theological Anthropology Rooted in Haecceitas), the traditional theological categories of essentialism and complementarity, which are often presented as intended by God as illustrated in the Book of Genesis, are deeply problematic. Theologians, philosophers, and critical theorists have shown over the years that the ontological presupposition of complementarity – which basically amounts to a metaphysical “separate but equal” stance – is actually a paradigm that necessarily subordinates one biological sex or gender to the other according to a framework of hierarchical dualism. In this sense, there is no true egalitarian view of the human person, but instead a reinscribed ordering of persons.

The operative theological anthropology that grounds the theme of this week’s conference is one that is deeply committed to an ontological view of both gender essentialism and complementarity that goes deeper than Pope Francis’s admirable call for social equality in recognition of our complementary gifts and vocations.

As Joshua McElwee reports in the National Catholic Reporter, the other speakers that followed Pope Francis were defending this ontological sense of “complementarity.”

German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, spoke after the pontiff and focused his remarks on the male and female imagery found in the creation stories of Genesis.

Tying the imagery of the Adam and Eve in the Genesis story to mankind’s relationship with God, Müller stated: “When we forget sexual difference, then it becomes difficult to understand the marriage bond between God and his people.”

Here the discussion is fundamentally one focused on “sexual” and “gender” differences, which concretize certain supposed immutable roles. Like Müller, Sr. M. Prudence Allen, another speaker, criticized the questioning of these ontological presuppositions of complementarity. McElwee reports:

In her remarks, Allen warned against gender and sex ideology, which she said were founded on “deceptive methods.”

Those ideologies, she said, “distort the true equal dignity and difference of women and men.”

“Like a cancerous cell these ideologies grow, often obliterating the true meaning of marriage,” Allen said.

In brief, one of the most pressing problems with this worldview is the equating of an individual’s dignity, value, and human identity with his or her biological sex or gender. Yes, there are differences, but in what is our human dignity grounded?

There are other theological resources in the Christian tradition that do not rely so heavily on the Aristotelian teleology of, for example, Thomas Aquinas’s thirteenth-century scientific and philosophical worldview. It is this sort of framework that continues to govern so much of our theological anthropology and subsequent ethics. In the article mentioned above, I propose at least one possible orthodoxy alternative to this grounded in the insights of Blessed John Duns Scotus, a medieval Franciscan theologian and philosopher. But there are also others to consider, including ones more compatible with our increasing knowledge of humanity and the world from natural and social sciences, psychology, and other fields. Many of today’s most pressing theological and pastoral questions are tied to a theological anthropology desperately in need of renewal in light of our Christian theological tradition and the advances in human knowledge of the last several centuries. Some of these questions include the role of women in the church, the meaning of human sexuality, our relationship to the rest of creation, and so on.

While Pope Francis’s call for more social parity in terms of recognizing the complementarity of every person’s vocation, there is still a need to address the deeper ontological subject of complementarity in our theological understanding of the human person. And I don’t think that’s going to happen in Rome this week.

This post has been concurrently posted at America Magazine

Resisting “Doctrinal Docetism” after the Synod

Posted in Uncategorized on November 16, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

3455beatificati_00000002738This column originally appeared in the November 24 issue of America magazine with the title, “Avoiding Absolutism.”

Among the subjects of debate and ostensible controversy that arose during the 2014 Synod on the Family and continue in its wake, one in particular captured my attention: whether doctrine can change or develop. The answer is: it certainly does develop. It always has.

One of the synod participants, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich and Freising, said publicly toward the end of the synod that church doctrine, “doesn’t depend on the spirit of time but can develop over time.” He added, “The core of the Catholic Church remains the Gospel, but have we discovered everything?”

Cardinal Marx’s question echoes his prelate predecessor Blessed John Henry Newman (d. 1890), who wrote the now-classic text, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Newman engaged this question about the possibility of change and development in the church’s teaching and affirmed that, both historically and theologically, doctrine indeed develops. Newman goes on to say that doctrinal developments were not only natural, but also intended by the Creator. Newman writes that many of the core Christian doctrines…

cannot be fully understood at once, but are more and more clearly expressed and taught the longer they last—having aspects many and bearings many, mutually connected and growing one out of another, and all parts of a whole, with a sympathy and correspondence keeping pace with the ever-changing necessities of the world, multiform, prolific, and ever resourceful….

The central theme here is that though we may speak abstractly about a “deposit of faith” that is eternal and remains unchanging, we finite human beings do not understand the full meaning of these teachings immediately. We come to a fuller understanding of our faith with time, experience and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This was true going back to the pre-New Testament kerygma the (early preaching of the apostles), through the earliest ecumenical councils, through the Second Vatican Council and beyond.

The church teachings on usury, slavery and religious freedom are often invoked to illustrate this development. But there is also a clear development—in Newman’s sense of fuller understanding and clarification—of even the most fundamental dogmatic statements of our faith. If there could be heated debates about the consubstantiality of the Son and Father on the path toward doctrinal definition during the first Christian centuries, then many of the allegedly “nonnegotiable” themes discussed at the synod may be fair game too.

As Thomas Reese, S.J., reminded us in an article in The National Catholic Reporter on Oct. 7, this way of thinking about doctrine in static, objective and absolute terms is a return to what the theologian Bernard Lonergan, S.J., called the classicist approach to theology, which misunderstands the authentic development of doctrine and disregards historical consciousness.

The reduction of church teaching to propositional claims alone is a sort of doctrinal Docetism—a misguided belief that faith claims simply “appeared” from above without any historical grounding. Just as the Christological heresy of the same name denied that Jesus Christ was truly human, asserting instead that he was only divine and appeared from heaven without any tie to creation, so too doctrinal Docetism is an outlook that denies the development of Christian doctrine as humans seek to understand their faith more fully. The truth is that God did not send us a pre-existing book, a “cosmic catechism” from heaven that states clearly and completely the unchanging “deposit of faith.” Just as Scripture must be interpreted in order to understand its fuller sense, so too sacred tradition must be interpreted and develop over time for us to understand its fuller meaning.

It is important to remember that many of the early council fathers and others over the centuries entered the councils with views that would anachronistically be called “heretical,” only to come out with those same views ultimately declared orthodox. We must trust in the Holy Spirit and be open to the possibility that we do not yet understand the fullness of our faith. We have so much more to learn and discover.

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton (2014).

Photo: File

Fear Not: The Synods are Proceeding Exactly as Intended

Posted in Uncategorized on October 20, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

_78201530_024252974-1To gain a better appreciation for what has transpired and what is currently unfolding with regard to the 2014 Synod on the Family, it is worth considering the very interesting and detailed take of Vatican insider Sandro Magister in the piece hosted on the Italian newspaper website La Repubblica : “The True Story of This Synod: Director, Performers, Assistants.”

“…Because no matter what may be the outcome of this synod, intentionally devoid of any conclusion, the effect desired by its directors has to a large extent been reached.

On homosexuality as on divorce and remarriage, in fact, the new talk of reform inserted into the global media circuit is worth much more than the favor actually gained among the synod fathers by the proposals of Kasper or Spadaro.

The match could go on for a long time. But Pope Francis is patient. In “Evangelii Gaudium” he has written that “time is greater than space.”

This report alludes to something that I’ve been thinking about since last week’s melee about the Relatio and the seeming “retraction” that accompanied the revised English translation (again, it is important to note that the overwhelmingly ‘welcoming’ — closer to ‘embracing’ or ‘hugging’ — language of the official Italian text was never revised). Namely, that this Synod is one of the most insightful and clever exercises of magisterial teaching authority that we’ve seen since the close of the Second Vatican Council. In other words, this is exactly what the Council and Paul VI had in mind when mandating the periodic Synods, hearkening to a time of more authentic ecclesial teaching authority and synodality.

What do I mean by this? Well, “the Church” (here I use quotations to indicate the colloquial reference to the ecclesiastical leadership of the church, rather than the truest meaning of church, which is the Body of Christ) does not change overnight. It does in fact change (usury, slavery, religious liberty, two ends of marital sexuality…need I continue?), but does so in the best way when those tasked with leading the universal flock remain in communion with one another and the bishop of Rome.

Communion, however, does not mean the utopia vision of the Acts of the Apostles’s “they were of one heart and one mind” performed in recent decades by a “synodality of bella figura.” This is certainly not what the Second Vatican Council had in mind, nor is it reflective of authentic doctrinal and disciplinary development of the church. It is in the Acts of the Apostles, lest we forget, that the so-called “Council of Jerusalem” wherein St. Peter and St. Paul — the predecessors to Cardinal Müeller and Cardinal Kasper, perhaps — were engaged in a very public debate about the intention of Christ and precisely who should be admitted into communion with the early Christian community. One can work toward consensus, but its authenticity depends on a commitment to maintaining koinonia.

Back to the Synods.

Like the many sessions of the Second Vatican Council, the matters preliminarily considered and debated in the 2014 Synod have not been definitely addressed in the first round. Pope Francis and his advisors (especially his worldwide Cardinal Committee of 8) knew exactly what they were doing. As Sandro Magister points out in his piece, at each stage of the Synod’s development, including back to the early days of 2013 long before the world knew anything of this, things were being set in motion to allow for the most honest and open engagement with the urgent pastoral questions of the day. The major success here is that what has begun cannot be stopped, just like what followed after the rejection of the preliminary conciliar texts prepared by the curial bureaucrats at the opening of Vatican II, just like what followed Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles in the First Century.

Put another way: Those who are pleased with how things are or may be going would say that the John XXIII “window of the church” has been thrown open to let fresh air in and will not be closed or, conversely, those who are displeased may say that Pandora’s Box has been opened and cannot be shut.  Either way, the train is moving forward.

This doesn’t mean everything will unfold as everybody would like, but it does mean that things are changing — driven by the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:12) — and that is, I believe, a good thing.

The members of the Synod have listened to the lived experiences of women and men, they’ve debated matters of urgent importance, they’ve shown that there is a major group of bishops who are sensitive to the needs of the church today, and those who dissent have also been given free voice. Now these bishops must return home and will, undoubtedly, hear more from their “sheep” and “ponder all these things in their heart” before returning back to Rome next year to continue their work. it is only after this second round, Synod Part II, that an official exhortation (or maybe even encyclical?) will be promulgated.

The last word has not yet been said. And that is a very good thing.

Photo: AP

Teresa of Ávila and the Synod

Posted in Uncategorized on October 15, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

SynodImageCROPToday is the Feast of St. Teresa of Ávila, the 16th Century Carmelite Saint and Doctor of the Church. Though she was known for her personal holiness and spiritual insight, it wasn’t until the 20th Century that Pope Paul VI included her and the Dominican Catherine of Siena among the ranks of the “Doctors of the Church.” Teresa and Catherine were the first women so recognized. And it took four hundred years.

In today’s Gospel (Luke 11:42-46) we continue to hear Jesus’s rebuking of the religious leaders in his time for their inexcusable treatment of the people entrusted to their spiritual and social care. Yesterday we heard the Lord lambaste the Pharisees for being concerned with external matters while their internal worldview, thought processes, and attitude was what was truly rotting — like a dish or drinking glass shining on the outside, but dirty within.

Today we hear the “Woes!” leveled against these and other religious leaders who place burdens on the backs of ordinary people without any effort, even the slightest, to assist them with this imposed struggle. Jesus also points out that the very same people enjoy the status, attention, recognition, titles, and places of honor afforded them by their position as religious leaders.

How appropriate are both the story of the saint we memorialize and the Gospel passage we proclaim today during this time of the Synod on the Family!

The woes of Christ transcend the limits of time and space to reach the 21st Century and indict many of the religious leaders of our time who place heavy burdens on the lives of so many women and men who look to them for guidance and direction, but receive in return only judgment, exclusion, and shame.

Pope Francis, whose whole pontificate to date has captured the attention of the world because of its transparent leadership in the style of the Gospel, has continually called us to remember that in considering how God first relates to us the word on our lips and in our minds and in our hearts should be mercy.

Yet, woe to those bishops, priests, and other ministers who shirk divine mercy for the human burdens of judgment and exclusion!

The Gospel is on the side of Pope Francis, just as it was on the side of Teresa of Ávila, whose contributions to theology and spirituality were not fully recognized for centuries. The reason this was the case centers on whom church leaders chose to recognize and whose voices they did or did not allow to be heard. For centuries it was inconceivable for those who had the authority to recognize such people that women could offer theological and spiritual insight worthy of such recognition! It’s not that Teresa’s teaching changed in the 1970s — no, it was the hearts and minds of those in ecclesiastical leadership that changed to recognize that which was always already true!

How much more so is that the case today with the voices that are not heard, the experiences that are not recognized, the love that is shamed, and the people that are excluded? The Holy Spirit is at work in Rome these days, though some religious leaders like the pharisees and scholars of the law in today’s Gospel are slow to hear Her inspiration and quick to place heavy burdens on the shoulders of others. Seriously, what would Jesus do?

My prayer today is for the continued openness to the inspiration of the Spirit of God in the hearts and minds of both the bishops meeting in Rome, but also in those of women and men around the globe that are seeking to make sense of these meetings. May we greet each other with charity online and in person, and may we harken to the “Woes!” that Jesus levels against us today!

St. Teresa of ÁvilaDoctor of the Church, Ora Pro Nobis!

Photo Illustration: DatingGod.org

Pope Francis’s Opening Remarks at Synod (Full Text)

Posted in Pope Francis, Vatican II with tags , , , , , on October 6, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Pope Attends Holy Mass For The Opening Of The Extraordinary Synod On The FamilyEminences, Beatitudes, Excellences, Brothers and Sisters,

I give you my cordial welcome to this meeting and my heartfelt thanks for you solicitous and qualified presence and attendance.

In your name, I would like to express my earnest and profound gratitude to all the persons who worked for long months, with dedication, patience and competence, reading, evaluating and elaborating the topics, texts and works of this Extraordinary General Assembly.

Allow me to address my particular and cordial gratitude to Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, Secretary General of the Synod; to Monsignor Fabio Fabene, Under-Secretary, and, together with them, all the reporters, writers, advisers, translators and all the staff of the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. They worked tirelessly, and continue to work, for the good outcome of the present Synod: thank you, truly, so much and may the Lord recompense you!

Likewise, I thank the Post-Synodal Council, the reporter and the Secretary General; the Episcopal Conferences that truly worked so much and, with them, I thank the three Presidents Delegate.

I also thank you, dear Cardinals, Patriarchs, Bishops, priests, men and women religious, laymen and laywomen for your presence and for your participation, which enriches the works and the spirit of collegiality and synodality for the good of the Church and of families! I also wanted this spirit of synodality in the choice of the reporter, the Secretary General and the Presidents Delegate. The first two were elected directly by the Post-Synodal Council, which was also elected by the participants in the last Synod. Instead, as the Presidents Delegate  must be chosen by the Pope, I asked the Post-Synodal Council itself to suggest names  and I appointed those that the Council proposed to me.

You carry the voice of the particular Churches, gathered at the level of local Churches through the Episcopal Conferences. The universal Church and the particular Churches are of divine institution; the local Churches thus understood are of human institution. You will carry this voice in synodality. It is a great responsibility: to carry the realities and the problems of the Churches, to help them walk on that path that is the Gospel of the family.

A basic general condition is this: to speak clearly. No one must say: “This can’t be said; he will think of me this way or that …” It is necessary to say everything that is felt with parrhesia. After the last Consistory (February 2014), in which there was talk of the family, a Cardinal wrote to me saying: too bad that some Cardinals didn’t have the courage to say some things out of respect for the Pope, thinking, perhaps, that the Pope thought something different. This is not good; this is not synodality, because it is necessary to say everything that in the Lord one feels should be said, with human respect, without fear. And, at the same time, one must listen with humility and receive with an open heart what the brothers say. Synodality will be exercised with these two attitudes.

Therefore, I ask you, please, for these attitudes of brothers in the Lord: to speak with parrhesia and to listen with humility.

And do so with much tranquillity and peace, because the Synod always unfolds cum Petro et sub Petro, and the Pope’s presence is the guarantee for all and protection of the faith.

Dear Brothers, let us all collaborate so that the dynamic of synodality is clearly affirmed. Thank you.

(Translation via Zenit.com)

Photo: Getty Images

The Ignorance of Some Scientists

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

evolution religionOk, it’s been a while since I’ve been as worked up as I am about a scientist who publicly ridicules religion and dismisses out of hand the possibility that women and men of faith — particularly Christian faith — can hold both their beliefs and solid scientific truths at the same time. The most recent instance of what I am calling “the ignorance of some scientists” appeared in the New York Times this weekend in an article titled, “God, Darwin, and my College Biology Class,” by the University of Washington evolutionary biologist David Barash.

Professor Barash tells the story of his routine introductory lecture given to students early in each new semester. He makes it clear that if one is uncomfortable with the concept of biological evolution on account of religious beliefs, they would do well to suspend those convictions or at least not allow them to get in the way of adequately and accurately learning biology. Up to this point, I am essentially in agreement with Barash. Those who are often loosely grouped into some general category called “fundamentalist” or “biblicist” who believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old or that the universe was created in a literal week are certainly entitled to hold such theologically empty, historically unsound, and biblical unsubstantiated views. However, they will undoubtedly cause problems when those who hold such views attempt to study the natural sciences.

Where I depart from Barash’s view is when he takes a further step to claim that evolution has essentially demolished fundamental religious beliefs. He writes about his talk to his students:

I conclude The Talk by saying that, although they don’t have to discard their religion in order to inform themselves about biology (or even to pass my course), if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines. And while I respect their beliefs, the entire point of The Talk is to make clear that, at least for this biologist, it is no longer acceptable for science to be the one doing those routines, as Professor Gould and noma have insisted we do.

That reference to Professor Stephen Jay Gould has to do with Gould’s proposal that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria,” which means that one can hold both world views because they deal with totally different material and fields. This is popularly referred to at times as the different foundational questions of “how” and “why,” proponents of Gould’s way of thinking argue that science seeks to address the former and religion the latter.

Barash disagrees — vehemently, by his own admittance — with Gould. Barash does not believe that science and religion are ultimately compatible, but rather present an irreconcilable tension.

I actually agree with Barash in his distaste for the “Non-overlapping magisteria” argument. While I do believe natural sciences and religion are concerned with essentially different questions, they in fact overlap quite a bit.  So we may agree on that point.

The problem, though, in Barash’s easily perceptible theological ignorance. His laboratory pontification exceeds his areas of competence and his ostensible unfamiliarity with the work of those who are both scientists and theologians haunts his own fundamentalist presuppositions.

I would love for him to sit down with Ilia Delio or Alister McGrath or John Polkinghorne or any other scholar who holds doctorates in both scientific fields and theology. Even those who haven’t earned advance degrees in both areas, those like John Haught or Elizabeth Johnson, have gone far out of their ways to not only take the natural sciences seriously, but to engage in complex and rigorous research that correlates the depth of the Christian theological tradition with the scientific discoveries Barash thinks “demolish” religious belief.

Barash argues that there are three critical “strikes” to religious belief that evolution blows. The first is the defeat of “what modern creationists call the argument from complexity.” I actually don’t have any problem with that. Arguments from complexity are not seriously considered by real theologians who study creation or theological anthropology, not at least in terms of the caricature he presents (which is probably more closely connected to the beliefs of the pedestrian biblicist).

The second is what he calls the “illusion of centrality.” Here’s what he says:

Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. The most potent take-home message of evolution is the not-so-simple fact that, even though species are identifiable (just as individuals generally are), there is an underlying linkage among them — literally and phylogenetically, via traceable historical connectedness. Moreover, no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.

And this is where I get really worked up!

I agree completely with the contention that human beings are not above and against, nor entirely distinct from the rest of nonhuman creation. As do many other theologians, as does the scriptural tradition. In fact, I’m proposing to write a dissertation that seeks to advance precisely this line of thought, critiquing among other things models of creation and theological anthropology that are typically presented in terms of both dominion and stewardship. Much of my own theological research in recent years has been working in this area and following the leads of theologians — I’m even presenting a research paper directly related to this question in November at the American Academy of Religion annual conference in San Diego. This idea is not entirely new.

While I agree with Barash that evolution has helped us to see many of the problems and pitfalls of anthropocentric theologies, he is very wrong to talk about there being “no literally supernatural trait” to be found in Homo sapiens. Yes, we are perfectly good animals, maybe even the cleverest, but returning to the distinctive foundational questions of both fields — how vs. why — there is, by definition, now way for biology to uncover anything “supernatural!”

It would be like an astronomer claiming that whales do not exist because there has been “literally no whales  ever found in space.” Though natural science and religion are not “non-overlapping magisteria,” they are also not the same thing. This is where the groundbreaking work of people like Karl Rahner (“supernatural existential”) and Teilhard de Chardin (on evolution and theology) is especially instructive.

Likewise, just because one is learned in one field of research and scholarship (biology) does not mean that she or he is qualified to so definitively proclaim apodictic truths in another field (theology). If the theologians I named above, including myself, take seriously the work of biologists like Barash in his field, he should do likewise and take seriously our work. He might actually learn something.

Barash’s last “blow to religion” is with regard to theodicy. He writes that, “The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.” This is hardly worth comment other than to say that this line of reasoning is easily contestable given that it is an interpretation that borders very closely to the land of opinion. One can affirm the veracity of evolution (as I certainly do), but disagree about the moral quality of that process.

To conclude, I want to say that the way Barash comes across is not unlike the scientifically ignorant religious fundamentalists he critiques. Their childish and literal interpretations of complex scriptural narratives are to science what Barash’s absolutist and incontrovertible interpretations of evolution are to theology.

This irony hasn’t been lost on me. And I hope that Barash may also realize this discovery. Maybe then his way of thinking could evolve just as the species have, though I hope it doesn’t take as long.

Photo: Stock

What We See, What God Sees: On Fairness and Judgment

Posted in Homilies, Prayer, Scripture with tags , , , , , , , on September 27, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

ripe cabernet grapes ready for harvestThe readings this weekend pick up almost exactly where we left off last sunday. In the book of the Prophet Ezekiel, we are told:

You say, “The LORD’s way is not fair!”
Hear now, house of Israel:
Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?

This brings us back to the grumbling day laborers from the vineyard in last Sunday’s Gospel. Those who were hired early in the morning and agreed to a full days wage were given exactly that when quitting time came around. Yet, those hired later in the day received exactly the same renumeration, sending the ones who worked longer to be outraged.

“That’s not fair!” Shouted the laborers, clearly feeling entitled to more money though they were indeed paid fairly. It was not injustice that they encountered and had upset them, but rather the generosity of the landowner (i.e., “God”) that they came to resent.

The cries of unfairness continue this weekend. At the heart of these passages from Scripture stand the proclamation made in last Sunday’s first reading: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.” God’s sense of justice and generosity is far more capacious and inclusive than ours usually is, and while there is oftentimes a lot of grumbling and talk of “fear” of God’s justice, the truth is that we much more often resent God’s generosity.

Our Gospel this Sunday comes from the next chapter in Matthew’s account, and it is short enough to recount here.

Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people:
“What is your opinion?
A man had two sons.
He came to the first and said,
‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’
He said in reply, ‘I will not, ‘
but afterwards changed his mind and went.
The man came to the other son and gave the same order.
He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir, ‘but did not go.
Which of the two did his father’s will?”
They answered, “The first.”
Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you,
tax collectors and prostitutes
are entering the kingdom of God before you.
When John came to you in the way of righteousness,
you did not believe him;
but tax collectors and prostitutes did.
Yet even when you saw that,
you did not later change your minds and believe him.”

Again, we have a crowd of the righteous, the “church goers,” the religious leaders, the ones who are always seen in the right places and saying, thinking, doing the “right things.” Jesus confronts them with this question about what it means to truly do “the right thing.” And the response is pretty straightforward, regardless of what one of the sons says, it’s the one who does the will of the father.

There are many dimensions to this Gospel that speak to us today. I want to address only one today: I believe that today’s Gospel challenges us to reconsider how we understand judgement.

On the subject of judgment, we return back to the insights of the Prophet Ezekiel, who calls us to task for thinking that God sees, hears, and judges in the same ways that we do. God does not. And that is, like last Sunday’s Gospel, a good thing. God’s mercy and justice are not opposed, but two sides of the very same coin.

Likewise, God is able to be merciful and judges differently than we do because God sees and knows everything. God knows our hearts and our actions, our thoughts and our desires, our fears and our loves far better than even we do. God takes the whole story into consideration and reserves judgement for the end, when a whole life has reached completion.

We should recall the Gospel parable from earlier this summer when Jesus talks about the zealous land workers who want to pull the weeds from the wheat. The master tells them not to, that he would take care of separating these things at the end of the harvest, when the plant is fully grown. The reason the workers aren’t permitted to pull the weeds has everything to do with the fact that they can’t distinguish between the good plants and the weeds at that point in their growth — they look the same from the outside.

With that parable from the same Gospel account in mind, if we look at today’s reading we see an echo of how God sees us and judges us. If one stops the story immediately after the point when the two sons respond to their dad, one seemingly obedient and the other ostensibly disobedient, then we’d likely be compelled to say that the son who said “yes,” only to not follow through later, was the obedient son and the reverse true for the other. But when we play the whole story forward, it’s a very different account.

Perhaps this is why the very last parable in Matthew’s Gospel is the one concerning the “sheep” and the “goats,” in Chapter 25.

Not only does this parable and account of the coming judgment take place at the end of the Gospel, but it is set at the end of time “when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.” Then he separates those who are destined for eternal life from those who will go into “the eternal fire prepare for the devil and his angels.”

What is curious about this parable is how few people pay attention to precisely why the “goats” go into the fire, why there are any goats in the first place!

See, when it comes to doing the will of God, which is loving and caring for one another in mutual harmony, you don’t need to know precisely that you’re doing it. These “sheep” in the parable are shocked to discover the reason for their favorable positioning.

The “goats,” on the other hand, are perhaps given one last time to repent, to apologize, to have a conversion and admit that, perhaps unwittingly even, they screwed up big time in life: they didn’t do what was expected of each and every human person. But what happens instead? The “goats,” start coming up with excuses: “when did we see you, lord? hungry, thirsty, etc. etc.?” We might image in them saying to Christ, “If only we knew that’s what we were to do, if only we knew it was you, etc. etc.” they would have experienced then and there the mercy of God that Ezekiel reveals to us and that Jesus demonstrates in his own words and deeds.

Instead of admitting their faults and failures, they blame others and stand stubbornly before their savior having learned absolutely nothing in life.

As we go forth today to begin another week, may we find ourselves more aware of our own tendency to judge without knowing the whole story, without giving other people a chance. May we be encouraged by the mercy of God and, as St. Paul exhorts us, encourage others to be more and more human by being more and more people for others.

Rather than believing we know better than God, judging and casting judgment on others, let us be supporters, lovers, peacemakers, and reconcilers — let all of us go out into the vineyard of the world to do the father’s will, even if at first we said no.

Photo: Stock
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