Charting a Course for the Future:
the Need for a New Apolgetic
Break the box and shed the nard;
Stop not now to count the cost;
Hither bring pearl, opal, sard;
Reck not what the poor have lost;
Upon Christ throw all away:
Know ye, this is Easter Day.
Build His church and deck His shrine;
Empty though it be on earth;
Ye have kept your choicest wine-
Let it flow for heavenly mirth;
Pluck the harp and breathe the horn:
Know ye not 'tis Easter morn?
Gather gladness from the skies;
Take a lesson from the ground;
Flowers do ope their heavenward eyes
And a Spring-time joy have found;
Earth throws Winter's robes away,
Decks herself for Easter Day.
Beauty now for ashes wear,
Perfumes for the garb of woe.
Chaplets for disheveled hair,
Dances for sad footsteps slow;
Open wide your hearts that they
Let in joy this Easter Day.
Seek God's house in happy throng;
Crowded let His table be;
Mingle praises, prayer and song,
Singing to the Trinity.
Henceforth let your souls alway
Make each morn an Easter Day.
(--Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.)
It is a great joy for me to be with you in New Orleans this Easter morning for the 103rd gathering of the National Catholic Education Association. This historic Archdiocese has long been a center of Catholic education. This great city, which annually welcomes revelers from around the world for its Mardi Gras celebration, has uniquely Catholic character and history. Its vast network of Catholic elementary and secondary schools makes an extraordinary educational contribution that is recognized by the community at large. The exceptional Catholic colleges and universities in New Orleans continue to have a significant impact on the future of Louisiana and the nation.
When I wrote this opening paragraph many months ago, New Orleans, in relatively undisturbed tranquility, was a three-hour drive from my residence in Lake Charles, LA. I could not have imagined then that I would be addressing you as Bishop of Belleville, Illinois and that hurricanes Katrina and Rita would have laid waste so much of Biloxi, Mississippi, and caused such damage in Lake Charles, LA, Beaumont, Texas, and New Orleans. The unspeakable devastation and suffering in New Orleans still leaves us stunned seven months later. Gathered here in Atlanta by a force of nature we must assure our sisters and brothers in New Orleans of our continued spiritual, material, and financial support which they will need for years to come.
The theme that you have chosen for this assembly is “charting a course for the future in challenging times.” Our brothers and sisters ravaged by storms in the Gulf of Mexico, like all of us, are indeed looking to the future in challenging times. Many of the challenges faced by those committed to excellence in Catholic education are obviously well known to us. We face them every day. This morning I wish to turn our attention to a growing challenge that may not be immediately evident. This challenge is implied in Pope John Paul’s 1998 Encyclical, Fides et Ratio, on the relationship between faith and reason, in which he stressed that reason unenlightened by faith is impoverished and faith unsupported by reason is weakened.
The challenge of which I speak is the need to put reason at the service of faith in the most creative way possible in order to develop a new and more profound apologetic for our Catholic world view, an apologetic linked to the new evangelization of which Pope John Paul spoke that recognizes that the faith development of our children, our high school students, and our young adults is challenged in unprecedented ways today. This new apologetic must be cross cultural and interdisciplinary, marked by a keen sensitivity to the fact that, if future generations of Catholics are going to be steadfast in their faith, we must help them personally appropriate and interiorize that faith. This is necessary if they are to develop a personal synthesis of their Catholic faith and confidently articulate their response to the timeless question posed by Jesus to the disciples at Caesarea Philippi. “Who do you say the son of man is?”
This new apologetic should effect the way we develop curricula for our religion classes, the teaching methods we adopt, the content, look, and feel of our textbooks, and the efforts we make to select religion teachers who are not mere pedagogues but committed disciples of the Lord. Most of all, however, it should significantly effect our presence in cyberspace. An essential component of the new apologetic must be the aggressive, up to date, sophisticated, attractive, and interactive ways in which we announce, explain, and defend the Good News of Jesus Christ on the Internet.
Our children are introduced to computers in kindergarten. By seventh grade many are wizards. When their parents are hearing on CNN about new books on pragmatic atheism and the absurdity of religious faith, the rapid growth of Islam, a new theory of how Jesus “staged” his crucifixion, a long lost so-called “gospel” completely changing the relationship between Jesus and Judas, a new novel revealing the thoughts of Jesus as a seven-year-old, a blockbuster series of novels detailing the divine rapture and the fate of those “left behind,” their children may well be upstairs in cyberspace.
There, they are already reading excerpts from Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon and Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, debating about particular verses of the Qur’an in a chat room, comparing Michael Baigent’s new book, The Jesus Papers with its 1965 forerunner, Hugh Schonfield's The Passover Plot, examining passages from the “gospel” of Judas, debating in an Internet café whether Anne Rice’s Christ Our Lord: Out of Egypt deserves to be compared to Nikos Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ, or ordering Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ latest “left behind” novel, The Rapture on Amazon.com. They could also be checking with bloggers arguing about whether atheism or agnosticism make “more sense” in the face of senseless catastrophic human suffering and religious conflicts around the world.
The “new apologetic” of which I speak must
not simply acknowledge the power of the Internet. It must acknowledge
that in the future (if not already in the present) the Internet, not
textbooks, will be the most frequently used and most trusted source
of information about our faith for those who are of school age. This
will not mean abandoning textbooks. But it will mean developing textbooks
with the most reliable information concerning web sites informed by
an accurate and lucid Catholic apologetic. The “new apologetic”
must develop the best possible resources in order to insure that the
Catholic Church’s beliefs, arguments, counter arguments, commentaries,
and explanations are available on line as soon as these students log
on to Google or Yahoo. Only in this way will the Catholic Church be
able to effectively engage them concerning:
I. The New Atheism,
II. Catastrophic Human Suffering and the Search for Meaning,
III. The Rapid Growth of Islam and the Uniqueness of Christianity,
IV. The Priority of Scripture and Tradition
I. The New Atheism
A senior at a leading Catholic university recently sent me several excerpts from a book that her younger brother discovered on the Internet. Here is an example.
“It takes a certain kind of person to believe what no one else believes. To be ruled by ideas for which you have no evidence (and which therefore cannot be justified in conversation with other human beings) is generally a sign that something is seriously wrong with your mind. Clearly, there is sanity in numbers. And yet, it is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window. And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are. This is not surprising, since most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as though they were primordial truths. This leaves billions of us believing what no sane person could believe on his own. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a set of beliefs more suggestive of mental illness than those that lie at the heart of many of our religious traditions. Consider one of the cornerstones of the Catholic faith:
I likewise profess that the Mass, a true, proper, and propitiatory sacrifice is offered to God on behalf of the living and the dead and that the Body and the Blood, together with the soul and the divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ is truly, really, and substantially present in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist, and there is a change in the whole substance of the bread into the Body and the whole substance of the wine into the Blood; and this change the Catholic mass calls transubstantiation.”
The author continues:
“Jesus Christ--who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily into heaven--can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin words spoken over your favorite Burgundy and you can drink his blood as well. Is there any doubt that a lone subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad? Rather, is there any doubt that he would be mad? (But) because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that all others must, civilization is still besieged by the armies of the preposterous. We are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible?” (Harris p. 72-73)
Your initial response on hearing this may be that the author does not have a correct understanding of religious faith and Catholic theology of the Eucharist. And you would be quite right. However, Sam Harris, a doctoral candidate in neuroscience and author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, would not be persuaded by the most nuanced theological exposition. His thesis is that humanity has foolishly abandoned the rigor of reason and empirical investigation in order to embrace religious belief (particularly Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) even though these beliefs continue to inspire the worst human atrocities. While embracing elements of the wisdom of the Eastern mysticism, the author argues that the profound differences in the major religions and the existence of weapons of mass destruction put all of humanity in peril. His is one of the many new voices in the United States announcing a new pragmatic atheism that boldly argues for the end of religion and the “triumph of reason” in our society.
The key point here is not whether you or I agree with Mr. Harris’s thesis. The point is that the Catholic college senior who sent me the excerpts received them in an e-mail from her impressionable, fifteen-year-old younger brother, a sophomore at a Catholic high school. He and his friends had found the book on the Internet. They thought the author’s claims that central Catholic beliefs are absurd were very convincing. The teachers in their religion classes had never heard of the book. The new apologetic must develop the ability to engage our teenagers challenging religious questions, especially the question of atheism, when and where they are asking them, even outside the classroom.
II. Catastrophic Human Suffering and the Search
The images of our dear brothers and sisters in New Orleans floating in death in the new rivers in the Ninth Ward had a profound effect on all of us, especially the young people we serve in our educational ministries. Many of them were moved to deeper faith, prayer, and to extraordinary acts of generosity and service. Many were at a loss for words in the face of such catastrophic and seemingly meaningless human suffering. And of course, it was not hurricane Katrina alone but the many other massive storms in the Gulf’s worst hurricane season. This in the wake of the horrific tsunami in the Indian Ocean at Christmas the year before which may have swallowed up 250,000 people in a matter of hours, a terrible earthquake in Islamabad, Pakistan which killed 85,000 and left 500,000 more to risk death in winter’s cold, forest fires, mud slides, floods, four times as many tornadoes already this year, all leaving suffering death and destruction in their wake.
When a portion of the Sego coal mine collapsed and exploded in Tallmansville, West Virginia on January 2, 2006 everyone knew the chances of survival for the thirteen miners were very slim. The whole country kept vigil, hoping against hope. The family members and friends in this close-knit community seemed to be united in their faith in God and the great support they experienced at the Sago Baptist Church. The Church became the source of their hope clinging to a strong biblical faith in God’s power to work a miracle for those who believe. They never abandoned hope.
To the joyous amazement of all it was announced that 12 of the 13 miners were alive. They were being brought to Sago Baptist Church to be reunited with their families. Shouts of “Praise the Lord!” Hosanna!” and “Alleluia!” filled the air. One red-eyed rejoicing mother declared, “We didn’t give up on Jesus. And he didn’t give up on us.” Then came the news of a horrible reversal. Twelve of the miners were dead and the only survivor was in a coma.
Many of the stunned responses of these faithful Christians were broadcast live. “Why did God abandon us?” “We held onto the hand of the Lord Jesus Christ the way he told us to. We refused to let go. But he let go of us.” One mother said, “I’ve been a God fearing, Bible reading Christian all my life. I have tried to live my faith. I never asked God for anything until I asked him to spare my son, not for me but for his wife and kids. But he took him anyway. My husband says he doesn’t intend to have anything more to do with God. After this, we are not even sure God exists.”
These heartfelt stories recall some of the responses to the still unspeakable terrors of September 11, 2001. The young people who witnessed the infernos of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93 keep asking the question: why? The knowledge that the suffering caused on September 11 was not the result of a blind, random natural disaster like a hurricane but the work of human beings with free will who deliberately chose to do evil, did not quiet their burning questions.
“If God is all-powerful, why does God allow such terrible things to happen to thousands of innocent people?” It is a question that is as old as the human spirit and at the heart of the Old Testament Book of Job. Though this question is perennial, the present generation is asking it with an intense new existential urgency, in part because world-wide suffering is communicated to them instantly. Some young people tend towards atheism and agnosticism in the face of malignant evil and enormous suffering. They cannot reconcile such suffering with the existence of a God who is loving, just, merciful, and all-powerful. This search for meaning can lead to spiritual crisis, a turning point in the perception of God. Under the shadow of the cross they come to a critical turning point in their spiritual growth. They confront a terrible realization. God is not God the way they would be God if they were God.
There are profound metaphysical questions concerning the relationship between the spiritual reality of God in the realm of eternity and the material reality of people in the realm of time, between good and evil, and between innocence and suffering involved here. Neither Scripture nor tradition, nor the reflections of theologians and philosophers through the centuries have answered these questions in a way that everyone finds satisfactory.
It is evident that God does not ordinarily interrupt events in nature or acts of people in order to prevent dire consequences in the lives of innocent people. Yet, as Catholics we believe that God created and loves every human person in the world. It is not His will that innocent people suffer. Nor is all suffering somehow a punishment due to sin. We believe that God knows us better than we know ourselves and that everything that happens to us is mysteriously within Divine Providence. While God does not eliminate suffering from our lives, He does not abandon us when we suffer. In some way, beyond our comprehension, through the life, teachings, death, and the resurrection of Christ, the compassionate God suffers with us. But for teenagers this is a hard saying.
The new apologetic must explore our richest traditions and attempt to reach deeper insights concerning the Christian understanding of “divine providence,” “God’s will,” and “innocent suffering.” The new apologetic will need to be attentive to the heartbreak of faithful Catholics who feel compelled to speak of “Christian absurdity” in the face of catastrophic suffering. We deceive ourselves if we do not think these questions occupy young Catholics today. A few pages from books about why bad things happen to good people are not sufficient for most. They would prefer to her us say simply, “We don’t know.” They are quick to surf the Internet’s treatment of “fate,” “karma,” and “reincarnation” for answers.
III. The Rapid Growth of Islam and the Uniqueness
After that terrible day, September 11, 2001 many American Catholics asked themselves the question: What do we know about Islam? Some acknowledged that about all they knew was that it was the religion of Osama bin Laden and the terrorists. Since then a day has not passed when Islam, a major world religion, has not been in the news. The children in our Catholic schools and in our Parish Schools of Religion, and our Confirmation candidates along with their teachers and their parents are wondering about Islam. The rapidly unfolding of events in the world has made it abundantly clear that we need to do much more than wonder. We need to learn.
When I was a pastor in a suburb of Chicago an eighth grader from our parish school, whose uncle had converted to Islam, had an urgent question. “Is it true that Our Lady of Fatima is an Islamic name?” I said, “Our Lady of Fatíma celebrates the 1917 apparition of Mary in city in Portugal. Because the name of the city is Fatíma, Mary became known as ‘Our Lady of Fatíma.’” I told him the name “Fatíma,” however, does have Islamic origins. It is an Arabic word, not Portuguese. After the spread of Islam from North Africa to Portugal, the city was named Fatíma, honoring the daughter of Muhammed, the prophet of Allah and the founder of Islam, who was born in Mecca, in present day Saudi Arabia in 570 A.D. He said, “I never heard that before!”
Most Catholics may be aware that the Catholic Church is the largest Christian community in the world, with over one billion, one hundred million members. However, there is a great deal about Islam that they have never heard before. They may not be aware that there are over one billion followers of Islam as well. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are sometimes referred to as Abrahamic-faith traditions because all three trace their roots to the patriarch, Abraham, who worshiped God alone, and not many gods. This monotheism was something radically new in the Middle East. When we ponder the belief that there is only one God, we realize that Yahweh, The God of Israel, Abba Father, the God of Jesus Christ, and Allah the God of Islam is the SAME God, since there is only one God. Judaism does not have a god, Christianity another, and Islam still another. If the God in whom the three Abrahamic-faith traditions believe IS God, then the faith traditions do not have God. God has us! This affirmation does not mean that there are not profound, irreconcilable differences in Judaism, Christianity and Islam about the divine nature. Differing about how God is God (for example, the Trinity, the Incarnation) is not the same as affirming different gods.
The Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, recounts many narratives featuring Old Testament figures like of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Solomon, and David. The Qur’an also reveres the Virgin Mary and her son, Jesus Christ, acknowledging His miraculous birth and resurrection, though not His divinity. Muhammad, unlike some radical extremist Islamic groups today, taught that Muslims must treat Jews and Christians in their countries as guests, not enemies. The followers of Islam believe that God’s revelation did not end in Christianity. They believe Judaism and Christianity are extended and fulfilled in Islam.
Islam, as taught by Muhammad in the Qur’an, a work
Muslims believe is the inspired literal word of God, is built upon five
duties called the Five Pillars.
1.) The Creed (Shahada): “There is no god but Allah and Muhammed is his messenger.”
2.) Prayer (Salat): Faithful Muslims pray a standardized set of prayers five times a day.
3.) Alms-Giving (Zakat): Once a year based upon their income Muslims must give alms for the poor.
4.) Fasting (Swam): Throughout the daylight hours of the lunar month of Ramadan, observant Muslims must fast.
5.) Pilgrimage (Haj): If they can, all Muslims must go on pilgrimage once in their lifetime to Mecca.
Since Muhammad was both a political and a spiritual leader,
the “Islamic Way” or “Shariah,” derived from
the Qur’an and other Islamic texts, has led to the Shariah Law
which governs the way modern Islam interacts with the non-Islamic world.
Like Christianity, Islam has a vision of how people should live in this
world, and it strives to create social and political structures in which
people live according to this vision, sometimes down to the last detail.
Most (95%) of all Muslims are Sunni Muslims who believe that their leaders should be chosen by consultation and consensus. A small (3%) group called Shiite Muslims believe that only direct descendants of Muhammad can be Muslim leaders. Both groups embrace the Five Pillars. But they differ significantly on how Muslims should live in religiously and politically pluralistic societies.
The Islamic community is growing rapidly in Europe. There are several million Muslims in the United States, substantial numbers in many metropolitan areas. And their numbers continue to grow. In time Islam may well be a major force in this country. I enjoyed and continue to enjoy an excellent relationship with Ahmed El-Mamlouk, the Imam of the growing Muslim community in Lake Charles. He is a gracious man steeped in Islamic wisdom from the School of Alexandria in Egypt. Well over two million American Muslims worship at mosques each week. There have been disputes in some cities about the call to prayer broadcast from the minarets of mosques ‘imposing” Islam on Christians and counter arguments that church bells “impose” Christianity on Muslims.
Since Islam has no worldwide central authority, fragmentation and sectarianism are not uncommon. This may be especially the case regarding the issue of how faithful Muslims should live in pluralistic, democratic societies like the United States, which sanctions no state religion and which welcomes diverse religious traditions. Some Muslims prefer an Islamic state, like Iran or Saudi Arabia, where religious leaders who apply the Qur’an to everyday life making no distinction between secular and religious life hold the highest political positions. This is a part of the current difficulty in forming a new government in Iraq.
One very austere Islamic sect called Wahhabism (started by Muhammed bin Abd al-Wahhab (1703-87), the co-founder of Saudi Arabia) calls for the strictest interpretation of the Qur’an. Its followers reject what they see as the materialistic, self-indulgent secularism of western (especially American) culture. It is the Wahhabi sect from Saudi Arabia that has shaped the violent extremism of Osama bin Laden.
The name “Islam” is derived from an Arabic word which means “peace” (Shalom in Hebrew). Islam means abandoning oneself, surrendering oneself in peace to Allah. While there are passages in the Qur’an that can be used to incite violence, there is nothing intrinsically violent about Islam. The vast majority of the world’s Muslims live in peace with others. The primary meaning of the Islamic term “Jihad” is not “holy war against infidels” as we sometimes hear. “Jihad” means to “exert oneself” or to struggle, for example, by working hard, fighting to do good, striving to spread Islam all over the world. This can also include using political structures and military strength to spread Islam. “Jihad” can be a call to war to defend Islam. Islam also teaches that suicide (e.g. terrorists in the four planes on Sept,
11) is a sin, punishable by damnation. Like Christians, Muslims become martyrs only when they are put to death for their faith.
A number of Christian experts on Christian-Muslim relations, believes that, while we should reject stereotypes of Islam, we should not take lightly the “clash of civilizations” that can exist between Islam and Christianity. They see major differences between Islamic countries and countries shaped by Western Europe. They have radically different forms of structuring society and the relationship of religion to the state and this could lead to serious tension and conflict in the United States.
The rapid growth and spread of Islam in our world and in our country present complex challenges to anyone involved in Catholic education today charting the future for tomorrow. As Catholics we have an unshakable faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and Savior of the world. We also believe firmly that Christ has mandated us to proclaim the Good News, teach all nations, and share with them the gift of Baptism. As we have been reminded by the Vatican Declaration, “Dominus Jesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church,” our genuine openness to interfaith dialogue cannot lead us to embrace relativism.
Jesus, the Messiah and Lord, can never be presented as simply one of many prophets, one of many paths to salvation. Truly irenic interfaith dialogue must begin by being honest about the unchangeable foundations of our own faith. Most followers of Islam appreciate this because they feel obliged to be faithful to their fundamental beliefs. In our new world situation the new apologetic must acknowledge that it will not be sufficient to refer to Islam in a few paragraphs in a rapid survey of world religions. We are already seeing a small number of Catholic youths converting to Islam. We need serious and substantial Catholic reflections about Christianity and Islam on-line. A key component of the new apologetic vis-à-vis Islam, I believe, is personal contact. A first step in charting the course for the future in these challenging waters is to make every effort to establish contact with followers of Islam who live in or near your communities. Share your stories of faith. In this way, both groups - Christians and Muslims - have a human face.
III. The Priority of Scripture and Tradition
Scripture and Tradition are the living sources of our Catholic faith. The limited knowledge and understanding that the young have of the role of Scripture and Tradition in the Church make it difficult for them to hold their own in a dialogue with other Christian faiths, not to mention Islam. This limited knowledge also contributes to the trivialization of authentic Catholic faith in the lives of our people, especially those still in school and faith formation. The Church has an indispensable role and authority in the authentication and interpretation of Scripture and Tradition that are generally ignored by the media and the popular culture. Teaching and explaining this essential element of the Church’s identity more clearly and effectively must be a high priority of a new apologetic.
As a Bishop, I regularly visit the classrooms of our Catholic schools. Conversations with children as young as fourth and fifth graders immediately reveal that not only do they surf the Internet for the most esoteric Confirmation names, they also turn to Internet cafes to discuss controversial ideas about their faith. In our secular and radically pluralistic culture, authentic Catholic faith may often appear marginalized in their impressionable minds, precisely because of their inadequate knowledge of Scripture and Tradition.
The pioneering Jesuit Theologian, Bernard J. F. Lonergan,
reminded us that in modern culture there is a prevalence of what he
aptly called “undifferentiated human consciousness.” In
our popular, media driven culture many people view the world with “undifferentiated
human consciousness.” This leads to a lack of critical thinking
that very easily blurs the line between fiction and fact, fabrication
and truth, hypothesis and certainty, magic and mystery.
This lack of critical thinking can have very negative consequences then teenagers are visiting web sites examining, a.) the DaVinci Code controversy, b.) The Jesus Papers, c.) the so-called “gospel” of Judas, d.) Christ the Lord, and e.) The “Left Behind” novels.
a.) The Da Vinci Code Controversy
The controversy sparked by Dan Brown’s provocative, if unoriginal, novel, The Da Vinci Code is a powerful example of “undifferentiated consciousness.” Even though the book is sold in the fiction section of the bookstore for a reason, many in the general public remain confused. When the motion picture opens next month, featuring the ever trustworthy Tom Hanks, we will no doubt again be bombarded by speculations about the Church’s alleged centuries-old effort to conceal the “truth” about “the priory of Sion,” the “relationship” between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Many teenagers spend hours online getting more “information” about the “descendents of Jesus” without the benefit of input of any critically informed Catholic who views the world with “differentiated human consciousness.” And when students in our religion classes hear about The Jesus Papers or the “gospel” of Judas on CNN they may well be reading excerpts of the documents themselves that same night on line and giving serious consideration to the idea that Jesus plotted His crucifixion and urged Judas to betray Him, without the benefit of differentiations of any kind.
b.) The Jesus Papers
The thesis of Michael Baigent, who recently sued Dan Brown for plagiarizing his work, Holy Grail, Holy Blood in The DaVinci Code has a popular new book, The Jesus Papers. In it he argues that everything you were ever taught and believed about Jesus Christ (including His resurrection and divinity) is probably not true and the author has the evidence to prove it. He speculates about the impact of non-Jewish cultures on Christ’s early development and questions the credibility of important historians of the Christian era, including Josephus, Pliny, and Tacitus. He claims to have uncovered evidence that calls into question the believability of the gospels. He suggests his evidence could shake the very foundation of Western thought itself, which has been so deeply influenced by Christianity.
The Jesus Papers, like Hugh Schonfield's (1965) The Passover Plot, argues the position that Jesus was an ordinary human being who somehow plotted His own crucifixion. Offering the reader no definitive proof for his thesis, he suggests that, since the resurrection of Christ cannot be believed in the modern world, a plausible explanation for the resurrection "myth" must be constructed. Baigent suggests he has access to long-lost secret documents (which are not printed in the text) supporting his “new” interpretation of the four evangelists. Though it is an excellent example of “undifferentiated consciousness” and gratuitous assertions young Internet bloggers find all of this fascinating, even persuasive. Comparable excerpts from outstanding Biblical historical scholarship about Jesus, such as Fr. Raymond Brown's The Death of the Messiah and Episcopal Bishop N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God are unknown to them.
c.) The Gospel of Judas
Most Catholics were probably surprised to learn of the existence of “the gospel of Judas” when the National Geographic Society presented an English translation of a portion of the second century document with seemingly calculated sensationalism just in time for Easter. They might also be surprised to learn that there are actually a number of so-called “gospel” manuscript fragments such as the “gospel of Thomas,” that, for good reason, are not a part of the canon New Testament. Media reports suggested this document could very well change Christianity’s view of Judas. The fragmentary 3rd century Coptic manuscript (based on an older Greek document), whose authenticity is not in question, indicates that Judas Iscariot was not Jesus’ betrayer but his favorite apostle. Jesus shared his secret plans with Judas and asked him to betray him. In this way Judas “will exceed” the other apostles “for you will sacrifice the man that clothes me. You will be cursed by the other generations, and you will come to rule over them.” Obviously such quotations on the evening news startle unsuspecting Catholics.
St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, France knew of this work and rejected it in 180 AD. The early Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, assembled the New Testament canon rejecting Gnostic accounts that contradicted the Christian community’s earliest beliefs. Catholic scripture scholars rightly stresses that these ancient texts do not really merit the name “gospel.” A gospel is a specific literary genre that was established by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. A gospel focuses on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. While including events supposedly related to the life of Jesus, the “gospel” of Judas and the others are really texts attempting to give the importance to the personalities whose name they bear, not Jesus. They are not accounts of the Good News of Jesus.” Do any of our students know what is necessary for the Church to consider a text a gospel? Is this clearly available via the Internet? In the new apologetic it will be imperative for canonicity to be taught as far more than a topic of history from antiquity.
d.) Christ the Lord
Anne Rice is probably best known for her extremely popular vampire chronicle novels. She lived for years in Catholic New Orleans but had fallen away from her faith. Her return to the Catholic Church in 1993 was a gradual process which involved extensive study of scripture and antiquity. Anxious to share her rekindled faith she wrote a novel about the life of Christ written from the unique perspective of the seven-year-old Jesus, called Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. This historical novel is bold and creative in the manner of Nikos Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ. With a vivid imagination and borrowing from apocryphal writings, Rice’s young Jesus brings clay pigeons to life, causes snow to fall, displays amazing knowledge, and, when attacked by a bully, uses his “power” to defend himself and then bring his attacker back to life. Her Jesus is a healer, prophet, mystic and regular seven- year-old child struggling to understand his unique identity.
Admirers of the book believe that those who already have a relationship with Jesus will be drawn closer to Him by this engaging tale. Those whose relationship is superficial will be attracted to Him. Those who are indifferent will find their appetites whetted by the novel. Critics stress that like The Da Vinci Code it is a work of fiction and even the most moved reader must never lose sight of the fact that we have no biblical revelation about the mind of Jesus as a seven-year-old. Even with a work like “The Passion of the Christ,” generally well received by Catholics, the new apologetic will need to be clear about what is and what is not in scripture and why that matters. It will need to bring a clear understanding of the nature of liturgy and worship to bear when teenagers ask, “May we watch Mel Gibson’s movie and discuss it in place of Good Friday services?”
e.) The “Left Behind” Novels
Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins are the authors of the immensely popular “Left Behind” novels, which depict in fierce, violent, detail the fate of those “left behind” at the moment of divine “rapture.” Although it is Mr. Jenkins who writes each book, it is Mr. LaHaye who generates all of the ideas for the novels, creating a detailed Biblical outline for each story. Beginning as a Baptist pastor in the 1950’s, Tim LaHaye is straightforward about his strictly Fundamentalist view of the Bible.
Though the concept of the “left behind” may not be original with LaHaye and Jenkins, the success of these books has been phenomenal. They are immensely popular with young people. LaHaye calls them "the first fictional portrayal of events that is true to the literal interpretation of Bible prophecy." The narratives can be extremely violent and contain themes that are clearly anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic.
The Rising, the 13th book in the “Left Behind”
series, was a New York Times best-seller. It was the first of three
books describing what happened to the characters in “Left Behind”
before the Rapture. The 14th book, The Regime, was published in November
2005, and The Rapture, the 15th book is due out in June 2006. Newsweek
magazine has called the authors “The New Prophets of Revelation."
The series has sold more than 63,000,000 copies. These enormously influential
books capture the imaginations of young people (especially boys) who
are curious about death, the end of time, and the Second Coming of Christ.
However, the works are not informed by the outstanding scripture scholarship
of Protestant or Catholic authors and fill the readers with literalistic
and nightmarish images of the Parousia. These works are widely publicized
As Catholic educators charting a course for the future we must keep in mind that our challenges are made greater because of the “decline of common meaning” in the Internet age. Completely contradictory “Catholic positions” can be immediately found on line. We need to establish the highest levels of collaboration in order to avoid redundancy and pool our limited resources. Dioceses, school systems, Catholic publishers, appropriate committees of the Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops all have resources that are components of the new apologetic I am proposing.
However, do these bodies have clear knowledge of and access to each other’s materials? Are some databases more sophisticated than others and are some already obsolete? Have we a way of monitoring or spot-checking the Internet in order to provide appropriate well thought out responses? Are there masterworks of Catholic theology and apologetics from the past (e.g. Augustine, Aquinas, Cardinal Newman) that need to be excerpted in the clearest most accessible translation? Catholic parents welcome being informed of inappropriate sexual materials on-line. Do we ever alert them to materials on-line that could be harmful to their spiritual and faith development?
What I have proposed in these remarks is simply a sketch of a challenge which may not seem immediate but which nevertheless is very real. The young people who receive religious education at our hands must be helped to come to terms with the new atheism, catastrophic human suffering and the search for meaning, the rapid growth of Islam, the priority of Scripture and Tradition. To do this we must accompany them in a process of personally appropriating their faith, developing a personal synthesis of that faith, and in articulating that faith with confidence in the face of challenges unlike any of the past. More that that we must engage them in this process in cyberspace where they are wizards and many of their teachers may be neophytes. But the challenge must be engaged on-line in the chat rooms and cafés of the Internet. Our greatest efforts must be made before our students are confirmed since many, unfortunately, drop out of Christian formation after that. And we must do all of this with less help from many parents than we would like. We need a new apologetic.
Meeting this challenge is necessarily a high and distant
goal. However, we cannot begin to face it if we are unaware of it. During
time together here you will examine many challenges that may seem to
be more existentially relevant than the need for a new apologetic. They
will almost certainly be easier for you to take hold of and develop
appropriate responses. They are important and perhaps they are more
immediately urgent. But the issues I have raised are unquestionably
on the horizon of our future. If at least some of the members of the
National Catholic Education Association are not willing to begin to
chart this course for the future in these challenging times, then I
do not know who is. Surely some of us will attend to what I have said
and work toward attaining this high and distant goal.
While we are challenged, we are not discouraged. It is Easter Tuesday! The poet reminds us; Henceforth let your souls always make each morn an Easter Day! The risen Christ and His promised Holy Spirit are with us. The same Spirit who empowered the apostles to be understood in many languages will empower us to speak the language of faith in cyberspace with new eloquence.
If you tire or grow weary recall the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in “The Ladder of St. Augustine.”
“The heights by great [ones] reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight.
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upwards through the night!”
Thank you. Thank you, very much.
National Catholic Education Association
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
The Most Reverend Edward K. Braxton, Ph.D., STD
Bishop of Belleville
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