instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, January 24, 2011

A just question

In preaching on abortion during his homily yesterday, my pastor said, "Some people say, 'It's just a bunch of cells.' Well... I'm a bunch of cells, too!"

We're each a bunch of cells. The question is, which of us are just a bunch of cells?

The answer must be that all, some, or none of us is just a bunch of cells.

If we're all just a bunch of cells, then there is no right or wrong, there are just biochemical reactions. I don't know that I've ever heard of anyone who actually lived as though they believed this.

If some of us are just a bunch of cells, then the problem is figuring out which ones. I state without proof that there is no inviolable rule in nature for figuring that out, with the corollary that a society that believes some of us are just a bunch of cells can become a society that believes you are just a bunch of cells.

If none of us is just a bunch of cells, then what the hell have we been doing?


Sunday, January 23, 2011


This week's hypothesis is that great parables are bad stories.

More accurately, great parables tend to be incomplete stories, because one thing that makes a parable great is that the listener has to put himself into the parable. This is one way a parable differs from a myth; a myth tells you what your role is, a parable tells you what roles are available and challenges you to choose the correct one.

Think, for example, of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It's one of the longest, most complex, and richest of the written parables of Jesus. Yet with both sons, the father has the last word. We aren't told how the younger son responds to having a ring on his finger again, nor how the older son responds to being told all his father has is his.

I was going to end the last sentence with "how the older son responds to learning all his father has is his," but, really, we don't even know that he learned it, we only know that he should have learned it. Since he should have learned it through the years of living with his father, we don't know that he learned it even when he was told directly. (An echo, perhaps, of Dives and Lazarus; can the older brother believe in his father's love when someone returns from the dead to show him?)

In short, we know how the brothers should respond, but we aren't told how they did. The parable leaves it up to us to say, "Today I am the younger brother," or, "I am acting like the older brother," and then respond to our Father as we should.

This idea of incompleteness may also help explain why so many who listened to Jesus preach did not hear what the parables were saying. We come to these parables with thousands of years of experience in thinking about how they should be completed; coming to it fresh, it's easy to be confused by all the ways they could be completed.


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Last week's hypothesis
An earnest young priest meets an older rabbi, and they start talking about religion. At one point, the priest says, "What can we do to get good, religious Jews to believe that the Messiah has already come?"

The rabbi answers, "You could live as though you believed it."
There are, no doubt, lots of reasons why the adjectives "Christian" and "Christlike" are so rarely confused -- or, more seasonally, why the "spirit of Christmas" seems to evaporate so completely by mid-January every year. I heard something in last Sunday's first reading that suggested a new-to-me reason Christians as a class are such lousy witnesses for Christ: the Incarnation isn't seen as all that important.

Why, after all, did the LORD set His Servant as a covenant of the people?
To open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.
To the extent I see myself as blind, a prisoner living in darkness, this news will occupy my mind.

But suppose I don't see myself that way. Suppose I see myself as pretty well set for afterlife. Maybe I'm a universalist, or a Pelagian; maybe I believe that once saved, always saved; maybe I'm just impressed by my own faith.

Having already received my own personal good news, who's the Gospel really for? The blind, the prisoners, those in dungeons. In modern terms: sinners and criminals.

And how important is the salvation of sinners and criminals? How important is the salvation of that SOB down the street who left his wife and kids, or the human dung beetles at work? How important is the salvation of the burglars, drug dealers, rapists, and murderers we've locked up for good reason? Sure, here or there a thunderbolt of grace will save someone, and those of us on the right side will read the story with benevolent pleasure.

But really, for the most part, haven't those people already chosen between life and death? God can save as many of them as He likes, but... not to put too fine a point on it, so what?

We decent folk were going to be saved all along, weren't we? For us, the Incarnation was a formality, Jesus' death on a cross like the breaking of a champagne bottle at the christening of a ship.

For the louses, the moral and societal bums, the Incarnation may be something more, but, not being a louse or a bum, why should I worry about that?