The Confession Post…

Eamonn Clark

There is nothing our accuser in Hell hates more than a self-accuser, nothing he loves more than a self-excuser.

There are many means to fight against sin and everlasting death – principally, baptism, but also frequent prayer, fasting and other penances, and almsgiving, together with a constant desire to grow in virtue, the reception of the Sacrament of Confirmation, and the reception of the Eucharist.

But all of it will profit one nothing if the Sacrament of Confession is neglected. In fact, it will be to one’s eternal shame and confusion that all the spiritual resources of the Church found in this sacrament (in the midst of the other advantages named above) were so readily available and yet were ignored. In fact, it would perhaps have been better for such a person never to have received faith at all than to have thrown away its gifts in this way. (2 Peter 2:21-22) Many souls who consider themselves to be spiritual are dragged down to Hell because of their stubborn refusal to humble themselves by using the order of forgiveness of sins instituted by Christ Himself, an order already implied even in the Old Testament, when the dynamic between the priests and lepers is described (see Leviticus 13; cf. Matthew 8:4, Luke 17:4 regarding the cleansing of the ten lepers by Christ – “Go, show yourself to the priest,” etc.). The soul which needs to go to confession is a spiritual leper; half dead, half alive, in need of healing and purification.

Today is the day to resolve to go to confession.

First, I want to lay out the basic points of Catholic doctrine and law on Confession. Second, I will address the most common excuses for avoiding Confession. There will come a time when arguments will cease, however…

First, Catholic doctrine and law.

The Sacrament of Confession is administered to the baptized by a duly authorized priest for the remission of personal sins committed after baptism. An integral (or “real”) confession requires several parts: confession, contrition, absolution, and penance (or satisfaction). In turn…

Confession: One approaches a priest and names one’s mortal sins in kind and number, after an honest attempt to recall them to memory; one may also confess venial sins (although these may be forgiven in other ways, such as the reception of the Eucharist, or certain prayers and sacramentals, as long as one is not already in mortal sin). Any attempt to hide a mortal sin by consciously failing to confess it when one knows it to be a mortal sin with reasonable certitude renders the entire confession invalid and constitutes a sacrilege – an enormous sin. Mortal sins remembered only after the confession have been forgiven but must still be made known in the sacrament at a later time, which time one should not postpone. This is because the act of confession is related to the order of the person’s soul and also to the Church; not only must one do appropriate penance under obedience within the judicial framework established by Christ (the hierarchical/ministerial priesthood) for his sin for his own sake, but he must also rectify the harm he has done through his sin to the entire Body of Christ, the Church, which is wounded by every sin. (Some extraordinary sins also carry canonical penalties which require a special juridical process – but we leave this aside here.)

Contrition: One is truly sorry for his sins because they offend God, in addition to fearing punishment for them. The Sacrament of Confession takes one’s fear of punishment (servile fear) and makes up for the lack of the fear of God as a Friend and Father (filial fear) by the grace contained in the sacrament. The former kind of sorrow is called “attrition,” the latter is called “contrition.” (NB: the person who is absolutely unable to go to Confession who makes a good act of contrition – that is, a real apology to God because of the offensiveness of one’s sins – is forgiven by God. However, when it becomes possible to go to Confession, one must do so, and this intention needs to be there, at least implicitly, in the act of contrition outside the Sacrament; see the section above, and note the need for doing penance under obedience.) Without contrition for mortal sin, one is not a friend of God. All the prayer and penance of such a person amounts to nothing except a disposition to reconcile with the Lord. One who dies without restoring this friendship (called “charity”) condemns himself to the pains of Hell, forever. Effectively God says to such a person, “Thy will be done.” One receives something other than God, for all eternity. Contrition also implies a purpose of amendment, meaning, one intends to avoid all sin in the future, even though we all know that we will continue to fail. The point is that one wants to do the will of God starting “right now,” not later.

Absolution: The priest delivers the formula of absolution, essentially consisting in the words, “Ego te absolvo” (which can be translated, “I absolve you”). There are usually other words which accompany this fundamental form, which are important for driving home what is occurring but not essential for validity.

Penance: One must intend to do the penance which is delivered by the priest in reparation for the sins which were confessed. (A failure to do the penance after the fact does not invalidate the sacrament – but it is obligatory nonetheless.) Again, we note that the key is obedience to the juridical order established by Christ – in doing our penance (provided it is not a sin itself – in which case, one should approach another priest in Confession and explain the situation, also if it seems extremely unreasonable or inappropriate), we do the will of the Church as such. We can be assured that this is what God wants us to do for Him. This is freedom.

The law of the Church regarding the use of Confession is in fact so important that it constitutes one of only five “precepts” of the Church, each of which are interrelated (perhaps worth its own post) and aim at sustaining the bare minimum of commitment to the spiritual life that is generally necessary for avoiding total spiritual catastrophe. They admit of special exceptions (like missing Sunday Mass due to sickness), but they generally bind the conscience. The five precepts are: to contribute to the material needs of the Church; to attend Mass on Sundays and other prescribed days (e.g. Christmas, Immaculate Conception, etc.); to fast and abstain from meat on the prescribed days (e.g. during Lent); to receive Holy Communion once a year during the Easter season; to go to Confession once a year.

It used to be a widespread problem that Catholics would hardly ever receive Holy Communion, despite frequent attendance at Mass, sometimes accompanied by an automatic or “rote” use of Confession. Today, we usually have the opposite problem – infrequent use of Confession, automatic and rote reception of Holy Communion. (We should recall that to receive Holy Communion while consciously in mortal sin is a sacrilege – once again, an enormous sin. In cases of grave necessity, one may attempt to elicit an act of perfect contrition, which includes the intention of going to Confession when possible, and then receive Holy Communion – but these are very rare instances.) It seems Christ would be much more pleased with very few receptions of Holy Communion with many receptions of forgiveness in Confession, rather than the other way around. For example, St. Francis of Assisi may have only received Holy Communion three times in his entire life.

The precepts of the Church are the most fundamental “rules” which the Church prescribes. The Church has the commission to teach, to govern, and to sanctify, in accord with Christ’s own teaching, governing, and sanctifying power and authority (prophet, king, priest – frankincense, gold, myrrh) – the precepts invoke the full authority of the Church in governing the spiritual lives of the members of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. In other words, it is Christ Who gives these precepts. Therefore, to neglect any of the precepts knowingly and willingly constitutes mortal sin, and though ignorance of the precepts “as” precepts could excuse one from grave sin (e.g. “I didn’t know I had to go to Mass on Sundays”) it is practically impossible to avoid mortal sin without doing what the precepts tell us to do – that’s why the Church puts them forward: it is for our benefit. So, it is obligatory under pain of mortal sin to confess one’s sins once a year – and if you think you have nothing to confess after a whole year, try asking your friends and relatives (especially your spouse) for some ideas. They will set you straight on that. Then you can also confess pride and self-ignorance. Even if you don’t have mortal sins to confess, you still have the opportunity to examine how you can do better.

In sum: it is seriously obligatory to confess one’s sins once a year, to be sorry for them, to receive absolution, and to do the penance assigned.

Second, the most common objections against the use of the Sacrament of Confession. Maybe you can find other excuses – but if you are honest with yourself, you will find that they are always derived from a distrust of Christ and His Church, and/or inordinate self-reliance. Such excuses should normally be brought up in the Sacrament, by the way.

“I just confess my sins to God.”

This is certainly a good thing to do. As we have already noted, God can and does forgive sins when one is truly contrite – and venial sins can be forgiven apart from Confession by the use of prayers, sacramentals, or the reception of the Eucharist (unless one is in mortal sin already). The first problem, however, is that when dealing with the matter proper to Confession (mortal sin), one who “confesses to God” cannot be fully sure of his own motivation for his sorrow – fear of punishment, authentic love of God, or maybe some other motive (psychological discomfort, for instance). Confession removes this lack of clarity – all one must do is make a good effort to make an integral confession. Furthermore, as we also already saw, the key is the order of judgment and reparation (or penance) instituted by Christ: one’s sins – especially and principally one’s grave sins – wound not only the soul of the individual sinner (who frequently is not even aware of the depth of that damage and therefore needs Father to drive the point home), but it also wounds the whole Church. Therefore, when it is possible, one must subject himself to that judicial order, which is the sacrament. If we deny this, we are calling the sacrament superfluous, unnecessary, unimportant – we are implying that we would have advised the Risen Christ not to bother instituting this sacrament in the first place (John 20:23 – “Those whose sins you forgive are forgiven, those whose sins you retain are retained”). What an insult to the Son of God – which should be confessed. (This is part of the core of the Protestant doctrine on forgiveness of sins, by the way.) God wants us to confess our sins to Him in the way that He indicated by instituting the Sacrament of Confession to begin with.

“I am embarrassed of my sins/I am afraid/it’s too difficult.”

This is a more understandable and less offensive cause of avoiding the sacrament. However, it is still completely insufficient, for a few reasons. To begin with, unless it is Father’s first few months as a priest, you can be pretty well assured that he has heard it before, or at least something very close. Even if not, you are quite unlikely to say something all that “shocking,” and the sorrier you are in your expression of your sins, the less shocking it will be. “But you don’t understand – my impiety/sexual perversion/whatever/etc. is so extreme/weird/shameful that it is just too much to mention.” Well, your sin is probably not quite as “out there” as you think, but the discomfort is telling you something; that you are ashamed, which is right and just. It should be uncomfortable to say what you did, because it is evil – but you should not fear saying it. It is you who make it difficult to the point of being impossible. If it comes down to it, write your sin down, and just resolve to read it – that could help you get through it. But the discomfort actually can provide the condition for the great feeling of freedom – the secret is out, even though God already knew what you did. Now your mind is free, and your soul is cleansed. And the sin dies in the confessional. Do not fall into the false humility of Simon Peter in the boat – “Depart from me O Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8) It is precisely because you are sinful that the Lord should not depart, and you should ask His forgiveness in the way that He wants.

“I will feel too good about being forgiven.”

Sometimes, a person will make the argument that it is this precise feeling of freedom which is a “trap” of some kind. The idea is that it is “purer” to apologize to God directly and avoid the Freudian “release” of the confessional process. Often this is a pious-sounding cover for a deeper problem – for example, inordinate shame of sin (see the section above), which could be the real reason motivating any of these excuses – but perhaps such a person really think it is “more spiritual” to avoid the sacrament. After all, one might “feel holy” instead of being holy by going to Confession, right? The problem is, once again, the order of forgiveness instituted by Christ is contradicted. In fact, one of the advantages of the sacrament is precisely the feeling of being forgiven – it is a good feeling (or it can be) – which is supposed to teach us to love the forgiveness of the Lord and to keep seeking it. God actually wants people to feel good about forgiveness, at least sometimes. This is to make no mention of the fact that being forgiven does actually make a person holy, even if not perfectly so. In actuality, a person who lets himself believe the lie that “avoiding feeling holy” justifies avoiding confession is deceived far more than a person who tends toward thinking that “feeling forgiven” is the same as holiness… the former lets himself think that his own psychology is more important than the order established by Christ and commanded by the Church in His Name, while the latter simply feels a little too spiritual when actually doing something which Christ truly wants. Disobedience with the feeling of pure intentions is far worse than obedience with the feeling of being a bit holier than one really is. Disobedience is a higher kind of pride than a mere swelling of the ego. Better to do God’s Will poorly than to do well what is not His Will.

“I just don’t have time/it’s too much effort/it’s inconvenient.”

Nonsense. We put plenty of time and energy into all kinds of pursuits which are not even that important for our natural, temporal lives… Hobbies, socializing, getting ahead at work… Surely, we can muster the energy and make the time to drive to the local parish on a Saturday afternoon to put our souls in order – instead of watching television and surfing the internet. And if there is no time for Confession advertised at the parish that is convenient, make an appointment at your leisure – or just show up at a daily Mass and tell Father you want to make confession before or after. (But if you need to go to confession, don’t dare to receive Holy Communion in the meantime.)

“I am afraid of becoming scrupulous.”

It is true that there is an abuse of the sacrament by overuse, or rather, inappropriate frequency deriving from a warped sense of morality. To be clear – some saints went to Confession once a day (such as Ignatius of Loyola), and it was not abnormal for many to go two or three times per week in centuries past. However, this is probably not advisable for the average layman, or even the average priest (once or twice a month is a standard practice). In any event, a person who is tending toward going to Confession every day is most likely doing so because of a neurosis, an overly sensitive conscience, a poor understanding of morality or of the sacrament… not because they are the next Ignatius of Loyola. This is a problem, but the fear of such a problem is insufficient for avoiding the sacrament altogether, as it still remains the order of the forgiveness of sins which Christ wants used. If a person really is afraid of a “runaway train” then he should approach a priest and explain this fear, and ask for his advice on how often to go to confession (except when one is absolutely sure one has committed a mortal sin – sure in the way one could swear on a stack of Bibles that it is so), and then obey it. If it’s once a year during Lent, then it’s once a year. If it’s once a month, so be it. Obedience is the key – just like we have already been pointing out.

“The priest might not be holy.”

So what? None is good but God alone. And yet the Lord wants to use broken instruments to show His power and glory. It is insulting to the Lord to assume that He cannot work well through bad instruments – and clearly, He wanted to use mere men to do His work, even evil ones like Judas. The thought which animates this objection is heretical in the strict sense – it is Donatist (and Protestant). Christ is the Voice which says the words, “Ego te absolvo,” through the priest – be he adulterer, murderer, or idolater. If you have been falling into the Donatist heresy, you should bring that up at your next confession, by the way.

“I had a bad experience.”

It happens – and it can be a great psychological obstacle. Sometimes, Father is exhausted and short on patience. Sometimes, he is just plain short on virtue (see above). Well, thank God, in most places there is more than one priest available. Try again – it is Christ you are seeking, not Father So-and-So. Maybe start by saying how bad your last experience was with confession, and go through what happened… that could be helpful.

“My sins are too great.”

No, they are not. See above about Simon Peter in the boat – “Depart from me O Lord!” This too is its own sin – to assume that God is not powerful enough, or merciful enough, to forgive you. (You should apologize to Him in the Sacrament for thinking so little of Him.) There are plenty of sinners much worse than you who have come back to the Lord. My favorite Old Testament example is King Manasseh – an idolatrous genocidal maniac who finally turned his life around after decades of terrorizing Jerusalem (see 2 Kings 21 and 2 Chronicles 33). St. Paul was the leader of the Jewish version of ISIS, then he became “the Apostle.” A popular modern example is Rudolf Hoss – commandant of the holocaust death-camp at Auschwitz, who is likely happy in Heaven now. You are not that bad. (You are also likely not as bad as the groveling and apostate Simon Peter in the courtyard, denying knowing the Lord Who sat just around the corner, nor as bad as the soldiers who crucified Christ – whom He forgave during the act itself.)

All of these excuses are great short-term investments in psychological comfort. They are very bad spiritual investments in both the short-term and the long-term. You will not regret overcoming your excuses – and in Hell, one only regrets his state… no longer is one capable of the kind of regret which leads to repentance. The regret of Judas leads to confusion, pain, despair – the regret of Simon Peter leads to repentance. Their sins were basically equal, but their outcomes could not have been more different. Choose wisely.

Conclusion

The soul which neglects making at least an annual confession slides slowly into more and more problematic sins – and then eventually is solidified in his favorite vices. When there are many people neglecting the sacrament in one place, such as in a parish, the devotional life will become more and more anthropocentric (no prayer before and after Mass, clapping for musicians, careless reception of the Eucharist, little tolerance for “challenging” homilies, a preoccupation with “being involved” with the Mass, etc.), and “social justice” initiatives will tend to overshadow what is left of the devotional life. This is not a good trend, and it is gaining ground in many areas around the world. More and more preaching on the need for the use of the Sacrament of Confession is called for – consider this my small contribution. Let us walk while we have the light… for soon the light will be taken away, and the darkness will come. (John 12:35)

GO TO CONFESSION! (And please share this post if you think it could help someone – spread this net far and wide…)

I am providing a few good resources here:

A formula for perfect contrition (it is not “magic,” remember – though it could be a good practice to say once or twice a day): “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.”

My own post on learning chastity – perhaps the least favorite virtue of the young, especially young men… be ashamed of sins of lust, but be more ashamed not to confess such sins!

A good examination of conscience for single adults …and for married people … and for young adults/teens … and just in case you want it, for kids.

More advice on how to make a good confession

The Summa Theologiae on the necessity of Confession (composed by a colleague of St. Thomas, based on another of his works)

The Council of Trent on the Sacrament of Confession (Session 14), and the Roman Catechism (from Trent) on the Sacrament of Confession (promulgated by Pope St. Pius V)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Sacrament of Confession

Some detailed history and theological analysis of the Sacrament of Confession and also especially of Absolution

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The Christian Film I Want to Make

Eamonn Clark

Years ago I had a post on the relationship between animation and iconography. The basic point is that the more “data” given by the artist, the more the mind has to overcome the falsehood of the representation. That’s why icons are good for devotion, while realistic images are not.

Ever since, I have been thinking about the Christian film that one day I would like to make.

It is easy to critique the “genre” of Christian film. It is worth doing so. The Church has the truth, so She should also have beauty, no? It is disgraceful that there have been so few good Christian films produced since the medium was invented over 100 years ago.

A few films stand out as masterpieces – yet to my mind, none really hits the mark, for reasons explained in my post on animation. About as close it gets to what I have in mind among color films can be found in the 1959 production, Ben-Hur.

Notice – no words, no face… And yet, it is just about right. In this scene, Christ is on screen for about 2 minutes, and later at the end of the film we see His shadow for a few seconds as He is carrying the Cross. But somehow the entire film is about Christ nonetheless, and it drives that fact home much more efficaciously than many films that portray the entire Gospel narrative. What if the Ben-Hur style of depicting Christ was used to tell the whole Gospel story? Food for thought.

So, to my dream-film. Would it be animated? No. “Moving iconography”? Closer.

I invite the reader to do an exercise. Take a quick look at any recent film about the life of Christ. (For example, this one.) Consider: how does it affect you?

Now, there is a website (here) dedicated to old Christian films – take a look at the film “No Greater Power” (skip to about the 18 minute mark). Watch it for a bit. Notice the difference?

Now rewind, turn the sound off, and play something ambient and mildly dramatic, like this, or maybe this.

Now go back to the first film.

Which of the three models did you prefer? If you are like me, it is the third. The selective realism allows freedom for the mind to move to God rather than focusing as much on the film itself. If the point is to make a movie, then maybe the first model is best. But “making a movie” would not be the point. Nor would it be making money – as is what unfortunately drives Hollywood and much of the Christian movie industry as well. Cheap budget makes big bucks if you have the “right message” – it is going to be picked up by millions of people to show their children, to show their youth group, etc. That’s the point. But they do not evangelize.

For anyone with a moderate amount of knowledge of the events of the Gospel narrative, I think my model could work, at least for many people.

So, the film would be black and white (or some version of sepia), silent (or mostly silent), with semi-ambient music designed to draw the viewer into the moment of the scene, and be very limited and obscure in the portrayal of Christ, especially leaving the full view of His Face just out of sight. All this helps to conjure – rather than replace – the memory of the real event and the real persons, allowing for a more authentic use of the medium of film for an encounter with God by freeing the mind from the burden of the senses. In a word, it’s contemplative, like an icon.

One day someone will be kind enough (and foolish enough?) to give me the money needed to do such a project. Until then, it’s nice to dream.

The return post…

Eamonn Clark

Dear readers,

After a healthy 9 month hiatus, I am happy to announce my return to blogging.

Of the many things I hope to write about in an adequately engaging way in the next few months (years?), the you-know-what is not going to be one of them. There is enough written about that, with plenty more ink yet to be spilled. That’s probably appropriate for many people to do, but my concerns here will be about other things. I don’t foresee myself mentioning the you-know-what again except in passing and only when necessary for context. Please come by my place when you want to read about something different for a change.

Topics that might be coming down the line this summer range from internet piracy to the creationist reading of Lateran IV to special questions about temperance. It’s a good mix. Stay tuned.

Feel free to reach out through the “contact” tab to have some extended discussion about a post, to slam me for errors, or just to say hi! I always like interacting with readers.

Hopefully we’ll have some good guest posts too!

A presto…
-Eamonn Clark

The Logic of the Resurrection

Eamonn Clark

The meaning of human existence was definitively determined and confirmed about 2,000 years ago in a little cave just outside Jerusalem when a dead man suddenly came alive again. Nobody saw the event itself – it was secret. Only its effects were perceived, just as this same man’s public miracles had been… in the midst of confusion, or chaos, or darkness, or in some kind of hidden or invisible circumstances. But the effects were perceived clearly. And yet frequently, their meaning was not perceived.

To see the Risen Christ after the torture and death He endured only days earlier evoked principally two emotions – fear and joy. The fear came from the natural confusion of seeing someone alive who had died. The ambiguity which such a situation presents is overwhelming to the psyche – and even most sincere believers in the Resurrection today would no doubt still be startled by this kind of encounter. The bridging of the worlds of the living and the dead calls for such an “unnatural” in-betweenness, a characteristic of the Christ which is hammered home numerous times in the pages of the Gospels. This should be no surprise when we believe He is both God and man, already a great mystery of “contradiction” and “ambiguity.” He was baptized in the “middle” place. He touches “unclean” things. He lives near cities but not in them. He is evasive physically and rhetorically. He is a shape-shifter. He is a gatekeeper.

The joy, in part “unleashed” or magnified by the fear, comes from perceiving that this gatekeeper has opened the way to Heaven in the Resurrection somehow in Himself, which is the meaning of the event. And a primal spiritual instinct ought to urge one not only to desire such an opening, but also to sense that the narrative of Jesus of Nazareth actually matches with this desire in a way that nothing else could. In other words, the story of Jesus is too good not to be true; human minds are not capable of devising a story like this – in fact, everything in our natural powers tends to fight against making these sorts of deep and universal existential claims that hinge on particulars, like the sort that would depend on an individual man in a real historical time and place. Our natural sensibilities prefer a God that is more like a cosmic soup or a distant watchmaker – not a Person, let alone three Persons. The “scandal of particularity” is deeply unsettling when rightly perceived. That is what happens when order, the Logos, involves Himself with the mess of the universe – there is a disruption, including in the chaos of our souls.

This was recently demonstrated to me after some discussions with defenders of a certain Easter article in the New York Times. I don’t intend to launch into an apologetic critique of the article – you can read such a thing here – I only mean to note the stubborn insistence that somehow the Resurrection, to a Christian, could be something other than what it is plainly preached as being by the apostles: a physical reanimation of the individual Jesus of Nazareth. The gymnastics used to get around this while still ferociously clinging to the title “Christian” were what really struck me. It occurred to me that this is precisely what that dreadful curse of Isaiah is all about – seeing without perceiving, hearing without understanding – even in the midst of claiming the masthead of Divine approval.

This is also basically what occurred during the public ministry of Christ, but in a slightly different way. While the folks I was talking with were through and through American leftists and therefore deeply opposed to any kind of nationalism, the same false Messianic paradigm which has seemingly always plagued the Jews since they entered Canaan was at work in them as well: the Messiah is a politician. For these leftists, the point of the Christ is by and large to advance laws and policies propping up public welfare programs, globalism, non-judgmentalism, and instant gratification of hedonistic desires. (The “economic Christ” and the “therapeutic Christ” are present as well.) For the Jews, it was and is about Jewish nationalism. Even today they are waiting for a singular figure to rise up to destroy the Palestinians and usher in a glorious Jewish peace in Israel, of course, with the Temple rebuilt. (Have they forgotten about Julian the Apostate’s miraculously disastrous attempt to rebuild the Temple, even before the Al-Aqsa mosque occupied the very spot?)

Peter was really willing to die for Jesus on Holy Thursday – until he realized that this is not the Messiah he had signed up for. The predictions of death were clearly not metaphors or exaggerations… but he did not yet understand that neither were the predictions of resurrection. He had been thinking like men, not like God. His paradigm of Messiah qua warlord-politician was ruined when Jesus submitted to the soldiers, and so Peter too was ruined. It turns out that in some sense he really did not know the man. “How will Jesus lead the war against those dreadful Romans now?” He will indeed lead a war against Rome, but in a spiritual way that shows even them Divine mercy and love.

All this brings me, oddly, to the Book of Jonah. When read correctly, there is hardly a book in the Old Testament which more bluntly and richly explains the Christ’s agenda in such a short space. Of course, we read Christ speak about the “sign of Jonah” (Matthew 12: 38-41) – a clear reference to the Resurrection – but there is more to it than that.

Jesus Christ is the New Jonah – not only in the sense of “fulfillment” but also of correction. See if you can find some paradoxical connections to the Gospels in this summary.

Jonah so deeply hates the Assyrians (Gentiles) that he would rather die than tell them that God loves them. After all, they have historically been at war with Israel. But even before he turns to obey God’s command to preach in Nineveh, Jonah is a successful evangelist. Sleeping on the pagan sailors’ boat during a storm as he is disobediently running away from Nineveh as far as he can, he awakens to tell them that he is the cause of the danger. With this short sermon alone, they all become fervent devotees to the God of Jonah, probably, we can infer, much to Jonah’s displeasure. These new fervent worshipers of the God of Israel commend the soul of Jonah to that same God’s care, asking that his blood not be on their hands as they throw him into the sea to meet his fate. While Jonah wishes for death, he seems not to get it, although we are left wondering if he died in the belly of the whale and yet rose again. His prayer therein is not repentant – apparently he finds no guilt in himself – but he does offer obedience. He is spit onto land again and preaches a five word sermon in Nineveh which simply threatens destruction. He does not say what is wrong with Nineveh, he does not say how to avoid the impending punishment, and he does not even mention God. The entire city converts, which Jonah is furious about. He sits outside the city waiting to see what will happen, and a plant grows over him. The shade is wonderful, but soon a worm eats the plant and it dies – Jonah wishes for death again, selfishly complaining to God about His mercy on Nineveh but not on the plant. God disagrees. The end.

Christ loves the Gentiles so much that He wants to die for them. Start the reinterpretation there. The end of the story is the real kicker for Jewish nationalism… According to St. Augustine, the worm which attacks Jonah’s plant represents Christ; the plant represents the Old Covenant and its favors. (Think of the cursing of the fig tree during Holy Week.) It was there for a while due to God’s own superabundant favor, and now it disappears, making everyone equal under the sun. The “Jewish moment” is over. It was only a pedagogue, mainly about the fidelity of God to His promises. Now a greater promise must be fulfilled… And keeping this in mind, many of the parables and activities of Christ are split wide open to a new logic, along with more understanding of the offense taken at the Lord’s attitude toward the Nations. (The workers who are late to the vineyard, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the discussion with the woman at the well… all these and more lend themselves in part to the exploration of this theme.) The Jews are not special in themselves: salvation is for everyone, even the descendants of the wicked Esau and Ham. The Temple curtain has been torn from top to bottom, as God made His escape from Jerusalem out into the Nations. The Lord’s own garment, woven from top to bottom, has not been torn, while He died just outside the Holy City, shedding His Blood upon the new doorpost and lintel which is broad enough for the whole world to enter in and receive the safety of God’s protection from everlasting death. That blessed Plant, the Cross, will protect us from the heat of Hell’s fire, which will make us wish for another death that will never come.

There should be no question of the historical existence of the person of Jonah. We hear about him in 2 Kings 14: 23-25 – where he delivers a prophecy which will, ironically, be reversed by Amos (Amos 6: 13-14) – and a hermeneutic of faith urges us to read the Sacred Text open to the astounding and miraculous intervention of God in the history of the Chosen People. Compared to the Paschal Mystery, the miracles contained in the Book of Jonah are mere shadows. Trying to “demythologize” these or other miraculous signs without a serious reason to suspect a metaphorical intention on the author’s part indicates an unhealthy attitude towards Divine Providence and an under-appreciation for the significance of the New Covenant. Perhaps the single biggest problem among basically orthodox theologians today is a fear of being “fundamentalist” with regard to the run-up to the Incarnation. As if it were somehow naive to believe as the Jews of 1st Century Israel believed. What we need in order to appreciate the kerygma as fully as possible in this life is the shameless acceptance of full-throated and unabashed Judaism as the real preparation for the advent of the Messiah. That is not my opinion – it is what God actually wrought upon the Earth. He chose to enter into a people who at least believed these things were generally real, literal history. After all, how can we really understand and appreciate the silent and invisible things of the New Covenant on Calvary if we can’t even acknowledge the reality of some thunder and smoke on Sinai? I don’t mean to impute sin to those who hesitate here; I only mean to say that such hesitation is typically unnecessary, inappropriate, nonsensical, and can render theology and even the spiritual life quite sterile. The most carefully planned event in history was the Incarnate Word’s earthly life. We should read the Scriptures with this in mind, no?

In its extreme, this program of “demythologization” prevents the entrance into the spiritual life. Creation is through the Son, the Word. It follows that human existence – and all of creation – is in some profound sense itself a story, or a myth, as it were, into which God Himself enters as the central character, first indirectly, then directly, now half-directly, later to be fully direct once more when the story is finished. Without acknowledging the need for a Savior who will open the way to eternal life by redeeming one from sin and overcoming death, there is a fundamental frustration of what God designed humanity for. The story wouldn’t really make sense. Without faith, it is impossible to please God – one must believe He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him, in particular through grace and personal love, even if this is only dimly perceived (cf. Hebrews 11:6). The tendency to fight one’s own deepest in-built supernatural longings is a self-imposed darkness – a rejection of the Light which is already shining in all creation. We are always free to destroy ourselves in this way, and we always will choose to do so without God’s special mercy. Even with every indication and sign available – including countless miracles, visions, and wonders down to our own day – without His ongoing support and personal “invasion” of the Canaan of our souls, we would drown in the misery of our self-absorption and fixate on God’s created gifts rather than on the God Who is giving them. So let no man boast except in the Cross and its Victim. Jesus rose from the dead. No more gloomy despair from Qoheleth is warranted: in the light of His Resurrection, and in this light alone, by which He has drawn all the Nations to Himself, human existence, and each person’s own individual existence, at last make sense. Anything to the contrary is a chase after wind. And we should be able to see that.

7 Reasons Why We Needed the Ascension

A post from last year… Happy Ascension Thursday Sunday!

Christian Renaissance Movement

Eamonn Clark

Bertrand Russell, perhaps the most famously atheist man of the 20th century, was asked on his deathbed what he would say to God if he met Him when he died. Russell said, “Sir, why did you take such pains to hide yourself?” Among the many objections to the Christian Faith, and to revealed religion in general, is this: that God does not make Himself evident enough. It is an understandable difficulty – if God is so good and wants people to know Him, why does He not make Himself more openly available? Clearly, the Ascension invites this question, especially when combined with the limited appearances of the risen Christ… He appeared to the Apostles, some other close disciples, and a nondescript large group in Jerusalem. Why not to as many as possible? The Romans? The Greeks? The Native Americans? (Thus the attractiveness of the Mormon doctrine that Jesus…

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Two Random Thoughts on Systematic Theology

Eamonn Clark

The first thought I’ve been mulling over for a while. The second thought came to me last night before I drifted off to dreamland. So for the first one, I’m ready for a real discussion, but for the second one, go easy on me!

FIRST: There are many definitions one encounters for “the Church.” Examples are, “the community of believers,” “the Mystical Body of Christ,” “the communion of grace,” “the Bride of Christ,” to name a few. None of these would be wrong, but there is one that I have never encountered before as far as I can recall which might be legitimate… That would be, “rational creation’s participation in Christ.” The merit of this is that it includes human beings insofar as they are united with Christ, that is, to the extent which they share His Life by imitation and union. It excludes non-rational creatures, like rocks, cacti, and lemurs. It excludes, or at least intensely qualifies, Christ Himself – it does not seem quite right to say that Christ is “in” the Church… To compare this definition with the others could be helpful; for example, the Bride of Christ is not exactly Christ Himself, the Bridegroom, nor is His Mystical Body exactly the same as His “normal” Body. Maybe the most interesting aspect of this definition is its limited openness to angels (who are rational creatures)… Insofar as they are united with Christ by doing His Will or by sharing His Life, they are in the Church. But they are not in the Church the same way human beings redeemed by Christ are in the Church. Further, each individual has his or her own unique participation in Christ, according to differing graces, sacramental characters, and virtues. Therefore, this definition allows for a multiplicity of ways of being “in the Church” – in fact, there are as many ways to be “in the Church” as there are rational creatures, since it seems no two participations in Christ will be precisely the same, with the possible exception of humans who do not possess the ability for rational activity (and therefore voluntary cooperation with grace). Finally, were there some other economy of salvation with another Incarnation of the Son (such as might happen for an extraterrestrial race), rational creatures which participate in that particular order of grace would be in their own communion of grace, as it is mediated by another human nature, even though it is still the same Divine Person… They would be in a different Church, a different Mystical Body, although still ultimately participating in the same Divine Life.

So there are some major advantages to this definition.

SECOND: A little less thought out, but it really hit me last night… So, first, the Eucharist contains the real and substantial Presence of Christ’s own Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. This is, as pointed out above, distinguishable from His Mystical Body, which is the whole Church. Okay. Second, the Eucharist contains the secondary dimensive quantity of Christ – which means He is present in that space according to “being in a space” but without having normal shape, the manner of presence being merely according to the mode of substance, which is in relation to the accidents of the substance that has been transformed, viz. bread and wine. (See St. Thomas on that here for more.) Okay. Third, while it is not quite right to say that Christ is “physically” in the Sacrament, due to the primary dimensive quantity not inhering in the Substance, it is still correct to say that the Substance of Christ is “here” and “not over there.” When a Host or Chalice is moved, Christ is not moved physically (His physical Body and Blood are resting in Heaven under their primary dimensive quantity), but the Substance appears in different places according to the motion of the accidents of bread and wine; that is to say, the Substance is “here,” then “there.” Okay, so with that relatively unclear explanation, let me briefly get to what hit me… It seems that, in a way, the Eucharist rips open the universe and taps into the Substance of Christ which is “underneath” it. The Substance is potentially made real in this particular spot, not by placing the Substance there – which can only be done by physically moving Christ under His primary dimensive quantity – but by “opening” this place to “uncover” it.

What are the implications of this? Is this a legitimate way to look at this reality? I’m not quite sure. I need to think about it more. But I found the possible line of inquiry very interesting.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments…

The Snowflakes of Jerusalem

Eamonn Clark

I saw that Middlebury College is in the news again. For being totally insane. (The last time we heard about Middlebury was after the violent protests when Charles Murray spoke.) It seems some conservative Polish politician was supposed to give a lecture there, and being a conservative Pole, does not find much to praise in the LGBTQ+ agenda. Naturally, the screeching commenced, and the lecture was downgraded to a live stream for one politics class.

The Middlebury newspaper has a “trending” feed. As I write, this story currently takes the bottom two of five spots. The top three are occupied by two reports of a story of a professor who asked a question about the Holocaust on a chemistry exam, and one about a geology professor who showed a cartoon about slavery. Are you seeing a pattern?

Some might say this is unique to this generation. In one sense that’s right, but in another sense it is not. While the particular issues which occupy the minds of liberal academes and younglings in the West are indeed mostly novel, I don’t think the widespread existence of “snowflakes” is a new phenomenon at all. I think we are reading the accounts of ancient snowflakery in the Passion narratives. The scribes and Pharisees (etc.) had a rigid attachment to the Mosaic law, which was read in light of their own very human interpretive tradition. They are unwilling to hear that they are wrong. They have very particular fixations which warp their priorities and view of the world beyond what reason allows. They ask trick questions. They have gained all the power (and money) in Jerusalem and will use that power in violence when reason fails, such as with a mob. They are entitled. They seek attention. They manipulate the court system in various ways to ensure their desired outcome. They engage in “outrage culture.” They will expel those from their group who dare to think for themselves. They will destroy or conceal or distort evidence which threatens their ideology. They are hypocrites. They are basically out of touch with reality, especially the supernatural. And so on.

“Ah, yes, but it is so obvious that a man is not a woman, that abortion is murder, and so on. So today’s snowflakes are worse.” Not quite. Consider the fact that there is no challenge against the reality of the miracles of Jesus on the part of the Pharisees and their ilk. They accept that He has been healing people, raising them from the dead, etc., and that He Himself rose from the dead. It should be obvious that this is God Himself, and yet they plot and conspire to defeat Him to protect their own selfish and twisted ideology. They are seeing and hearing the same things as the first disciples, and yet they are drawing wildly different conclusions, conclusions at odds with the most basic common-sense application of spiritual thinking. But they are so blinded by their own prejudices that they cannot accept that the Christ is something other than what they expected. The introduction of the Logos Himself into the midst of the chaotic spiritual waters has caused a splash – or, if you like, the Light has melted the rabbinic snowflakes of Jerusalem.

We all have weakened and darkened souls. We all have our own anti-Christic attachments which need to be rectified. We are all shaken by the scandal of the Cross in one way or another, when we consider it rightly.

There is no room for boasting. We are all cosmic snowflakes.

Have an edifying Good Friday.

Fire in Paris… My Mixed Emotions

Eamonn Clark

Yes it is sad that the Cathedral of Notre Dame burned down. It is good that it seems it will not be entirely destroyed and that many important things inside the building were apparently rescued. It even seems that nobody was hurt (granted I am writing this as the story is still unfolding). I squirm at the sight of the images of the fire, and I would have prevented it from happening if I could have.

Here is the thing.

I have been to the cathedral plenty of times (I used to live not far away and have occasionally visited Paris since). There is just no denying that the priorities at Notre Dame were backwards. And to anyone who has gone there to try to pray, you know what I mean. It has been, for a very long time, a place 99% dedicated to tourism, and 1% to prayer. I recall one afternoon when I was in the chapel in the far back end of the ambulatory, where the Blessed Sacrament was. There were perhaps 2 or 3 other people with me. After a little while, for no apparent reason, some guards came all of a sudden and told us we had to leave and re-join the Kabah-like crowd of tourists circling the nave. I suppose they were setting up for something, but that was extremely frustrating and disappointing nonetheless, and I bet it happened all the time. I recall there also being a large commercial operation near the entrance, selling various memorabilia. It always unsettled me to see… Of course it is not quite on par with the money-changers at the Temple whom Our Lord attacked twice, but it was not at all appropriate. Misplaced priorities.

And now this symbolic heart of the French Church – and in many ways the European Church – is practically destroyed. What an apt metaphor. People indeed have marveled at the “culture” of the Church through this splendid building. Well, now that is gone, for the time being. What will be done? What leg is there to stand on except faith? A fine leg indeed – much stronger than wood and stone, even beautiful wood and stone.

Recall that Europe was not always the mainland of Christendom. It was once North Africa… It produced saints like Augustine, Cyprian, Cyril, and on and on. Today it is not like that, if you didn’t know. Nor is Turkey, which was also once a booming epicenter of Christian orthodoxy and apostolic zeal. Europe is quickly becoming like these places. There have been attacks on several French churches in the past few weeks. St. Sulpice, another incredible Parisian church, was also on fire just last month. I am not an apocalyptic conspiracy-theorist, so I won’t go there – but that God has allowed all of this should be cause to stop and think a bit. Why are we so concerned to preserve these churches? Is it just because they are nice pieces of eye candy, or is it for something more?

This will be an immensely important chance for the French clergy to capitalize on vast swarms of media attention which they are about to encounter, and the momentous effort which will surely go into the restoration of this magnificent church. Let us pray that they use the opportunity not only to do and say the obvious, but that they also point to the Tabernacle not made with human hands… Who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Our Lady of Paris… Pray for us.

The Historical-Critical Exegetes: A Brief Summary of the Consensus in the 41st Century

Herman Von Voelkenhausen
Catholic University of Cologne
St. Benedict XVI Chair of Theology
April 12, 4019

+JMJ+

Before outlining the views of the majority of contemporary scholars on the historical-critical tradition of the 19th and 20th century, it is worth first mentioning the traditional view of that school from which our own views have arisen and evolved beyond.

Writers of the 22nd century onward who reflected deeply on the historical-critical phenomenon, scattered as such writers are, assume that the exegetical school was simply directly inspired by Spinozistic and post-Kantian ideals to re-envision the Scriptures in a radical way, breaking with the cumulative conclusions of the ages and the clear teaching of the Church. These exegetes supposedly became immensely popular, even holding chairs in the most distinguished theological faculties of Europe, where they would really speak and teach their students directly. Their lectures and writings were the real motion towards a culmination in the “Jesus Seminar,” the fullest expression of the movement, which was followed by a number of special disciples who gradually unpacked the wisdom contained therein in the midst of the larger academic community that turned to join the historical-critical movement in this final phase of critical scholarship.

We must now pause and admit that all of this seems rather childish to us, but to the majority of theologians and historians from the year 2100 until well into the 3800’s, this simplistic position was simply taken for granted. It is no wonder; due to the limited knowledge of the 19th and 20th century which was available to the early authors, we cannot expect very much accuracy on their part. The advent of the internet came only near the very end of the 20th century, and immediately afterward came that dark cloud of Fake News, which persisted well into the mid-22nd century. With such imprecise methods of research and communication, we should be inclined to go easy on those who first attempted to react to the historical-critical phenomenon. The tradition which took their analyses in good faith, it is true, has less excuse insofar as their means of investigation increased in quality, but those authors were hindered by the all-too-natural allure of continuity and the professional risk of speaking out too boldly.

The first point which nearly all authors now make is that of the difference between the “historical exegetes,” and the “scholars of faith.”

The exegetes are the real human beings at the center of the scholarly movement traditionally placed in the 19th to 21st centuries (although it seems increasingly likely that these early dates are fallacious). Many of them, it is granted, really did exist as human beings. But it matters very little what these men really were in their historical lives – it mostly matters that they existed. For instance, whether or not some sayings of Rudolph Bultmann were actually spoken by him is largely irrelevant; what really matters is that a tradition developed which sees him in connection with such sayings.

The “scholars,” then, are the writers in the minds of those who received their teachings and modified them. We encounter the scholars in the writings which are associated with them by name.

Immediately the question is raised – how were these writings produced? “The books bear the names of the authors themselves,” it is objected. As foolish as it sounds to us, it was once unthinkingly presumed that, since an exegete’s name was attached to a text that he must have actually written that text himself. The prevailing theory today is that while some writers did indeed exert a kind of influence over the writings that bear their names, in almost every case we see a kind of pseudepigraphy.

A fundamental body of writing in the historical-critical tradition will serve as a fine framework for an introduction to the methods we are using today to analyze this period of theology. This collection of books was traditionally presumed to be the work of a single author, but now the agreement is that it actually is an amalgamation of several written traditions under the redaction and collection of later theologians. First, there is the Kuenen source, or K. Next, the Graf source, G. Third, the Hupfeld source, H. Finally, the Reuss source, R. Over time, a careful redaction on the part of later German exegetes over the coming decades would piece these writings together to form what the historical-critical tradition, and those who uncritically write of its history, has called the collected works of Julius Wellhausen.

Perhaps there really was a Julius Wellhausen, but the “historical exegete” is, in any case, less important than the significance of the “scholar” represented in the popular imagination of the academy of the 20th century. For those first disciples of the masters of the historical-critical tradition, such as Wellhausen was to those who followed in that tradition, they really were seen as true scholars, important figures who somehow had advanced the theological milieu towards a new era.

It should be noted that the most recent quest for the historical Albert Schweitzer has come up largely empty. There is now, however, a broad consensus that he was not born in Alsace-Lorraine, but in Tübingen – to place his birth in an as-then recently annexed part of France was a clever narrative device used to broaden the appeal of the historical-critical movement beyond Germany in the long-term. That is to say, there was a value of a kind of “academic annexing” being imposed on the narrative of the Schweitzer character during the period of redaction of the earlier records of his life. It is well established that he did spend time in France, but to place his birth and childhood in anywhere but Germany finds no support except the primary texts themselves, which, as we have said, have changed the narrative to suit their own ideological agenda.

In the 19th century, the time for historical-critical exegesis was ripe, as there were expectations in the air for such a movement, after the Prussian myth of Schleiermacher had taken hold of the European imagination. (The Schleiermacher-myth was distinct from but related to the Prussian myths of Fichte and Kant, all of which were zealously absorbed and appropriated by the “Hegelian Community.”) Eventually, this all culminated in the well-known “Jesus Seminar” Event. While most scholars agree that there really was a Jesus Seminar, there is little consensus beyond three points: that the Jesus Seminar was formed around the year 1980, that it preached an apocalyptic doctrine about the coming end of traditional Biblical theology (with itself as a central catalyst), and that it ended in a shameful demise.

An example will serve us well to illustrate the attitude of current scholarship on post-Jesus Seminar thought. Virtually all historians of theology today recognize the minimal “historicity” of the writings of Bishop Spong, that is, Spongian authorship. Instead, various radical publishing houses collected the reports of various moderate pieces of scholarship on the part of Bishop Spong, and they published books under his name. Why? Clearly, these publishing houses had their own theological agenda which they were willing to advance, even in the face of such enormous ridicule. Their reflection on the meaning of Spongian theology prompted them to take a courageous attempt at promoting work largely inspired by his own teachings but which was itself a radical development of them. This is a standard model for the era.

The writings of all the post-Jesus Seminar theologians are typically dated to the late 21st to early 22nd century. It was a common pious mentality of devotees of the historical-critical exegetes, and especially those following the Jesus Seminar, to view the writings traditionally attributed to figures such as Bishop Spong, Bart Ehrman, and Paul Bradshaw as being written much earlier than they really were. It has been firmly established, however, that Bradshaw did indeed write his work first, and Spong and Ehrman based their writings on his, and upon other accounts of the Jesus Seminar and the tradition it represents. Furthermore, these three works draw on a common source, “Q,” (from the French, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” – “What is it?”) which links them together. They are altogether in a different tradition, however, than the Reza Aslan tradition, which is decidedly more “spiritual” than historically minded in its presentation.

Of course, as is well-known, current academics consider many of these texts to have been compiled by the communities which gathered around these figures. The Spongian community, the Aslanian community, and so on. (Bradshaw, it is true, perhaps did actually write his own works – but it is altogether clear that he himself could not have come up with the idea that John was unaware of an Institution Narrative – this was a later redaction by the publishing house.) The growing majority also views most of the writings attributed to Bart Ehrman actually to be complete forgeries – fully dishonest, albeit clever, pseudepigraphy. (Several editions and translations of his work have also left us wondering what the “true” or “original” texts were in the first place – the recent unearthing of hundreds of copies of the text “Jesus Interrupted” in what is thought to be a 25th century Siberian landfill may prove to be a crucial discovery to aid us in getting to the bottom of this vexing problem. My own forthcoming work “Misquoting Bart Ehrman” will investigate this data at length.)

The motivation for our project is simple: it is altogether unrealistic that such men would have really existed, taught, and written as they are traditionally have thought to have done. Their doctrines are too systematically bizarre and radically incoherent to have been the products of single authors; it is altogether unthinkable that, even given such bad scholarship, they somehow gained wide acclaim to the point of wielding true academic and intellectual authority. Therefore, what was at stake in the 19th and 20th centuries, and what was carried on by the disciples of historical-criticism in the centuries which followed, must be studied under a hermeneutic which takes the spirit of the tradition seriously while retaining the position that such fantastical theories themselves were not taken literally by those who first originated them. It was only later generations of devotees of historical-critical exegesis who, in their zeal, took these traditions to be literal works of Biblical scholarship.

Post by: Eamonn Clark (NB: Faith is a gift – let no man boast… Let us pray for souls who lack such a great grace to see and know the Living God!)