Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Richard John Neuhaus: Liberal Lutheran to Conservative Catholic

A new biography, Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square by Randy Boyagoda, does quadruple duty.  It provides a well-researched and documented critical look at the life and work of Neuhaus, in the context of  US history, including sociological trends, from the 1960’s through the early 2000’s, societal pressures on and changes in the role of the Church, or religion in general, in public life, and the continuing struggle over unresolved Reformation issues among and within Catholic and Protestant bodies. It is a great read.

Neuhaus (1936-2009) was raised the son of a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor in Canada, received the Master of Divinity from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, and served as pastor of Brooklyn’s low income, mostly minority, St. John the Evangelist Lutheran Church in the 1960’s. He preached and spoke in favor of social justice and civil rights and against the Vietnam War, and became well known as a liberal activist. As his liberal friends and associates moved leftward and more secular in the 1970’s, Neuhaus moved right and became a strong spokesman for conservative Judeo-Christian ethics and positions on public issues.

One of a diminishing minority of Lutherans who saw Lutheranism as a reform movement within the universal Catholic Church, Neuhaus gave up on Lutheran reform, was received into the Catholic Church in September, 1990, and was ordained a Catholic Priest a year later. Included in the biography are his eloquent explanations of the reasons for this change and for his shift to conservatism.

A prolific and powerful writer, Neuhaus is perhaps best known for The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, published in the mid 1980’s, and comprising a direct challenge to the emerging Political Correctness movement. Neuhaus later assured his own access to the Public Square through founding of First Things: America’s Most Influential Journal of Religion and Public Life. The journal achieved a paid circulation of more than 30,000 and has continued after his passing.

The image of Neuhaus based on the biography and on his quotes therein is of a bigger-than-life, somewhat rude, impatient, and outspoken man who loved bourbon and cigars and didn't hesitate to consume even the cigars in a friend’s living room. However, watching him speak on one of the many YouTube videos available (example), he comes across as a loving pastor serving God and neighbor. Well, I suppose that too is a bigger-than-life image. You can download the book to your Kindle or iPad here

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Sunday, April 5, 2015

My New Favorite Bible Verse

Just as anybody running for political office needs to have a ready answer to the question, “What are you reading?” anybody spending time in Christian circles needs to be able to reveal, just in case, his or her favorite Bible verse. Being the energetic, works oriented, dirty hands kind of guy I am, I have recently responded to the question with Ephesians 2:10: For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.

Never mind that there are 23,262 verses in the Old Testament, 4,084 verses in the deuterocanonical books, and 7,958 verses in the New Testament for a grand total of 35,304 verses in the Catholic Bible. And from that massive inventory, I should choose a favorite?

Never mind the problem that division of Sacred Scripture into chapters and verses, although a fairly recent development in the history of Christianity, only seven hundred or so years ago, was done prior to much advanced textual analysis which is of great value in discerning where the logical divisions, the divisions we show in modern English with sentences and paragraphs, most likely were intended and understood, by the ancient writers and their readers and listeners, to be.

Never mind the fact that my choice may reflect some personal bias just as selection of stories to report on the evening news may reflect biases of the news organizations. I've never heard anybody claim it as a favorite, but it has become common to hear Leviticus 20:13 quoted in support of a political position.  Exodus 31:14, which prescribes a similar punishment for a different offense (death for desecrating the Sabbath), just doesn't seem to carry the same level of importance. And I have already confessed that my selection of Ephesians 2:10 reflected a personal bias in favor of action.

Never mind that a lot of verses are considered out of bounds because they are difficult to understand. I had a pastor a few years ago who liked to say that there are no throwaway words in Sacred Scripture. I believe he is right, and, if that is true, there are certainly no throwaway verses in Sacred Scripture. Still, following the example of Mark Twain who said he wasn't bothered about scripture he didn't understand but just worried about the things he did understand, we tend to read right over those verses that are difficult to understand or to reconcile with our pre-conceived theologies. For example, I have often failed to recognize such as, "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you,” “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword,” and “Otherwise, what will people accomplish by having themselves baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, then why are they having themselves baptized for them?” We will rarely hear any of these controversial words pulled from context and quoted as favorites! Even Jesus lost followers when He made the flesh and blood claim.

And never mind the fact that context is essential to understanding of the Bible and that picking individual verses out of context can easily result in misleading interpretations and understandings. One reason I am abandoning Ephesians 2:10 as a standalone favorite is that it ignores important context. Immediately preceding it are Ephesians 2:8-9: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. That might be the favorite of a person whose personal theological bias favors the “saved by grace don’t have to do anything” position while my former choice seems to favor “works righteousness,” the idea that we can work our way to eternal salvation.  But these verses taken together, seem to destroy both extreme positions. Apparently, grace and works are opposite sides of the same coin. So, when I chose one as my favorite, I really should have preserved some context and kept the two together. Or I could have chosen James 2:17: So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Here is another context issue. A popular verse and good candidate for favoritism is Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (KJV) Those words, yanked out of context, are so affirming that, in a popular culture that treasures affirmations, we may easily forget that they are the words of St. Paul, a man who, when guilty of persecuting the Body of Christ, had been struck blind on the road to Damascus, “caught up to the third heaven,” and assigned the task, by Jesus, of taking the Gospel to the Gentiles. He had followed that charge, suffering much along the way, even some unidentified “thorn in the flesh” which, in spite of Paul begging three times for relief, the Lord had not removed. I think it is safe to say that I ignore context if I stretch the meaning of that verse to support shooting par golf, picking a stock that becomes a “ten-bagger,” running an eight minute mile at age 72, or remembering the Hebrew and Greek I worked so hard for at the seminary. I clearly cannot do all things.  As for context in this particular case, St. Paul seems to have been thanking the Philippians for some support they had provided him and telling them not to worry because God was giving him the strength, not to eliminate, but to survive, even with suffering, whatever problems came his way. I should have such faith and patience!

Still, in spite of all these issues that complicate favorite verse selection, I don’t want to come across as a Grinch, saying I just don’t have one, nor do I want to preach a crowd-clearing, sleep-inducing sermon such as in these preceding paragraphs. I believe I have a new choice that is consistent with Catholic teaching about Sacred Scripture, “All Sacred Scripture is but one book, and this one book is Christ, because all divine Scripture speaks of Christ, and all divine Scripture is fulfilled in Christ.” 

My new choice is a verse of worship and adoration of the Triune God who has demonstrated his grace and mercy and steadfast love (That’s a hint.) through Jesus Christ. It is all about God and does not contain any first person pronouns. Its key words are repeated several times in slightly different arrangements in Sacred Scripture, and it expresses a central theme that runs throughout. And the proof of it is affirmed in Jesus’s “True Vine” discourse:  John 15:13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.

Psalm 145:8 seems to say it all: The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

That is my choice, and I’m sticking to it…at least until I learn more.

By the way, here are the other expressions of the same idea:
  • Exodus 34:6-7 The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation." 
  • Numbers 14:18  The LORD is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.' 
  • Nehemiah 9:17  But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them. 
  • Psalm 86:5 for you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you. 
  • Psalm 86:15 but you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. 
  • Psalm 103:8 The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 
  • Psalm 145:8 The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 
  • Joel 2:13  Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. 
  • Jonah 4:2 for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

And this from the Gospel of John about God’s demonstration of His grace, mercy, and love: John 15:13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.