One of the pages I follow on Facebook is the one linked to the Ignatian Spirituality website. It is incredibly useful, with a wide range of really good resources. However a few days ago, on my news feed an article popped up that made me sigh.
Entitled “A faith that disturbs,” I expected something that maybe dealt with what happens when we find our faith unsettling. What I got was, in my opinion, a tired reiterating of liberal, individualistic excuses. It was very disappointing, more so because it is written by someone who has written genuinely interesting and helpful blogs before. Maybe I have misunderstood.
The blogger begins by describing how Church structure and roles have changed over the centuries. Then he throws in the fact that the two natures of Christ weren’t finally set down until 451 at the Council of Chalcedon. These are both there to set up the idea that change just happens all the time in the Church. However the nature of a Bishop’s job and the articles of faith are two very different things. Many Church councils arose out of a need to settle issues when difficulties arose. It does not mean that the conclusions reached are new or display a divergence or a complete re-interpretation of what went before. They are a sign of the Church setting out what has been revealed.
Having set out this case for change, the blogger then brings out that old liberal chestnut “The Jesus of History’ versus “The Jesus of Faith.” The idea is this. There was a man named Jesus who walk around the Holy Land in the first Century, teaching people. Then, later on the apostles and later writers added bits and took bits away, creating a Jesus who sums up their ideas about faith. The argument can lead to a sort of existentialism. We can’t know the full truth about Jesus but as the article puts it “The Jesus of our faith and our tradition offers us much in the way of truth.”
The problem with this argument is that our faith stands or falls on the person of Christ. If he wasn’t who he said he was in the Gospels then everything comes tumbling down. Doctrines of Salvation and the Trinity become inventions. Even the words of Jesus lose validity. The core of our faith dies.
Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) in his first Jesus of Nazareth book opens with explaining the problem. He says, that in certain types of theological study, since the 1950s
“[t]he gap between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of Faith” grew wider and the two visibly fell apart. But what can faith in Jesus as the Christ possibly mean, in Jesus as the Son of the living God, if the man Jesus was so completely different from the picture that the Evangelists painted of him and that the Church, on the evidence of the gospels, takes as the basis of her preaching?”
Pope Benedict goes on to say that various versions of Jesus were offered vary widely:
“…at one end of the spectrum, Jesus was the anti-Roman revolutionary working- though finally failing- to overthrow the ruling powers; at the other end, he was a meek moral teacher who approves everything and unaccountably comes to grief. If you read a number of these reconstructions one after the other, you see at once that far from uncovering an icon that has been obscured over time, they are much more like photographs of their authors and the ideals they hold. Since then there has been growing skepticism about these portrayals of Jesus, but the figure of Jesus himself has for that very reason receded even further into the distance.”
By splitting the historical figure from what we believe about Jesus it is easy to paint him in our own image, to make him what we want him to be.
Undoubtedly there was editing that went on in relation to the Gospels. Three years of ministry gives too much material to include it all. Dei Verbum, the document on Scripture from Vatican II explains the process
“The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus. For their intention in writing was that either from their own memory and recollections, or from the witness of those who “themselves from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word” we might know “the truth” concerning those matters about which we have been instructed (see Luke 1:2-4).”
Of course there is a connection between what we find in the Gospels and the tradition and teaching of the Church. What tradition is not, is something that offers us a certain amount of ‘Truth’ (for any given definition of truth). It is far more dynamic than that. Dei Verbum again:
” Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known.”
There are times when something in Scripture or in the teachings of the Church is challenging to us as individuals. It might disturb or upset us. In fact, the Gospels are full of the challenge that Jesus issued to people he met: The rich young man, Zaccheus, all of the disciples and the Samaritan woman at the well are just a few of them. What is key is what those individuals did with that challenge. If we choose to manipulate scripture or the history of the Church so that we can find our own, personal version of the “Truth” we paint Jesus in our own image. However if we chose to encounter the Truth and tackle what it reveals about ourselves then it has the power to transform us. The transformation comes because, rather than expecting God to dance to our tune, we might begin to learn his steps. This process is always uncomfortable and disturbing at times because it is a struggle with ourselves. It is not a disturbance I like but it is better than any version of the Truth I might come up with.