Review: Deeper Than Words: Living the Apostles' Creed, by Brother David Steindl-Rast

There is something a bit jarring about seeing the words “Apostles’ Creed” and “Foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama” printed on the cover of a book, but the name of the author reassures us that somehow it will end up making a great deal of sense.

That’s because the author is Brother David Steindl-Rast, an Austrian-born Benedictine monk, who is one of the great teachers in our Church. He has been a leading figure in the Church’s dialog with Buddhism, a tradition for which he has developed considerable sympathies. He describes in the introduction how he came to write this book at the urging of the Dalai Lama, and why he chose the Apostles’ Creed, of all things:

In interreligious dialogue we tend to quote from our respective traditions those passages that the others are most likely to find acceptable. But increasingly this had begun to seem a bit superficial to me. I had come to feel that for genuine agreement we would have to go deeper; we would have to test whether even the least likely texts—say, a creed—could help deepen interreligious understanding. Wars have been fought even among co-religionists over these succinct summaries of essential beliefs. A creed would thus make the perfect touchstone for the possibility of interreligious agreement on that deep level where it matters. That's why I chose the Apostles' Creed—the oldest of the Christian creeds—and thus this book came about.

The Creed basically provides Brother David with his Table of Contents: there are twenty four chapters, each devoted to one line (or in a couple of cases, part of a line) of the Creed.

Each chapter is divided into four sections. Referring to the line in the Creed that serves as the title of the chapter, he asks, “What does this really mean?” and he offers an interpretation of the line. Then he asks, “How do we know this is so?” and explains his answer to the first question. He then asks, “Why make such a point of this?” which he answers by explaining why this matters to us today. Finally, he ends each chapter with his personal reflections.

There wasn’t a single chapter in this book that I didn’t find deeply thought provoking. Brother David takes the familiar words of the Creed—words that for many people have become stale and lifeless, if the droning recitation one hears in Church is any indication—and reveals unfamiliar depths of meaning, reading the Creed as a faith proclamation in poetry, rather than a prosaic checklist of beliefs.

His non-literal interpretation of the Creed will probably not endear him to the mythic membership crowd. Anyone looking for a reflection on a literal virgin birth or ascension into heaven will be disappointed. But even the events Brother David acknowledges as historical—suffering under Pontius Pilate, crucifixion, death and burial, etc.—are here interpreted as having a deep and enduring significance, well beyond their historical facticity.

Readers of Brother David’s previous works will not be surprised to find frequent quotations of poetry. He quotes from Gerard Manley Hopkins, Theodore Roethke, Jessica Powers, Mary Oliver, Kabir, and Patricia Campbell Carlson, among others. I often get a little impatient when writers quote poetry, but in Brother David’s work poetry is never used as mere ornamentation or for showing off.

After reading the introduction (and the foreword by the Dalai Lama) I expected there would be more frequent references to Buddhism than there actually were. But this is quite thoroughly a Christian book, in a very catholic, which is to say “all-embracing,” way. Indeed, his rather generous interpretations of the Creed’s “Holy Catholic Church” and “Communion of Saints” will leave exclusivists shaking their heads in indignation. (This is not a criticism, just an observation.)

So how, then, does Brother David further the cause of interreligious understanding? He does not do this by suggesting that the Christian beliefs expressed in the Apostles’ Creed are the same as those expressed by Buddhists or Hindus. Rather, he shows that the essential Christian message is a universal message of faith and love, of belonging and sharing, that transcends the boundary lines we draw around ourselves in the name of religion.

The great scholar of religion Huston Smith wrote of this book:

I have always felt that in endorsing a book I was honoring the book and its author. Brother David’s Deeper Than Words, however, brought a new and startling sensation: I found myself sensing that the book was honoring me by allowing me to endorse it. Never before have I felt this way about a book.
I feel much the same way. This is truly a very special book.

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Second thoughts on the new Vatican norms...

In a comment on my last post, Crystal called attention to an error I made about the penalties attached to pedophilia by priests and attempted ordinations of women.

I erred in saying that they were the same. As Crystal pointed out, though, they are not--a pedophile may face laicisation, but a woman who attempts to become ordained (or a bishop who attempts to ordain a woman) is excommunicated. There is a quite a disparity here in the severity of the punishment -- what they have in common under the new norms is that they are both now considered "grave crimes," which, as far as I can tell, doesn't mean much more than that they are now subject to the CDF.

I would still argue that, contrary to what many people are saying, the two crimes in question are not being "equated," which was the point of my previous post. But the disparity between the penalties attached to these crimes--which is unchanged under the new norms--is rather perplexing.

As far as the official theology of Rome would have it, excommunication excludes a person from the sacraments, thereby depriving them of the means of salvation -- it is sometimes described as "spiritual capital punishment," an somewhat apt description if you happen to buy into Rome's understanding of things. (Only "somewhat" because it can be reversed.)

Laicisation undoubtedly puts the offending priest in a difficult spot. After all, a priest who has been laicised for pedophilia (or some other sexual crime) is going to have a difficult time supporting himself, at least when he's not in jail. But in the context of Vatican teaching, this has to be seen as a lesser penalty than excommunication.

John L. Allen, Jr. reported a few days ago that
At a Vatican briefing...Maltese Monsignor Charles Scicluna, an official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, denied that the Vatican equates women's ordination with the sexual abuse of children. An illicit ordination, Scicluna said, is a "sacramental" crime, while abuse is a "moral" crime.
So I guess the real question is, why is a "sacramental" crime punished so much more harshly than a "moral" crime?

Rome has deeply misplaced priorities. So what else is new?



Do the new Vatican norms really equate ordaining a woman with raping a child?

This claim is being made all over the place, but unless I've misunderstood something, I have to disagree.

Before I explain why, left me first clarify that I do not agree with the exclusion of women from the priesthood. I think it's one of the most preposterous policies in a Church with more than its share of preposterous policies. Nor am I defending the inclusion of this penalty against ordaining women in the new norms. From a PR standpoint alone that was a pretty boneheaded move.

But I have to take issue with the claim that ordaining women is being "equated" with pedophilia simply because the penalty is the same in both cases.

Imagine you are the CEO of a company. It might be the policy of the company to automatically fire an employee who, say, steals company property. Firing the employee is really the severest penalty you can hand out. Now, if one employee stole a box of pens, and another employee raped, tortured, and murdered one of his coworkers, both would be fired. But the fact that the penalty is the same in both cases does not mean that both crimes are considered to be of equal gravity. The pen thief satisfied the minimal requirements for the most serious possible penalty. The rapist/torturer/murderer far exceeded the minimal requirements, but a more serious penalty simply was not available.

That, it seems to me, is true in the present situation in the new Vatican norms. The attempted ordination of a woman to the priesthood satisfies, as far as the Vatican is concerned, the minimal requirements for automatic excommunication, the most severe penalty they can hand out. Pedophilia is obviously a far greater crime. But a far greater penalty is not available.

Again, I'm not defending the policy of excommunicating people involved in attempts to ordain women. But to say that it is being equated with pedophilia simply because the penalty is the same in both instances is simply not the case.



Review: A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren

I picked up this book with some ambivalence. When I've read Brian McLaren's work in the past, I could tell that he was a progressive thinker with a deep understanding of why and where the Christian religion needs to change, but I could never shake the suspicion that he was holding something back. This was understandable--he writes, I think, for a largely Evangelical audience, so it is not surprising that he would sugarcoat his more progressive ideas to make them palatable to his not-particularly-progressive audience. But I'm not a part of that audience, and I didn't think I had much to learn from him.

The reviews for this book persuaded me to give it a shot, and I'm glad I did, because it's quite good. McLaren seems no longer to be restraining himself and has put forth an unabashedly progressive vision for a new kind of Christianity. For the progressive Christian reader he covers a lot of familiar ground, but he does so with arguments and examples that are lucid and, for me anyway, quite novel.

The larger part of the book deals with the "Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith." (A less optimistic person would describe them as "Ten Contentious Issues That Are Dividing the Church.")

The first concerns the "overarching story line of the Bible," which McLaren argues is quite different from the Creation/Fall/Redemption narrative most Christians have been taught, explicitly or not. He describes the latter as a "six-line narrative," beginning with perfection in the Garden of Eden, then "the Fall" into original sin, and then a period of condemnation. Following this is the coming of Christ, where the path splits in two directions: salvation and heaven for some, damnation and hell (understood as "eternal conscious torment") for others.

McLaren notes that this story can lead to an understanding of the meaning of our earthly existence as simply a process of "soul-sorting," where the purpose of our lives is to "deliver souls into their appropriate eternal bin." He also notes that a lot of people have been questioning this storyline, and suggesting ways in which it needs to be tweaked, but too few have actually questioned if this story "is morally believable" or "whether it can be found in the Bible itself." (He argues that it's not and that it can't.)

This is mostly good stuff, and I agree that understanding our existence this way is a gross distortion of the message of Jesus. Unfortunately, McLaren stumbles a bit when he blames it on the "Greco-Romanization" of the Church, which he understands as the appropriation by the Church of the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. This is the weakest part of the book, as McLaren misrepresents both of those philosophers and the ways they influenced Christian theology. He does this as part of the creation of a "Greco-Roman" bogeyman, complete with its own god, "Theos," against which he can juxtapose the more authentic and more Jewish narrative he wants to promote. (He would do well to follow the advice of Albert Einstein: "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.") In fairness to McLaren, he does acknowledge later on that it is too simple to "blame all our problems on the the Greco-Roman captivity of the biblical narrative." But that doesn't solve the problem of what he wrote earlier, which will turn off most people who actually know something about Greek philosophy.

McLaren finds another source of the Church's ills is the tendency to read the Bible as if it was a legal constitution that is univocal and internally consistent, instead of seeing it as a community library that contains a number of often dissonant voices and preserves the "vigorous internal debate around key questions that were precious to the theological culture in which it was produced." McLaren describes a number of ways the constitutional approach to the Bible has been used to justify evils like slavery and to condemn advances in science. Many Christians like to imagine that such abuses belong exclusively to the past, but McLaren disagrees, pointing to the widespread hostility toward homosexuals by those who read the Bible constitutionally as an example.

For many progressive Christians, a lot of what McLaren writes will sound familiar: Jesus' message about the "kingdom of God," commonly (and erroneously) understood as pertaining exclusively or at least primarily to the afterlife, is much more about transformation in this life; he points out that Jesus's message was not about converting from one religion to another, and this has implications for how Christians should relate to people of other faiths. Those familiar with the thought of Ken Wilber will see his influence in the last part of the book.

None of this is earth-shattering, but McLaren articulates it very clearly and has a knack for teasing out the perverse implications of some common Christian beliefs, often in ways I had never thought of. At the same time, he recognises that this new kind of Christianity isn't for everyone, and I disagree with his critics who claim that he is disrespectful or condescending towards those who disagree with him. On the contrary, he is unfailingly nice, which is probably why so many of his critics have labeled him a "wolf in sheep's clothing."

But McLaren is not a wolf, and he's not pretending to be a sheep. He's trying to show people that they don't need to be sheep, either. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in progressive Christianity, and I think this would be a great book to give to someone who is beginning to grow out of their conventional faith.

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