Here are my answers to some questions about Christianity in America as our calendar celebrates the final and Fourth Sunday of Advent, the last Sunday before Christmas on Friday, December 25. Our coverage of school news as the calendar year comes to a close will resume shortly, culminating in our annual Top 11 School News Stories of 2020, but for now, I take a moment of personal reflection in a Q and A format.
Today’s reading from the Gospel suggests that Mary, Jesus’s mother, was impregnated not by a man but by the Holy Spirit: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” Do you believe in the virgin birth?
Perhaps the details were written by someone who didn’t fully understand biology, but as a scientist, I certainly don’t believe a woman can get pregnant except by a man. At the same time, many of those details are incidental to my reading of the story, and other details in the story are more critical to my faith, such as the child being called holy.
I’m not even sure I believe Jesus was actually born in a manger, but again, this is a detail that is used to convey a central message of the story. And it supports the story’s theme quite well, if I were to evaluate it as literature. It was an extraordinary birth, metaphorically represented by Mary being a virgin, in a manger. The lowliness of the manger is just a metaphor in this story for Jesus not being born of earthly kings or into earthly wealth, but into a different sort of kingdom altogether.
Today’s first reading from 2nd Samuel suggests that while King David lives in a nice house, the dwelling that houses the “ark of God” is nothing but a tent. David then promises to build a temple for the Lord, but this idea gets shot down. “The Lord doesn’t need a great temple,” a prophet tells David. Does this foretell the coming of Christ?
It’s convenient that this question comes after the previous one, because this is what I’m talking about. Earthly kings have wealth, represented metaphorically in the story by King David’s “house of cedar,” but God has no need of these trappings. David promises to build a temple for God, the offer of which is firmly rejected, so of course this passage foretells the humble coming of Christ, even though Solomon instead of David later builds a temple for God.
The Bible contains more than 2000 verses that deal with the poor and the oppressed and only a few that deal with the wealthy and politically powerful. And in most of those, prophets and Jesus himself don’t look with great favor on earthly power or wealth. If you take all of those passages out of the Bible, I suppose you can come up with a version that falls into line with what White supremacist Republicans think the Bible says. But it is ultimately a Bible that has to be full of holes, because the passages dealing with the poor and oppressed are far more numerous.
Then why does the same Bible you read seem to lead others to cut funds for environmental programs, for scientific research, and for welfare programs?
It would be quite difficult, I think, to follow every single verse in the Bible. We might not like that life very much. Some people are just more selective than others, or they choose to follow, or at least emphasize, different verses.
I cannot speak for others’ interpretation of scripture, but I can say, as an American and an educator, one of my very favorite passages is in the eighth chapter of John’s Gospel, where Jesus forgives a woman who was accused of adultery. In all the Bible, this is the second and final instance of God (if you believe Jesus is God, as I do) writing. Now, we don’t know what he wrote, as we did the other time when God wrote the Ten Commandments, but we do know the effect: forgiveness. The first time God wrote, he gave us the law, and the only other time God wrote something, he taught us to forgive.
I will not deny that policies and government actions have brought great harm to our morality, our planet’s resources, and our scientific advancement. But I also am very willing to forgive what has happened in the past in the interest of doing what is right, best, and moral now.
The teachings of Jesus have inspired my life, and I cannot undo the past. I can only work to make things better in the future and hope that writing and teaching, somehow, will do that.
Do you struggle with other liberal or progressive thinkers who are not as religious as you are?
Yeah, but I wouldn’t call it persecution or anything like that. I would say the bigger, and less tolerant, objection comes from people who think they are more religious than I am. For example, I heard a sermon given by a Catholic priest who actually said, during his homily, from the pulpit of our Lord’s Church, that the Democratic Party was the “party of death.”
Now, I understand that many priests have the intellectual capacity of a child, as evidenced by the sex abuse scandal a few years back, but for crying out loud, idiots like this are not qualified to preach His Holy Gospel. I certainly hope this priest is some sort of rogue and wasn’t authorized by the Magisterium of His Holy Church to engage in this sort of unproductive name-calling. Better to listen to the words of His Holiness Pope Francis, who wrote recently about the many people who dedicate their lives to serving others, whether through science, conservation, nursing, etc.:
This theme of helping others has stayed with me these past months. In lockdown I’ve often gone in prayer to those who sought all means to save the lives of others. So many of the nurses, doctors and caregivers paid that price of love, together with priests, and religious and ordinary people whose vocations were service. We return their love by grieving for them and honoring them.
Whether or not they were conscious of it, their choice testified to a belief: that it is better to live a shorter life serving others than a longer one resisting that call. That’s why, in many countries, people stood at their windows or on their doorsteps to applaud them in gratitude and awe. They are the saints next door, who have awakened something important in our hearts, making credible once more what we desire to instill by our preaching.
They are the antibodies to the virus of indifference. They remind us that our lives are a gift and we grow by giving of ourselves, not preserving ourselves but losing ourselves in service.
This is a man who speaks from a Gospel that has built schools to educate our children, that has erected hospitals to heal the sick, that has visited prisons to comfort the oppressed, that has fed the hungry, clothed the poor, and given shelter to the homeless.
In what ways has Christianity contributed to the advancement of the United States?
In addition to the ways mentioned in my last paragraph above, I believe the Christian faith of many judges and justices has led them to the dilemma of various moral questions. Their intellect, then, has led them to dig for answers, often in places where no answers could be found, and to seek whatever solutions their interpretation of our laws can yield to the many injustices and harmful actions that trouble us.
And I would be remiss not to mention that it was President George W Bush’s strong faith that led him to fight AIDS in Africa, a campaign that is now credited with saving 20 million lives. True, many non-Christians contributed greatly as well, but that’s kind of the point:
It really doesn’t matter which story you believe in, but if we all can find common ground, the results can be very positive. Christians take part, perhaps, because they believe they are glorifying God; non-Christians do it for other reasons or maybe to glorify a different God. But it’s really the same God in a sense. The “why” or the precise metaphors used in telling the story don’t matter as much to me as the effect.
A church that builds schools, hospitals, homeless shelters, food banks, and so on, is just as good as a government, even though their reasons or driving force may be very different.
What do you think Jesus would say about the Black Lives Matter movement?
In addition to Mr Bush, Martin Luther King Jr was a Christian who championed equality in the US. I think Jesus would be pleased that people of all walks in life are demanding equality and a reduction of bigotry driven by racism. I do not think he would be very comfortable with some of the methods used to make police forces and governmental agencies aware of these demands. Here is what Jesus said, pretty much right after he said “peacemakers” were “children of God”:
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
That is, while violence seems repugnant to God’s Word, there’s nothing to be gained by getting along with only your own (kind of) people. Even people without a moral sense do that. Better to look with prayer and love on all people and hope for a better future for all.
If you are a Christian, what questions do you have of other Christians or people of different faiths? In this inquiry, “readings” refers to the text from the Bible read in most Roman Catholic churches in the US, according to the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States, second typical edition, Copyright © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970, Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.