Archive for the ‘Scripture’ Category

Recently, I have been reading Paul Badde’s The Face of God. It’s a fascinating introduction to the Veil of Manoppello, an image of Jesus which seems to have a miraculous origin; in fact, it comes from the same source as the Shroud of Turin. You can read the book for yourself, but I wish to mention just one thing, which Badde quotes, about miracles, and which is precisely the most fundamental issue.

On page 307, we find an exchange between Harnack and Schlatter. Harnack, all full of the nicey-nice of the unbeliever says that they are really in agreement about everything except the small matter of miracles. Schlatter takes fire:

“No, we are divided on the question of God, for what is at stake in the question of miracles is in fact whether God is God or merely a part of the realm of subjectivity.”

That is exactly the point of miracles: that God has a personal initiative in the world and is not just the niceness at the core of (some) things. He is not just our best ideas, our highest ideals, our final hope. He isn’t just within us, though religious people do take their interior life seriously. God is always more than our interior life, much more. When the psychologists get through with saying that our whole interior life is just a construct, the religious people are not even fazed: what elements go into the weaving of the interior life is of no more significance than that our exterior life is partly made of jelly beans. God is still out there with initiatives, and we are still ourselves within, sharing his personal life through our own initiatives. We have an interior life that is real, and God comes to meet us as a real person – even with a face!

How gentle!

But also, going on to distinguish miracles from magic, notice how gentle the miracles are. Here is this face in Manoppello, as simple a face as ever there was, and it’s printed on a pretty amazing piece of cloth, but you don’t see right away that the fabric is amazing; you have to talk to a byssus-weaver to get it. So how many of us hang around chatting with byssus weavers?

None of us, that’s how many. There’s only one such artist left in all the wide world, diving in the sea to harvest anchor silk from the mussels and then taking it home to clean, treat, and weave it, a few grams at a time.

When you have magicians, all the energy is disorderly; it’s about power and display and selfishness. Disney has it. But miracles are about mercy, and if they disrupt anything at all, the scale is so small it cannot be measured.

In Cana, for example, 120 gallons of wine. OK, that’s a lot, but were there fireworks? No, and most of wine is water anyway. He did it without being noticed, and we know that because the steward didn’t even know where the wine was from.

The Church has a very careful way of looking at miracles as personal words of God. Nobody gets canonized just for a miracle, but when all the best judgments have been made about a person’s holiness and courage, the last word is with God: a miracle is requested as a sign of his initiative in desiring that we honor this person as his representative. And the miracle requested is not lightning and thunder; mostly it’s just a healing of somebody no one ever heard of, so they can go on with a life that most people will never notice.

But God notices, and so do their friends, and the friends also notice that God is our Father and friend. That’s the point.

And in Manopello, the miracle is the gentle miracle of an apparently simple face somehow imprinted in an incredibly fine sample of byssus silk. You can pass it by — or you can be captivated by it.

This image is the true image or "vera icon" of Jesus from his tomb, at the moment of the resurrection.


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I have defined miracles, [Jan 9, 2011] but now I would like to talk about them, not as events in themselves, but from the perspective of the believer. In particular, let us think about what belief is required of the hearer compared to the belief required of the observer or of the messenger who tells us about a miracle. For example, let us consider one of the miracles from the life of Jesus, such as His making of the wine of Cana, and compare that with the miracles that the creationist has in mind for, say, the Third Day of Creation. This is the day when, says Genesis, God made the dry (actually the moist) earth and all the grasses and herbs and flowering trees that naturally grow on land.

In the case of the wine of Cana, we and St. John are on the same page and bring the same experience to the story: wine is mostly water, but water is not wine, and good wine is not made quickly even from the best of grapes. Our experience is the same as St. John’s and what he is proposing for our belief is something he must have found hard to believe, or at least most astonishing, himself. He was there, so that helped him, but he did know the unlikelihood of it, which was the precisely the same for him and for us.

But for the Third Day of Creation, the situation is quite different. What we and the author of Genesis bring to this verse of the Bible are very different. Creation itself is astonishing; in that we are the same. But, on a creationist interpretation, what are we to think of grass that must be green without the sun? You may answer that there was light on the first day, but what sort of light was that when there were no stars? Was it electromagnetic radiation like the light we know now? If so, something had to radiate it; what? If not, then was it a spiritual light, not really what we mean by light, but something analogous? And if so then how did it support the activity of chlorophyll in the leaves?

One might imagine that the grass was there but was white until the fourth day when the sun turned up. But that is not so easy, because grass cannot even grow or stand up straight without the energy that is packed up by chlorophyll in the sunshine. You could reply that God could have kept the grass in a mature state, either white or green, whichever he chose, until he made the sun. God can do anything.

Yes, God can do anything, but the question I ask the creationist is: what is being proposed for our belief? That all the green herbs and flowering plants were created in mature but bleached form and then waited for the sun of the fourth day? Or that all were created only as seeds, waiting for the fourth day to sprout? Or that they were created mature and green, but static, only reaching active stature on the fourth day?

Not that it matters, but the point is, what are we talking about? What is it that we are asked to believe? None of the problems I have listed were within the consciousness of the sacred writer. It took him no extra leap of faith to deal these logical consequences of the Genesis sequence, because he was not aware of them. God made the land and its plants: fine. In that case, what he understood himself to be proposing for our act of faith is not the same as what a creationist asks us to believe a few thousand years later. In the case of the wine, it is the same. Even in the case of the Resurrection is it the same, for the deadness of dead bodies is not a new idea; modern medicine does not change it. But for the creationist interpretation of Genesis, it is not clear what is proposed for our belief, and whatever it is, the Genesis author was not conscious of it.

Of course being able to distinguish two types of miracles does not mean one kind did not happen. God can do anything.

But the issue remains: if you cannot tell me what I am supposed to believe, then you cannot fault me for not believing it. I believe that God designed everything with infinite wisdom, and that He is fully aware of every detail of the outworking of even the most law-bound processes. Within Catholic doctrine, that suffices for the Third Day. Whether it took place over a few hundred million years, and whether a good number of animals (such as bees) were actually also created at the same time as the plants they pollinated is of no consequence.

In that interpretation, what is proposed for our belief – that our Father did it all, right to the last apple blossom – is the same for us and for the author of Genesis. Seems only fair.


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Defining creationism

Defining your terms is the first step in understanding any argument. Like any word with a history, “creationism” has been through several meanings, and is still used several ways, so let’s start with three:

  1. Creationism once meant the belief that man has a soul. Darwin’s work suggesting that man is merely a species of primate was then contrasted with the Christian faith that man is God’s special creation, specially in His image, and spiritual in his nature.
  2. Creationism later came to mean the belief that God made the world, as opposed to the idea that it is here by accident. New insights into historical geology gradually eroded the specific Biblical sense of creation over a short period of time or in the sequence offered in Genesis 1, leading to a split in how creation was viewed:
    • Creationism may mean the idea that God made the world in 6,000 or 10,000 or 12,000 years, occasionally a little more, but never billions of years, essentially on the Genesis schedule. This is sometimes called “young earth creationism.”
    • Creationism may simply mean the idea that God made the world, on whatever schedule. This is sometimes called “old earth creationism” by Christians who sympathize with the young earth creationists and want to be viewed as believers. It may also be called theological evolutionism, because these believers often retain a serious theology,  even though they see things as happening over a long period of time. However, the theology of old earth creationists is more or less ignored by secularists because it does not affect their system and more or less rejected by young-earthers as a faithless compromise.

The soul-based definition has been fairly well superseded by the issue of God’s work in the universe as a whole. The creationist with the short schedule, is universally called creationist; the creationist with the open schedule goes by various names, but since the schedule is open, he may be ignored unless other issues are involved.

What other issues?

Two principal issues cause the old-earth creationist to define himself in more detail, and put him in or out of the “creationist” i.e. young earth creationist camp: the evolution of the universe and evolution of living forms. There are sub-issues and variations, but that’s what it amounts to.

I myself usually use the term creationist to refer to someone who is a young-earth creationist, someone who more or less completely rejects the standard explanation of fossil formation and its implications, and someone who rejects the Big Bang. The old-earth creationist does not strike me as needing a name, because any serious Christian must believe God made the world, and there is thus no explicit reason for a name. As a scientist, an old-earth creationist does not need to distinguish his scientific ideas from anyone who is not a believer; and while he may want to insist to the young-earth creationist that he is a believer, I don’t notice that it matters. We’re all heretics together to the young-earthers.

Maybe I paint with too broad a brush, but that is my impression, and I have had ample opportunity to form an impression.

I have read a fair number of creationist (young-earth creationist) pieces; they share their arguments to such an extent that the material becomes repetitive, but perspectives do vary. There is a Catholic work called Creation Rediscovered. I am not impressed with either the theology or the science, but it has an imprimatur. This means that holding these ideas is not opposed to Catholic theology. My books on the subject (Creator and Creation, Genesis 1 House of the Covenant, and some other things that are more indirect) also have an imprimatur; so they are not opposed to Catholic theology either. The Church does not have a doctrinal position on the age of the universe; and it does not have a doctrinal position on whether our bodies — or the first human bodies — were derived from other primate stock.

The one issue that is very important in Catholic theology is the unity of truth: truth is one, and there is no proposition that is true in science and false in doctrine or the reverse. No compromise here.

In the light of this definition, I will follow up to explain why I see some curricula as creationist and why I view this as a weakness.

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On pages 76-7 of his “Is There a Universe” Jaki has this interesting passage:

It should be observed, parenthetically, that Munitz [whose work on cosmology he has been critiquing for a few pages] is wrong in thinking that the idea of a cosmos “as an ordered totality that binds all phenomena in a universal scheme and whose details are accessible to patient rational enquiry” is a bequest of the Greeks of old to human civilization. For all Greek philosophers, and notably for the greatest – Plato and Aristotle – among them, the universe was partly ordered, partly disordered. Emphatic insistence on the full orderliness of the universe first appears only centuries later, in the anti-Arian writings of Athanasius. It was he who claimed that a fully ordered universe could alone issue from the creative power of a fully divine, and therefore infinitely rational, Logos.

It’s just an unavoidable fact that the idea of a Creator-God who is all-powerful is linked to the idea of a universe in which all parts are related, and that this in turn is linked back to the idea of God who is all-wise. When the idea of God is not the idea of an all-powerful One, then the universe is not conceived to be a genuine and meaningful totality. If God is not real or is irrational, then so is the universe not quite real or not quite rational – therefore not fully subject to rational study. No matter what anyone says about an accidental and survivalist evolution of the universe, it always turns out that this irrational concept is linked to an empty concept of God and then also to an empty concept of his children, a denial of human dignity.

So it was a saint fighting a heresy about the nature of Jesus who clearly saw that when St. John said, “In the beginning was the Word… and all things were made through Him” he thereby laid the foundation for a certainty that the entire universe is rational. It’s hard to understand, but it’s rational. It’s big, but it’s ordered throughout.

The universe, simply the totality of material reality, is such an overwhelming idea that people who don’t habituate themselves to the vast by thinking about God simply can’t face up to it. They look as far as they can, and then they say that beyond that horizon is the void, if not of material reality, of ordered material reality.

Beyond my vision, chaos. How silly is that?

Jaki quotes Bertrand Russell as saying that the idea of the universe was “a mere relic of pre-Copernican astronomy.” In other words, Russell was saying that there could be no possible way of conceiving of a genuine totality, and everyone who thought there was had been out of date since the mid-16th century. Copernicus – and presumably Bruno – had made nonsense of totality.

Russell said this in 1917, just as Einstein was offering a coherent definition of space. In other words, he said it just at the moment when it was shown to be certainly wrong. And way back at the beginning of rational cosmology, it was a saint and a theologian who had the ability to see out to the edges of the universe and affirm its rationality.

There is a universe, Bert.

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This past Sunday was the feast of the Three Kings which used to land predictably on January 6th, not a day when everyone went to Church, but the 12th day of Christmas, marking the end of the Christmas celebration. As I listened to the readings, I felt a certain awe about the astronomy of it. Not but that all the stars of all nights belong to God, as I have already said, but because if it really is true that Jesus was born on September 11 of 3 BC, on which evening the Sun shone in the constellation Virgo with the crescent Moon gleaming by its feet, then I must acknowledge that God orders the universe in even more minute detail than I had ever imagined. I have read Revelations 12:1-3 hundreds of times; I know of various interpretations, and I know that truth always has many levels of contact and meaning. Certainly Mary is the Virgin clothed with the Sun, and our miraculous Image of Guadalupe is not the only one with the crescent Moon at her feet. But that is not all.

Wait; I am speaking in riddles. Let me explain.

The zodiac

The constellations are imaginary pictures drawn around the natural, but purely visual, groupings of the stars. As the year goes by, these constellations rise and set with the seasons, and at a given time of each year, the sun stands directly between us and one or another of these twelve. Astrologers, imagining that the stars are fixed in the sky and that the Sun moves through them as it goes round the earth, will say that the Sun sits within one of the constellations.

Not every constellation lies in the path of the sun, however, even its imaginary path. The Big Dipper, for example, is always so far in the northern sky that the path of the sun never passes near its stars. The constellations that lie “in the path of the Sun” are called the zodiac – and many of them are animals of the celestial zoo – a lion, a crab, and so forth, but also the twin boys Castor and Pollux, Virgo the virgin, and so forth.

So in September, the Sun passes through the constellation Virgo.

The Moon also crosses the sky in the same basic path as the Sun’s because it orbits the earth in such a way as to pass through the zodiac; the Moon therefore appears from night to night with different parts of the zodiac in its background. In September, when the Sun is “in” Virgo, the Moon must also be in Virgo part of the time, for the New Moon is always “near” the Sun in the sky. All this is ordinary astronomy; nothing unusual.

Revelations 12:1-3

Now, Rev 12:1-3 says that “a great sign appeared in the heavens, a woman clothed with the sun and the Moon at her feet and on her head was a crown of 12 stars.” This is John’s vision. It never crossed my mind that it might be an astronomical reference to the sky on the night of the birth of Jesus. For one thing, I assumed that every culture had its own names for the constellations, and that Virgo would not be known to St. John anyway.

But Greek and Hebrew culture did intersect, and Virgo was a virgin constellation in both cultures. Therefore it could be that Rev 12:1-3 is actually a description of the starry sky on a particular date.

Indeed, on the 11th day of September in 3 BC, the Sun lay within Virgo, as if illumining the virgin from within, and at her feet, the crescent Moon shone briefly before setting. Furthermore, in 3 BC, September 11 was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year’s Day that celebrates the creation of the world and the recreation of life after the flood of Noah.

As we have already indicated, it lies within the scriptural time frame for the birth of Jesus, and, as a birthdate for Jesus, it provides an awesome glimpse into the detail and humor of God’s handiwork. It is none of the dates so eagerly offered for his birth by merely superstitious astrologers, but it is its own date, chosen from the creation of the universe as the perfect moment for the birth of Jesus and symbolically recorded in the vision of St. John.

Each detail comes from the hand of God as if it were the main story – no by-products, no mere embellishments; each thing created in its own unexpected perfection. Such were my thoughts for this feast, leading to a deepened sense of providence.

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When Jesus was born

Before we say any more about the stars, let me share with you a very interesting argument for the birthdate of Jesus. This is based on an article by Susan Carroll, which you can easily find online, and which is, in turn, based on a book by Ernest Martin – whose entire book is posted online. I share it because my intent in discussing the star of Bethlehem is to put it into in a right context with theology and astronomy, and I don’t want the arguments from astrology to overwhelm the topic.

Scripture says nothing about Jesus birthdate, but it does say that he was conceived six months after John the Baptist, and about St. John’s date of conception, we have the clue of his father’s priestly duties. These duties arose twice a year in a cycle which began with the springtime month of Nisan, which floated a bit (the Jewish calendar was not exactly a math exercise) but was something like the end of March; then Zachariah’s turn came eight weeks into the year (because he was the division of Abijah — Luke 1:5); therefore in June. Nine months later, John was born in March and then Jesus was born six months later. Or possibly John was conceived during Zachariah’s second season of duty, putting the birth of Jesus six months later…?

Which time was it, and what year? Can we know?

Well, these questions are related, because the one clue we do have about the birth of Jesus is that there was a census “of the whole world” [i.e. the whole Roman world] going on when he was born. And we do know when Rome held its census: every five years, including 8 BC and 3 BC. The first is too early. The second has long been left out of consideration because it was thought that Herod had died in 4 BC and that would make 3 BC too late for him to be making trouble about the visit of the magi. So everything was unmanageably tangled and there seemed to be no way to sort things out consistently.

The death of Herod is given by the famous historian Josephus, however, and while most copies of his work record Herod’s death as taking place in 4 BC, at least some older copies record it as taking place in 1 BC. It may be that this is a simple copying error and that Herod’s death was in 1 BC. Interestingly, one of the principal clues for Herod’s death date is itself astronomical because the same Jewish historian (Josephus) says there was a lunar eclipse right after his death. That would be memorable, and we can easily calculate the dates of eclipses: there was a total eclipse on January 10 of 1 BC. There was also a partial eclipse in 4 BC, but it does not satisfy various other elements of Josephus’ description.

So it is reasonable, after all, to look at 3 BC, the year of the census, for the birth of Jesus, and now it’s easy. John was born in March, as I said, and Jesus in September. John was not born at the later time of the year (based on Zacharias’ second tour of duty) because that would put Jesus’ birth into March of 2 BC, which is not the year of the census.

Furthermore, we conclude that the birth of Jesus would have been early or middle September, because in late September, there was the big feast of Tabernacles, and that would have brought new crowds to the environs of Jerusalem, including Bethlehem. Since scripture says that Bethlehem was crowded because of the census, not because of the feast, the birth must have been at a different time from the week-long feast that started September 26 and ended October 3.

Notice that this is not an astrological argument. It is scriptural and historical. It does not give a specific date, but it yields a month and a year with some clarity. Other sources have come to more specific dates, but these are astrological in nature, and, left to themselves, the astrologers have been quite divided in their conclusions.

Under all the Stars

Our Father made all the stars in the sky, and it wheels around every 24 hours so that all the stars lie on the meridian above us during some part of each day. We (including Jesus) live and die under all of them. Should Jesus care under which ones he was born? I think not.

Yet it does seem that God used the stars to bring one group of men to the home of his early childhood. And while the Jews were firm in their monotheism and never worshipped things in the sky, Genesis 1 does say that the stars were given “as signs to mark seasons and days and years,” so that some things might be marked in this way. What is essential is that we believe in our freedom, in the freedom of God Himself, (He is not governed by the stars), and in the freedom of Mary who agreed to her vocation. She could have said no. Our destiny is not in our stars but in the meeting between our hearts and the heart of God, under all the beautiful stars that shine.

That said, would you find it charming to discover that December 25 had some significance in this whole story?

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