September 23, 2005

Liberal Biblical Exegetes

I had a couple of ponderous posts that I was thinking of writing but I laid down until they went away.

One of them was to ask why progressives are more likely to emphasize biblical criticism, in the form of "we don't know if Jesus was really born in Bethlehem" or "we think the early gospel writers gilded the lily on this ----".

Obviously conservatives don't ignore the historical-critical method, nor does the institutional Church. I'm reading "A History of Apologetics" by Cardinal Avery Dulles, no liberal he, and he presents the questions about biblical accounts without making an assertion of their merit. But he doesn't emphasize it, and I'd suggest that writing a semi-scholarly book is different from giving a Sunday sermon.

One could say progressives simply want to get at the truth. Surely curiosity is a powerful force. And it's probably good to be inoculated to biblical criticism so that when you encounter it in the marketplace, in the form of say, a Time or Newsweek, you won't be shocked and appalled or have your faith unduly tried. But some seem to take delight in it, and it's usually on the liberal side of the ledger. My cynical side wants to ask, "what's in it for them?".

For example, I wonder sometimes why a liberal columnist in our diocesan paper, as well as the priest at my parent's parish, so relish planting doubts about the accuracy of the biblical accounts. What is in it for them? Well, if the bible is not consistently accurate then that makes their variant of Cafeteria Catholicism arguably more attractive. If we cannot trust the gospel writers, then we can pick and choose what rings true for us in the gospels. Or at the very least this sort of criticism seems to discredit those who wrote these accounts, and by discrediting the early Church, they discredit the current Church. I've felt this myself for when I was young I had zero interest in the early church, zero interest in the Book of Acts, or what the apostles did after Jesus ascended. The credible part was what Jesus said and did (and at that time I trusted the gospel writers implicitly, not recognizing that I was viewing Jesus through their mediation).

This isn't something new. Hagiographies of saints were challenged early and often by Protestant reformers who were offended by such tall tale-telling. And there was perhaps some thinking that it's okay to advertise a falsehood in service of a truth. Decades ago, in order to protect the faith of their flock, some priests insisted that Moses wrote all of the Pentateuch: So often it's the simple childlike faith of the flock versus the need for scholars to know what really happened.

I've heard it said that the difference between the moderns and our distant ancestors is that they were interested in the question, "is it true?" and we ask "did it really happen that way"? There ought be little difference between the two since the Jesus of history and the Jesus of Faith is the same. If one accepts one miracle, one must accept them all, because it's no less awesome to say He healed someone blind since birth than that He was born of a virgin, or that he was Resurrected.

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