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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Thomas Aquinas

My fellow friar, Fr. Jim Wheeler, has put a sign in our yard promoting “Catholic Radio.”

When I listen to the local Catholic radio station occasionally, I notice that it is sponsored by EWTN, Mother Angelica’s organization. Some of the speakers I have heard have an attitude that I would describe as “triumphalist apologetics.” They speak as people who know the answers, and are proud that they do not have to take a back seat to anybody intellectually. They have Thomas Aquinas.

This is unfortunate. Their attitude is not conducive to a real dialogue with people who might not agree with them.

Their attitude can be improved, but their use of Thomas Aquinas bothers me.

Part of the reason that Thomas bothers me is that he was a member of the Dominican Order, and I am a member of the Franciscan Order, and the two Orders have traditionally been rivals intellectually. Sixty years ago, when I was studying philosophy in our Cleveland seminary, my instructors based three years of course work on the Franciscans John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. In our last semester we took one course in Thomistic thought. True, Pope Leo XIII said, back in 1897, that Thomas should be the basis of all Catholic thought. My Franciscan forebears, operating out of centuries of Scotus, couldn’t do that. Pope Leo’s infallibility did not extend that far.

But Thomas bothers me also because he and Scotus and Ockham are all thinkers from the middle ages, and there are centuries of philosophical development between them and us. After I was ordained I was told to get a degree in sociology, which I did, and I taught that subject for 35 years. But I was a close friend of a friar-philosopher here in Quincy, Fr. John Joe Lakers, who wrote a lot of material about the drawbacks of medieval models in our time.

“JJ” studied at Oxford, and got a background in the philosophy of language. In later years he got interested in “postmodernism.”

I have seen the term “postmodern” used in Catholic publications as a stick to beat other thinkers over the head with. It’s as though you just have to use the word “postmodern” and you think “stupid,” if not downright evil.

The postmodernists are accused of saying things like “there is no such thing as truth.” Some of them probably did say that, because people who call themselves postmodern sometimes liked to startle their readers into original thinking. But what the postmodernists were really saying was “any time someone claims to be speaking the truth, look out, because they are hiding a desire to control someone else.” That is not the same thing as saying there is no truth.

Postmodern thought has connections with sociological theory. One of the oldest principles in sociology is the statement by W.I. Thomas, which he wrote around 1918, “If people define a situation as real, it is real in its consequences.” If you think someone is coming at you with a knife to kill you, you are likely to defend yourself, even if the person is not in fact coming at you to kill you. This means also that two people can look at the same thing and define it differently.

Courts of law operate on this principle all the time. The prosecutor and the defendant tell different stories about an event. They may each really think their story expresses what happened. The purpose of the court is to apply the rules of evidence to the two stories and try to determine which story is closer to what really happened--to the truth.

In 1966 Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann published a book titled The Social Construction of Reality. The title tells it all. “Reality” is a story shared by a group of people.

The medieval scholastic thinkers, and Plato and Aristotle before them, thought that they could formulate a story about any event that everyone everywhere would have to accept as true. They claimed to speak from a godlike perspective, one that would see and describe reality in terms that would be true for all time and in all places. They wrote in Latin, so their stories were shaped by the Latin language. Today we know that every language causes its speakers to see events in slightly different ways.  

Aquinas and Scotus, following Plato, thought that behind the “reality” that we observe is a real reality, the world of ideas. The things we humans experience are shadows of those real realities. Those realities never change. Because they never change, we can deduce not only our understanding of the physical world and the world of plants and animals, but also the world of human moral behavior, “natural law.” Everybody knows that some behaviors are just wrong, in that world of ideas.

Ockham challenged that theory. He said that there is no world of ideas out there. What we call universal ideas are stories that we create from our experiences. We observe first, and then we generalize.

Ockham’s challenge seems to throw everything up for grabs. It makes our most cherished beliefs the result of groups of people telling the same stories about things. What happens if those people tell different stories?

Things are not totally up for grabs. We have two institutions that keep our story-telling under control--never under complete control, but control enough for us to get through life without killing each others. The two institutions are the courts, which I mentioned above, and science. Science attempts to evaluate any story we tell by using observation.

I keep using the term “story.” That term is central to the way we humans deal with reality. For example, every scientific theory is a story, a fiction. It is a story evaluated by observation. No scientific theory can be proved true for all time. One incongruous observation can demolish a theory. That doesn’t mean that science is useless or evil. We have gotten a lot of mileage out of the scientific advances of the last two or three centuries.

Scientific work has expanded from the physical universe to the human world, including the psychological and sociological realities among which we live. By trying to use Thomas Aquinas as the basis for our thinking, we shut ourselves off from the intellectual world around us. We open ourselves to isolation and ridicule. Thomas Aquinas himself was accused of heresy by the University of Paris because he was using a pagan thinker, Aristotle, to describe the world in new ways.

The Church got along for a thousand years before Thomas Aquinas. For that matter, it got along for 250 years before the Council of Nicea formulated the Nicene Creed. The early Christians took people’s experiences of Jesus and struggled to let those experiences shape their lives. Those Christians told all kinds of stories about Jesus: he was just a man, he was just God pretending to be human. Nobody had a claim on any story. Things were messy.

They are still messy. The last couple of hundred years have caused us to tell the stories of Jesus in ways that were ever told before. St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus read most of Scripture as historical truth, and they built some remarkable thought systems on that basis. Scripture is literature, stories and other literary forms told by human beings with their cultural backgrounds and biases. I still believe that God’s Spirit moves among all the messiness. Conversation requires humility and openness to changing one’s mind. If we are going to converse with the physicists and psychologists of our day, we cannot begin with the claim that we know the important truths about human life and nobody else does.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


At morning prayer yesterday morning, the breviary offered this petition: “May we seek those things which are beneficial to our brothers and sisters without counting the costs, to help them on the way to salvation.”

The word “salvation” hit me. How long has it been since I considered it important to help someone on the way to salvation? What is salvation?

Last fall I met once a week with a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor to help him spruce up his Latin. He was preparing for an exam for a doctorate. After we finished he gave me a Christmas gift: a book by a Catholic scholar named Daniel Olivier writing about Martin Luther, first published in French in 1978.

Olivier’s thesis is that Luther’s challenge to the Roman Church made an essential correction to the world that scholastic theology (think Thomas Aquinas) solidified, a world where salvation was achievable if only you got with the program. Read “Law.” I recall once describing the spirituality of my childhood: being saved in the Catholic Church was mechanical, just like fixing the furnace. The Church at Luther’s time added a productive coda: you could save your friends and relatives by purchasing indulgences for them to get them out of purgatory. (Nobody could get with the program perfectly, so everybody was bound to be in purgatory.)

Luther rejected that kind of world. Luther’s world was centered on the person of Jesus Christ. His insight was that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ made all the rest of the program superfluous, if not downright counter-productive. That’s what he meant by “faith,” as opposed to “works.” Granted that his insight got captured by all kinds of religious and secular politics and was tragically run off the rails, but the Protestant movement he inspired has greatly enriched Christianity. It has taken the Roman Church centuries to realize that, a realization finally acknowledged in the Second Vatican Council.

I add some reflections from John Joe Lakers. Scholastic theology, along with much Church thinking before and after Aquinas and continuing today, is based on a Greek philosophical paradigm, that of a structured world that can be described perfectly once and for all in some sort of synthesis, for example, Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. Lakers contrasts this paradigm with a Hebrew paradigm based on narrative, on stories, where an incomprehensible God interacts with humans in unpredictable ways. The stories never end. They are continually in progress, right up to the present.

“Salvation” is a static concept. You have it or you don’t have it. You get it by sticking with the program. You get baptized, and then you obey the rules. Grace comes from a vending machine.

A narrative is unending, always unfinished, unpredictable.

One more Lakers’ contribution: love is involvement, involvement with four characteristics: it is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, and faithful. That is the way God is involved with us. That is the shape of the story that God would like each human person to live.

Salvation is to live a story of love, with God and with other people. We love the Lord with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves, or, as Lakers often observed, as Jesus loved us.

We have moved away from a spirituality where the physical act of baptism would save a person. The Church recognizes that God surely is not condemning the four-fifths of the human race who are not baptized. Our calling is not to rush around the world baptizing people, as many religious did when they accompanied the colonizers of Africa and Asia and Latin America. Our calling is to live a story of respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement with the people around us and with God, and humbly acknowledge that God may be helping people outside the “Faith” to live lives of love without hierarchical control. We are not called to rule the world, or even to fix the world. We are called to live a story shaped by the story of Jesus, a story of love, in the midst of all the ways that we unfinished human beings live our stories.

Monday, January 8, 2018

What is beauty?

What is beauty?

A medieval "definition" of beauty that I recall from my days in philosophy is "pluchra sunt quae visa placent." "Things are beautiful when seeing them gives pleasure."

This has never satisfied me. First of all, it is not a definition. It does not say what beauty IS. It describes what happens when one sees a beautiful thing. And second, it limits itself to the sense of sight. Things we hear can be beautiful, as well as things we touch or smell or even taste (though we don't usually describe tasted things as beautiful).

So what IS beauty?

Beauty is something that is in an object outside oneself. We say "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Well, not exactly. We perceive beauty as something coming from outside ourselves. Beauty is not produced by oneself, it is given.

So the first piece of a definition of beauty is that beauty is a gift.

I like this. Beauty is a gift. When I see a beautiful sunset, or a beautiful sculpture, I am receiving a gift. A gift implies a giver. Who gives sunsets? God. The existence of beauty may be the most satisfactory "proof" for the existence of God in our day.

Beauty is a gift experienced through human senses. When I say human, I not only say that there is a giver, but that there is a receiver. If there were no humans, would there be beauty?

But lots of things are experienced through human senses, and not all of them are beautiful. What makes a beautiful experience beautiful?

Hormones. Something happens to my hormones when I experience something beautiful. The medieval definition uses the word placent. It give pleasure. Pleasure is a hormonal thing. I don't know enough about hormones to say which hormones are operating--I let that up to the biologists. I just know that there are hormones involved, and that the hormones give delight.

So, my definition: beauty is a delight-producing gift to human senses.

We spend money on beauty.

I drive along Interstate 88 approaching Chicago. I pass remarkable buildings, obviously designed by professional architects, and the buildings are surrounded by professionally designed landscapes. Corporations spend millions to make their headquarters look beautiful, Why? They want people to perceive the corporation as a giver of beauty. If the corporation gives beauty, people will assume it will also give other good things.

Look at what people spend on the architecture of their homes. I drive through wealthy neighborhoods and marvel at how important the people living there must think beauty is. Then I wonder how often the people living in those homes are able to enjoy the beauty. They might be working 16 hours a day and never come home in the daylight. They might be undergoing a divorce, and cannot see the beauty because of the pain they are suffering internally.

I drive through poor neighborhoods and am sad because beauty is so often absent. Things are ugly, the opposite of beautiful.

Though not always. Some years ago two photographers went around Quincy, where I live, and took pictures of tiny pieces of beauty, especially in architecture: a cornice on a building, the brickwork on a chimney. One that sticks in my mind is a picture of a garbage can placed in a carefully sculpted niche in a building. Someone made the garbage can's location into a gift that could cause delight.

When I was interviewing people in Chicago for my dissertation, I sometimes went into one of the "projects," the terrible high-rises designed by misguided city planners back in the 1950s and 60s. In spite of the disastrous public spaces (urine-smelling elevators that quit working, leaving people to climb 16 flights of stairs to their apartments), the people living in those places often succeeded in making their private spaces beautiful. They were not in control of the public spaces, but where they could make beauty, they made it.

I once toured Hannibal with a restorationist, a man whose profession was to restore beauty to old buildings. He kept pointing out houses and saying, "Look at what a gift that house is to the street!" A gift.

Every hospital I have visited in recent years has been a  marvel of architectural development. The hospital started out years ago with a modest building, and each addition became more elaborate and beautiful. Corridors and private rooms are hung with art work. Perhaps it helps us to deal with the tragedies of illness when we are surrounded with beauty.

Beauty is God's gift to us as humans. By helping to make the world more beautiful, we come closer to God.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017


"There are no atheists in foxholes."

I used to hear that saying as I was growing up in World War II and Korean War days. I learned another version of the saying from reading the sociology of the military: soldiers in combat do not think about patriotism, or defending the flag, or defeating Communism. A soldier in combat focuses on comrades, the men or women sharing danger and the possibility of death.

I was meditating on my faith in God. When I do that, I feel the way those soldiers in combat are said to feel. I am not so sure about God. I am afraid that my thoughts about God come more from my own inner needs than from "reality." What I do know is that there are people around me who are focused on God at important moments in their lives: the birth of a child, committing oneself in marriage, facing death. And it is important to me to be with those people. It is important that my story be part of their story.

We people of faith are soldiers in foxholes. We are not sure about God, or about Jesus, or about the Holy Spirit. But we are with other people. Those people will stay involved with us no matter what. We are all part of the story of Jesus, and of God. Of course, some people in the story do evil things. But evil is part of the Christian story, even the story of Jesus. Evil can be redeemed.

My story is woven into the stories of Christian people down through the centuries, and Jewish people before them. Every story I read, in the Old Testament, or the New Testament, or in Christian history, is a spot-weld attaching me to the great story of Jesus Christ.

Writers like Sigmund Freud argue that being an adult requires you to admit that there is no meaningful story about human life. We are just thrown into a meaningless universe, the product of chance evolution. But that theory, that each of our stories is meaningless, does not draw us closer to other people. That story isolates people. Every human being ought to experience love, over and over again. 

Love is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement. Involvement requires someone besides myself.

Science says that we can never prove a statement true. We can only prove statements false. Scientists operate on faith. They accept theories--and a theory is jsut a story based on observations--which are only provisionally true. That truism about science suggests that it is not infantile to believe that every human being ought to be able to love.

Once you admit that everybody ought to experience love, the next question is, why?

Because God made us to love. That's the larger story.

I have been thinking about death lately. Being 82 years old does that to you. A few weeks ago I was preaching, and out of my mouth came a phrase, prepared for me by Allstate, that sums up my faith: "You're in good hands."

That's how I look at death. I don't know more than anyone else. But I know that when I die I will be in good hands.

I got that story from my people, Jews and Christians, and sometimes even from Muslims and people of other faiths.

We are not alone.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Galileo's troubles continue

Four hundred years ago, the Church condemned Galileo for insisting that the earth goes around the sun. That condemnation contributed to a gap between religion and science in the Christian world, and resulted in centuries of educated people disassociating themselves from the Catholic community. Then, in the 1980s, Pope Saint John Paul II reversed the condemnation, admitting that the Church was wrong to condemn the man.

We are in the process of repeating the seventeenth century mistake of the Church. The Church in our country, through the leadership of its bishops, is condemning the Galileos of our time. In the process we are escalating conflict in our society and reducing the possibilities for peaceful resolution of those conflicts.

This mistake is occurring in the areas of sexuality and reproduction.

Official Church doctrine, repeated by Popes John Paul II and Benedict, is that human life begins at the moment of conception. This doctrine then leads to official disapproval of almost all forms of contraception, and then to opposition to any agencies that promote those forms of contraception. The issue is off limits to discussion. And here is where the resemblance to the issue of Galileo is most powerful--the refusal to permit discussion.

On what grounds does the Church insist that human life begins at conception? The argument: it has always been held. But has it? One reputable article questions the assumption. The article was published in one of the foremost theological journals of this country, Theological Studies, back in 1990. The authors were Allan Wolter, OFM and Thomas A. Shannon, a former friar then teaching at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Wolter, a member of my Franciscan province, had been president of the American Catholic Philosophical Association back in the 1950s, and had spent his entire career relating scholastic works, especially the writings of the Franciscan John Duns Scotus, to present-day physics and cosmology. Shannon was a nationally-known ethicist. The article was titled "Reflections on the Moral Status of the Pre-embryo."

To delve into the question of "has the Church always held that human life begins at conception?" is to risk condemnation, which has economic consequences if one is working at a Catholic institution. Wolter was retired and Shannon was working at a secular institution.

The issue is made politically explosive by linking it to the issue of abortion. Abortion opponents too easily equate contraception with abortion and abortion with murder. The term "murder" is highly charged emotionally, which leads to intransigence in politics. The intransigency has driven pro-life politicians from the Democratic party, and led to the hardening of that party into adopting an anti-life platform.

What we need to do is to go back to the original issue: how can we talk about when human life begins, and all the associated questions, in a way that is amenable to scientific evidence? The Church now is operating in a science-less environment, which is why I liken the situation to that of Galileo.

How did we get here?

The official Church has arrived at this juncture because of three historical events. The first was the declaration by the First Vatican Council in 1870 that the Pope is infallible. The actual declaration could be interpreted as limited to only two instances: the declaration in 1854 that Mary was conceived immaculate, and the definition in 1950 that Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven. But infallibility has a tendency to creep into "anything that a pope has said."

Then there was the declaration by Pope Leo XIII in 1879 that the teaching of Thomas Aquinas is the official philosophical and theological basis for Catholic thought.

The third is the unfortunate effect of Sigmund Freud's antipathy to religion.

As a member of the Franciscan Order, I am supported by the refusal of my Franciscan mentors to accept Pope Leo's declaration as binding. We Franciscans have our own philosophical and theological tradition, going back to Scotus, and we see both Aquinas and Scotus as scholars seeking for truth within the limits of their time and intellectual environments. Neither man can be looked at as an infallible guide to how we should approach issues in our day.

One of my Franciscan colleagues used to say that every time Bishop Fulton Sheen went on TV he set psychiatry back five years. Bishop Sheen portrayed psychiatry, with its origins in the writings of Freud, as useless, because mentally distressed Catholics just needed to go to confession. The rejection of Freud has led to a suspicion of all social science, and thereby to the kind of attitudes that gave us Galileo.

An aside: Much of the disastrous reaction of our Church leaders to the abuse of children was based on their rejection of psychiatry and the belief of those leaders that abuse of children is a moral issue that could be healed by repentance. If pedophilia is a moral failing, a repentant abuser could be considered assignable to a different ministry site--transfer was considered an adequate punishment for a repentant priest or religious.

In defense of my Catholic social-science-denying fellow-believers, we are not alone. Much of secular society shares the same denial of social scientific evidence.

But an official denial of scientific evidence by an organization as powerful as the Catholic Church leads to a rejection by scientists of that organization. The refusal of Church authorities to discuss issues of sexuality is the cause of much of the loss of Catholic Church membership in the last decade or so. How could I prove that statement? I could prove it by social-science surveys, but my social-science-denying fellow believers will reject my use of social science methods. We are in the realm of anti-intellectualism not so different from that of our Muslim brothers and sisters.

Science and Peace-making

It has always been the hope of scientists that their work would contribute to the well-being of society, and especially to the resolution of conflicts. That hope has been frustrated by the reality that politics always trumps science. No matter what science says, if a politician finds a scientific finding politically damaging, the politician will find reasons to reject the science. Think global warming.

The abortion issue and its related conflicts are on the way to legitimating a new civil war, tearing apart our society. When we reject discussion based on science, we contribute to the likelihood that deadly conflict will occur.

The Church since Galileo has maintained the official position that religion and science are not in conflict. What the Church needs to do is to act on that position, and allow scientific evidence to shape the moral injunctions that flow from the findings of science, including social science. The Church needs to enter into moral discussions of reproductive issues with the attitude of genuine seeking of truth, not of claiming that official Church positions have been held by everyone from all time without evidence that such consensus actually existed.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Good Liturgy

One of the sad features of being poor in this country is that the poor are too often cut off from the "social capital" of relatives and friends who could serve to support them in many ways. Conversely, economically poor immigrant communities often do well because in spite of their lack of resources, the social capital of the community enables people to live decently and advance economically.

One example: child care. A single parent with nearby relatives and friends can get help caring for children when an unforeseen demand calls the parent away from the children. Since one feature of being poor is being at the mercy of impersonal bureaucracies which make unpredictable demands at inconvenient times, this is an important benefit, and can make the difference between a stable home for children and a chaotic and even dangerous environment for them. The chaos then contributes to future instability and psychological disabilities.

Once in a class I asked a student who had described herself as having been poor what it was like to be poor. She replied, "You move a lot." Moving a lot cuts social ties.

The economically poor are one of the most unchurched populations in our society. This is probably the result both of the "moving a lot" and of the social stigma of poverty that makes people reluctant to associate with judgmental religious people who they think will blame them for their poverty.

A church is a group of people who are involved with each other on the basis of religious beliefs and practices. If the church is based on the Christian Gospel, the involvement of the members will be loving--it will be characterized by passion, respect, vulnerability, and faithfulness. Such involvement models love for children as they grow up, which is probably why many new parents gravitate to churches when they are beginning to raise their own children. As they become involved in a faith community, they strengthen the social ties that provide them with social capital. The involvement has economic consequences.

But religious belief and moral custom need to be reinforced by physical realities. We are physical creatures, who enflesh our beliefs and customs in actions that are physically observable. In other words, we go to church, and we do things when we are in church.

What we do in church is greatly helped by a tradition that has people before us doing those things. When our parents have gone to church and sat and stood and knelt and sang and walked forward to receive Communion, it is easier for us to follow the same scripts. As we follow those scripts, hopefully we experience the same emotions that our parents experienced, and this shared experience cements our ties to the community.

But this cement has to be reinforced by social ties outside the church building. Here is where the U.S. Catholic community discovered that a parochial school can create social capital. The parents of children in a parochial school have to become involved with each other because they have to raise money to support the school. The bishops who mandated, back in 1884, that each parish should have a school, thought they were preserving their children from the Protestant culture of public schools, but what they did had the serendipitous result of making the entire parish community more involved with each other.

I don't want to minimize the down side of a strong religious culture. Too often parochial schools have served to amplify racial segregation and ethnic tensions. But all human institutions are sinful, and need redemption. We must always be critical of the institutions we create, and be open to correcting their deficiencies.


What we do in church can help or hinder loving involvement in a church community. What we do in church buildings we call "liturgy."

When I think of good liturgy, I think of a saying of a famous psychologist of an earlier generation, Erik Erikson. He was describing the behavior of a mother with her child, but his words fit a church community perfectly. What we do in church should be familiar enough not to be frightening, and innovative enough not to be boring. Liturgy should be familiar enough not to be frightening, and innovative enough not to be boring.

In a Catholic context, this means that liturgy should be based in authentic communal beliefs and customs--it should be familiar, but it should allow for modifications pleasing to the community--it should be innovative. If the community is African American, the community should find comfort in symbols that are familiar in that community. Thus parishes portray Jesus as Black, and feature the colors of Black liberation in their decorations. The music is based in Black cultural tradition--Gospel music as an example. A priest friend of mine pastoring in a Native American community described the "use of the drum" as a liturgical instrument because that instrument was important and traditional in his community. This same pastor demonstrated for us the burning of "sweet grass" as part of a parish ritual.

As I help out in parishes on weekends, I find some communities that are vital and thriving, the Masses filled with parents and children. Some of these parishes are pastored by priests from other countries such as India or Nigeria, but the communities continue to thrive. People in such churches strike me as comfortable in church. The church is not an alien place. It is home, their home. They own it.

One such parish had a pastor from India. A group of parishioners even visited his home in India with him. Church members in India made a set of vestments for use in his church here, complete with hangings for the altar and tabernacle pedestal.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The original original sin

Three threats to the future of our society seem more and more real to me.

          1. The proliferation of nuclear material around the world makes it more and more likely that at some point someone will use that material to destroy a city such as Washington, D.C., or some other essential nerve center of our society.

          2. The invention of “crispr,” a tool for genetically modifying almost anything, makes it more and more likely that someone will meddle with genetics enough to create an organism that will create a pandemic (an epidemic that would kill millions of people similar to the way the Black Death devastated Europe in the middle 1300s.). The most recent issue of Time magazine warns about the danger of a naturally occurring pandemic.

          3. Global warming is likely to create political instability in places where millions of people will lose their homes, so that more huge waves of refugees will overwhelm countries. Our country will not be immune to the effects of such disruptions.

When Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they were not committing a sin of disobedience. The story is about how humans have a drive to try new things, and that some new things can have bad consequences, such as driving people out of paradise. God was not testing Adam and Eve, God was preparing us for God’s entry into the human race as a human being, because God is a God of love, not a God of capricious testing.

Evolution is a violent process, with a timespan of billions of years. If we believe that a personal God is behind creation of the universe, we Christians also believe that the God of Creation is also a God of redemption, a God who brings life and love out of violence and disruption. Love is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement. God is involved with us passionately, respectfully, vulnerably, and faithfully. Love is stronger than death.

The history of Christian theology has been based too much on reading Scriptures as accounts of historical events. But Scripture is first of all literature, artistic statements of the experiences of its authors. I can accept that God inspired its authors without assuming that what they wrote was intended as historical description. As I read Augustine’s City of God, I am struck by how much he takes Scripture passages as literal descriptions of historical events. I have the same reaction when I read Thomas Aquinas or Duns Scotus, medieval theologians with the same assumption.

Philosophy in our day has moved toward analyzing language, the way human beings use that most amazing facility. As I have reflected in earlier statements on this blog, when Jesus says that if your eye causes you to sin, you should pluck it out, we take the statement as metaphorical. Why do we take literally the statement that the King in Matthew 25 condemns the goats on his left to eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels? I cannot reconcile the belief that God is a God of love with the belief that such a God would condemn a person to eternal punishment for a non-eternal action. “Hell” is a metaphor for Jesus’ telling us that love is serious business, and that the failure to love can have long-lasting consequences. How long-lasting? Jesus uses the word “eternal,” but why is that word not a metaphor?

The Christian (and Muslim) teaching about hell is one of the most serious obstacles to a wider acceptance of faith by people in our world.

The Christian teaching about original sin is a similar obstacle. It makes God seem capricious and punitive. We have a better God than that.

Terrible things may be in store for the human race as a result of the three developments that I described at the beginning of this essay. If such events occur, they will not be because Adam and Eve disobeyed a command of God. They will occur because God created humans to push limits, and knew that sometimes when they push limits, they get hurt, and sometimes the hurt extends down to those humans’ descendants. The story does not end there because God also became incarnate among us, and is with us even in catastrophe and death, and is always bringing new life out of the violence and destruction of creation.