Last Friday’s gospel was the story from Luke of Jesus appearing to the disciples, showing them his hands and side, and eating a piece of broiled fish with them. I preached on how all the parts of our stories, including the painful ones, will be part of our resurrected selves. Physical wounds, like the nail marks in Jesus’ hands and feet, will be visible in us, but caught up in a new fullness of healing. Mental and emotional wounds will also be part of our resurrected story, also caught up in that new healed fullness.
One of the people present at Mass came up to me after Mass and said that she disagreed with what I said. She said that after the resurrection we will be perfect, “without any sin.” She was quite adamant that there will be no hint of any bad memory in our resurrected state.
We went back and forth for a few minutes, of course without any resolution, but the exchange made me realize that I have rejected the spirituality I grew up with, which is the one she was defending. That divide, between a spirituality focused on sin and its removal, versus one focused on how Jesus’ sharing our story redeems that story without removing its memory, may be the most fundamental divide in present-day Christianity. It cuts across denominational lines. Catholics who share the first version of Christian spirituality may be closer to Protestant “evangelicals” than to me.
The divide is not limited to the laity. Our bishop of Springfield, Thomas John Paprocki, recently mandated that every Mass in the diocese should end with a prayer to St. Michael the Archangel against the power of the devil. Bishop Paprocki, who sponsored a workshop on exorcism in connection with last November’s meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, defended his mandate by stating that the devil is never more powerful than when he convinces us of his non-existence.
In contrast to that spirituality, John Joseph Lakers, my friar philosopher and friend, likes to say, on the basis of thousands of hours of conversation with deeply troubled individuals and couples, “people sin not because they are wicked but because they are wounded.” He goes on to say that he has never encountered a situation where he thought the devil was involved. I don’t have nearly the same depth of experience as he has, but I have to say the same thing.
I am reading Stanley Karnow’s history of Vietnam and the Vietnam War. Lyndon Johnson continued to prosecute the war, causing tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese to lose their lives. He stuck to his policy, even after he had begun to realize that the policy was failing, because he feared that his political opponents would charge him with being “soft on Communism” if he changed the policy. Surely there was evil in his decision, but was the devil involved? Of course I cannot prove that the devil was not, but the evil is understandable without reference to the devil.
One of the ten trends that John Allen describes in his 2010 book The Future Church is Pentecostalism, and one of the features of Pentecostalism that he lists is “an emphasis on evil spirits.” He says “many Pentecostals say they have personally witnessed the devil or evil spirits being driven out of someone.” Is Bishop Paprocki tuned in to the wave of the future?
I don’t think so.
What I am experiencing in my own spirituality is a change in the way I view language. Jesus says that if my hand causes me to sin, I should cut it off. He also says that if I do not feed my hungry neighbor, I will depart from him into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Why do I not take the first statement literally, but do take the second one literally? When Jesus talks about the devil or the fires of Gehenna, he is using language metaphorically, just as much as when he says that I should cut off my hand.
When I read the gospel stories in this light, I begin to read them with a whole different emphasis. Jesus’ struggle with the scribes and Pharisees, who were always accusing him of violating the Sabbath, becomes a struggle over whether God really wants the fullness of life for each human being, versus a God who seems more intent on punishing violators of “the law.” I am sure that the Pharisees would have agreed that God wants life for everyone, but their God was a God who achieved the goal by threats and fear. Jesus showed a God what does not use threats and fear. “I have come not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Lakers develops a similar argument by reaching back into Martin Luther’s interpretation of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Luther’s telling of the story of sin and redemption, Lakers says, has poisoned both Protestant and Catholic spirituality. It is only our present-day thinking about language that is beginning to free us from that poison.
The genie of language is out of the bottle of Christian spirituality into which it was confined for the past several hundred years. No one will ever be able to put it back into the bottle, not even Pentecostal Africans.
Again, following Lakers, I argue that postmodern philosophy may look like the destroyer of truth and goodness, but it can really open up a new freedom for Christian spirituality and a new dynamism in worship that will answer people’s needs, whether those people are in Nairobi, Kenya or in New York City.