Last week I was reflecting on the importance of Bible courses that were central to the training I received at St. Columban’s Major Seminary in Milton, MA. I was praising my most influential teacher there, Father Eamonn O’Doherty, who introduced us to modern scripture scholarship.
Now I see that what I learned from Eamonn went far beyond the Bible. It was more about process — about thinking for myself even In the face of the strongest authority imaginable — that of God himself. It was about making connections in economic and political terms between the world of the Bible and the world of today.
The kind of historical and analytic thinking to which Eamonn exposed me eventually spilled over into other areas of my life — to personal moral decisions, and to politics. Gradually, I reasoned that if I could question what I had understood to be the authority of God about the Bible, then why not raise questions about the Ten Commandments or what I had been taught concerning the goodness of my country. Perhaps my reading of American History was as erroneous as what I had understood about the Bible.
What I mean is that from my earliest schooling, the Sisters of St. Joseph had taught me that the Bible was the very Word of God. As such it was unquestionable. To even entertain doubts about its truth was sinful.
And though the good sisters taught me how to read, it never crossed their minds (in the 1940s and early ’50s) that the Bible could be read in any other way but literally.
.After all, Pope Pius XII (1939-’58) had then only recently granted permission to Catholic scholars to follow the example of their Protestant counterparts in applying the tools of critical analysis to sacred scripture. This meant approaching the Bible as an historical document — as ancient literature. It meant recognizing the host of literary forms it contained, It meant acknowledging that none of its contents is history in the modern sense of the term, and that it all found analogue in the sacred texts of other religions.
The pope did all of that in his encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943).
By the time my formal biblical studies began (1963) Catholic scholars had used the pope’s injunction to catch up. More than that, by ’63, the Second Vatican Council (’62-’65) had already been in session for more than a year. Its reflections and changes all stemmed from re-readings of biblical texts in the light of the scholarship I’m referencing. And the resulting changes were profound touching understandings of church, priesthood, and the relationships of Catholics to the contemporary world.
In the 1960s that world was In turmoil; it was experiencing the birth pangs of a dawning new consciousness. It was the era of the Civil Rights Movement. The missile crisis in Cuba (1962) nearly brought nuclear holocaust. President Kennedy was assassinated (1963) The Gulf of Tonkin (1964) plunged the U.S. more deeply into the Vietnam War.
.My first reaction to those “worldly” events was to dig in my heels. I was critical of war protestors.
I thought Dr. King had overstepped his competence when he criticized the War and U.S. colonialism (1967).I was more sympathetic to the government and police than to those calling for fundamental social change on behalf of African Americans, the colonized, the peace movement, feminists, Native Americans, prisoners, and the LGBTQ communities.
But after initial resistance, I couldn’t deny what I was learning about the Bible. And (as I was saying) that proved to be the thin end of the wedge for changes in other spheres. The evidence driving me to change my mind about the Bible was overwhelming. It had too much explanatory value.
So did the political and economic analysis behind what the biblical scholars I encountered over the years had to say about the connections between the ancient texts they explained and the underdeveloped world in which the majority of humankind lives. They are the ones responsible for awakening me to undeniable political and economic realities. I met them in Rome, and my travels throughout Europe, and in Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Mexico, Cuba, India, the Holy Land, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
I’m referring most prominently to Frei Gorgulho, Ana Flora Anderson, Franz Hinkelammert, Helio Gallardo, Elsa Tamez, Pablo Richard, Maria Lopez Vigil and her brother Ignacio, Ched Myers, Norman Gottwald, Resa Aslan, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Robert Funk, Elaine Pagels, and a host of liberation theologians.
All of them helped shape (and continue to do so) my historical, political and economic understanding of the world. It was a long process. I summarize it in the two dozen points (which I’ll list here over the next two weeks). Readers will note how the points gradually become more political and related to empire, structural violence, resistance, and the struggle for justice. That gradualness reflects my own growth in consciousness over the last 50 years.
My point here (as I struggle to explain the origin of my crazy Ideas to my children) is that it’s all grounded In faith.
[Next week: My Understanding of the Bible (and of the world) in 12 of 24 points]