Friday, September 28, 2012

Three questions from the Rabbi -- part 2



Before I can answer your questions, I should also explain who Dr. Brown was. First a word of caution. Dr. Brown was a brilliant man and a great scholar. I am a dilettante, and something of a fool.

Rev. Dr. Raymond Brown (1928-1999) was a priest of the religious order of St. Sulpice and was one of the first American Catholic scholars to use the historical critical method in his study of the Bible. He was also a professor emeritus at the Protestant Union Theological Seminary in New York from 1971 to 1990. Yes, you read it right, Protestant Seminary! And a liberal protestant seminary at that! Those were heady days. I remember them well. Protestant scholarship was the envy of Catholic theologians. It seemed so modern and so realistic, unlike the gothic, miraculous world of CATHOLIC mumbo-jumbo. I will never forget those exciting times. Scholars were ready to throw out all the miracles of Christian Scripture, except of course, the Resurrection. If there was no Resurrection, as St. Paul said, “We are still in our sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:17) That means that all those theologians would have to go out and get jobs as plumbers or perhaps English teachers.  The only “scholar” I can think of who dumped the resurrection entirely and still prospered in the business of religion was John Dominic Crossan, once a student at the Ecole Biblique, to which you were referred. He was also a teacher at DePaul University, that beacon of Catholic higher education,  and the seminary from which I graduated. He believed that Jesus body was stolen from a shallow grave by dogs and that the post- resurrection appearance of Jesus were simply a ghost, if that. Allow me to quote Dr. Crossan’s book “Who killed Jesus
 “In conclusion, what is the historicity of the burial account? From Roman expectations, the body of Jesus and of any others crucified with him would have been left on the cross as carrion for the crows and the dogs. From Jewish expectations, would not Deuteronomy 21:22-23 have been followed? Maybe, but only the barest maybe…  But, even if it was, the soldiers who crucified Jesus probably would have done it, speedily and indifferently, in a necessary shallow and mounded grave rather than a rock-hewn tomb. That would mean lime, at best, and the dogs again, at worst.” (187, 188)

It is interesting that in Marcus Borg’s introduction to the book, Dr. Brown is mentioned. “...this book by today’s premier Jesus scholar ( by whom he means Crossan) is the primary alternative to Raymond Brown’s reading of the history behind these narratives of suffering that have caused so much suffering.”  In other words, Crossan has dumped Brown’s tortured attempts to cling to a literal resurrection despite not being prone to believe the miraculous.  Those were the times in which I was educated. All real scholarship was done by German Protestants.

Ray Brown was thoroughly immersed in the Teutonic, post Reformation, post-Enlightenment Newtonian physics approach to the Scriptures. If it can’t be read like a science book it simply isn’t true. It might be a nice myth, but it didn’t happen in the sense that there was an actual “photograph-able,” visible event. It is just asking for trouble to try to explain the most amazing miracle in history for people whose faith excludes the miraculous. The result of that time in Catholic history was a divide that is usually described in terms of liberal and conservative. It would be better described as a divide between those who believe in the supernatural and those who don’t.   

Ray Brown was loved because he was a real scholar and very good critical thinker who tried to bridge that gap. His attempt was noble, but in the end, I think it fails.  If you have never been involved in a miracle, it is hard to believe they happen. In fact it is insulting to believe they happen. I remember the story of St. Bernadette of Lourdes who had a series of visions of the Blessed Mother from which came one of the greatest pilgrimage shrines in the world. After the dust settled it was thought better that she join the convent. Her novice mistress treated her with unusual severity, and in a fictional treatment of the life of Bernadette, the novice mistress is made to say, “Why should someone like you have a vision and be the source of so many miracles when I, who have devoted my life to God, have never seen so much as the feather of an angel’s wing?” Though this conversation is certainly fictional, it has a ring of truth. Why some and not others if these things are true? Why should God appear to peasants and not to scholars who could do some good for the world?

The Catholic Church is nothing without her miracles, and the scholars who could not reconcile  the all too human stories of Christian Scripture seemed to cling to the last shred of their religion by denying and doubting all but the resurrection. I remember a professor in seminary who was the best and brightest. He was fresh from a great historical critical Protestant seminary in Germany back in 1969. He would de-mythologize everything and always say at the end of his lectures “All we really have is the empty tomb...”  He had lost his faith and soon he lost his priesthood. The fact is that we have a great deal more than the empty tomb.

Let me tell you a story, in which I was involved. I know the witnesses intimately. They have no reason to lie. I would put my life in their hands without hesitation and I am a witness to the effects of the incident. The story is almost as fantastic as a tale of resurrection, but it happened. 

I was the pastor of a poor parish that sponsored a wonderful school for poor children and a soup kitchen in the same building. At the bottom of the stairwell was a large, coffin-style freezer that hadn’t worked in years. It was 6 feet long, three feet wide and at least three feet deep. It weighed hundreds of pounds if not a thousand. I realized that it was a danger to the children who passed it everyday on their way to the school hall, so I told the director of the soup kitchen to put it out in the alley where it would  be picked up by salvagers. 

There was a large group of young volunteers coming that night to work in the soup kitchen and perhaps the thing could be moved with 10 or 12 of them. Of course, in the busy work of feeding hundreds of poor people, my orders were forgotten. 

There was, at the time, a very pious young man who helped at the soup kitchen. I have never known anyone who loves and trusts God like he did and does. We’ll call him “Roy.” He had a simple faith and an unselfish heart. When only he and the director were left locking up he realized that they had failed to carry out my orders. He said to the director “The pastor wants that thing out of here right away!” 

The director said, “Well it’s not going to happen tonight!” 

To which Roy said, “But it’s Holy Obedience! We have to do it!” 

The director became a little irritated at that and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll deal with the pastor!” And off to bed he went! 

In the morning when the director got up he saw the freezer out in the alley. He asked Roy, “Who helped you move that thing." 

And Roy told him the most amazing story. He had said to the Lord, “Well, you’re going to have to help me because the pastor wants this thing moved.” He went to one end of it, lifted and the thing came up off the ground and Roy, one man alone, guided it around the corners and up the steps to the alley where the director found it in the morning. Roy said there must have been angels lifting it. 

I have no doubt that the thing happened. I saw the “empty stairwell.” I saw no angels. The thing was gone and the only explanation was an impossible explanation. The witnesses to the miracle are unimpeachable. It could not have happened but it did. You must be thinking that I am lying or telling the story for my own purposes. God is my witness. These are things I heard from close friends and  I myself witnessed the “empty stairwell.” 

“Can I talk to Roy?  Were there photos taken? There must be a way to explain the event that reconciles with the laws of physics. THESE THINGS JUST DON’T HAPPEN!!!” 

Perhaps the same dogs that Dom Crossan thinks ate the body of Jesus managed to wrestle that freezer out into the alley.

Next week the first question, the conflicting resurrection accounts.

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