Thursday, August 5

A Stroll through the Cherry Orchard with Fr. Rolheiser

skepticFirst of all, please understand up front and in no uncertain terms that I have nothing but the greatest respect and admiration for Fr. Ron Rolheiser. I have taken classes from him at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, and have met him and talked with him in social settings outside the classroom. I have found him to be invariably charitable, witty, intelligent, approachable, possessed of a mischievous sense of humor, as well as prodigiously gifted as a teacher. What strikes me most about Fr. Rolheiser are two things:  (1) his great compassion toward victims of suicide and the ones they leave behind – he writes a column on this every year – and (2) he has a vanishingly rare sense of what I can only call the tragedy of human finitude, alluding often to Fr. Karl Rahner’s remark that, in this life, all symphonies are unfinished. However … you just knew there had to be a “however,” didn’t you? … Fr. Rolheiser’s recent discussion of “difficult” biblical texts illustrates my argument in last week’s “Skeptic’s Collection” column about theology as a mirror we hold up to ourselves. Fr. Rolheiser’s approach also illustrates a common strategy of dealing with such texts by “cherry picking” so as to ultimately derive a theology in which the God the writer desires / needs – in this particular case, a God neither violent nor vindictive – is “always already” tacitly and implicitly – important adverbs! -- “baked into” one’s approach to the text:  the purported conclusions of one's argument are already in the premises.

Everyone is familiar with at least some of the “difficult passages” to which Fr. Rolheiser alludes, e.g., God sending a plague that kills 70,000 people in punishment for King David taking a census of his military, the slaughter of the Canaanites, etc. One can also cite the extermination of the inhabitants of Jericho, the slaughter of the Amalekites, etc., etc. (As I said in the previous "Skeptic" column, even if these stories are not factual historical records, they should be taken seriously as, at the very least, theological parables illustrating the character of God, like the story of the young George Washington chopping down his father's cherry tree.) The question being begged is obvious: in light of such apparent atrocities – acts that today would easily qualify as war crimes of genocide – how is one to maintain a theology of a God of mercy, justice, and compassion? Fr. Rolheiser's approach is twofold:


First of all, these texts are anthropomorphic, meaning that in them we attribute our own emotions and intentions to God. Hence these texts reflect our feelings, not God’s. For example, when Paul tells us that when we sin we experience the “wrath of God”, we are not to believe that God gets angry with us when we sin and sends positive punishment upon us. Rather, when we sin, we punish ourselves, begin to hate ourselves, and we feel as if God has gotten angry with us. Biblical writers frequently write in this genre. God never hates us, but, when we sin, we end up hating ourselves. …

 In essence, the argument is that all the “blood ‘n’ guts” characteristics ostensibly ascribed to God in Scripture – both Testaments – do not in reality inhere in God. Rather the “blood ‘n’ guts” God of wrath, violence, and vindictiveness -- God as Divine Sociopath, if you will -- is an elaborate composite projection of these very tendencies, these very capacities in human beings. So the hatred God ostensibly entertains toward the sinner is, in actuality, the hatred the sinner entertains toward herself.

So, continues Fr. Rolheiser, … in scripture as a whole, we see that God is non-negotiably all-loving, all-merciful, and all-good and that it is impossible to attribute bias, callousness, brutality, favoritism, and violence to God. My very simple question is this: Why?

o Why is it “impossible to attribute” those qualities to God?

o Why must God’s real, intrinsic qualities always and invariably be love, mercy, and goodness?

o Why must violence and vindictiveness always and invariably be projections from human beings?

(There are alternatives, e.g., Prof. David Blumenthal's deeply unsettling Facing the Abusing God denies all three of the above principles -- as does most Jewish Holocaust theology, e.g., Eliezer Berkovits, Zachary Braiterman, Richard Rubenstein, et al. Ditto Phyllis Trible's Texts of Terror.) Remember that Fr. Rolheiser has already set the hermeneutic precedent whereby the dark, chthonic, “blood ‘n’ guts” propensities of violence, vengeance, and vindictiveness are projections of our own id-like impulses onto God.

Slaughter of the Midianites

But if we take a moment to look inside ourselves, to introspect, to honestly appraise our own character, we equally perceive that human beings may follow what Abraham Lincoln, in his First Inaugural Address, described as “the better angels of our nature”: humans can also act with compassion, justice, and mercy. We do not invariably do so, of course, nor do we even do so consistently. But we can. We have that capability because those "better angels" potentialities are really there in humans.  So if we stipulate Fr. Rolheiser’s argument that our ascription of vindictiveness and violence to God originates from a projection of those tendencies onto God, then why is it not possible to argue with equal validity that the “better angels” attributes of mercy, justice, compassion, etc., are no less human projections onto the character of God? If violence is a projection, then why not virtue? Voltaire's statement that God created man in His own image, and that man returned the favor is a two-edged sword. And if both violence and virtue are projections onto God from within the human heart, then how does one go about discussing the “real” character of God apart from those projections? This is what I mean by “cherry picking”:  the "good stuff" really is in God and the "bad stuff" is a human projection. As I said in last week's column, this is a common, usually implicit, practice in theology: we select arguments so as to end up with the theological conclusions we desire. Absent cherry-picking, a good part of the (Christian) theological edifice would collapse.


The second issue Fr. Rolheiser deals with is the “archetypal” nature of the “difficult passages”.

These texts are also archetypal, meaning that they are powerful, primordial images that explain how life works.

This is a more subtle aspect of his argument about the “difficult passages,” and teasing out the implications requires that we consider the nature of archetype and myth. To call something an archetype in the colloquial usage is basically to deny its physical or space-time significance: archetypes are seen in the popular imagination as abstruse, mystical Jungian abstractions, with no blood, bone, and sinew. And so they may sometimes be. Similarly, in the colloquial understanding, a myth is a “just-so” story, a fairy tale, a fiction with no significance in the present, basically a story or a belief explaining some phenomenon that human beings use until a more scientific explanation comes along. And so they may sometimes be. (E.g., we explained total solar eclipses as a Sky-Wolf eating the sun -- until we understood the orbital mechanics of the solar system.) But as cultural anthropologists use the term, calling a belief or a story an “archetype” or a “myth” is to affirm and to emphasize its significance, not to deny it. (The late Dr. Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, long-time curator of Asian art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, wrote extensively about myths in this sense. Ditto the late Dr. Mircea Eliade.) Both archetypes and myths reveal the depths of life in a way that gets past and underneath the discursive intellect – and both do so on many levels simultaneously. Some event similar to the Buddha’s enlightenment while seated under the bo tree may well be (arguably, probably, most likely) historically factual … but it is also a virtually universal archetype of almost all experiences of religious insight, from Jesus arising from the baptismal waters to Muhammad's encounter with the archangel Jibril in the Cave of Hira to St. Teresa’s almost erotic experience of religious rapture to Blaise Pascal’s experience of FIRE. Similarly, Captain Ahab drowning in pursuit of Moby Dick and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination are – in radically different ways, to be sure – myths, one fictitious and one historical, of a person sacrificing himself to a cause greater than himself. Notice that, in none of the above examples, are issues of literalness or historicity – or the lack thereof – prominent. Myth and archetype subvert the equation of truth and fact.


My point? Only that when we call a story an “archetype” or a “myth”, we are not for that reason alone licensed to infer that it is not true on other levels. I do not believe that the conquest of Jericho is historically factual, at least in its “straight up” biblical form, any more than I believe that the story of Jonah is a treatise on marine biology. But my lack of belief has nothing to do with the archetypal nature of the stories of Jericho and Jonah … any more than my believing that calling the assassination of Abraham Lincoln a “myth” is to deny that Lincoln really was assassinated.

Similarly, Fr. Rolheiser is undoubtedly right in describing as archetypal the sayings of Jesus and Paul, respectively, about calling no man your father and subjection of slaves. Ditto sayings like anyone who loves parents more than Jesus is not worthy, or the rather cavalier assurance that anyone who forsakes spouse and children will be lavishly compensated, etc. These are archetypal sayings, also, as Fr. Rolheiser would doubtless agree. But -- precisely because they are archetypal -- they can be read, not only as "binding and inerrant in the intentionality of [their] message", but also as actual principles on the complementary levels of orthopraxy and actual conduct, just as Abraham was required to be willing to sacrifice Isaac.  Consequently, calling the “difficult passages” archetypal or mythical – “myth” is my term, of course, not Fr. Rolheiser’s – is not the same as denying their theological – or even historical – significance. Archetypes and myths may be, often are, true in any number of senses on any number of different and complementary levels. A given interpretation on one level does not preclude or invalidate alternate interpretations on other levels. So precisely because such texts are archetypal, we cannot so breezily dismiss out of hand the possibility that, on some level, they are normative as to actual conduct. So on some level, perhaps the title "father" is inappropriate. On that level, perhaps the text does enjoin slaves to be submissive. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard had a better grasp of the transgressive potential of archetypal texts than anyone before or since, realizing that taking such texts with full seriousness will almost always require what Kierkegaard calls "the teleological suspension of the ethical," i.e., behavior that is at least anti-social ... and often explicitly criminal ... like, for example, genocide. The implications of archetypal texts cannot be confined within "normal" and socially acceptable boundaries.

There are contexts, of course, in which cherry-picking is not only permissible, but arguably obligatory.  You probably would not want to include Hosea 13:16 and like texts in a children's catechism class.  You would probably want -- I hope! -- to cherry-pick around them, much like many parents hesitate to read Dr. Seuss's Butter Battle Book to their young kids.  But in such cases, even if you did elect to cherry-pick, you would do so for purely pragmatic reasons, not because your affirmation of the texts as archetypal necessarily rendered other-level interpretations invalid. Those alternative meanings would still be there, but for pedagogical reasons would await later consideration. Furthermore, atheists and anti-theists cherry-pick also, e.g., Bill Maher's oft-repeated assertion that Christians believe in "talking snakes," as if belief in talking snakes were as fundamental as the Golden Rule.  But when cherry-picking becomes an actual technical methodology to relieve one of the responsibility of thinking through moral issues in a way that ensures that the outcome will be what one has latterly determined to aim at, one needs to look for a fruit, say, a banana, which has more appeal.

James R. Cowles

Image credits:

Plague ... public domain
Slaughter of the Midianites ... Nicolaes Moeyaert (circa 1592–1655) ... public domain
Cherry picking ... Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
Tree sculpture ... Nilfanion ... own work ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Cherry orchard ... Cecilia Lim |



  • So take Jesus in the wilderness, the Devil hurling texts at him . . . is he using other texts to ‘ensure an outcome,’ as you say? I’ve often wondered, how did he know how to do that? How one text trumps another? Some have speculated that he was immersed in a wisdom tradition — that there has always been a wisdom tradition which helps us do this — rate and employ texts according to a hermeneutic. Thomas Jefferson’s Bible shows how the Enlightenment brought a moral imperative to his bright mind to excise the text in the ways he thought made it more beneficial to humankind. He excused himself much too. I was in the audience when Madelyn Murray O’Hair physically threw a Bible 25 feet or so onto the floor, from her speaker platform — calling the whole thing rubbish. That might be one defensible alternative to cherry picking. Handling texts is an art.

Leave a Reply