Hijackers of the Word

Too many Catholic biblical scholars live off the substance of a faith they no longer believe in, a faith every detail of which they despise.

What would you call someone who lives off the substance of a faith he no longer believes in, a faith every detail of which he despises, including the Church founded by Christ to give it expression; one who makes, by the way, a very good living teaching theology at a Catholic University to young people he regards as far too stupid to know any better than to believe it? 

By the standards of the world, I think we’d have to call him a success. But is success a biblical category? Christ certainly didn’t think so, having spent His last hours suspended from a cross. But that was such a long time ago, and since then we’ve made so much progress. Who needs a Crucified Savior when you’ve got a smart phone?

What about calling him a fraud? An imposter? Not unlike the corrupt politician who flatters you for a vote he doesn’t really give a hang about because he’s less interested in you than in lining his pockets; the politician whose real passion is getting power, the exercise of which must never, warned Plato, be given to those who lust after it. 

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Am I being too cynical here? I don’t think so. At the very least, we should go ahead and call him a parasite, which is anyone living off the body of that which he does not love. A friend I once knew loved collecting bottle caps. But he disliked drinking the stuff. I, however, had no interest in the caps but loved the pop. We soon became partners. He’d buy all the pop and I’d give him all the caps. Welcome to the world of synergy. Which of us, I wonder, was the more cynical?

So, where am I going with all this? To the world of not a few Catholic biblical scholars, that’s where. Here is a profession where it is entirely possible to read the Scriptures in a dozen languages, tracing them back to the original Greek and Hebrew, and not believe a word of it. Now that’s cynicism. It is, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing. Like the tourist who listens attentively to the expert guide’s exhaustive recital of all the wonders of St. Peter’s Basilica, only to ask in the end, “How much does it weigh?” There is something rather repulsive about reductionism of that sort.  

So, I think it entirely fair to call him a thief, someone for whom duplicity has become a way of life. What he is doing amounts to a kind of swindle, what Denis de Rougemont once called “the confiscation of the spiritual riches of Christianity by those who no longer believe in Christianity.” And so, at the very least, he ought to go and look for another job.

He should absolutely not be teaching courses in Catholic Theology to students, so many of whose parents are paying big bucks for what they mistakenly thought was the faith of the Church. And because the content of that faith is the direct result of a Revelation he cannot abide, which he seeks at every turn to undermine the truth of, why on earth would any self-respecting Catholic University wish to hire or retain him? His presence there is a screaming contradiction to everything it stands for—or should stand for, which is another matter. 

In the meantime, who wants to dine out at a restaurant where the cook hates the food, where every item on the menu is altered to please his palate, which happens not to be remotely like the dish you’d gone there to eat? Or, who wants to take a course on poetry in which the professor solemnly announces his disapproval of the sonnet? “Fourteen lines of the vilest possible verse,” he sternly lectures the class.

Or, to reach for the craziest example I can think of, that of the Ivy League superstar who manages to outswim all the women because, now that he’s decided to become one, they simply can’t keep up, and so he easily wins all the prizes.

Are there no adults in the pool to object to this insanity?

Are there no students in the classroom refusing to be taught Catholic Theology by an apostate?  Or their parents, refusing to pay for such an “education”?

Such anomalies are not to be borne by any sane believer in the Word of God handed down to us from the Apostles, or by the Church empowered by the Holy Spirit to sit in judgment upon its meaning. She is, after all, both Mother and Teacher (Mater et Magister), which must count for something in running Catholic Universities. And isn’t this why it must be discipleship, not scholarship, that constitutes the only finally appropriate attitude to take in the face of the inspired text? The Scriptures will reveal the treasury of their truth, which is Christ, only to the one who moves in docility before the self-revealing Word; who opens the Sacred Book with fear and trembling because here is that privileged space where God speaks to man. 

“It is not,” as Hans Urs von Balthasar reminds us, “a matter of learning or cleverness, but today, as always, of the courage to put oneself at risk.” It is not the swashbuckling Biblicist who determines the truth of the text. It is the business of the Church to adjudicate matters of truth and falsity. It is the job of the learned scholar to shore up her claims with arguments drawn from reason but animated by faith. Besides, the practice of theology was never intended to be a mere sedentary exercise, but rather one of kneeling before the very Mystery we encounter on every page.

Holy Scripture, therefore, is really a kind of sacrament, an outward sign by which the grace of God is given to those who, as St. Augustine was once told: “Take it and read.” Through the medium of all those words filling both Old and New Testament, the uncreated Word somehow communicates Himself. It is nothing less than God giving and showing Himself to us through the instrumentality of a book, a most sacredly terrifying book, which we have the good fortune to call Holy Writ.

[Image Credit: Unsplash]

  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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