Scripture in the Life of the Church

Scripture in the Life of the Church


[music playing] [dean tom stegman, s.j.] Welcome
to our keynote lecture tonight as we have this colloquium
on “The Bible in the Life of the Church.” My name is Tom Stegman. I’m the dean of the School
of Theology and Ministry, professor of New Testament. Today’s been a joyous
celebration for us as we’re celebrating the tenth
anniversary of the School. And this is one of our splash
events of that celebration. And it really does touch
to the heart of something I think that the two entities– Weston Jesuit School of
Theology, the Institute for Religious Education
and Pastoral Ministry– and now, the STM is
taking very seriously, which is good teaching of
the Word of God for the life and ministry of the Church. And I’m very proud that
Weston and, now STM, has been the producer of
New Testament Abstracts. We’ve had very
distinguished professors of New Testament, Father
Clifford here, emeritus, still teaching. Think of people like Dan
Harrington, John Kselman, Joe Fitzmeyer, George
MacRae, huge names. There’s a great legacy of
teaching the Word of God to people who will be
proclaiming and have proclaimed and taught the Word of God. So this is a great
celebration for us and a little pat on the back. Tonight, we’re also launching
The Paulist Biblical Commentary, which I’m
very proud that two of the co-editors
there, STM faculty. But we also have contributions
from five of our faculty members here, and also Pheme
Perkins from the Theology Department. So we’re celebrating
a lot these days. Now, it’s my pleasure
and privilege to introduce our keynote
speaker, Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson. Dr. Johnson is Candler School
of Theology’s Robert W. Woodruff Professor Emeritus, Emory
University’s most distinguished endowed chair. A noted scholar and
award-winning teacher, Dr. Johnson taught at Yale
Divinity School and Indiana University prior to
arriving at Emory in 1992. His research concerns
the literary, moral, and religious dimensions
of the New Testament, including the Jewish
and Greco-Roman contexts of early Christianity. A prolific writer,
Dr. Johnson has authored 31 books, more
than 70 scholarly articles, 100 popular articles, many of
which appear in Commonweal, and nearly 200 book reviews. I’m not going to talk
about all of his books. But I want to mention a few. His 1986 book, The Writings
of the New Testament: An Interpretation, now
in its third edition, is widely used as a textbook
in seminaries and departments of religious
education worldwide. He’s also published major
commentaries on the following books of the New Testament:
the Gospel of Luke, Acts of the Apostles,
Letter to the Romans, the Pastoral Epistles,
the Letter of James, and the Letter to the Hebrews. That’s a pretty wide expanse
of the New Testament. And I remember, as
a graduate student, Luke overheard a conversation. And somebody was kind of
claiming, taking a stake, and wanted to be an expert
in the Johannine Epistles. And Luke overheard it and
then interrupted by saying, “The New Testament
canon is not that big.” He was encouraging us
not to get too siloed, and he has lived that. A highly sought-after
lecturer, Dr. Johnson has made more than 175
academic presentations nationally and abroad. He’s also a member of several
editorial and advisory boards, and a senior fellow at
Emory University’s Center for the Study of
Law and Religion. In 2011, Dr. Johnson won
the prestigious University of Louisville Grammaire
Award in Religion, designated for highly
significant contributions to religious and spiritual
understanding, for his book, Among the Gentiles: Greco Roman
Religion and Christianity, published by Yale
University Press in 2009. In this book, he
proposes a new framework for analyzing early Christianity
in its religious, social, and historical contexts. Dr. Johnson received the
Catholic Press Association’s 2012 Catholic Book
Award in Scripture for his book, Prophetic
Jesus, Prophetic Church, published by Eerdmans
in 2011, which reveals the vision of Jesus in
the church in Luke and Acts. In 2015, he published
The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive
Art, in which he maintains that Scripture points
to the human body and lived experience as the
pre-eminent arena of God’s continuing revelation
in the world. It also shows that he’s
going beyond Scripture and reflecting theologically. His most recent book
is Miracles, just hot off the press from
Westminster John Knox, in which he argues
for allowing Scripture to renew in us a capacity
to perceive God’s presence and power in our midst. Now, I’m going to go off
script for just a second here, give an anecdote, and I think it
captures a lot of Luke for me. When I was a graduate student
at Emory, a couple of us asked Luke in the course
of a class we were taking– we were overwhelmed by
the readings, the amount of reading. How much reading
can you really do? And so we asked him,
“Well, how much reading should a budding New
Testament scholar do?” And he said, “A book a day.” [laughter] Well, that was kind
of what we thought. But then we realized
he was being serious– “read a book a day,
you’ll come up to speed.” It reminded me of Dan
Harrington saying, “Well, once you’re
on top of the world, the New Testament is
easy to stay there.” But a year later, Luke
is also, in addition to being a great teacher,
he’s a beautiful writer. And I asked him, “How did you
get to be such a good writer?” And he said, “I read
good literature.” Now, I wanted to do a Venn
diagram of New Testament monographs and good literature. The intersection is
a very narrow one. So one of the things I learned,
he does a lot of reading and is a great writer
and helped me– I’m not a great writer– but
helped me to write better. The last little anecdote
is, at one point in writing my
dissertation, I’d given him 20 pages, which I
thought were pretty good. And I came to his office, and he
just circled a bunch of words. And I’m looking through,
because these are real comments. And I said, “I don’t get it.” He said, “Tom, these
are all adverbs. You don’t need any of them.” He said, “Be direct. Be confident.” So I learned a lot
from Luke Johnson. I’ll go back on script. In a 2010 article in America,
Dr. Johnson wrote this, and he captures
much: “Jesus is best learned not as a result of an
individual’s scholarly quest that is published in a
book, but as a continuing process of personal
transformation within a community
of disciples.” Again, captures a
lot of who Luke is. Luke Timothy Johnson is a
scholar and biblical theologian of the highest order. And we as the STM, as
this crowd, as the Church, are the richer for the
extraordinary gifts of his generous faith, his
writing, and his teaching. Please join me in
welcoming Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson
speaking on “Scripture in the Life of the Church.” [applause] [Dr. Luke Timothy
Johnson] Lies, lies, lies. Thank you, Tom, for
those sweet words. And thank you for
your warm welcome. Can you hear me? I would like to dedicate
my remarks this evening to my friend, Father
William Stephen Kurz of the Society of Jesus. His life of scholarship
and service to the Church has really been a model
of fidelity and love. Bill and I were classmates in
the doctoral program at Yale in the early seventies, started
our work together in Luke-Acts. And each of us found
our lives really changed by the Catholic
Charismatic Movement in which both of us were involved. Circumstances of
life have not allowed us to be together
in the same room nearly as often as either
one of us would like. But we’ve always felt very close
in the Spirit, never more so than when we co-wrote the book,
The Future of Catholic Biblical Scholarship. I’ve always been strengthened
by the realization that my sense of Scripture
and the life of the Church is shared and convincingly lived
by my brother in the faith, speaking of the
Society of Jesus. I propose to approach the
topic of the life of the Church and Scripture under
three headings: historical, theological,
and pastoral. The first two I regard
as necessary preparation for the third topic, which is
my real interest this evening, the pastoral. I hope to focus on a
longstanding and growing crisis, among Catholics
to be sure, but also within other families
of Christians. On one side, the crisis
consists of the church’s loss of a living sense of
Scripture, which is, at once, also a loss of its own life. On the other side, the crisis
consists of Scripture’s loss of any real significance when it
remains only a vestigial organ analyzed dispassionately by
scholars rather than embraced passionately by
sinners and saints. First then, the historical. The church was not brought into
existence through first century people reading Scripture. It was brought into existence by
the experience of the presence and power of the Living
God in their lives that came surprisingly
and scandalously through a crucified
and raised Messiah. Because Jesus was exalted to
a share in God’s own presence and power, he became
the life-giving Spirit who poured God’s love into their
hearts through the Holy Spirit. Because he was Lord, believers
possessed the Holy Spirit. Because they possess
the Holy Spirit, they could proclaim him as Lord. This dramatic experience
of empowerment through the Crucified
Jesus appeared at first to be absolutely contradicted by
Torah or the Jewish Scriptures, by whose norms Jesus
could not be considered a righteous person
and in whose eyes his death was cursed by God. In order to come to grips
with their unexpected and overwhelming experience of
God, the first believers began to reread
the same Scriptures they shared with
their fellow Jews, and found above all in the
Prophets and in the Psalms, the garments of Torah with which
they clothed their experience and made it intelligible both
to themselves and others. They found a language
for speaking about Jesus, precisely in those
places of Torah, that revealed God’s powerful
and surprising presence among the poor, the weak,
the rejected, the exiled, and the persecuted. In the Psalms, they found that
a stone rejected by the builders could become a cornerstone,
that a righteous man put to death by enemies could
cry out as one forsaken. In the prophet, Isaiah,
they found the vindication for an innocent servant who gave
his life for the transgressions of others. In the earliest letters and
narratives then composed by Christian readers,
such texts of Scripture played a key role in
interpreting the identity, work, and significance
of Jesus, showing how God was in Jesus reconciling
the world to God’s self. Scripture played
an essential role in the shaping of
the compositions we call the New Testament. In turn, through those
Christian writings, that prior and
formative Scripture now called the Old Testament
underwent a fundamentally new interpretation,
an interpretation governed precisely by the
new experience of God, gifted them through Jesus, the
crucified and raised Messiah. Very quickly, because
these distinctive Christian compositions– first, the
Letters, then, the Gospels– were read out loud
in worship together with the writings of
Torah and the prophets, they also gained the
authority of Scripture. By the late second century,
the canons of the Old and New Testaments, what we Christians
now designate as Scripture, was pretty much settled, with
formal conciliar ratification, taking place in
the fourth century. Now, although any
number of factors went into the historical
process of canonization, I want to stress
a criterion that was more implicit
than explicit, and may have been all the more important
because it was implicit. I mean the criterion
that we might call sensus ecclesiae,
the sense of the church, which has both a formal
and a material element. Formally, the
sense of the church means the entire process of
use, discernment, exchange, and testing that led to
the disparate communities, exchanging, collecting,
and selecting certain compositions
and not others to be read in the assembly. Materially, the
sense of the church means that believers
perceived in these writings the distinctive capacity
not only to express the experience of God in
Christ, which was the very life breath of the church, but
also that these writings could bring into being, enliven, and
guide the church in every age. This is what we find in
the lives of the Saints whose stories, far more
than doctrinal conflicts or institutional
struggles, constitute the true history of the Church. The Church is most itself in the
embodied witness of sanctity. And in our living
traditions, stretching from the apostles themselves
through the Mothers and Fathers of the Desert, the monks, nuns,
and mystics of the Middle Ages, down to the witnesses
of our own age, the connections between a
personal and passionate reading and praying of Scripture,
especially of the Psalms, and a prayerful and prophetic
witness to the world is clear and constant. Because Augustine and Luther
both read Paul as a script for their own
experience of God, they, at once, enlivened the
text of the apostle and transformed their own lives. Because both Teresa of
Avila and Mother Teresa were reformed by the
words of Scripture, they were also powerful
reformers in the Church. For the saints– that is,
those who are fully and truly committed to the transformation
of their lives according to the mind of Christ– Scripture is living and
life giving above all because it is read as
speaking in all its parts to this process
of transformation. The present experience
of the reader is identified and clarified
even as that experience elicits the true telos, or
meaning of the text. The complex and
challenging experiences of the Church in
every age and place are perceived through
the symbols of Scripture and, in turn, evoke
readings of Scripture that are at once new
and deeply consonant with earlier readings,
paradoxically most consonant when most new. Theological. Such reading by the
Church, past and present, depends on a strong theological
understanding of the canon. I ask your indulgence
here as I return to some thoughts on this
subject that I first formulated some 34 years ago
and have shamelessly repeated in print at least once. I am going to proceed with
or without your indulgence for two reasons. The first is that I have finally
grasped, at the age of 75, that very few
people have actually read anything I have written
or remembered it if they did. And it is an extreme
example of scholarly vanity to suppose that these particular
thoughts are therefore repetitious for you. The second is that I
think that these ideas are of such importance
that they bear repetition any number of times. So I have 13 paragraphs
that I call canonical theses or canonical propositions. First, canonicity is a
statement of relevance. The Church affirms with this
unchanging and unchangeable list of books– books notice– not authors,
not theologies, but books– that the particular and
time-conditioned meaning of the text is not
their only meaning. They are not defined totally
by their historical context. They possess
enduring pertinence. They can bring the church
of every age into being and shape it according
to the mind of Christ. When I speak of
church here, I am not thinking, first of all, of
a worldwide organization. I think, first of all, of the
embodiment of the People of God when any two or
three gather together in the name of Jesus
and pray and call on the name of the Lord. Second. Relevance, however, is not the
same for all times and places. This is why the entire
collection of writings must be kept alive in
the church in every time and place for the church
to be alive in the Spirit. In times calling for renewal
and change, the voice of Paul may be most pertinent. In times of moral lassitude,
the Gospel of Matthew or the Letter of James. The book of Revelation
is read quite differently in times of persecution
than in times of peace. Not only times,
but places differ. The universal church can exist
in dramatically different circumstances simultaneously. Here, it enjoys
prosperity and position, while there it is
poor and persecuted. Here, it may require
the voice of promise. Here, it requires the
voice of prophecy. The Canon must be able
to address every time and every place of the Church. This is why the Psalms play such
a unique role within the Canon. Praying the Psalms, as
a Augustine understood, one speaks directly
to God out of every imaginable circumstance. Third. The relevance of the
canonical writings is not found solely in how
they speak individually. It is located in them as
parts of a collection that is related dialectically
to all the other parts of that collection. Precisely the way in which
the writings work together to shape Christian
identity, makes the Canon such an important and yet such
a fragile and intricate organ, and shows how the very idea
of a “canon within the Canon” reveals an arrogant assumption
that we know for every age and place what documents
possess relevance, and are willing to
close the possibility that canonical witnesses,
other than our favorites, might testify to other
realizations of the Church. Fourth. The Canon can be considered the
Church’s working bibliography. Whatever else individual
Christians read on their own, these are the compositions
which the Church, as such, turns to for
discerning, debating, and defining its identity. These are the public
documents of the Church. Public because these alone
are read aloud in the assembly to the People of God. Public because they
make themselves available to the
entire community for its common process of
discernment and decision making as believers
experience new circumstances and new issues and
new empowerments through the Holy Spirit. Fifth. Canon is more than the residuum. I love that word. I’ve always wanted
to use that word– residuum. It’s not just the residue
of a historical process. I could have just said residue,
but residuum is so good. It’s like continuum,
vacuum, Triduum. That’s the entire set. That’s the entire set
of words ending in -uum. So it’s not just the residuum
of a historical process. The Canon requires a
commitment by the Church in every age and place. The acceptance by the Church
of these specific writings for liturgical reading
and for public debate is the most fundamental
identity decision made by the Church in every age. The decision
rejects any writings from the present that would
contend for equal recognition and asserts continuity
with the tradition that handed on these
compositions from generation to generation as the most
consistent and visible thread of Christian identity from
the beginning until now. It’s these fragile texts. That’s the thread. Popes come and go. Institutions come and go. Religious movements
rise and fall. These texts are the thread
of continuity and identity. And the decision to
embrace these texts also takes on the responsibility for
transmitting that same measure to generations that follow us. Sixth. The Canon and the Church
are correlative entities. The Canon establishes
certain writings from the past as the
Church’s Sacred Scripture, a term that carries an entirely
different weight than the term, the Bible, which can only
designate a set of books, not its role for the church. As the church stands under
the norm of Scripture in every age finding meaning and
life in its prayerful reading, so do those ancient writings
gain recognition as Scripture by being so read and prayed
by a community, age after age, as the measure of
its life and meaning. Seventh. We’re getting there. It’s okay. We’re going to get there. The paragraphs are not
going to get shorter. But neither are they
going to get longer. It’s just kind of a steady pace. Seventh. And this is most provocative. Perhaps, it is
essential to the Canon that it be closed for its
very stability enables it to mediate a specific
identity through the success of ages of the Church. Because the Church today reads
the very same writings as were read by Polycarp, Augustine,
Hildegard, Aquinas, Luther, Th r se of Lisieux, Rahner, it
remains identifiably the same community. If a lost letter of Paul
should be discovered and shown to be authentic, it
could create headlines. But it would not enlarge the
Canon, for such a letter, from the time of its
composition until the present, has not shaped the identity
of the Church Catholic. Eighth. Indeed, it is because the
Canon is closed and exclusive that it is capable of being
truly small c, catholic, having universal and
enduring pertinence. This is only an
apparent paradox. A ruler that can be added to or
taken away in any time or place loses its capacity to
measure every time and place. So the closed
nature of the Canon enables and encourages an open
process of interpretation. Something has to be stable. Nine. The acceptance of the
normative role of the Canon is what distinguishes theology
from the history of ideas and the study of literature. For history and literature
as such, the concept of canon is meaningless except as
a useful classification for a certain group of writings
that for a certain period of time achieve
classical status. But that recognition
does not necessarily bear with it the distinctive
interrelationship between texts and
a living community over an extended period of time
and into the present, which is essential to the
notion of Canon. Ten. The ecclesial decision to
consider these writings as Scripture carries with
it the acknowledgment that they have a peculiar
and powerful claim on the lives of
individual believers and of the community as a whole. Believers assert that they
do not control these writings as much as these writings
exercise control over them by providing the distinctive
and indispensable framework for their self-understanding. The questions that we
readers pose to the texts are far less significant
than the questions that these texts pose to us. Eleven. Implicit in the recognition
of the canonical writings of Scripture is the conviction
that they speak not only in the voices of their
many human authors; but they speak also for God. Scripture speaks prophetically
to every age, not only the age of its composition. Essential to the very
concept of prophecy is the speaking of God’s Word. These texts do not so
much contain revelation as participate in revelation
and God’s self-disclosure in every age. Twelve. Within the time-conditioned
words and symbols of Scripture reflecting the perspective
of many authors across many centuries from the
Yahwist to the seer on Patmos, the conviction that across
those many human authors there speaks as well
the single Word of God, finds expression in the
phrase “divine inspiration.” To speak of the Word of
God is, by implication, to speak as well as the
work of God’s Holy Spirit. Theological accounts
of divine inspiration vary widely as we might expect. But for the life of the
Church, such explanations are of far less significance
than the conviction that God’s presence and
power through the Spirit is at work both in the
production of these texts and in the process
of interpreting them among the faithful
who faithfully read. Thirteen, you will
be glad to know. If the writings
of Scripture arose in the first place as responses
to God’s presence and power, first in the experience
of the people of Israel and then in the death and
resurrection of Jesus, and if the history of the
Saints through the ages shows that Scripture was read as
the essential frame and former of the experience of God, and
if the nature of the Canon is such as to invite the
reading of these same Scriptures as concerning above all
the experience of God among its readers,
then it would seem to follow that the phrase,
“Scripture and the life of the Church,” is a tautology. What else could it be? Pastoral. The hard pastoral reality,
I think you will agree, is that, for most Catholics
and most Catholic parishes, this positive and enlivening
relationship between Scripture and the life of the Church is
at best tenuous and at worst absent. I’ve been a Catholic layperson
for many, many years now, more years than I
was a monk by far, three times as
many years sitting in the pew than presiding at
the pulpit or at the altar. I know whereof I speak. The fond desire of
Vatican II, a renewal of Scripture in the
life of the Church, might follow from accessible and
annotated translations, better catechisms, liturgy and
hymnals in the vernacular, and vigorous
biblical scholarship have largely gone unrealized. Catholic laypeople remain
mostly ignorant of Scripture. But they seem less
embarrassed by their ignorance now since their mainstream
Protestant friends don’t seem to know much more than they do. Catholics, indeed, are as
susceptible to the fads of academic reductionism as are
members of other denominations, so that the bits of Scripture
of which they do become aware are approached with
deep suspicion, the toxicity of Scripture. The hermeneutics of
suspicion does its work even among people who
can’t pronounce it. The main point of contact with
Scripture for most Catholics remains Sunday Mass where
preaching on the Lectionary where it occurs,
seldom, if ever, reveals the complex and exciting
intertextual possibilities of these fragments of text. And far worse, seldom shows how
engaging them might illuminate and in turn be illuminated
by the experience of God in this specific community. This state of affairs
is known to you all and needs no belaboring. Nor is it entirely new. We ought not romanticize the
relationship between Scripture and Church in the past. The ideal I have sketched
as the history of the saints and the premises of canonicity
was never universally realized, and often was found
only among a few. Nor should we
waste valuable time seeking to place blame
for the present situation. Certainly, the
academic captivity of biblical scholarship
with its uncritical embrace of the historical-critical
perspective, has not helped. Even if one were to grant the
adequacy of that approach, the scriptural
education of clergy remains, even within
that paradigm, alarmingly superficial. Ministers with only a basic
knowledge about the Bible find that knowledge
insufficiently integrated with the loving
use of Scripture in preaching theology and spirituality. Adult study programs
of various stripes have the same tendency to
be content with knowledge about Scripture more than
being transformed by Scripture. Let us grant that we cannot
and do not want to return to the past. Let us admit that
many of us bear– [phone ringing] They’re just going
to have to wait. Are you all getting solicitation
calls on your cell phones now? This wasn’t one. This is actually a friend. Let’s grant as well that
many of us, if not all of us, bear some responsibility
for the present situation. The question facing
all of us is how to enable the
future of the Church by restoring the proper role
of Scripture within that life. How can we at least begin
to move from the Bible as a strange book
locked in the past, to a Scripture that
speaks powerfully to the world in the present? Let me propose some
thoughts on that. We have to recognize first
that what is required of us is massively difficult. It
cannot be accomplished quickly or easily. We seek, through the
power of the Holy Spirit, a transformation of our
own minds and hearts or, as Richard Hays
felicitously phrases it, “a conversion of
our imagination.” The answer is not one
that you and I already have and can easily
peddle to others. The answer is one
that we ourselves must seek with others. If you and I are not in the
process of being transformed, then neither can we
credibly invite anyone else to the process of
transformation. Let us acknowledge
also that we make bold to challenge and
subvert the hold that secular modes of knowing and
valuing have on us all, and makes us double-minded
as we try at once to affirm the truths of our religion
but at the same time measure our religion and all
else by the canons of modernity rather than the
Canon of Scripture. So that the distinct
perspectives and diction of faith appear strange
and even false, even to us, when we dare to express them. I want to make
clear at this point that a certain kind of
double consciousness, a certain kind of
bilingualism, is required of believers in today’s world. I’m not interested in hammering
the Enlightenment, which has brought many good
things to the world, not only through
science and technology, but also in bringing
to consciousness the need for human rights,
toleration of others, and governance by the
consent of the governed. But modernity’s
epistemology is severely limited in what it can do. And it is totally
inept when it comes to what is properly human. The realms of art and
music, of dance and poetry, of literature, and of mysticism,
all the areas in which Spirit and Mystery are at play, all
the areas which Scripture does address with great competence. But the church,
including you and me, has increasingly become
fluent in modernity’s outlook and language, and has failed
to cultivate the symbolic world and diction that makes
sense of our gathering together in the first place. Let us realize, third, that
such transformation will not happen through the publication
of books, however fine; by study Bibles,
however well-annotated; or biblical commentaries,
no matter how sensitive; or by any catechetical guides,
no matter how carefully crafted. Publishing books is
not going to do it. The change we need will happen
only if we bring our bodies together in the same space so
that the Spirit can have a body to dwell in and to work within. We must realize church
in order to be church. We ourselves must show up. We must embrace a ministry
of personal presence rather than a manic commitment
to ministry through program. We cannot turn this
over to professionals, cannot outsource
it, farm it out. Our embodied presence is
essential to the process. Now, I’d just like to say
a word about the elements of transformation,
the curriculum of scriptural
transformation, if you will. And I’ve spoken about this
at some length elsewhere. And for the sake of brevity
here, I want only to summarize. Because I want to stress above
all that this curriculum can only be realized through
embodied practices that express and teach it. The first and most
fundamental is Copernican in its implications. We must learn, once more,
to imagine the world that Scripture imagines. Within the life of the
Church, our concern ought to be entirely,
not with the world that produced the Bible, but with the
world that Scripture produces; not what it describes,
but what it prescribes. Ask not how history explains why
ancient people saw it, thought, and spoke this way. But we ask, what would happen if
we thought and spoke this way? The imaginative
world of democracy becomes empirically
realized when people vote and when office holders
leave office when they don’t get as many votes. The imaginative
world of education becomes empirically realized
when teachers actually teach and students actually learn. The imaginative
world of astrophysics becomes empirically realized
when men stand on the moon. The imaginative
world of Scripture, which proposes all empirical
evidence to the contrary, that humans are created
in the image of God, becomes empirically realized
when all humans actually regard and treat each other
as bearers of God’s image. Second. We need to recover a robust
sense of Creation, by which I mean a sense of God’s bringing
the world into existence at every moment through
God’s unseen power, renews the Earth every
morning, and brings new and surprising
things into being, so fusing all reality with God’s
presence and power every day. This sense is recovered from
imagining the world imagined by Scripture not from the
reading of the first chapters of Genesis alone, but above
all through reading the Psalms and the Prophets which speak
of what God is doing now and what God will do in the
future for God’s people. In the New Testament, we learn
this sense of God’s presence in Creation, especially
in the Letters of Paul, which speak of those in
Christ as “a new creation and a new humanity.” But above all, we learn this
sense in our hearts and bones through praying the Psalms. Because in them,
we speak directly to the ever-creating God. We enter into Psalms into the
world imagined by Scripture and slowly, slowly begin to see
our world as Scripture sees it, as shot through
with God’s glory, that is as radiant with
God’s presence and power. The third element in the
conversion of the imagination is to reverse the
Enlightenment’s elevation of the general law over
individual experience, and learn once
more to appreciate the personal embodied experience
as the privileged, indeed indispensable, source
of revelation concerning God’s activity and creation,
and to cultivate ways in which such experience
concerning God’s activity might be communicated in
the Church in a disciplined fashion, and also
heard in the Church and discerned by a Church
that understands that, if the living God is
at work here and now, then we need to learn
what God is doing now through hearing and
attending to the narratives of personal testimony. So it was with Moses. So with David. So with Isaiah. So with Jesus. So with Paul. In the ocean of Mystery
that is our existence, we do not survive through
scientific navigation, but are saved through the
tiny raft of personal witness. Finally, the Church–
not finally for the talk. Final part of it– don’t get excited. Dick, you were ready to go, man. Let me out of here. The final element– so I talk
about imagining the world that Scripture
imagines, regaining a robust sense of
Creation, privileging individual experience as a
resource for understanding what God is up to. And finally, the
Church must seek to recover the distinctive
truth-telling capacity of myth, which alone can
express the deepest realities of the mystery
in which we find ourselves. If we are to make real sense of
Scripture or be fully attentive to our own lives, then we must
recognize that what is most important in both cannot be
reduced to the impoverished categories of
Enlightenment epistemology. Far from fleeing mythical
discourse, we must embrace it. For without such
embrace, we shall forever remain alienated
both from Scripture, which declares “God was
in Christ reconciling the world to himself” and from
the creed which declares both that “he descended from heaven”
and “he ascended into heaven.” These are mythic statements,
and we pronounce them as true. A modest proposal. This is, I gladly admit, an
ambitious educational program. It surely will be
difficult to realize. But you also surely
see that it is a vision impossible to implement
by our usual mechanisms of reform– meetings, books, pamphlets,
lectures, position papers, debate. It might, however,
be worth trying simple communal practices
that have a proven track record for accomplishing
such transformation, not with each element
dealt with separately, but as is the way
with embodied actions or practice all at once. And I offer two practical
suggestions, or two practices. The first practice is for
small intentional groups to gather in prayer to
read Scripture together, precisely as a means of
perceiving and interpreting the experience of God in
the lives of participants. Now, I’m well aware
that Catholics have tried again and again to
organize faith-sharing groups with greater or lesser success. But I am not convinced that
an experience-based reading of Scripture was ever fully
the focus of such groups and carried through
consistently. In this sort of reading,
our presence especially is required as we learn
from each other how, once again, to read
for transformation. The practice itself
teaches, but we must enter it to learn from it. We need to start small and
stay small, read playfully and prayerfully together,
never allowing our reading for transformation to
descend to Bible study and allowing the Holy Spirit
to move among us as it will, showing us how what was said
by the prophets and by Paul, and what was said
and done by Jesus can serve as windows
for the liberating acts of the resurrected
one in our lives. The second practice is the
regular praying of the Psalms together. There is, I think,
a direct correlation between the collapse of such a
praying of the Psalms in common and our inability to imagine the
world that Scripture imagines. In the Psalms, we already
address God directly. We acknowledge God’s
presence and power among us as we praise, lament,
petition, and rejoice. How can we do these things
concerning our everyday life if we do not have the words
or the dispositions that make them possible? Praying the Psalms opens
our hearts and minds to God, but also opens our
imagination, opens our eyes to the Creation
in which God makes everything new at every moment. It is through such persistent
practices of common reading and prayer, with
and in Scripture, that the Church can
begin to imagine the world that Scripture
imagines, can see Creation again as a renewal of God,
activity at every moment, and God’s presence pressing
on us at every moment, can hear our own and
each other’s experiences as revelatory of the
Living God, and can embrace the distinctive
diction of myth as appropriate to the celebration
of the divine among us. And it is out of the
rich topsoil of such a scriptural culture that
we can expect to grow again the authentic voice of prophecy
that calls and challenges the Church to turn away
from the corruptions of institutional arrogance
and, with our Savior’s own simplicity, embody in the
world God’s presence and power through weakness, accessibility,
and vulnerability. This program and these
practices may appear to you to be both utopian and banal,
both obvious and undoable. Perhaps they are. But I do think that unless we
begin to imagine a way forward that has intellectual coherence,
and make that way forward embodied by actual practices
in actual communities in which we participate,
the topic of Scripture for the life of
the Church simply remain a subject about which
theologians might rhapsodize but no pastor could describe. Thank you for your attention. [applause] I have a couple
of songs prepared since everybody is standing. Yeah. [fr. stegman] I had to explain
to him that they didn’t start clapping until I came
up to the microphone. [dr. johnson] I know that, see. Relief at last. [fr. stegman] So Luke,
thank you for this wonderful presentation. And we have time. Luke has graciously agreed
to entertain some questions. Hopefully, the questions
will entertain him. And so we would ask
that you indicate raising your hand that you
want to ask a question. We’ll bring a microphone to you,
because this is being taped. And I do remind you that
this would go online. So make sure that
your question is one that you want to be known
for in ages to come. So we’ll start
over here, Father, and then get one
ready for Gus too. Charlotte, you
want to come here? [participant] I would just
make a brief statement when you said that there were
no programs in the Church. I think the Renew
program did try to get people to look at
the personal experience of Scripture. I just would offer that. I don’t know if you’re familiar
with the Renew program. [dr. johnson] Yeah. Yes, we did. And we did it in our parish too. And we had a group in our house. And it lasted for five
years and fizzled. And it fizzled for
all the usual reasons. It’s difficult to meet. And as I said, I don’t
think this is easy. But I think that part
of the difficulty is that Scripture
has not been read in a way in which
it really becomes transparent to the
experience of God. Leaders, facilitators,
participants slide it so easily into the explanatory,
into the informational rather than the transformational. And I think that what we
need to do quite consciously is start with very
small cells that do accomplish this, and then
have them become facilitators of other cells. You know, that the
Renew program, was, everybody was an amateur,
and it was difficult. So I mean, this
process is one that’s a century in the making– I mean, a century to accomplish. It’s not going to happen– it’s like, because the
barbarians are not at the gate. The barbarians are us. We don’t inhabit Scripture. We don’t. And that’s why, of these two
practices, the communal praying of the Psalms, just start
doing it 15 minutes before Mass on Sunday. Just read out loud. I think that’s a big
and important step. Yes. [participant] I have a
question, though, not on that. [dr. johnson] That first
one was a correction. And this one is a question. [participant] Since
the references to same-sex relations
in the Bible are culturally conditioned, do
you see any basis in the Bible for the Church to ever craft a
theology of same-sex relations? [dr. johnson] Gosh, I thought
we would get through a whole evening without– [laughter] Yes, I do. But it’s not with the kind
of ham-handed thinking about sexuality that
John Paul pushed. It’s just impossible
with that kind of heavy conventional
gendering kind of language. and Angelo Scola,
The Nuptial Mystery. It’s even worse, all
the Balthazar stuff. [phone ringing] Oh, please. I’m sorry. You see this phone? Have you ever seen one? It’s like one of
those dial phones. Oh, shut up. I’m just going to– okay. Part of the point of my
book on The Revelatory Body was to put in play the
fact that Scripture doesn’t do everything, and it
doesn’t do everything well, and it doesn’t speak
adequately to everything. And so if we really understand
that God is continuing to disclose God’s
self in our lives, then we have to have a
conversation between Scripture and our experience that’s
disciplined, that’s steady, and that’s faithful. Now, a very important
distinction: I assert that
Scripture is always authoritative for
the Christian life, but it is not always normative. And what I mean by that
is we must take Scripture into account in every situation. And we’re formed by Scripture. We wouldn’t even be able to
perceive the world the way we do without Scripture. Scripture, in this sense, is
like our parents who raised us. They are a structure
of authority. But you’re not going
to keep driving a Ford because your daddy drove
a Ford, or you ought not to. You respect your dad. You take his opinions
into account. But there are some
instances in which you are not going to do it. But if we, for example, in
the business of sexuality, and we say “No, Scripture
is inadequate on this point, and we are going to
do other as Church,” we are responsible for
accounting for that decision scripturally. Now, it may not be
directly on the texts that speak to that point. It may be by evoking other
principles from Scripture, other places in Scripture that
enable us to deal with that. But I firmly believe that
the authoritative character of Scripture is one that
we fully need to embrace. This is not kind
of a recklessness; rather it holds us to
even a greater account as we think theologically. Somebody has to call on people. [participant] Thank
you, Dr. Johnson. [dr. johnson] Thank you. [participant] When I speak
with my Protestant brothers and sisters down at
BU about Scripture, they give me a
healthy challenge. They say, “Very
well, you Catholics are good at reading the Gospels,
but you’re not so good on Paul. And I just wanted to
ask, in this day and age, in this time, what
are aspects of Paul that we as Catholics
can and should read and claim for the Church? [dr. johnson] Fortunately, I’m
halfway through a two-volume work on Paul that will– [laughter] Since he’s the only
thing I’ve left unspoiled in the New Testament. I’m very much a
Pauline Christian. And I think Paul is
at the very heart, obviously, of this
lecture in its beginning. Things are not so great for
Paul in a lot of neighborhoods these days because of the
kind of cultural critique. You have good Jesus,
bad Paul as a common way of coming at things. But I think Paul is our
most extraordinary resource for learning how to think about
the mystery that embraces us. Paul doesn’t tell stories. He speaks to and out of
the experience of himself and his communities. He is what I’ve been
talking about this evening. And he doesn’t come up with
the answers, not totally. Paul maintains a tension
between “neither slave nor free” and “slaves be obedient
to your master.” That’s a real tension. Paul didn’t solve it. We haven’t done any better. And one of the reasons why
Paul is important to us is that he shows us how
Christianity is always going to be in a
tension-filled relationship with every society. That the Kingdom
of God is not going to be realized in
political tinkering; that there’s always going to
be a gap between the kind of, “Christ is all in all,”
as Colossians 3:11 says, and the fact that we still
have structural asymmetry in society. And I think Paul is our most
valuable resource for that. He’s just amazing, most
of all when he’s wrong. I mean, for me, one of
my favorite parts of Paul is 1 Corinthians, chapter
11, 2 to 16, where Paul wants these Corinthian
women to veil themselves when they’re
prophesying and praying in public, for goodness sakes! And he keeps on trying to come
up with a theological reason, and he can’t find one. And he finally says, “Well,
this is the way everybody does it, so do it.” So if Paul confesses,
“Hey, it’s just a custom,” customs can change. They’re not principles. So Paul is the author
in the New Testament– I mean, I love James. I’m sort of like Santa:
I love the North Pole, I love the South Pole,
I’m bipolar Santa. I mean, I love James, I love
Luke-Acts, but Paul is home. Paul is where we get to think. Is that responsive? [inaudible] [laughter] Many people have told me that. Yes. [participant] Dr.
Johnson, thank you. I want to thank you on
behalf of all of us. We all were moved to our
feet, because you reignited in us that desire to imagine the
world as Scripture imagines it. And in terms of the practical
suggestions you’ve made, it’s easy to see– they’re all challenging. But it’s easy to see
what perhaps that could look like in a parish
setting or perhaps what that could look
like in a campus ministry context, et cetera. What would you like to
see happen in the Academy? How would you like
to see Scripture taught at a place like the
School of Theology and Ministry that honors,
obviously, exegetical principles, and teaches, indeed,
historical critical method, but brings in that
imagining that you have put before us tonight? [dr. johnson] You remember
what Shakespeare said about the lawyers? I don’t know if any
of you saw the article I wrote in Commonweal, an issue
about how a monk learns mercy. Did anybody read that? No. You did. But that was very much
like this talk, I mean, how the reading of the
Psalms creates a certain kind of way of viewing the world. And I got a letter
a couple of days ago, a handwritten letter
thanking me for the article and said, “We here
in the penitentiary are singing the hours
and trying to live.” And they’re Oblates. They’re Benedictine Oblates. And the nuns at
Atchison, Kansas, and then other– but this is
in Texas, a prisoner in Texas. And I mean, they’re
realizing church in kind of a monastic
life in the penitentiary, doing penance, if you will. It was an extraordinary
letter, and it gave me a sense of what’s possible. Well, I think that one of the
things that academics need to do is to find situations
in which they are students and they can learn
from each other through prayer and through
the reading of Scripture. This need not be
a whole session. But when I was
teaching at Candler– this is a Methodist school. And I opened the first couple
of lectures with prayer. And then I asked
students every day– did I do that when you were? No, I was still
tough then, yeah. But it’s a practice
that I began. And it was amazing to me. Because I discovered that many
C students were prayer warriors. I mean, they were amazing. And they just edified and moved
the whole class, a class of 150 people, through their prayer. And it made me realize
that this was something that I needed to hear,
that C students can be powerful witnesses, that
the academic frame is not the entire frame. And so more and more,
I think that we can find ways of trying to do this. But we have to be convinced
of the value of it. It has to be
something which is– look. What did you learn from me? Ann was my student at Candler. [inaudible] Yeah. Here. [participant] This is
actually what I learned. [dr. johnson] That’s right. [participant] What he just did. I learned presence from you. When I had a question, some
professors I would approach would say, “Well, walk
with me and let’s go.” When I had a question
for you, you stopped. You were probably one of
the busiest guys on campus. But wherever it
was, you stopped. And for 10 seconds
or 10 minutes, I had your full attention. You were present with me. So you embodied Christ for me. And just like now, I
needed a microphone. Whose did I get? [dr. johnson] Thank you, Ann. No, but that’s very kind. But I think it’s also true. Whether it’s Christ’s presence
or not is another issue. But no, students will
not remember content. They won’t; none of us do. We remember our teachers. They were great teachers. Why were they great? They got me excited
about the topic. I felt like it was worthwhile. I had a student
at Yale that came in at the end of the semester. She said, “I’ve hated
you this whole semester.” I said, “Well, thank you. And why?” And she said, “I did not
want to take this class. I’m interested in other things. I wanted just to show
up, do the work.” And she said,
“Every morning, you acted like this was the
most important thing in the whole universe.” And she said, “It
made me so angry.” And it was a very
important lesson that positive energy coming
up against negative energy is tricky. But that’s exactly what
people learn from pastors. It’s not just teachers. It’s pastors and
friends and relatives. One of my favorite
questions of groups is, who did you
learn Jesus from? People don’t learn Jesus
from reading the Bible. They learn it from other people. There’s usually a grandparent,
a teacher, a friend, somebody who somehow radiated
what Jesus was about, and they got it, and that
led them to Scripture. So I just think that we
can’t emphasize too much. We got to be there; we got
to be happy to be there. And we need to hear
from each other, because this is a process
that all of us have forgotten. All of us have gotten locked
into this academic strange thing where somebody stands
up and talks to people, and other people write down what
they’re saying and so forth. No, I mean, I’m a firm
believer in lectures. I think it’s a great instrument. But unless there’s
give and take, unless there’s opportunity
to really hear each other, then I think it’s an
impoverished practice. [inaudible] [participant] Gosh, I don’t
know if this is good enough for the last question. But I’m fascinated with your
idea of reading the Psalms. We have small faith-sharing
groups in our parish, and they’re fairly active
and they’ve gone on for more than five years. [dr. johnson]
Yeah, good for you. [participant] But
I take your point about informational
versus transformational. It’s very, very
hard to get there. Occasionally, you do. But with the Psalms, what
I find with the Psalms is some of them are so, I
mean, they’re transforming, and some of them are just whiny. [dr. johnson] So are we. So are we. [participant] And “by the waters
of Babylon” and all of a sudden they’re bashing babies’
heads against the rock. So I guess my
question would be, how do you discern where to
start with the Psalms? Do you just go 1 through 150? [dr. johnson] Yep. Yep. That’s what we do
with all these books, just go right through them. It’s life. Too much of our life is– I had a snarky remark
about the Lectionary about the way it
cuts up passages. I mean, I can’t believe– [participant] It’s so hard
to read the Psalms or base anything about the Psalms
on what you hear with Mass or the morning and evening. [dr. johnson] Right. Well, all you get is like
two verses and a bad antiphon or something. But the thing is, we have
to pray the Psalms aloud and together. And this is what
Augustine understood: that the church is Jesus’s
Body praying the same words that Jesus prayed. And this is so remarkable. And we speak out of every
possible circumstance. We’re angry at the damn exile. We want to smash those
babies against rocks. And we are whining. But we’re also praising,
and we’re lamenting. And the Psalms– but above
all, we’re talking to God. You read the Gospels, and
it’s about Jesus and God in the past. So Paul and the prophets
and, above all, the Psalms is where we engage the
living, active God, the Psalms above all. And don’t be– why
should we be embarrassed. I mean, the Psalms transformed
so many generations before ours. [participant] Well, I
think it’s worth a try. But I think I’m going to
look pretty silly showing up and starting to read Psalm 1. Jim and Barbara show up. [dr. johnson] Well, they should. But just read it
together out loud and just go back and forth. And you’re doing what
generations of Christians have done. I mean, just for
thousands of years, this is what Christians have
done, and it’s out of this soil that great mystics arose
and prophets arose. It wasn’t out of
some other soil. It wasn’t because they went to– they didn’t go to
Boston College and then take up prophecy as a career. [applause]

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