Tuesday, March 15, 2011

God, Suffering, and the Earthquake

One skeptic, commenting on the recent earthquake and the tremendous suffering it caused in Japan, asked how anyone could seriously believe God had some reason for allowing that suffering. Are people supposed to believe that God sits around and does nothing because He has some grand plan to make it all work out? The skeptic continued that seeing such suffering was causing him to suffer a mental breakdown.

In spite of his conclusion in favor of skepticism, there was something almost Christian in this unbeliever’s reaction. The English Cardinal Newman once said that if he did not believe that the wrongs and sufferings of the present life would be made right by God in the next, that he would go mad. The skeptic was right to consider madness a logical conclusion, he was wrong to deny the afterlife. The skeptic was also right to think that there was something unsatisfactory in the idea that God sits on his hands doing nothing, simply watching evil happen as part of his grand plan to bring about a greater good. But he was wrong to think that God does nothing.

God does not do nothing. He does not merely sit on his hands watching human suffering as part of his grand plan. Rather, as part of his plan, He became man himself, entering into and sharing human suffering. He suffered rejection from his hometown and misunderstanding from his own family. He suffered from hunger and the temptations and attacks of devils. He suffered the evil of a corrupt religious hierarchy, a corrupt government, and a sham trial. Finally, He suffered the most cruel and humiliating death his society could devise, though He was wholly innocent. He suffered all the evils in the world and wondered where God was. Finally, He asked “my God, my God, why have you abandoned me. A moment, as Chesterton said, when God Himself seemed to be an atheist. A glorious moment for any rebel or sufferer forever; a moment when God Himself felt abandoned by God.

If the story ended here, for God or us, the story would be a tragedy, but it does not. In one of those ironic little twists that make for good stories and better history, the cross, a symbol of torture and shame, became a crown. Evil could not hold the one person who had never given in to it. Abandoned by all his friends “he stood up the bridge alone, and fire and shadow both defied” (1). And then He rose. The gates of hell were locked with a hatred and bitterness stronger than adamantine or steel; they were smashed open with something far stronger, a wooden cross and the sovereign love of God. And when He rose, he still had the wounds from which He had suffered, but neither they nor the memory of His suffering would ever torment Him again. They were the signs on an enemy, but of a defeated enemy, and became part of His glory.

And then he ascended into heaven, but not to twiddle His thumbs. Rather he said “I am going to prepare a place for you. A priest at my church says that he finds this one of the most hopeful passages in the Bible; I think that I can see why. St. Paul speaks of Jesus as the firstfruits, and of his Resurrection as the model for ours. This means that there is hope. The modern skeptic, like Newman, need not go mad. He need only believe in the Incarnation and the Resurrection. There is a next world to right the wrongs and suffering of this one. I do not think (though I am not sure) that they will be forgotten, or made as if they had never happened, but they will be defeated enemies, and their scars will become the marks of our glory.

The story then, is not a tragedy. It is not one for God, and it need not be one for us. Rather, it is a heroic quest. It is so because there is a goal and a purpose, and at the end, a triumph. Fulton Sheen, quoting, I think, of all people, Nietzsche (2), said, “ ‘We can bear anything in this world, any kind of a how, as long as we know the why,’ and the why was given, on the road to Emmaus.”

This post makes no pretense at learning, completeness, or originality, it is simply some confused notes of a slightly overworked and very presumptuous graduate student. Take it as such.

Further Reading:

David Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (2005).

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

NT Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (2009).

1. Frodo Baggins in Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

“A Virgin Shall Conceive”: Isaiah 7:14 and a Problem with the NABRE

On Ash Wednesday of this year, the revised edition of the New American Bible will be released (1). In preparation since 1994, the appearance of the new translation is long overdue and generally welcome, but the text contains one serious flaw. In Isaiah 7:14, Isaiah prophecies the birth of the coming Messiah. God commands Achaz to ask a sign and Achaz refuses, saying that he will not tempt God. The prophet replies,
“Is it a small thing for you to be grievous to men, that you are grievous to my God also? [14] Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” (2)

Jewish readers, recently joined by modern skeptics, have protested that the word “virgin” is not in the original Hebrew and originates from an ancient Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint. In the NAB-Revised Edition (henceforth, NABRE), the US Catholic Bishops have capitulated and render the highlighted text “a young woman will conceive.” This capitulation fails to account for several good reasons for keeping the word “virgin,” including, its initial translation by BC Jews, the social context of the time, and the context of the passage itself.

Early in the 3rd century B.C., many Jews, spread abroad by the diaspora, no longer knew or could read Hebrew and so Hebrew scholars translated the Old Testament into Koine Greek. St. Augustine relates a legend of how the Septuagint, as this Greek translation of the Old Testament was named, came to be. One of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt (Ptolemy Philadelphus), desired a Greek translation for his library and commissioned the translation by 72 learned Jewish scholars. Working independently, these 72 scholars each returned a translation of the text that was in perfect agreement, taken to be a divine sign of its excellence (3). The Septuagint continued to be used by Jews and Early Christians until the 2nd/3rd century AD, when the Jews, probably for several reasons (4), went back to the Hebrew .

After Jesus’ Ascension, early Christians searched the Old Testament for messianic prophecies fulfilled by Jesus. Probably using the Septuagint, they found in Isaiah 7:14, a passage perfectly suited to their needs, reading, “a virgin shall conceive etc.” Such a passage was naturally a good fit for the early Christians, much of whose strategy for preaching Jesus to the Jews included appeals to fulfilled prophecy. Ancient Jews who remained resistant to Christianity began to protest that the Hebrew text did not read “virgin” at all, but rather simply almah, “young woman,” while many modern secularists have taken up the critique.

Despite the recent capitulation by the US Catholic bishops, however, at least three compelling reasons remain for supposing that the translation of the Hebrew word almah should remain “virgin,” rather “young woman.” First, Septuagint was translated by Jews for Jews. Closer to the context and understanding the language better than we, they chose to render the word almah by the Greek word for virgin, parthenos rather than neanis, young woman. Second, while true that almah does not explicitly mean virgin, this is misleading. The late Carsten Peter Thiede has pointed out that,
“critics have asserted that “virgin” should read, young woman… [but] almah [is] a young unmarried woman of childbearing age. Given the social culture of Isaiah’s days, she was therefore either a virgin or a prostitute. Since the context of the prophecy rules out the prostitute, we are left with the virgin (5).”
Finally, the context of the text of Isaiah itself speaks of this as a sign. As Origen said long ago, a young woman becoming pregnant would not be a remarkable sign, but a virgin becoming pregnant would (6).

Welcome as the NABRE is, the choice to render the Hebrew almah in Isaiah 7:14 as “young woman” rather than “virgin,” unfortunate and flawed. As it has read for the past 2,250 years (and has meant for longer), Isaiah 7:14 should still read, “a virgin will conceive and bear and son and his name shall be called Emmanuel.”

2. Isaiah 7: 13-14. Douay-Rheims Bible. http://www.drbo.org/chapter/27007.htm
3. Augustine, City of God bk.18.ch.42 http://www.bible-researcher.com/vulgate2.html
4. These may have included a declining use of Greek among the Jews, perhaps the result of many Jews of the Diaspora becoming Christians, as well as the desire to avoid a text that became associated with Christianity.
5. Carsten Peter Thiede, Jesus: Man or Myth, (2004) p.47. Thiede was Professor of New Testament History and Papyrology and Archeology at STH in Basel Switzerland. He is also author of, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewish Origins of Christianity (2003).
6. Origen, Against Celsus, ed. Henry Chadwick, (1953), p.34. (Available on google books)
-additionally, the greek word for young woman, neanis, occurs elsewhere in the Septuagint, which makes it appear that the initial Jewish translators did have reason to render almah as parthenos (virgin), rather than neanis (young woman).

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Contraceptive Culture-- Commercialized

I was recently very bothered by a TV commercial for a certain contraceptive device.  Now, really, it bothers me as a Catholic whenever I see a commercial for contraception.  When I see another commercial for yet another pill, I tend to roll my eyes and shake my head and perhaps mock the snazzy name given to it.  This was one for an IUD.  That is, an Intra-uterine device.  Similar to the pill, it is abortifacient.  These things can and will cause an abortion by preventing an embryo from being able to attach inside the uterus.

What appalled me about this commercial was not only the fact that it was for an abortifacient device, but that it was a representation and commercialization of contraceptive culture as a whole.  When I say "contraceptive culture," I don't just mean a culture in which methods of artificial birth control (ABC) are used.  That's just on the surface.  I mean also all of the concurrent characteristics of such a culture.  A few examples: A general lack of respect for the sanctity of human life and failure to recognize and value human life in its most vulnerable stage; a lack of reverence for the dignity of the person –that is, the image and likeness of God; a lack of esteem both for one's own body and the body of another, when one's own body becomes a tool to be controlled and used, or worse, a threat to be fought.  Finally, there is a lack of reverence for the sacrament of marriage and sexuality itself. 

The main purpose of contraception is to allow a "carefree" sexual (and likely non-marital) relationship, free from any potential "burden" (ie. "children").  And their commercials serve to convey how that can be made possible.  But this commercial conveys much more below the surface; unfortunately, something much more sinister about the culture in which we live. Here is a link to the commercial on YouTube.

The woman in this commercial is meant to be relatable to other women; in this case she is specifically meant to be relatable to mothers.  She is meant to represent the "typical" mother, and her children, "typical" children.  This "typical" mother's inner monologue is "Did I take my pill this morning? I can't even think of having another child," as she runs over to where her (unsupervised) children have accidentally dropped fruit on the store's floor.  The commercial's representatives of "typical" children, who result without the usage of their device, are shown to be inherently unruly and burdensome in order to convey society's general view of children.  There is also the brief but noteworthy presence of her apathetic and disinterested husband in the commercial.  He is intentionally portrayed as completely disconnected from her.  They don't even have a scene together.  To further stress society's view on children, her inner monologue concludes with "Ooooh, I think two's plenty."  OK, she adds "maybe," but who are they kidding? 

Lastly, there is the product's tagline: "Keep life simple."  Is that really all that it's about though? Simplicity?  We know already that life is not simple.  The gift that is life really is quite complex.  It is likely the most complex gift we can ever receive, and is from the most divine Source we can only try to fully imagine.  He calls us to accept His greatest gift, with all its complexities, to have faith that He will guide us through them, and not to let a desire for simplicity become a temptation to reject Sanctity.