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Self-Critical Thinking Includes the Problem

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Scripture: Week 1

Self-Critical Thinking
Thursday, February 25, 2016

In the Judeo-Christian scriptures, we read about people who found God in the actual, in seemingly secular history, and in mundane daily life. This is the Jewish matrix by which we were gradually prepared for the personal incarnation. It widened, solidified, and paved the runway by which the Jesus Mystery could take off and be understood.

The Hebrew Scriptures, against all religious expectations, include what most of us would call the problem—the negative, the accidental, the sinful—as the precise arena for divine revelation. There are no perfectly moral people in ancient Scriptures; even Abraham drove his second wife into the desert with their child. The Jewish people, contrary to what might be expected, chose to present their arrogant and evil kings and their very critical prophets as part of their Holy Scriptures. They include stories and prophecies that do not tell the Jewish people how wonderful they are but, rather, how terrible they are! It is the birth of self-critical thinking and thus moves consciousness much higher. No other religion has been known for such capacity for self-criticism, down to our own time.

Jesus showed us that self-criticism of our own religion is necessary. But if we are honest, we rarely hear the Christian Church or its leaders being self-critical. Christianity has seldom been known for any capacity to criticize itself until the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Usually we just criticize others. I remember when I asked a professor about Jesus’ tirades against religion and the priestly class (in Matthew 23, for example), and the typical answer was, “Well, he was talking about the Jews.” Surely not us!

The ability to think critically about ourselves is the first necessary step out of the dualistic mind. It teaches us an initial patience with ambiguity and mystery, while also teaching us rational honesty. Such critical thinking is a characteristic of the Western mind which produced the scientific and industrial revolutions, as well as the Protestant Reformation. The Jewish and Christian religions have the power to correct themselves from inside, and move beyond mere superstition, because of these kinds of sacred and self-critical texts. Jesus lived and taught in the genre of a prophet, but Christians have over-emphasized that he was simply “foretold” by the prophets. This changed the way we thought about the role of a prophet, and so we couldn’t see that Jesus truly was a radical prophet. There are many churches called “Christ the King,” but none, that I’m aware of, called “Jesus the Prophet.”

The biblical account shows that Israel did not distance itself from its own contradictions or the contradictions of life, from the horrors and sinfulness of human history—which finally became “the folly of the cross” in Jesus. These hard realities had already been presented in the stories of Job, the experience of exodus and exile, and Israel’s constant invasion and occupation by foreign powers. The Jews may have often felt like saying to God what Teresa of Avila is supposed to have said: “If this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them!”

Self-criticism is quite rare in the history of religion, yet it is necessary to keep religion from its natural tendency toward arrogant self-assurance—and eventually idolatry, which is always the major sin for biblical Israel. We must also point out, however, that mere critique usually deteriorates into cynicism, skepticism, academic arrogance, and even post-modernistic nihilism. So be very careful and very prayerful before you own any job description of professional critic or prophet! Negativity can do you in.

Gateway to Silence:
Astonish me with your love.

Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 18-20.

Image Credit: Photograph by mercucio2
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