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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Shea's Rebellion

Mark Shea has endorsed two of my books. I like the man. But over the last couple of years, I have begun to suspect that he's slightly theologically insane.

The latest evidence can be found in the June column he wrote for the National Catholic Register. (Jun 14-18), in which he said:

But, that said, I can tell you that if someone suddenly demanded, “When did Jesus know he was God?” my immediate answer would be “Beats me.”

So I can well understand how someone might get a variety of answers to that question from a variety of Catholics, including priests. Jesus has, as we recall, a divine and human nature. We know from divine revelation that he “increased in wisdom and in stature” (Luke 2:52). In short, he learned things like all humans do.

In his deity, he is omniscient. In his humanity, he asks questions because he doesn’t know things. (sic - apparently capital "H" is not acceptable in reference to God).

Mark goes on to say that he suspects somebody has answered this question in the Church's history, but he's darned if he knows who it is. And since he is puzzled by the problem, he figures it is just ducky if other Catholics are puzzled by the problem too.

In other words, Mark Shea sees himself as the standard of what good Catholics should and should not know. It's the kind of self-effacement which I've written about in other columns - sounds great on the surface, but there's a reason for it.

Sadly, that's not all. He has more to say:

However, that said, my point is this: The failure of a busy, harried priest to be a theological vending machine on every abstruse question of theology — and that at the drop of a hat — is not really an indication of something sinister or substandard going on in the pulpit.

Nor is it quite fair to relate the sudden question “When did Jesus know he was God?” to either the preaching of the Real Presence or the general question “Is Jesus God?” and suggest that failure to have sudden universal competence in the first question means neglect or denial of the other two questions.

Apparently, Mark considers the question of Christ's self-knowledge (and therefore, the question of His ability to self-reveal God to mankind) an "abstruse question of theology."

Thus, the inability to say when Jesus is capable of beginning God's self-revelation is not really related to a substandard education. Apparently, since he considers himself well-educated and he doesn't have a clue, that means his kind of ignorance is not a sign of really lousy theological formation.

As I say, Mark is a nice guy, but theologically he's somewhere short of a full deck.

It should be noted that he is correct on at least one point: someone in the Church's theological history has dealt with this question. Indeed, several someone's dealt with this, since the idea that Jesus was not always fully God (and therefore did not always know Who He Is), was central to at least a half-dozen heresies of the Church, most notably Arianism.

So, yes, the question was dealt with.


Now, to be fair to Mark, the clearest answer is given by a medieval theologian whom hardly anyone reads today: Thomas Aquinas.

And the book he wrote the solution in, although it is the only book ever to be enthroned on the altar with the Scriptures during an ecumenical council, is not always an easy read: the Summa Theologica.

Now, since this is kind of a thick book (actually, it's a collection of several books - Aquinas was something of a pedant), Mark should look specifically in Part III, Question 10, Part III, Question 11 Article 4, Part III, Question 15, Article 3.

And as the answer to Objection 2 in Article 15 makes clear, Jesus did not ask questions because He did not know things. Since God does not have a body, He lacked only experiential knowledge, the knowledge of what it feels like for something to happen in the physical body He took on in the Incarnation. Even in His human intellect, He lacked no other kind of knowledge.

Christ did "grow in knowledge," but the knowledge He grew in was experiential knowledge, not intellectual knowledge, and most certainly not in self-identity knowledge. Because, after all, if you don't know you are God, then you aren't. Period.

But wait? If Jesus knew everything even in His human intellect, then why did He ask questions? Well, for the same reason I just asked the preceding question, the same reason parents ask their children questions like, "What sound does the letter 'B' make?" or "What is five times seven?"

Now, a child may think, "Man, my parents are stupid. They don't know the answers to ANYTHING, do they?" An adult, however, recognizes that not everyone who asks a question is trying to fill a void of knowledge in himself.

Mark, for some reason, finds this to be a difficult concept to apply to God Incarnate. To be fair, his confusion is shared by a lot of well-known modern theologians, but that doesn't make the confusion any less ludicrous, especially if the jokers who taught Mark consider themselves good theologians.

A speaker asks a rhetorical questions precisely because the speaker knows the answer but he wants the audience to work it out on their own, to expand their own understanding.

In this way, the audience becomes co-creators, for they create in themselves the knowledge which pre-existed their own intellectual work. As another obscure theologian named Paul once opined, we are God's co-workers (1 Cor 3:9). God is kind of serious about us being that.

So, does the confusion about God Incarnate always possessing a complete knowledge of Himself in His human intellect from the moment of conception onward strain credulity?

No. Why would it? (note the use of a rhetorical question). With God, all things are possible.

Does this lack of knowledge indicate a neglect or fault in the theological formation of the person who suffers from it?

Absolutely. A very serious fault indeed.

Have there been a lot of seminaries which consistently mis-taught on this point over the last forty years?

Again, no question of it. Absolutely.

A theological nut-case named Karl Rahner is among the most well-known of the lunatic fringe who advanced the idea that Jesus did not possess complete self-knowledge. His works, and the works of fruitcakes like him, were very popular in seminaries over the last forty years. Indeed, in some of the less competent seminaries, his work is still studied as if it were somehow of importance.

It isn't.

But, a lot of priests, and consequently a lot of lay people, including Mark Shea, are in unknowing rebellion against the constant teaching of the Church because they allow themselves to be confused by the likes of Karl Rahner, Hans K√ľng, Bozo the Clown and Britney Spears.

Mark really should know better. If God's self-knowledge was really just an "abstruse question," the Church wouldn't have bothered to answer it, as She hasn't bothered to answer the question, "Does Limbo exist?"

The fact that She did answer the question of Christ's self-knowledge, and the circumstances in which She rather vehemently insisted on it, indicate that the question is anything but abstruse, and the answer is anything but murky.

Mark ends by complaining that he's never heard a sermon preached on the consciousness of Christ, therefore it can't be that important. The reasoning is ludicrous.

I've known a lot of most excellent priests, but I've personally heard a sermon preaching against contraception only once in my adult life. Does this mean contraception isn't really a serious sin? Does it mean the problem of contracepting Catholics is just an "abstruse question"?

I'm asking because I know the answer.
I hope the rest of you know it too.


Jeff Miller said...

I wrote Mark about that column and gave him the Magisterial references that show that the human soul of Jesus always enjoyed the beatific vision.

Fr. Most's book The Conciiousness of Christ deals with this subject quite well and is online for free.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

I'm glad you did.

But I would bet thousands of dollars Mark never publicly reverses himself.

As I pointed out over two years ago in "Three Problems", people who make their living the way Mark does (and the way I used to), can't afford to allow anyone to think they are less than infallible.

Thus, thousands of NCR readers will continue to believe, with Mark's public "OK", that it is:

a) permissible to believe Christ didn't know who He was
b) not an important question in any case.

NCR should have caught a flagrant heresy like that before it went to press.

NCR should correct it publicly now that it is out in the public, and Mark should publicly retract. I don't think either will happen.

Jordanes said...

Well, Mark Shea did misexplain the classic "of that day and the hour no man know" verse -- several Church Fathers tackled that verse with various interpretations, but they all agreed that it absolutely does NOT mean that Jesus didn't know the day and the hour of His second advent.

Still, in fairness to him, his column wasn't mean to try to answer the question, "When did Jesus become conscious of His divinity," but to make the point that Catholics shouldn't expect priests to be able to answer every doctrinal or theological question at the drop of the hat. Granted, the rhetoric he deployed in his column was not on target (I've previously noted how unimpressed I've been at times with Mark Shea's rhetorical habits), and to his credit he says:

I’m willing to bet good money that somewhere in the Church’s tradition this question has been given an exhaustive going-over by somebody (probably several somebodies) and there is probably even magisterial teaching on the question. If there is, then pay attention to that and not to my ignorant ramblings.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Mark's self-deprecation "follow the Church, not ignorent ole' me" is not the same as Origen's "I submit to the Church."

The questions Origen dealt with were generally unexamined questions, which is why Origen was throwing out opinions, because the Church hadn't pronounced as far as anyone knew.

But this question is settled. Mark pretty much knows it is settled, as his "humble" commentary indicates. But he doesn't bother to give you the Magisterial answer - he gives you his wrong opinion. With thousands watching.

Why? Because nobody hires speakers who aren't sure. They hire speakers who speak with authority, speakers who haven't ticked off the pastor by their public remarks.

So Mark Shea authoritatively says the issue of Christ's self-knowledge is not a central theological question, it is "abstruse" (denotation: difficult to comprehend; connotation: it isn't worth the effort because it isn't that important).

He backs up his false opinion with a completely false interpretation of Scripture, one that absolutely contradicts all the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.

Mark Shea is the author of "Making Senses of Scripture", a book ostensibly about Scripture interpretation methods used by the early Church writers.

Anyone with formal theological training, anyone who represents himself as a Catholic apologist familiar with early Church writings, should know the teaching on Christ's self-knowledge. A priest should know this teaching. If the apologist or the priest doesn't, he had really bad formation.

There is no excuse for this kind of comment in a public speech, much less a newspaper column, which one would expect to at least be backed by five minutes of research.

Jordanes said...

I don't disagree. I'm just trying to cut him as much slack as possible -- given that there's not that much slack we can cut. Really, it was sheer laziness on Mark Shea's part to share what he calls his "ignorant ramblings" when a five-second Google search would have gotten him the answer to the question that he says "beats him." Just because he doesn't know the answer and is too lazy to find it doesn't mean there is no answer or that the question is unimportant.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

I don't understand how a man who wrote a book on the four senses of Scripture could have missed this doctrine in early ecclesial writings.


Anonymous said...

Mark Shea's point in his column, was that Christians need to extend basic Christian charity to their priests.
A point, which by your snarky column about him, you miss completely.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Mark Shea made his point by promoting a major, if common, Christological heresy.

Charity is based in truth. Christ was charitable when he called the Pharisees "Blind guides!" and likewise charitable when he called the Sadducees "Hypocrites!"

Mark promoted a false charity, not a real one.