instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Non-transfigured nonviolence

When I started reading Transfiguration: A Meditation on Transforming Ourselves and Our World, by Fr. John Dear, SJ, I was curious. As I read, I became puzzled. Then I came up with what I think is the key to the puzzle. After I finished the book, I settled on what I'd say is its major fault.

I began in curiosity, because all I really knew about the author was that he is something of a big name in the Peace & Justice Catholic movement. Being given a review copy seemed like a good opportunity to find out what he had to say.

The book is an extended reflection on the Transfiguration of Jesus and what it means for Christians today. It's divided into five parts: following Jesus before the Transfiguration; going up the mountain; on the mountaintop; going down the mountain; following Jesus to Jerusalem.

There's some good stuff here, chiefly in Fr. Dear's call to develop a relationship with Jesus through contemplative prayer and reading the Gospels. Some of his insights on the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration are helpful, as is his recognition of the value of seeking a mountaintop encounter with God in our own lives. There's a good line that, "In this age of pop stars and movie celebrities, we are, at best, fans of Jesus, not followers."

But here's the puzzle: How can a Catholic priest who recommends a schedule of prayer and reflection like that have such a peculiar idea about Jesus' life and ministry? If he's reading the same Gospels and praying the same prayers as generations of Catholics did before, and as his own and subsequent generations are, then why does he reach such different conclusions about what the Gospels say?

In Fr. Dear's mind, Jesus is a "nonviolent revolutionary" Who has come into the world to oppose the Roman Empire and its toadies within Jewish religious circles. Following the Transfiguration, Jesus has "one goal in mind: to challenge corruption in the Jerusalem Temple." Even the demon who possesses the boy whom Jesus meets at the foot of the mountain symbolizes "the imperial forces of violence, which kill the poor around the world."

For Fr. Dear, it is simply axiomatic that "creative nonviolence" against the Empire sums up the Gospel. That axiom colors the entire book: his reading of the Transfiguration story; his selection of "quintessential sayings of Jesus"; his opinion of the Church in which he serves as a priest; his choice of religious heroes. On this last point, like many Catholic pacifists, he relies heavily on Martin Luther King and Gandhi, and attributes the relative lack of Catholic pacifists to a defect of the Church.

And that, I think, is the key to the puzzle. Fr. Dear does not think with the Church. He is, if it's not too cute to say it, something of a sola Scriptura Catholic, who uses his hermeneutic of nonviolence to interpret every verse according to his own opinion, and if the Church does not share his opinion, so much the worse for the Church.

Thus we have Peter, James, and John falling asleep on Mount Tabor serving as an "image [that] helps explain today's male-dominated, institutional Church," which "must of course ordain women and married people, and include everyone in its embrace." Where that "of course" comes from, and where it's supposed to go, isn't made clear, but I suppose it follows somehow from the Church not knowing that creative nonviolence sums up the Gospel.

Which brings me to the book's major fault. Fr. Dear is so convinced of the rightness of his opinion that he does very little to convince the reader. Without denying its genuine insights, taken as a whole the book is a sermon to the converted, to those who already agree with him that the Gospel reduces to a message of nonviolence.

The result is a disservice to those who don't agree with him, because it makes it very difficult to discern areas of potential agreement. Saying that nonviolence is all there is to the Faith is a good means of preventing those who say nonviolence has nothing to do with the Faith from questioning their own position.

To a lesser extent, the book is even a disservice to Catholic pacifists, in that Fr. Dear's confidence in the justness of his own position comes off as self-righteousness, and self-righteousness won't win anyone to your side.

Transfiguration is not the book for someone looking for an apology for Catholic pacifism; the assumption of Jesus-as-nonviolent-revolutionary makes for some jarring non sequiturs for those who don't share that assumption (e.g., "If we want to live an authentic, faith-filled life, we need to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to prisoners, vision to the blind, liberation to the oppressed, the cancellation of Third World debt, and the redistribution of the world's resources from the First World nation to the poorer nations...."). It's too bad, because the Transfiguration is a wonderful mystery through which to view the Christian life, and the Christian attitude toward violence is something most of us Catholics could stand to think more about.