For the past five weeks I’ve been learning—or rather unlearning—a great deal about my Catholic faith. At some point I’ll probably write further about this, but for now I want to share one story from last night’s RCIA class.
The story of the Good Samaritan in John’s gospel has repeatedly been misrepresented and most of us in class last night were left scratching our heads at how we could have missed so much from such a popular parable.
After Solomon dies, the 12 tribes of Israel split unequally. The northern 10 tribes are known as Israel and the southern two are known as Judah.
In 721 BC Assyrians overtook the 10 tribes of the north, not by exile but by intermingling. In effect they became a bastardized race known as Samaritans. The Samaritans worshipped on the mountain and were hated by the Judeans, who considered them half-breeds. The Assyrians reintroduced Baal worship. The ancient Hebrews believed in many gods but only one God for them. As such there is no one view of God found in the Bible.
Back to Jacob's well.... No one of that time, according to Father Bob Marrone, would have put the words Good and Samaritan together. It’s akin to calling someone a Good Terrorist. Baal, who was the Lord God and the greatest diety, was referred to as husband and he had five manifestations. So when Jesus says to the woman, “For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband,” he is not discussing her marital status. He is having a theological discussion with the woman.
“John’s gospel is about whether or not she will accept Jesus as the messiah,” he told us. It's the theological difference between having to summon God (thereby attempting to exert control over God) and realizing that he is always present. It’s also about hearers who don’t want to hear anything they don’t like. “It’s futile to examine the details of the Bible stories. You have to read them for meaning and see yourself in the stories.”
My class is an intoxicating mix of history, art history, philosophy and theology. The Bible is filled with symbolism; something modern people aren’t so good at interpreting (and something the Reformation altered forever). Once we learn the meaning behind these stories, we never hear them the same way again.
Reminds me of the following book review that appeared in the Oct. 26, 2005 edition of The Plain Dealer. I was particularly struck by the author's reference to Christianity's language of symbolism.
The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition(HarperSanFrancisco, $22.95) by Huston Smith
If you were a best-selling author and you were pretty sure, given your age, that this would be your final book, one hopes it would read with a certain strength stemming from intimate knowledge of your subject, and with a confidence that only comes with perspective.
That’s how Smith approaches how we reconnect to Christianity by offering his interpretation through the lens of Christianity’s first millennium.
Just when you feel as if his first chapter reads like an advanced philosophy course on worldview, the author says as much and invites you to read on assuring that the necessary connections will be made. And they are.
He does more to make sense of Christianity’s paradoxes than other contemporary religious writers. Transcendence cannot be described in human language, he writes, illustrating this with scientists’ struggle to explain the micro, macro and mega worlds.
The problem is when we try to interpret scripture literally. “Religion’s technical language is symbolism,” he writes. Jesus used stories to illustrate God’s love and teachings and he found the authority for his teachings “in his hearer’s own hearts.” (Bold is mine)
Christianity is not an ethnic religion, but one based on historical events. What initially separated Christians from other Abrahamic faiths is that Jesus found unacceptable the lines that divide people. But divided is what we’ve become. Smith brings it all back to the beginning and makes the strongest argument yet for why religion matters today.
Special to The Plain Dealer