Church teaching and the knowledge and understanding of modernity

A Belgian Jesuit, Roger Lenaers, has written a series of really interesting, and also challenging, books on the relationship between Church teaching and the knowledge and understanding of modernity. Lenaers challenges many traditional views based on pre-modern, mythological, non-scientific thinking – in which God is understood as inhabiting a world above, is interpreted anthropomorphically, and is approached like a powerful human ruler, instead of being seen as the God of Love operating intrinsically within the cosmos. Lenaers’s view enables him to cope with the Neo-Darwinism of Richard Dawkins, agreeing with him (and others) that there is no God-in-Heaven. Nevertheless, his profound Christian faith shines through. He finds the God of Love intrinsically involved in the process of evolution, seen as the manifestation of God’s love for the world and humanity, and realized most fully in the figure of Jesus of Nazareth.

“Atheistic” modernity and its values

For Church leadership God appears as majestically ruling from on high, making laws like every monarch on earth – judging and punishing the guilty. Traditional ethics, supported by the Ten Commandments which God is supposed to have given to Moses on Mount Sinai, is and remains ethics based on law. In a modern Christian view, God is no longer seen as a law-giver from outside the cosmos but as dynamic fundamental Love appearing in cosmic evolution. In accordance with its nature, this dynamism unceasingly drives humans to act out of love and thus to grow in love. Here are some examples of where the modern view deviates from what we traditionally believed.

The virgin birth

To underpin his mythical story, Matthew, as he often does, looks to the aid of a Bible text: namely, Isaiah 7:14: “Behold, the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and his name will be called Immanuel, God with us.” Some critical observations regarding these attempts at justification are necessary here. First, in general, about his procedure. It betrays a clearly mythological way of looking at the Bible. It presupposes that all texts of the Bible are “God’s word” and are therefore, like oracles, infallible communications from on high.

Finally, the Bible text of Isaiah 7:14 quoted above is completely unusable as an argument for the virginal conception and birth. Matthew, who wrote in Greek, uses in this case the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible – the so-called Septuagint – produced in Alexandria in 300 BC. But the Greek translator had at that time wrongly translated the Hebrew concept “almah” – literally, young woman – as virgin. Thus the virgin birth notion is based on an error in translation.

Besides, the continuation of the text says that the birth of that “Immanuel” was definitely to take place in 8 BC. It related to a political decision which King Achaz had to make at the time and not to things which would only come about some 800 years later. The Jewish scholars had already long pondered about who was meant by this Immanuel, but they had found no satisfactory answer.

The result of all this was that the text was well known. Matthew applied it to Jesus. The Christian scholars were only too happy to use the authority of the Bible – which the Jews did not challenge – to show that their preaching about Jesus could appeal to the unassailable words of the Bible. But the application of this text to Jesus is a personal choice of the author, and in the Old Testament context there is not a single suggestion to warrant this application, and certainly not to the coming of the Messiah. However, Joseph Ratzinger expresses the opinion in his Jesus book that in the Bible this Immanuel definitely means Jesus. His proof works as a process of elimination. Critical examination shows, he says, that not a single child in King Achaz’s circle could come into consideration. He argues from this that Immanuel has to be Jesus. But this leap has no support in logic.

The new ethical imperative

Precisely this impetus is the root of the ethical imperative. The earlier ethics, based on law, has to make way for an ethics of love, the fundamental norm of which is: everything is good if it is born of love. There are implications for traditional morality regarding sex, property and obedience, a morality which is by now long out of date. But there are also consequences for bioethics.

Religion and sacrifice

Lenaers challenges St Paul’s role in Church teaching: scandalized by the idea that the Messiah’s mission seemed to be a failure – that Jesus was executed like a common criminal – Paul drew on Old Testament texts which he interpreted, dubiously, as prophecies that the Messiah would be sacrificed, whereas he was simply killed because he questioned the Jewish authorities and their rigid laws. If Jesus was not “sacrificed” on the cross, the Last Supper was not a precursor of the Mass but Jesus’ symbolic giving of himself to his followers. His followers today meet to continue this sharing of the spirit of Jesus with one another. There is no sacrifice as such.

 Death and resurrection of Jesus

When killed by his enemies, Jesus was buried. By loving to the limit and abandoning everything, even his life, for his mission of love, Jesus has become fully one being with Eternal Love and participates fully in its creative power, and therefore, just as we can say of God that he lives without measure, being the Source of all life, we can say also that Jesus lives, no more in a biological but in an existential way and that we can reach him, and that he can reach us – and let us participate in his fullness. That is the modern answer to the modern question about how a man who is dead for already 2000 years can still reach us today and inspire and move us, and so be our saviour.

 Original sin

Lenaers questions the now traditional interpretation of the Garden of Eden story in Genesis as an account of original sin. This interpretation of the Genesis text was not established in the teaching of Jesus’ followers until several centuries later, in the writings and teaching of St Augustine, who died as late as the fifth century AD (430). The resulting negative effect on Church teaching about sexuality is only too well known and is still proving hard to eradicate.

 The Word of God and Church authority

The Bible was not directly available to the vast majority of Christians until relatively recent times – i.e. after the invention of the printing press. Even then, most ordinary Christians were dependent on the bishops and priests for the authoritative interpretation of the text. For modern-thinking Christians the problem is the nature of this authority. Where does it come from? From on high? But if there is no “on high” in the traditional sense?

For the modern faithful, while the Bible will be seen as a book with words of human beings, these are often words in which mystically gifted authors have tried to express their intense experience of the transcendent Wonder. For that Wonder continuously expresses itself in the cosmos and especially in those human minds that are receptive to it. But human minds are always minds with personal and cultural limitations which are reflected in their words and are a source of deficiencies and even errors. Because of this mixture of divine inspiration and human deficiencies; because of the deep cultural gap between those authors and modern readers; and because of the frequent misunderstandings that arise from that gap, we should read the Bible with a critical mind.

The church considers her Bible as a book of supernatural revelations and calls it the “Word of God”. As faithful Christians who belong to modernity, we need a new approach to that “holy book”. For we can no longer call the Bible word(s) of God. Why not?

Because words are the result of human speaking, and we can no longer say of the Ultimate Reality that it can speak. A speaking God is a fully anthropomorphic being. Indeed, to be able to speak one needs a human physiology with lungs, vocal cords, mouth, tongue etc. Moreover it presupposes a human language system and every such system is dependent on human conventions.

 The Church today

For Lenaers, the mythological thinking that is still largely unquestioned by Church leadership is inevitably leading to an increasing exodus from the Church and to fears about what will eventually be left of the Church unless Christians integrate what modernity has discovered. Lived union with Jesus of Nazareth – as the supreme manifestation of the loving God – is the future for Christianity.


For anyone who might wish to read more of this 93 year old Jesuit living in Leuven Carysfort Press have translated three of his book from the German.

Jesus of Nazareth, A Person Like us? (2016).

Living in God without God (2017)

A Believer’s Farewell to Religion will be published later in 2017.


Dan Farrelly, Carysfort Press Ltd

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  1. Lenaers’s grasp of ‘modernity’ is also partial, I fear, knowing apparently nothing of the thought of René Girard and his collaborators.

    That’s why we get a false antithesis between ‘sacrifice’ and ‘love’, when the notion of ‘giving-to-God’ has always been central to sacrifice, and the self-giving non-violence of Jesus simply culminates the biblical evolution of the meaning of ‘sacrifice’.

    ‘Not x but y’ – this binary way of proceeding is a formula for unnecessary conflict in the church – evident also in the unnecessary prominence given to an assault on the doctrine of the virgin birth. I can see the seekers of ‘heresy’ queueing up to attack this author, eclipsing the very valuable things he is undoubtedly also saying.

    Surely for those strongly in the Marian tradition the ‘virginity’ of Mary conveys essentially the notion of a maternal love that transcends sensuality? Must we suppose that they are thinking instead insistently of procreation without sex? Why? Why make this a headline discovery? There are surely far more important axes to grind.

    Finally the notion of ‘original sin’ can no longer simply be blamed on Paul and Augustine and then rejected totally. That we humans have an ‘original problem’ that remains chronic – with violence especially – is too obvious to ignore. Here again Lenaers should read Girard and Schwager – especially with ICBMs arcing overhead in the Far East and suicide bombs now possible in any European city.

  2. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Yes perhaps the “chronic problem” is that when faced with the realisation that those we have propped up indirectly through the passive acceptance of an established ruling class, have actually done nothing more than enslave us to a detrimental lifestyle, we tend to side with our oppressors in a Stockholm-syndrome-style reaction, and seek out the elimination of the scapegoat who attempts to find a source of the new mimetic which is of benefit to one and all.

    It is no secret that Jesus was a whistle-blower. He uncovered a truth so controversial that it rocked the very foundations of society back then:
    the greatest among us will be our servants. I imagine that ideal has started many a war the last two millennia or has at least led to some heated conversations.

    This is still so counter-culture these days that it amazes me that it is still spoken of by Pope Francis. Imagine trying to inject that spirit into our Church these days and the persistence it would require.

    Where one would think they would need but a ladder to get out of this pit, it would be in fact a jet-pack they required.

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