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July 26th, 2016

Bomb-Shelter Theology

I think some readers may enjoy this whimsical piece of self-indulgence that I wrote for the Brandsma Review many years ago. In case you are wondering what I can possibly mean by “bomb-shelter theology”, I pinched the phrase, and the following parable,  from part of a deep and very lengthy but entertaining article by an Australian priest, Fr Brian Harrison, in Living Tradition, organ of the Roman Theological Forum (May 1994).

Once upon a time, on a planet just like our own but many light years away, the dominant religion included the dogma that on the dark side of the moon there are large craters full of salt water.

The people advanced in scientific and technological expertise, to the stage when they were able to send up rockets, which photographed the moon from all angles, including the dark side. Believers were cast into a crisis of faith by the news that, while the photographs indeed showed plenty of craters, all of them were bone-dry.

At first, the hierarchy assured the faithful that the photographs were all faked, as part of a Satanic plot. But then some astronauts of hitherto unquestioned orthodoxy flew round the moon and saw for themselves the faith-shattering emptiness of these great craters.

Many people left the Church in disillusionment; but progressive theologians soon came up with a solution which satisfied well-educated, sophisticated believers. It can be set out in the form of a syllogism.

Major: It is revealed truth that there are salt-water craters on the dark side of the moon.

Minor: Science has demonstrated that no water of any sort is observed on the dark side of the moon.

Conclusion.: Therefore there is invisible salt water in the craters on the dark side of the moon.

The progressive theologians insisted that their solution was logical, orthodox, and perfectly in line with the latest scientific knowledge.

Fr Harrison uses the expression bomb-shelter theology to describe the subterfuge of those modern theologians and exegetes who discard or “reinterpret” definitively-taught doctrines from our Catholic heritage that they feel might become vulnerable to scientific bombardment. The difference is that our theologians, unlike those of the imaginary planet, don’t have any real justification for indulging in it. They are suffering from a loss of nerve, if not of faith.

Fr Harrison points out that the Church has definitively borne witness during its 2,000-year history not only to transcendent mysteries like the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Real Presence—which are beyond the reach of human science or reason—but also to truths involving physical matter existing on this earth in time and space. For instance, the Church has definitively proclaimed that Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, and that His mortal remains were raised to life in His Resurrection.

These modern theologians, however, believe we should sort through our inherited doctrinal baggage and classify its contents according to subject matter:

Those which make statements (especially controversial ones) involving historical and physical realities (e.g. dead bodies or the conception of babies) can now be discarded as excess baggage. We are to leave them lying above ground, as it were,  where they will be exposed to possible bombing raids on the part of the historical or physical sciences. If they never actually get hit, well and good. But if they do, it doesn’t matter. They are expendable, negotiable. Meanwhile, we will gather up the remaining doctrines—the purely transcendent or supernatural ones we have received from our Catholic heritage—and scurry off with this “survival kit” to an underground bunker with a sign saying “revealed truth”. Here, in our theological bomb-shelter, our faith will be utterly impregnable from all possible scientific explosions.

The problem is, of course, that not only reactionaries like the editor of the Brandsma Review but virtually all non-believers think that such conduct makes your entire religion indefensible. As Fr Harrison puts it:

The new theology, designed especially to make faith more credible for modern man, seems to hold little attraction for him. The churches keep on emptying, as a greater consensus grows outside the Church that there is, quite simply, no water of any sort on the dark side of the moon.

One of the leaders of the worker-priest movement in France after World War II, Abbé Michonneau, originally believed that the workers had become alienated from Christianity because they thought the Church was on the side of capitalist exploiters. He later revised his opinion, admitting that when he began talking to real workers, a much more common reason given for unbelief was the conviction that Christianity had been demolished by modern science.

Of course, we will never be able to offer “proof” of such doctrines as the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth. If we could, faith would have no reason for existence. But it is becoming equally clear that atheists and agnostics are no closer today to destroying the bases of belief. Which is why bomb-shelter theology, quite apart from being unconvincing, is also unnecessary.

It is a great morale booster when we find an atheist like the biologist Richard Dawkins of The Blind Watchmaker fame so unsure of his ground that he declines a television debate with the biochemist Michael Behe, who convincingly rejects the Darwinian theory of evolution.

It is also encouraging when we find strong evidence being unearthed for the authenticity of artefacts connected with the faith. Leaving aside the question of the Holy Shroud (the evidence for which I still find very strong) I was most impressed by a book published around the year 2000—The Quest for the True Cross by Carsten Peter Thiede and Matthew D’Ancona.

Thiede—not a Catholic—is Professor of New Testament History in Basel and an expert on papyri. He is also a historian, and finds time to be Officiating Chaplain to British forces in Germany. D’Ancona is Deputy Editor of the Sunday Telegraph, with a First in Modern History at Oxford. In a previous book, The Jesus Papyrus, they argued that two fragments of the Gospels—one from St Matthew and the other from St Mark—could be dated to the early Sixties A.D. and perhaps even earlier.

Their researches on the True Cross concentrated on a fragment of wood in the reliquary of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome. This is the Titulus Crucis, alleged to be part of the headboard affixed by Pilate to the Cross on which Our Lord died.

Thiede and D’Ancona rightly describe their book as a radical work of revisionism. Its heroine is St Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who at the age of over 70 travelled to the Holy Land and unearthed what she believed to be the True Cross. The 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon sneered that she “appears to have united the credulity of age with the warm feelings of a recent conversion.” The authors argue that “much contemporary scholarship is guilty of a different kind of credulity, a zealous readiness to dismiss ancient tradition as rubbish, as if the only purpose of legend were to distort and conceal the truth”.

They demolish the idea that the Cross became a significant Christian symbol only after Constantine and Helena:

We suggest that the centrality of the Cross to the life of the Church goes back to its earliest days and that its image was widely venerated by Christians in Palestine much earlier than has been acknowledged. We suggest that this cult had an unabashedly physical dimension and that the earliest worshippers flocked to the site of the crucifixion even when it was covered over by a pagan temple. When Helena came to Jerusalem in A.D 326, she was responding to a local tradition as well as founding an imperial one. She was not the first pilgrim to seek the True Cross, only the most important.

Thiede and D’Ancona provide many cogent pieces of evidence for their assertion that the site of the Crucifixion was venerated by Christian pilgrims from the West from earliest times. Perhaps the most impressive is a wall drawing of a boat with the Latin inscription, Domine ivimus, “Lord, we have arrived!”, which can be dated to before the visit of the Empress. Helena would have known just where to start her men digging.

The inscription ordered by Pilate to be fixed over Our Lord’s head was “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”, in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Interestingly, the fragments of Greek and Latin on the Santa Croce Titulus are written from right to left, which is powerful evidence against the assumption that it must be a forgery. This would have been a natural way for someone whose first language was Hebrew or Aramaic to write, but not what one would expect from anyone trying to pass off a fake as genuine. Only traces of the bottom of the Hebrew line can be made out, but they can be reconstructed to read Ha Nozrithe Nazarene.

The authors admit that they cannot prove the Titulus to be the headboard of Christ; but they have quite certainly demonstrated that it could be. And why should one automatically rule out such a possibility? In one chapter introduction the authors quote from Evelyn Waugh’s historical novel Helena (which I’d recommend to readers).The saint and empress says:

But how do you know He doesn’t want us to have it—the cross I mean? I bet He’s just waiting for one of us to go and find it—just at this moment when it’s most needed.

Maybe the research on the Titulus is intended to provide us with a little kindly light in our own even murkier days. As I said above, our faith does not depend on such things, but (contrary to the view of our bomb-shelter theologians) its links with the physical are not embarrassing encumbrances but essentials. In an earlier part of Waugh’s novel (which I am now recollecting from memory) the empress, sceptical about all the fantastic mystery religions followed by her husband Constantius Chlorus, consults the Christian writer Lactantius and asks him about his God. She is set on the path to belief when Lactantius is able to tell her exactly when and where Our Lord lived and died.

In their concluding paragraph Thiede and D’Ancona maintain that the True Cross speaks, above all, to the human desire to know:

 “I want knowledge,” says the knight Antonius Block in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece, The Seventh Seal. “Not faith, not presumption. Knowledge.” It is an ancient human weakness and a forgivable one. For what else drove the Crusaders so many centuries ago and still drives the pilgrims who creep down the stairs at the Holy Sepulchre to Helena’s chapel today? It is the wish to match belief with experience, conscious that the leap is always hard and sometimes never achieved. But it is the hope that the leap is possible, now as before, which makes the quest worthwhile.

Back to our bomb-shelter theologians…

Larry the Lamb’s friend Dennis the Dachshund, hiding from a dragon which turned out not to be dangerous at all, inquired: “Safe is it to come out?”

Well, safer out than in, Fathers! You see, Fr Harrison’s “moonie” theologians’ conclusions were in some ways more respectable than your own. As he says, they still left their dogma exposed or vulnerable to further scientific scrutiny by leaving open the question of whether the moon-water (though demonstrably invisible) was at least tangible or not. That very exposure to scientific testing, which placed them in great danger of yet more ridicule, also left them with a slim chance of having their traditional religion triumphantly vindicated by science. Fr Harrison concludes his parable…

We can imagine a scenario in which, with the further advance of technology, space-ships can not only photograph, but also visit, the craters. But as the first landing craft approaches the crater-floor, disaster strikes! As it descends past the rim of the crater, still 400 feet above ground level, the craft is rocked by a resounding SPLASH! The crew feel first their boots, then their trousers and other clothes, soaked by a rising inundation of … water no human eye can see!

With the whole of planet earth watching in horror on television, the craft takes its passengers to an invisible watery grave; but the last words transmitted to earth by the doomed radio-man before his equipment sputters out remain forever engraved on the memory of the human race: “The water! It’s (gulp), it’s (glug)—SALTY!!”

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