Revenge of the tmatt trio (again)

Christ PantocratorJust what I needed — more GetReligion guilt.

Last weekend, I was out in Southern California (just as the winds started to pick up) and had a chance to read the Los Angeles Times every day on dead tree pulp, rather than trying to find my way through the digital version online. That means you have a chance to pick through all of the pages of the physical newspaper and look for ghosts. Sure enough, there are lots of them. Feel those guilt pangs?

This time, there was a story back in the local news section that offered a perfect example of the dreaded tmatt trio. Let’s see if you can spot the “trio” issue that shows up.

The story by reporter K. Connie Kang focused on a meeting in Los Angeles in which a collection of scholars and clergy — Christian, Jewish and Muslim — met to wrestle with the “dark side” of their traditions, those “problematic” scripture passages that appear to teach that some things are true and other things are not true.

Wait, that isn’t how the story puts it. It says the discussion focused on scriptures that appear to “assert the superiority of one belief system over others.”

Like what, you ask?

… (The) Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith, ecumenical and interreligous official of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, quoted from the Gospel of Mark: “Go into the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.”

Rabbi Reuven Firestone, director of the Institute for the Study of Jewish-Muslim Interrelations at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, mentioned a series of texts, including a verse from Deuteronomy: “For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: of all the peoples of the earth the Lord your God chose you to be His treasured people.”

And Muzammil H. Siddiqi, chairman of the Fiqh (Islamic Law) Council of North America, quoted from the Koran: “You who believe, do not take the Jews and Christians as allies: they are allies only to each other. Anyone who takes them as an ally becomes one of them — God does not guide such wrongdoers.”

Mohammed s 01Now, rest assured that none of these scriptures actually mean what they appear to mean, according to the scholars. And rest assured that the Los Angeles Times does not quote anyone who disagrees with the scholars on this particular panel, which I would assume is composed of “moderates.”

The whole story left me with some questions:

• When quoting strong statements of religious doctrine, journalists usually soften these statements by noting that this is the viewpoint of the person speaking.

For example, a person may be quoted as saying that he — singular — believes the Bible teaches that sex outside of marriage is sin when what the person was saying is that the Catholic or Orthodox churches have taught that doctrine for 2,000 years. There are very few of these cushy statements in this article. These scholars are allowed to speak in absolutes. Why?

• Does the Roman Catholic Church officially teach that salvation is possible outside of the grace of Jesus Christ? That would appear to be the case, based on this article. Is something missing here?

• Late, late, late in the story we learn that one of the other speakers at the forum was the Rev. Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary. If I am not mistaken, Fuller is an evangelical Protestant seminary with Reformed theological roots. Did Mouw agree with the other scholars who were quoted by the Times? Was Mouw so out of line that he could not be quoted? If he was in step with the others, that would be a big story in and of itself.

Now, check your scorecard. And here are the three questions in the tmatt trio once again. These are, of course, the questions that I have found — as a journalist — highly useful in finding out where Christian leaders fit into a spectrum of belief between left and right. These questions always yield interesting information.

1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

26733However, at this event it was a rabbi who was allowed to make the final statement that summed up the day and, thus, the unchallenged big idea of the Times report.

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, which co-sponsored the event with Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., said all people of faith need to “take ownership of their most difficult texts, wrestle with them — not run away from them — but confront them, where appropriate, set them in their proper historical context. …

In some instances, he continued, people of faith need to say to themselves, “This is part of my sacred tradition, but I reject it. I find this text offensive. It goes against my own morality, and it goes against what I believe God expects of me in the world today.”

Many people would say “amen.” Many would not. Does the Los Angeles Times realize that?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Eric G.

    A bit to defend the defend the article: Yes, it would have been possible to find opposing viewpoints (outside the conference, I presume) and include them in the story. But how well would that have served the reader? Would people from outside the conference been able to respond well to what was said when they hadn’t been there? Would they have been able to respond to the conference itself, or only a caricature of it? I would suggest that the nature of the article itself suggests that there are other viewpoints, and that may be enough.

    A simple sentence somewhere indicating what the traditional views are probably wouldn’t have hurt, and may have helped. But beyond that, sometimes it’s better to let people speak for themselves, and that’s what the writer did here. This article was the coverage of an event, not an overall assessment of the theological state of America, and I found it informative and interesting.

    Did it completely cover the theological issues involved? No. But at this point, I have no reason to believe that it wasn’t a fair representation of what was said at the event.

    And to credit some copy editor somewhere, the headline and subhead also suggested that the conference represented a particular viewpoint, at least potentially to the exclusion of others.

    That said, I agree that it would have been interesting to know what Mouw said. And it would have been nice to indicate if there were any panelists who took an opposing viewpoint. Either way, that information would have said something about the nature of the conference.

  • Chris Bolinger

    “This is part of my sacred tradition, but I reject it. I find this text offensive. It goes against my own morality, and it goes against what I believe God expects of me in the world today.”

    Guess that tradition isn’t so sacred after all. If I am the final arbiter of what is right and wrong (the determiner of “my own morality”), then I am my own god. Too bad that this final statement wasn’t challenged but, then again, what statements were challenged?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Eric:

    You are not responding to my question about why the standard-practice cushioning remarks are missing.

    And Mouw too. That’s a biggie.

  • Jerry

    (2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

    As I think I mentioned the last time, there are multiple ways of interpreting the passage. One is implied in your question: the historical Jesus is the only route to salvation. If on the other hand, you follow the idea as Wikipedia that

    Jesus is the incarnation of the Logos—the divine Word of God—as described in the first chapter of the Gospel of John (1:1–18)

    then what he’s speaking of is the divine Word of God, then one can read that passage as “No one comes to the Father except through the divine Word of God” which could mean through its incarnation as Jesus, directly not through its incarnation or perhaps through other incarnations. This is not, of course standard Christian theology. So I could answer ‘yes’ to question #2, meaning ‘divine word of God’ not the historical Jesus. My “yes” would thus not have the theological meaning that you assign to it.

    Are you sure you would not be better off rewording the question? :-)

    Siddiqi took up the quote from the Koran, found in Chapter 5, verse 51, explaining that the problem lies not in the text, but in its interpretation.
    … “take ownership of their most difficult texts, wrestle with them — not run away from them — but confront them, where appropriate, set them in their proper historical context.

    You left out that *key* point. And left out was final statement of the purpose was to work on how people of various religions can live together. It seems that the key point of that entire article was that people need to confront directly how passages from the sacred scriptures are interpreted. You picked up the most sensational of the statements to highlight. Hmm. Sensationalism? Say it ain’t so.

  • John M

    Jerry wrote

    one can read that passage as “No one comes to the Father except through the divine Word of God” which could mean through its incarnation as Jesus, directly not through its incarnation or perhaps through other incarnations.

    Am I alone in being utterly baffled by that?

  • http://technoyid.blogspot.com Izzy

    I question the theological legitimacy of the persons quoted in the article.

    Rabbi Firestone is from HUC, part of Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Diamond is also from Reform Judaism. Thus, neither one of them can talk authoritatively on scriptural issues. They have neither the intensive learning required nor the traditional outlook to comment.

    Thus, if the Jewish representatives cannot be relied upon to give an authoritative viewpoint, then I must question if the Christian and Moslem representative can be relied upon.

    BTW,

    “For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: of all the peoples of the earth the Lord your God chose you to be His treasured people.”

    … appears to have nothing wrong about it.The Jews are consecrated to G-d.G-d chose the Jews to be consecrated to G-d.Others are not consecrated to G-d.Nowhere is there denigration of other peoples or religions. Traditionally, Judaism views all peoples as having their own pathway to G-d and paradise. But, Jews are called upon for more.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Jerry:

    I know that there are multiple ways of interpreting that passage. That’s the point. What is the ancient tradition in Christianity on that passage, however? Does the article (and the forum, for that matter) help promote toleration by assuming that its interpretation is automatically the correct one?

    And the reason that I ask the question is to find out how people answer. The answer tells you their interpretation, which on these three issues helps you know where people fall is a spectrum of viewpoints.

    The way that you redefine question No. 2 says a lot about your views. It is very rare for someone to answer “yes” and leave it at that.

    Oh, would traditional Christians, Jews and Muslims agree that the best path to tolerance and peacefully living together is to ignore or redefine key elements of their faith? I would think not.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    John M:

    Baffled? Jerry’s stance is very mainline on the theological left. Jesus is not Jesus Christ, singular, but an example of The Christ. There are many variations on that stance and, frankly, the most interesting thing about the Times article was trying to figure out precisely where the Catholic thinker was coming from.

    Thus, my question about Catholic doctrine in this day and age.

  • Eric G.

    You are not responding to my question about why the standard-practice cushioning remarks are missing.

    And Mouw too. That’s a biggie.

    I agree with you about Mouw. Whether he agreed or disagreed with the other statements being made, it would have been pertinent to the story. Along that same line, I would want to know if there were any evangelicals (or those of other religious traditions other than those mentioned) who participated.

    As far as the cushioning remarks, perhaps none were made. Offhand, I don’t see anything to indicate that the article is misleading about what actually was said or meant (like the Dallas article was in quoting the pastor about Mormonism).

    I could comment further if given an example or two of what you’re comparing this article with. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with what you’re saying; I’m just not sure how it fits in with this article. Or are you saying that while cushioning remarks aren’t needed, they are included in other when they shouldn’t be? If that’s the case, that’s the problem with the other articles not this one. I guess I don’t see why any cushioning is necessary here (and probably elsewhere). Thanks.

  • Eric G.

    There are many variations on that stance and, frankly, the most interesting thing about the Times article was trying to figure out precisely where the Catholic thinker was coming from.

    Yeah, I’d be interested to know more too. It’s one thing to throw out the final verses of Mark because those verses almost certainly were a later addition. But the quotation in the article from Mark isn’t the only “troubling” statement in the Gospels that can so easily be discarded, so I’d like to know what he says about them.

  • Jerry

    Terry,

    Your rationale about why you ask the question that way is fair enough. Hopefully I’ll remember your answer the next time I see the question:-)

  • Roberto Rivera

    Does the Roman Catholic Church officially teach that salvation is possible outside of the grace of Jesus Christ? That would appear to be the case, based on this article. Is something missing here?

    I read through the article twice and I have no idea how anything Bishop Smith said could be construed to prompt the question you asked. No idea whatsoever. Yes, his reference to what most New Testament scholars, including many who could never be called “liberals,” know, that Mark 16:9-20 appears to have been added to the original text, was probably a way to “soften” the impact of the text. However, you still more than a few steps to go before you get to your question, not the least of which is that Bishop Smith doesn’t speak for the whole of the Church.

    Also, one can affirm that “God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself . . .” and that no one comes to the Father save through Jesus Christ without claiming to exhaust the possible ways that this salvific work becomes efficacious for a given person. After all, there are friends of ours who insist on a “come to Jesus” moment, while you and I believe that it’s initiated at our baptism.

    And let’s not even get into how many people who answer “yes” to the first question still get the nature of Jesus’ resurrection wrong.

  • Dan

    Like Roberto Rivera, I didn’t really see in the article anything that specifically addressed the Catholic Church’s teaching as to if and when salvation is possible outside of Christ. The Catholic representative, Alexei Smith, is quoted as saying that the passage from Mark about the damnation of those who hear the Gospel but do not believe was an add-on. This could easily be so without it being excluded from Catholic dogma. However, the article suggests that Rt. Rev. Smith referred to the passage as “troubling” (although it is unclear whether the “troubling” tag is attributable to Rt. Rev. Smith, the reporter, or the conference participants generally) and, judging from the article, it appears that there was a general tone of disapproval about any claims that salvation is reserved to one religion.

    In answer to the question about the teaching of the Catholic Church as to whether salvation is possible outside of Christ, the Church teaches that

    • truth (but not the entire truth) is found in other religions and this truth is a preparation for the Gospel;

    • God wants all men to be saved and calls all of humanity into the Catholic Church;

    • “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body”

    • the Church is necessary for salvation and Christ himself asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism;

    • those who do not know Christ or his Church but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart and moved by grace try to do God’s will as His will is known through their conscience can be saved.

    As to the “Divine Word” issue, in “Dominus Iesus” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by Joseph Ratzinger, affirmed that “the doctrine of faith must be firmly believed which proclaims that Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, and he alone, is the Son and the Word of the Father.”

  • Dan

    (The teachings that I summarized are in the Catechism of the Catholic Church at sections 839 through 848.)

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The biggest problem the Catholic Church has in media accounts– whether in print or on TV documentaries like on the History Channel– is that in the Catholic Church the official teachers of the Faith are the pope and the college of bishops–not some monsignor bureaucrat and not some speculative scholar. Yet so often their unofficial ramblings are treated like official Catholic dogma or doctrine by the media.
    It is established Catholic doctrine that there is one Lord and Saviour of the human race:: Jesus Christ. Outside his grace there is no salvation. And even if a priest or scholar pretends otherwise–He Lies (or is woefully ignorant.) He needs to get his nose out of his own speculations and start reading what the Catholic Church, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, actually teaches.Someone should give him (and reporters or media outlets) a good copy of the official Catholic Catechism.

  • Richard Mouw

    I will try to clarify, as much as I can in some brief comments, my take on the important questions you raise.

    It was an interesting conference. Each group was asked to talk about texts within their own tradition with which they have struggled. We were not all expected to deal with overtly inter-religious questions. I dealt with Romans 13, since it is a classic locus for evangelical discussions of political authority. But my Fuller colleague Love Sechrest, a young New Testament scholar dealt with some key texts in Galatians on Christ abolishing the law–what she said would have been approved of in any evangelical gathering.

    For the record, I was interviewed by the LA Times reporter afterward, and she asked me what I thought of dialogues like this. I said–and she chose not to quote me in the story–that I believe that we need to be in dialogue, and to come with a willingness genuinely to learn from others. But, I quickly added, we do believe that Christ alone can save. My own view on this has been set forth publicly on many occasions. Dialogue with other religions has to aim at three goals: one is learning from others; another is working together for the “shalom of the City” (Jer. 29); but in all of this we must always be ready to point to the Jesus as the only One who is mighty to save. I am willing to allow some mystery in how Jesus actually gets ahold of people–but he alone is the Way.

    I also had a fine conversation with a young woman rabbi who certainly did not think me wishy-washy on these matters. “Are you saying that your religious perspective is right and mine is wrong?” she asked. I responded: “I am saying that what is non-negotiable for me is that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah. That is simply something that we disagree about. You think I am wrong in saying that, and I think you are wrong in denying it. This is a fundamental disagreement.”


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