Is it important for the Bible to be historically accurate?
The Catholic perspective on the Bible is that there are intrinsic to the nature of a holy text, multiple layers of meaning. If you think about it this is true of many forms of literature—for example, you can read a play of Sophocles or Shakespeare and you can read it for its historical interest. You can learn a lot about Elizabethan or Greek society by reading those plays, and that’s interesting and helpful and positive knowing all of that for fully engaging the play. But people still perform Shakespeare’s plays or the Greek tragedies because there’s more to it than that, that there’s something in those texts that speak to us as human beings. If you apply that the the Bible, texts understood to be given to us by God through human hands, and through the inspiration of those texts, they provide the guideline for Christian living.
What that means is that the historical aspect is very important. From a religious standpoint, what matters as well is the fact that God continues to speak through these texts. So when the gospel writers were writing their gospels, they were certainly aware of historical facts, but they were more interested in drawing out the deeper meaning of Jesus’ life. There were layers of meaning, and the writers weren’t trying to write a modern biography. They were trying to elucidate what happened in Jesus’ life as they understand it after his resurrection.
Is the Old Testament essential?
It’s absolutely essential. For Christians, it’s not just the first 3/4ths of the Bible that you get through to get to the good stuff. Everything about Christianity is completely rooted and participates in the Old Testament story. When we speak of an old and new covenant it doesn’t mean “old” as in “we can forget that.” It means that the old covenant has been taken up in Christ and made new. And the parameters have been expanded, and there’s this new universality to it. Christians understand that Christ is the fulfillment of everything that has come before. The New Testament attests to that fulfillment in Christ. But it’s not new in the sense of leaving the old behind.
So would you say the New Testament is showing how the Old Testament was fulfilled?
Exactly. It’s an interpretation and understanding of the Old Testament in light of Jesus.
Is it important for the Old Testament to be historically accurate, like the Exodus or Genesis?
Sure, but in almost the same way as the New Testament’s historicity. it’s important to remember that the New Testament was written over a period of 50-60 years. the Old Testament was written over a period of probably six to seven hundred years. So what happens is that there is a process of editing and amending the documents of the Old Testament over time so they continue to expand in meaning, like someone gives you a text and says “This is what happened,” and as they keep experiencing the presence of God in their midst, they can add more layers of understanding. It’s simply harder to investigate the historicity because of lack of historical evidence after more than two millennia. The historical quality is very important, but Catholics do not believe that it must be absolutely accurate in a modern, historical sense.
It’s like treating a poem like a physics textbook. The creation accounts in Genesis are poetic expressions of the true way that God created the world. You know, the Big Bang theory and all of that is a scientific explanation of the same thing. I find them complementary. Some of our Protestant brothers and sisters say that you should read Genesis like a science textbook. For Catholics, it was never meant to be read that way. It’s true, because it’s revealing true things about who God is and how He loves human beings. But the point of those stories is not a scientific account of creation. The point of those stories is that God created out of love, and that He created unique human beings as an object of His love.
What challenges are facing Catholicism?
That’s a good question. I think you can sort of see it in two sets of things. One is an internal challenge, growing in holiness and growing in faithfulness. The Catholic Church on every level is made of human beings, quite capable of failing and sinning and doing the wrong thing. And in the last few years with the sex abuse scandal—it was proportionally a small number of priests, but that’s still completely unacceptable—the fact that some figures in the Church hid it, it was hidden by some people, caused great damage; a great sin that caused great damage to the Church. But Christ is larger than that. And it’s a challenge that we need to face and do continue to face. Not just that issue, but any time there’s something in the Church that isn’t Christlike, that needs to be brought to light. If you read the Scriptures, the Church has always been a mess, but its a mess that Christ has chosen to be with, to work through, to draw to himself. So the holiness of the Church has to do with Christ being there, helping us to be holy, not because we’re always the best of people. But there’s that, the ongoing struggle internally.
The other thing that the Church is facing is that we’re in a time of growing secularism—and secularism doesn’t just mean non-Christian; it means unreligious in any way. That means that many, many people think that science and what’s here now is all we need, “I can figure it out for myself, I don’t need any notion of God” and they think that if there is—if there were—no God, it would be fine. I think it would be depressing, you know, but you could do that. But what we find and what a lot of religious people see is that the world is becoming more and more materialistic, more disinterested in transcendent good, transcendental notions of truth and beauty and love. So we’re becoming very turned in on ourselves, very here and now, and very uninterested in anything beyond ourselves in terms of the transcendental realm. And that’s destroying our humanity, because we’re more than that, we’re more than just materialist consumers. And this is not just a Christian view: in world culture, this is one of the rare times when there’s been a decreasing interest in any religious impulse at all.
So the Catholic Church, which believes that knowing God and loving God and being loved by God is essential for a beautiful human life, the challenge for us as Catholics is to live out on every level a witness that says God is loving, God is good, and He has beautiful things for you, and He has true freedom for you.
The Catholic Church, especially among people who don’t care for the Church, they say it’s restricting; you have to check your mind at the door; that you are not allowed to think; and A. that’s absolutely untrue, and B. when I was a college professor I used to tell my students, “Go be a Zoroastrian, go be anything, but don’t be a secular humanist because its so boring.” And it really is! It’s terribly constricting in terms of imagination in a way that Catholicism or Judaism or Islam is not. When you accept a transcendental realm everything takes on a transcendental beauty, a meaning beyond something just sitting there.
Science and the Catholic Church. People say, “What about Galileo?” Well, that was a bad moment. The Catholic Church has always been pro-science, but pro-science with God.
I’ve always thought of it as ‘Science tells you what, but religion tells you why.’
Exactly. That’s exactly the traditional distinction.
I guess we should talk about CCM [Catholic Campus Ministry]. Is it hard to engage students?
It’s really not. We probably have about six to seven hundred people involved in some level or another. There’s no demand—nobody’s forcing the students to go to Mass; to be involved in things. CCM has so many different aspects, from outreach to missions trips to the liturgy to fellowship meals and all that sort of thing, that it reaches far more people than is obvious. Many people come because they were involved in their church as Catholics growing up and its just a natural step to be involved. And it’s student-run, so students know they have a role here. Other students come after a year or two years, and do the typical college thing and don’t become involved…but then they realize something’s missing. Many of our students are also involved in service or campus life, but they find something here that is essential. So we don’t have to work to get students’ interest. We always try to do things that will draw people in…
But you don’t have to program to get people in.
No. Obviously our programming is oriented toward students, but we’re not sitting around wondering how to get people involved in the sense that it’s a problem. We want more people involved because we want more people to experience this joy, but not because we’re starving for new members.
What’s a day like for you?
Half the time I’m at CCM, and half the time I’m the associate at St. Bede. So I split my time. But a typical day here: there’s Mass every day that I’m here, and confessions most days that I’m here. And we have staff meetings for the CCM staff…but the great majority of what I do is meet with students, students who want to come by once or on a regular basis, who want to talk about their faith or grow in faith. Or who need somebody to talk to, and outside of Mass that’s the thing that I most love.
I so respect college-aged people because you’re living in a world that’s a little overwhelming, especially W&M students. I admire their openness, their tenacity, their willingness to ask questions and ask hard questions. So I have so much respect for the students in general. I feel very privileged to be able to do that.
Is it what you expected it to be?
Yes, because I’ve been involved in ministry with young people for many years. I just became a priest two years ago, but I was involved as a college professor and other things before that. But there are no surprises in that way. But when there were surprises, they were pleasant ones, like how really seriously young people take the questions of life, and how honest they are, and that sort of thing.
When did you know that you wanted to become a priest?
That’s a long and complicated story. I’m actually a convert. I became Catholic in 2000; I had been United Methodist before that. I was very active, and my parents were very active in the church. I still love the Methodist church, but I ultimately found there was a sort of freedom and fullness in the Catholic faith that really drew me in; that was richer than what I had experienced before that. I became Catholic when I was teaching at Hampden-Sydney College. And not very long after that, I realized God was saying you can be a priest if you want to. And I did want to. Being a priest allows me, since I’m called to that as a priest, to meet and be with people and bring the fullness of what Christ offers the Church to people in a very direct way, and that’s very compelling to me.
Were you especially interested in working with students?
Oh yes. I have a very academic background. I was a classics major in Davidson College. And then I did a Master’s of Divinity and PhD in Theology at Duke, and it was through that that I became interested in the Catholic Church. And I have another Church degree called a License in Sacred Theology. So my whole life has been sort of academic; I’ve always loved being in environments that are about the life of the mind and asking questions and seeking answers. So I love everything I do—I love being at St. Bede and working with people of all ages, but I think my background and interests have suited me for this kind of environment. which is why I was put here by the bishop. And I really love it.
How has your worldview changed since this whole experience?
Becoming Catholic and all of that? I think it’s both opened my eyes to the real brokenness of the world, and the yearning that people have for something more. The yearning people have for peace and love and beauty. Therefore also, and this is the even bigger thing that has changed, I’ve come to see much more clearly and much more richly, and how intimately God is present in our lives and how passionately He loves each one of us and He wants to draw us into the freedom of our humanity.