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A Healthy Skepticism


Following is the interview I had with Father Tom Gallagher O.F.M. There is no right or wrong position in religion. Instead of trying to determine the merits of particular theological views, I recount these views in their historical succession. It was necessary therefore to be ruthlessly candid in matters touching on Jesus’ Easter promises and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

As a molder of religious thought, the last Chapter of Luke’s Gospel has been, perhaps, the greatest influence of any in the New Testament. From it we get the idea of “resurrection” (not resuscitation), “the risen Christ,” the belief that we are “saved by his blood” and therefore in need of “conversion.” But this possibility of a New Covenant within the Gentiles’ world is allowed because God’s spirit does not come to the people directly (as the end of all sacrifices) but indirectly in the person of Jesus. The power of the cross was not immediately apparent. The spirit of God is concealed in it.


After the crucifixion, it took a miracle to generate the Church. Almost the entire inner circle of male disciples denied, deserted, or betrayed Jesus, while the women watched him die and then went to lay a wreath on the tomb. Without the historical event we call Easter the story of Jesus would have been left in the dustbin of history.
 

Simply stated the phenomenon was this: According to John, Mary Magdalene was alone when she discovered Jesus’ tomb empty. She asked a man whom she assumed is the gardener, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. When the “gardener” says her name, at once she knows. She, then, tried to touch him, but he draws back: “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father.” Was the body she didn’t touch a resuscitated physical body or a more visionary body? For me the issue is not relevant. What is important is its symbolism and ideology.

Father Tom Gallagher, born in 1953, is the pastor and guardian of St. Patrick St. Anthony in Hartford, CT. He was brought up in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, with three brothers and three sisters. Before coming to Hartford in August 2008, he served as Director of Novices in Wilmington, Delaware. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1982, and during four years between 1981 and 1985 was on the retreat team at St. Francis Retreat Center in Rye Beach, NH. From 1985 to 1989 was associate pastor at Our Lady of the Holy Angels Parish in Little Falls, NJ. In 1999, he became pastor of that parish.

ME: Some atheist folks ask if anyone living in the twenty-first century truly think that someone dead can become undead. Do you have a hard time with the notion of resurrection?

FR. GALLAGHER: “No hard time. It is not something that can be ratified historically. There are no photographs or reports from The Jerusalem Times. It was a religious experience like Saint Francis had when he embraced the leper. Saint Bonaventure said in his biography of Saint Francis that when he turned around to see the leper one more time, the leper was not longer there. And then he decided to dedicate his life to taking care of the lepers. It was a life changing moment. The image of the resurrection that the Scriptures tell us is that Mary Magdalene saw a real corporeal body. She didn’t recognize him but she experienced in him the presence of Jesus. Indeed, this is not unique to Francis or Mary Magdalene; we are all invited into that experience. Part of the problem is that we don’t have an adequate language to explain the difference between what she experiences and what she sees and how to name the experience. She experienced the risen Christ. I see the resurrection not as a hallucination but as a real presence, a moment of profound religious experience. The only way to name the experience is to be able to say, I have seen the Lord.”

 


JESUS’ APPEARANCE TO HIS DISCIPLES

Father Tom is charismatic, creative, energetic, unpredictable, fun, and rational – you wouldn’t believe the crazy priests I met in Hartford. I doubt if I have to live all over again, that I could bring myself, even in the light of mystical revelation as I never knew it, to the practice of daily mass and full membership in the Catholic Church. I was devastated but finally got a normal guy. Didn’t notice until after we gathered together for the first time that I had discovered a priest with no attentional deficit disorder, and felt I could trust. It was important, however, not to project a negative tone. There must always be a constructive side to candor. It is this constructive aspect that I brought to the meeting at St. Patrick St. Anthony. For example, in the story of Pentecost, I am interested in the dynamic between Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But Father Tom could play with the story in a completely different way.


John 20:19-23 is a text for both Easter and Pentecost in the Church’s liturgy. It is linked with the preceding story in the garden by the use of the emphatic expression “that first day” although the disciples gave apparently no credit to Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Jesus. In his Pentecost Homily (May 11, 2008) Father Tom said,
 

After Jesus has died and rose, he shows himself to the disciples. It was the first experience of this whole little group with whom he has shared the meal just days before and whose feet he washed. He appeared to them. They are in this room that it is locked because they are afraid of all of the authorities and afraid that they could get in trouble for even gathering in his name. What is his first word to them? Peace, peace be with you. And he shows his hands and his side, and in case that they missed it the first time, what does he say again? Peace be with you. And then he continues, “As the father has sent me, so I send you.”
What does he do next? He breathes on them. We remember the very first Sunday of Lent. God forms a human being out of the dust of the earth and how does God call this human being to life? He breathes life into him … yes? In the same way, Jesus breathes into the disciples and says, “Receive holy spirit, you are now sharers in the intimate spirit of God, in the tenderness of God’s spirit, you are sharers, just as we have experienced in the very beginning, God gives life and breath, so in Jesus we will experience a new breath to this gift that it is given. Receive the Holy Spirit …”


AM I CHRISTIAN?

When I began to assert the centrality of Christianity in my life, my thought processes could not be coherently combined with relativism. Christianity is really the story of Christianity. If a religion is not absolute – if it is contingent, its meaning changing over time – then it has proven unreliable.

ME: What is the minimum requirement to be a Christian?

FR. GALLAGHER: “The minimum requirement to be a Christian is compassion because Jesus has modeled all his life in love and compassion (Matthew 24). There are rules and requirements but to be a really good Christian, then, one must be compassionate.”

Let us bear in mind that a Catholic community makes me feel as if I were a stranger. I have no business there. I don’t belong. After all, I have largely defined their religious beliefs as “delusional” – probably because it is so hard to figure out what they believe. However, spiritually, I exceed that minimum, for I think Jesus is what God would be in a human body. This raises the question, if I am not a Christian, who am I? Christianity is everywhere in my life today.
 



ON “Q” AND THE NEW COVENANT

ME: “Father, What is Q?

FR. GALLAGHER: “Q” is a collection of sayings. The Gospel of Mark does not have this source. Each Christian community in the first century had its own collection but they didn’t get together until the Gospels were written. We don’t have this document; we can only imagine that existed.”

When people finally got down to write about Jesus, they no longer knew much detail; they didn’t know the real order of these stories or how much time had passed between them. Because of the structure of the synoptic Gospels, historians believe they were constructed out of these periscopes, or “cut-out” mini-dramas. “Q” is not just a neutral collection of Jesus’ sayings, but consists of sayings drawn together by an editor, a “redactor,” who has a particular point of view, which he imposes on the text. One could argue that it was an expression of despair the Israelites had experienced in the Babylonian exile and the need to make sense of God permitting Jerusalem to fall and the temple be destroyed. This disaster took place not because God was unfaithful to the Covenant, but because Israel, constantly rejecting prophets whom God sent, was itself unfaithful, with the fall of Jerusalem as the consequence of abandoning the covenant and making alliances with other nations.

This canonical view of history was then reapplied by the “Q” people to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. But that is hardly the message Jesus intended. If you were to examine the fragments of “Q” (in the Gnostic Library) very carefully, you will discover that what Jesus attempted to do and teach is where God’s government as such is developed; the world appears simply as creation, the sphere of the rule and care of God. The very interesting thing is that Jesus seems to have called for reform in the practice of Judaism.

ME: Would not a reformer have left evidence of having been one?

FR. GALLAGHER: “The evidence is the Cross. Jesus was a reformer, who called Israel to a change of heart. Consider, then: Is a call to repent not really a reformation? The movement is one toward compassion and selflessness. Jesus accepts the consequences, that the prophet would be rejected and killed. He was faithful to the very end of his mission.

ME: “How did Jesus find the framework for a New Covenant?

FR. GALLAGHER: “Certainly the turning point is in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 12). From that point on Jesus changes his way of thinking and his ministry begins to be open to no Jews. This line is continued in the apostle of the Gentiles, particularly clearly in Paul’s faithfulness to Jesus’ message. Christianity moves very quickly into the Gentile communities. Yet however divergent the cultures Europe embodied, they have one thing in common: Jesus certainly revealed the nearness, faithfulness and incredible love of God; the Gentiles experienced God in Jesus. This is why Paul was able to speak the word of God to different cultures. There is a direct line from the God of his ancestors (Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God), to the New Covenant in which case it assumed a powerful and terrifying aspect: “In Jesus there is a New Covenant that is established in his blood.”

 

GETHESEMANE

ME: “Jesus, who would come to be understood as one with God, has a moment at which he doubted his ability to do what was asked of him and another moment when he doubted God’s loyalty. Doubt was thus an accepted aspect of Greek and Jewish life, but not the center of it. With Christianity, managing one’s doubt, that is, husbanding one’s faith became the central drama.”

GALLAGHER: “It is not so much doubt as a profound change in his experience of God. Through entrance into this mystery he is forever changed and his way of being/knowing God is radically changed.”

ME: “What is your image of Gethsemane? Was it a moment in which Jesus doubted his ability to do what was asked of him?”

FR. GALLAGHER: “There are subtle spiritual relations between the cross and Gethsemane. I have found that if we link these images together, a new image of God is created from which his soul free itself on the cross. Jesus discovered that his image of God continues to evolve and he came to know Him differently. He was to think no more of the a limited notion of God – the limited notion was forsaking him, – but he let himself be drawn into something else. In terms of the parables, Jesus turns everything upside down and inside out. In the end, you have to think differently. The message of the resurrection was peace and forgiveness. It’s not what you would have expected because you put to death the holy one. What God offers instead is the continuation of Jesus’ mission in a way the disciples never experienced before.”

 

Comments

  • Floxnod 4 years ago

    I agree that the resurrection story cannot be explained in historical terms- It was a different type of experience. But that's not to say there was no real history being written at that time. There's plenty of evidence for real history from that period. Fr Gallager's explaination reminds me a lot of something I've investigation lately- The Alien Abduction Phenonmenon

    Is the best way to explain the abductee's experiences and perhaps even Mary's experiences in terms of something called altered state of consciousness, or Higher State of consciousness? The Alien Abduction Phenonmen is something that calls out for serious scientific investigation

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