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Rationalizations

Rationalizations

Rule 4. We have to distinguish substantial statements by the author from rationalizations and popular reasonings in which he expresses his own human opinions.

There is a big difference between reason and rationalisation. We may have good reasons for our attitudes and actions. But at times we fool ourselves. We do not want to admit that our real motives are irrational. So we invent spurious reasons. This is called ‘rationalisation’: namely the provision of plausible reasons to explain to ourselves or to others behaviour for which our real motives are different and which are either unknown or unconscious.

Rationalizing is very much a human trait. Could Sacred Scripture be so human that it also contains ‘popular, spurious, reasonings’? The answer is: yes. Because nothing human is foreign to Scripture.

We will discuss rationalization in four steps:

  1. The human face of God's Word
  2. Rationalizing about God's punishments
  3. Imputing to God hostility against other nations
  4. Rationalizations in Paul

The human face of God's Word

Sacred Scripture is one example of the divine working salvation through human means and forms.

“Just as the substantial Word of God became like to human beings in all things ‘except for sin’ (Heb 4,15) so the words of God, expressed in human language, became in all things like to human speech, except error.”

Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, Denz. 2294 (3229-3230).

When Jesus Christ had been preaching all day long he felt tired. He needed to eat and to drink to recover his strength. Jesus knew in his body all human limitations. He too had no more than two hands and two feet! He also could not be in more than one place at the same time. He could suffer all the ailments and diseases that affect people. He even chose to die as we would have died in similar curcumstances. All these facts demonstrate how truly God’s Son became human. Yet all these human limitations do not in any way detract from his infinite divinity. God wanted to save us through the means of his Son’s assumed human nature!

This principle of “the divine working through the human” operates equally in the sacraments instituted by Jesus. A priest may have been ordained from any nation, any social status, any intellectual background. The priest may have lost his eye or his hand; he may have wrong habits or even be a sinner. Yet, when he consecrates, or when he forgives sins, God effectively works salvation through him. The host on the altar may be square or round, it may be from Canadian or Nigerian wheat, it may taste sweet or saltish, yet-after consecration it contains effectively and really Jesus Christ himself ! In other words, God works through human means. The truly human limitations of the means do not diminish in any way the divine salvation worked through it.

This theological principle of the incarnation should also be recognized in Sacred Scripture. Here too, God works salvation through truly human means. The inspired books are truly human, as much as Jesus’ body and soul, Jesus’ priests and sacraments are truly human. The words of the Bible carry all the limitations of human words: they are spoken in particular languages; they are incomplete and inexact; they are imperfect in style and contents. The inspired authors, too, preserved all the typical features of ordinary people: they displayed their own limited way of thinking; they adhered to particular interests and preferences; they understood and expressed truth with much confusion and with a certain degree of self-contradiction. Yet, in spite of being thus truly human, God effectively and really conveys his own message through them! The better we learn to know the Sacred Books, the better we appreciate how human they are. But this cannot militate as an argument against their having been inspired: as little as Jesus’s true humanity argues against his true divinity.

Incarnation means condescension. God’s infinite love prompted him to incarnate the divine message into the inspired words of Scripture. God wished to speak to us in a truly human way. God’s invitation to humankind was not to reach us in abstract dogmatic theses. Instead God wanted to speak to our hearts. He wanted to argue with us, to persuade, to threaten and to plead. He wanted to talk to us as a parent teaches his or her children.

Rationalizations, the use of personal opinions and spurious reasonings in the course of conversation, are one aspect of Scripture's humanity.

Rationalizing about God's punishments

In olden times the Israelites were firmly convinced that every disaster should be explained, somehow or other, as a punishment for a specific crime. We read, for instance, that a famine occurred during David’s reign. A divine oracle was consulted, which stated: “Saul and his family are guilty of murder; he put the people of Gibeon to death.” David made further enquiries and found that Saul, some 10 years previously, had put some Gibeonites to death. David then approached the Gibeonites and asked them what they wanted him to do.

“Hand over seven of his male descendants, and we will hang them before the LORD at Gibeah, the hometown of Saul, the LORD’S chosen king” (2 Sm 21,6).

David agreed. He arrested seven of Saul’s sons and handed them over. The Gibeonites hanged them and left their corpses to rot in front of the sanctuary at Gibeah. After a few months the bodies were taken down and buried. “And after that, God answered their prayers for the country” (2 Sm 21:14).

When we read a passage like this, we should be extremely careful in interpreting it. It looks as if it was God who wanted the sin of Saul avenged: “The LORD said, ‘Saul and his family are guilty of murder”’(2 Sm 21:1), and finally, “After that, God answered their prayers.” But we know from many other examples that it would be a mistake to think thus. What we find in episodes such as these is not straightforward revelation but a record of how the people at the time (in this case around 1000 B.C.) were thinking about God. It was their rationalisation which it would be a mistake for us to consider inspired!

God’s reaction to such thinking is made clear in other passages. The early Hebrews were convinced that God would punish children for the sins of their parents. “I bring punishment on those who hate me and on their descendants down to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 20,5). In the example of the famine mentioned above, they thought God wanted to punish Saul’s children for their father’s crime. But God corrected this notion very clearly and specifically. The prophet Ezekiel (580 B.C.) declares at length that people will be punished for their own sins or rewarded for their own virtue. Regarding the sins of parents he does not mince his words:

“But you ask: ‘Why shouldn’t the son suffer for his father’s sins?’ The answer is that the son did what was right and good. He kept my laws and followed them carefully and so he will certainly live. It is the one who sins who will die. A son is not to suffer because of his father’s sins, nor a father because of the sins of his son. A good man will be rewarded for doing good, and an evil man will suffer for the evil he does" (Ezekiel 18:19-20).

The same principle was also laid down as a general rule in the Law:

“Parents are not to be put to death for crimes committed by their children, and children are not to be put to death for crimes committed by their parents; a person is to be put to death only for a crime he himself has committed” (Deuteronomy 24,16)

This gives us plenty to think about! When the innocent sons of Saul were put to death because of their father’s crime, this was not what God was asking for. It was what the Israelites thought he wanted. It was their rationalization. And, don’t forget, to this imagined wish of God they ascribed the famine. They thought: This famine must be due to some crime we have committed, for why would God otherwise punish us? Ah, it must be Saul’s injustice towards Gibeon. If we punish Saul’s sons, God will be satisfied and he will take the punishment away. It was another rationalization!

We know now that all this thinking was wrong. The famine was not a punishment on God’s part. He was not happy about the killing of Saul’s sons. The only thing we can say is that God tolerated this kind of thinking until he found the right moment to correct it once and for all. But notice: we find the rationalizations squarely in Scripture!

We find a similar kind of story in 2 Samuel where an epidemic is ascribed to David’s having taken a census of the people. “I have committed a terrible sin in doing this! Please, forgive me,” David prays (2 Samuel 24,10). But in the narration of the same event in 1 Chronicles, it is Satan who is blamed.

“Satan wanted to bring trouble on the people of Israel, so he made David decide to take a census ” (1 Chr 21:1).

Again we find the same process of rationalization and ascribing causes. When an epidemic occurred, the people looked around for the culprit. It was decided it had to be David’s taking the census. Later, they became convinced that Satan must have had a hand in it! But taking a census surely was not a sin. In the priestly account of Israel’s journey through the desert, which was written down centuries later, the census of the people is prescribed as a duty.

[The Lord said to Moses:] “You and Aaron are to take a census of the people of Israel by clans and families. List the names of all the men twenty years old or older who are fit for military service” (Numbers 1,2-3).

The Lord said to Moses and Eleazar son of Aaron, “Take a census by families of the whole community of Israel, of all men twenty years old and older who are fit for military service” (Numbers 26,1-2).

Again we come to the same conclusion: In spite of what David’s contemporaries thought, the epidemic was not due to a punishment by God for David’s taking the census. Their rationalizations were not correct.

When Jesus and his disciples walked outside the Temple of Jerusalem, a similar case occurred. The apostles saw a man known to have been blind from birth - an interesting topic of discussion for the Jews. For, thinking that a defect of this kind must be a punishment for sin, they did not know to whom to ascribe it. The apostles refer the matter to Jesus:

“Teacher, whose sin caused him to be born blind? Was it his own or his parents’ sin?” Jesus answered, “His blindness has nothing to do with his sins or his parents’ sins. He is blind so that God’s power might be seen at work in him” (John 9,2-3).

The blindness was not due to anyone’s sins. Thousands of people are born with defective eyesight or with some other handicap. This is not due to sin. We would be wrong to look for some supernatural explanation. It is due to a mishap of nature. Yet the blindness of the man sitting outside the Temple served a purpose. “So that God’s power might be seen at work in him.”

Imputing to God hostility against other nations

The Israelites and the Moabites lived side by side as sworn enemies. King Mesha of Moab reports on his famous stela [830 BC] how he defeated Israelite towns, slaying men, women and children “as satiation for Chemosh”, his god. The Israelites meted out similar treatment to Moab, it would seem, for we read that David “measured the defeated Moabites with a line, making them lie down on the ground; two lines he measured to be put to death. and one full line to be spared” [2 Samuel 8,2).

Such enmity is, perhaps, natural enough in human society. But what are we to think of divine laws which seem to inculcate hatred of this kind? What happened in fact is that Israel's hostility against its neighbours was projected onto God. They rationalised that God rejected these people utterly. With regard to Moab and Ammon the Deuteronomistic Law prescribes:

“No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none belonging to them shall enter the assembly of the Lord. ... You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity all your days for ever!" [Deuteronomy 23,4.6].

An equally irreconcilable attitude is imposed concerning the Amalekites. Recalling Amalek’s opposition during the desert journey, the Law says:

“When the Lord your God shall have given you rest from all your enemies round about .... you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget!" (Deuteronomy 25,19).

Moses is told to “smite the Midianites” (Numbers 25,17). Joshua has to vow to destroy the whole population of the cities he conquers (Joshua 8,2). Saul is rejected from kingship for sparing some Amalekites (1 Samuel 15,17-24). Inflexible hatred towards other nations is rationalised and commanded as a duty! Deuteronomy 7,2 summarises with these words: “You must utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them !” Is such a spirit of merciless hostility in harmony with God’s command that we should “love our neighbour like ourselves”?

When king Zedekiah’s nobles plot against Jeremiah’s life, the prophet cries out to the Lord. We can sympathise with his feelings as he calls down the Lord’s curse on his enemies. He requests God to send famine, sword, pestilence and marauders against them. And Jeremiah does not stop at wishing them material evils only. He continues:

“Forgive not their iniquity, nor blot out their sin from thy sight !" (Jeremiah 18,1-23).

Humanly speaking such feelings may easily be understood. But the same kind of prayer is found in the psalter - in prayers which are supposed to be exemplary and especially pleasing to God! Supplications such as the following seem alien to the love for our neighbour which we know to be God’s will:

  • “O God, break the teeth in their mouths!” (Psalm 58,6).
  • “Let their eyes be darkened, so that they cannot see!” (Psalm 69,23).
  • “Let burning coals fall upon them!” (Psalm 140,10).
  • “Let there be none to extend kindness to them!” (Psalm 109,12).
  • “Happy shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137,9).
  • “Requite them according to their work!” (Psalm 28,4).
  • “Make them bear their guilt!” (Psalm 5,11).
  • “May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord, ane let not the sin of his mother be blotted out!” (Psalm 109,14).

The Israelites who prayed in this way rationalised that God was on their side. It was human, but not correct. In fact, these verses are so offensive to our Christian sensitivity that, at the liturgical reform of Vatican II, they have been omitted from the breviary. Does it not suffice to show that rationalization is a part of Scripture that should be treated very carefully indeed?

Rationalizations in Paul

Paul often uses rationalizations, usually when he wants to argue a point and adduces all kinds of reasons that come to his mind, some more appropriate than others. It is clear from Paul's own way of speaking in such cases that he does not want to teach these reasonings for their own sake: they are just ‘thoughts’ to underline a point.

I will give four famous examples from Paul's Letters. We always find the structure: (a) main point, (b) reasons and rationalizations.

Though some letters may have been written by disciples of Paul, we will treat all of them as Pauline, since they share the same characteristic rationalizating trend.

In Titus 1,5-13 the main point is obviously concern about “insubordinate people (in Crete). . . .who should be silenced” (vs. 10-11). The author then continues:

  1. “One of themselves, a prophet of their own said: ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons’ (verse 12).
  2. This assessment is true” (verse 13).

Does the author, under inspiration, teach that it is true that Cretans are always liars, evil beasts and lazy gluttons? Obviously not. The author just adds a human rationalization.

In Romans 1,18-32 Paul describes the moral corruption in the Graeco-Roman world. The main point he wants to make is that that world was full of “corruption and wickedness” (verse 18). Among the reasons he gives are the following:

  1. They should have known about the One Creator, instead they have become idolators (verses 19-23).
  2. “Therefore God gave them up to the lust of their hearts to impurity” (general sexual depravity; verses 24-25).
  3. “For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (verses 26-27).
  4. General spread of sin and crime (verses 28-32).

The third illustration Paul gives, regarding homosexuality, is clearly a rationalization: a popular reference to the wellknown homosexual excesses in hellenistic circles which scandalised ordinary people. However, this text may obviously not be used to condemn homosexuality as such. It is only in our own days that we have discovered that 10% of people are born with homosexual tendencies, and Paul did not have in mind to enter the delicate field of pastoral guidance to born homosexuals!

In 1 Cor 11,2-16 Paul's main point is that he wants women to cover their hair with a veil when they attend the Christian assembly. To drive home this (rather trivial) point he adduces many rationalizations:

  1. “The head of every man is Christ, the head of every woman is her husband, etc. ” (verse 3)
  2. “A woman who prays with her head unveiled dishonours her head - it is as if she were shaven bald, etc.” (verses 4-6).
  3. “For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but women is the glory of man” (verse 7).
  4. “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man” (verse 8).
  5. “Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (verse 9).
  6. “That is why a woman ought to to have a veil on her head, because of the angels” (verse 10). Pauline correction: man and woman are created equally (verses 11-12).
  7. “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear long hair is degrading, but if a woman has long hair it is her pride . . . etc.” (verses 13-15).
  8. “If anyone is disposed to be contentious, we recognise no other practice, nor do the churches of God!” (verse 16).

It is clear that Paul is just piling reasons on top of each other which he himself realises are rationalizations. That is why it is unjustifiable to take some of these rationalizations, especially nos 3-5 , to imply inspired teaching on the submission of woman to man. Yet this was done by the Fathers of the Church, canon lawyers, theologians and is even repeated implicitly in the latest documents from Rome regarding the priestly ordination of women!

In 1 Tim 2,11-15 the main point is that “women should learn in silence with all submissiveness” (verse 11). Paul then adds his reasonings:

  1. “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over man. She is to keep silent” (verse 12).
  2. “For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (verse 13)
  3. “And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (verse 14).
  4. “Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty” (verse 15).

We obviously have here a lot of rationalizations, expressing a practice (no 1), then biblical reasons (nos 2 & 3) based on a prejudiced rabbinical interpretation : both man and woman were created at the same time in God's image (Genesis 1,26-27) and Adam was equally guilty (Genesis 3,6-7.16-19). Unfortunately, here too the rationalizations are taken to imply a lasting and permanent discrimination against women!

The rule of “rationalization” is closely related to the other rules:

John Wijngaards



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