The writer and wit Dorothy Parker claimed she was expelled from parochial school for having characterized the Immaculate Conception as “spontaneous combustion.”  With a Jewish father and Protestant stepmother, Parker was not only an outsider but also precociously irreverent to boot.  The nuns were not amused.   On matters of faith, one must not only suspend disbelief but also refrain from giggling; otherwise, the whole enterprise might be thrown into doubt. 

Christendom will not stand or fall solely on the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which holds that the Virgin Mary was untainted by original sin.  After all, there is no direct mention of it in Scripture.  Protestant and Orthodox churches do not accept it (although Muslims do, curiously enough).  The early church fathers were largely silent on the matter.  Theologians expressed doubts about it before the doctrine was formally adopted as church dogma in the mid-19th century.  However, with the full authority of the Roman Catholic Church now behind it, the Immaculate Conception has become one of those threads that cannot be pulled without threatening to unravel the whole garment.

Catholics believe this doctrine is necessary to assure that Mary was a fit vessel for the incarnation of Jesus Christ, who was also believed to be without sin.  If Mary were corrupted by original sin, Jesus presumably would share her nature, thereby fatally compromising his role as the redeemer of humanity.  According to Christian belief, Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world depended utterly on his being without sin himself, a “lamb without blemish.”  Just to be on the safe side, the Catholic Church wanted to make sure he wasn’t tripped up by the wayward nature of his closest kin.

Every religious tradition tends to accumulate beliefs over time that are meant to bolster faith but are increasing tangential to the main argument.  “You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men," Jesus once complained to the scribes and Pharisees.  Protestants later debunked what they regarded as the corrupt traditions of the Catholic Church, insisting that the Scriptures were the sole standard of truth.  Thomas Jefferson, who was a deist, believed that the Scriptures themselves had been larded down with a lot of “nonsense” that obscured the core teachings of the gospel.  He produced his own gospel in which all the supernatural elements were carefully stripped away -- a task effectively assumed in recent years by the theologians of the Jesus Seminar, who have cast doubt on many of the miraculous tales in the New Testament.

One does not have to rewrite Scripture to appreciate Jefferson’s point.  What if it turned out Jesus was not without sin and did not rise from the dead?  What if he never walked on water or turned water into wine?  The theologians would be thrown into disarray.  But then, Jesus was not a theologian; he was a storyteller.  He told simple stories about everyday life, and they mostly made the same point.  “The kingdom of God is at hand,” he told everyone who would listen, meaning that God’s kingdom is within reach, right here, right now, always.  All we need to do is to love God and love one another, and that love will transform our world.  This is a true miracle.  Whatever miracles Jesus may or not have performed in his short life, this remains the biggest miracle of all.        

Mark 7:8

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