My Study of Liberation Theology in Brazil (10th in a series on critical thinking)

Dom Helder

My study in Brazil initiated a profound change in my understanding of critical thinking. It led me to see that liberation theology itself amounted to a Global South version of that discipline. However, the critical thinking I encountered in Brazil didn’t concern itself with abstract dilemmas and logical fallacies. Instead the Brazilian version addressed problems confronted in the very lives of its protagonists – hunger, poverty, dictatorships, imprisonment, torture, police raids, and the reasons for widespread hunger in an extremely rich and rather thinly populated country.

Neither did critical thinking in Brazil worry about neutrality and balance or with giving equal time to capitalists and their working class opponents. In the minds of its teachers, those problems had long since been settled. After all, in 1964, defenders of capitalism had overthrown Brazil’s democratically elected government. In the 1960s that had been the case throughout the region. In Brazil it meant that by 1984 the country had completed its second decade of a military dictatorship fully supported by the United States. Over those years, vast numbers of priests and nuns, union organizers, university professors, social workers, lawyers, and simple peasants had been routinely imprisoned, tortured and often murdered. Their crimes?  They had demanded land reform, higher wages, health care, education, freedom of speech, and ability to speak freely and organize. No, capitalism in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America had clearly shown itself to be the enemy of the people.

All of that became very clear for me when, to begin with, I connected with the legendary Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. Freire’s methodology for teaching literacy had exercised strong influence on liberation theology, and especially on “Base Christian Communities” (BCCs) which following the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65) proliferated throughout the country. My intention was to research those communities as part of my sabbatical assignment.

At the same time, my wife, Peggy was working on her doctoral dissertation on Freire’s work. So she worked in his center every day and every week with literacy teachers implementing his method in Sao Paulo’s favelas. On our fifth wedding anniversary, we had supper with Paulo and his wife, Elsa, in their apartment. Afterwards, he read aloud Peggy’s latest dissertation chapter. I remember him pausing at one point after reading a quotation from his own Education for Critical Consciousness; he said, “Right now I am loving these words!” He was wonderful.

While in Recife, our whole family twice visited Dom Helder Camara, the famous “Red Archbishop” of that huge city in the northern part of the country. I phoned his office to set up the appointment. He answered the phone himself!

Considered a saint even before his death in 1999, Dom Helder was also called the “Archbishop of the Poor.” He once famously observed “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” With those words, this patron of liberation theology expressed the central question of critical thinking in the Global South: Why are people so poor in the midst of so much abundance?

I informed Dom Helder of my intention to experience liberation theology’s BCCs in Recife. That was during our first visit in his office, while he held our four-year-old daughter, Maggie, in his lap. (I later told her she had been embraced by a saint!) I asked the archbishop to share his thoughts about those communities. He told me, “It would be better for me not to say anything at this point. Why don’t you do your research first? Experience those communities, and then at the end of your visit come back and tell me what you found. Then I might tell you what I think.”

So I followed the saint’s advice. During our family’s weeks in Recife, I participated in several BCC meetings. There I witnessed the kind of critical thinking referenced above. It was the same process that had been prescribed for teaching literacy years earlier by Paulo Freire in his famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I had read while still in Rome.

I consistently found all of that inspiring. Here were absolute giants in the field of critical thought, centralizing their fundamental identities as spiritual beings in order to address in practical terms genuine problems of politics, economy, and personal life. I found such embrace of human political spirituality absent not only in the standard approach to critical thinking familiar to me, but even in the churches of my own experience.

I wanted to know more about the underpinnings of that approach to critical thinking.

To that end, I enrolled in a semester-long seminar taught by liberation theologians, philosophers and scripture scholars I had been reading for years – figures like Argentina’s Enrique Dussel, Chile’s Pablo Richard, Belgium’s Francois Houtart and Brazil’s own Frei Gilberto Gorgulho and Ana Flora Anderson. In the course of the experience, I was also introduced to the work of Chilean economist and theologian, Franz Hinkelammert, who would become for me an extremely important mentor. Significantly, Franz was to later found the international Grupo de Pensamiento Critico (the Critical Thinking Group).

As I listened to these scholars describe history in ways I never had confidence enough to seriously entertain, I found myself wondering, “What is the key to all of this?” I mean, Enrique Dussel described World War II as the “Second Inter-Capitalist War.” What is he talking about? I wondered. Was Hitler really a capitalist? It was a completely foreign thought.

Meanwhile, Frei Gorgulho spoke of Cuba as “the envy of the Third World.” Pablo Richard had just returned from a trip to revolutionary Nicaragua and was full of stories about Anastasio Somoza, the history of U.S. oppression in the country, the Sandinistas, land reform, and the U.S.-supported counter-revolutionary Contras. The positive evaluation of Cuba and the Nicaraguan revolution stood contrary to everything reported in the U.S.

Even more disturbingly, everyone constantly and negatively referenced highly destructive American military interventions in its “backyard” and throughout the world to defend colonialism and what was termed “neo-colonialism.” The whole seminar was scandalized by a picture in the Folha do Sao Paulo of President Reagan and Pope John Paul II sitting together in Rome – both of them smiling broadly. “That photo,” all agreed “will cost thousands of lives in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.” (It was because it implied that the pope endorsed Reagan’s genocidal wars in Central America.)

None of these thoughts would ever be expressed in the United States. But here they were bandied about by these teachers of pensamiento critical as though they were perfectly obvious. And there was no objection from my classmates – most of them priests, nuns and lay theologians.

Again, I wondered, what is the analytic key to this sort of thought.

I later found it was the dependency theory of the German-American sociologist and historian, Andre Gunder Frank. Gunder Frank traced everything back to the history and structures of colonialism and neo-colonialism. I resolved to find out more about that; it seemed essential to this kind of critical thought. I asked for sources. Other than Gunder Frank’s works themselves, my seminar colleagues told me to read Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America. For perspective on Africa, they recommended Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. I immediately purchased the books and my education in critical thinking took another giant step forward.

To repeat: this was not the type of critical thinking I had become used to. Unlike its U.S. version, what I found in Brazil was politically committed, historically grounded, and deeply spiritual. In the United States, everything familiar to me was apolitical, historically uninformed, and entirely secular. That caused me to reflect once again on my own historical ignorance. I also wondered about neutrality and the stories about Nicaragua routinely disseminated back home. I could already see that those tales amounted to one-sided propaganda. As one of my Ten Rules would later express it, I was beginning to suspect that truly critical thought involved rejecting pretense of neutrality.

I resolved to visit Nicaragua as soon as possible. I did the following year.

(Next week: Nicaragua!)

Studying Liberation Theology in Brazil: Realizing Hitler Won WWII (Personal Reflections XVI)

Nazis Won

Last week I wrote about Paulo Freire and the friendship Peggy and I formed with him in Brazil in 1984. Paulo had a huge influence on Liberation Theology which I first met during my graduate studies in Rome (1967-’72). There I had written my doctoral dissertation on Jurgen Moltmann, the great Reformed theologian who was the doyen of the Theology of Hope. As a member of a missionary society (Society of St. Columban) I tried to connect Moltmann’s concept of “mission” with the same category in the Second Vatican Council’s  Ad Gentes.

While finishing my work on that topic (at the Academia Alfonsiana – with Bernard Haring on my committee), I heard Gustavo Gutierrez speak. At the time, Gustavo was the leading voice in the theology of liberation, which emerged to prominence following the 1968 Medeillin Conference of Latin American Bishops in Colombia. Immediately I could see the connections between the two.

I got the opportunity to explore those connections while Peggy was working on her own dissertation with Freire. I enrolled in a seminar at the Santa Maria de Asuncao seminary in San Paulo. It had me sitting at the feet of a series of liberation theologians I had by that time been reading for years. Prominent among them was Enrique Dussel; so was Chilean scripture scholar, Pablo Richard who (because of the U.S.-supported Pinochet coup) was living in exile in Costa Rica. Dussel was an Argentinian philosopher of liberation. His home had been bombed by the Argentine military during its infamous “dirty war” supported by the United States. So he was then living in exile in Mexico.

He was a dynamic lecturer, but I found him puzzling. He used terms and made references that were new to me. For instance, instead of referring to World Wars I and II, he spoke of the First and Second Inter-capitalist Wars. I had never heard that before. But the phrases caused me to do some research. And sure enough: those wars were between capitalist powers who were struggling for supremacy and to achieve a position in the world very like the one enjoyed by the United States today.

How had I missed that, I wondered? The answer, of course, was that I had learned my history in the United States which conceals such obvious facts. I did more research and eventually wrote a long essay that I published in Spanish in Pasos, the journal of the Ecumenical Research Institute in Costa Rica – a liberation theology think tank. The essay was called “How Hitler Saved Capitalism and Won the War.”

Here it is summarized in the “Easy Essay” form coined by Peter Maurin, the founder (with Dorothy Day) of the Catholic Worker newspaper:

Following Germany’s defeat

in “the First Inter-Capitalist War,”

the system was in trouble in das Vaterland.

It also foundered world-wide

after the Crash of ‘29.

So Joseph Stalin

convoked a Congress of Victory

to celebrate the death of capitalism

and the End of History —

in 1934.

Both Hitler and F.D.R.

tried to revive the corpse.

They enacted similar measures:

government funds to stimulate private sector production,

astronomically increased defense spending,

nationalization of some enterprises,

while carefully keeping most in the hands of private individuals.

To prevent workers from embracing communism,

both enacted social programs otherwise distasteful to the Ruling Class,

but necessary to preserve their system:

legalized unions, minimum wage, shortened work days, safety regulation, social                     security . . .

Roosevelt called it a “New Deal;”

Hitler’s term was “National Socialism.”

Roosevelt used worker discontent

with their jobs and bosses

to get elected four times.

Meanwhile, Hitler successfully directed worker rage

away from the Krupps and Bayers

and towards the usual scapegoats:

Jews, communists, gays, blacks, foreigners and Gypsies.

He admired the American extermination of “Indians”

and used that model of starvation and internment

to guide his own program for eliminating undesirables

by hunger and concentrated slaughter.

Hitler strictly controlled national unions,

thus relieving the worries of the German elite.

In all of this,

he received the support of mainline churches.

Pius XII even praised der Führer  as

“an indispensable bulwark against the Russians.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the German “Confessing Church”

resisted Hitler’s program

of social Darwinism, patriotism and persecution of the undeserving.

Confessing faithful were critical of “religion”

which combined anti-Semitism, white supremacy, patriotism and xenophobia

with selected elements of Christianity.

They insisted on allegiance

to Jesus alone

who stood in judgment over soil, fatherland, flag and blood.

They even urged Christian patriots

to pray for their country’s defeat in war.

Bonhoeffer participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler

and explored the promise of

Christianity without “religion.”

Hitler initially enjoyed great popularity

with the powerful

outside of Germany,

in Europe and America.

He did!

Then as baseball magnate and used car saleswoman, Marge Schott, put it,

“He went too far.”

His crime, however, was not gassing Jews,

but trying to subordinate his betters in the club

of white, European, capitalist patriarchs.

He thus evoked their ire

and the “Second Inter-Capitalist War.”

Following the carnage,

the industrialists in other countries

embraced Hitlerism without Hitler.

They made sure that communists, socialists and other “partisans”

who bravely resisted German occupation

did not come to political power,

but that those who had cooperated with Nazis did.

Today, the entrepreneurial classes

still support Nazis, whenever necessary.

The “Hitlers” they championed have aliases

like D’Aubisson (El Salvador), Diem (Vietnam), Duvalier (Haiti), Franco (Spain),

Fujimori (Peru), Mobutu (Zaire), Montt (Guatemala), Noriega (Panama), Peron                         (Argentina), Pinochet (Chile), Resa Palavi (Iran), Saddam Hussein (Iraq), Somoza                     (Nicaragua), Strossner (Paraguay), Suharto (Indonesia). . . .

The list is endless.

The global elite deflect worker hostility

away from themselves

towards communists, blacks, gays, immigrants and Muslims,

towards poor women who stay at home

and middle class women who leave home to work.

Today, Christians embrace social Darwinism

while vehemently rejecting evolution.

Standing on a ground of being

underpinning the world’s most prominent culture

of religious fundamentalism,

they long for Hoover,

and coalesce

with the right.

In all of this

is forgotten the Jesus of the New Testament

who was born a homeless person

to an unwed,

teenage mother,

was an immigrant in Egypt for a while,

came from the working poor,

was accused of being a drunkard,

a friend of sex workers,


possessed by demons

and condemned by the state

a victim of torture

and of capital punishment.

Does this make anyone wonder about Marge Schott,

the difference between Hitler’s system

and our own,

and also about “religion”

and how to be free of it,

about false Christs . . . .

And who won that war anyway?

(Next week: more about our experience in Brazil)

The Poor Know More than the Rich: Paulo Freire on What the Impoverished Can Teach Us All (Personal Reflections XV)

Freire Trust

Our world is characterized by an ongoing “conflict” (not to say “war”) waged by the rich and powerful against the poor and politically powerless. It’s all an inheritance of colonialism, which did not disappear after World War II. Instead, colonialism simply took other more sophisticated forms. As J.W. Smith puts it, the system changed from “plunder by raid” to “plunder by trade.” The enduring point is to keep the wealth and power where it’s been since the onset of the colonial era – with the plundering powers (Europe and the United States) which have systematically robbed the resources of the former colonies whose populations today (unsurprisingly) constitute the world’s poor.

One cannot be neutral in the conflict just referenced; one must take sides.  As our friend and mentor Paulo Freire put it, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

My forty-plus years of travel, teaching, and scholarship in the Global South (Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, India, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Cuba) have taught me the truth of Paulo’s words. Not to decide is to decide – in favor of the status quo.

When sides are consciously taken with the poor and oppressed, a whole counter-narrative emerges that rarely gets a hearing in the United States whose official policy favors the rich and powerful. The counter-narrative about history, economics and politics comes from the underclasses that so concerned Paulo Freire and the liberation theologians I’ve studied with in the countries I’ve just mentioned as well as in the U.S. and Europe.

But here’s the Freirean point: the counter-narrative of the poor is more comprehensive and informed than the one typically pedaled in the United States. In fact, the U.S. story (pretending to be neutral) is actually the product of one-sided “banking” model of education that endorses oppression as normal and inevitable.

Let me explain.

Paulo Freire famously contrasted what he called the banking concept of education with “education for critical consciousness.” In the banking model, teachers make deposits of knowledge into the “accounts” of passive, unsuspecting students. What they learn is mostly irrelevant to their everyday lives. However it amounts to the “official story” which remains unquestioned and explains the given order as normal and good.

On the other hand, education for critical consciousness “problematizes” the students’ own reality and asks them to come up with solutions to real dilemmas: for example, their own hunger, its causes, and how to escape it. In the process they learn how the world works and come up with strategies to change their immediate experience.

Freire also made key distinctions about the stages of consciousness typically passed through by learners  among the world’s majority poor and oppressed. Normally, he said, students begin with the resigned attitude that “to be is to be under the oppressor.” They see no exit from their poverty and life’s circumstances. From there they pass to a second stage: “to be is to be like the oppressor.” They take the rich and powerful as their role models.  They want to be like them – rich and successful. Finally, if they persevere in the growth process, poor students arrive at a stage where they realize that “to be is to be neither oppressor nor oppressed.” In that stage they start taking active and proactive measures against their own poverty and oppression.  They work to change the world.

[BTW: Part of my quarrel with Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” (which is where these reflections began) is that it reflects Freire’s second stage of consciousness – to be is to be like the Oppressor. In the play, African-American and Hispanic actors literally pretend to be their white oppressors; they actually celebrate the ones who enslaved and exterminated their ancestors – the ones who excoriated Native Americans in the Declaration of Independence and who wrote slavery into the U.S. Constitution.]

Towards accomplishing the task of changing the world, the poor have an epistemological privilege in their analysis of life in general. Though typically far less formally educated than the rich, their perception and analysis is characteristically more comprehensive and accurate. They might not be able to make the historical references or to employ the academic jargon; they might not use complete sentences or be grammatically correct, but simply put, the poor know more about life.

Why? Think about it for a minute.

Those of us who are rich and/or comfortable have very limited experience and awareness.  Our communities are pretty much siloed and gated. As a result, we can live without consciousness of the poor at all. Wall Street execs rarely really see them. The poor are located in different parts of town. Most even in the middle class never enter their homes or schools. The comfortable have no experience of hunger, coping with rats, imminent street crime, living on minimum wage, or cashing in Food Stamps. Even if they notice the poor occasionally, the comfortable can quickly dismiss them from their minds. If they never saw the poor again, the rich and middle class would continue their lives without much change. In sum, they have very little idea of the lived experience of the world’s majority.

That becomes more evident still by thinking of the poor outside the confines of the developed world who live on two dollars a day or less. Most in the industrialized west know nothing of such people’s languages, cultures, history, or living conditions. I’m talking about “enemies” living in Syria, Iraq, Somalia or Yemen.  Even though our governments drop bombs on such people every day, they remain only abstractions. That is, few of us know what it really means to live under threat of hellfire missiles, phosphorous bombs or drones. Similarly, we know little of the actual motives for “their terrorism.” Syria could drop off the map tomorrow and nothing for most of us would change.

None of this can be said for the poor and the victims of bombing. They have to be aware not only of their own life’s circumstances, but of the mostly white people who employ them, shape their lives, or drop bombs on their homes. The poor serve the rich in restaurants. They clean their homes. They cut their lawns. They beg from them on the streets. The police arrest, beat, torture and murder their children.

If the U.S., for example, dropped off the planet tomorrow, the lives of the poor would be drastically altered – mostly for the better. In other words, the poor and oppressed must have dual awareness. For survival’s sake, they must know what the rich minority values, how it thinks and operates. They must know more about the world than the rich and/or comfortable.

That’s why when the poor develop “critical consciousness,” (like Malcolm X or Mumia Abu Jamal) their analysis is typically more comprehensive, inclusive, credible, and full. They have vivid awareness not only of life circumstances that “make no difference” to their comfortable counterparts; they also have lived experience of life on the other side of the tracks.

However despite such comprehensive knowledge, the critically conscious poor and their representatives find little place in mainstream analysis which comes overwhelmingly from white, well-to-do, and university-educated men.

This is why I’ve learned to give scant credence to mainstream media (MSM) explanations of the world and always takes pains to understand reality from the viewpoint of the epistemologically privileged poor and oppressed – found outside the MSM. Those viewpoints are more comprehensive and informed.

Such Freirean insights are, I think, worth thinking about.

(Next week: My study of liberation theology in Brazil)

Our 1984 Experience with Paulo Freire (Personal Reflection XIV)


This 14th “Personal Reflections” blog continues my modest project of explaining myself to my three adult children who are often puzzled by my criticisms of the United States in these blogs and elsewhere. Half- jokingly (I think) they often ask, “Why do you hate America, Dad?”

Of course, I don’t hate the country of my birth. Quite the opposite. But my patriotism and loyalty take quite different directions from those fostered by the mainstream media and the otherwise fine educations our children received at Wellesley (Maggie), Lafayette (Brendan), and Davidson (Patrick). In contrast to those sources, and for reasons connected with faith, my own thinking aspires to view the world from the perspective of the world’s impoverished majority (both nationally and in the Global South) rather than from that of privileged classes within the United States.

Along with liberation theologians, Paulo Freire has played a major role in shaping me that way. Freire’s the great Brazilian educator who (among other books) wrote The Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Education for Critical Consciousness. His influence on liberation theology is immeasurable.

Peggy and I got to know Paulo quite well beginning in 1982 when we participated in his two-week seminar at Boston College. Then during my first sabbatical from Berea College (1983-’84) Peggy worked with him for six months at his center in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Every week, she joined a team of young Brazilians conducting one of Paulo’s literacy programs in Sao Paulo’s impoverished favelas. It was all part of her research on Freire for her Ed.D (Philosophy of Education doctorate) at the University of Kentucky. In 1986 the American Education Research Association gave Peggy’s work the year’s “Outstanding Dissertation Award for Conceptual Research.” She later published an article based on her work in the Harvard Educational Review.

I remember spending our sixth wedding anniversary in Freire’s apartment in Sao Paulo where we had a memorable supper with him and his wife, Elsa. Afterwards Paulo read aloud from the latest chapter in Peggy’s evolving dissertation. I recall his pausing after reading a lengthy quotation from one of his works and remarking, “Right now I am loving these words.”

I’m convinced that the Rivage-Seul’s were given the gift of tongues for our Brazil experience. During the first semester of my sabbatical (at the end of 1983) and in preparation for our trip to Brazil, I had studied Portuguese at the University of Colorado in Boulder. [I had been given a fellowship there (at the Center for the Study of Values and Social Policy) to research the relationship between freedom and justice. It was to prepare me to head Berea’s newly established Freshman Seminar whose readings were organized around that theme.] In any case, my Latin, French, and Italian helped me learn Portuguese. Peggy’s college French major (at Central Michigan University) helped her as well. Then in Anapolis, Brazil with the help of a tutor, we spent our first two months studying intensively. And it somehow worked. We ended up quite able to carry on in the language.

Brazil at this time was still run by its generals. That was the result of a 1964 coup sponsored by the CIA. The father of my Portuguese teacher at CU was one of those generals. So she arranged for our first few nights in the country to be spent at the Clube Militar as guests of the oppressors and fierce enemies of liberation theology in Brazil which was a hotbed of the discipline. (More about that later.) Staying at the Clube was very creepy for us.

But back to Paulo Freire . . . . After our return to the United States we had a warm reunion with him at the Highlander Center where he was working on a text with the Center’s founder, the great activist, Myles Horton. Horton’s work had directly influenced Martin Luther King. In fact, in the ‘60s, the F.B.I. had published photos of MLK at what they called the “Communist” Center (Highlander). It was part of J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign to portray King as a Red. Paulo’s and Myles’ text was eventually published as We Make the Road by Walking.

As I said, Freire’s method of teaching and learning was central to the methodology of liberation theology, which had increasingly seized my attention since I first encountered it in 1969.

One of Freire’s key concepts (shared with liberation theology) is “the hermeneutical privilege of the poor.”  Basically it says that the poor and oppressed know more about the world (and about the Bible) than the rich and comfortable. That idea constitutes a key basis for my own analysis of the world.

(I’ll explain that more fully next week.)

Waking Up To the Real Nature of the Bible (Personal Reflections Pt. X)


I don’t exactly remember what I thought about the Bible before beginning its formal study the year after receiving my B.A. in Philosophy (1961),

Ironically, although I had been in the seminary all those years (since 1954) the formal study of “religion” hadn’t at all been central in. the curriculum.

Yes, we attended Mass every day (and twice on Sundays). And there were all those daily chapel activities and devotions: morning and evening prayer, afternoon rosary, “visits” to the Blessed Sacrament before and after meals, nightly Benediction, conferences by the seminary spiritual director, etc. There were also those inspirational readings I mentioned accompanying breakfast and lunch in the “refectory.”

But formal study pretty much concentrated on languages (Latin, Greek, and French) and normal secular studies associated with high school, on the one hand, and on the other, college courses associated with a Philosophy Major.

So by the time I began the formal four year (and post-grad) theological curriculum (1962) my understanding of such matters, including the Bible was fairly uninformed. I’m sure I thought the Bible was the very word of God valid for all time.

That began to change with exposure to the teachings of Fathers Eamonn O’Doherty and Jack Moriarity, both of whom introduced us to modern scripture scholarship which emphasized the history behind the Hebrew and Christian Testaments. They introduced us to form criticism and redaction criticism as well.

Form criticism made us aware that the Bible is filled with various kinds of literature. Literary forms found there include myth, legend, debate, fiction, poetry, miracle stories, birth accounts, letters, apocalypse, annals of kings, law, riddles, jokes, parables, allegories, etc.  None of that, really, is history as we understand it. And if we read poetry, for instance, as if it were history we’ll commit huge interpretational errors.

Just realizing that can change one’s entire approach to the Bible. It did mine.

I remember sitting each day for classes in “Old” and “New” Testament in our aula maxima on the second floor or our Major Seminary on 1200 Brush Hill Road in Milton, MA. The entire student body – those about to be ordained, and the three classes behind them – took those classes together. There were probably sixty of us. So I found myself edified (and intimidated) by the good students among my elders whose questions and observations always seemed so sage, perceptive, and sometimes daring.

For a long time, I pretty much kept quiet. But the wheels were whirring at top speed inside my head. For a biblical literalist like me, it was all hard to swallow

For instance, I recall the day during our study of the Gospel of Luke that the penny dropped for me that the Three Wise Men never existed. It was all a “midrash,” we were told, on the part of the gospel’s author (whose real identity remains unknown). Midrashim, it turns out, are usually fictional stories meant to elucidate particular biblical texts or beliefs.

“Say what?” I thought. “The next thing you’ll be telling me is that the resurrection never happened.”

Well, that day never came – from the actual teachings of my Scripture Profs. But it sure did for me. So I remember one day screwing up the courage to ask Father Eamonn about it in class. I asked, “Is it possible, Father, that gospel stories about what’s called the ‘resurrection’ of Jesus were also simply creations of the early Christian community to reflect their gradually dawning consciousness that Jesus’ words were true: ‘Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me’ and ‘Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst?’ In other words, might the resurrection, like the tale of the Three Wise Men also be a midrash?”

I awaited Father O’Doherty’s answer with bated breath. Perhaps my question wasn’t clear enough, I feared.

Well, the question was clear enough. Father O’Doherty paused a few moments. Then he responded: “No,” he said. And that was the end of it! He moved on.

Now that might give you the impression that Father Eamonn wasn’t a good teacher. Quite the contrary. I’m confident in saying that nearly all of my peers recall him as their most influential Prof during our four years of theological training. I agree with them. Eamonn imparted to us not only essential facts about the Bible, but an entire approach that stuck with us all.

In my case, his classes provided me better than any other a firm basis for what I would learn in Rome during my doctoral studies there (1967-’72). – and for what I internalized subsequently as I continued my studies with liberation theologians in Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and elsewhere in the  developing world. Of course, I’ll have more to say about that later.

But for now, I must tell you about Father O’Doherty’s teaching method. Again, it proved extremely effective. However, it’s not the sort of thing you’ll find in the best treatises on pedagogy.

The other day, I was looking at the basic primary source text we used in his New Testament classes.  It’s Augustinus Merk’s Novum Testamentum Graece Et Latine (pictured above). It’s the entire New Testament in its original language, Greek on one side of the page and Latin on the other. Originally published in 1948, its footnotes are filled with scholarly critical apparati. – mostly pointing up and evaluating variant readings of the Greek texts. I[n itself, that’s interesting. We were actually dealing with texts very close to the originals (none of which, it turns out, have survived. Instead all we have are copies of copies of bad copies. But that’s another story.)]

Besides the text itself, what was even more interesting to me were my notes in the margins of each page. Each was jam-packed with cursive scribblings in my smallest possible handwriting – so small, in fact, that I needed a magnifying glass to review some of them last week.

And that was evidence of Father O’Doherty’s teaching method. It involved (1) his lecturing to us each day reading mostly from his notes, (2) our transcribing notes as fast as we could, pausing occasionally for someone to ask questions, (3) Our transferring those notes into the margins of the relevant texts during out study periods, and (4) Recopying those detailed marginal notes onto exam papers in response to our teacher’s exam questions.

To me, in retrospect, that sounds pretty much like what the great Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, excoriated as “Banking Education” – where teachers make deposits into the “accounts” of students who subsequently make withdrawals at exam time to purchase good grades.

But here’s the funny part: it worked! Father Eamonn wasn’t a particularly dynamic teacher. But what he taught us was so interesting and well-organized that we learned important lessons from a process that seems like pure regurgitation. Put that in your pedagogical pipe and smoke it!

Ask any of my peers. All of us love Eamonn. And we remain grateful to him to this day.

(Next Week: a full account of what I learned about the Bible over the years – in two dozen points)