To the editors:
An interesting aspect of the Sheehan article ["The Gospel According to Thomas Sheehan," April 21] is that the Professor's simple, central thesis is obscured by a welter of strange terms, and crowded by a catalog of past and present-day theologians: phenomenology, hermeneutics, orthopraxis, historiography, implicit Christology, indifferentism, and apocalyptic crazies; Saint Augustine, Karl Rahner, Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, Teilhard de Chardin, John Meier, Raymond Brown, Rudolf Pesch, Edward Schillebeeckx, Gustavo Guttierez, and Leonardo Boff.
The reader who fights his way through this scholarly thicket (the April 21 cover story rambles over 13 pages) gets a glimpse of Professor Sheehan's basic thesis (developed in his 1986 book): "his call for a radical shift from believing the right things about Jesus (orthodoxy) to doing the just and merciful things Jesus commanded (orthopraxis)." This "radical shift" is a very traditional Jewish idea: that the good life is a life of mitzvoth.
Sheehan acknowledges that both Jesus and his followers were Jews. He points out that the New Testament, from which Christian dogma was fashioned, was written many years after both Jesus and his followers had died, and was written when the followers of Jesus had separated themselves from Judaism. To unburden one's soul of the staggering weight of Christian dogma, Sheehan suggests, "Why not start by taking Jesus as the prophet that he was before he was turned into the Christ: Jesus before Christianity." Later in the interview, Sheehan gives another boost for orthopraxis: "Whether Jesus is divine or not, the point is to work for justice and love the neighbor." You call it orthopraxis, professor; we call it Judaism, the same Judaism Jesus learned from the Hebrew Bible.
Jesus learned the commandment, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" from the Book of Leviticus (19:18). Hillel paraphrased this rule into "Whatever is hateful unto thee do it not to thy fellow," and declared it to be the whole Law, the remainder being but a commentary on this fundamental Torah principle.
In the New Testament, the law "Love thy neighbor" is given as the words of Jesus. (Matthew 19:19, 22:39) The Gospel According to John, moreover, leads the reader to believe that this idea was a Christian innovation; John quotes Jesus as having said, "A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another. . . ." (13:34, italics added) In his Encyclopaedia Britannica article on Leviticus, the Catholic scholar Rev. Robert North admits that this law is indeed "considered to be a Christian innovation and the most distinctive of Jesus' teachings--Love your neighbor as yourself."
For a very long time, the rabbis have taught that the righteous of all nations will share in the world to come. Professor Sheehan begs Christians to come over to this point of view. He scoffs at Christian liberals "who dialogue with Hindus and Marxists, but . . . still believe Jesus is the only way to God." It is time for good Christians to recognize that Chinese, Hindus, Mohammedans, Jews, Cherokees, Mayans, and Africans "have their own prophets and their own texts."
Sheehan implores his students and his readers to set aside their dogmas and "ally yourself . . . with the mystery within you. . . . Follow the light even though it is as yet dim," and find your spiritual gratification in doing rather than in believing. To worship an unknown God, an invisible God, with a life of righteousness and mercy; that seems to be Professor Sheehan's radical message. Radical?
Louis A. Berman