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Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Church as a Sign of Contradiction

A very chilly scooter ride to work this morning compelled me to think about things other than the cold.  And on my mind was the ongoing debate occurring in the Roman Catholic Church about what it could mean to read the signs of the times, and how it is that the Church is to do this guided by the Holy Spirit.  The recent on-line dialogue between Ross Douthat and James Martin, SJ had me thinking about it, as did Stephen Okey's excellent assessment of this dialogue.

One part of Mr. Douthat's response to Fr. Martin struck me particularly, because it represents a common refrain I've heard in recent months whenever the question of sex and marriage is discussed:
It seems to me that there have been many cases in church history when the faith did need to learn from a changing culture, to read the signs of the times and to adapt. But there are just as many cases, under regimes ancien and modern, when “adaptation” meant corruption, worldiness [sic], the partial abandonment of the gospel. And I always wonder, in our contemporary discussions about sex and marriage, how would-be reformers so confidently distinguish the Spirit from the spirit of the age. By which I suppose I mean: Does it make you feel uncomfortable at all that every power and principality of our age—every establishment, political and judicial and cultural—is on the side of change in these internal church debates? Does it ever make you worry, even a little, that these reforms are truer to a passing historical moment than to Christ?
What Douthat appears to argue here is that the church is called to be a sign of contradiction in the world, and those who advocate for change on the church's viewpoints on sex and remarriage veer dangerously close to accommodation rather than to contradiction.

I think Douthat is right to point to the idea of the church as a sign of contradiction, but whenever this idea is cited with reference to the issues of sex and marriage, these thought always goes through my head: Surely it isn't only, or even primarily, in the realm of sexuality that the church is called to be a sign of contradiction? Is it not about so much more than that?

What we need to discern more clearly is what it meant for Jesus to be a sign of contradiction, to the point that his offensiveness to the prevailing order cost him his life.  And what we see, in my humble opinion and as someone who is not a biblical scholar, is someone who calls his followers to a way of existing as community that was fundamentally different from the status quo; one that called into question the centrality of power, wealth, and domination and offered a way of being community that reversed the predominant 'rules' that characterized his age, and frankly our own.

There's something both terribly frightening and exhilarating about Jesus' call, and something that appears to me to be far more revolutionary and far-reaching than is usually understood.  If I may be so frank, it seems to me that Jesus' message looks more like the Catholic Worker than it does Catholic Vote.

So yes, let's do appeal to the important idea of the church as a sign of contradiction.  However, let's stop fooling ourselves by thinking that the church fulfills this call to be a sign of contradiction when it proposes a sexual morality supposedly at odds with the dominant culture.

It seems to me that the notion of the church as a sign of contradiction is far more serious than that.


Here's my Twitter rant after my scooter ride this morning.  I am, as always, open to dialogue.







Painting above is Rembrandt's "The Descent from the Cross" and was found on www.wga.hu

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Our Little Oratory


In January 2013 I took a group of students from Bellarmine University's Master of Arts in Spirituality program to the state of Kerala in India.  We stayed at a vibrant Franciscan friary, and traveled throughout the state exploring Christian history and spirituality - tradition has it that St. Thomas evangelized Kerala in 52 C.E. - as well as the ways in which Christians in Kerala engage in dialogue with one another and with their Hindu and Muslim brothers and sisters.

The most moving experience for me wasn't visiting sights associated with St Thomas, nor was it engaging in a discussion about interreligious dialogue at a Jesuit ashram.  It was, rather, being invited over to a family's house for supper along with two students.

The friary in Kerala
The hospitality was amazing.  The family walked us up and down the street and introduced us to their neighbours.  At each neighbour's house we were greeted warmly and were, of course, fed.  When we returned to their home, a carpet was brought out and the entire family - grandparents, parents, and children - knelt before a prayer altar on which were placed candles, icons, and statues.  The prayers were led by the mother and, though they were in Malayalam, I could tell that the family was reciting the rosary.

The prayers ended after twenty minutes - we were told that they shortened them for our benefit - after which we ate an incredible meal.

This image of the entire family knelt in prayer together moved me deeply, and continues to stay with me.

Our little oratory
While my family prays together, we don't do so as consistently as I would like, nor did we have a spot
in our house designated specifically for prayer.  It seemed to both Kim and I that this needed to change, and so we decided to create a little oratory in our dining room.  We found a little cabinet at the Good Will store, and we have plans to refinish it at some point in the future.  In the meantime, we put up some icons that we had throughout the house as well as in my office at work, and found some candles.

The little oratory is a work in progress; we plan to find more icons, statues, and candles.  But I'm loving how our kids are reacting to it.  All of them love the process of lighting the candles (and blowing them out), and I can tell that they realize that we've created in our dining room a sacred space, carved into our dining room a corner where one can focus one's attention and be still.

I'll put updates here and on Twitter as the space transforms.  And I would love to see any spaces you've created in your homes.  Send me your photos on Twitter, and tell me how you use it.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Thomas Merton Turns 100

On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world...
Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain  

2015 marks the centenary of  Thomas Merton's birth, and Bellarmine University has numerous events planned over the coming year to mark this special occasion.  If you're in the Louisville area, be sure to take advantage of the incredible line-up of speakers.  If you're not in Louisville, but are interested in any of these events, let me know; I'll find out whether they will be recorded, and if so, how to view them.

Please feel free to download the JPEG below of the event schedule (if you'd like a PDF, email me).  The first event occurs on November 16 with a lecture by Robert Ellsberg on Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.  For more information, go to this link: http://www.bellarmine.edu/merton-centennial/

And if you aren't familiar with Merton, might I suggest that the centenary marks a great opportunity to delve into his writings?  In the coming weeks, I'll provide some advice about where to start with him.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Clash of Ecclesiologies



Photo from Twitter
Last Saturday evening, Ross Douthat of the New York Times published an op-ed that has much of the English-speaking Catholic world buzzing.  Here is the link to the original op-ed, followed by some of the responses:

Ross Douthat's Op-ed: "The Pope & the Precipice" (Oct 25)

Andrew Sullivan's Response: "A Declaration of War on Pope Francis" (Oct 27)

Peter Steinfel's Response: "Douthat on the Synod" (Oct 28)

Ross Douthat's Response: "Why I am Catholic" (Oct 28)

Sr. Mary Ann Walsh's Response: "Room for Forgiveness, Caring, and Starting Over in the Church" (Oct 29)

John O'Malley, SJ's Response: "Is a Precipice Yawning?" (Oct 29)

Ross Douthat's Response to O'Malley: "A Church not a Party" (Oct 30)

I've found the exchanges engendered by Douthat's original op-ed to be very worthwhile, for they've illustrated to me that the clash is not so much between 'conservative' and 'liberal,' but between those who identify primarily with a juridical ecclesiology and those who identify primarily with a Eucharistic ecclesiology; Douthat's most recent post further solidifies my thoughts about the nature of the debate. Put simply, a juridical ecclesiology is one that focuses on the church as an institution characterized by clear boundaries demarcated by teaching and law.  A Eucharistic ecclesiology is one that focuses on the church in terms of communion; Lumen Fidei speaks of the church primarily in these terms.  I don't have time to write about this in any more detail right now, but I did write a series of tweets yesterday to test the waters.  I've pasted them below, and am certainly open to feedback, constructive or otherwise.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Temptations toward Extremes: Pope Francis' Concluding Synod Speech

If you haven't had a chance to read the speech Pope Francis gave at the conclusion of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, take some time to do so.  You can read it here and watch a video of the speech at the bottom of this post.  I found myself moved while reading the speech, which is both lighthearted and deeply theological.  Particularly valuable, I think, is Pope Francis' diagnosis of the various temptations we face as Roman Catholics - clergy and lay alike - when discussing issues as complex as marriage/divorce, familial life, and homosexuality:
One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.
The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”
The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk 11:46).
The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.
The temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]; or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing! They call them “byzantinisms,” I think, these things…
There's much in here to digest, and I've found myself reading and re-reading these paragraphs.  What struck me most had to do with Pope Francis' understanding of how the church is to undertake theological discernment, specifically in relation to tradition and the 'world'.

I think Pope Francis warns above of two extremes, both of which are to be rejected: One, the extreme of undertaking theological discernment with the goal being accommodation to the dominant culture (or 'worldly spirit').  Two, the extreme of viewing the tradition of the church as being completely immobile, as being incapable of development and/or nuance. 

Temptation to Accommodation


The relationship of the church to the 'world' is a complicated one.  The church is not ahistorical; it exists in the world and is necessarily influenced by it.  There have been times when the church existed in an unhealthy relationship with the world; I think specifically of the ways in which Christian political theology was negatively transformed after Constantine.  And there have been times when the church attempted too vigorously to cut itself off from the world, to portray itself as entirely distinct from the world, and so to approach the world primarily from a position of condemnation rather than dialogue; I think specifically of the long-nineteenth century inaugurated by Pope Pius IX.

I've written on this blog before about the more open attitude Pope Francis has toward the world, an attitude similarly expressed by Pope St John XXIII.  "The complaints of today about how ‘barbaric’ the world is," Pope Francis said in his interview published in America, "these complaints sometimes end up giving birth within the church to desires to establish order in the sense of pure conservation, as a defense. No: God is to be encountered in the world of today."

But Pope Francis' attitude towards the world is not an uncritical one.  There is a big difference between interpreting the signs of the times and allowing the dominating culture to dictate the parameters of theological discernment.  Francis refers above to the necessity of 'purifying' worldly spirits, bending them to the Holy Spirit.  This is definitely not accommodation.  This is reading the signs of the times carefully through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, recognizing that there is much in the world that is worthwhile but there is much that is not.  We learned from following the Synod that such discernment is complex and messy, and we do not know to what conclusions the Synod will finally arrive next year.  These conclusions may perhaps look to some like accommodation, but it is important to recognize that the starting point of the bishops' theological discernment is and will be Jesus Christ, who was the sign of contradiction precisely because he demonstrated a way of being rooted in a generous love that many found threatening.  In this, the church's starting point differs radically from the dominant culture's starting point, making the conclusions to which they arrive necessarily distinct from those of the dominant culture.

Temptation to a Rigid Traditionalism


Pope Francis also warns above about the temptation to inflexibility; to look at the tradition of the church as a bulwark that doesn't admit of development; to look at tradition as something ahistorically communicated without recognizing that tradition developed in conversation with the signs of the times; to see tradition primarily as a series of doctrinal statements rather than the ongoing relationship of the church to the God who reveals himself in the person of Jesus Christ and deepens our understanding through the Holy Spirit.

I'm undoubtedly caricaturing the thought of my traditionalist friends (and so am open to correction), but I get the strong sense from them that they understand tradition as something already revealed that requires no elaboration, deepening of understanding, or development of thought.  They seem to tend to view tradition propositionally (that is, merely as a series of doctrinal propositions) rather than as the process by which the church continues to grow ever deeper in understanding of the divine will.  They seem to view tradition as static.

But a static understanding of tradition does not appear to be an authentically Roman Catholic understanding of tradition.  The whole of Dei Verbum - Vatican II's document on divine revelation - is worth examining on this point, but I take just one paragraph as an example of the church's understanding:
This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit.  For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her (Dei Verbum 8)
For reasons that I have to admit that I don't entirely understand, I've heard many over the past few weeks suggest that a static understanding of tradition is the only alternative to nihilism and chaos.  For fear of such chaos, they insist on the letter of tradition without perhaps recognizing the Spirit who guides the church.

A Tightrope


Against these two temptations, Pope Francis urges us in the church to walk a tightrope between progressivist accommodation and traditionalist retreat to stasis.  To traverse this tightrope appears to be an uncomfortable process that involves disagreement, debate, and dialogue, all of which will continue over the coming year as the bishops in conversation with the laity continue their discernment.  It is also a tightrope where the conclusions are not absolutely clear, and this is for all involved more than a little nerve-wracking.  It is one that requires humility in the face of theological disagreement, a humility that recognizes our limitations to comprehend entirely the will of a God who transcends all things, but also one that is willing to - in Pope Francis' words - be surprised by God.

I myself am a lowly patristics scholar whose main field of study is the development of Trinitarian theology.  My specialty is not contemporary Catholicism, nor is it the intricacies of Roman Catholic understanding of the development of doctrine.  I am, therefore, open to constructive criticism in what I'm written above.



Photo above from news.va

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Humility in the Face of Theological Disagreement: "Am I Open to God's Surprises?"

Pope Francis at Santa Marta
The moment the Relatio was released, my Twitter feed exploded.  On the one hand there were those who reacted to the document with joy and excitement, and more than a whiff of triumphalism.  On the other hand there were those who reacted with panic, fear, and even open hostility.

I prefer to take a 'wait-and-see' approach to the Synod.  The Relatio is merely one step in a long process of discernment by the bishops in consultation with the laity and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  A few friends on Twitter have suggested that my appeal to faith in the Spirit's guidance is a kind of pollyannish attitude that amounts to little more than passivity in the face of massive theological disagreement.  Not at all.  As an historical theologian with a particular focus on Cyril of Alexandria, I'm quite aware that the Spirit works in and through disagreement, often vociferous and truly nasty disagreement; you don't get much more cantankerous than Cyril.

Some people appear to be worried about the level of theological confrontation both in and outside the Synod.  None of this is new in the history of the church.  I have over the last few months been reading Yves Congar's 900+ page My Journal of the Council, and have been struck by the intensity of the arguments that occurred in and around the sessions of the Second Vatican Council.  Much of that was behind closed doors.  Pope Francis, however, appears willing to allow the bishops to argue both inside and outside the synod chambers, to air the dirty laundry, and so to allow us to understand that the process of theological discernment is one that is difficult and often messy.  This is not something about which we should be worried.

What should concern us all is the attitude with which we participate in the disagreements.  We can and should vocalize our disagreements, express our concerns and opinions, and endeavour if necessary to demonstrate where our interlocutors may fall short.  But - and I'm preaching to myself as much as to anyone reading this - such disagreement must be done with humility.  By this I mean that it  must be done with the clear understanding that none of us has a complete purchase on truth, beauty, and goodness.  This is a point I make with my undergraduates regularly.  When discussing God, we have to remember that we're not talking about an object within our universe, only bigger.  We're talking about the very cause of that universe, and while God has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ, and continues to reveal himself to us through the Spirit, we have to admit that each one of us singly cannot possibly claim to understand the fullness of God or of God's revelation.

In short, I have to approach theological disagreement fully open to the possibility that I might be wrong.  We all have to do this.  When we recognize that we (I truly am including myself in that first person plural) don't have the complete purchase on theological understanding, we must turn in faith to the idea that God continues to guide the church through the Holy Spirit (read Vatican II's Dei Verbum and Lumen Gentium to get a sense of what the Roman Catholic church understands this to look like).

So, yes, let's disagree.  Let's even do so forcefully and passionately.  But let's also do so in humility, recognizing that the conclusions to which the church arrives through the guidance of the Spirit may not be precisely what we might want.

It is for this reason, I think, that on the morning of the Relatio's release Pope Francis gave a sermon at Santa Marta in which he asks whether we are truly open to God's surprises.  Whether we are truly open to having our theological assumptions and ideas challenged by the God of all things.  To do so takes a level of humility that, frankly, I do not yet have.

I've pasted the summary of Pope Francis' homily below, as well as a short video from Rome Reports.  While I think Pope Francis could have made his point without using the Pharisees as they're depicted in the Gospels as a foil, his overall argument is worthwhile
"Why were these Doctors of the Law unable to understand the signs of the times? Why did they demand an extraordinary sign (which Jesus later gave to them), why they did not understand? First of all, because they were closed. They were closed within their system, they had perfectly systemized the law, it was a masterpiece. Every Jews knew what they could do and what they could not do, how far they could go. It was all systemized. And they were safe there".
They believed that Jesus did “strange things”: "He went about with sinners, ate with tax collectors." The Pope noted that they "did not like” Jesus, he “was dangerous; doctrine was in danger, the doctrine of the law”, which the theologians had formulated over the centuries. Pope Francis said that while they had  "done this out of love, to be faithful to God", they had become “closed", they had "simply forgotten history. They had forgotten that God is the God of the Law, but He is also the God of surprises". On the other hand, said Francis, "God has often reserved surprises for His people" like when He saved them "from slavery in Egypt":
"They did not understand that God is the God of surprises, that God is always new; He never denies himself, never says that what He said was wrong, never, but He always surprises us. They did not understand this and they closed themselves within that system that was created with the best of intentions and asked Jesus: 'But, give us a sign'. And they did not understand the many signs that Jesus did give them and which indicated that the time was ripe. Closure! Second, they had forgotten that they were a people on a journey. On a path! And when we set out on a journey, when we are on our path, we always encounter new things, things we did not know".
And, he added, "a path is not absolute in itself," it is a path towards "the ultimate manifestation of the Lord. Life is a journey toward the fullness of Jesus Christ, when He will come again". This generation "seeks a sign", but the Lord says, " but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah", that is "the sign of the Resurrection, the glory, of that eschatology towards “which we are journeying".
Pope Francis repeated, these doctors "were closed in on themselves, not open to the God of Surprises, they did not know the path nor this eschatology".  So, when before the Sanhedrin Jesus claims to be the Son of God, "they tore their clothes", they were shocked saying that He had blasphemed. "The sign that Jesus gives to them - he said - was a blasphemy". And for this reason "Jesus says: an evil generation”.
Pope Francis added, "they failed to understand that the law they guarded and loved" was a pedagogy towards Jesus Christ. "If the law does not lead to Jesus Christ - he said – if it does not bring us closer to Jesus Christ, it is dead. And Jesus rebuked them for this closure, for not being able to read the signs of the times, for not being open to the God of surprises”.
"And this should make us think: am I attached to my things, my ideas, [are they] closed? Or am I open to God's surprises? Am I at a standstill or am I on a journey? Do I believe in Jesus Christ - in Jesus, in what he did: He died, rose again and the story ended there - Do I think that the journey continues towards maturity, toward the manifestation of the glory of the Lord? Am I able to understand the signs of the times and be faithful to the voice of the Lord that is manifested in them? We should ask ourselves these questions today and ask the Lord for a heart that loves the law -  because the law belongs to God – but which also loves God’s surprises and the ability to understand that this holy law is not an end in itself".
Pope Francis concluded, this "journey” is a pedagogy "that leads us to Jesus Christ, the final encounter, where there will be this great sign of the Son of man."
  

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Synod on the Family and Interchurch Families

This morning the midterm report of the Synod on the Family, the Relatio post disceptationem, was released.  For a helpful analysis of the document, I recommend John Thavis' report.

Reaction to the report has focused on what it says about gradualism, communion for divorced and remarried persons, and gay persons.

Less has been made of what the text says about those in interchurch families.  Last week I wrote about the challenges and gifts of living in an interchurch family, and suggested that the Synod on the Family needed to discuss situations like ours in more depth.

It appears that this is what occurred.

Paragraph 49 of the Relatio simply relates: "The problems relative to mixed marriages were frequently raised in the interventions of the Synodal Fathers."  While the text doesn't go into detail about these interventions, it seems hopeful that this issue is on the radar of the Fathers.

Even more encouraging to me was what was said about interchurch marriages in paragraph 7:
In countries in which Catholicism is a minority religion, there are many mixed marriages with all the difficulties that these may lead to in terms of legal form, the education of children and mutual respect from the point of view of religious freedom, but also with the great potential that derives from the encounter between the differences in faith that these stories of family life present.
In this one sentence, the Relatio beautifully summarizes what I wrote in my previous blog post.  Interchurch marriages do come with difficulties, particularly surrounding the sacraments.  But - and it is this that I find so encouraging - the Fathers emphasize that such marriages bring about valuable encounters that carry "great potential."

Such positive language with reference to interchurch marriages is very welcome.  I hope and pray that the Synod Fathers continue to discuss carefully and seriously the pastoral reality of families such as mine.

Photo above is from http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/americans-help-moderate-synod-discussions-87525/

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Pope Francis, Thomas Merton, and Pope St John XXIII

The good folks at Daily Theology asked me to write something for their Theological Shark Week, answering the question, "What should Pope Francis do when he visits the United States next year?"

I, of course, suggested that he should visit Louisville to devote some time and attention to Thomas Merton as we celebrate the centennial of his birth.  You can read my post - "Pope Francis at the Corner of 4th and Walnut" -  here.

Speaking of Merton, look who popped by my office today?


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Prayer, Anger, and Lament

A number of years ago I went on retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York, a daughter abbey to the Abbey of Gethsemani here in Kentucky.  As is still the case, I was then interested in the contemplative tradition and in learning how to pray (I've come to realize that the latter is an ongoing quest), and so spent time in silence and eagerly attended the daily offices as well as the talks given by monks to the retreatants.

At one of these talks, a gregarious monk named Fr. Jerome spoke to us about what we are to do with people we simply do not like, and may even hate.  He suggested that we turn our hatred into a prayer.  I admit that at this suggestion I started to tune out, for it sounded like he was going to feed us with the same kind of pious stuff I heard growing up.  As he continued, I quickly learned I was wrong.

 photo ThankyouGod1_zps7b7df0b2.gif
Basil Fawlty's prayer of lament
"Yes," Fr. Jerome said, "turn it into a prayer.  A prayer that goes something like: 'Dear God, I hope that son of a bitch gets exactly what he deserves.'"

Such prayers have a distinguished pedigree.  The psalms that Fr. Jerome chants with his brother-monks seven times a day are filled with expressions of anger and frustration with God and others.

And yesterday's mass reading from Job 3 shows Job cursing the day he was born in response to the calamities that struck him.

At mass at Santa Marta yesterday, Pope Francis focused his attention on Job's curse, discussing the idea that prayer means being truthful before God.  The summary of his homily on the Vatican Radio website is worth reading at length.
Reflecting on the First Reading of the day, in which Job curses the day he was born, the Pope noted that his prayer at first appears to us like a curse. Pope Francis recalled how Job was “put to the test”, how he “lost his entire family, everything he possessed”, how he lost his health and “his body had become a plague, a disgusting plague". The Pope said in that moment "he had lost all patience and he says these things. They are ugly! But he was always accustomed to speak the truth and this is the truth that he feels at that moment”. Pope Francis recalled how even Jeremiah, "uses almost the same words: 'Cursed be the day I was born!'", and then he asked: "But is this man blaspheming? This is my question: Is this man who is so very alone, blaspheming?”.

"Is it blasphemy when Jesus complains - 'Father, why have You forsaken me’? This is the mystery. I have often listened to people who are experiencing difficult and painful situations, who have lost a great deal or feel lonely and abandoned and they come to complain and ask these questions: Why? Why? They rebel against God. And I say, 'Continue to pray just like this, because this is a prayer'. It was a prayer when Jesus said to his father: 'Why  have You forsaken me!'".

The Pope continued that what Job is doing in the First Reading is praying, because prayer means being truthful before God. This was the only way Job could pray. "We should pray with reality - he added - true prayer comes from the heart, from the moment that we are living in". "It is prayer in times of darkness, in those moments of life that seem hopeless, where we cannot see the horizon". "And so many people, so many today, are in the same situation as Job. So many good people, just like Job, do not understand what has happened to them, or why. Many brothers and sisters who have no hope. Just think of the tragedies, the great tragedies, for example, of these brothers and sisters of ours who because they are Christians were driven out of their homes and left with nothing: 'But, Lord, I have believed in you. Why? Is believing in you a curse, Lord? '".

"Just think of the elderly who are sidelined - he continued - think of the sick, of the many lonely people in hospitals". The Pope assured that the Church prays for all of these people and for those of us when we walk in darkness. “The Church prays! She takes this pain upon herself and prays". And those of us who “are not sick, or hungry, who have no pressing needs, when we suffer a little darkness of soul, act like martyrs and stop praying”. 

The Pope continued that there are even those who say: "I am angry with God, I will not go to Mass". "But why? Over some trifling thing” is the answer. Pope Francis recalled that St. Therese of the Child Jesus, in the last months of her life, "tried to think of heaven, but heard a voice within herself, telling her not to be silly, not to be led astray by fantasies. Do you know what awaits you? Nothing!”.

"We all go through this situation, we experience this situation. There are so many people who think it all ends in nothing.  Yet Saint Teresa, prayed and asked for strength to persevere in the dark. This is called entering into patience. Our life is too easy, our complaints are overdramatized. Faced with the complaints of so many people, of so many brothers and sisters who are in the dark, who have almost lost all memory, almost lost all hope – who are experiencing this exile from themselves, who are exiled, even from themselves - nothing! Jesus walked this path: from sunset on the Mount of Olives to the last word from the Cross: 'Father, why have you forsaken me!”.

Pope Francis concluded that there are two things that can help in such situations: “First, to prepare ourselves for when the darkness comes” which perhaps, will not be as hard as that of Job, “but which will come.  Prepare your heart for that moment". Second: "Pray, pray as the Church prays, pray with the Church for so many brothers and sisters who suffer exile from themselves, who are in darkness and suffering, without hope at hand." It is the prayer of the Church for these ‘Suffering Jesus’ who are everywhere".

Monday, September 29, 2014

Progressives, Conservatives, & the Synod on the Family

I read this morning a pre-synod interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper in America Magazine.  Cardinal Kasper has in recent weeks come under fire for his proposals regarding the issue of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, one of the issues that will be discussed at the upcoming Synod on the Family.  In the interview, Cardinal Kasper responds to those - Cardinal Müller & Cardinal Burke to name a couple - who have opposed him, suggesting that his interlocutors fear that any change in the discipline could result in a domino effect whereby all aspects of Catholic faith would come up for questioning:
I think they fear a domino effect, if you change one point all would collapse. That’s their fear. This is all linked to ideology, an ideological understanding of the Gospel that the Gospel is like a penal code. 
But the Gospel is, as the Pope said in ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ (Evangelii Gaudium), quoting Thomas Aquinas, the Gospel is the gift of the Holy Spirit which is in the soul of faithful and becomes operating in love. That’s a different understanding. It is not a museum. It is a living reality in the church and we have to walk with the whole people of God and see what the needs of the people are. Then we have to make a discernment in the light of the Gospel, which is not a code of doctrines and commandments.
I like the second paragraph of Cardinal Kasper's response more than I like his first.  He is right to emphasize the preeminence of love and mercy in any interpretation of the gospel, but I worry about the kind of language he uses to characterize his opponents.  Kasper strongly implies above that those opposed to his viewpoints are not concerned with love and mercy, but are concerned primarily with ideology and punishment.

This strikes me as an unfair characterization.  I'm not a moral theologian, nor am I a pastor.  My understanding of the intricacies of the church's theology of marriage is limited, and as a result, I've taken a 'wait-and-see' approach to the synod's deliberations on the issue of divorce and remarriage, though I will admit that Kasper's language resonates of love and mercy resonates with  me.  But it is, I think, unhelpful to caricature one's opponents, particularly given that he himself has been caricatured.  It does little to promote dialogue.

Kasper rightly compares the atmosphere surrounding the Synod on the Family to that of the Second Vatican Council, and his comments reminded me of Thomas Merton's observations regarding the hardening of division between progressives and conservatives that occurred during and after the Council.  I've posted these comments before, but they bear repeating, particularly as I fear further estrangement between progressives and conservatives as a result of the Synod.

Used with permission of The Merton Legacy Trust
In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton expresses his frustration with the intransigence of progressives and conservatives, and particularly their unwillingness to have their engagement with the other marked by charity.  Merton's focus is on 'extreme' conservatives and progressives, and so he does, admittedly, indulge in some caricature of each side.  But it's his broader point that bears attention.  He writes:
The extreme conservatives seem to me to be people who feel themselves so menaced that they will go to any length in order to defend their own fanatical concept of the Church.  This concept seems to me to be not only static and inert, but in complete continuity with what is most questionable and indeed scandalous in the history of the Church: Inquisition, persecution, intolerance, Papal power, clerical influence, alliance with worldly power, love of wealth and pomp, etc.  This is a picture of the Church which has become a scandal and these people are intent on preserving the scandal at the cost of greater scandal.
...They are so convinced that they are the Church that they are almost ready to declare the majority of bishops to be virtual apostates, rather than obey the Council and the Pope.  At the same time, of course, their hysteria suggests that they are having a little trouble handling the guilty which this inevitably arouses in them.
On the other hand, the refusal of the extreme progressives to pay any attention to any traditional teaching which would give them a common basis for rational discussion with conservatives is surely scandalous also - especially when it is allied with an arrogant triumphalism of its own, and when it simply ridicules all opposition.  This is not only foolish, but seems to show a serious lack of that love to which they frequently appeal is justification of their procedures.  Though they are continually shouting about "openness" one finds them hermetically closed to their fellow Catholics and to the Church's own past, and there is some validity to the conservative accusation that these extreme progressives often are more open to Marxism, to positivism, or to existentialism than they are to what is generally recognizable as Catholic truth.
It has been remarked with truth that conservatives and progressives in the Church are so concerned with total victory over each other that they are more and more closed to each other.  If this is the case, one seriously wonders about the value and significance of the much touted "openness" to non-Catholics.  An ecumenism that does not begin with charity within one's own Church remains questionable (316-317).
This intransigence and lack of charity is alive and well in the Roman Catholic church.  Despite the many benefits of the internet, it has done little to contribute to charitable dialogue and disagreement; social media and the comments sections are rife with those determined to demonstrate that their viewpoint is the only valid one.

Yesterday Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI publicly embraced as they celebrated the elderly.  While I do not want to make too much of this embrace (such things are expected) nor of the supposed differences between the two popes (which I think are wildly exaggerated), Francis and Benedict represent to many two distinct theological and pastoral approaches.  I'd like to suggest that their embrace yesterday become an icon for us of our unity, a unity that transcends and encompasses our differences.

A unity centered in true charity, the love that God is.

Photo of Cardinal Kasper from http://www.kardinal-kasper-stiftung.de/en/cardinal.html
Image of Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI from http://www.cruxnow.com/church/2014/09/28/popes-francis-and-benedict-celebrate-old-age-with-40000-elderly/

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Pope Francis and the Theological Enterprise

In my post yesterday on Pope Gregory the Great, I quoted a brief comment he made in Liber Regulae Pastoralis about teaching and those who teach one thing and do another:
There are some who investigate spiritual precepts with shrewd diligence, but in the life they live trample on what they have penetrated by their understanding.  They hasten to teach what they have learned, not by practice, but by study, and belie in their conduct what they teach by words.
Pope Gregory here and elsewhere warns pastors and teachers against relying solely on one's study of theology in one's teaching, but argues that one's authority in teaching comes not only from study but from a life transformed by God.

On Tuesday, in his homily at mass at Santa Marta, Pope Francis made a similar point.  Preaching on 1 Corinthians 2:10b-16 and Luke 4:31-37, the Pope emphasized that theological wisdom comes not just from diligent study, but principally in and through the Holy Spirit: "You can have five degrees in theology, but not have the Spirit of God! Maybe you'll be a great theologian, but you are not a Christian because you do not have the Spirit of God!"

These are difficult words for a theologian to hear.  But they're vital words.

It is all too easy to focus my attention merely on the academic part of theological life, the publishing and presenting that is part of what academics do.  But, as Evagrius Ponticus wrote in his Chapters on Prayer, "If you are a theologian you truly pray.  If you truly pray you are a theologian".

It is this point that Pope Francis underlined in his homily.  Within the church, your authority as a teacher, as a theologian, comes not from the prestige of your alma mater or the quality of the university press that published your monograph.  It comes in and through the Spirit who transforms all to become like God.  The goal of the theologian is not to possess a stellar curriculum vitae.  Rather, the heart of the theological enterprise is a transformed life, for it is out of such a life that - to borrow Blessed John Henry Newman's motto on his coat-of-arms - "heart speaks unto heart."

The Pope's homily is worth reading, and I've pasted it below from the Vatican news website.  I've also included a video of the homily from Rome Reports.
"We too can ask ourselves, what is our identity as Christians? Paul puts it very well today when he says: ‘And we speak about them not with words taught by human wisdom'. Paul's preaching is not the result of a course at the Lateran, or the Gregorian [Pontifical Universities - ed]... No, no, no! Not human wisdom, no! But taught by the Spirit: Paul preached with the anointing of the Spirit, expressing spiritual things of the Spirit in spiritual terms. Humans cannot understand the things of the Spirit of God by our own strength: Humans alone cannot understand this!”
The Pope continued that this is why "if we Christians do not fully understand the things of the Spirit, if we do not give or offer witness then we have no identity." For some, he said, "these things of the Spirit are foolishness, they are not able to understand them." The one moved by the Spirit, however, "judges everything: He is free and cannot be judged by anyone."
“Now, we have the thought of Christ and that is the Spirit of Christ. This is the Christian identity. Not having the spirit of the world, that way of thinking, that way of judging ... You can have five degrees in theology, but not have the Spirit of God! Maybe you'll be a great theologian, but you are not a Christian because you do not have the Spirit of God! That which gives authority, that which gives identity is the Holy Spirit, the anointing of the Holy Spirit”.
Pope Francis said that this is why "the people did not love those preachers, those teachers of the law, because they only spoke of theology, they did not speak to hearts, they gave no freedom". These, he added, "were unable to help the people find their own identity, because they were not anointed by the Holy Spirit".
"The authority of Jesus - and the authority of the Christian – comes from this ability to understand the things of the Spirit, to speak the language of the Spirit. It is from this anointing of the Holy Spirit. Often, so often, we find among our faithful, simple old women who perhaps didn’t even finish elementary school, but who can speak to us of things better than any theologian, because they have the Spirit of Christ. Exactly like St. Paul. We all need to ask for this. Lord grant us Christian identity, which You had. Grant us Your Spirit. Grant us Your way of thinking, feeling, speaking: May the Lord grant us the anointing of the Holy Spirit."
 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

On the Feast of St Gregory the Great (My Name Day)

Carlo Saracini - St Gregory the Great (c. 1610)
My parents named me Gregory not out of devotion for any saint - they were and are Evangelical Protestants - but because they liked the sound of it.  It was only after I started studying Christian history and theology that I discovered the plethora of significant "Gregory's" in our past - Gregory
Thaumaturgus, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Pope Gregory the Great, whose feast day we celebrate today.

As a scholar whose work focuses mainly on Greek Patristic thought, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa both play an important role in my life and work.  But it is on Pope Gregory the Great's feast day that I celebrate my Name Day.

Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) was, first and foremost, a monk who yearned to devote his life to prayer and asceticism.  But his desire for a life of prayer was continually frustrated, first by Pope Pelagius II who sent him to Byzantium as his ambassador and later when he was elected as pope.  Gregory is known primarily as the pope who ushered in the medieval papacy, but I'm more attracted to Gregory the pastor, the bishop who struggled to shepherd a flock suffering from plague, famine, and invasion.

And it's his Liber Regulae Pastoralis, his book on pastoral care, that remains his most famous work, and one I've found both moving and challenging.  I thought for this, Gregory's feast day and my name day, I'd provide a very brief excerpt from the book, and I've chosen a section from near the beginning in which Gregory writes about those who do not put into practice that which they teach.  As a theologian and a teacher, I find myself continually reminded of the import of Gregory's words about teaching, and convicted by them.  They're worth remembering as we commemorate St Gregory - patron saint of teachers - today:
There are some who investigate spiritual precepts with shrewd diligence, but in the life they live trample on what they have penetrated by their understanding.  They hasten to teach what they have learned, not by practice, but by study, and belie in their conduct what they teach by words. 
Sancte Gregori, ora pro nobis.

P.S. You can read a longer excerpt from Liber Regulae Pastoralis here.

Painting is from the Web Gallery of Art (www.wga.hu)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, & the Trinity

A few people requested that I write something brief about my recent visit with Tanya and Wendell Berry at their farm last Sunday.  I didn't tell Wendell that I would be writing about the experience because I didn't intend on writing about it.  I'm therefore reluctant to say too much about our discussion, apart from generalities.

Tanya and Wendell were generous hosts who made myself and my two companions - Kaya Oakes and my wife Kim - feel very welcome (I arranged the meeting with Wendell Berry because Kaya shares a publisher with him, and she was in town to teach a class for the M.A. in Spirituality program, which I direct).  Our conversation revolved around the state of higher education, farming, marriage, publishing, and Kentucky.  And after I mentioned to him that I use his novel, Jayber Crow, in my introductory theology class, we ended up having what I hope was a mutually enriching conversation about the Trinity and the importance of having a truly incarnational theology.  "Are you an incarnational theologian?" he asked me, and when I said that I was, I saw a glimmer of relief in his eyes.  His concern was that I, as a theologian, might bear some resemblance to the beauty-in-the-world-denying preachers about whom he so frequently rails.  Indeed, when I was later briefly out of the room, Wendell looked over at Kim and said, "Well,  I'm enjoying this quite a bit more than I thought I would."  I was not one of those theologians!

Many others like myself understand Wendell Berry to be a theologian himself, and our conversation about the Trinity revolved around the theological insights found in Jayber Crow.  What I said to him about his book is essentially what I wrote on this blog in 2012, so I'll conclude by cutting and pasting my previous thoughts:

To me, Jayber Crow is a parable of the Kingdom of God.  It is a novel told from the viewpoint of an unmarried barber in a fictional Kentucky town called Port William.  And the account Jayber gives of the community of Port William is one of the most beautiful accounts of the meaning and purpose of community I’ve ever read.  Not everyone in the community was loving or even lovely.  Some, like Cecelia Overhold, actually refuse to accept the generosity and openness of the town.  But the community itself held together because, whether you wanted it or not, you became known.  Jayber describes Port William as a place where your business simply is the business of everyone else, with the result that the community shares in your gains as well as in your losses.  It’s a community in which a crop is harvested for a sick farmer, where cooked food goes where it is needed, where fuel is provided to those who need it, where toys go to kids who wouldn’t have any otherwise.  “This is,” Jayber tells us, “a charity that includes the church rather than the other way around.”

Berry doesn’t have many kind words for the church in Jayber Crow.  The church in Port William frequently displays a kind of anti-community sentiment, an us-against-them attitude, and a body/soul dualism that always comes up for criticism from Berry.  The town is where real community occurs, because it is in the town that real love is demonstrated.

This is most clearly and beautifully expressed in the love Jayber has for Mattie.  Jayber, upon finding out that Mattie’s husband is cheating on her, decides that she deserves to have a husband who truly loves her and is faithful to her.  Jayber takes it upon himself to be that husband.  And so, tormented by the possibility that someone as worthy of love as Mattie is not, in this world, being given the love she deserves, Jayber decides to take a vow of fidelity to her in his own mind, without her being aware of it

It is telling to me that others often give me a look of incredulity or disgust when I talk about this vow of fidelity.  There is to many a sense that such a vow is strange, and perhaps even perverted.  But I would suggest that this vow is an expression of a completely selfless love, a love that is utterly giving, a love that exists solely for the sake of love.  And it is no accident that Jayber, upon taking this step of selfless love, suddenly comes to understand something profound about the nature of God:
“I imagined that the right name [for God] might be Father, and I imagined all that that name would imply: the love, the compassion, the taking offense, the disappointment, the anger, the bearing of wounds, the weeping of tears, the forgiveness, the suffering unto death. If love could force my own thoughts over the edge of the world and out of time, then could I not see how even divine omnipotence might by the force of its love be swayed down into the world? Could I not see how it might, because it could know its creatures only by compassion, put on moral flesh, become a man, and walk among us, assume our nature and our fate, suffer our faults and our death?
Yes. And I could imagine a Father who is yet like a mother hen spreading her wings before the storm or in the dusk before the dark night for the little ones of Port William to come in under, some of whom do, and some do not. I could imagine Port William riding its humble wave through time under the sky, its little flames of wakefulness lighting and going out, its lives passing through birth, pleasure, suffering, and death. I could imagine God looking down upon it, its lives living by His spirit, breathing by His breath, knowing by His light, but each life living also (inescapably) by its own will - His own body given to be broken."
A barber in small-town Kentucky ("Can anything good come out of Nazareth?") provides for us an image of true love, becomes truly a theologian with a more profound understanding of the divine than almost anything I've ever read.  And in articulating the meaning of love, Wendell Berry - through Jayber - provides a parable of true community, a community based on self-giving, generous, vulnerable, and open love.  If only the Church looked so much like paradise.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Yves Congar on Pope John XXIII

I'm gradually making my way through Yves Congar's 900+ page My Journal of the Council, and just came across his first entry after the death of Pope John XXIII.  Many compare Pope Francis to Pope St. John XXIII, and the more contemporary impressions of the latter I read, the more apt the comparison seems.

Earlier in the journal, Congar describes the vocal opposition to Pope John XXIII on the part of traditionalist Catholics - the intégristes -
and this opposition is echoed in the frustrations of some traditionalist Catholics with the present pope.  But the favourable reactions to Pope John XXIII also reverberate in the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Pope Francis since his election.

There are some who cynically argue that Francis' popularity is merely a consequence of the 'liberal media' trying to conform him to their own image.  This doesn't ring true to me.  Although some of my traditionalist friends will disagree, I think many people see something very genuine about Pope Francis; they see in him someone with whom they can truly relate.  I was and remain a supporter of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and while there were facets of his papacy I found problematic, I think he was largely misunderstood by the left in the church.  But there was also an academic and hierarchical distance to him that simply doesn't exist with Francis.

Nor, judging from Congar's assessment, did it exist with Pope John XXIII:
In the last suffering and death of John XXIII, the Church and even the world have been through an extraordinary experience.  All at once, one became aware of the immense impact this humble and good man has had.  It has become clear that he has profoundly altered the religious map and even the human map of the world, simply by being what he was.  He did not operate by great expositions of ideas, but by gestures and a certain personal style.  He did not speak in the name of the system, of its legitimacy, of its authority, but simply in the name of the intuitions and the movement of a heart which, on the one hand, was obedient to God and on the other loved all people, or rather he did both these things in a single action, and in such a way that, once again, the divine law has proved true: God alone is great; true greatness consists in being docile in the service of God in himself and in his loving plan.  God raises up the humble.  Blessed are the meek for they shall possess the land.  Blessed are the peacemakers, they shall be called children of God.  Everyone had the feeling that, in John XXIII, they had lost a father, a personal friend, someone who was thinking of and loving each one of them.
Even the incredible Roman ceremonial, those endless shows, were unable to wipe out the deep impression, the sorrow and the intimate heartfelt affection.  However, what a contradiction between the courtly pomp and that utterly simple man whose funeral was the occasion of it!  The working people followed his last suffering and death as though he were the father of their own family.  'For once we had a good one...'  A sort of extraordinary unanimity had come about (304).

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Brief Response to Michael Dougherty on Summorum Pontificum

Birmingham Oratory Church
Three years ago I spent a few days at the Birmingham Oratory founded by Blessed John Henry Newman.  I've long been fascinated by Newman, and the Oratorians were gracious to let me stay with them, to spend time in Newman's library, and to visit the room where he studied and said mass.  One of the highlights for me was the high mass in the Oratorian church, a mass celebrated in the Extraordinary (Latin) Form.  Beautiful liturgy is an essential part of the Oratorian charism, and the Latin mass I attended was stunning. There have been only a few moments in my life when I felt transported by an experience of Divine Beauty, and this was one of them.

I write this to underline that I have a deep love for the Latin mass.  Even though I am not a traditionalist nor do I regularly attend a Latin mass, I like to think that I 'get' at least some of the concerns of my traditionalist sisters and brothers.

Michael Dougherty, senior correspondant for The Week and a traditionalist Roman Catholic, wrote an article today to commemorate the seventh anniversary of Summorum Pontificum, the document issued by Pope Benedict XVI that legitimized the Latin mass and made possible its widespread celebration.  Pope Benedict's actions regarding the Latin mass should be commended.  The years following Vatican II witnessed to an unprecedented and, in my opinion as an historical theologian, unfortunate rejection of the church's liturgical and artistic tradition.  Pope Benedict rightly noted in his letter that the Extraordinary Form was never "juridically abrogated" after Vatican II, and therefore that its usage was always permitted.  "What earlier generations held as sacred," he wrote, "remains sacred and great for us too."

In his article, Dougherty provides an aesthetic defense of Pope Benedict XVI and of the Latin mass.  He argues that by allowing for the wider celebration of the Latin mass, Pope Benedict re-opened the church's liturgical and musical treasury to the world, and as a result, Dougherty is treated at his parish "not only to Gregorian chant, but to Renaissance-era motets, and Masses composed by Morales and Monteverdi."

An aesthetic argument for the Latin mass is a good one, much better than defenses of the Latin mass I've read on some traditionalist websites.  But what bothers me about Dougherty's argument is the narrow way in which he defines beauty.  Dougherty writes that, by liberating the Latin mass, Pope Benedict XVI restored beauty to the world, as if beauty simply ceased to exist liturgically after Vatican II.  Perhaps I'm selling Michael short, but there's a sense in the article that there is very little that is aesthetically redeeming in the Novus Ordo - he refers to one contemporary hymn as "saccharine and theologically insipid" to illustrate the aesthetic vacuousness of post-Vatican II liturgy - and therefore that liturgical beauty can really only be found and experienced in the Latin Mass. 

Such a sentiment bothers me on several fronts.  The beauty of the Latin Mass is very real, but it is a beauty that is entirely European in its history and form.  I get concerned when traditionalists insist on the universality and aesthetic superiority of the Extraordinary Form, for this disregards the reality that the Roman Catholic church is no longer predominantly European.  It also, I think, fails to take seriously the implications of the Incarnation.  Early medieval Irish monks famously painted Jesus Christ with red hair and a red beard, recognizing that the particularity of the Incarnation in first-century Palestine does not prevent us from worshiping and experiencing God in a way that embraces, rather than rejects, our cultural and racial background.  An incarnational God is, I think, a God who is willing to be 'incarnated' or 'particularlized,' and so experienced in a beauty that is culturally specific.  I may not appreciate the "saccharine and theologically insipid" hymns so often sung at my parish, but I know that there are those in my parish who are deeply moved by them.  And I can't dismiss that, just as I can't dismiss those moved by hymns sung to blaring synthesizers at a mass I attended in India.

I mentioned at the beginning of my response that there have been only a few moments in my life when I felt transported by an experience of Divine Beauty.  The most recent time came at a small Latino parish where, under the gaze of Our Lady of Guadalupe and to the accompaniment of acoustic guitars and drums, I sang upbeat hymns in Spanish and clapped along.  For I witnessed there the profound devotion of  people whose culture was not my own, but whose expression of love for God was real and tangible.

Photo above from http://www.birminghamoratory.org.uk/photo-gallery/

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Elizabeth Johnson on Darwin & Divine Love

I finished Elizabeth Johnson's Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love while on holidays last week.  Unfortunately, having just returned to a mountain of work, I don't have the time to provide the kind of detailed review this book deserves.  But I can't resist writing a few words about it, if only to encourage you to pick it up.

The book asks a question that, as Johnson notes, is still making its way into the consciousness of theologians: "What is the theological meaning of the natural world of life?" (xiv).  To address this question, Johnson brings two texts into seemingly unlikely conversation - Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species and "the Christian story of the ineffable God of mercy and love recounted in the Nicene creed" (xv).

Ask the Beasts emerged from a faculty seminar at Fordham University that celebrated the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species by reading and discussing the text, and Johnson's deep admiration for the beauty both of Darwin's prose and his insights into the natural world is evident in the first four chapters.  Bringing a theologian's eye to the text, she here carefully summarizes the key tenets of Darwin's theory, discussing as well the contributions and clarifications to the theory in the years since his death (A brief excursus here: As Johnson notes on pp. 12-14, a scientific "theory" does not mean that it is simply "an untested hunch or a guess without supporting evidence." It means, rather, that it is a "well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, crafted by pulling together observed facts and known laws and interpreting them with an insightful hypothesis."  I mention this only to emphasize that Johnson fully accepts Darwin's theory as the best scientific explanation we currently possess regarding the development of life.  She has no truck with denials of evolution, and will not say "I believe in evolution" as if it were up for debate. Rather, "it would be more in keeping with the nature of evolution as a scientific theory to say only that one accepts it as demonstrated, and to reserve language about belief for precious human relationships and ultimately only for God.")  Johnson methodically lays bear the complexity of his theory as well as its explanatory power, but also brings out the beauty of Darwin's thought.  His vision highlights the explosive fecundity and creative possibilities of living things in a way that gives one a sense of wonder at the grandeur of life.  Moreover, Johnson focuses on the relational and communal dimensions of evolutionary life as Darwin describes it:
Evolution is a relational process.  The sound of mutual relationship is so pervasively present in [The Origin of Species] one might easily miss it.  The beat goes steadily on, until the book closes with its vision of the entangled bank, its elaborate form of plants, birds, insects, and worms 'so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner'.  Darwin's view of life is bent on community.  The struggle for life is contextual, each species taking from and benefiting others.  There would be no evolution without species constantly interrelating with each other in their particular environment (120).
Sound trinitarian?  It should.  And, in fact, Johnson demonstrates that The Origin of Species, far from compromising Christian theology, is a valuable conversation partner.  In the last six chapters of Ask the Beasts Johnson draws the Nicene Creed's image of a trinitarian God of love into the mix, a God who gives life to creation through the Holy Spirit and who chooses to become part of the story of life in Jesus Christ.  What emerges is a beautiful account of the freedom and independence of the created life and of God's loving interaction with it: "The ineffable holy mystery of Love creates, indwells, and empowers plants and animals, delights in their beautiful, wise, and funny ways and grieves their sufferings" (285).  However, the story of evolution is also one marked by tremendous suffering and extinction, and Johnson tackles the question of how such suffering correlates with the Christian vision of a God of love.  She is quick to emphasize that she doesn't want to engage in an exercise in theodicy, but rather wants to attend "to the cost of the origin of species in view of the cross" in order that our sense of the mystery of God's involvement with the world might deepen (192).  Her account of the suffering that is the necessary concomitant of evolutionary freedom in light of the death and resurrection of Christ - that is, in light of the witness of a God who enters into the suffering of the created order and gives hope through the resurrection - is compelling.

Her account of human destruction of creation in chapters 9 and 10 is also compelling, and more than a little convicting.  She challenges the paradigms of 'dominion' and 'stewardship' that dominate theological interpretations of human relatedness to the created order, predominantly because these paradigms place humanity above the created order in a way that continues to lead to exploitation; Johnson outlines the sheer scale of human destructiveness in startlingly stark terms.  She instead argues that humanity needs to understand its interdependence with all living things, and on the basis both of Darwin's thought and the biblical witness, Johnson argues for a 'community of creation' paradigm wherein "each member of [creation] gives and receives, being significant for one another in different ways but all grounded in absolute, universal reliance on the living God for the very breath of life" (268).  The distinctiveness of humanity isn't denied but re-envisioned so as to emphasize community and mutuality rather than domination:
[C]ommitment to ecological wholeness in partnership with a more just social order is the vocation which best corresponds to God's own loving intent for our corner of creation.  We all share the status of creaturehood; we are all kin in the evolving community of life now under siege; our vision must be one of flourishing for all (285).
Elizabeth Johnson is, to my mind, a theological poet whose insights rarely fail to inspire me, and her foray into ecological theology with Ask the Beasts is timely and convicting.  In a masterful way she brings the best insights of classical theology to play in an exploration of Darwin's theory of evolution, and the result is radical call to live out our mutuality with the created order, a call that is deeply grounded scientifically and theologically.  I almost want to create a new class just to find an excuse to teach it.


Photos above are from  http://www.fordham.edu/campus_resources/enewsroom/inside_fordham/march_24_2014/in_focus_faculty_and/on_darwin_and_religi_94782.asp