RonRolheiser,OMI

To Whom Can We Go? 

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“To whom else shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.” Peter says these words to Jesus. But they are spoken in a very conflicted context: Jesus had just said something that upset and offended his audience and the gospels tell us that everyone walked away grumbling that what Jesus was teaching was “intolerable”.  Jesus then turns to his apostles and asks them: “Do you want to walk away too?” Peter answers: “To whom else can we go?” But that’s more a statement of stoic resignation than an actual question.

His words function at two levels. On the surface, they express an unwanted humility and helplessness that sometimes beset us all: “I have no alternative! I’m so invested in this relationship that now I have no other options. I’m stuck with this!” That’s a humble place to stand and anyone who has ever given himself or herself over in an authentic commitment will eventually stand on that place, knowing that he or she no longer has another practical choice.

But those words also express a much deeper quandary, namely, where can I find meaning if I cannot find it in faith in God? All of us have at some point asked ourselves that question. If I didn’t believe in God and had no faith or religion, what would give meaning to my life?

Where can we go if we no longer have an explicit faith in God? A lot of places, it seems. I think immediately of so many attractive stoics who have wrestled with this question and found solace in various forms of what Albert Camus would call “metaphysical rebellion” or in the kind of Epicureanism that Nikos Kazantzakis advocates in Zorba, the Greek. There’s a stoicism which offers its own kind of salvation by drawing life and meaning simply from fighting chaos and disease for no other reason than that that these cause suffering and are an affront to life, just as there is an Epicureanism that meaningfully grounds life in elemental pleasure. There are, it would seem, different kinds of saints.

There are also different kinds of immortality. For some, meaning outside of an explicit faith, is found in leaving a lasting legacy on this earth, having children, achieving something monumental, or becoming a household name. We’re all familiar with the axiom: Plant a tree; write a book; have a child!

Poets, writers, artists, and artisans often have their own place to find meaning outside of explicit faith. For them, creativity and beauty can be ends in themselves. Art for art’s sake. Creativity itself can seem enough.

And there are still others for whom deep meaning is found simply in being good for its own sake and in being honest for its own sake. There’s also virtue for virtue’s sake and virtue is indeed its own reward. Simply living an honest and generous life can provide sufficient meaning with which to walk through life.

So, it appears that there are places to go outside of explicit faith where one can find deep meaning. But is this really so? Don’t we believe that true meaning can only be found in God? What about St. Augustine’s classic line? You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until the rest in you. Can anything other than faith and God really quiet the restless fires within us?

Yes, there are things that can do that, but all of them – fighting chaos, curing diseases, having children, living for others, building things, inventing things, achieving goals, or simply living honest and generous lives – leave us, in an inchoate way, radiating the transcendental properties of God and working alongside God to bring life and order to the world. How so?

Christian theology tells us that God is One, True, Good, and Beautiful. And so, when an artist gives herself over to creating beauty, when a couple has a child, when scientists work to find cures for various diseases, when artisans make an artifact, when builders build, when teachers teach, when parents parent, when athletes play a game, when manual laborers labor, when administrators administrate, when people just for the sake integrity itself live in honesty and generosity, and, yes, even when hedonists drink deeply of earthily pleasure, they are, all of them, whether they have explicit faith or not, acting in some faith because they are putting their trust in either the Oneness, Truth, Goodness, or Beauty of God.

Lord, to whom else can we go? You have the message of eternal life. Well, it seems that there are places to go and many go there. But these aren’t necessarily, as is sometimes suggested by misguided spiritual literature, empty places that are wrong and self-destructive. There are, of course, such places, spiritual dead-ends; but, more generally, as we can see simply by looking at the amount of positive energy, love, creativity, generosity, and honesty that still fill our world, those places where people are seeking God outside of explicit faith still has them meeting God.

Being Good-Hearted is Not Enough

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Charity is about being good-hearted, but justice is about something more. Individual sympathy is good and virtuous, but it doesn’t necessarily change the social, economic, and political structures that unfairly victimize some people and unduly privilege others. We need to be fair and good of heart, but we also need to have fair and good policies.

Jim Wallis, speaking more-specifically about racism, puts it this way: When we protest that we are not implicated in unjust systems by saying things like: “I have black friends”, we need to challenge ourselves: It’s not just what’s in our hearts that’s at issue; it’s also what’s at the heart of public policy. We can have black friends but if our policies are racist there’s still no justice in land. Individual good will alone doesn’t always make for a system that’s fair to everyone.

And it’s precisely on this point where we see the crucial distinction between charity and justice, between being good-hearted as individuals and trying as a community to ensure that our social, economic, and political systems are not themselves the cause of the very things we are trying to respond to in charity. What causes poverty, racism, economic disparity, lack of fair access to education and health care, and the irresponsibility with which we often treat nature? Individual attitudes, true. But injustice is also the result of social, economic, and political policies that, whatever their other merits, help produce the conditions that spawn poverty, inequality, racism, privilege, and the lack of conscientious concern for the air we breathe.

Most of us, I suspect, are familiar with a story that’s often used to distinguish between charity and justice. It runs this way: There was a town built alongside a river, but situated around a bend so that the townsfolk could see only that part of the river that bordered their town. One day a few of the children were playing by the river when they saw five bodies floating in the water. They quickly ran for help and the townspeople they alerted did what any responsible persons would do in that situation. They took care of the bodies. Pulling them from the river they found that two were dead and they buried them. Three were still alive. One was a child for whom they quickly found a foster home; another was a severely ill woman, her they put in a hospital; the last was a young man and, for him, they found a job and a place to live.

But the story didn’t end there. The next day more bodies appeared and, again, the townsfolk responded as before. They took care of the bodies. They buried the dead, placed the sick in hospitals, found foster homes for the children, and jobs and places to live for the adults.  And so it went on for years so that taking care of the bodies that they found each day became a normal feature of their lives and became part of the life of their churches and their community. A few altruistically motivated people even made it their life’s work to take care of those bodies.

But … and this is the point, nobody ever went up the river to see from where and for what reasons those bodies kept appearing each day in the river. They just remained good-hearted and generous in their response to the bodies that found their way to their town.

The lesson is clear enough: It’s one thing (needed, good, and Christian) to take care of the needy bodies we find on our doorsteps, but it’s another thing (also needed, good, and Christian) to go upstream to try to change the things that are causing those bodies to be in the river. That’s the difference between good-hearted charity and acting for social justice.

Sadly though, as good church-going Christians we have been too slow to grasp this and consequently have not brought the demands of Jesus and faith to bear as strongly upon the question of social justice as we have been to bring them to bear upon charity. Too many, good, good-hearted, church-going, charitable women and men simply do not see the demands of justice as being anything beyond the demands of private charity and good-heartedness. And so we are often good-hearted enough that we will, literally, give a needy person the shirt off our back even as we refuse to look at why our closets are overfull while some others don’t have a shirt.

But this should not be misunderstood. The gospel-demand that we act for justice does not in any way denigrate the virtue of charity. Charity is still the ultimate virtue and, sometimes, the only positive difference we can make in our world is precisely the, one-to-one, love and respect that we give to each other. Our own individual goodness is sometimes the only candle that is ours to light.

But that goodness and light must shine publicly too, namely, in how we vote and in what public policies we support or oppose.

Christianity and Noon-Day Fatigue

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There’s a popular notion which suggests that it can be helpful to compare every century of Christianity’s existence to one year of life. That would make Christianity twenty-one years old, a young twenty-one, grown-up enough to exhibit a basic maturity but still far from a finished product. How insightful is this notion?

That’s a complex question because Christianity expresses itself in communities of worship and in spiritualities that vary greatly across the world. For instance, just to speak of churches, it is difficult to speak of the Christian church in any global way: In Africa, for the most part, the churches are young, full of young life, and exploding with growth, with all the strengths and problems that come with that. In Eastern Europe the churches are still emerging from the long years of oppression under communism and are struggling now to find a new balance and new energy within an ever-intensifying secularity. Latin American churches have given us liberation theology for a reason. There the issues of social injustice and those advocating for it in Jesus’ name and those reacting against them have deeply colored how church and spirituality are lived and understood.  In Asia, the situation is even more complex. One might talk of four separate ecclesial expressions and corresponding spiritualities in Asia: There is Buddhist Asia, Hindu Asia, Moslem Asia, and a seemingly post-Christian Asia. Churches and spiritualities express themselves quite differently in these different parts of Asia. Finally there is still Western Europe and North America, the so-called “West”. Here, it would seem, Christianity doesn’t radiate much in the way of either youth or vitality, but appears from most outward appearances to be aged, grey-haired, and tired, an exhausted project.

How accurate is this as a picture of Christianity in Western Europe, North America, and other highly secularized part of the world? Are we, as churches, old, tired, grey-haired, and exhausted?

That’s one view, but the picture admits of other interpretations. Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, along with many Enlightenment figures, saw Christianity as a spent project, as a dying reality, its demise the inevitable death of childhood naiveté.  But Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, looking at the same evidence, saw things in exactly the opposite way. For him, Christianity was still “in diapers”, struggling still to grow in maturity, a child still learning to walk; hence its occasional stumbles. Contemporary spiritual writer, Tomas Halik, the recent winner of the prestigious Templeton Award, suggests still another picture. For Halik, Christianity in the West is undergoing a “noon-day fatigue”, a writer’s block, a crisis of imagination.  In this, he is very much in agreement with what Charles Taylor suggests in his monumental study, A Secular Age. For Taylor, what we are experiencing today is not so much a crisis of faith as a crisis of imagination and integration. Older Christian writers called this a “dark night of the soul”, and Halik suggests that it is happening to us not at the end of the day but at noontime.

My own sympathies are very much with Halik.  Christianity, the churches, and the spiritualities in Western Europe and North America aren’t old and dying, a spent project. Rather they are young, figuratively speaking only twenty-one years old, with still some growing up to do. But, and here is where I agree with conservative critics, growth into that maturity is not guaranteed but is rather contingent upon us making some clear choices and hard commitments inside a genuine faith. As any parent can tell you, there are no guarantees that a twenty-one year old will grow to maturity. The opposite can also happen, and that’s true too for Christianity and the churches today. There are no guarantees.

But, inside of faith and inside the choices and commitments we will have to make, it is important that we situate ourselves under the correct canopy so as to assign to ourselves the right task. We are not old and dying. We are young, with our historical afternoon still to come, even as we are presently suffering a certain “noon-day fatigue”. Our afternoon still lies ahead and the task of the afternoon is quite different than the task of the morning or the evening.  As James Hillman puts it: “The early years must focus on getting things done, while the later years must consider what was done and how.”

But the afternoon years must focus on something else, namely, the task of deepening. Both spirituality and anthropology agree that the afternoon of life is meant to be an important time within which to mature, an important time for some deeper inner work, and an important time to enter more deeply our own depth. Note that this is a task of deepening and not one of restoration.

Our noon-day fatigue will not be overcome by returning to the task of the morning in hope of refreshing ourselves or by retiring passively to the evening’s rocking chair. Noon-day fatigue will be overcome by finding new springs of refreshment buried at deeper places inside us.