RonRolheiser,OMI

Anchoring Ourselves within God’s Goodness

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What would Jesus do? For some Christians, that’s the easy answer to every question.  In every situation all we need to ask is: What would Jesus do? 

At a deep level, that’s actually true. Jesus is the ultimate criterion. He is the way, the truth, and the life and anything that contradicts him is not a way to God. Yet, I suspect, many of us find ourselves irritated in how that expression is often used in simplistic ways, as a fundamentalism difficult to digest. Sometimes, in our irritation at this, we spontaneously want to say: Jesus has nothing to do with this! But, of course, as soon as those words escape our mouths we realize how bad that sounds! Jesus has a lot to do with every theological, ecclesial, or liturgical question, no matter its complexity. Granted, there’s the danger of fundamentalism here; but it’s equally as dangerous to answer theological, ecclesial, and liturgical questions without considering what Jesus might do. He’s still, and forever, a non-negotiable criterion.

But while Jesus is a non-negotiable criterion, he’s not a simplistic one. What did Jesus do? Well, the answer isn’t simple. Looking at his life we see that sometimes he did things one way, sometimes another way, and sometimes he started out doing something one way and ended up changing his mind and doing it in a different way, as we see in his interaction with the Syro-Phoenician woman. That’s why, I suspect, within Christianity there are so many different denominations, spiritualities, and ways of worship, each with its own interpretation of Jesus. Jesus is complex.

Given Jesus’ complexity, it’s no accident then that theologians, preachers, and spiritualities often find in his person and his teachings ways that reflect more how they would handle a situation than how he would. We see this in our churches and spiritualities everywhere, and I say this with sympathy, not with judgment. None of us gets Jesus fully right.

So where does this leave us? Do we simply rely on our private interpretation of Jesus? Do we give ourselves over uncritically to some ecclesial or academic authority and trust that it will tell us what Jesus would do in every situation?  Is there a “third” way?

Well, there’s a “third” way, the way of most Christian denominations, wherein we submit our private interpretation to the canonical (“dogmatic”) tradition of our particular church and accept, though not in blind, uncritical, obedience, the interpretation of that larger community, its longer history, and its wider experience, humbly accepting that it can be naïve (and arrogant) to bracket 2000 years of Christian experience so as to believe that our insight into Jesus is a needed corrective to a vision that has inspired so many millions of people through so many centuries.  

Still, we’re not meant to park the dictates of our private conscience, our critical questions, our unease with certain things, and the wounds we carry, at our church door either. In the end, we all must be true to our own consciences, faithful to the particular insights that God graces us with, and mindful of the wounds we carry.  Both our graces and our wounds are meant to be listened to and they, along with the deepest voices within our conscience, need to be taken into account when ask ourselves: What would Jesus do?

We need to answer that for ourselves by faithfully holding and carrying within us the tension between being obedient to our churches and not betraying the critical voices within our own conscience. If we do that honestly, one thing will eventually constellate inside us as an absolute: God is good!  Everything Jesus taught and incarnated was predicated on that truth.Anything that jeopardizes or belies that, be it a church, a theology, a liturgical practice, or a spirituality is wrong. And any voice within dogma or private conscience that betrays that is also wrong.

How we conceive of God colors for good or for bad everything within our religious practice. And above all else, Jesus revealed this about God: God is good. That truth needs to ground everything else, our churches, our theologies, our spiritualities, our liturgies, and our understanding of everyone else. Sadly, often it doesn’t. The fear that God is not good disguises itself in subtle ways but is always manifest whenever our religious teachings or practices somehow make God in heaven not as understanding, merciful, and indiscriminate and unconditional in love as Jesus was on earth. It’s also manifest whenever we fear that we’re dispensing grace too cheaply and making God too accessible.

Sadly, the God who is met in our churches today is often too-narrow, too-merciless, too-tribal, too-petty, and too-untrustworthy to be worthy of Jesus … or the surrender of our soul.

What would Jesus do? Admittedly the question is complex. However we know we have the wrong answer whenever we make God anything less than fully good, whenever we set conditions for unconditional love, and whenever, however subtly, we block access to God and God’s mercy.

What Constitutes Fidelity?

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It’s becoming increasing difficult in today’s world to trust anything or anybody, for good reason. There’s little that’s stable, safe to lean on, trustworthy. We live in a world where everything is in flux, is flux, where everywhere we see distrust, abandoned values, debunked creeds, people moving on from where they used to be, contradictory information, and dishonesty and lying as socially and morally acceptable. There is little left of trust in our world.

What does this call us to? We’re called to many things, but perhaps nothing more important than fidelity, to be honest and persevering in who we are and what we stand for. Here’s an illustration.

One of our Oblate missionaries shares this story. He was sent to minister to a cluster of small Indigenous communities in Northern Canada.  The people were very nice to him but it didn’t take him long to notice something. Basically every time he scheduled an appointment the person wouldn’t show up. At first, he attributed this to miscommunication, but eventually he realized the pattern was too consistent for this to be an accident and so he approached an Elder in the community for some counsel. “Every time a make an appointment with someone,” he told the Elder, “they don’t show up.” The Elder smiled, knowingly, and replied: “Of course, they won’t show up, the last thing they need is to have an outsider like you organizing their lives for them!”  So the missionary asked: “What do I do?” The Elder replied: “Well, don’t make an appointment, just show up and talk to them! They’ll be nice to you. More importantly though, this is what you need to do: Stay here for a long time and then they will trust you. They want to see whether you’re a missionary or a tourist. Why should they trust you? They’ve been betrayed and lied to by most everyone who’s come through here. Stay for a long time and then they’ll trust you.”

Stay for a long time and then they’ll trust you. What does it mean to stay for a long time? We can hang around and not necessarily inspire trust, just as we can move on to other places and still inspire trust. In its essence, staying around for the duration, being faithful, has less to do with never moving from a given location than it has to do with staying worthy of trust, with staying faithful to who we are, to the creed we profess, to the commitments and promises we have made, and to what’s truest inside us so that our private lives do not belie our public persona.

The gift of fidelity is the gift of a life lived honestly. Our private honesty blesses the whole community, just as our private dishonesty hurts the whole community. “If you are here faithfully,” writes Parker Palmer, “you bring great blessing.” Conversely, writes Rumi, “If you are here unfaithfully, you bring great harm.” To the degree that we are true to the creed we profess, the family, friends, and communities we’ve committed to, and to the deepest moral imperatives within our private soul, to that degree we are faithfully with others, and to that degree we are “staying with them for a long time”.  The reverse is also true, to the degree that we are not true to the creed we profess, to the promises we’ve made to others, and to the honesty innate in our own soul, we are being unfaithful, moving away from others, being the tourist not the missionary.

In his Epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul tells us what it means to be with each other, to live with each other, beyond geographical distance and other contingencies in life that separate us. We are with each, faithfully, as brothers and sisters, when we are living in charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long-suffering, mildness, perseverance, and chastity. When we are living inside these, then we are “staying with each other” and not moving away, no matter any geographical distance between us. Conversely, when we are living outside of these we are not “staying with each other”, even when there is no geographical distance between us. Home, as poets have always told us, is a place inside the heart, not a place on a map. And home, as St. Paul tells us, in living inside the Spirit.

And it is this, I believe, that ultimately defines fidelity and perseverance, separates a moral missionary from a moral tourist, and indicates who’s staying and who’s moving away.

For each of us to stay faithful, we need each other. It takes more than a village, it takes all of us. One person’s fidelity makes everyone’s fidelity easier, just as one person’s infidelity makes everyone’s fidelity more difficult. So, inside a world that’s so highly individualistic and bewilderingly transient, when it can feel as if everyone is forever moving away from you, perhaps the greatest gift we can give each other is the gift of our own fidelity, to stay for a long time.

Saints for a New Situation

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Everywhere in church circles today you hear a lament: Our churches are emptying. We’ve lost our youth. This generation no longer knows or understands the classical theological language. We need to announce Jesus again, as if for the first time, but how? The church is becoming evermore marginalized. 

That’s the situation pretty much everywhere within the secularized world today. Why is this happening? Faith as a spent project? Secularity’s adolescent grandiosity before the parent who gave it birth, Judeo-Christianity?  The “buffered self” that Charles Taylor describes? Affluence? Or is the problem mainly with the churches themselves? Sexual abuse? Cover-up? Poor liturgies? Poor preaching? Churches too liberal? Churches too conservative?

I suspect it’s some combination of all of these, but single out one issue here to highlight, affluence. Jesus told us that it’s difficult (impossible, he says) for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. No doubt, that’s a huge part of our present struggle. We’re good at being Christians when we’re poor, less-educated, and on the margins of mainstream society. We’ve had centuries of practice at this. What we haven’t had any practice at, and aren’t any good at, is how to be Christians when we’re affluent, sophisticated, and constitute the cultural mainstream.

So, I’m suggesting that what we need today is not so much a new pastoral approach as a new kind of saint, an individual man or woman who can model for us practically what it means to live out the Gospel in a context of affluence and secularity.  Why this?

One of the lessons of history is that often genuine religious renewal, the type that actually reshapes the religious imagination, does not come from think-tanks, conferences, and church synods, but from graced individuals – saints, wild men and women who, like Saint Augustine, Saint Francis, Saint Clare, Saint Dominic, Saint Ignatius, or other such religious figures can reshape our religious imagination. They show us that the new lies elsewhere, that what needs fixing in the church will not be mended simply by patching the old. What’s needed is a new religious and ecclesial imagination. Charles Taylor, in his highly-respected study of secularity, suggests that what we’re undergoing today is not so much a crisis of faith as a crisis of imagination. No Christians before us have ever lived within this kind of world.

What will this new kind of saint, this new St. Francis, look like?  I honestly don’t know. Neither, it seems, does anyone else.  We have no answer yet, at least not one that’s been able to bear much fruit in the mainstream culture.  That’s not surprising. The type of imagination that reshapes history isn’t easily found. In the meantime we’ve come about as far as we can along the road that used to take us there, but which for many of our children no longer does.

Here’s our quandary: We’re better at knowing what to do once we get people into a church than we are at knowing how to get them there. Why? Our weakness, I believe, lies not in our theological imagination where we have rich theological and biblical insights aplenty. What we lack are saints on the ground, men and women who, in a passion and fidelity that’s at once radically faithful to God and fiercely empathic to our secular world, can incarnate their faith into a way of living that can show us, practically, how we can be poor and humble disciples of Jesus even as we walk in an affluent and highly secularized world.  

And such new persons will appear. We’ve been at this spot before in history and have always found our way forward. Every time the world believes it has buried Christ, the stone rolls back from the tomb; every time the cultural ethos declares that the churches are on an irrevocable downward slide, the Spirit intervenes and there’s soon an about face; every time we despair, thinking that our age can now longer produce saints and prophets, some Augustine or Francis comes along and shows that our age, like times of old, can too produce its saints; and every time our imaginations run dry, as they have now, we find that our scriptures are still full of fresh insight. We may lack imagination, but we don’t lack hope.

Christ promised we will not be orphaned, and that promise is sure. God is still with us and our age will produce its own prophets and saints. What’s asked of us in the moment is biblical patience, to wait on God. Christianity may look tired, tried, and spent to a culture within which affluence and sophistication are its current gods, but hope is already beginning to show its face: As secularization, with its affluence and sophistication, marches unswervingly forward we’re already beginning to see a number of men and women who have found ways to become post-affluent and post-sophisticated. These will be the new religious leaders who will teach us, and our children, how to live as Christians in this new situation.