RonRolheiser,OMI

Naming the Present Moment – Some Metaphors to Digest

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Not everything can be fixed or cured, but it should be named properly. Richard Rohr said that. James Hillman suggests something similar when he wrote that a symptom suffers most when it doesn’t know where it belongs.

Where does our present moment belong vis-à-vis our faith in God and the relevance of our churches? Are we post-Christian? Are we witnessing the death of God and our churches? Or, is our faith being purified by the very criticisms levelled against it and, despite a massive decline in church attendance, aren’t the churches making genuine moral progress on issues like racism, sexism, and social justice in general? Are we dying or maturing? How do we name our present moment?

By way of an answer, I would like simply to offer a series of “metaphors” gleaned from various commentators that attempt a naming.  Some of these seemingly contradict each other, but all of them merit some thought. I leave them for you to digest.

  1. Faith is a spent project! In essence, that’s the view of the Enlightenment thinkers, classically expressed in persons like Nietzsche, Freud, Feuerbach, and Marx, who suggest that faith and belief in God are something you eventually outgrow, like belief in Santa and the Easter Bunny. This belief was needed for a time, but it’s something we outgrow when we lose our naiveté. God and the churches have had their time in history, and that day is over. Today, this is the belief (or unacknowledged fear) of millions.
  2. Our world is still in diapers! Pierre Teilhard de Chardin suggests that far from faith being a spent project, it’s only in its infancy stage. In an evolutionary view of history and faith, we are still a world in diapers, emerging from the crib. Faith is far from spent! We are just beginning!
  3. A post-Christian West! That was the view of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he became pope. Interestingly, he never asserted it again explicitly after he became pope, namely, that the secularized world, particularly in North America and Western Europe, is now “post-Christian”.
  4. Faith in the secularized world is suffering a certain noonday fatigue! This is an image offered by Thomas Halik. In his view, faith and the churches aren’t dying; they are merely suffering “acedia”, the “noon-day devil”, the fatigue that the early Christian desert writers told us could afflict even the most committed believers.
  5. We are experiencing a crisis of the imagination, not of faith and fidelity. The conditions of belief have changed radically and our imaginations haven’t caught up. This is the view of the renowned philosopher on secularity, Charles Taylor. For him, as believers today we are pioneers, struggling to learn how to live in a (faith) country that we and no one else has ever before inhabited. Small wonder we are struggling.
  6. Secular culture is the adolescent child of Judeo-Christianity and in its adolescent grandiosity our culture sees only its parents’ faults. This is the view of the popular spiritual writer Kathleen Norris and is echoed by Yale philosopher Louis Dupre. As Norris puts it, if you want to visualize the relationship between our secular world and Christianity, watch how a seventeen year-old teenager who is out of sorts with her parents interrelates with them. To this, Dupre adds that grandiose adolescents aren’t bad, they just aren’t finished growing.
  7. Secularity is a fantasy indulged in by intellectuals. For ordinary people there are divine whispers behind every door. In real life, religion of some sort is unavoidable. This from French philosopher Chantel Delsol.
  8. Like Jonah, we are in the belly of the whale.  This is one of Richard Rohr’s preferred namings. Inside our contemporary doubt and confusion, God is taking us through a darkness to where we need to be.
  9. Christian vision in the West is the residue of a former seeing, before suffering a detached retina. This from Walter Kasper. His idea: if someone is born blind, he will not have visual images of outside objects inside of him. However, if someone goes blind sometime in life, he will retain the images of what he once saw, even though he is no longer seeing them. As Christians, we are living too much off past images, and no longer seeing directly with the eyes of faith.
  10. We need “The Benedict Option”. This from Rod Dreher. Heavily secularized culture is asphyxiating our faith. What’s needed to save and nurture it is the “Benedict option”. Like the great monastic founder, St. Benedict, those of us with a committed faith need to pull away from a culture that is eroding our faith and live out our faith in a “monastic” way, namely by withdrawing and building new kinds of “monasteries” within which to live out our faith and raise our children. Eventually, as has happened before, the world will come to us seeking help and meaning.

Who’s right? What best names both our symptoms and our moment? There is something to digest in each of these images.

Love, Not Excuses, Moves Things Forward

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The excusable doesn’t need to be excused and the inexcusable cannot be excused.

Michael Buckley wrote those words commenting on Peter’s triple betrayal of Jesus. Here’s the context. Peter had betrayed Jesus in his most needy hour, not out of malice, simply out of weakness. Now, facing Jesus for the first time since that betrayal, Peter is understandably uncomfortable. What do you say after betraying someone?

Well, he didn’t need to say anything. Jesus took the initiative and, as Buckley highlights, he didn’t excuse Peter. Jesus didn’t say things like, it’s perfectly understandable to be afraid in a situation like that! You weren’t really yourself! I understand how that can happen! He didn’t even tell Peter that he still loves him. None of that. He simply asked Peter, “Do you love me?” and when Peter said yes, everything moved forward. No excuses were needed. The excusable doesn’t need to be excused and the inexcusable cannot be excused. Our humanity already explains why we are prone to betrayal; what needs to be spoken in its wake is a reaffirmation of love.

A couple I know had this happen in their marriage. They went to a party together one Friday night and the wife, partly through the influence of alcohol and drugs, left the party with another man. Her husband was unaware of this for a time but, upon finding out what had happened, was understandably very distraught. He went home alone and spent a sleepless night thinking, his thoughts moving through a series of vengeful fantasies to what (through grace) he eventually decided on.

He was sitting at the kitchen table midmorning the next day when his wife, sheepish and self-chastened, came home. She had her apologies rehearsed and was ready to face his justified anger and fury. She got something else. Her husband didn’t let her voice any apologies or excuses, nor did he explode in anger. Rather, calm and sad, he simply said this to her: “I’m going to move out of the house for a week, so you can think this through. You need to decide. Are you my wife or are you someone else?” He came back a week later to her apologies, but more importantly to her renewed, more radical commitment to their relationship. Their marriage has been solid and grace-filled since. She is now committed to a marriage in a way she never quite was before.

No doubt upon his return, this man’s wife did offer some tearful apologies and excuses. His refusal to let her voice them earlier may well have served a purpose long-term, but was admittedly somewhat cruel short-term. Even when something can’t be excused, we still need the opportunity to say we are sorry. Apologies are important, both for the person offering them and for the one receiving them. Until an explicit apology is made, there is always unfinished business. However, explicit contrition is not ultimately what moves things forward when a relationship has been wounded or fractured. What moves things forward is a renewed commitment to love, to a deeper fidelity.

The inexcusable cannot be excused. Strictly speaking, that’s true, though sometimes a deeper understanding of things somewhat excuses the inexcusable. Here’s an example.

Several years ago, this incident occurred in Australia. A Catholic School Board had just finished building a new multi-million dollar school. Not long after it’s opening, one of its students, a boy in high school, started a fire in his locker, unaware that the gas valves for the school’s heating system were right behind his locker. A huge fire started and the whole school burned down. To his credit, the boy summoned his courage and owned up to what had happened. Then, of course, a never-ending series of questions ensued: Why would he ever do that? Why would anyone start a fire in his locker? What accounts for that kind of reckless stupidity? What can excuse the inexcusable?

I very much appreciated an answer given to these questions by one of the Australian bishops. Speaking to a questioning group of teachers and school administrators, his short answer said it all. Why would this young student do something like that? Because he is a boy! Young boys have been (for no explicable reason) starting fires long before gas valves ever appeared on the planet. Moreover, there’s no excuse for it, save human nature itself.

Often times, that’s the excuse for the inexcusable: Because we’re human!  Indeed, this was the real excuse for the woman who under the influence of alcohol and drugs betrayed her husband, just as it was the real excuse for Peter when he betrayed Jesus.

But, this must be read correctly. This doesn’t give us permission to appeal to our morally inept human nature as an excuse for betrayal or stupidity. We’re human! Boys will be boys! The lesson rather is that whenever our moral ineptness has us fall into betrayal or stupidity, what ultimately moves things forward is not an apology or an excuse, but a renewed commitment in love.

Spirituality – A Place Where All Believers Can Come Together

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Where can all of us believers come together beyond the divisions created by history, dogma, denomination, and religion? Where is there a place all people of sincere heart can find common ground and worship together?

That place is found in the ecumenical and inter-religious pursuit of spirituality, and our theology schools and seminaries need to create this place within their academic vision and structures.

What is spirituality as an academic discipline within our theology schools and seminaries? It has actually been around a long time, though under different names. In Roman Catholic circles, formerly it was handled piecemeal as moral theology, liturgy, ascetical theology, and as mystical and devotional literature. In Protestant and Evangelical circles (where, until recently, mystical and devotional literature were distrusted) there were courses on discipleship, worship, and Christian ethics.

So what is spirituality as an area of study? At the risk of a vast over-simplification, let me propose an analogy as a way of understanding how spirituality relates to theology and dogma. Spirituality is related to theology and dogma akin to how an actual game of sports is related to the rule book of that sport.

For example, for the game of baseball there is a rulebook, one initially codified and then periodically amended through the many years the game has been played. To play the game today one has to stay within those rules. There is no game outside those rules. However, while these rules critically dictate the lines within which the game has to be played, they are not the game itself. They merely dictate how it is to be played and ensure that it is played in a fair manner.

In essence, that is the critical role of theology and dogma. They are the rule book for how we need to discern faith and religious practice as we live out our discipleship, if we are legitimately to call ourselves Christian. But, while they make the rules, spirituality is the actual game; it’s how in actual practice we live out our faith and discipleship.

Thus, spirituality takes in morality and ethics, worship, ascetical theology, mystical theology, devotional theology, and everything else we do in living out our discipleship.  Theology makes the rules, while spirituality tries to instill the motivation, the fire, the hope, and the practical guidance for the game itself, lived discipleship.

I offer this little apologia for spirituality as an academic discipline in view of affirming that spirituality is that place where believers can come together in a common heart beyond the long-standing divisions created by history, dogma, ecclesiology, and different notions of faith. Spirituality is a place where we can meet in a communion of faith that takes us (at least in that place and moment) beyond our different histories, our different denominations, our different religions, and our different notions of faith.

I know this is true because I have seen and am seeing it first-hand. Oblate School of Theology, where I teach, has an Institute of Contemporary Spirituality in which I see Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Evangelicals of every persuasion studying together, searching together, and praying together in a way that denominational differences simply don’t enter into. Everyone, irrespective of denomination, is searching for the same things: What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus today? How does one genuinely pray? How do we sustain faith in a secular world that so easily swallows us whole? How can we pass our faith on to our own children? How can we be both prophet and healer in our bitterly divided world? What is a faith-based response to injustice? How does someone age and die well? What insights and grace can we draw from the deep wells of Christian mysticism and hagiography to help guide our lives?  

Everyone has the same questions, and everyone is searching at the same places.

Denominationalism recedes when spirituality takes over.

Moreover, this doesn’t just pertain to being together beyond the differences of denominations among Christians; the same holds true vis-a-vis our separation from other world religions. The questions we are grappling with as Christians are the same questions that Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, Taoist, and other believers are grappling with, and they are looking to us for help even as we are looking to them for help. In spirituality, Christians learn from Sufi Islamic mystics, even as Islamic believers delve into Mariology and Christian mysticism. Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist believers pick up the Spiritual Exercise of St. Ignatius, even as Christians learn from various Buddhist and Hindu methods of meditation.

Jesus assured us that in God’s house there are many rooms. Spirituality is one of those rooms. Spirituality is the room where all who are caught-up in a common need, common search, and common hope, can bracket for a time their denominational and religious differences and search together.

Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t take away with our differences; but it gives us a place where we can be in a community of life and faith with each other, beyond those differences.