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 (

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).