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Saturday, September 28, 2013

"Heal the Wounds, Heal the Wounds": On Pope Francis' Interview


"The last thing that is needed is for me to add my thoughts to the mass of words already written about [Pope Francis'] astounding interview."

So I wrote in my last blog post.  I chose to ignore myself.

In today's editorial page of the Louisville Courier-Journal, you'll find an op-ed I wrote about Pope Francis' words.  I tried, on the basis of some wise advice I received via Twitter, to make my brief essay more of a personal reflection on the pope's words rather than an intellectual dissection of them.

The op-ed can be found here.

Image: Stock.

Friday, September 20, 2013

"Tolle lege, tolle lege" ("Take it and read!"): On Pope Francis' Interview


I've now twice read the interview with Pope Francis published in America yesterday.  The last thing that is needed is for me to add my thoughts to the mass of words already written about this astounding interview.  The interview itself is accessible but very rich, and will therefore require multiple readings.  I've had the opportunity to look at a few different perspectives on the text.  Some want to focus on the comments Pope Francis made about sexuality and about not ever being a "right-winger" and who therefore portray the pope as the anti-Benedict, while others are doing everything they can to portray Francis as simply a kinder, gentler Benedict who isn't changing anything but tone.  Neither of these are accurate representations of the interview or of the pope.

It is worthwhile, and even necessary, to read a wide range of perspectives on the pope's words.  But might I humbly suggest that you read the interview for yourself?  It is, as already noted, an incredibly rich and welcoming text, and I found the experience of reading it to be profoundly moving, almost like I had spent the time in prayer alongside of him.  I wrote yesterday about being transformed through an experience of Beauty.  This is what I experienced when reading the interview.

So, just as the Augustine was instructed in the garden of Milan, so I suggest to you: "Tolle lege, tolle lege" - "Take it and read, take it and read!".

Here's the link: http://americamagazine.org/pope-interview

Image from vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/

Thursday, September 19, 2013

"Why do I Have to Study Theology?": An Explanation for Undergraduates (Part II)

If you're coming to my blog for the first time, I should explain that I've been attempting over the last few weeks to address three important questions my undergraduates frequently raise regarding a liberal arts education, and specifically, about studying theology:
  1. Why do I have to study anything outside of my major? (I address this question here)
  2. Why in particular do I have to study theology, especially since I'm not religiously affiliated?
  3. Why do you make us work so hard for your class when it isn't my major?
I provided the first part of an answer to the second question here, in which I argued that the very nature of university education - i.e., the study of universal truth - doesn't allow for restrictions of any kind, and therefore that the elimination of theology from a place of universal learning was problematic.

At the end of the post, however, I acknowledged that this argument perhaps doesn't hold water for those who believe that theology has nothing worthwhile or true to say.  There is great diversity of thought among students who sit in my classroom.  There are adherents of various faiths; those who grew up within a faith but have left it for various (often legitimate) reasons; those who are opposed to defining the divine in any way and who therefore see religion as detrimentally limiting; as well as those who are atheists who find little reason to give theological ideas any credence, let alone in an academic atmosphere.

It is the last two groups of students who are frequently the most perplexed, and sometimes agitated, by the requirement to study theology as part of their liberal arts education.

I could argue here that theology deserves a place at the academic table simply because it has an exceptionally long history of academic rigor and profundity of thought, and that one should not confuse overmuch catechesis with the discipline of theology, even if the two do sometimes overlap.  But I doubt that such an argument would be overly persuasive for those who feel that theology has nothing worthwhile to say to them personally.

I'm going instead to suggest that theological study is worthwhile and even necessary for a liberal arts education because theology is, at heart, beautiful and therefore transformational.  Obviously there are different ways of doing theology, and not all theologians present a theology that is compellingly beautiful.  But theology, done and taught well, has the capacity to present a vision of ultimate reality that transforms simply through contact with, and experience of, Beauty.

For those who have been exposed only to a theological vision that is distorted, incomplete, or even perverted - and the reality is that many Christian traditions, and the Roman Catholic church in particular, do a very poor job of articulating even the basics of the faith - it is eye-opening to comprehend the profundity of what we mean when we say that 'God is love.'  An in depth examination of 'God is love' and its implications for understanding God's identity as Trinity, the purpose of the created order, the Incarnation, sacramental theology, ecclesiology, and social justice can lead those who claim the Christian faith as their own to a greater comprehension of both the beauty of their faith but also of the demands to which their faith calls them.

And for those without a religious affiliation, or with a religious affiliation other than Christianity, the vision can and should be transformative too.  Apart from dismantling the prevailing caricatures of Christianity these students may have - caricatures, I might add, that are frequently drawn by churches themselves - I'm convinced that an exposure to Beauty cannot but transform.  I do not mean that theological study should/will compel them into the faith; the goal of theology in the classroom is not, in my opinion, to evangelize.  But in a similar way that nature or a profoundly beautiful work of art - literature, visual art, drama, music, etc. - can elicit an experience of transcendence that transforms one's perspective so the study of theology - study that puts forward a profoundly beautiful vision that encompasses the whole of reality - can bring about an experience of beauty that transfixes and leads one's understanding of life and of the 'other' to shift, even minutely.

In short, an all-encompassing vision of Love can beget love, no matter one's religious viewpoints.

Image of books taken by myself at Newman's library in Birmingham, UK
Chagall's White Crucifixion from the Art Institute of Chicago's website. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

"'Cause yes": A Lesson in Theological Study from my Two-Year-Old

I've an obvious bias, since he is my son, but my two-year-old (Leo) is one of the most adorable children on the planet.  He has big beautiful eyes like his mother, and has an incredible sense of humour.  He's also incredibly headstrong, easily more stubborn and feisty than his two older brothers.

And lately, Leo has developed an interesting way of asserting his viewpoints.  A typical 'conversation' will go like this:
Me: "Leo, please pick up your toys."
Leo: "I don't want to."
Me: "Why not?"
Leo: "'Cause no."
or:
Leo: "I want a cookie for a snack."
Me: "Why?"
Leo: "'Cause yes."
The way in which Leo expresses "'Cause yes" or "'Cause no" indicates that he views that response to be absolutely definitive, as if any further conversation after that response is utterly pointless given that his view has been fully and logically articulated.  In fact, so thoroughly does Leo understand this response to be definitive that Kim and I can actually use it do convince him to do something:
Me: "Time for bed, Leo."
Leo: "Why?"
Me: "'Cause yes."
Leo: "Oh, okay" [dutifully goes to his bedroom]
Obviously, this stage isn't going to last.  He can already tell that his logic doesn't always work with us, and it won't be long before he will require much more extensive reasoning than we are currently providing for him to do something we ask.

I was telling the students in my introductory theology class the other day about Leo's 'logic', and it occurred to me that many of them had in fact experienced theology in school and in church precisely as this.  When I have asked my students in the past about their experience of theology, the vast majority - particularly of those taught in Catholic schools -  talk about how Christianity was presented to them primarily as a set of doctrines and moral rules to be accepted en masse, though without any substantive discussion about their meaning and significance.  Nor was space made for asking the simple, but important, question: Why?

I fear catechesis in my own Catholic tradition frequently amounts essentially to the following:
Church: "Believe and do these things."
People: "Why?"
Church: "'Cause yes."
And the overwhelming response of people in their 20s and 30s, as we all know, has not been to acquiesce like my two-year-old (whose acquiescence is, I know, going to be short-lived), but to reply with a resounding "No!"  And, frankly, who can blame them?

The task of studying theology as an academic discipline is, in part, to open up to students the possibility of asking "Why?" without fear of reprisal or judgement, but with certainty that the
Surprised by love
question will be taken seriously and thoroughly explored.  I am convinced, and it is for this reason that I am and remain Catholic, that Beauty lies at the heart of Catholic theology (though not only Catholic theology); that it is the Beauty of limitless and totally generous divine love which gives meaning and significance to Catholic theology and life.  And although more people are coming to recognize this reality through the example and words of Pope Francis, who has in his short tenure as bishop of Rome made people come to understand what generous love might look like, it also takes careful, thorough, difficult, and occasionally painful theological exploration to understand more thoroughly the intense Beauty of the very simple phrase, "God is love."

It doesn't do simply to tell people what to believe.  Theology must be experienced.

Image - Detail from Caravaggio's "Supper at Emmaus" from www.wga.hu

Friday, September 6, 2013

"Why do I Have to Study Theology?": An Explanation for Undergraduates (Part I)

Almost three weeks ago, I started a series of blog posts that would address three of the most common questions my undergraduates ask regarding their liberal arts education:
  1. Why do I have to study anything outside of my major?
  2. Why in particular do I have to study theology, especially since I'm not religiously affiliated?
  3. Why do you make us work so hard for your class when it isn't my major?
I addressed the first question here.  In this blog post, I want to write briefly about why I think it is important that a liberal arts education include the study of theology.  The reality is that I have a pretty big dog in this fight, and I should acknowledge that at the outset of this post.  I am a theology professor, and my entire livelihood depends on my discipline continuing to play a central role in a liberal arts education.  That said, economic and career considerations aside, I am convinced that theology - along with a multitude of other disciplines - is absolutely central to a liberal arts education.

There are two arguments that I'd like to make in favour of theology as an academic discipline of study.  The first argument is more general and has to do with the discipline of theology and the nature of university education  The second argument has to do with what students actually gain from studying theology, even students who are not, and do not want to be, associated with any religious tradition.  I'll tackle the first argument briefly in this post, and I'll argue the second point in a post next week.

I would argue generally that theology needs to be part of a liberal arts education simply because, as Bl. John Henry Newman writes in The Idea of A University, "the very name of University is inconsistent with restrictions of any kind" (15).  (A brief excursus is in order here. Please don't confuse Bl. John Henry Newman, the profound 19th century theologian, with the Cardinal Newman Society, the American organization that is the self-proclaimed watchdog of Catholic orthodoxy at Roman Catholic schools of higher education. The latter's understanding of education, and of theology in particular, lacks the nuance and profundity found in Newman's actual writings on university education).  A university is, by nature, a place of universal learning, and to exclude any discipline, let alone a discipline like theology with an academic lineage that traces back to the very origin of universities, is nonsensical.

The importance of studying theology is even more pronounced at a university with a religious affiliation, such as my own, for, with reference to Christianity, most Christian traditions understand theology to tell us something absolutely central regarding the very purpose of human existence.  To quote Newman again with reference specifically to Roman Catholic university education, "Religious Truth is not only a portion, but a condition of general knowledge. To blot it out is nothing short, if I may so speak, of unravelling the web of University Teaching" (52-53).

As someone who devotes my life to the study of theology, I obviously find the above argument persuasive.  But I have to admit that the argument begs some key questions, particularly for those of my students who are not affiliated with a religious tradition and who may, in fact, question the validity of theology to tell them anything important or true about humanity or the cosmos.  The questioning of religious truth is not new, nor is it invalid.  Such questioning is vital and is, indeed, central to the discipline of theology.  But militant strands of atheism are becoming more prevalent, and to an increasing number of my students, it is simply not a given that the discipline of theology is actually a valid academic discipline at all; the quotation in the picture above exemplifies such a skepticism clearly.  In my next post, I'll address this strand of thought, and argue for theology as an academic discipline worthy of study for all, even for those philosophically opposed to belief in the divine.

Image from http://psnt.net/blog/2010/03/i-like-atheists/