Wednesday, October 24, 2012

An 'Easy Essay' from Peter Maurin

I recently finished reading Dorothy Day's Loaves and Fishes, an account of the history of the Catholic Worker movement.  As many know, Peter Maurin, a French Catholic social activist, played a huge role in the formation of the Catholic Worker and in shaping the political theology and ecclesiology of Dorothy Day.  Day recounts in the book that Peter Maurin used to express his main arguments in the form of "Easy Essays", a number of which she quotes.  One of them particularly struck me as it gets to the heart of what I think the Christian understanding of the 'economy' should be.  And it particularly resonates, I think, during this election season.

Photo from
"The world would be better off
if people tried to become better,
and people would become better
if they stopped trying to become better off.
For when everyone tries to become
better off
nobody is better off.
But when everyone tries to become better
everyone is better off.
Everyone would be rich

if nobody tried to become richer,
and nobody would be poor
if everybody tried to be the poorest.
And everybody would be what he ought to be
if everyone tried to be
what he wants the other fellow to be."

Friday, October 19, 2012

Thomas Merton on Vatican II

50 years ago last week (October 11) the Second Vatican Council began.  Throughout the Catholic world, various events are planned over the next three years to commemorate the event of the Council and to study the Council documents.

I continue to re-read Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, and was struck just now about his own comments about the hardening of division that came about as a result of Vatican II.  He wasn't denigrating Vatican II.  In fact, if one reads his journals and other writings, his devotion to Pope John XXIII comes through clearly as does his perception that the Council was something to be celebrated even despite the division that occurred during and after it.

The division between progressives and conservatives in the Catholic church is an ugly one, particularly in the United States.  Merton foresaw this division, and wrote about he understood his position vis-a-vis the progressives and the conservatives.  As I read these words just now, I felt a sense of solidarity with Merton once again, for they express so clearly the way I so often feel.  More importantly, these words express something that deserves to be heard by those who identify themselves as either progressive or conservative.
[O]ne of the great problems after this Council is certainly going to be the division between progressives and conservatives, and this may prove to be rather ugly in some cases, though it may also be a fruitful source of sacrifice for those who are determined to seek the will of God and not their own.  I do not speak here of bishops, but of ordinary priests, theologians, lay people, and all who voice their opinions one way or another.
For my own part I consider myself neither conservative nor an extreme progressive.  I would like to think I am what Pope John was - a progressive with a deep respect and love for tradition - in other words a progressive who wants to preserve a very clear and marked continuity with the past and not make silly and idealistic compromises with the present - yet to be completely open to the modern world while retaining the clearly defined, traditionally Catholic position (p. 315-6, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander).
Two things are of note here.  First is Merton's reference to a 'fruitful source of sacrifice' in the midst of the debate between conservatives and progressives.  I think he is here referring to an idea he expresses elsewhere that disagreement with the other needs to be entered into a) with the ability to affirm all that we can of the other and b) with a true desire for dialogue that leads to truth rather than for a desire simply to prove the other wrong.  Second is Merton's unwillingness to classify himself on one side or the other.  In so doing, it appears to me that Merton actually gets pretty close to the heart of the spirit of Vatican II as exemplified by the event and the documents.  This was neither a progressive nor a conservative Council, but was one that expressed a radical continuity with the past (and particularly the early Christian communities) while at the same time recognizing (as Christians in the patristic period did) that the 'world' could not be summarily dismissed as 'evil' or 'irrelevant'.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Why I am Not Going to Vote: A Theological Perspective

I am entitled to vote in the upcoming U.S. election.  I have voted in previous elections, including the last presidential election in 2008.  But I will not be voting in this election, nor do I foresee myself doing so in any future elections.

When I mention this people, I usually receive a very perplexed look followed by a statement that we as Christians have a duty to make our voices heard through the democratic process, and not to make our voices heard is to relinquish the influence we have to transform society for the good.  Both 'conservative' and 'liberal' friends (I detest labels, hence the scare-quotes) have said something similar to this to me in recent days.

I understand this argument, and am, in some ways, sympathetic to it.  But I simply cannot bring myself to accept it.

My own position is this: For theological reasons, I do not believe that I can, in good conscience, participate in the political system by voting.  And in this blog post, I hope to explain why I have arrived at this position.

(Before I delve into the theology behind my argument, I want to make a few provisos.  First, my specialty is not political theology.  My reading in political theology is relatively limited, and I do not claim in any way to be an 'expert' in the field.  The positions I express are those to which I have arrived primarily on my own, and as such, it is very likely that they will betray a level of theological and political immaturity.  There are undoubtedly ideas I have not considered and arguments with which I am not acquainted.  I am open to becoming acquainted with such ideas and arguments, should you wish to share them with me, just as I hope you are open to my arguments.  Christian political theology is, to my mind, an incredibly complicated and messy enterprise, and as such, I will not pretend that my arguments are definitive or fool-proof.  Second, I speak only for myself here.  My position does not reflect the position of the school at which I teach, nor is it characteristic of the Catholic church's position (though I do think that the Roman Catholic church, as well as many other Christian traditions, are certainly open to the kind of ideas I express here).)

My reasoning about voting has two facets.  One deals with the problem of voting for the office of President in particular.  The other deals with the problem of voting in general.

When it comes to voting for President of the United States, my reason for not voting is relatively straightforward.  I am a pacifist, and have been for some time.  I won't go into how I became a pacifist, but it suffices to say that the New Testament (and particularly the example of Jesus) appears to give no sanction for Christian participation in violence of any kind and the overwhelming witness of the Christian communities that existed prior to Constantine in the fourth century is that they took this prohibition against violence, including state-sanctioned violence, seriously.

The President has many roles, but a primary role of the President is the role of commander-in-chief of the armed forces.  To vote for President is therefore to vote, in essence, for a military general.  As a pacifist, I simply cannot figure out any way in which I can conscientiously participate in the process of choosing a military leader.  This point has been underlined for me in recent months as I've read about President Obama's 'kill-list' and his use of drone strikes.  While a President brings to the office a list of domestic priorities with which I may or may not agree, a substantial portion of the job revolves around the President's role as commander-in-chief.  No matter how much I like a candidate's platform, in the end I cannot turn a blind eye to the reality the President will necessarily participate in violence by virtue of the office.  And I simply do not see a way that I can justify being a co-participant by giving my approval to this facet of the office through voting.

As for voting in general, my thoughts are not nearly as clear to myself.  I am deeply influenced by the assessment of John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite theologian, regarding Jesus' understanding of the dangers of political power and the continued temptation faced by Christians to endeavour to transform society from the 'top-down', a process that necessarily involves Christians having to morph Jesus' example and teachings.  Yoder labelled the Christian temptation for political power as 'Constantinianism' (for obvious reasons), and argued that even after the separation of church and state, the church continues to fall prey to Constantinian tendencies.  What this can mean practically is that Christians devote an inordinate amount of time to the political arena, understood by them to revolve around the halls of legislature, and don't devote nearly enough effort to enacting and participating in communities of love that themselves provide a witness to the kind of society of love toward which we are called by Jesus.  The focus gets placed, therefore, on transforming through power rather than through love, which was precisely the means rejected by Jesus and by the early Christians.

In my view, to vote is to succumb, however mildly, to the temptation to power, the temptation to Constantinianism.  It is to participate in the halls of power where, if we follow the example of Christ, no Christian has any business being.  I've listened to many Christians on both sides of the political spectrum talking about making their voice heard through voting, as if voting was the only political mechanism open to them to make their voice heard.  To be 'political' isn't to be relegated merely to voting.  To be 'political' in a truly Christ-like manner is to manifest to the society around us that things don't have to be the way they are, and we do this actually by being communities of radical love in imitation of the God who exists in an eternal community of selfless love.  I'm not advocating quietism or sectarianism.  Rather, I'm suggesting that the church needs to rethink the way it does politics.

The way I propose of being political is not pragmatic.  But then, Jesus himself was no pragmatist.

I don't know whether I've explained my viewpoint clearly or well.  As I mentioned earlier, this is stuff I am currently working my way through.  I am totally open to critique, challenge, affirmation, denunciation, and particularly, dialogue.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Rowan Williams & the Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops

I'm somewhat surprised that more press hasn't been given to the fact that Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, gave an address to the Synod of Bishops currently being held at the Vatican.  Rowan gave the address at the invitation of Pope Benedict XVI, who has developed a close relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Rowan Williams will, sadly, leave the post at the end of the year.  His leadership has been subject to intense criticism, much of it, to my mind, largely unwarranted.  He is a theologian of almost unparalleled acumen, and the worldwide community of Christians is the better for his work.  The depth of his thought and vision was on full display in his address to the synod.  A copy of his address can be found below (it can also be found here).  My hope is that I'll be able to comment at greater length on this remarkable text in the coming days.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Address to the Thirteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith
Your Holiness, Reverend Fathers,
brothers and sisters in Christ – dear Friends
  1. I am deeply honoured by the Holy Father’s invitation to speak in this gathering:  as the Psalmist says, ‘Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum’.  The gathering of bishops in Synod for the good of all Christ’s people is one of those disciplines that sustain the health of Christ’s Church.  And today especially we cannot forget that great gathering of ‘fratres in unum’ that was the Second Vatican Council, which did so much for the health of the Church and helped the Church to recover so much of the energy needed to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ effectively in our age.  For so many of my own generation, even beyond the boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church, that Council was a sign of great promise, a sign that the Church was strong enough to ask itself some demanding questions about whether its culture and structures were adequate to the task of sharing the Gospel with the complex, often rebellious, always restless mind of the modern world.
  2. The Council was, in so many ways, a rediscovery of evangelistic concern and passion, focused not only on the renewal of the Church’s own life but on its credibility in the world.  Texts such as Lumen gentium and Gaudium et speslaid out a fresh and joyful vision of how the unchanging reality of Christ living in his Body on earth through the gift of the Holy Spirit might speak in new words to the society of our age and even to those of other faiths.  It is not surprising that we are still, fifty years later, struggling with many of the same questions and with the implications of the Council; and I take it that this Synod’s concern with the new evangelization is part of that continuing exploration of the Council’s legacy.
  3. But one of the most important aspects of the theology of the second Vaticanum was a renewal of Christian anthropology.  In place of an often strained and artificial neo-scholastic account of how grace and nature were related in the constitution of human beings, the Council built on the greatest insights of a theology that had returned to earlier and richer sources – the theology of spiritual geniuses like Henri de Lubac, who reminded us of what it meant for early and mediaeval Christianity to speak of humanity as made in God’s image and of grace as perfecting and transfiguring that image so long overlaid by our habitual ‘inhumanity’.  In such a light, to proclaim the Gospel is to proclaim that it is at last possible to be properly human:  the Catholic and Christian faith is a ‘true humanism’, to borrow a phrase from another genius of the last century, Jacques Maritain.
  4. Yet de Lubac is clear what this does not mean.  We do not replace the evangelistic task by a campaign of ‘humanization’.  ‘Humanize before Christianizing?’ he asks – ‘If the enterprise succeeds, Christianity will come too late: its place will be taken.  And who thinks that Christianity has no humanizing value?’  So de Lubac writes in his wonderful collection of aphorisms, Paradoxes of Faith.  It is the faith itself that shapes the work of humanizing and the humanizing enterprise will be empty without the definition of humanity given in the Second Adam.  Evangelization, old or new, must be rooted in a profound confidence that we have a distinctive human destiny to show and share with the world.  There are many ways of spelling this out, but in these brief remarks I want to concentrate on one aspect in particular.
  5. To be fully human is to be recreated in the image of Christ’s humanity;  and that humanity is the perfect human ‘translation’ of the relationship of the eternal Son to the eternal Father, a relationship of loving and adoring self-giving, a pouring out of life towards the Other.  Thus the humanity we are growing into in the Spirit, the humanity that we seek to share with the world as the fruit of Christ’s redeeming work, is a contemplative humanity.  St Edith Stein observed that we begin to understand theology when we see God as the ‘First Theologian’, the first to speak out the reality of divine life, because ‘all speaking about God presupposes God’s own speaking’; in an analogous way we could say that we begin to understand contemplation when we see God as the first contemplative, the eternal paradigm of that selfless attention to the Other that brings not death but life to the self.  All contemplating of God presupposes God’s own absorbed and joyful knowing of himself and gazing upon himself in the trinitarian life.
  6. To be contemplative as Christ is contemplative is to be open to all the fullness that the Father wishes to pour into our hearts.  With our minds made still and ready to receive, with our self-generated fantasies about God and ourselves reduced to silence, we are at last at the point where we may begin to grow.  And the face we need to show to our world is the face of a humanity in endless growth towards love, a humanity so delighted and engaged by the glory of what we look towards that we are prepared to embark on a journey without end to find our way more deeply into it, into the heart of the trinitarian life.  St Paul speaks (in II Cor 3.18) of how ‘with our unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord’, we are transfigured with a greater and greater radiance.  That is the face we seek to show to our fellow-human beings.
  7. And we seek this not because we are in search of some private ‘religious experience’ that will make us feel secure or holy.  We seek it because in this self-forgetting gazing towards the light of God in Christ we learn how to look at one another and at the whole of God’s creation.  In the early Church, there was a clear understanding that we needed to advance from the self-understanding or self-contemplation that taught us to discipline our greedy instincts and cravings to the ‘natural contemplation’ that perceived and venerated the wisdom of God in the order of the world and allowed us to see created reality for what it truly was in the sight of God – rather than what it was in terms of how we might use it or dominate it.  And from there grace would lead us forward into true ‘theology’, the silent gazing upon God that is the goal of all our discipleship.
  8. In this perspective, contemplation is very far from being just one kind of thing that Christians do: it is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom – freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them.  To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit.  To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly.  It is a deeply revolutionary matter. 
  9. In his autobiography Thomas Merton describes an experience not long after he had entered the monastery where he was to spend the rest of his life (Elected Silence, p.303).  He had contracted flu, and was confined to the infirmary for a few days, and, he says, he felt a ‘secret joy’ at the opportunity this gave him for prayer – and ‘to do everything that I want to do, without having to run all over the place answering bells.’  He is forced to recognise that this attitude reveals that ‘All my bad habits…had sneaked into the monastery with me and had received the religious vesture along with me: spiritual gluttony, spiritual sensuality, spiritual pride.’  In other words, he is trying to live the Christian life with the emotional equipment of someone still deeply wedded to the search for individual satisfaction.  It is a powerful warning: we have to be every careful in our evangelisation not simply to persuade people to apply to God and the life of the spirit all the longings for drama, excitement and self-congratulation that we so often indulge in our daily lives.  It was expressed even more forcefully some decades ago by the American scholar of religion, Jacob Needleman, in a controversial and challenging book called Lost Christianity: the words of the Gospel, he says, are addressed to human beings who ‘do not yet exist’.  That is to say, responding in a life-giving way to what the Gospel requires of us means a transforming of our whole self, our feelings and thoughts and imaginings.  To be converted to the faith does not mean simply acquiring a new set of beliefs, but becoming a new person, a person in communion with God and others through Jesus Christ.
  10. Contemplation is an intrinsic element in this transforming process.  To learn to look to God without regard to my own instant satisfaction, to learn to scrutinise and to relativise the cravings and fantasies that arise in me – this is to allow God to be God, and thus to allow the prayer of Christ, God’s own relation to God, to come alive in me.  Invoking the Holy Spirit is a matter of asking the third person of the Trinity to enter my spirit and bring the clarity I need to see where I am in slavery to cravings and fantasies and to give me patience and stillness as God’s light and love penetrate my inner life.  Only as this begins to happen will I be delivered from treating the gifts of God as yet another set of things I may acquire to make me happy, or to dominate other people.  And as this process unfolds, I become more free—to borrow a phrase of St Augustine (Confessions IV.7)—to ‘love human beings in a human way’, to love them not for what they may promise me, to love them not as if they were there to provide me with lasting safety and comfort, but as fragile fellow-creatures held in the love of God.  I discover (as we noted earlier) how to see other persons and things for what they are in relation to God, not to me.  And it is here that true justice as well as true love has its roots.
  11. The human face that Christians want to show to the world is a face marked by such justice and love, and thus a face formed by contemplation, by the disciplines of silence and the detaching of the self from the objects that enslave it and the unexamined instincts that can deceive it. If evangelisation is a matter of showing the world the ‘unveiled’ human face that reflects the face of the Son turned towards the Father, it must carry with it a serious commitment to promoting and nurturing such prayer and practice.  It should not need saying that this is not at all to argue that ‘internal’ transformation is more important than action for justice; rather, it is to insist that the clarity and energy we need for doing justice requires us to make space for the truth, for God’s reality to come through.  Otherwise our search for justice or for peace becomes another exercise of human will, undermined by human self-deception.  The two callings are inseparable, the calling to ‘prayer and righteous action’, as the Protestant martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, writing from his prison cell in 1944.  True prayer purifies the motive, true justice is the necessary work of sharing and liberating in others the humanity we have discovered in our contemplative encounter.
  12. Those who know little and care less about the institutions and hierarchies of the Church these days are often attracted and challenged by lives that exhibit something of this.  It is the new and renewed religious communities that most effectively reach out to those who have never known belief or who have abandoned it as empty and stale.  When the Christian history of our age is written especially, though not only, as regards Europe and North America—we shall see how central and vital was the witness of places like Taizé or Bose, but also of more traditional communities that have become focal points for the exploration of a humanity broader and deeper than social habit encourages.  And the great spiritual networks, Sant’ Egidio, the Focolare, Communione e Liberazione, these too show the same phenomenon; they make space for a profounder human vision because in their various ways all of them offer a discipline of personal and common life that is about letting the reality of Jesus come alive in us.
  13. And, as these examples show, the attraction and challenge we are talking about can generate commitments and enthusiasms across historic confessional lines.  We have become used to talking about the imperative importance of ‘spiritual ecumenism’ these days; but this must not be a matter of somehow opposing the spiritual and the institutional, nor replacing specific commitments with a general sense of Christian fellow-feeling.  If we have a robust and rich account of what the word ‘spiritual’ itself means, grounded in scriptural insights like those in the passages from II Corinthiansthat we noted earlier, we shall understand spiritual ecumenism as the shared search to nourish and sustain disciplines of contemplation in the hope of unveiling the face of the new humanity.  And the more we keep apart from each other as Christians of different confessions, the less convincing that face will seem.  I mentioned the Focolare movement a moment ago: you will recall that the basic imperative in the spirituality of Chiara Lubich was ‘to make yourself one’ – one with the crucified and abandoned Christ, one through him with the Father, one with all those called to this unity and so one with the deepest needs of the world.  ‘Those who live unity … live by allowing themselves to penetrate always more into God.  They grow always closer to God … and the closer they get to him, the closer they get to the hearts of their brothers and sisters’ (Chiara Lubich: Essential Writings, p.37).  The contemplative habit strips away an unthinking superiority towards other baptised believers and the assumption that I have nothing to learn from them.  Insofar as the habit of contemplation helps us approach all experience as gift, we shall always be asking what it is that the brother or sister has to share with us – even the brother or sister who is in one way or another separated from us or from what we suppose to be the fullness of communion.  ‘Quam bonum et quam jucundum …’.
  14. In practice, this might suggest that wherever initiatives are being taken to reach out in new ways to a lapsed Christian or post-Christian public, there should be serious work done on how such outreach can be grounded in some ecumenically shared contemplative practice.  In addition to the striking way in which Taizé has developed an international liturgical ‘culture’ accessible to a great variety of people, a network like the World Community for Christian Meditation, with its strong Benedictine roots and affiliations, has opened up fresh possibilities here.  What is more, this community has worked hard at making contemplative practice accessible to children and young people, and this needs the strongest possible encouragement.  Having seen at first hand—in Anglican schools in Britain—how warmly young children can respond to the invitation offered by meditation in this tradition, I believe its potential for introducing young people to the depths of our faith to be very great indeed.  And for those who have drifted away from the regular practice of sacramental faith, the rhythms and practices of Taizé or the WCCM are often a way back to this sacramental heart and hearth.
  15. What people of all ages recognise in these practices is the possibility, quite simply, of living more humanly – living with less frantic acquisitiveness, living with space for stillness, living in the expectation of learning, and most of all, living with an awareness that there is a solid and durable joy to be discovered in the disciplines of self-forgetfulness that is quite different from the gratification of this or that impulse of the moment.  Unless our evangelisation can open the door to all this, it will run the risk of trying to sustain faith on the basis of an un-transformed set of human habits – with the all too familiar result that the Church comes to look unhappily like so many purely human institutions, anxious, busy, competitive and controlling.  In a very important sense, a true enterprise of evangelisation will always be a re-evangelisation of ourselves as Christians also, a rediscovery of why our faith is different, transfiguring – a recovery of our own new humanity.
  16. And of course it happens most effectively when we are not planning or struggling for it.  To turn to de Lubac once again, ‘He who will best answer the needs of his time will be someone who will not have first sought to answer them’ (op. cit. pp.111-2); and ‘The man who seeks sincerity, instead of seeking truth in self-forgetfulness, is like the man who seeks to be detached instead of laying himself open in love’ (p.114).  The enemy of all proclamation of the Gospel is self-consciousness, and, by definition, we cannot overcome this by being more self-conscious.  We have to return to St Paul and ask, ‘Where are we looking?’  Do we look anxiously to the problems of our day, the varieties of unfaithfulness or of threat to faith and morals, the weakness of the institution?  Or are we seeking to look to Jesus, to the unveiled face of God’s image in the light of which we see the image further reflected in ourselves and our neighbours?
  17. That simply reminds us that evangelisation is always an overflow of something else – the disciple’s journey to maturity in Christ, a journey not organised by the ambitious ego but the result of the prompting and drawing of the Spirit in us.  In our considerations of how we are once again to make the Gospel of Christ compellingly attractive to men and women of our age, I hope we never lose sight of what makes it compelling to ourselves, to each one of us in our diverse ministries.  So I wish you joy in these discussions – not simply clarity or effectiveness in planning, but joy in the promise of the vision of Christ’s face, and in the fore-shadowings of that fulfilment in the joy of communion with each other here and now.