Thursday, October 16, 2014

Humility in the Face of Theological Disagreement: "Am I Open to God's Surprises?"

Pope Francis at Santa Marta
The moment the Relatio was released, my Twitter feed exploded.  On the one hand there were those who reacted to the document with joy and excitement, and more than a whiff of triumphalism.  On the other hand there were those who reacted with panic, fear, and even open hostility.

I prefer to take a 'wait-and-see' approach to the Synod.  The Relatio is merely one step in a long process of discernment by the bishops in consultation with the laity and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  A few friends on Twitter have suggested that my appeal to faith in the Spirit's guidance is a kind of pollyannish attitude that amounts to little more than passivity in the face of massive theological disagreement.  Not at all.  As an historical theologian with a particular focus on Cyril of Alexandria, I'm quite aware that the Spirit works in and through disagreement, often vociferous and truly nasty disagreement; you don't get much more cantankerous than Cyril.

Some people appear to be worried about the level of theological confrontation both in and outside the Synod.  None of this is new in the history of the church.  I have over the last few months been reading Yves Congar's 900+ page My Journal of the Council, and have been struck by the intensity of the arguments that occurred in and around the sessions of the Second Vatican Council.  Much of that was behind closed doors.  Pope Francis, however, appears willing to allow the bishops to argue both inside and outside the synod chambers, to air the dirty laundry, and so to allow us to understand that the process of theological discernment is one that is difficult and often messy.  This is not something about which we should be worried.

What should concern us all is the attitude with which we participate in the disagreements.  We can and should vocalize our disagreements, express our concerns and opinions, and endeavour if necessary to demonstrate where our interlocutors may fall short.  But - and I'm preaching to myself as much as to anyone reading this - such disagreement must be done with humility.  By this I mean that it  must be done with the clear understanding that none of us has a complete purchase on truth, beauty, and goodness.  This is a point I make with my undergraduates regularly.  When discussing God, we have to remember that we're not talking about an object within our universe, only bigger.  We're talking about the very cause of that universe, and while God has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ, and continues to reveal himself to us through the Spirit, we have to admit that each one of us singly cannot possibly claim to understand the fullness of God or of God's revelation.

In short, I have to approach theological disagreement fully open to the possibility that I might be wrong.  We all have to do this.  When we recognize that we (I truly am including myself in that first person plural) don't have the complete purchase on theological understanding, we must turn in faith to the idea that God continues to guide the church through the Holy Spirit (read Vatican II's Dei Verbum and Lumen Gentium to get a sense of what the Roman Catholic church understands this to look like).

So, yes, let's disagree.  Let's even do so forcefully and passionately.  But let's also do so in humility, recognizing that the conclusions to which the church arrives through the guidance of the Spirit may not be precisely what we might want.

It is for this reason, I think, that on the morning of the Relatio's release Pope Francis gave a sermon at Santa Marta in which he asks whether we are truly open to God's surprises.  Whether we are truly open to having our theological assumptions and ideas challenged by the God of all things.  To do so takes a level of humility that, frankly, I do not yet have.

I've pasted the summary of Pope Francis' homily below, as well as a short video from Rome Reports.  While I think Pope Francis could have made his point without using the Pharisees as they're depicted in the Gospels as a foil, his overall argument is worthwhile
"Why were these Doctors of the Law unable to understand the signs of the times? Why did they demand an extraordinary sign (which Jesus later gave to them), why they did not understand? First of all, because they were closed. They were closed within their system, they had perfectly systemized the law, it was a masterpiece. Every Jews knew what they could do and what they could not do, how far they could go. It was all systemized. And they were safe there".
They believed that Jesus did “strange things”: "He went about with sinners, ate with tax collectors." The Pope noted that they "did not like” Jesus, he “was dangerous; doctrine was in danger, the doctrine of the law”, which the theologians had formulated over the centuries. Pope Francis said that while they had  "done this out of love, to be faithful to God", they had become “closed", they had "simply forgotten history. They had forgotten that God is the God of the Law, but He is also the God of surprises". On the other hand, said Francis, "God has often reserved surprises for His people" like when He saved them "from slavery in Egypt":
"They did not understand that God is the God of surprises, that God is always new; He never denies himself, never says that what He said was wrong, never, but He always surprises us. They did not understand this and they closed themselves within that system that was created with the best of intentions and asked Jesus: 'But, give us a sign'. And they did not understand the many signs that Jesus did give them and which indicated that the time was ripe. Closure! Second, they had forgotten that they were a people on a journey. On a path! And when we set out on a journey, when we are on our path, we always encounter new things, things we did not know".
And, he added, "a path is not absolute in itself," it is a path towards "the ultimate manifestation of the Lord. Life is a journey toward the fullness of Jesus Christ, when He will come again". This generation "seeks a sign", but the Lord says, " but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah", that is "the sign of the Resurrection, the glory, of that eschatology towards “which we are journeying".
Pope Francis repeated, these doctors "were closed in on themselves, not open to the God of Surprises, they did not know the path nor this eschatology".  So, when before the Sanhedrin Jesus claims to be the Son of God, "they tore their clothes", they were shocked saying that He had blasphemed. "The sign that Jesus gives to them - he said - was a blasphemy". And for this reason "Jesus says: an evil generation”.
Pope Francis added, "they failed to understand that the law they guarded and loved" was a pedagogy towards Jesus Christ. "If the law does not lead to Jesus Christ - he said – if it does not bring us closer to Jesus Christ, it is dead. And Jesus rebuked them for this closure, for not being able to read the signs of the times, for not being open to the God of surprises”.
"And this should make us think: am I attached to my things, my ideas, [are they] closed? Or am I open to God's surprises? Am I at a standstill or am I on a journey? Do I believe in Jesus Christ - in Jesus, in what he did: He died, rose again and the story ended there - Do I think that the journey continues towards maturity, toward the manifestation of the glory of the Lord? Am I able to understand the signs of the times and be faithful to the voice of the Lord that is manifested in them? We should ask ourselves these questions today and ask the Lord for a heart that loves the law -  because the law belongs to God – but which also loves God’s surprises and the ability to understand that this holy law is not an end in itself".
Pope Francis concluded, this "journey” is a pedagogy "that leads us to Jesus Christ, the final encounter, where there will be this great sign of the Son of man."


  1. "Am I open to God's surprises?" After the 8 straight of the Kansas City Royals, I should hope so! They've sure taught the A's, the Angels, and the Orioles some humilty.

  2. I am afraid that reading "the signs of the times" has become a spoiled phrase for me since dissidents clearly opposed to Church teaching such as the LCWR have used it to justify their dissent. When I read what Pope Francis says, I am always left with the feeling that just about anything is up for grans in Church teaching, and that cannot be right. That is probably not what he is saying, but I am left with that. All I can do is use the uneasiness to glean what I can, examine where I can grow, and that is a good thing. But I go back to "How can I know unless someone teaches me?" I guess I am not drawn to the Jesuit way of thinking.

    1. Serious and earnest question: In what way does what Pope Francis' comments above threaten the question you raise - "How can I know unless someone teaches me?" I'm not sure I see the connection.