I love Lent. I love that we’ve carved out an entire season for painful introspection, undertaken individually and collectively—a season to resist my natural inclination to believe I’m immortal, to confront the weakness of my faculties and the graveness of my imperfections, to take stock of the damning and precarious pitfalls of human finitude.
My Lent came early this year. My world has been all ashes to ashes since the early fall, when it was my brother’s ashes, and not just a hastily recited phrase and a blackened thumb tracing the outline of an ancient instrument of death onto my forehead (and then another forehead, and then another forehead). Two months after his death, a friend sent me a book of poetry. At the time I was taking a writing class with Christian Wiman, who kept insisting on my need—both in writing and in life—for the kind of emotional vividness that poetry uniquely delivers. Language fails during seasons like Lent—seasons of dryness and distance and darkness—but poetry deals in lyric and image as much as in words—and so I cracked open the compilation she sent, and I haven’t closed it yet.
It’s called The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, and it’s edited by Kevin Young, a poet, professor, and curator of literary collections at Emory University. The collection features all the names even a poetically undereducated person like me can recognize: W.H. Auden, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, Seamus Heaney, Les Murray, Mary Oliver, Theodore Roethke, Anne Carson, Czeslaw Milosz, e.e. cummings, and dozens more.
Young compiles 150 different poems into sections that seem to reflect the experience and process of grief: I. Reckoning; II. Regret; III. Remembrance; IV. Ritual; V. Recovery. Some of the poems strike me; others don’t. Regardless, it feels like a privilege to read someone else’s story of grief and affirm it alongside my own, even if I don’t connect deeply with it. It reminds of the liturgy, actually, and of Holy Week in general. The ritual of it all suddenly gives wider expression to my personal experience, making it into something common, something collective, though it remains distinctly mine. The psalm on one day is some tortured jeremiad, and that’s for me; on another day it’s a joyful song of praise, and that’s for the couple a few pews up with a new baby—but either way, they’re singing my psalm and I’m singing theirs. The Art of Losing has managed to do something similar. The poems give me intimate access to another’s very particular world, even for a brief moment, and allow me to see my world expressed in ways and places I did not believe it could.
Back in the spotlight with the release of a new collection of old essays, Annie Dillard recently described in an NPR interview how it took her eighteen months to shake off the pressure of winning the Pulitzer prize and write her seventy-six-page masterpiece of 1977, Holy the Firm:
I kept trying to build myself up into a pitch where I could even understand what I'd written the day before. It's metaphysics. And it turns out that not a lot of people are comfortable with that, but I was. I guess that's why they told me I had a masculine mind.
I’m honestly not sure what she means by “masculine mind,” but like so many of her provoking, confusing phrases, I’m sure it will linger in my own mind like a hypothesis, or a dormant revelation.
For Dillard hypotheses are dormant revelations and for Dillard God does reveal truths to humans in the language of metaphysics as much as in the language of theology; in the form of a poem as much as in the form of a joke; and most likely in the form of nothing our minds can comprehend but which regardless physically exists as—for example—time does.
Holy the Firm is set on northern Puget Sound in Washington, where Dillard lived for two years in a one-room cabin with her cat Small. Over the course of three days, the first-person narrator asks herself questions about time, reality, salts, minerals, sacrifice, death, and the will of God.
Day one is glorious. In awe, the narrator observes the landscape, seascape, shifting patterns of sky in “this world, a dream forced into my ear and sent round my body on ropes of hot blood.” Her descriptions hint at the presence of an animating force beneath the surface of everything. (“The hill creates itself”; “The sky is gagging on trees”). She repeatedly introduces us to “the god of today,” whose characteristics are manifold: “rampant and drenched"; "pagan and fernoot”; “wholly here and emptied.” Day two is violent. A little girl’s face is burned off—her skin melted—by a spout of jet fuel burst from the wing of a falling plane. That day God is “a brute and a traitor, abandoning us to time, to necessity and the engines of matter unhinged.” She questions faith, and whether God has any “willful connection with time whatsoever, and with us.” By day three she “only know[s] enough of God to want to worship him, by any means at hand.” In the last pages of the book, through an acrobatic display of theological, scientific, poetic, and crude language, the narrator somehow resolves nearly all of her unresolved questions.
Some surmise that the three-part, three-day structure of Holy the Firm is meant to accompany the three days in the Triduum. Dillard hasn’t confirmed this, but it nevertheless seems plausible. Try Holy the Firm this year. I promise you’ll want to read it again soon.
I knew little of Kent Haruf until hearing him interviewed on publication of his 2004 novel Eventide. It was a sequel to 1999’s National Book Award-winning Plainsong, both written the way Haruf wrote all his novels: blindly, with a cap pulled over his eyes, as a way to block out the analytical impulses he feared would undermine his artistic aims. And spiritual ones: Haruf, the son of a Methodist minister (“gentle, non-evangelical, non-proselytizing”) told his interviewer he resented and rejected the idea there was nothing religious in his books, and not just because he considered the effort to write well a religion itself. There is a spirituality underpinning both Plainsong and Eventide, hinted at in the titles, made more evident over the course of the sparely wrought narratives, which are set in the small plains town of Holt, Colorado, and follow the interactions of farmers, teachers, children, and shopkeepers, ordinary folks whose reticence hides multitudes. “Many of my characters,” Haruf said, “knock on doors seeking solace, seeking sanctuary, and they get it frequently, and that to me is a religious act.” Haruf made it plainer than most writers how generosity and compassion shaped his portrayals, and he spoke of his writerly duty to “pay close attention to what [my characters] reveal, because their revelation is often very subtle.” Novelist Richard Russo said Haruf understood something essential—that the more specific a thing is, “the more it’s universal.” It took a long time for Haruf to arrive where he did; he spoke of having to tend his “pilot-light-sized flame of talent… religiously… like a kind of monk or acolyte.” He didn’t publish until he was in his forties, but the discipline never waned: At the time of his death in 2014, he was putting the finishing touches on what would be his final novel. Read Plainsong and Eventide both, but note well: it’s important they be read in order.
When I think of what makes something “spiritual” reading, rather than informational or intellectual, I think of the disciples at Emmaus recalling that their hearts were “burning within” them as they listened to Jesus interpret the Scriptures. That passage from Luke came to my mind when I first encountered the theologian James Alison and picked up a copy of his book Faith Beyond Resentment (Crossroad, 2001).
Alison’s biography is already known to Commonweal readers from this profile by Christopher Ruddy and this interview by Brett Sakeld. He is an ordained priest and a former member of the Dominican order; a scholar of Rene Girard; a gay man interested in working through the obstacles that official church teaching creates for human flourishing among LGBT people. Faith Beyond Resentment caught my attention because it includes several essays on that subject, aimed at talking to gay Catholics about how their presence in the church can make the truth about Christ’s saving work more fully known. He discusses the disconnect between church teaching on homosexuality and the actual lived experiences of gay people, and also explores the scandal of sexual abuse and cover-up then erupting in the church. I am eager to see the church move past the defensive postures that push my LGBT friends and fellow Catholics to the margins, and reading Alison makes me hopeful that the day will come when we can commit more fully to supporting human flourishing for all—not by abandoning the faith tradition we live now, but by embracing its invitation to life more fully.
Beyond his attention to “matters gay,” Alison’s writings in this and other books illuminate the very basics of Christian discipleship for me. Following Girard’s mimetic theory, Alison reveals how accepted interpretations of Scripture tend to implicate God in the violent cycle that traps humanity, to place God “wholly within the framework of human violence and rivalry.” Instead, focusing in this book particularly on passages from the Gospel of John, Alison explains how God, through Jesus, offers a way out of that violent cycle. His readings of the stories from John gave me that heart-burning-within-me sensation of understanding something I thought I knew well in a new and clarifying light. Time and again I found him taking up a passage that I’d always found troubling or obscure and making it seem clear and vital. From Alison I learned to approach the Gospels from what he calls “the space of the heart-close-to-cracking,” to hear how the message of Christ sounds different, both more comforting and more personally challenging, more urgent, when “read from amongst the ruins.”
That the Gospels take on a new urgency for me when I hear what Alison has to say is an important point, because I know how easy it would be for me to be seduced by a take on Jesus’ message that challenged me less than the standard homily, that flattered my prejudices and then let me off the hook. Such a reading would end up leading me further from God by telling me that I’m close enough already. That’s not what I take away from Alison. His books, as Rowan Williams put it, “leave you with a feeling that perhaps it’s time you became a Christian.”
The best book I read this year was Love’s Work by the late philosopher Gillian Rose. Completed after Rose was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer, it functions as both philosophy and autobiography. Rose’s primary passion as a philosopher is the ground (the “broken middle”) between ideas and their realization in life. For her, philosophy presents the possibility for consciously working within that gap. In her life, we see how that project reaches into friendship, politics, family, and romantic affairs, and toward her own failing body. “To live, to love, is to be failed,” she writes, and yet she commits to the attempt: this is the work of love to which the title refers. Originally published in 1995, Love’s Work was reissued by the New York Review Books Classics in 2011; this edition includes an introduction by Michael Wood and concludes with a poem about Rose by Geoffrey Hill attesting to the gift of her work and her person. Hill writes of both thusly: “There is a kind of sanity that hates weddings/but bears an intelligence of grief/in its own kind.” Rose was formidable. It’s clear from her self-description and the tributes included in this volume that while she lived, she comported herself with an intensity that burned away the chaff, her incisive and expert studies on Hegel and T. W. Adorno further demonstration of it. Small yet dense, Love’s Work is Rose’s most accessible book and an illustration of how her philosophical commitments translated to a difficult life fully lived.
I was a student at Fordham when Martin Sheen came to screen 1983’s In the King of Prussia, a hastily and inexpensively produced “film” shot on video about the Ploughshares Eight. A friend active in social-justice issues, knowing I was a fan of Sheen for his performances in Badlands and Apocalypse Now, encouraged me to attend the daytime event. Certainly the organizers must have been counting at least a little bit on Sheen’s celebrity appeal, but as I recall the screening was lightly attended. As for the film—well, Sheen’s performance as a judge in the re-enacted trial of the group that entered a General Electric plant in 1980 and damaged nosecones designed for nuclear warheads doesn’t quite match the work he did for Terrence Malick or Francis Ford Coppola. That said, the appearances in the film of Molly Rush, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, and the rest of the Ploughshares Eight did leave an impression. So did Sheen’s evident interest in social justice and other issues—which my mere fandom at the time had not previously admitted the possibility of.
Though still more partial to Sheen as Kit Caruthers and Capt. Benjamin Willard than as Jed (The West Wing) Bartlet or Thomas (The Way) Avery, I’ve since continued to follow his faith-driven activism. It’s what prompted me to catch up with his appearance last week on Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast. Now, I’m not much for Tippet’s style of interviewing, but this wasn’t such a problem with the garrulous Sheen on hand.Read more
At the Maryknoll Mission Center on Sunday (appropriately the feast of St. Francis of Assisi), theologian Elizabeth Johnson spoke to an audience of about 200 priests, brothers, sisters, and laypeople on whether “God’s charity is broad enough for bears.”
The question comes from a story about the American explorer John Muir. One day Muir came across a dead bear, still bleeding, in the middle of the woods in Yosemite National Park. That night in his journal he wrote a biting criticism against religious folks he knew who made no room in heaven for such noble creatures: "Not content with taking all of Earth, they also claim the celestial country as the only ones who possess the kinds of souls for which that imponderable empire was planned"—that is, do humans think they are the only ones with souls?
“Theology,” Johnson began her address “calls the natural world 'creation' because of its relationship to God… and it’s under threat now.” We stand sickened at the deadly damage being done to the world. We know about it through headlines: ice caps melting, air and water being polluted, species becoming extinct by the tens of thousands per year. We know now that our planet has become “unfit for life,” and we know that ecological damage leads to social damage: poor people suffer the most from environmental destruction.
Although she has written theology about ecology and eco-justice for years, Johnson has never had the degree of papal support for her theology that she does now. She called Laudato Si'' “the most important encyclical written in the history of the Catholic church,” because of its broad scope—economic, political, social, scientific, psychological, spiritual, theological, and ethical—because it is corrective to past failures of church teaching, and because it ends on a note of joy, that we can be introduced to a new way of being human that will strengthen all parts of creation with diminishing any.
In Laudato sí, Francis calls for a conversion to this new way of being human—and conversions are usually met with resistance. Yes, we may resist converting to a more ecologically sustainable way of living because of hard-to-break habits of consumption, waste, and greed—especially those of us who live in powerful, wealthy, and developed nations like the United States. But Johnson focused her talk on a deeper problem: the theological resistance to conversion toward the earth, present in Christianity. John Muir’s story “crystallizes” this problem because Muir, in criticizing his religious friends, criticizes their God. And rightly so. Johnson says that we need to ask ourselves: “Is the God I believe in madly in love with bears?” And trees, and dandelions, and river currents, worms, and sparrows? How can we weave the natural world into our religious preaching in ways that will promote its flourishing? How can we foster a spirituality that makes love of nature an intrinsic part of faith in God, and not just an add-on to it?Read more
Over at Politico magazine, Peter Steinfels has written a frank, thoughtful, and (for liberal Catholics especially) challenging take on the pope's upcoming visit. He cautions against frenzied papal-centrism and the temptation to use the "banner of papal authority" in political arguments.
Christian faith has political implications. But you can’t go directly from breaking bread with the homeless to a public housing program anymore than you can go from affirming the humanity of the unborn to particular laws restricting abortion. If in our enthusiasm for Francis’ emphasis on poverty, immigrants and climate change, liberal Catholics fail to acknowledge this, if, for example, we dismiss reasonable questions about the pope’s economics, we will be undermining our own political consistency as well as Francis’ attempt to assure room for disagreement within the Church.
Steinfels reminds us that the Catholic Church is not a "kind of religious Marine Corps that barks orders from the top for its well-drilled troops to follow blindly"—a common misunderstanding in the United States, where
the image of the church as an unquestioning, dutiful force bending to the pope’s will is deeply engrained. The “Catholic vote” is still discussed as a monolithic whole. [And] Polls detecting disagreement among Catholics over church teaching are treated like the discovery of new planets.
And, Pope Francis himself has long been opposed to the "over-centralization of church decision-making in Rome." When Francis was Archbishop of Buenos Aires he referred to his trips to Rome there as “penances,” and as pope, he has
acted to renew the periodic synods of bishops from around the world as occasions for genuinely free discussion. Vatican officials have previously controlled them with a heavy-hand. Francis recently delegated oversight of marriage annulments to local bishops rather than a Vatican office. He has put lay people in key positions in the Vatican. Francis, too, doesn’t want the church to be all about him.
So, how can we re-organize the story of Catholicism so that it isn't centered on the pope? That's a good question, and now is a good time to mull it over.
Our full August 14 issue is now up on the website.
Among the highlights, Cathy Kaveny explains how secular law can teach the church something about mercy for divorced and remarried Catholics that it already knows:
No legal provision is self-interpreting; each law must be understood and applied with reference to the good of the community it purports to serve, and Jesus regularly reminds us that the commands and prohibitions of the Torah must be situated in a broader context.... Catholicism viewed marriage as a symbol of the unbreakable union of Christ with the church—like the union of a bishop with his diocese. But from the beginning of church history, the symbolic value of both sorts of unions had always been balanced against other values.
Read all of 'Mercy for the Remarried' here.
Jo McGowan questions why the debate over same-sex marriage can cause rage:
Religious teaching reinforces that disgust with frequent reminders that gay sexuality is sinful and inherently disordered, subtly making it acceptable to discriminate against LGBT persons and adding to a climate in which outright persecution is also acceptable. There is no such hysteria about other “sins.” Greed, for example, robs the poor of a just wage, legitimizes mindless consumption, and destroys the natural environment. But while we may disapprove of it, we don’t isolate or target all those greedy people.
Read all of 'The More You Know' here.
Also in this issue: Fr. Nonomen's advises on how to do a funeral (step one: keep your glasses off the coffin...); Bethe Dufresne reflects on her experience standing between two confederate flags; Anthony Domestico reviews new, important books from Claudia Rankine and Jeffery Renard Allen about living with racism in the United States; and Jean Hughes Raber reviews Laura Swan's new history of a forgotten women's medieval movement .
See the full table of contents for August 14 here:
There is a passage by Iris Murdoch from The Sovereignty of Good where she describes joy in teaching herself the Russian language. “Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality,” she writes. “Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal.” Because the rules of Russian grammar are difficult to master, learning the language pushes Murdoch’s full attention into a humble posture. She’s describing devotional attention, in other words, and its devotional character is what’s most true about it because it makes one’s body and mind confront something you’re not meant to just use, but see.
Matthew Crawford uses Murdoch’s lines in both his books, Shopclass as Soul Craft, and his latest The World Beyond Your Head (reviewed here in Commonweal) where he takes up the issue of “distraction.” His broader argument hinges on this idea that how we train—or don’t train—our focus, even more than what we set it on, shapes whether or not we become the kind of people who can make free and meaningful choices. It’s a philosophical stab at a moral, social, and economic problem: How can we be more than consumers, but free individuals? We can’t, really, if we hand over our focus to whoever and whatever wants it.
Attention, reality, consumerism—worrying about these things now means thinking about digital technology, especially since a lot of us carry a small machine seductively designed for infinite distraction in our pocket. Rand Richards Cooper recently wrote on how Smartphones allow us to check out from where we’re standing. He writes, “Technology is a majestic human story, and the benefits we’ve gotten from farming out our tasks to machines are incalculable. But what happens when what we’re farming out is consciousness itself—the ability to be ourselves, with ourselves, amid the glories of creation?”Read more
Many who are responding to the 62.4% majority vote to nationally legalize same-sex marriage in Ireland are making much of Dublin archbishop Diarmuid Martin's frank but vague remarks in the New York Times:
The church needs to take a reality check.... It’s very clear there’s a growing gap between Irish young people and the church, and there’s a growing gap between the culture of Ireland that’s developing and the church.... [I]nside the church becomes almost alien territory to them in today’s society…
That there is a growing gap between young people and the church on this issue is not new news, nor is it exclusive to Ireland. Martin is right to point out that anyone who doesn't recognize this is in "severe denial." That's why I think this referendum is such good news. It's a reality check, yes, but it's also an opportunity to let go of the fight against same-sex marriage. If bemoaning the referendum becomes the church's basis for strengthening "its commitment to evangelization," as the Vatican's secretary of state suggests, the gap between young people and the church will only widen.
I don’t have the polling data to prove this, but I can't imagine that many young Catholics enjoy being recruited to fight a culture war, especially if the opposition includes family, friends, and peers. They find it alienating when a priest homilizes about the essential differences between men and women; they would rather hear that “all are welcome” at Mass and rather the homily stick to the gospel. When Catholic identity becomes less about spirituality and more about political battles, something essential is lost…along with thousands of believers.
Is there a way for Catholics to simply disagree with same-sex marriage supporters instead of having to “defend traditional marriage”? Is there a widespread movement to force the church to change its teaching on marriage? Why can’t traditional marriage exist inside the church, with same-sex marriage outside the church? Agreeing to disagree relieves the opposing parties of the burden of needing to win. Ireland has decided, by majority vote, to legalize same-sex marriage. At least one front in this protracted culture war has gone quiet. What a relief.
Over at NCR Michael Sean Winters wonders if it’s possible that “those Irish young people did not vote for same sex marriage despite their Catholic education, but, in part, because of it?” That’s a very good question. I suspect they did. Catholics have imagination. Tradition isn’t a force that eternally battles advancing armies. It’s the way the substance (not the accidents) of church teaching is passed down through generations of believers who contribute to this process by reexamining and reexamining again what their faith means.
We've just posted three new stories to the homepage.
1. In his latest Letter from Rome, Robert Mickens suggests the possible reasons behind the Vatican Secretary of State's "apocolyptic assesment of the the Irish referendum" is culture, "particularly Italian culture," because Italy is "the most conservative country in all of Europe when it comes to social conventions and customs," especially concerning the family.
Mickens also reveals who exactly has been holding "secretive meetings and initiatives" in the run-up to October's Synod on the Family that deal with "some of the more thorny issues" the bishops will be debating, including the Kasper proposal.
2. The Editors present reasons, if the Amtrak derailment isn't enough of one, for why the U.S. government’s failure to invest in infrastructure must change:
The United States now spends less than 2 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, less than half of what Europe spends—and less than half of what we were spending in the 1960s....The American Society of Civil Engineers gave [the nation's infrastructure] a grade of D+... [and] noted that the average age of the country’s 84,000 dams is fifty-two, and that one in nine of its bridges is considered structurally deficient. Every few years one of these bridges collapses, occasioning a brief outburst of bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill. Then nothing changes.
Read all of 'Signal Failure.'
3. George Dennis O'Brien, pondering the future direction of Catholic education, looks backward:
The dominant style of higher education in the ancient world was not academic but humanistic, directed at educating future political leaders who needed to learn the art of persuasion.... [T]he humanistic “classical curriculum” dominated American colleges from colonial times until the end of the nineteenth century.
Are Catholic institutions replacing the humanistic style with the "academic style of close argument and verifiable truths"?
We’ve just posted our June 1 issue to the website. Among the highlights:
Amanda Erickson describes the struggle of a Catholic parish community in Freddie Gray's Baltimore neighborhood to respond adequately, in the wake of the riots, to the root causes of hopelessness there:
The life expectancy of those born in Sandtown-Winchester is thirteen years shorter than the national average. Those are problems that can’t be fixed by one man, or in one morning. So instead, Rev. Bomberger grabbed a broom and headed across the street.
Andrew Bacevich reviews Andrew Cockburn’s “imperfect but exceedingly useful book,” Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, about the motives behind and justifications for targeted assassinations and drone warfare—now common practices in U.S. foreign policy.
Cockburn quotes one U.S. Air Force general bragging, “We can now hit any target anywhere in the world, any time, any weather, day or night.” Yet why bother with bombing bridges, power plants, or communications facilities, when taking out Mr. Big himself provides the definitive shortcut to victory? Here was the ultimate critical node: Decapitate the regime. As an approach to waging war, what could be more humane, not to mention efficient?
Plus: New poetry from Marie Ponsot, Celia Wren explains why the once-promising plotlines of Mad Men hit a dead end, Paul Johnston reviews the latest from Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi, Molly Farneth reviews the latest, uncomprehensive but newly non-Eurocentric Norton Anthology of World Religions, and Charles Morris reveals the dirty little secret of major-league banking bankers don't want to believe.
See the full table of contents here.
Last night at Fordham University, Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez was awarded the President’s medal—an award given about thirty times in the university’s history. The award came as a surprise, at the conclusion of a conversation he had with Fordham theologian Michael Lee. Gutierrez, widely regarded as the father of liberation theology, spoke softly in a thick Peruvian accent. He was very expressive with his hands, and hit the table often, drumming a rhythm to his words. He repeated words, and simple phrases. By academic standards, the conversation didn’t “say anything new” but it said the important stuff Jesus had to remind his disciples of all the time, over and over again: that God loves everyone, especially the poor.
The auditorium was packed with theology students, professors, priests, journalists, a significant number of bright-suited nuns and Commonweal editors (including Grant Gallicho who live-tweeted and took some video), readers, and writers. Gutierrez’s fame meant the event was oversubscribed. So when he first spoke, I felt a slight, guilty, let down. I expected an orator, someone who would rouse in me the kind of inspiration “liberation theology” ought to inspire. This happened, but quietly.
The talk came a week before Gutierrez will travel to Rome to meet with the pope and speak at the annual gathering for Caritas Internationalis. Pope Francis has chosen him to be one of the lead figures in the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy.
Lee began by asking about Gutierrez’s relationship with Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, current prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Last year, when Gutierrez was a surprise guest speaker at the cardinal’s book launch, the irony wasn’t lost on many who remembered when the liberation theologian was investigated by the CDF under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He’s been friends with Mueller since “1988, the last century,” and said the cardinal is “one of the best” when it comes to understanding the perspective of liberation theology. He also praised Mueller for spending his summers teaching theology in parts of Peru where even some Peruvians won’t go. “I have never seen one liberation theologian take his vacations on the beach.”
Other subjects avid readers of the Catholic blogosphere might find most interesting, he found less interesting. When asked whether, as some have recently claimed, his 1971 book A Theology of Liberation, was authored by the KGB, he swatted the air and twirled a finger around his temple: “I have to laugh.” When asked about the last time he spoke with Archbishop Oscar Romero, he made sure to qualify the story afterward: “But my personal relations with Romero aren’t important.” What’s more important is the meaning of “the poor, the painful riches of the church, the Latin American martyr…there are hundreds of thousands.” When asked what advice he would give to future theologians: “I don’t care about the future of liberation theology. All I care about is my country and my people.” He told the story of the time a U.S. Evangelical theologian asked him what liberation theology had to say about the conflict in Israel and Palestine—he responded, “Do you think liberation theology is a political party and I’m its general secretary?”
No, what he kept returning to was the preferential option for the poor. He spoke at some length about the meaning of the preferential option: Jesus saves all of humanity, but he is very close to the poor; the church is a church of everyone, especially a church of the poor. “The preferential option for the poor is 90 percent of liberation theology; it comes from the Bible…. When we take the question of the poor it is not an obsession, it is to underline the central point of Christianity.” But, he points out, “preference does not conflict [or] contradict with universality. Are they in tension?” He shakes both fists “Yes!” “Even the poor must make the option for the poor,” he continued. “It’s one universal question; the poor are also first for the Christian poor…the option for the poor is a theocentric option…. We believe in the God of justice who is the source of this. We have human resources, but there is pride. It’s a problem…. I have great respect for non-Christian believers doing the option for the poor.”
With this core principle established, Gutierrez spoke about what liberation theology actually is: “Maybe we don’t need the name 'liberation,' because it means salvation. The theology of liberation is the theology of salvation, which is to say communion with God, between us.” He reminded the audience that his theology of liberation originated “not in theological institutions,” but in the concrete experience of poor people. Other theologies of liberation: Black theologies, feminist theologies, mujerista theologies, these also come from the experience of being poor, of being “a person who does not even have the right to have rights,” as he paraphrased Hannah Arendt.
Gustavo Gutierrez did not propose a theory of implementation of, raise an argument for, or give a defense of Liberation Theology in the context of the modern world. But he made a clear point.
On the website now, our May 15 issue. Here are some of the highlights:
Isolate the contagion. Prevent transmission. Treat outbreaks instantly and aggressively.
Classical theology has the angels deciding their destiny in a single, unalterable choice. I sometimes dream of being able to imitate such an act, one that would free me from all my ambiguities and contradictions, my half-hearted aspirations and ineffectual resolutions. This is not the way things work, however...
Read all of "Knowing Jesus" here.
Eve Tushnet reviews an exhibit produced by over 40 artists at the National Museum of African Art that recreates Dante's Divine Comedy on three floors:
I’m sitting in hell with a couple of little boys, who are trying to prove they’re not scared. We’re watching a cloth-wrapped figure prostrate itself and bang its fists against the floor, as sobs and wordless singing give way to a howled “I, I, I surrender!”
Read about the beautiful, horrific, beatific and redemptive show here.
Also in the May 15 issue: James Sheehan on how Greece and Ukraine are "testing Europe"; reviews of books about abortion, the short history of the black vote, a young Lawrence of Arabia, and secular humanism—plus poetry from Michael Cadnum, Thomas Lynch, and Peter Cooley; and Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill reflects on bodily decrepitude and wisdom.
E.J. Dionne Jr. provides a deeper look into social problems in Baltimore--how globalization of the economy, technological change, and deindustrialization have taken manufacturing jobs out of the city without ever replacing them. Dionne interviews Thomas J. Vicino, author of Transforming Race and Class in Suburbia: Decline in Metropolitan Baltimore, who explains:
“This is a double-whammy for poor black people left in the city....They are not in a position to share in the development downtown and, with the loss of manufacturing jobs, they are left, at best, with access to relatively low-paying service jobs. This, in turn, creates a spiral for those left behind, damaging families and devastating neighborhoods.”
This cycle hurt working-class whites as well, Vicino added, “but whites were in a better position to move elsewhere, whereas black mobility was limited by housing discrimination.”
Reading all of "The Roots of Baltimore's Anguish" is worth your time.
Also, in “Does the Earth Have Rights?,” Robin Darling Young writes on the anticipation (and political polarization) surrounding Pope Francis's upcoming encyclical on the environment. Both Climate skeptic Catholics and non-Catholics with assumptions about the church's views on science will be surprised to learn just how traditionally Catholic progressive scholarship is. In Young's view this raises serious questions:
How [are we] to balance individual moral responsibility, described in the moral teachings of the church, against a general Catholic or human responsibility as developed in more than a century of modern Catholic social teaching?
More broadly and just as important:
What could it mean for nature itself to have rights—rights that are being flagrantly violated by human beings? And what could it mean for Catholic theology if a pope says this?
Read the whole thing (and get thinking) here.
Tonight at Georgetown University the second annual IgnatianQ conference kicks off a weekend of lectures, breakout sessions, dialogues and keynotes that uniquely focus on LGBTQ issues and Jesuit values, aiming to create a community of people active in their faith, community and campus, who continue conversations. The first IgnatianQ (after ivyQ) was hosted by Fordham last year—created, planned and organized entirely by students. It grew from one conversation between two people on a roof to a three-day dialogue of 96 participants traveling from six different Jesuit schools to attend. And now it's in it's second year.
Bolstered by the University’s mission statement and the powers vested in academic freedom, the group of organizers approached the Theology department first with a 12 page proposal they’d carefully put together through months of weekly meetings, unsure and anxious about how well it’d go over. They not only received “overwhelming support” of the idea for IgnatianQ but also a keynote speaker, $300, and a room to hold meetings on campus—legitimacy. Soon enough many other departments signed on and they had enough money and backing to let real preparations for the conference begin. Anthony, one of the originators, remembers with slight disbelief meeting with the University vice president, who’d need to talk with the president (both priests) who’d need to approve the conference. “I told him ‘I pray that the politics of man do not interfere with the work of the holy spirit in organizing this conference’” Plainly, “Don’t let your reservations about the word queer get in the way of what these students need right now.” And they didn’t.Read more
Many readers have probably experienced a feeling of communion when engaging closely with a work of literature, even if they're not apt to put it that way. Interviewed in the current issue of the Paris Review, Vivian Gornick speaks briefly but movingly about the time her elderly mother was nearing the end of an autobiography by a relatively unknown British writer. It was though the author were “right in the room with me," Gornick recalls her mother saying; "I’m going to feel lonely when I finish this book.” What more, Gornick concludes, could any writer want from a reader, than to be part of such a connection?
“Who is the third who always walks beside you?" begins the "third man" section of Eliot's “The Waste Land.” "When I walk there are only you and I together/But when I look ahead up the white road /There is always another one walking beside you.” In an essay recently featured in the Boston College alumni magazine, Alice McDermott borrows another line from Eliot in expanding the connection to include not just author and reader but the narrator (or voice) of the work itself. "We had the experience but missed the meaning," she says she sometimes tells her students when discussing a piece of writing, but in fact, she writes, that singular search for meaning can also get in the way of a truer experiencing of the work. “The wonder of the literary arts,” she writes, “of the way a novel ‘happens,’ lies first and foremost for me in its ability to make us look together, writer/narrator/reader, to see, together, what is there. …"
McDermott's essay is written with characteristic humility and acknowledgment of uncertainty, which has a way, as can be the case with her fiction, of making it all the more persuasive. Its title ("Astonished by Love") and stated topic (“storytelling and the sacramental imagination”) might not have initially drawn me to it; I'd probably head first for a Mary Karr essay with the title “How to Read 'The Waste Land' So It Alters Your Soul Rather Than Just Addling Your Head.” But McDermott is straightforward about where she's coming from.Read more
On the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God Pope Francis gave a fine homily, in which he reprised one of Pope Benedict's key themes. Francis said:
Our faith is not an abstract doctrine or philosophy, but a vital and full relationship with a person: Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God who became man, was put to death, rose from the dead to save us, and is now living in our midst.
This morning, reading through the January issue of the monthly meditation aid, Magnificat, I came across this letter of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta to her Sisters:
I worry some of you still have not really met Jesus – one to one – you and Jesus alone. We may spend time in chapel – but have you seen with the eyes of your soul how he looks at you with love? Do you really know the living Jesus – not from books but from being with him in your heart? Have you heard the loving words he speaks to you? Ask for the grace; he is longing to give it. Until you can hear Jesus in the silence of your own heart, you will not be able to hear him saying, "I thirst," in the hearts of the poor.
Never give up this daily intimate contact with Jesus as the real living person – not just the idea. (Varanasi Letter: March 25, 1993)
Coming back to Chicago for Christmas means gatherings where I catch up with a lot of people. As someone who is a low-level Facebook user, I find it refreshing to hear “how things are going” in summary form. (And I miss some of those Christmas card updates, too.) This year, I got an unusual surprise: a cousin eager to make use of the theology Ph.D. in the family, asking questions like “what is the difference between the Apostle’s creed and the Nicene creed?” and “what did Luther do?” and “where can I find a summary of the whole story of the Bible?” (I welcome suggestions on that last one.)
The surprise is the demographic identity of my cousin: a 22-year-old recent state university business grad, who is single, who grew up mainline Protestant, who had shipped off to a distant city to take a management training job. Over the summer she found a nice trendy urban apartment complex in a city neighborhood. Shops and restaurants. The whole thing. And somehow she not only found her way to a Lutheran church, but also came home over Christmas with these questions noted down in her smartphone. All the surveys say: this is not supposed to happen. I wanted to joke that sociologists of religion would want to do in-depth interviews and publish a study. Data on this group is usually dismal: Christian Smith’s most recent results from his massive longitudinal survey continue to suggest the rise of the “nones.”
Did my cousin’s case provide an answer? I think the answer to what drives people to show up at church is individual and complex. I wouldn’t presume to know why people check out possible church involvement. There are many reasons. But what keeps them there isn’t nearly as complicated. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my cousin reported that she was welcomed personally by the pastor and her name was remembered. And that the pastor preached substantial messages that were meaningful and delivered with real care and conviction. The congregation, led by the pastor, was providing meaningful belonging. Not just belonging, and not just meaning, but both. The result? Someone asking good questions and growing in faith.
That’s the kind of gift a theologian likes to discover on the trip home. It doesn’t even take up any extra space in the luggage on the flight back…
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