The Year of Faith – Part One
Brothers and Sisters, once more we have entered the holy season of Lent. Once more we have gained the opportunity to see in this season a clearer vision of how our lives in the Spirit will fare as we move forward from Ash Wednesday, to the glorious celebration of the Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection that waits at the end of this pilgrimage of faith. Once again we are offered something unique, the time to spend contemplating our future, not the mundane future that awaits us in this semester, but the eschatological future that is afforded us by our privileged status as sons and daughters of a benevolent God. If the world thinks about Lent, it thinks of it often as a silly season of trivial rejection of superfluous goods and the donning of false pieties like so many painted and embroidered cloaks, sometimes interesting to look at but hardly affording the wearer even the semblance of functional haberdashery. Brothers and sisters we stand today on a precipice, the fortuitous opportunity to change and transform our lives in light of God’s divine plan. As a new Lent dawns for us, we see in its golden rays the opportunity to be transmogrified into something new, even those of us here who already seek in focused and finite ways to conform our lives to his auspicious plan.
In these conferences, I would like to spend some time meditating on various themes presented in our Holy Father’s motu proprio, Porta Fidei. The Year of Faith is an auspicious opportunity to think about and perhaps more significantly to do something about our life with God. When we examine the world around us, what is the conclusion we must draw? I believe that it is simply this: Faith in our world today is hidden. It is not absent, it is simply hidden. Here I do not mean to imply that faith is something covert, something hidden for a reason, although in many areas of our world we know that this is the case, we understand that there are men and women in our world for whom an active life of Christian faith is forbidden. As brothers and sisters in Christ we have a responsibility not only to understand the crisis of culture that motivates persecution of the true faith, but to stand with our co-religionists, to stand up for them in a political environment charged with a subversive spirit. Noting this situation, I am more interested in how we stand in our own time and place, in our own cultural milieu in which faith, while certainly not persecuted is, I would say, little understood, even by sophisticated practitioners such as ourselves.
What is faith? Perhaps in Thomistic fashion it would be appropriate for a moment to mediate on what faith is not. Perhaps this seems like an unusual way to proceed and yet I think it is a necessary way for we have become immured in what I would perceive as false understandings of this central principle of our Christian lives. What do we hear: Have faith even when reason fails. You only need to have a little faith in situations in which all rationality has been compromised. We have learned to view faith as something opposed to reason. Historically this is a development that comes from a new supposedly “evangelical” temperament in modern Christianity. The evangelical mindset teaches us that the tenants of faith, the principles of our religious situation are necessarily opposed to reason. No one expresses this position more concretely than the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard. In many ways, Kierkegaard represents the end of a trajectory of thought that begins in the late Eighteenth Century. It is a split between reason and emotion as modes of intellection. The impetus for this train of thought is the work of the German theologian Friederich Schleiermacher, who has been called the “bête noire” of contemporary Christianity by more sober minds. Schleiermacher proposed a decided split in the ways people think between rational and emotional. In this train of thought, rationalism is the key to engaging the world; it is the means by which practical decisions must be made in one’s life whether that life is understood on the personal or corporate level. The exercise of the emotion is where religion lives. It is an intensely personal and private world making religion, no matter how we choose to exercise it, as something quite individual. Indeed Schleiermacher decries the very possibility of a congregational religious body in the sense of “church” because religion is so private that it does not admit to corporate expression. Kierkegaard takes this vision to its logical extreme. If religion is personal and private then it can contain nothing public or objective in its constitution. If there are public or rational aspects of thought, then these aspects are not religious and must be excised. Religious people must behave irrationally at least in the expression of their religion while they must maintain a rational demeanor in their public functioning which is far removed from religious practice. The thought of Schleiermacher and Kierkegaard has found a great deal of support in contemporary Protestant fundamentalism. Fundamentalism sees the exercise of religion as a private affair, between the individual and God. Fundamentalism posits a simple epistemic approach. Fundamentalism finds an ultimate breaking point with the world in which we live. Fundamentalism is, likewise, not limited to Protestant circles. We experience it as well in the Catholic Church, a Catholic Church saturated with contemporary epistemological veneers which are, in point of fact, inimical with the practice of Christian faith, a faith that views the incarnational aspects of our creed as central to the lived experience of Christianity.
At this point in my talk you are undoubtedly asking yourself what all of this highly theoretical speculation can possibly have to do with the very practical aspects of priestly formation. My point is basically this question: What do you expect? While we may decry the substance of Schleiermacher’s thought and the outcome of that thought in the work of Kierkegaard and modern fundamentalism and see these modes of thinking as something far removed from our experience, I would say they are not. The real outcome of this dichotomous configuration is the experience of thinking about the world as real (that is empirical and rational) and personal (that is emotional and fideistic). In this reality the world of faith is decidedly separate from the “real world”. We become schizophrenic in our approach. We try to live two simultaneous realities. We try to believe that the life of faith is separate from the secular world. The modern schizophrenic mind, however, cannot maintain this split and thus, ultimately, is called to make a choice between the world of faith and the “real world”. We are told that we must take the real world and the world of faith must pass away like so many childhood fairy tales. And where has man’s sojourn in the “real world” taken him? Is the human person better off in a secular environment? Is the “real world” conducive to the development of the higher aspects of the human condition, the moral, the aesthetic? What has our tentative traversal of the “real world” offered us? Has it made us better suited to relationships, more devoted to one another, or better focused? And yet we have been told that the life of faith has no bearing on the “real world”. Keep your faith we are told but also be a good citizen in a completely secular culture. Practice your faith privately without reference to the marketplace. Be as prayerful and as faithful as you like at home or in church but take nothing of that private world into the “real world”. In the real world men and women are doing “real” things and are not traipsing through the vain imaginings of a world of faith. Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, modern fideism do not save faith in the “real world” they destroy the possibility of faith by making it the vain imaginings of individual minds and hearts.
Our Catholic faith however, when rightly understood, teaches us something far different. Perhaps no theologian has expressed this authentic Catholic position on faith better than Blessed John Henry Newman. When we read our Holy Father’s words about faith in this upcoming year we hear the faint strains of Newman’s thought as well. For Newman, personal development necessarily had to be a complete movement of the person for it to make any sense whatsoever. In his estimation, reason and faith were naturally intertwined in that faith “requires [not] a cold and ineffective acceptance, though it be held ever so unconditionally”. For Newman, the separation between theory and life, that kind of epistemic schizophrenia, was the affliction of many. “Such in its character is the assent of thousands, whose imaginations are not at all kindled, nor their hearts inflamed, nor their conduct affected, by the most august of all conceivable truths”. Newman must have known countless examples of such characters in his life of ministry; but something else is at stake here, for Newman not only critiqued the ivory-towerism of academia, he also criticized those who move unquestioning through life as though motivated only by fixed theories and perceptions of the world that never change. Such people, in Newman’s estimation, were less than whole. The experience of complete living, that is, the fusion of the intellectual and the moral and emotional, brought about a different kind of experience. This, in short is the real life of faith.
Is it the elaborate, subtle, triumphant exhibition of a truth, completely developed, and happily adjusted, and accurately balanced on its centre, and impregnable on every side, as a scientific view, “totus, teres, atque rotundus,” challenging all assailants, or, on the other hand, does it come to the unlearned, the young, the busy, and the afflicted, as a fact which is to arrest them, penetrate them, and to support and animate them in their passage through life?
In other words, Newman is arguing here for what we might term a pastoral approach, or more concretely a sacramental approach realized in the human person , or even more concretely a real life approach. The chief insight of this sacramental approach to the life of faith is that in every instance of life, there is more than meets the eye, there is a behind and before, there is a wholeness and roundness that only presents itself in truthful engagement. For Newman there could be no authentic living that did not uncover such wholeness and such roundness. He understood, however, that such an endeavor was fraught with tension by its very nature and that the natural inclinations of the person were toward peace and serenity. In other words, when we truly pursue the life of faith, we will have no peace unless we mean by peace that challenge of endless pursuit. Newman used this comparison to show the difference between theology and religion. Theology, as it was traditionally conceived, while an essential component of a religious worldview, was constructed principally on ideas. Formulae, axioms, and corollaries are the fodder of theological reflection. “Theology, properly and directly, deals with notional apprehension; religion with imaginative”. Theology is an intellectual exercise and as such forms a necessary component toward the expression of religious life, but it remains an expression of an intellectual idea, which is constructed of “proof, analysis, comparison, and the like intellectual exercises”. “For the purposes of devotion, it is the image of a reality”. Religion is different for Newman in that: “Religion has to do with the real, and the real is the particular; theology has to do with what is [theoretical], and the [theoretical] is the general and systematic”. Theology and religion are not opposed, but there is a danger on the part of academics of mistaking theology for religion. Likewise, there are those within a religious tradition that would view a devotional life as something divorced from theology. While Newman makes the distinction, he is clear that theology and intellectual processes are a part of religion but that religion excites a level of commitment from the individual precisely as it touches on the reality of life. Theology generates teachings, but religion “lives and thrives in the contemplation of them”. Theology considers systems of truth, and rightly so, but religion considers systems of living. The priest in Newman could never have accepted a delineated view of religion as cold analysis. In fact, he disdains the discussion of religious matters, notions of God, by those for whom the lived experience of religion is not evident. In other words, questions of God should only be discussed within a life of faith and devotion, in the lived experience of the community of faith, with all its complexity and indeed messiness. It is a theology done on the knees. It is what we strive after in this seminary environment. Only then will the religious seeker find motives for devotion and faithful obedience. Such an insight necessitates a re-appropriation of the very concept of theological method and may, in the long run, entail a conflation between theology per se and what Newman refers to as religion.
Perhaps I have gone on too long about Newman. It is something of my nature. I would now like to briefly return to the document of our Holy Father in relation to these reflections. The year of faith proposed by Pope Benedict is nothing less than a attempt to reclaim the epistemological center, indeed the complexity of Christian faith. The contemporary secular censors (or perhaps enemies) of our faith desire nothing more than to make Christianity into something easy and simple. It is neither. The practice of Christianity is not a small matter. Faith is complex. If there is a single theme that pervades the work of Josef Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, this is it. Faith is complex. It is a counter-cultural theme. Far from a matter of private concern, faith is something that, “implies public testimony and commitment.” As in Newman, the pope sees faith and its profession as “an act both personal and communitarian”. In the profession of faith as a public act, an action the pope believes all Christians must have committed to memory, we are aligning ourselves with a public epistemological stance. We are professing not an esoteric, Gnostic belief system, but a viable way of life with very viable consequences in the marketplace. “Knowledge of faith opens a door into the fullness of the saving mystery revealed by God.” Faith and its public expression are the outcome of the sincere, but often misguided secular search for knowledge and understanding. For the Holy Father, this search is the preamble of faith because it invariably “guides people onto the path that leads to the mystery of God”. In faith we discover then our true humanity and our authentic selves in that we discover the Truth for which we are searching, a search that in cold secular terms we experience but cannot name. “Human reason, bears within itself a demand for what is perennially valid and lasting”. Faith invites us and opens us to the fullness of reason. It also connects us in a complete way with the public sphere. Again, in our culture we have become attuned to the misguided ideal of the separation of Church and State. How can there be a separation of Church and State if the profession of faith defines the person and if the person is both a person of faith and a public person simultaneously. In our country today we are facing a mighty challenge in this area. We have been led to believe that there can be within each of us a good Catholic and a good citizen and that these two may never meet. Brothers and sisters they have met in the crude and unredeemable ideal presented in the current health care legislation of the Obama administration. As the secretary for the United States Catholic Bishops notes : "It's the unstoppable force meets the immovable object." That is where we stand. Our hospitals, our schools, our offices of Catholic charities are under attack in a way that promotes the separation of Church and State as a reality. It is not a reality. It is a false comfort. Until we realize that our position as citizens must meet our position as Catholics we are lost. It seems in the current legislative environment that our hospitals, our schools and our institutions of public charity may also be lost. This is a test case and a mighty test case that will ask Catholics, and really people of all faiths if we are ready to move to another level, indeed a new paradigm. The year of faith is not asking us to think about the niceties of a Sunday School world, but to critically look at the real world and ask ourselves whether our faith as Roman Catholics ultimately means anything or not.
The year of faith then is not proposing something expressly opposed to human nature. It is rather proposing a return to our authentic nature. In a return to a true understanding of faith we are not asked to be contrary to the human condition and situation, we are asked to be true to it. No one understands this question better that our Holy Father. Like his predecessor, the present pope understands the authentic challenge of the Catholic Church to call men and women back to true humanity, a humanity corrupted by false understandings of the human inherent in modern culture. I believe that there is a contemporary trend found within our Church, yes, even within our local community to seek a Truth in faith apart from the authentic exercise of human nature. It cannot be without a systematic denial of the true center of our Catholic faith, the sacred marriage of the human and divine in Christ. As we prepare to embark on this year of faith, I will devote more conferences to this topic. I also encourage your reading of the document Porta Fidei which you have each received. Brothers and sisters, in this season of Lent we are called to revive ourselves and our commitment to Christ. We are called to renew the message of the Gospel already received in our hearts. We are invited to a new reality, a second spring of faith in our lives. Can we accomplish it? Let us try with the aid of the saints and in particular our Blessed Lady to whom we cry: “Hail Holy Queen…”