Monday, May 30, 2011

The Control-F Generation and Discourse (My four-fold way of talking about abortion in a classroom without anarchy ensuing)

Several weeks ago, I attended a two-day meeting in Washington where I helped to facilitate a conversation about communications strategies that might be beneficial to Jesuits in the United States. Of the things we had to crystallize were both sense of what it is that we are sharing with the world and, exactly, with whom are we sharing it.

During the meeting, a little argument broke out between two of the participants. The main facilitator seized this as a "teaching moment" and introduced for us a distinction between "Positions" and "Values." Over the last few weeks, I have had occasion to use this distinction in the classroom and I have found it a marvelous tool at drawing students into conversation by sidestepping their normal ways of thinking.

As I have written before, there are a number of observable traits in what I have dubbed the "Control-F Generation." First among these traits would be a desire simply to get the answer right rather than to struggle with the process of discovery. Emergent technology surely feeds this desire: if you are having a hard time slogging through Pride and Prejudice, go and read the SparkNotes. If you can't translate a passage of Latin, use Google's translator or just do a regular Google search, for someone has already posted the answer. For this generation, education seems to have been reduced to test scores and right answers; creative answers and innovation seem increasing marginalized.

Nowhere is this more true than in discussions of morality and politics. I am familiar with courses where students love to do combat with the teacher over particularly controversial topics. Take, for instance, classroom discussions of abortion. The teacher will generally (in a Catholic school) lay out the issue and then make the case from the Catholic side. A good number of students will agree wholeheartedly, while a few (perhaps about a third) will disagree. Of these students, only a minority will represent true opposition while the others just don't like the idea of being told what to do. So they fight. And fight. And fight. The discussion grows more heated and both sides refuse to give any ground.

Sound familiar? Such scenes play themselves out on Cable News outlets each day.

The problem is that we have here a conflict of Position. Generally, the positions we find in the classroom are as follows:

  • Thoroughly Pro-Life (consistent in its commitment to the sanctity of life from the moment of conception to natural death; committed to fullness of human life so examines issues of social relevance such as healthcare and education)
  • Moderately Pro-Life (wholly against abortion, but makes provisions for capital punishment; may or may not be interested in issues such as education and healthcare)
  • Moderately Pro-Choice (generally against abortion except in the case of rape, incest, and harm to the mother; generally concerned about social issues)
  • Thoroughly Pro-Choice (commitment to the freedom of the woman from external coercion; generally concerned about social issues)

The above is my best, albeit feeble, effort to articulate four prominent positions I have encountered in classroom discussions. I would put myself in the first category, which I take to be wholly conservative but because it is a position of 'social activism' gets labeled as liberal. Ironic, isn't it? 

I digress.

These positions, in a classroom, are often little islands, each with its own natural resources. Students dwell on these "islands" and experience any challenge to their position as an attack, so they retreat to the cannons and begin to wage war with their classmates or teacher. Each position is treated as free-floating and mutually exclusive of others.

Where teachers fail is to ferret out exactly what each group values. As I indicated in the parentheses, these are some of the values that are often encoded in a person's statement of position. Once we get into the language of value, we get into the hazy and messy area of why people have the reasons they have. In discussion values and reasons, we engage in the mutual give-and-take that sheds light on our beliefs and gives and opportunity for meaningful discourse. Instead of arguing against another's positions, we actually think through the issue with our interlocutor.

In my experience as a teacher, I draw two different charts. We ascertain the position (above, in bold) and then, on the other side of the board, we look at the values associated with each position. "What is it," I ask, "that each position values?" The students have to think with another person, taking up another side, in order to answer this question. 

As we do this exercise, I have never had any student yell at another. Indeed, they are rather given over to serious engagement. Asked to think in a new way, and without recourse to 'right' and 'wrong' responses, they actually pursue deeper questioning. They go beyond the sound-bite or blanket position and begin to do the heavy lifting of good thinking and reasoning!

Having established Position and Values, we turn as a group to offering a critique of each position. Typically, students critique the Pro-Life positions for being unrealistic: adoption is not always an option, poverty is an evil into which children shouldn't be born, all babies should be wanted, etc.. Similarly, the students will critique the Pro-Choice positions: more than one life is at stake, what about the father's input, there are people who want to adopt, etc.. 

Now, here's the exciting part for the teacher: there has still been no yelling, no attacks against each other. Because they are removed from their native milieu of answer-and-move-on and they have actually to think, the kids are generally excited about doing the hard work of thinking through complicated issues. Having offered the Critique of Values, we finally turn to an Imaginative Resolution.

By Imaginative Resolution, I mean that we look at the various critiques and try to figure out exactly where they overlap and what might be done to work out some type of compromise. In my limited experience of teaching boys, the main clash of values that emerges in the Critique is that students fear unwanted pregnancies and worry about children being born into situations of poverty and disadvantage. What is brilliant is that they start to see these as social problems, that they are our problems, and that an unborn child should not have to pay for our sins. 

In other words, one thing I found through the process of Imaginative Resolution is that the students came to see that abortion is not exclusively an "I" decision; it has both horizontal (we) and vertical (I) dimensions. This one topic - so easily given to argument and yelling - can turn into a wonderful point of ingress into meaningful discussions about society, the way we treat others, and the role of individual and group responsibility. 

I typically find the rhetoric referring to people as "Pro-Abortion" to be nonsense. I simply refuse to believe that there are people who think that abortion is a good thing. This label is so unhelpful because it does not facilitate any dialogue, any opportunity to dig into the values of those with whom we disagree. Then again, I also find the claim to be "Pro-Life" equally disingenuous, as people seem to forget about the needs of the human person after birth (health care? education? housing?). 

This four-fold approach can be sketched as follows in regard to any social issue:

  1. Name the Positions taken in regard to the issue (typically, a label)
  2. Examine the Values present and assumed under each Position
  3. Offer a Critique of each set of Position/Values from the standpoint of other Position/Values
  4. Attempt an Imaginative Resolution by considering what the real points of conflict are and how they might be addressed. 

For the Control-F Generation, this approach is most helpful because it bypasses their normal manner of processing issues. Rather than allowing them recourse to sound-bites and easy answers, it gives them a framework to work through really complicated and tough issues as a group. I have done this with freshmen, sophomores, and seniors and have found each group to embrace this task enthusiastically. Indeed, some of my better teaching moments this year came through this type of processing.

My only advice to teachers is to remember to listen. It is our temptation to try to respond to the Values with which we disagree. Do not do this. Let the students work through this as you stand by. On occasion you may have to intervene but, in general, opening up the discussion to the fresh air of reason and exploration will produce amazing results.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sticks and Stones

Several events of the last week - most notably the exchange that I have had with Joseph Fromm and others - have made me think about name calling. Some questioned my quoting of Shakespeare in regard to Joe's writing; such critics feel that I am calling him a name. I don't know that this is quite true, for I am simply calling attention to the fact that he is a blogger in name only and that what he does is cut-and-paste the material written by others and post it to his website with some tag attached to it. On occasion he offers commentary, but generally it's just material cut and quoted to present whatever angle he wishes to highlight at that moment.

I will say, though, that Fromm has been a good sport. He doesn't devolve into ad hominem attacks and does exhibit a strength of character and a spirit of generosity that I very much appreciate. I wish he would engage a bit more, as I feel like I'm doing all of the talking, but at least he is not cruel.

The same, though, cannot be said for others.

Some of my students saw fit to post comments to Joseph's website. I wish they had not done this, although I do appreciate their efforts to 'defend' their teacher. No defense, students, is needed: in these matters, I'm something of the aggressor. Nevertheless, one of the comments posted reads (I quote it because it doesn't bother me in the slightest):



I re-post this comment for a simple reason: Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. See, those things that you learn in kindergarten really do come in handy!

What I appreciate most about the post is that it is done Anonymously. That is, there is some man or woman out there who is so convinced s/he knows me and is able to post such a comment, yet must hide behind a veil of secrecy. Such a person is so convinced of the truth that....darkness and anonymity are to be preferred to the light. 

Thank goodness for John's Gospel:

For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God. (John 3:20-21)

Earlier in my life, I might have been really offended or embarrassed by this type of comment. Today, battle scarred and with an increasingly thick skin, I think it is simply a sad symptom of human sinfulness: rather than engaging a person, or asking him to clarify or explicate his beliefs, you simply launch a scurrilous personal attack. Don't address the ideas you dislike or the opinion with which you disagree...just label and then dismiss.

Persons who post things as I have listed are nothing more than fearful cowards. They think that by insinuation or intimidation they will silence those they scorn. They are bullies who are lashing out of a deep sense of insecurity and helplessness. They are deserving of pity and prayer, but little else.

I have, once in my blogging career, posted something anonymously and I regretted it. For that reason, it is my custom that if I am going to say anything, then I will sign my name to it and stand behind it. I simply cannot take seriously the comments made by cowards posting anonymously, although I am somewhat grateful that this particular comment has given me something to blog about after a few days of silence.

Sometimes, it is easy to forget that when you go to post something online in response to something you've read that there is another human being who will be reading it. We get so caught up in being able to respond immediately that we forget that what we say, and how we say it, carry consequences. Things that one would never dream of saying publicly become infinitely easier to post anonymously. Perhaps blogger should create a program that makes it so that you have to 're-affirm' one's decision to post a comment after an hour, giving people time to think about what was written and whether s/he wants it posted.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Breaking the Silence

After far too long, Joseph Fromm has reached out to engage in a discussion of my - perhaps overly strident - criticism of some of his blogging tactics. Since the topic we are discussing is important, I thought it should be moved from the comment boxes to a place of greater prominence.

If you recall, I penned a piece not long ago about Fromm's use of "liberation theology" and took exception to what I saw, and continue to see, as a too-facile application of the phrase.

In response, Joseph commented:

Dear Ryan,Thank you for your post. It is important that we can communicate with each other. I labeled the post about Fr. George with the "Liberation Theology" tag because of his quote in the article, "“My priority is to show the world that an artist can be a social activist too." It had nothing to do with his dancing.
This is, indeed, helpful to know. Now we have an arena for discussion: 'social activism'. Hence my follow-up question:
Joe, I agree. I do wonder, though, if you really mean what you say: you deleted a reference to my name in a blog post (that you took from another site) in regard to Brother Boynton's work in Haiti. Is that good communication, to edit what you didn't write?
So, Joseph, if the quote "my priority is to show the world that an artist can be a social activist too" merits the label "liberation theology" then this leaves me with a question. When I tell my students to pray and comport themselves in a way that both abortion and capital punishment are unthinkable, in ways that that are "socially activist," does this merit the label of liberation theology? When I encourage students to take seriously Jesus' message about the Kingdom of God, does this merit the title liberation theology? 
Please enlighten me on this, for surely I encourage people toward social activism in regard to the Kingdom of God. Is this, then, liberation theology? Or is "liberation theology" simply a cipher for things you do not like? Some elaboration would be most helpful.
 Joseph's response:
Fr. George goes on to say,“My priority is to show the world that an artist can be a social activist too. I want to cater to the real needs of poor." One does not have to reach to far to get to Liberation Theology.
A vast majority of people never use the words, "Social Activist".
"Liberation Theology" is not my code word, it is a code word or umbrella word used by others.
I do believe that "Liberation Theology" unhinges a Jesuit from the "Spiritual Exercises".
So, here's my quandary. If I protest outside of an abortion clinic to advocate for the right to life of an unborn child, a right so often and often so easily ignored, isn't this social activism? If I try to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, or take seriously any of the corporal works of mercy...well, isn't this social activism? If so, then am I to be accused of 'liberation theology' and do such practices tear me from the Spiritual Exercises? If not, then is Jesus a liar when he enjoins us to care not only for the spiritual needs but also the physical needs of the least of our brethren?

I'm hopeful that Joseph and I can continue this conversation. I think it is important because it is profoundly unhelpful to throw around labels without a strong sense of what those labels actually mean. If by working together we gain clarity on the meaning of terms such as 'social activism' or 'liberation theology' then perhaps we as a pilgrim people will be better and wiser for it.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Well, I'm sure glad I didn't cancel my Netflix account...

As you can gather, I'm still here. Which means either (1) the rapture happened and I have to get cracking on my book Glad They're Gone or (2) the rapture and its attendant earthquake did not happen yesterday. Although I was hoping to pen an international bestseller, I suspect we have to go with option (2). Like I called it on Friday (along with every other rational individual on the planet), the rapture did not take place.

Atheists, Agnostics, and Informed Believers of all Denominations: 1,
 Harold Camping and the folks who believe Family Radio: 0.  

To be honest, I can sort of understand the desire for the "rapture" where the true believers are taken away and all of the wayward are left to suffer. The state of the world today - the hatred, abject poverty, starvation, disease, corruption, lies, violence, prejudice, sexism, abuse, and war - really does look pretty awful. It really does feel like it'd be better, that it'd be easier, if we could just get this whole human history over, for God simply to destroy sin and reward the saved. 

Although the seedling ideas of the rapture and of tribulation are found in scripture, I do not think they are interpreted correctly. Consider the following:

Jesus Christ came preaching a revolution known as the Kingdom of God. Many ignored him, some were threatened by him, and a minority felt that what he said found fertile soil in their hearts. This Jesus fellow preached a message that told them what God was doing right now. They bought into this and became his friends and disciples. Jesus' preaching led him toward the single point where all those who dare to speak truth to power or to tell the truth to sinful ears: the cross. We silenced the prophet of God's Kingdom, the man who was re-gathering the people of Israel and re-founding it upon his body. Jesus was re-centering the people, not on the Temple where God dwelled, but, rather, on his own person. 

In the terrible wake of the crucifixion, Jesus' friends were scared and lonely. It was not until they encountered the Risen Christ who came to them bringing peace, not recriminations, that they sort of 'got it' at all. Jesus returned to them not to destroy history, not to vanquish his foes. Jesus returned to show us that what he said and what he did were both God's ways and he gave the Holy Spirit to his disciples to go out and bring this Good News to all people. Jesus went so far as to give us his own self in the Eucharist, a meal that keeps inviting us to remember who we are called to be and challenging us to live according to the way of the one who continues to gather us. 

In short, I simply don't think there's some encoded message in the Bible that predicts the end of the world. I think that the Bible tells the beginning of the narrative that each one of us has to continue to write: God's ever-deepening self-revelation to the people of Israel culminating in the birth of Jesus Christ, who showed us so clearly how to live in a sinful world that we killed him. The Resurrection does not his the 'reset' button on Jesus, though. It tells us that the game we thought we were playing was the wrong game and that Jesus got it right. Jesus got it right because he's playing the game of the Kingdom and in and through him, we are invited to play as well. 

I think where serious believers and serious non-believers have the most common ground is in this: the Kingdom of God is not something 'out there' or something that is coming. We need, right now, to help build it. That is, we need to work right now to help create a world modeled on the one Jesus showed us: a world where people have enough to eat, where all are treated equally, where the usual barriers of hatred or distrust or prejudice are effaced. While believers abide in patient hope, awaiting the return of the Messiah, they know they must work with others to help build the Kingdom of God according to the Constitution of the Kingdom, Jesus Christ. 

Friday, May 20, 2011

Is The World Going to End on Saturday?

Updated on 5/20 at 11:12 EST: the short answer is NO!

In case you hadn't heard already, the world is slated to end on Saturday. At least, based on calculations encoded in the Bible and predicated of the world's being only several thousand years old, that's the "prophecy" about to be fulfilled. The New York Times is carrying a story about it today.

Nearly a decade ago, the "Left Behind" books made a big splash here in the States. Perhaps they were meant to help prepare people for tomorrow's spectacular return of Jesus Christ (an event I'm waiting for, too, but I haven't the foggiest idea of when it will I try to be prepared for his return each day). After reading the article in the New York Times, the cynical part of me has one response: a new publishing venture if I'm one of those 'left behind' after the rapture. If tomorrow the rapture takes place and and I am still here, start looking at the shelves of your local bookstore to find my book, Glad They're Gone. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Invocation for 2011 U of D Jesuit Band Banquet

I was invited to provide the invocation for this year's Band Banquet. Here is a copy of the text:

In the beginning was the note, and the note was with God and the note was God. It was the note that hovered over the formless abyss at the beginning of Genesis, creating order from chaos, dividing the water from the land, the sun from the moon, the beasts of the land from the birds of the air. It was the note that breathed life into our first parents, inspired Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, cried out from the burning bush, and guided Moses and his people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.

This single note of the Creator played throughout history, summoning countless women and men, setting their hearts aflame and inspiring them to dance to the music of the Unseen Musician encountered in the composition of creation. The highest heavens and the depths of the sea proclaimed together the glories of the Heavenly Maestro. Some 2,000 years ago, in the still silence of a sitting room, a young woman's quiet “yes” to the Composer, was the "yes" through which the Note was made Flesh. In word and in deed, Jesus Christ – the living symphony of God – performed on our human stage. Our sinful human ears could not bear the sound of the heaven's orchestra, so we silenced him by nailing him to the wood of the cross.

In the days following the crucifixion, a deep silence hung over the earth. Death, it seemed, had swallowed the Music whole. Yet this silence was pierced at morning's light that Easter morning when the music of God’s creation sounded forth from the Tomb, proclaiming: I am alive and this is the song I sing. I shall not be silenced but shall sing out now and forever more. To you I give you my spirit, the perfect pitch to which you may tune your life. My note is now your note, my life is your life, my music is your music. Join your voice with mine and go out to the world to bring them the Good News of my new composition, my new creation!

Lord, we gather together tonight in celebration of these musicians. Each one, in his own way, has worked to tune himself to the music of your creation. You have touched each one's heart, inspiring him to embrace the talents you gave him so that he might join in heaven's symphony. Give them the grace, Oh Lord, to continue to learn and to perform the music they so love. Give them the ear to hear the music of your creation and the courage to enter into it. Join them together in a spirit of musical brotherhood so that with each note, with each performance, they consecrate themselves entirely to the greater honor and glory of God.


Walsh Jesuit Board 2010-2011

A photo from Walsh Jesuit High School, where I have the honor of serving as a Trustee.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Discerning the Future

As I sit at a desk littered with post-it notes reminding me to order Cedar Point (amusement park) tickets for the freshmen class outing, glow-sticks from Friday's Academy dance, two wedding invitations I need to send in, a Netflix DVD I want to watch, two books I'm reading, a running magazine, a cooking magazine, a broken stapler, a rebate form from my last oil change, and a copy of tomorrow's Student Senate meeting agenda, I have to wonder: what will I do a little more than a year from now when I am no longer teaching? I never thought I could be as busy as I am now...and now that I'm so busy, I cannot imagine what it would be like to have a lot of down-time!

People frequently ask what I'll do after I finish my Regency assignment teaching here in Detroit. The next step is the 3-year study of theology culminating, God willing, in my ordination to the priesthood in 2015. After that? I could return to teaching in the secondary schools or I could go on to earn a PhD in theology (my field of choice). There are a lot of options, although I am pretty confident that whatever I do, it'll have something to do with teaching. The question is, though, "Where?"

Here's the thing. I love teaching high school. I think the students are absolutely hysterical. I think I work really hard and I put in a lot of time preparing for classes and trying to maintain a high-level of energy in my classroom presentations. I am frequently into my office at 7:00 am and I don't come home until 5:10-5:14, just in time for 5:15 community Eucharist. More often than not, there's something after dinner for me to do: sporting events, fundraisers, performances, etc.. I still get a chance to read, but it is often piecemeal and I don't get to reflect on it as much as I'd like. I miss doing research and having time for more heady, reflective, and scholarly writing.

This brings me to my other passion: writing and reflection. I'm not the greatest writer, but I do enjoy it and people seem to enjoy reading what I write. Clarity and precision is something I struggle with but, with practice, I think it will come. My experiences teaching and working with college students have shown me that college-aged students are able to engage material at a deep level. Yet, I know that I influence the high school students far more than I ever did the college students. Sure, there are college kids I got to know and became close with, but my influence and the time spent with them pales in comparison to the impact I can see in my students here at U of D Jesuit. The higher level of personal thinking and engagement comes at the cost of diminishing ramifications.

To illustrate: on a daily basis, I am brought up-to-speed on which kids are struggling with feelings of sadness or loneliness, which guys are squabbling over a girl, who is having a hard time with physics or English, which teachers let you eat/sleep/text or are oblivious to cheating, which kids are struggling with identity issues or addictions or home situations. The great grace of my experience these last two years is that my little sister is just 18 and I sort of get these guys: I can relate both as a teacher and as something of the balding big brother. I never had that with the college students. Sure, I knew who was trying to sort out a major or who was going to come out of the closet...but the college students tended to be more fully formed, more set, in their ways. High school kids are malleable, open to influence and yearning for guides and mentors; college students, in my experience, tend to be a bit more closed-off and less open to formation.

So while I feel a call to engage in higher education, it is more out of a sense that I find satisfaction and joy in research and writing, although I feel a similar tug in the direction of teaching high school. Surely, my energy will wane in the coming years but I feel like I could never really tire of helping young students to ask the big questions in their lives: Who is Jesus Christ? What is God up to? Why should I be a believer at all? What difference does faith make? It seems like these are living questions in our high schools, questions that we can discuss now but in a college classroom are more taboo.

Perhaps it is the case that academics of the future may need to find new territories to explore. Sometimes I wonder if there isn't a need for thorough, engaging, and humorous on-line catechesis that would help to show the relevance and reasonableness of faith. Once I'm ordained, I could call is something like iReverend which, if put in the right font, might evoke a sense of 'irreverant' which would be in keeping with my natural approach to thinking.

I'm writing this as much to process these thoughts (I'm an extrovert: I process externally) as much as to share with my readers sort of where I am at. My readers play an enormous role in my Jesuit formation, for I try to share things that I think you will find useful or helpful. I entered the Society of Jesus to help souls, to help people become fully alive and full of joy because I found life and joy in my faith relationship with Christ in the Catholic Church. I want to share this with others. Sure, I have something of a twisted approach and I'm not perfect...but I do want to be of service. These last two years have etched a deep love for young adults into my heart and I fear that dedicating my life to research and scholarship will remove me from the young students who have so marked my soul. When I think about faith, or doubt, or the relevance of religion, I cannot help but think of how this would affect my students. I don't know that such concern is always affirmed in the Academy, leading me to wonder if my place is actually to be there at all.

How, then, does one find the balance of scholarship and teaching, formation and investigation, listening and producing, challenging and lecturing, that would bridge these two worlds? What might be the frontier awaiting exploration and inviting a new initiative that bridges both of these passions?

Fortunately, I have another year of teaching to continue discerning the future!

On Ignorance

If you have accompanied me over the years of my "Jesuit's Journey" you know that my comment boxes are frequently left empty. I reckon this is a consequence of a deliberate effort to shy away from controversial topics. Hence I seldom write anything about sexuality, abortion, health care, economics, marriage: I have to take responsibility for the content I post here and, in order to be responsible, I often have to remain silent about issues I'd very much like to engage. I cannot engage in controversy, though, as the demands of my primary work - teaching in the high school - must come first. Thus it is that I have to avoid head-on confrontations.

A blog, by its nature something of a public journal, records the life of the author and the way s/he sees the world. I have often tried to give insight into my journey, my life, so that others may come to know how this particular Jesuit thinks. I share, as often as I post, something of my story. My old friend Joseph Fromm, the "author" of Good Jesuit, Bad Jesuit would as well take on the mantle of blogger. Yet, as I read Joseph's posts and try to understand the story that his blogging life tells, I recall a portion of  Macbeth's famous soliloquy: is a tale,
 told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, 
signifying nothing. 
 Over the past few years, I have frequently called Joseph out for what I regard as his appalling ignorance. Just today, I read a post about the Jesuit Father Saju George who is an Indian dancer. You can read it for yourself, of course, but what I love is that Joseph labels it "Liberation Theology." Can someone explain how "A Jesuit Priest who performs Bharatnatym" is a liberation theologian?

Does Joseph really think that Father Saju's dancing is so influenced by Marxist ideology that it "adopts the primacy of politics and economics, which now become the real power that can bring about salvation"? Does Father Saju believe that "the redemption of mankind...occurs through politics and economics, in which the form of the future is determined"? Does Father Saju jettison God, replacing God with the Economy? You don't see that either?? Jeez, I guess neither would Pope Benedict XVI who, in 2008, described liberation theology in the preface to his earlier Introduction to Christianity (you can read the preface by following the link - you can search for 'liberation'). 

Oh! I get it: when Joseph doesn't like something, he labels it. If you don't like the idea of 'social justice' (which has been a part of Catholic social teaching for quite some time), label it liberation theology. Don't like something a Jesuit says? Heck, label it 'liberation theology' because the label-and-dismiss tactic works really well...if you want to display your ignorance.

I use Joseph as an example because he is a prime example of what I see as one of the great malignancies in the Roman Catholic Church. This guy trolls the internet and picks out little articles and gives them titles of his own devising. He gives no criteria for his judgments, he gives no standard by which to measure. We are left to assume that Joseph is himself the measure Jesuit rectitude.

Having taught a number of sophomores these last two years, I can only say that "blogger developmentally" Joseph Fromm is a sophomore. These are the students who generally think they stand at the center of the universe and that things are "good" or "bad" based on personal preference, rather than on any informed or discerned judgment. The only remedy: time, patience, and grinding them down by showing how wrong they are, exposing ignorance, and showing by word and deed better ways to think.

Not bad advice for some of our blogging brethren, eh?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I was doing so well...

Throughout the Lenten season, I was thrilled that I had an opportunity to update the blog nearly every day. Even while I was on retreat, I managed to write. The last twelve days, however, have marked what may well be the busiest time of the year for me.

Over the last two weeks I have helped to oversee, hang, and re-hang enormous banners used to promote the candidacy of the ten juniors seeking Student Senate office, produce a Convention complete with speeches and a confetti cannon, run an "Evening with the Jesuits" for guys who have the qualities and traits we think would make them good Jesuits, sell tickets for and run the senior prom, and finally plan and execute a "neon light" dance for the students of our Academy. This is all in addition to going to a board meeting at Walsh Jesuit, seeing my family on Mother's Day, and trying to teach my classes. Busy two weeks, indeed!

Now, we just have the Baccalaureate Mass tomorrow, Graduation on Tuesday, the Senior All-Night Party following Graduation, and then I'm giving the Invocation at the Band Banquet on Wednesday evening. Does the busyness ever cease?

I always have some bedside reading to accompany my journey into slumber. Currently, I am reading a book by Father Thomas O'Meara entitled Erich Przywara, S.J.  His Theology and His World. It's an interesting book addressing the thought of (in English speaking circles) a little-known yet highly influential German theologian.

Przywara (1889-1972) lived through the Weimar Republic in the wake of the First World War. During my studies at Fordham, I had the opportunity to attend an exhibit at the Met entitled Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920's. Nearly four years later, I am still haunted by the arresting images produced by these artists.

The atrocities of world war surely etched and influenced the thought of Przywara. Describing his thought, O'Meara writes:

...Courage is needed, courage to seek a fuller truth, courage to realize that belonging to God and damnation are present in our times, for the Christ and the Antichrist are face to face. The Catholic answer  is a ceaseless surrender of the world, life, and self into the omnipotence of the one Creator of all out of nothing; and the commitment to be an instrument of the creator out of nothingness as his creation continues. Christianity is not measured by anxiety and withdrawal; its mission and work are 'a ceaseless giving of self in the objective service of God.' 
Sometimes it seems like a temptation to think that becoming a Christian, or being an avowed believer, is going to make one's life easier. It's as though "finding faith" is meant to be a talisman that wards off the bad things in the world. Sadly, this is idolatrous thinking. Rather than giving an escape from the evil and suffering in the world, authentic Christianity thrusts you into the heart of it. It is as though the assent of faith delivers you into the heart of the battlefield where you are called upon to "fight and not to heed the wounds" armed only with courage and the faith that you are on the side of the Creating God.

Christianity is not an easy answer, nor is it an opium. Opium or narcotics diminish pain and make a person oblivious to suffering. My Catholic faith does the exact opposite: I cannot help but to be familiar with the pain and suffering of the world, its crimes and injustices, and it pierces me to the core. My faith mobilizes and emboldens me for does not anesthetize me. The experience of being called into God's ongoing drama of creation is where I find strength and the courage to continue. If I do it with something of a sense of humor, perhaps it is only to invite other people into accepting the omnipresent cross into their own lives.

The darkness and suffering of the world do not incite within me a desire to withdraw. Marked by my baptism, inspired by the witness of others' self-giving, and fed by the Eucharist, I continue to give myself as best as possible and to invite others to do the same. Although it sometimes seems fruitless, I look to the last two years of teaching as the best opportunity that I've ever had to bring the Gospel to the open hearts of very willing students. It is amazing to see what can happen when the Gospel takes root in a young person's life and the way that its flowering can change a life. This is not easy, nor always clear, but it has brought me an enormous amount of joy and satisfaction. For all the busyness of my own life, the chances I have to call people to join God's symphony of creation is one of the deepest and most joyful graces I could imagine.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Senses of Scripture

Lately it seems that one of the more common searches that leads people to my website concerns whether Catholics take the Bible literally. I have written on this before, most notably this post from January of last year. 

If I have learned anything from teaching, it is that repetition is the master teacher. So, too, is introducing new material gradually. Today, let me just advert attention to the Catechism of the Catholic Church where it notes that, 

According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church. (115) 
So does this mean that Catholics think that every word in the Bible needs to be taken literally?

Not quite.

The Catechism goes on to note

The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal." (116)
So here's the thing: when we read Sacred Scripture, we have to put our thinking caps on and do some investigation. We recognize in our day-to-day lives how important figures of speech, metaphors, allusions, and those manners of speaking that give our language such texture and meaning. Why, then, would someone suppose that the Bible - the Word of God in the words of humans - not call for some interpretation, some investigation? 

Caravaggio's "Saint Jerome"
Imagine that I am a foreigner who visits the USA. I have learned English by reading a textbook and I'm not really up on idioms in the English language.  In the train station, I hear someone remark, "Boy, it's raining cats and dogs today." As a foreigner, I am confused: how is it possible that canines and felines are falling freely from the sky? Unless things really are very different in America, I quickly realize that I have to try to figure out what the speaker means by what he says. This is what we call exegesis: the systematic and careful reflection on a text or speech that tries to account for culture, time, place, worldview, history, theology, etc., in order to reach a clearer sense of the text's meaning.

So, yes, Catholics do take the Bible literally. That is, of course, if you mean that literally entails a bit of heavy-lifting that demands that we actually think about what we are reading. A good literal interpretation of Scripture, as indicated in #116, provides us with the foundation for probing the Spiritual Sense of Scripture (allegorical, moral, and anagogical...we'll talk about those another time).

Paraphrasing the Jesuit theologian Michael Buckley, "Bad theism is the root cause of atheism." It always amazes me that Saint Augustine (d. ~430 AD) understood that Creation contained two books: The Book of Revelation (Scripture) and the Book of Nature (Science). Written by the same author (God), these two books do not contradict each other; where the Book of Nature offers us new insights and data, we must take this into account in the Scriptures. How a 5th century bishop could understand this when many 21st century Americans who are happy to utilize all sorts of technological wonders still believe in talking snakes is utterly beyond me. Snakes don't talk, evolution is a pretty good theory, and there is nothing that says that we can't interpret the Scriptures in light of the Book of Nature. As a man with an enduring interest in the natural sciences, it is the wonders of creation that serve to reinforce, rather than take away from, my belief in God.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame