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The Equivocal Sense of ‘Complementarity’

Posted in America Magazine, Franciscan Spirituality, Pope Francis, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on November 18, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

puzzleThe term “complementarity” has been referenced frequently this week on social media and in traditional media as the Vatican hosts an international, interreligious conference bearing the title: “The Complementarity of Man and Woman: An International Colloquium.” The aim of the gathering, according to the conference’s website is “to examine and propose anew the beauty of the relationship between the man and the woman, in order to support and reinvigorate marriage and family life for the flourishing of human society.” And the response has been predictably mixed.

Initial reactions have tended toward one extreme or the other, either extraordinarily enthusiastic or unapologetically critical. My reaction, so far, falls somewhere in between. I’m curious to see what arises from this gathering, interested to know what has been and will continue to be said by this group of invited speakers, all of whom represent diversity in culture and religious tradition, but nevertheless all appear to represent a hegemonic view of the meaning of marriage, the identity of the human person, and the role of biological sex and gender in both of those subjects.

The Social & Vocational Sense of ‘Complementarity’

Yesterday I Tweeted an open question about whether or not a true diversity of scholarly and spiritual views would be represented at this gathering, to which one of my colleagues here at America responded with a reference to a line from Pope Francis’s address to the assembly in which the Pontiff cautioned against thinking of complementarity in terms of a “fixed and static pattern.” To understand the full context of that remark, we must appreciate that in the preceding paragraph Pope Francis quotes St. Paul’s writing on the diversity of charisms in the Church (1 Corinthians 12) and then says: “To reflect upon “complementarity” is nothing less than to ponder the dynamic harmonies at the heart of all Creation. This is a big word, harmony. All complementarities were made by our Creator, so the Author of harmony achieves this harmony.”

Pope Francis then ties this general sense of complementarity as a vocational or social reality to the aim of the conference; namely, the complementarity of ‘man and woman’ within the context of marriage:

It is fitting that you have gathered here in this international colloquium to explore the complementarity of man and woman. This complementarity is a root of marriage and family. For the family grounded in marriage is the first school where we learn to appreciate our own and others’ gifts, and where we begin to acquire the arts of cooperative living. For most of us, the family provides the principal place where we can aspire to greatness as we strive to realize our full capacity for virtue and charity. At the same time, as we know, families give rise to tensions: between egoism and altruism, reason and passion, immediate desires and long-range goals. But families also provide frameworks for resolving such tensions. This is important. When we speak of complementarity between man and woman in this context, let us not confuse that term with the simplistic idea that all the roles and relations of the two sexes are fixed in a single, static pattern. Complementarity will take many forms as each man and woman brings his or her distinctive contributions to their marriage and to the formation of their children — his or her personal richness, personal charisma. Complementarity becomes a great wealth. It is not just a good thing but it is also beautiful.

Why am I quoting this at length? The reason is that “complementarity” is being used in very different ways at different points this week, yet treated as if it was a univocal term.

In the case of Pope Francis’s address to the assembly quoted above, his use of “complementarity” arises from the Pauline charismatic or “spiritual gifts” language that, in context, pertains to the harmony and unity of the ecclesia, which is the Body of Christ. Insofar as every woman and man has been gifted with a particular vocation to be used at the service of church and world, then all people do indeed have “complementary” gifts – each different, but nevertheless important – and should therefore view such bestowals as deserving of equal respect and dignity, regardless of who is a teacher and who speaks in tongues.

The way that Pope Francis appears to be using the term “complementarity” here is in a social or communal setting, one that highlights the call we have from God to use our gifts for the service of others and to seek to work together to build up the harmony that God has intended for all creation from the beginning. Concerning the dynamics of marriage, Pope Francis then applies this to the social implications of work, home life, and individual dignity and respect that relates to husband and wife. Drawing on the social or vocational use of “complementarity,” Pope Francis appears to be suggesting that just because one spouse is a “man” and one spouse is a “woman” doesn’t mean that either should be restricted to some preconceived social or vocational role, a static view illustrated by “women stay at home,” for instance, and “men go to the office.”

In this sense, the social or vocational use of “complementarity” by Pope Francis should signal a positive step forward. Culturally and, in some parts of the world, civilly, women are not recognized as having comparable standing in the eyes of the law, their spouses, or perhaps even God. Pope Francis is calling for a more-capacious sense of the social setting and valuation of individual gifts and responsibilities of all women and men, and this is something about which to rejoice for sure.

However, this is not the only way that “complementarity” is being used this week at the conference. Insofar as the title of the gathering, “complementarity of man and woman,” means this social parity that Pope Francis is alluding to – then I suppose this is perfectly fine. But this is simply not the case.

The Ontological Sense of ‘Complementarity’

The other way that “complementarity” is being used – or, perhaps better put, being presupposed – is ontologically as the foundation for the operative theological anthropology undergirding much, if not all, of the discussion.

As I sought to show in a scholarly article published in the journal Theological Studies last March (“Beyond Essentialism and Complementarity: Toward a Theological Anthropology Rooted in Haecceitas), the traditional theological categories of essentialism and complementarity, which are often presented as intended by God as illustrated in the Book of Genesis, are deeply problematic. Theologians, philosophers, and critical theorists have shown over the years that the ontological presupposition of complementarity – which basically amounts to a metaphysical “separate but equal” stance – is actually a paradigm that necessarily subordinates one biological sex or gender to the other according to a framework of hierarchical dualism. In this sense, there is no true egalitarian view of the human person, but instead a reinscribed ordering of persons.

The operative theological anthropology that grounds the theme of this week’s conference is one that is deeply committed to an ontological view of both gender essentialism and complementarity that goes deeper than Pope Francis’s admirable call for social equality in recognition of our complementary gifts and vocations.

As Joshua McElwee reports in the National Catholic Reporter, the other speakers that followed Pope Francis were defending this ontological sense of “complementarity.”

German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, spoke after the pontiff and focused his remarks on the male and female imagery found in the creation stories of Genesis.

Tying the imagery of the Adam and Eve in the Genesis story to mankind’s relationship with God, Müller stated: “When we forget sexual difference, then it becomes difficult to understand the marriage bond between God and his people.”

Here the discussion is fundamentally one focused on “sexual” and “gender” differences, which concretize certain supposed immutable roles. Like Müller, Sr. M. Prudence Allen, another speaker, criticized the questioning of these ontological presuppositions of complementarity. McElwee reports:

In her remarks, Allen warned against gender and sex ideology, which she said were founded on “deceptive methods.”

Those ideologies, she said, “distort the true equal dignity and difference of women and men.”

“Like a cancerous cell these ideologies grow, often obliterating the true meaning of marriage,” Allen said.

In brief, one of the most pressing problems with this worldview is the equating of an individual’s dignity, value, and human identity with his or her biological sex or gender. Yes, there are differences, but in what is our human dignity grounded?

There are other theological resources in the Christian tradition that do not rely so heavily on the Aristotelian teleology of, for example, Thomas Aquinas’s thirteenth-century scientific and philosophical worldview. It is this sort of framework that continues to govern so much of our theological anthropology and subsequent ethics. In the article mentioned above, I propose at least one possible orthodoxy alternative to this grounded in the insights of Blessed John Duns Scotus, a medieval Franciscan theologian and philosopher. But there are also others to consider, including ones more compatible with our increasing knowledge of humanity and the world from natural and social sciences, psychology, and other fields. Many of today’s most pressing theological and pastoral questions are tied to a theological anthropology desperately in need of renewal in light of our Christian theological tradition and the advances in human knowledge of the last several centuries. Some of these questions include the role of women in the church, the meaning of human sexuality, our relationship to the rest of creation, and so on.

While Pope Francis’s call for more social parity in terms of recognizing the complementarity of every person’s vocation, there is still a need to address the deeper ontological subject of complementarity in our theological understanding of the human person. And I don’t think that’s going to happen in Rome this week.

This post has been concurrently posted at America Magazine

Resisting “Doctrinal Docetism” after the Synod

Posted in Uncategorized on November 16, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

3455beatificati_00000002738This column originally appeared in the November 24 issue of America magazine with the title, “Avoiding Absolutism.”

Among the subjects of debate and ostensible controversy that arose during the 2014 Synod on the Family and continue in its wake, one in particular captured my attention: whether doctrine can change or develop. The answer is: it certainly does develop. It always has.

One of the synod participants, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich and Freising, said publicly toward the end of the synod that church doctrine, “doesn’t depend on the spirit of time but can develop over time.” He added, “The core of the Catholic Church remains the Gospel, but have we discovered everything?”

Cardinal Marx’s question echoes his prelate predecessor Blessed John Henry Newman (d. 1890), who wrote the now-classic text, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Newman engaged this question about the possibility of change and development in the church’s teaching and affirmed that, both historically and theologically, doctrine indeed develops. Newman goes on to say that doctrinal developments were not only natural, but also intended by the Creator. Newman writes that many of the core Christian doctrines…

cannot be fully understood at once, but are more and more clearly expressed and taught the longer they last—having aspects many and bearings many, mutually connected and growing one out of another, and all parts of a whole, with a sympathy and correspondence keeping pace with the ever-changing necessities of the world, multiform, prolific, and ever resourceful….

The central theme here is that though we may speak abstractly about a “deposit of faith” that is eternal and remains unchanging, we finite human beings do not understand the full meaning of these teachings immediately. We come to a fuller understanding of our faith with time, experience and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This was true going back to the pre-New Testament kerygma the (early preaching of the apostles), through the earliest ecumenical councils, through the Second Vatican Council and beyond.

The church teachings on usury, slavery and religious freedom are often invoked to illustrate this development. But there is also a clear development—in Newman’s sense of fuller understanding and clarification—of even the most fundamental dogmatic statements of our faith. If there could be heated debates about the consubstantiality of the Son and Father on the path toward doctrinal definition during the first Christian centuries, then many of the allegedly “nonnegotiable” themes discussed at the synod may be fair game too.

As Thomas Reese, S.J., reminded us in an article in The National Catholic Reporter on Oct. 7, this way of thinking about doctrine in static, objective and absolute terms is a return to what the theologian Bernard Lonergan, S.J., called the classicist approach to theology, which misunderstands the authentic development of doctrine and disregards historical consciousness.

The reduction of church teaching to propositional claims alone is a sort of doctrinal Docetism—a misguided belief that faith claims simply “appeared” from above without any historical grounding. Just as the Christological heresy of the same name denied that Jesus Christ was truly human, asserting instead that he was only divine and appeared from heaven without any tie to creation, so too doctrinal Docetism is an outlook that denies the development of Christian doctrine as humans seek to understand their faith more fully. The truth is that God did not send us a pre-existing book, a “cosmic catechism” from heaven that states clearly and completely the unchanging “deposit of faith.” Just as Scripture must be interpreted in order to understand its fuller sense, so too sacred tradition must be interpreted and develop over time for us to understand its fuller meaning.

It is important to remember that many of the early council fathers and others over the centuries entered the councils with views that would anachronistically be called “heretical,” only to come out with those same views ultimately declared orthodox. We must trust in the Holy Spirit and be open to the possibility that we do not yet understand the fullness of our faith. We have so much more to learn and discover.

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton (2014).

Photo: File

Fear Not: The Synods are Proceeding Exactly as Intended

Posted in Uncategorized on October 20, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

_78201530_024252974-1To gain a better appreciation for what has transpired and what is currently unfolding with regard to the 2014 Synod on the Family, it is worth considering the very interesting and detailed take of Vatican insider Sandro Magister in the piece hosted on the Italian newspaper website La Repubblica : “The True Story of This Synod: Director, Performers, Assistants.”

“…Because no matter what may be the outcome of this synod, intentionally devoid of any conclusion, the effect desired by its directors has to a large extent been reached.

On homosexuality as on divorce and remarriage, in fact, the new talk of reform inserted into the global media circuit is worth much more than the favor actually gained among the synod fathers by the proposals of Kasper or Spadaro.

The match could go on for a long time. But Pope Francis is patient. In “Evangelii Gaudium” he has written that “time is greater than space.”

This report alludes to something that I’ve been thinking about since last week’s melee about the Relatio and the seeming “retraction” that accompanied the revised English translation (again, it is important to note that the overwhelmingly ‘welcoming’ — closer to ‘embracing’ or ‘hugging’ — language of the official Italian text was never revised). Namely, that this Synod is one of the most insightful and clever exercises of magisterial teaching authority that we’ve seen since the close of the Second Vatican Council. In other words, this is exactly what the Council and Paul VI had in mind when mandating the periodic Synods, hearkening to a time of more authentic ecclesial teaching authority and synodality.

What do I mean by this? Well, “the Church” (here I use quotations to indicate the colloquial reference to the ecclesiastical leadership of the church, rather than the truest meaning of church, which is the Body of Christ) does not change overnight. It does in fact change (usury, slavery, religious liberty, two ends of marital sexuality…need I continue?), but does so in the best way when those tasked with leading the universal flock remain in communion with one another and the bishop of Rome.

Communion, however, does not mean the utopia vision of the Acts of the Apostles’s “they were of one heart and one mind” performed in recent decades by a “synodality of bella figura.” This is certainly not what the Second Vatican Council had in mind, nor is it reflective of authentic doctrinal and disciplinary development of the church. It is in the Acts of the Apostles, lest we forget, that the so-called “Council of Jerusalem” wherein St. Peter and St. Paul — the predecessors to Cardinal Müeller and Cardinal Kasper, perhaps — were engaged in a very public debate about the intention of Christ and precisely who should be admitted into communion with the early Christian community. One can work toward consensus, but its authenticity depends on a commitment to maintaining koinonia.

Back to the Synods.

Like the many sessions of the Second Vatican Council, the matters preliminarily considered and debated in the 2014 Synod have not been definitely addressed in the first round. Pope Francis and his advisors (especially his worldwide Cardinal Committee of 8) knew exactly what they were doing. As Sandro Magister points out in his piece, at each stage of the Synod’s development, including back to the early days of 2013 long before the world knew anything of this, things were being set in motion to allow for the most honest and open engagement with the urgent pastoral questions of the day. The major success here is that what has begun cannot be stopped, just like what followed after the rejection of the preliminary conciliar texts prepared by the curial bureaucrats at the opening of Vatican II, just like what followed Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles in the First Century.

Put another way: Those who are pleased with how things are or may be going would say that the John XXIII “window of the church” has been thrown open to let fresh air in and will not be closed or, conversely, those who are displeased may say that Pandora’s Box has been opened and cannot be shut.  Either way, the train is moving forward.

This doesn’t mean everything will unfold as everybody would like, but it does mean that things are changing — driven by the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:12) — and that is, I believe, a good thing.

The members of the Synod have listened to the lived experiences of women and men, they’ve debated matters of urgent importance, they’ve shown that there is a major group of bishops who are sensitive to the needs of the church today, and those who dissent have also been given free voice. Now these bishops must return home and will, undoubtedly, hear more from their “sheep” and “ponder all these things in their heart” before returning back to Rome next year to continue their work. it is only after this second round, Synod Part II, that an official exhortation (or maybe even encyclical?) will be promulgated.

The last word has not yet been said. And that is a very good thing.

Photo: AP

Teresa of Ávila and the Synod

Posted in Uncategorized on October 15, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

SynodImageCROPToday is the Feast of St. Teresa of Ávila, the 16th Century Carmelite Saint and Doctor of the Church. Though she was known for her personal holiness and spiritual insight, it wasn’t until the 20th Century that Pope Paul VI included her and the Dominican Catherine of Siena among the ranks of the “Doctors of the Church.” Teresa and Catherine were the first women so recognized. And it took four hundred years.

In today’s Gospel (Luke 11:42-46) we continue to hear Jesus’s rebuking of the religious leaders in his time for their inexcusable treatment of the people entrusted to their spiritual and social care. Yesterday we heard the Lord lambaste the Pharisees for being concerned with external matters while their internal worldview, thought processes, and attitude was what was truly rotting — like a dish or drinking glass shining on the outside, but dirty within.

Today we hear the “Woes!” leveled against these and other religious leaders who place burdens on the backs of ordinary people without any effort, even the slightest, to assist them with this imposed struggle. Jesus also points out that the very same people enjoy the status, attention, recognition, titles, and places of honor afforded them by their position as religious leaders.

How appropriate are both the story of the saint we memorialize and the Gospel passage we proclaim today during this time of the Synod on the Family!

The woes of Christ transcend the limits of time and space to reach the 21st Century and indict many of the religious leaders of our time who place heavy burdens on the lives of so many women and men who look to them for guidance and direction, but receive in return only judgment, exclusion, and shame.

Pope Francis, whose whole pontificate to date has captured the attention of the world because of its transparent leadership in the style of the Gospel, has continually called us to remember that in considering how God first relates to us the word on our lips and in our minds and in our hearts should be mercy.

Yet, woe to those bishops, priests, and other ministers who shirk divine mercy for the human burdens of judgment and exclusion!

The Gospel is on the side of Pope Francis, just as it was on the side of Teresa of Ávila, whose contributions to theology and spirituality were not fully recognized for centuries. The reason this was the case centers on whom church leaders chose to recognize and whose voices they did or did not allow to be heard. For centuries it was inconceivable for those who had the authority to recognize such people that women could offer theological and spiritual insight worthy of such recognition! It’s not that Teresa’s teaching changed in the 1970s — no, it was the hearts and minds of those in ecclesiastical leadership that changed to recognize that which was always already true!

How much more so is that the case today with the voices that are not heard, the experiences that are not recognized, the love that is shamed, and the people that are excluded? The Holy Spirit is at work in Rome these days, though some religious leaders like the pharisees and scholars of the law in today’s Gospel are slow to hear Her inspiration and quick to place heavy burdens on the shoulders of others. Seriously, what would Jesus do?

My prayer today is for the continued openness to the inspiration of the Spirit of God in the hearts and minds of both the bishops meeting in Rome, but also in those of women and men around the globe that are seeking to make sense of these meetings. May we greet each other with charity online and in person, and may we harken to the “Woes!” that Jesus levels against us today!

St. Teresa of ÁvilaDoctor of the Church, Ora Pro Nobis!

Photo Illustration: DatingGod.org

The Ignorance of Some Scientists

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

evolution religionOk, it’s been a while since I’ve been as worked up as I am about a scientist who publicly ridicules religion and dismisses out of hand the possibility that women and men of faith — particularly Christian faith — can hold both their beliefs and solid scientific truths at the same time. The most recent instance of what I am calling “the ignorance of some scientists” appeared in the New York Times this weekend in an article titled, “God, Darwin, and my College Biology Class,” by the University of Washington evolutionary biologist David Barash.

Professor Barash tells the story of his routine introductory lecture given to students early in each new semester. He makes it clear that if one is uncomfortable with the concept of biological evolution on account of religious beliefs, they would do well to suspend those convictions or at least not allow them to get in the way of adequately and accurately learning biology. Up to this point, I am essentially in agreement with Barash. Those who are often loosely grouped into some general category called “fundamentalist” or “biblicist” who believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old or that the universe was created in a literal week are certainly entitled to hold such theologically empty, historically unsound, and biblical unsubstantiated views. However, they will undoubtedly cause problems when those who hold such views attempt to study the natural sciences.

Where I depart from Barash’s view is when he takes a further step to claim that evolution has essentially demolished fundamental religious beliefs. He writes about his talk to his students:

I conclude The Talk by saying that, although they don’t have to discard their religion in order to inform themselves about biology (or even to pass my course), if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines. And while I respect their beliefs, the entire point of The Talk is to make clear that, at least for this biologist, it is no longer acceptable for science to be the one doing those routines, as Professor Gould and noma have insisted we do.

That reference to Professor Stephen Jay Gould has to do with Gould’s proposal that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria,” which means that one can hold both world views because they deal with totally different material and fields. This is popularly referred to at times as the different foundational questions of “how” and “why,” proponents of Gould’s way of thinking argue that science seeks to address the former and religion the latter.

Barash disagrees — vehemently, by his own admittance — with Gould. Barash does not believe that science and religion are ultimately compatible, but rather present an irreconcilable tension.

I actually agree with Barash in his distaste for the “Non-overlapping magisteria” argument. While I do believe natural sciences and religion are concerned with essentially different questions, they in fact overlap quite a bit.  So we may agree on that point.

The problem, though, in Barash’s easily perceptible theological ignorance. His laboratory pontification exceeds his areas of competence and his ostensible unfamiliarity with the work of those who are both scientists and theologians haunts his own fundamentalist presuppositions.

I would love for him to sit down with Ilia Delio or Alister McGrath or John Polkinghorne or any other scholar who holds doctorates in both scientific fields and theology. Even those who haven’t earned advance degrees in both areas, those like John Haught or Elizabeth Johnson, have gone far out of their ways to not only take the natural sciences seriously, but to engage in complex and rigorous research that correlates the depth of the Christian theological tradition with the scientific discoveries Barash thinks “demolish” religious belief.

Barash argues that there are three critical “strikes” to religious belief that evolution blows. The first is the defeat of “what modern creationists call the argument from complexity.” I actually don’t have any problem with that. Arguments from complexity are not seriously considered by real theologians who study creation or theological anthropology, not at least in terms of the caricature he presents (which is probably more closely connected to the beliefs of the pedestrian biblicist).

The second is what he calls the “illusion of centrality.” Here’s what he says:

Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. The most potent take-home message of evolution is the not-so-simple fact that, even though species are identifiable (just as individuals generally are), there is an underlying linkage among them — literally and phylogenetically, via traceable historical connectedness. Moreover, no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.

And this is where I get really worked up!

I agree completely with the contention that human beings are not above and against, nor entirely distinct from the rest of nonhuman creation. As do many other theologians, as does the scriptural tradition. In fact, I’m proposing to write a dissertation that seeks to advance precisely this line of thought, critiquing among other things models of creation and theological anthropology that are typically presented in terms of both dominion and stewardship. Much of my own theological research in recent years has been working in this area and following the leads of theologians — I’m even presenting a research paper directly related to this question in November at the American Academy of Religion annual conference in San Diego. This idea is not entirely new.

While I agree with Barash that evolution has helped us to see many of the problems and pitfalls of anthropocentric theologies, he is very wrong to talk about there being “no literally supernatural trait” to be found in Homo sapiens. Yes, we are perfectly good animals, maybe even the cleverest, but returning to the distinctive foundational questions of both fields — how vs. why — there is, by definition, now way for biology to uncover anything “supernatural!”

It would be like an astronomer claiming that whales do not exist because there has been “literally no whales  ever found in space.” Though natural science and religion are not “non-overlapping magisteria,” they are also not the same thing. This is where the groundbreaking work of people like Karl Rahner (“supernatural existential”) and Teilhard de Chardin (on evolution and theology) is especially instructive.

Likewise, just because one is learned in one field of research and scholarship (biology) does not mean that she or he is qualified to so definitively proclaim apodictic truths in another field (theology). If the theologians I named above, including myself, take seriously the work of biologists like Barash in his field, he should do likewise and take seriously our work. He might actually learn something.

Barash’s last “blow to religion” is with regard to theodicy. He writes that, “The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.” This is hardly worth comment other than to say that this line of reasoning is easily contestable given that it is an interpretation that borders very closely to the land of opinion. One can affirm the veracity of evolution (as I certainly do), but disagree about the moral quality of that process.

To conclude, I want to say that the way Barash comes across is not unlike the scientifically ignorant religious fundamentalists he critiques. Their childish and literal interpretations of complex scriptural narratives are to science what Barash’s absolutist and incontrovertible interpretations of evolution are to theology.

This irony hasn’t been lost on me. And I hope that Barash may also realize this discovery. Maybe then his way of thinking could evolve just as the species have, though I hope it doesn’t take as long.

Photo: Stock

The Memory of 9/11: An Anniversary Reflection and Christian Response

Posted in Franciscan Spirituality, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

The following is an excerpt from my essay, “A Franciscan Millennial and the Memory of 9/11,” which appears in the book, Franciscan Voices on 9/11 (Franciscan Media, 2011), and is now available for the Amazon Kindle. The book also includes essays from Richard Rohr OFM, Joe Nangle OFM, Mike Guinan OFM, and others.

Approaching the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we are called to remember, commemorate and mourn. Each of these practices is an engagement with memory. The first (remember) is to “call to mind,” to “bring forward” a concept or experience. This “thing-to-call-to-mind” can be positive or negative, but it remains in the past or in the realm of the imagination. The second (commemorate) is a communal engagement, to remember with others usually in a public way. The third (mourn) is to bring to mind in order to let go or reconcile. But what is this memory that we are asked to engage?

In one sense it is a very subjective reality. So much of my memory is cast, edited, recast, forgotten and so on by “me.” Yet, there remain public or shared factors that inform much of a memory I claim as my own. The constant repetition of “the story of 9/11” in the news, in political-campaign speeches, from sermon pulpits and around the patriotic hearth of American households seems to convey a sense of objective truth that “this story” is “the story.” However, this is not the case.

So much of the shaping of this memory has been done by language that is constricted by the discourse of American nationalism and vengeance. It is a memory of attack and violence that has been crafted to justify the retributive action of the United States across the globe. Two wars, thousands of deaths, trillions of dollars and lost civil liberties later, one must only allude to 9/11 to justify violence, discrimination and abuse. As such, the memory of 9/11 becomes not a token of solemn reflection fit for remembrance, commemoration or mourning, but a pawn in the game of global power.

Recently I was eating lunch with some other Franciscan friars and two employees who work for the friars in Albany. Having just returned from an academic conference in another part of the country, I shared my frustration about the loss of civil liberties exemplified in the highly invasive procedures of airport security. One of the employees said she would rather feel violated (as I had that week) and be open to further restrictions in order to “be safe.” When I and some others at the table explained that studies often show such actions are simply theatrical and reactionary and in fact were not making anybody safer, she admitted that either way she would support the surrender of her rights. Her memory has been so shaped by the popular language of the possible and the collective narratives of violence that she could not see the contradiction inherent in sacrificing one’s rights to “protect” these very same rights.

This memory is highly selective. The images and emotions evoked by the way people discuss 9/11 perpetuates the belief that “justice” means vengeance and “peace” is attainable only by a war on terror. This sort of rhetoric draws on religious symbolism, blatantly contradicting the core of Christian belief, which so many of those who willingly capitulate to this narrative claim as their own. If the memory of 9/11 were not limited to the language of the possible, more people might see that what we passed off as “the memory of 9/11” is really just a tiny sliver of the fuller story. Its use has not been to authentically remember, commemorate or mourn a tragedy, but to perpetuate injustice and violence in our world.

The 13th-century Franciscan saint, theologian and doctor of the church, St. Bonaventure, explains that memory is not only shaped by our own experience and the influences of the community, but it can be informed and shaped “from above” by those things that cannot be perceived through our senses. In other words, our memory also can be affected by the divine light of God, illuminated and made clear through the Spirit. What the selective memory of 9/11 has done is preclude the memory of the tragedy from receiving the light of God. Instead, it remains in the shadow of worldly wisdom. St. Paul reminds us how Christians are to approach the wisdom of the world.

Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demanded signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:20-25, NRSV).

A Christian response to worldly wisdom, to the factors of popular, civil and political influence on memory, is to question what at first might seem wise and appropriate in order to allow God to illuminate the true wisdom.

St. Paul and St. Bonaventure challenge the conventional notion of the memory of 9/11 by reminding us to examine what has shaped and informed it. Is this how God sees what happened on 9/11? Is this how Jesus Christ would respond after such an event?

To speak with a Franciscan voice, to remember, commemorate and mourn as one who lives the gospel would, we must be willing to step back and challenge the individual and collective memory of that fateful day ten years ago. We must be willing to ask about what factors have come together to produce the story that is passed along as the memory, challenging the conventional wisdom as Jesus himself had. “You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). Though to many a Franciscan voice will sound foolish, it is nevertheless rooted in the wisdom of God.

To read the full text and other essays on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, read Franciscan Voices on 9/11 (Franciscan Media, 2011).

Photo: Stock

The Prophetic Burden

Posted in Homilies, Scripture, Uncategorized with tags , , , on August 31, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

seeking godJeremiah never wanted to be a prophet. That much he makes very clear. From the opening scene in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah onward, this young man does his best — as do the prophets that came before and would come after him — to avoid the responsibility and call that God has placed before him. What we get in this short snippet in today’s first reading (Jer 20:7-9) is just one reminder of the fact that this guy did not ‘sign up’ for the job.

What we encounter at the beginning of the passage is Jeremiah in the middle of a serious lament. He is upset, which might be an understatement, that his preaching has led to personal ridicule, no one will take him seriously, and that those he has been sent to call out — those who abuse power and others, for example — want him gone. He is now fearing for his safety and life, concerned that those who want to silence him will do precisely that. He feels in over his head, lost without direction, upset that his life had to take this turn.

And, in this moment, he blames God.

You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped;
you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.
All the day I am an object of laughter;
everyone mocks me.

Who else should shoulder the blame? It was, after all, God who in the beginning of the Book of Jeremiah, insists that the young would-be prophet doesn’t know better than God and that God has destined him for this mission from before he was born. Jeremiah feels betrayed by his creator.

But what should he expect?

Those who bear the name ‘Christ’ as Christians should be able to relate well to our predecessor Jeremiah. In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that to follow him is no easy task. Jesus is not a sadist, nor is he encouraging masochism among his flock. Those who interpret the “denial” and the “taking up of crosses” as signs that Jesus wants nothing more from his followers than abject self-punishment are missing the point.

The denial of oneself here refers to the situation that we, like Jeremiah before us, often face in our lives of faith. When the going gets tough, we’d rather get going back to our own plans with us as number one. We are hesitant or, more likely, completely unwilling to surrender the possibility that the world revolves around us and that I should first take care to be sure I’m secure or comfortable or whatever before bothering to do God’s will or help others. Instead, the denial has to do with our desire to place ourselves first. Placing God first instead shifts our outlook away from our own navels and out toward the rest of the world right in front of us.

In the end, like a good prophet, Jeremiah anticipates Jesus’s message in the Gospel of Matthew. He understandably and rightly offers his cry of lament to God, embracing the suffering, fear, disappointment, and embarrassment that he experiences as a result of his carrying the cross of following God’s will. But his exclamation doesn’t stop there. Jeremiah says:

I say to myself, I will not mention him,
I will speak in his name no more.
But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart,
imprisoned in my bones;
I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.

He at first considers a plan of his own devising — yes, he’ll stop doing what God desires, no longer risk preaching and proclaiming the word of God. Instead he will be silent and enjoy the peace and comfort he once had.

Except, he can’t do that. He realizes that he has a burning desire to proclaim God’s word, to announce the dissatisfaction that God has with the ways in which we human beings treat one another and the rest of creation. Though he tries to be silent, tries to enjoy a ‘normal’ life, he grows “weary holding it in” and must continue with the proclamation. And this is what some scripture commentators refer to as the “prophetic burden,” the drive and fervor the prophet has to proclaim the word of God.

May we find ourselves, even in the midst of frustration, embarrassment, discomfort, and doubt, with the word of God burning like a fire in our hearts. May we grow weary of trying to keep that held in and instead, dare to pick up our crosses, deny ourselves, and be the prophets the world so desperately needs. May we all share in the prophetic burden.

Photo: Stock
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