Symbolic Action in a Postmodern World

I have been thinking about the Christian world, and the larger world, thinking about Francis. At the very least he has an expert sense of symbolic action and its effect in the postmodern world, rivaled only by his predecessor John Paul II. I recall being in Toronto when World Youth Day was held there in the early 2000’s -- the news media called upon the Pope to retire, said that his incapacitated state was an embarrassment. Then he arrived, with great labor kissed Canadian soil, and declared that he was dragging his dying body around the world in solidarity with Catholic youth. Clearly the press was up against a more than worthy counterpart -- by the end of the week they were entranced.  To ‘leverage’ weakness in such a way has not a little to do with the Gospel ministry. Something similar could be said about Francis and his conspicuously Franciscan style.

At the same time, it is disconcerting to hear the news media trying to figure out to what extent Francis is or isn’t ‘progressive.’  The secular political realm not surprisingly thinks in secular political terms.  But such terms will not, nor should they, catch what he is about. Some Catholics worry that misunderstandings can have their own consequences -- this too is fair enough. But the heart of what he is about would seem to lie precisely in the logic of a traditional Roman Catholic reaching out into the culture he finds. It is as a missionary that he is to be understood.

Francis is, after all, a Jesuit.  The order has had a complicated and varied history, and it certainly has had its more radical representatives. But they have their own way of thinking about things.  Consider for example their greatest missionaries, at the dawn of the modern age. They seemed the most accommodated of missionaries, the most adapted to their culture. De Nobili in the saffron robes of a Hindu scholar ascetic, Ricci in his Mandarin silk, Rhodes the Vietnamese elder, not to mention the priests to the Guarani, popularly presented in the movie The Mission.  They were at the same time the most traditional and obedient of theologians, doctrinally hardened like steel within.  They squared the circle with patience and a sense that the Gospel must be presented in stages according to what the hearer can receive.  This doctrine of reserve may be wrong, but it does have a logic to it.  My suspicion is that there is something of this within-and-without, of patience and reserve, in the deep DNA of a figure like our present Pope.  And if this is so, he raises interesting question for us about how we imagine that the Gospel should be presented by us, in our time and place.  The Gospel is always at home and yet a scandal, needing to be heard and yet a whole not reducible to parts.  Francis challenges easy dichotomies we may have, and advances a useful debate about evangelization in our own context.



A New Beginning

 For obvious reasons I have been thinking recently about being a beginner. Think for example of young children who are so facile at learning languages because they are such un-self-conscious and uninhibited beginners, jabbering away whether the words make sense or not! We adults want to move as quickly as we can through novice to veteran, for our dignity’s sake. A contrasting view of beginner-hood is found in a little book by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, a renowned Orthodox theologian, called Beginning to Pray. His argument is that beginning is not just for the early days of praying, but of the essence of the activity. To think that we have gained skill in it, that we are now good at it, is to misunderstand the enterprise. When the disciples went to Jesus asking him how you are supposed to do praying, they were asking an appropriate question. But the simple answer Jesus gave was also an indescribably deep one. Praying is acknowledging that God is king, that we have to beg each day for bread, that we are guilty who try to talk to God, that we can say ‘Daddy’ to God, but only because Jesus is teaching us, that we face evils and trials before which we alone cannot stand, etc. To understand what the Lord’s Prayer says is to surrender the notion that we are doing something we could get good at as if it were backgammon. Bloom claims that to pray is to know you are beginning, and to do it well is to know your need greatly, and masters at it are those who have gone deeply into an awareness of their own need before God.   There are things whose perpetual beginner-hood to illumine for us what the activity itself really is.

I was asked this week what my vision for the diocese is. I admired the person for asking the right question, an obvious question. It is a question that is connected to one’s sense of the nature of the Church itself (as well as relating to the time and place and circumstance we find ourselves in). Now the question about the nature of the Church is not one amenable to original answers, since it is informed by Scripture and inherited from our forebears. It is a question for which there are a number of good answers, since we can get at this reality of the Body of followers of Jesus the crucified and risen from a number of angles. But it is also a question that requires of us the spirit of a beginner, one that asks for a clear answer, a foundation.  

Here is the answer I want to give: ‘you are my witnesses.’ It is spoke by God through the prophet Isaiah in chapter 43; the people of Israel in exile are to tell out who He is and what He is doing for them. God’s new act involves the suffering servant, who turns out to be Jesus, about whom we hear in chapters of Isaiah before and after this one. God displays His might in surprising ways. ‘You are my witnesses’ is heard again at the opening chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. There it is the news of the resurrection of Jesus, which they are to carry out into the world, which is at once hungry for and resistant to it.

Let me mention five implications of being a witness as the linchpin and the starting point of our life together. First of all, we are not telling of ourselves, nor dependent on our own efforts. We are telling about what we have heard through Scripture. We receive and we pass on faithfully. This means that we need to know what the Scripture has to say to us. Likewise we need to make sure our rising generation is instructed as well. I think there is a strong agendum for Christian education coming out of our theme verse.

Secondly, there is humility to witnessing. Say what you’ve got to say! And presumably others can speak too…you claim no power to coerce them into agreeing…you trust that God will do with your witness what He will. This is an essential element of evangelism. The coming years need to be a time of a concerted and vigorous effort, to plant churches, to renew our own proclamation in parishes. This verse sets evangelism in the right tenor. I should hasten to add that witness as a theme also informs efforts of service and social justice: in actions we witness to the nature of the Kingdom, which Jesus has brought and is bringing.

The verse in Acts goes on to say that we are to be witnesses ‘to the ends of the earth.’ The resurrection changes the game for everyone everywhere.   Being a witness to the resurrection puts us in league with our brothers and sisters across the globe. This theme has everything to do with finding new ways to live out our identities as global Christians.

Being a witness is also a good way to describe our calling within the national Church scene. As a more theologically traditional diocese we have something to offer to the Body as a whole, something we think they need to hear. We do not have the power to make people agree with us, but we do need the gumption to say what we have to say, and then listen as well.

Finally, I think the idea of being a witness addresses the area of spirituality. In both Isaiah and Acts the verse conveys a powerful sense of expectation. God has acted, will act, and His act is decisive. We need to be hopeful, confident, patient, open to surprise, willing to suffer. He is going places we didn’t expect. He owns the future. We have our part to play, to say what we have seen and heard, and for such a role we are grateful.

Yet one more final word: we hear a good deal these days that we live in a new kind of culture, a postmodern one. Everyone has their own truth, it is said. The world has gotten closer and more pluralistic. In such a world the early Christians thrived (and suffered). In such a world Christians witness to their neighbors about what they believe to be true.  

You are a witness! It is simple, a beginning, like our faith in the inexhaustible riches of our God. Tell me how we can refine and improve the articulation of this uniting theme.

Peace GRS  



Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.