The National Catholic Review

In the previous Of Many Things column (4/24), Father Jim McDermott remarked how Easter, after the extended observance of Lent, can seem to come and go with barely any impact on believers. Because it demands more of us, Lent seems to draw our attention more dramatically. I have a different take on the seasons. It seems to me that the seven weeks the liturgical year assigns to the Easter season, culminating in the feast of Pentecost, imply that the work of the feast, like that of Lent, is not done in a single day. On Easter Sunday our faith, like the disciples’, has only just begun to grow. If Lent purges us of sin, then week by week the Easter season elicits faith from our hearts. Like doubting Thomas, the hesitant Peter and the grieving Mary, we all need to grow in faith in Jesus and the power of his resurrection. The weeks of Easter are intended to foster that Easter faith.

 

Sometimes, however, I wonder whether in the contemporary church the insistence on truth has dulled our sense of faith as a personal engagement with the mystery of God. Faced with moral and religious relativism, we make appeals to the truth of the faith to bolster church teaching in the hearts of wavering Catholics and to challenge an unbelieving world. There is a rightness in these appeals. In the person of Jesus and the pattern of his life, the truth of human existence has been revealed. He is the truth for which people yearn, and cradle Catholics, as much as anyone, need to be reminded of the light he bestows on our existence before God. The Catholic tradition, moreover, has always affirmed the compatibility of faith and reason. Augustine and Anselm regarded theology as “faith seeking understanding.” Aquinas taught that the existence and nature of God (the divine wisdom and goodness, for example) could be known by natural reason. Yet too much insistence on the reasonableness of the faith may obscure its riskiness and uncertainty.

St. Paul contrasted knowing by faith with knowing by sight (2 Cor 5:7). The Letter to the Hebrews defined faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”(11:1). In St. John’s Gospel (20:29), Jesus blesses “those who have not seen and yet believe.” C. S. Lewis, in his science fiction novel Perelandra, captured the venture of faith in an oceanic metaphor. At sunset the planet’s inhabitants had to leave dry land and throw themselves into the sea. There in the darkness they had to trust themselves to unseen forces to keep them alive till morning’s light. So in faith we place ourselves in God’s hands, not knowing where he will lead us. We can be sure only that God will change our lives. Holding to the truth, by contrast, can be like clinging to Perelandra’s rocks rather than abandoning ourselves to the sea. Adhering to a system of truths can hinder us from an encounter with God that shatters the narrow boundaries of self and opens us to the seas of transcendence.

Acknowledging the limits of the intellect, even in the service of faith, Karl Rahner prayed: “Knowledge seems to me a pain-killing drug that I have to take repeatedly against the boredom and desolation of my heart.... All it can give me is words and concepts, which perform the middleman’s service of expressing and interpreting reality to me but can never still my heart’s craving for the reality itself.... Truly, my God, mere knowing is nothing. All it can give is the sad realization of its own inadequacy” (Encounters With Silence).

The desire for certainty in the form of truth statements often manifests our unwillingness to accept the mystery intrinsic to faith. It yields not just spiritual dissatisfaction, but corruption of mind and weakening of spirit. Intellectually it can give rise to fundamentalism, thought-policing based on abbreviated catechetical formulas, depreciation of theology and misconstrual of tradition.

Spiritually, a misplaced preoccupation with truth tends to infantilize its victims. It inhibits religious growth and is threatened by growth in others. It narrows the religious affections and becomes fixated instead on talismans of orthodoxy. In prayer, it is comfortable only with rote formulas. It can puff people up with spiritual pride at being the faithful party in the church. It is frightened at the free movement of the Spirit and recoils at the surprises of grace.

When we place our trust in Christ and follow him, we can be sure there will be surprises ahead. As we move toward Pentecost, the liturgical cycle should lead us to a stronger, more venturesome faith. Like Peter, we should be able to say, “Lord, you know I love you.” If our faith has matured these seven weeks, we will hear the Lord say, “Follow me,” and, like Peter, we too may “be led where [we] do not want to go” (John 21:18). 

Drew Christiansen, S.J., is editor in chief of America.

Comments

Kate Smirnoff | 4/28/2006 - 10:55am
Thank you for responding to the lethargy expressed by the previous author Of Many Things regarding the Easter Season! Like you I rejoice that an octave just isn't enough to celebrate this most central feast! Thanks for reminding us that "Believing is Seeing" and sometimes when we least expect it and in ways we never imagined!

Mary Ellen | 4/28/2006 - 6:29pm
Bravo to Fr. Christiansen for a long overdue commentary on the direction the bishops and conservative commentators feel the Church must go.

As someone who has been involved in the catechetical field for the last 20 years I have witnessed the changes that have taken place. While no one who cares about the transmission of the faith to the next generation would deny that there are certain truths that need to be taught , a vocabulary and practice that needs to be learned, the overemphasis on vocabulary and concepts at the expense of story and witness will not insure that the next generation will have faith.

The textbooks that publishers are producing to be deemed acceptable to the bishops, and therefore the only textbooks being allowed, while they may be in conformity with the Catechism are so far removed from the way Jesus taught that it quite saddens me. The textbooks stress concepts and vocabulary over stories about Jesus and ignore the experience of the children as a way to connect what they learn with the faith. Jesus used such homey examples in his teaching, making bread, sowing seeds, lilies of the field, images that the people could understand and relate to. Such homey examples or activities that would engage children are deemed unacceptable today because they are not in the catechism, ignoring the fact that we are trying to engage the hearts and minds of ordinary children and not produce a generation of young pseudo-theologians.

We are on the brink of turning off the next generation of Catholics by our fear of relativism and unorthodoxy. I too am fearful that our children do not know enough about our faith but what they do not know is the story of our faith. We are not doing enough to help them develop a relationship with Our Lord. But God help us they will be able parrot back answers to questions they to not even understand, while at the same time not be able to tell you the story of the Good Samaritan or give you many details of the Christmas or Easter stories.

Please do not use my name or address, as I work for the Church and I am trying to work with what I have been handed, while praying for the day when the Spirit breathes new life into this creaking shipwreck of a Church that I dearly love.

Mark Franceschini, O.S.M. | 2/23/2007 - 1:23pm
The Of Many Things column of May 8, on the truths of faith becoming a problem for faith-living, speaks volumes. Our hunger for an energizing, life-giving spirituality can easily be detoured by emphasizing the truths of our beliefs. Allegiance to these truths easily produces a certitude that subtly spirals downward to self-righteousness. If there is an ongoing, ever-harmful element in religion, Catholic or otherwise, it is the self-righteousness of absolute truths dividing people into those who are right and those who are wrong.

The true energy of faith is found in its mystical searching for true mystery, God, and the relationship God aspires to with each person of faith and their sharing it with one another and all others. Faith, then, is a lifestyle trusting in God’s love and presence. This is the enthusiasm and inspiration for sharing it in all our relationships. It is an ever-lifegiving trust in the incomprehensible mystery of God, needing no further truth to sustain it.

Kate Smirnoff | 4/28/2006 - 10:55am
Thank you for responding to the lethargy expressed by the previous author Of Many Things regarding the Easter Season! Like you I rejoice that an octave just isn't enough to celebrate this most central feast! Thanks for reminding us that "Believing is Seeing" and sometimes when we least expect it and in ways we never imagined!

Mary Ellen | 4/28/2006 - 6:29pm
Bravo to Fr. Christiansen for a long overdue commentary on the direction the bishops and conservative commentators feel the Church must go.

As someone who has been involved in the catechetical field for the last 20 years I have witnessed the changes that have taken place. While no one who cares about the transmission of the faith to the next generation would deny that there are certain truths that need to be taught , a vocabulary and practice that needs to be learned, the overemphasis on vocabulary and concepts at the expense of story and witness will not insure that the next generation will have faith.

The textbooks that publishers are producing to be deemed acceptable to the bishops, and therefore the only textbooks being allowed, while they may be in conformity with the Catechism are so far removed from the way Jesus taught that it quite saddens me. The textbooks stress concepts and vocabulary over stories about Jesus and ignore the experience of the children as a way to connect what they learn with the faith. Jesus used such homey examples in his teaching, making bread, sowing seeds, lilies of the field, images that the people could understand and relate to. Such homey examples or activities that would engage children are deemed unacceptable today because they are not in the catechism, ignoring the fact that we are trying to engage the hearts and minds of ordinary children and not produce a generation of young pseudo-theologians.

We are on the brink of turning off the next generation of Catholics by our fear of relativism and unorthodoxy. I too am fearful that our children do not know enough about our faith but what they do not know is the story of our faith. We are not doing enough to help them develop a relationship with Our Lord. But God help us they will be able parrot back answers to questions they to not even understand, while at the same time not be able to tell you the story of the Good Samaritan or give you many details of the Christmas or Easter stories.

Please do not use my name or address, as I work for the Church and I am trying to work with what I have been handed, while praying for the day when the Spirit breathes new life into this creaking shipwreck of a Church that I dearly love.

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