Stuck in traffic

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Father Ron Rolheiser

There’s a famous billboard that hangs along a congested highway that reads: You aren’t stuck in traffic. You are traffic! Good wit, good insight! How glibly we distance ourselves from a problem, whether it is our politics, our churches, the ecological problems on our planet or most anything else.
We aren’t, as we want to think, stuck in a bad political climate wherein we can no longer talk to each other and live respectfully with each other. Rather we ourselves have become so rigid, arrogant and sure of ourselves that we can no longer respect those who think differently than we do. We are a bad political climate and not just stuck in one.
Likewise for our churches: We aren’t stuck in churches that are too self-serving and not faithful enough to the teachings of Jesus. Rather we are Christians who too often, ourselves, out of self-interest compromise the teachings of Jesus. We aren’t stuck in our churches, we comprise those churches.
The same is true apposite the ecological challenges we face on this planet: We aren’t stuck on a planet that’s becoming oxygen-starved and a junkyard for human wastage. Rather it’s we, not just others, who are too careless in how we are using up the earth’s resources and how we are leaving behind our waste.
Admittedly, this isn’t always true. Sometimes we are stuck in negative situations for which we bear no responsibility and within which, through no fault of our own, we are simply the unfortunate victim of circumstance and someone else’s carelessness, illness, dysfunction or sin. We can, for instance, be born into a dysfunctional situation which leaves us stuck in a family and an environment that don’t make for easy freedom. Or, sometimes simple circumstance can burden us with duties that take away our freedom. So, metaphorically speaking, we can be stuck in traffic and not ourselves be part of that traffic, though generally we are, at least partially, part of the traffic we’re stuck in.
Henri Nouwen often highlighted this in his writings. We are not, he tells us, separate from the events that make up the world news each day. Rather, what we see written large in the world news each night simply reflects what’s going on inside of us. When we see instances of injustice, bigotry, racism, greed, violence, murder and war on our newscasts we rightly feel a certain moral indignation. It’s healthy to feel that way, but it’s not healthy to naively think that it’s others, not us, who are the problem.
When we’re honest we have to admit that we’re complicit in all these things, perhaps not in their crasser forms, but in subtler, though very real, ways: The fear and paranoia that are at the root of so much conflict in our world are not foreign to us. We too, find it hard to accept those who are different from us. We too, cling to privilege and do most everything we can to secure and protect our comfort. We too, use up an unfair amount of the world’s resources in our hunger for comfort and experience.
As well, our negative judgments, jealousies, gossip and bitter words are, at the end of the day, genuine acts of violence since, as Henri Nouwen puts it: Nobody is shot by a gun that isn’t first shot by a word. And nobody is shot by a word before he or she is first shot by a murderous thought: Who does she thinks she is! The evening news just shows large what’s inside our hearts. What’s in the macrocosm is also in the microcosm.
And so we aren’t just viewers of the evening news, we’re complicit in it. The old catechisms were right when they told us that there’s no such a thing as a truly private act, that even our most private actions affect everyone else. The private is political. Everything affects everything.
The first take-away from this is obvious: When we find ourselves stuck in traffic, metaphorically and otherwise, we need to admit our own complicity and resist the temptation to simply blame others.
But there’s another important lesson here too: We are never healthier than when we are confessing our sins; in this case, confessing that we are traffic and not just stuck in traffic. After recognizing that we are complicit, hopefully we can forgive ourselves for the fact that, partially at least, we are helpless to not be complicit. No one can walk through life without leaving a footprint. To pretend otherwise is dishonest and to try to not leave a footprint is futile. The starting point to make things better is for us to admit and confess our complicity.
So the next time you’re stuck in traffic, irritated and impatient, muttering angrily about why there are so many people on the road, you might want to glance at yourself in rearview mirror, ask yourself why you are on the road at that time and then give yourself a forgiving wink as you utter the French word, touché.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

God Needs Better Press

IN EXILE

Father Ron Rolheiser

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
The word “Protestant” is generally misunderstood. Martin Luther’s protest that led to the Protestant reformation was not, in fact, a protest against the Roman Catholic Church; properly understood, it was a protest for God. God, in Luther’s view, was being manipulated to serve human and ecclesial self-interest. His protest was a plea to respect God’s transcendence.
We need a new protest today, a new plea, a strong one, to not connect God and our churches to intolerance, injustice, bigotry, violence, terrorism, racism, sexism, rigidity, dogmatism, anti-eroticism, homophobia, self-serving power, institutional self-protection, security for the rich, ideology of all kinds and just plain stupidity. God is getting a lot of bad press!
A simple example can be illustrative here: In a recent book that documents an extraordinary fifty-year friendship with his former coach, basketball legend (and present-day exceptional writer), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, shares why he became a Muslim. Raised a Roman Catholic, a graduate of Catholic schools, he eventually left Christianity to become a Muslim. Why?
In his own words: Because “the white people who were bombing churches and killing little girls, who were shooting unarmed black boys, who were beating black protestors with clubs loudly declared themselves to be proud Christians. The Ku Klux Klan were proud Christians. I felt no allegiance to a religion with so many evil followers. Yes, I was also aware that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was also a proud Christian, as were many of the civil rights leaders. Coach Wooden was a devout Christian. The civil rights movement was supported by many brave white Christians who marched side by side with blacks. When the KKK attacked, they often delivered even worse beatings to the whites, whom they considered to be race traitors. I didn’t condemn the religion, but I definitely felt removed from it.”
His story is only one story and by his own admission has another side to it, but it’s highly illustrative. It’s easy to connect God to the wrong things. Christianity, of course, isn’t the only culprit. Today, for instance, we see perhaps the worst examples of tying God to evil in the violence of ISIS and other such terrorist groups who are killing, randomly and brutally, in the name of God. You can be sure that the last words uttered, just as a suicide bomber randomly kills innocent people, is: God is great! What horrible thing to say as one is committing an act of murder! Doing the ungodly in the name of God!
And yet we so often do the same thing in subtler forms, namely, we justify the ungodly (violence, injustice, inequality, poverty, intolerance, bigotry, racism, sexism, the abuse of power and rich privilege) by appealing to our religion. Silently, unconsciously, blind to ourselves, grounded in a sense of right and wrong that’s colored by self-interest, we give ourselves divine permission to live and act in ways that are antithetical to most everything Jesus taught.
We can protest, saying that we’re sincere, but sincerity by itself is not a moral or religious criterion. Sincerity can and often does, tie God to the ungodly and justifies what’s evil in the name of God: The people conducting the Inquisition were sincere; the slave traitors were sincere; those who protected pedophile priests were sincere, racists are sincere; sexists are sincere; bigots are sincere; the rich defending their privilege are sincere; church offices making hurtful, gospel-defying pastoral decisions that deprive people of ecclesial access are very sincere and gospel-motivated; and all of us, as we make the kind of judgments of others that Jesus told us time and again not to make, are sincere. But we think that we’re doing this all for the good, for God.
However in so many of our actions we are connecting God and church to narrowness, intolerance, rigidity, racism, sexism, favoritism, legalism, dogmatism and stupidity. And we wonder why so many of our own children no longer go to church and struggle with religion.
The God whom Jesus reveals is the antithesis of much of religion, sad but true. The God whom Jesus reveals is a prodigal God, a God who isn’t stingy; a God who wills the salvation of everyone, who loves all races and all peoples equally; a God with a preferential love for the poor; a God who creates both genders equally; a God who strongly opposes worldly power and privilege. The God of Jesus Christ is a God of compassion, empathy and forgiveness, a God who demands that spirit take precedence over law, love over dogma and forgiveness over juridical justice. And very importantly, the God whom Jesus incarnates isn’t stupid, but is a God whose intelligence isn’t threatened by science and a God who doesn’t condemn and send people to hell according to our limited human judgments.
Sadly, too often that’s not the God of religion, of our churches, of our spirituality, or of our private consciences.
God isn’t narrow, stupid, legalistic, bigoted, racist, violent, or vengeful and it’s time we stopped connecting God to those things.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Understanding Grace more Deeply

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Father Ron Rolheiser

The mark of genuine contrition is not a sense of guilt, but a sense of sorrow, of regret for having taken a wrong turn; just as the mark of living in grace is not a sense of our own worth but a sense of being accepted and loved despite our unworthiness. We are spiritually healthy when our lives are marked by honest confession and honest praise.
Jean-Luc Marion highlights this in a commentary on St. Augustine’s famous Confessions. He sees Augustine’s confession as a work of a true moral conscience because it is both a confession of praise and a confession of sin. Gil Bailie suggests that this comment underlines an important criterion by which to judge whether or not we are living in grace: “If the confession of praise is not accompanied by the confession of sin it an empty and pompous gesture. If the confession of sins is not accompanied by a confession of praise, it is equally vacuous and barren, the stuff of trashy magazines and tabloid newspapers, a self-preening parody of repentance.”
Gil is right, but doing both confessions at one and the same time is not an easy task. We generally find ourselves falling into either a confession of praise where there is no real confession of our own sin; or into the “self-preening parody of repentance” of a still self-absorbed convert, where our confession rings hollow because it shows itself more as a badge of sophistication than as genuine sorrow for having strayed.
In neither case is there a true sense of grace. Piet Fransen, whose masterful book on grace served as a textbook in seminaries and theology schools for a generation, submits that neither the self-confident believer (who still secretly envies the pleasures of the amoral that he’s missing out on) nor the wayward person who converts but still feels grateful for his fling, has yet understood grace. We understand grace only when we grasp existentially what’s inside the Father’s words to his older son in the parable of the prodigal son: My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.
The older brother would not be bitter if he understood that everything his father owns is already his, just as he would not be envious of the pleasures his wayward brother tasted if he understood that, in real life, his brother had been dead. But it takes a deeper grasp of what grace is to intuit that, namely, to grasp that life inside God’s house dwarfs all other pleasures.
The same is true for the convert who has given up his wayward life but still secretly rejoices in the experience and sophistication it brought him and nurses a condescending pity for the less-experienced. He too has not yet really understood grace.
In his book, The Idea of the Holy, now considered a classic, Rudolf Otto submits that in the presence of the holy we will always have a double reaction: fear and attraction. Like Peter at the Transfiguration, we will want to build a tent and stay there forever; but, like him too before the miraculous catch of fish, we will also want to say: “Depart from me for I am a sinful man.” In the presence of the holy, we want to burst forth in praise even as we want to confess our sins.
That insight can help us to understand grace. Piet Fransen begins his signature book on grace, The New Life of Grace, by asking us to imagine this scene: Picture a man who lives his life in mindless hedonism. He simply drinks in the sensual pleasures of this world without a thought for God, responsibility or morality.
Then, after a long life of illicit pleasure, he has a genuine deathbed conversion, sincerely confesses his sins, receives the sacraments of the church, and dies in that happy state. If our spontaneous reaction to this story is: “Well, the lucky fellow! He had fling and still made it in the end!” we have not yet understood grace but instead are still embittered moralizers standing like the older brother in need of a further conversation with our God.
And the same holds true too for the convert who still feels that what he’s experienced in his waywardness, his fling, is a deeper joy than the one known by those who have not strayed. In this case, he’s come back to his father’s house not because he senses a deeper joy there but because he deems his return an unwanted duty, less exciting, less interesting and less joy-filled than a sinful life, but a necessary moral exit strategy. He too has yet to understand grace.
Only when we understand what the father of the prodigal son means when he says to the older brother: Everything I have is yours,” will we offer both a confession of praise and a confession of sin.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

To whom can we go?

IN EXILE

Father Ron Rolheiser

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
“To whom else shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.” Peter says these words to Jesus. But they are spoken in a very conflicted context: Jesus had just said something that upset and offended his audience and the gospels tell us that everyone walked away grumbling that what Jesus was teaching was “intolerable.” Jesus then turns to his apostles and asks them: “Do you want to walk away too?” Peter answers: “To whom else can we go?” But that’s more a statement of stoic resignation than an actual question.
His words function at two levels. On the surface, they express an unwanted humility and helplessness that sometimes beset us all: “I have no alternative! I’m so invested in this relationship that now I have no other options. I’m stuck with this!” That’s a humble place to stand and anyone who has ever given himself or herself over in an authentic commitment will eventually stand on that place, knowing that he or she no longer has another practical choice.
But those words also express a much deeper quandary, namely, where can I find meaning if I cannot find it in faith in God? All of us have at some point asked ourselves that question. If I didn’t believe in God and had no faith or religion, what would give meaning to my life?
Where can we go if we no longer have an explicit faith in God? A lot of places, it seems. I think immediately of so many attractive stoics who have wrestled with this question and found solace in various forms of what Albert Camus would call “metaphysical rebellion” or in the kind of Epicureanism that Nikos Kazantzakis advocates in Zorba, the Greek. There’s a stoicism which offers its own kind of salvation by drawing life and meaning simply from fighting chaos and disease for no other reason than that that these cause suffering and are an affront to life, just as there is an Epicureanism that meaningfully grounds life in elemental pleasure. There are, it would seem, different kinds of saints.
There are also different kinds of immortality. For some, meaning outside of an explicit faith, is found in leaving a lasting legacy on this earth, having children, achieving something monumental, or becoming a household name. We’re all familiar with the axiom: Plant a tree; write a book; have a child!
Poets, writers, artists, and artisans often have their own place to find meaning outside of explicit faith. For them, creativity and beauty can be ends in themselves. Art for art’s sake. Creativity itself can seem enough.
And there are still others for whom deep meaning is found simply in being good for its own sake and in being honest for its own sake. There’s also virtue for virtue’s sake and virtue is indeed its own reward. Simply living an honest and generous life can provide sufficient meaning with which to walk through life.
So, it appears that there are places to go outside of explicit faith where one can find deep meaning. But is this really so? Don’t we believe that true meaning can only be found in God? What about St. Augustine’s classic line? You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until the rest in you. Can anything other than faith and God really quiet the restless fires within us?
Yes, there are things that can do that, but all of them – fighting chaos, curing diseases, having children, living for others, building things, inventing things, achieving goals or simply living honest and generous lives – leave us, in an inchoate way, radiating the transcendental properties of God and working alongside God to bring life and order to the world. How so?
Christian theology tells us that God is One, True, Good, and Beautiful. And so, when an artist gives herself over to creating beauty, when a couple has a child, when scientists work to find cures for various diseases, when artisans make an artifact, when builders build, when teachers teach, when parents parent, when athletes play a game, when manual laborers labor, when administrators administrate, when people just for the sake integrity itself live in honesty and generosity, and, yes, even when hedonists drink deeply of earthily pleasure, they are, all of them, whether they have explicit faith or not, acting in some faith because they are putting their trust in either the Oneness, Truth, Goodness, or Beauty of God.
Lord, to whom else can we go? You have the message of eternal life. Well, it seems that there are places to go and many go there. But these aren’t necessarily, as is sometimes suggested by misguided spiritual literature, empty places that are wrong and self-destructive. There are, of course, such places, spiritual dead-ends; but, more generally, as we can see simply by looking at the amount of positive energy, love, creativity, generosity and honesty that still fill our world, those places where people are seeking God outside of explicit faith still has them meeting God.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Christianity’s ‘noon-day’ fatigue

IN EXILE

Father Ron Rolheiser

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
There’s a popular notion which suggests that it can be helpful to compare every century of Christianity’s existence to one year of life. That would make Christianity 21 years-old, a young 21, grown-up enough to exhibit a basic maturity but still far from a finished product. How insightful is this notion?
That’s a complex question because Christianity expresses itself in communities of worship and in spiritualities that vary greatly across the world. For instance, just to speak of churches, it is difficult to speak of the Christian church in any global way:. In Africa, for the most part, the churches are young, full of young life and exploding with growth, with all the strengths and problems that come with that.
In Eastern Europe the churches are still emerging from the long years of oppression under communism and are struggling now to find a new balance and new energy within an ever-intensifying secularity. Latin American churches have given us liberation theology for a reason. There the issues of social injustice and those advocating for it in Jesus’ name and those reacting against them have deeply colored how church and spirituality are lived and understood.
In Asia, the situation is even more complex. One might talk of four separate ecclesial expressions and corresponding spiritualities in Asia: There is Buddhist Asia, Hindu Asia, Moslem Asia and a seemingly post-Christian Asia. Churches and spiritualities express themselves quite differently in these different parts of Asia. Finally there is still Western Europe and North America, the so-called “West.” Here, it would seem, Christianity doesn’t radiate much in the way of either youth or vitality, but appears from most outward appearances to be aged, grey-haired and tired, an exhausted project.
How accurate is this as a picture of Christianity in Western Europe, North America and other highly secularized part of the world? Are we, as churches, old, tired, grey-haired and exhausted?
That’s one view, but the picture admits of other interpretations. Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, along with many Enlightenment figures, saw Christianity as a spent project, as a dying reality, its demise the inevitable death of childhood naiveté. But Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, looking at the same evidence, saw things in exactly the opposite way. For him, Christianity was still “in diapers”, struggling still to grow in maturity, a child still learning to walk; hence its occasional stumbles.
Contemporary spiritual writer, Tomas Halik, the recent winner of the prestigious Templeton Award, suggests still another picture. For Halik, Christianity in the West is undergoing a “noon-day fatigue,” a writer’s block, a crisis of imagination. In this, he is very much in agreement with what Charles Taylor suggests in his monumental study, “A Secular Age.” For Taylor, what we are experiencing today is not so much a crisis of faith as a crisis of imagination and integration. Older Christian writers called this a “dark night of the soul” and Halik suggests that it is happening to us not at the end of the day but at noontime.
My own sympathies are very much with Halik. Christianity, the churches and the spiritualities in Western Europe and North America aren’t old and dying, a spent project. Rather they are young, figuratively speaking only 21 years old, with still some growing up to do. But and here is where I agree with conservative critics, growth into that maturity is not guaranteed but is rather contingent upon us making some clear choices and hard commitments inside a genuine faith. As any parent can tell you, there are no guarantees that a 21 year old will grow to maturity. The opposite can also happen and that’s true too for Christianity and the churches today. There are no guarantees.
But, inside of faith and inside the choices and commitments we will have to make, it is important that we situate ourselves under the correct canopy so as to assign to ourselves the right task. We are not old and dying. We are young, with our historical afternoon still to come, even as we are presently suffering a certain “noon-day fatigue.” Our afternoon still lies ahead and the task of the afternoon is quite different than the task of the morning or the evening. As James Hillman puts it: “The early years must focus on getting things done, while the later years must consider what was done and how.”
But the afternoon years must focus on something else, namely, the task of deepening. Both spirituality and anthropology agree that the afternoon of life is meant to be an important time within which to mature, an important time for some deeper inner work and an important time to enter more deeply our own depth. Note that this is a task of deepening and not one of restoration.
Our noon-day fatigue will not be overcome by returning to the task of the morning in hope of refreshing ourselves or by retiring passively to the evening’s rocking chair. Noon-day fatigue will be overcome by finding new springs of refreshment buried at deeper places inside us.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Death as ‘going on ahead’

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

“I go on ahead to prepare a place for you!” Jesus speaks those words to his disciples on the eve of his death as he sits at table with them and senses their sadness as they grapple with his dying, his going away. His words are meant to console them and give them the assurance that they aren’t being abandoned. It’s just that he is going on ahead to prepare a place for them to come and join him later.
That story speaks to me very personally because of how one of my sisters died. She was young, the mother of a large family and seemingly too young to leave her young children behind. She was dying of a cancer that, while relentlessly doing its deadly work, mercifully left her relatively pain-free and clear in mind and heart to the very end. The cancer eventually took her to a point where she could no longer eat, but could still be nourished for a time by intravenous transfusions. But these too eventually no longer worked and, once unhooked from the intravenous needles, she was told that she had roughly a week still to live. She chose to spend those last days in a hospital rather than at home, with her family having easy, 24-hour, access to her hospice bed.
The days leading up to her death were a sacred time. I took her communion several days before she died and, with her head still very clear, she told me what I should say at her funeral liturgy. She had chosen that exact text where Jesus, on the night before he dies, tells his heavy-hearted disciples that he is going ahead, to prepare a place for them. She shared how, before every one of her children was born, before she went to the hospital to give birth, she had carefully prepared everything at home for the new arrival, the crib, the diapers, the clothing, the room. She brought each of her children home to a place she had carefully prepared. And now she was going on ahead of them again, to prepare another place for them.
I preached those words at her funeral and despite our grief and despite the fact that in moments like these there is nothing really that can be said that takes away the pain, her raw testimony of faith left us with an image that placed us all, not least her husband and children, inside a bigger story, a faith-narrative, that highlighted two things.
First, the image of her going on ahead of her children awakened our grieving faith to the truth that a mother can go on ahead to prepare a place for her children in much deeper ways than simply bringing a new-born home from a hospital. Second, her “going ahead” was also showing her children and the rest of us, how to die, how to do that act that we all someday must do. After you watch a good person die, you become less afraid to die yourself because you see how it can be done in an ordinary way, by an ordinary person, in a way that you can also do. In her dying, she prepared a place for us.
But this isn’t a lesson only about dying. This image, I go on ahead to prepare a place for you, is a metaphor which defines the essential task of our adult, mature years. Our task as “elders,” whether that be as a mother or father, an older brother or older sister, an uncle or an aunt, a teacher, a clergyman, a nurse, a worker, a colleague or a friend, is to live in such a way so as to create a place where the young can follow. Our task as adults is to show the young how to live at a place where they’ve never been as yet.
And it is both a noble and humble task. Most of us cannot live up to the lofty ideals we see lived out in the lives of the great saints, though their lives have created an ideal place for us. However, while not everyone can live as Mother Teresa did, perhaps they can live like you do and your life can be their exemplar for meaning, wholeness, anonymous sanctity and dying without unnecessary fear.
I’ve been graced to be at the deathbed of a goodly number of ordinary people who died very ordinary-looking deaths, with no choirs of angels silently chanting in the background, no alleluias on their lips, with pain and thirst dominating their concerns, with their hands being tightly grasped by loved ones and their hearts still very much focused on the pain of leaving this world. And that’s not a bad way to die. In how they managed their deaths they prepared a place for me. Looking at how they died, I am far less fearful and can more readily say: I can do this!
What a grace to have someone go on ahead to prepare a place for you!
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Coming full circle – from storybooks to spirituality

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Father Ron Rolheiser

My first love was literature, novels and poetry. As a child, I loved storybooks, mysteries and adventures. In grade school, I was made to memorize poetry and loved the exercise. High school introduced me to more serious literature, Shakespeare, Kipling, Keats, Wordsworth, Browning. On the side, I still read storybooks, cowboy tales from the old West, taken from my dad’s bookshelf.
During my undergraduate university years, literature was a major part of the curriculum and I learned then that literature wasn’t just about stories, but also about social and religious commentary; as well as about form and beauty as ends in themselves. In classes then we read classic novels: Nineteen Eighty-Four, Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, The Heart of the Matter, East of Eden. The curriculum at that that time in Canada heavily favored British writers. Only later, on my own, would I discover the richness in Canadian, US, African, Indian, Russian and Swedish writers. I had been solidly catechized in my youth and, while the catechism held my faith, literature held my theology.
But after literature came philosophy. As part of preparation for ordination we were required to earn a degree in philosophy. I was blessed with some fine teachers and fell into first fervor in terms of my love of philosophy. The courses then heavily favored Scholasticism (Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas) but we were also given a sound history of philosophy and a basic grounding in Existentialism and some of the contemporary philosophical movements. I was smitten; philosophy became my theology.
But after philosophy came theology. After our philosophical studies, we were required to take a four-year degree in theology prior to ordination. Again, I was blessed with good teachers and blessed to be studying theology just as Vatican II and a rich new theological scholarship were beginning to penetrate theological schools and seminaries. There was theological excitement aplenty, and I shared in it. In Roman Catholic circles, we were reading Congar, Rahner, Schillebeeckx, Schnackenburg, and Raymond Brown. Protestant circles were giving us Barth, Tillich, Niebuhr, and a bevy of wonderful scripture scholars. The faith of my youth was finally finding the intellectual grounding it had forever longed for. Theology became my new passion.
But after theology came spirituality. After ordination, I was given the opportunity to do a farther graduate degree in theology. That degree deepened immeasurably my love for and commitment to theology. It also landed me a teaching job and for the next six years I taught theology at a graduate level. These were wonderful years; I was where I most wanted to be, in a theology classroom. However, during those six years, I began to explore the writings of the mystics and tentatively launch some courses in spirituality, beginning with a course on the great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross.
My doctoral studies followed those years and while I focused on systematic theology, writing my thesis in the area of natural theology, something had begun to shift in me. I found myself more and more, both in teaching and writing, shifting more into the area of spirituality, so much so that after a few years I could no longer justify calling some of my former courses in systematic theology by their old catalogue titles. Honesty compelled me now to name them courses in spirituality.  
And what is spirituality? How is it different from theology? At one level, there’s no difference. Spirituality is, in effect, applied theology. They are of one and the same piece, either ends of the same sock. But here’s a difference: Theology defines the playing field, defines the doctrines, distinguishes truth from falsehood, and seeks to enflame the intellectual imagination. It is what it classically claims itself to be: Faith seeking understanding.
But, rich and important as that is, it’s not the game. Theology makes up the rules for the game, but it doesn’t do the playing nor decide the outcome. That’s role of spirituality, even as it needs to be obedient to theology. Without sound theology, spirituality always falls into unbridled piety, unhealthy individualism, and self-serving fundamentalism. Only good, rigorous, academic theology saves us from these.

But without spirituality, theology too-easily becomes only an intellectual aesthetics, however beautiful. It’s one thing to have coherent truth and sound doctrine; it’s another thing to give that actual human flesh, on the streets, in our homes and inside our own restless questioning and doubt. Theology needs to give us truth; spirituality needs to break open that truth.
And so I’ve come full circle: From the story books of my childhood, through the Shakespeare of my high school, through the novelists and poets of my undergraduate years, through the philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas, through the theology of Rahner and Tillich, through the scripture scholarship of Raymond Brown and Ernst Kasemann, through the hermeneutics of the Post-Modernists of my post-graduate years, through forty years of teaching theology, I’ve landed where I started – still searching for good stories that feed the soul.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Doing violence in God’s name

IN EXILE

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Blaise Pascal once wrote: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.” How true! This has been going on since the beginning of time and is showing few signs of disappearing any time soon. We still do violence and evil and justify them in God’s name.

We see countless examples of this in history. From the time that we first gained self-consciousness, we’ve done violence in God name. It began by sacrificing human persons to try to attain God’s favor and it led to everything from actively persecuting others for religious reasons, to waging war in God’s name, to burning people for heresy at the Inquisition, to practicing capital punishment for religious reasons, and, not least, at one point in history, to handing Jesus over to be crucified out of our misguided religious fervor.

These are some salient historical examples; sadly not much has changed. Today, in its most gross form, we see violence done in God’s name by groups like Al-Qaida and Isis who, whatever else might be their motivation, believe that they are serving God and cleansing the world in God’s name by brute terrorism and murder. The death of thousands of innocent people can be justified, they believe, by the fact that this is God’s cause, so sacred and urgent that it allows for the bracketing of all basic standards of humanity, decency, and normal religion. When it’s for God’s cause, outright evil is rationalized.

Happily, it’s impossible for most of us to justify this kind of violence and murder in our minds and hearts, but most of us still justify this kind of sacral violence in more subtle modes. Many of us, for instance, still justify capital punishment in the name of divine justice, believing that God’s purposes demand that we kill someone. Many too, justify abortion by an appeal to our God-given freedoms. Not least, virtually all of us justify certain violence in our language and discourse because we feel that our cause is so special and sacred that it gives us the right to bracket some of the fundamentals of Christian charity in our dealings with those who disagree with us, namely, respect and graciousness.

Our language, in both the circles of right and the left, is rife with a violence we justify in God’s name. On the right, issues like abortion and the defense of dogma are deemed so important as to give us permission to demonize others. On the left, issues of economic and ecological injustice, because they so directly affect the poor, similarly give us permission to bracket respect and graciousness. Both sides like to justify themselves with an appeal to God’s righteous anger.

There’s a story in John’s Gospel, delicious in its irony, which helps expose how we are so often blind to the violence we do in God’s name. It’s the famous incident of the woman who is caught in adultery. They bring her to Jesus and tell him that they caught her in the very act of committing adultery and that Moses commanded, in God’s name, that women like this be stoned to death. Jesus, for his part, says nothing.

He bends down and writes with his finger, twice, on the ground and then tells them the one among them who’s without sin might cast the first stone. They understand the gesture: why he is writing on the ground, why he is writing twice, and what that means. What does it mean?

Moses went up a mountain and God, with his finger, wrote the Ten Commandments into two tablets of stone. As Moses approached the Israelite camp on his return, carrying the two tablets of stone, he caught the people in the very act of committing idolatry. What did he do? In a fit of religious fervor, he broke the Commandments, literally, physically, over the golden calf and then picked up the fragments and threw those stones at the people.

So here’s the irony from which to draw a lesson: Moses was the first person to break the Ten Commandments. He broke them in God’s name and then took the fragments and stoned the people. He did this violence in all sincerity, caught up in religious fervor. Of course, afterwards, he had to go back up the mountain and have the Commandments written a second time. However before giving Moses the Commandments a second time, God also gave him a lecture: Don’t stone people with the Commandments! Don’t do violence in my name!

We’ve been very slow to grasp this mandate and take it seriously. We still find every sort of moral and religious justification for doing violence in God’s name. We are still, like Moses, smashing the Commandments on what we consider idolatrous and then stoning others with the fragments.

This is evident everywhere in our religious and moral discourse, particularly in how we, as Pascal might put it, in God’s name, “completely and cheerfully” bracket charity as it pertains to graciousness and respect.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)