Friday, September 20, 2013

My Theological Reflection on Pope Francis's Jesuit Interview: "God Is Encountered Walking, Along the Path"

Where is God?

I've now read Pope Francis's interview with his fellow Jesuit Antonio Spadaro, and it strikes me that in this wide-ranging conversation with many thematic emphases, that's a central concern. It's a cohesive question, one that ties together the many different emphases of the interview: Where is God?

This is clearly a central question for the pope himself in his own spiritual life as a Jesuit, since, as he stresses at the beginning of the interview, his spirituality is molded by the Jesuit emphasis on discernment, with its goal of seeking God everywhere, in all things, and especially among the least among us. As Spadaro says, "Discernment is therefore a pillar of the spirituality of Pope Francis."

The Jesuit emphasis on discernment, on finding God in all things, impels those who read the gospels through the lens of Ignatian spirituality to ask continuously throughout their lives: where do I find God now? In this circumstance? In this world, in the world around me, the world coming into being around me at the present moment? 

Because my life as a follower of Jesus in the tradition of Ignatius requires me never to give up looking for God and asking, Where is God now? Where is God here?

As Francis observes,

The Society of Jesus can be described only in narrative form. Only in narrative form do you discern, not in a philosophical or theological explanation, which allows you rather to discuss. The style of the Society is not shaped by discussion, but by discernment, which of course presupposes discussion as part of the process.The mystical dimension of discernment never defines its edges and does not complete the thought. The Jesuit must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking. 

And then he adds,

No, the Jesuit always thinks, again and again, looking at the horizon toward which he must go, with Christ at the center. This is his real strength. And that pushes the Society to be searching, creative and generous.

The mystical dimension of discernment never defines its edges and does not complete the thought. The Ignatian method of discernment, as Francis understands it, directly counters the longing of many Catholics of the recent restorationist moment of Catholic history for an absolute certitude that God is locked up inside, captured by, dogmatic formulations handed down by the top leaders of the church.

To such restorationist Catholics, to all of us who seek ultimate divine security in an aphorism, a platitude, an ideological slogan, a doctrine, Francis says frankly scary things like the following in his reflections about finding God in the world:

If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him.  


If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal 'security,' those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists­—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies. I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.


Ours is not a "lab faith," but a "journey faith," a historical faith. God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths. I am afraid of laboratories because in the laboratory you take the problems and then you bring them home to tame them, to paint them, out of their context. You cannot bring home the frontier, but you have to live on the border and be audacious.

God is in everyone's life. God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths.

These statements orient the search for God in the world around us in a very different direction from the orientation that restorationist Catholics want to take. In making them, Francis is making a total break with the restorationist project--and he will, I don't doubt, be made to experience grief for this decision. 

So if God isn't tied up in the bondage chamber of our doctrinal formulas and magisterial dictates, then where on earth is God? In this interview, Francis gives a number of fascinating indicators of his thinking in response to that question. One that I find very compelling from the outset of the interview, as Francis states bluntly that the best possible description of himself is that he is a sinner, is that God is the one who is always "mercy-ing" in the world around us: God is the one who is forever misericordiando.

God is forever mercy-ing everyone. And so God is to be found both in the struggle to extend mercy and compassion to everyone in the world, and also within each and every person around us--including and notably those whose lives are, from our perspective, walking disasters, as Francis says.

And then there's this other answer to the question, Where is God?, which leaps out at me as I read the interview:

God is encountered walking, along the path.

God isn't only the goal of our walk, of our spiritual journey. God is on that same walk, on that same path, along with us. We encounter God walking. God is, by definition, the one walking the path. Along  with us.

We encounter God only when we walk. When we leave certainty behind . . . . When we recognize that we do not and cannot own or possess God or lock Her up inside our dogmatic prisons . . . . Inside "the" church . . . . Inside the gender-exclusive (and predictably male) pronouns that the leaders of "the" church have been wont to apply to God . . . .

God is encountered walking, along the path: there is a way in which, in this remarkable interview, the new pope is taking what are, after all, very ancient understandings of Catholic faith, but ones shunted aside during the restorationist period of Catholicism for a pseudo-orthodoxy that has been all about obeying every papal word as a word from the  mouth of God, and is bringing these ancient understandings back to the forefront of the church's thinking today. With remarkable, unsettling effect, since so many of us had assumed we had the answers all sewn up, and that the task left to us Catholics for the rest of history was to use our sewn-up certitudes, our God in a box, as weapons with which to bludgeon fellow Catholics out of our tiny little prison-church of toxic certainties.

This notion of God encountered walking along the path informs what is for me one of the most noteworthy passages in Francis's interview, one that deserves serious attention: this is how Francis understands the traditional biblical notion (enshrined and rehabilitated by Vatican II) of the church as the people of God. When his interviewer asks Francis what it means to think with the church--a central emphasis of the Ignatian tradition of discernment--here's how the pope responds:

The image of the church I like is that of the holy, faithful people of God. This is the definition I often use, and then there is that image from the Second Vatican Council’s "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" (No. 12). Belonging to a people has a strong theological value. In the history of salvation, God has saved a people. There is no full identity without belonging to a people. No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships. 
The people itself constitutes a subject. And the church is the people of God on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows. Thinking with the church, therefore, is my way of being a part of this people. And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilitas in credendo, this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together. This is what I understand today as the ‘thinking with the church’ of which St. Ignatius speaks. When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit. So this thinking with the church does not concern theologians only.

Here's another answer to the question, Where is God? As Francis states, God enters into this dynamic [i.e., of the human community itself], this participation in the web of human relationships. And so, Belonging to a people has a strong theological value. And, Thinking with the church, therefore, is my way of being a part of this people.

These are remarkable statements not so much because they're new--they're not: they're foundational in the New Testament understanding of the church, and in the patristic tradition, and were brought front and center again by Vatican II--but because they absolutely deconstruct the spin that restorationist Catholics have sought to give to the phrase "thinking with the church" for some time now. For that set of Catholics, thinking with the church has been, quite simply, listening to and obeying the pope. 

Francis (with Vatican II) envisages thinking with the church in a quite different way: God has entered into the dynamic of the human community, and if we want to find God, we have to get inside that dynamic--which is a journey dynamic, a dialogue dynamic, and not a handing-down-truth-to-passive-recipients dynamic. Where is God? God is in history, Francis says at one point, sounding very much as if he has read and understands and endorses liberation theology, with its central insistence that we meet God only by immersing ourselves in historical processes and the struggle for liberation:

God manifests himself in historical revelation, in history. Time initiates processes, and space crystallizes them. God is in history, in the processes.

Infallibility--and can you begin to imagine how this statement is going to hit the ears of Catholic restorationists?--is infallibilitas in credendo. It's about the people of God walking together on a journey through history, and it presupposes that bishops and the pope be on the same journey. And alongside the people of God. Only then can we begin to speak about the infallibility--of the church itself, as a community of people in whom God is present, and a community on a journey within history.

It's in this context that Francis makes his observation that I chose as my initial thematic focus in talking about his remarks, "This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people." And it's in this same context that Francis observes (again, employing a journey metaphor from the gospels--the story of Emmaus):

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

What makes the heart burn, as the hearts of Jesus's disciples burned when they met him walking on the road to Emmaus, are not second-tier dogmatic and moral teachings of the church, but the essentials, the necessary things: the heart of the gospel proclamation itself. Or, as Francis says, 

[T]he proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing.

And it's in that same context that I hear Francis make his remarkable observation about the church's relationship to gay people, which has captured so much media attention in the last two days: 

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: "Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?" We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. 

Here's what's remarkable in Francis's response: I replied with another question. For a long time now, the leaders of the Catholic church have been all about answers and not much at all about questions--particularly when the question asked of them is, Do you approve of homosexuality?

But Francis responds to the question with another question, in a parabolic fashion echoing Jesus in the gospels, since his question to his interrogator turns the question the interrogator asks on its head: Is a gay person a person or not a person? And if a person, then do we foreclose the possibility of meeting God in a gay person when we depersonalize her?

This is clearly not how many Catholic bishops, not how some previous popes, not how many of the Catholic laity, want to talk about God. Or about gay and lesbian human beings. Or about infallibility. Or about discernment. Or about the church and the spiritual life and thinking with the church.

It is a way of talking about gay and lesbian human beings (and God, the church, spirituality, infallibility, discernment, etc.) that opens the door to precisely what Catholics of the right have not wanted and have kept at bay for a long time now in the Catholic church: it opens the door to dialogue. Because God is among the whole people of God. Including gay and lesbian Catholics.

And Francis insists in his remarks to his Jesuit brother that "consultation is very important" for him as pope. Not delivering dictates on high. But listening to the people of God with whom he is on a shared journey, as we all walk together alongside God Herself. 

And he insists, "I do not want token consultations, but real consultation," and, "I want to see that this is a real, not ceremonial consultation." 

For Catholics of the right, bless their hearts, those words and what they imply are going to be as mind-blowing as Francis's frank statement, "I have never been a right-winger." God knows, though, that it's high time many of us in the Catholic church have our minds blown, since it has begun to appear increasingly likely to many of us that the church as it has configured itself in the era of doltish pat answers and pastoral stone-heartedness is likely to make very few friends and has made many enemies.

Thereby significantly undercutting its effectiveness as a vehicle of mercy and a proclaimer of the all-embracing mercy-ing of God in the world in which we live today . . . . 

The graphic is Janet Brooks-Gerloff's "Emmaus Door," from the Wijselijk Onwetend blog site, with a hat tip to Phil Ewing at Blue Eyed Ennis.

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