J.R.R. Tolkien and the Season of Lent

Jon JordanJon R. Jordan

Dean of Students

Coram Deo Academy, Dallas, TX

One of my favorite bits of dialogue in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring confronts us with an age-old debate about spiritual disciplines in general, and the Christian season of Lent in particular. Before embarking on their Journey to Mordor, Elrond—the Lord of Rivendale—shares a final message with the Company that is to join Frodo on his quest: Frodo himself is bound to complete the journey, while the members of the Company are “free companions” that may “come back, or turn aside into other paths, as chance allows.” Gimli—the renowned Dwarf warrior—gives a response that begins the dialogue in question.
‘‘Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,’’ said Gimli.
‘‘Maybe,’’ said Elrond, ‘‘but let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.’’
‘‘Yet sworn word may strengthen quaking heart,’’ said Gimli.
‘‘Or break it,’’ said Elrond.
Gimli argues that a vow made on the front-end of a journey may serve as a sustaining force for when difficulty is faced. Elrond counters that, at times, the weight of such a vow might actually break one’s will along the way. Both positions are worthy of considering further, but what light can this conversation shed on the ancient Christian practice of Lent?

The Church calendar has historically served as a way to center our lives around the life of Christ, and the season of Lent serves (1) as an opportunity to re-live Jesus’ forty days of fasting in the wilderness and as (2) a period of preparation for our celebration of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. It has traditionally been celebrated as a season for (1) fasting, (2) the adoption of a new spiritual practice, and (3) giving of time and money to the poor. These practices are not particular to Lent, but are in fact some of the most central practices of the Christian faith, commanded repeatedly throughout the New Testament (see Mt 6:1-18). An important side-point here is that Lent, as a season that simply asks Christians to act as Christians, is a gift from God and should be received by all Christians as such.

So how then should we approach Lent? With Gimli’s determination and rigidity, or with Elrond’s patience and grace?

The Church’s answer to this questions, as is so often the case, is “yes” to both. Be like Gimli as you fight against sin in your own life and injustice in the world. Use this period of 40 days (plus 6 Sundays) to re-center your spiritual life. Don’t let the calendar of culture dictate your devotion to Christ. Put forth effort to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). On Ash Wednesday, the Church is somberly called to “the observance of a Holy Lent.”

But also remember that we are far more like the first Adam, who failed his temptation in the garden, than we are like the second Adam, who triumphed over temptation in the wilderness.

Be like Elrond as you let your failure during this season serve as another reminder of your need for a savior. Don’t let your adoption of new disciplines “puff up” your ego, but instead recognize them for what they are: gifts from God given to a sinner who does not deserve them. This is why the Ash Wednesday service has also traditionally included the imposition of ashes on the forehead while the phrase “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is spoken as a reminder of our frail, fallen nature.

May this Lenten season be for us one more way “that we may remember that it is only by [God’s] gracious gift that we are given everlasting life” (Book of Common Prayer, 265).

Practicing Lent: Waking Up

HopeHope Bethany ’15

Theology Undergraduate

Fellow, Center for Liturgy

On Ash Wednesday, I happened to see this picture posted by the  Catholic Radio Channel’s Twitter account:

 

Screenshot_2015-02-18-10-04-52~2

I enjoy a lot of the programming from the Catholic Channel and have made it through many a commute and car ride listening to its various programs. Thanks to Gus Lloyd’s “Seize the Day” program, I still greet a lot of my friends with “Good morning, child of God!” (and usually do so when it’s too early for anyone to be talking). The graphic design folks who made this edgy-looking graphic with the opening stanza of “Wake Me Up” had a nice thought for the beginning of Lent. The lyrics convey a message that probably resembles the way that many of us pray as Lent begins: “Allrighty, Lord, 40 days, here we go; I have no clue about how this is going to go, but something tells me things ought to be different. I don’t know where it will end, but here I am Lord, and I am trying to start.”

I admire this sentiment, but actually think that the helpfulness of the song “Wake Me Up” as an admirable Lenten posture stops there. Seeing the graphic using the song lyrics in this way on the first day of Lent gave me one more exlost-signcuse to think about the song as a whole, since I began chewing on the lyrics a few months ago. Only half-jokingly, I had started referring to “Wake Me Up” as a kind of secularized “Amazing Grace” since it mentions “finding myself, when I didn’t even know I was lost!” instead of any recognition of the need to be found or an understanding of the need for grace or outside help. After further reflection, I actually think that not only is “Wake Me Up” a version of a secularized “Amazing Grace” but also that the song’s overall posture is a pretty problematic one. In fact, it demonstrates exactly the opposite of the Christian understanding of conversion and specifically the season of Lent and the practices we undertake in Lent.

Let’s look at the next part of the song:

“They tell me I’m too young to understand

They say I’m caught up in a dream

Well, life will pass me by if I don’t open up my eyes

Well that’s fine by me

So wake me up when it’s all over

When I’m wiser and I’m older

All this time I was finding myself

And I didn’t know I was lost.”

The entire point and posture of the rest of “Wake Me Up,” (contrary to the title) is not actually about waking up or changing at all! Instead, its message encourages sleeping through any kind of growth– or we might add, any kind of grace, repentance, or call to conversion. The subject of “Wake Me Up” is absolutely fine with life passing by as he passively sleeps, and he makes no effort to participate in his growth; he asks only that someone awaken him after everything is “all over” and he is a complete project: “wiser and older.”

The refrain of “Wake Me Up” would at the least undervalue and at the most disdain any Lent-like season in our lives, or the spirit of conversion and repentance for which Lent exists. As a Church, during the season of Lent we deliberately ask God to awaken us to what keeps us from loving Him and His creation in a way that we ought to. With the prophet Hosea, we express our desire to: “Say no more, ‘our god;’ to the work of our hands” but to remember who it is we are called to worship with both our lips and our actions.

Sleeping = good. Sleeping through Lent = not good.
Sleeping = good. Sleeping through Lent?  Not good.

Rather than sleeping through another season of our lives, in Lent we ask again and again to be awakened to our sins, to reflect on those sins, and through our commitments to make a physically conscious effort in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to turn back to God with our whole hearts. In St. Augustine’s “City of God,” he mentions that “A true sacrifice, then, is every work done in order that we may draw near to God in holy fellowship…” (City of God, Book X). The practices of pegreenroom_turn_logonitence that we take up and the sacrifices we make during the season of Lent help us to both identify with the sacrifice of Christ and to re-awaken our knowledge of the need for conversion. (We might remember here that the word conversion comes from the Greek “metanoia” which means, “to turn.”)

While it is true that at all times in our lives we are supposed to be ready for the coming of Christ, the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent help us to keep this truth in mind and to do so more deliberately; this is helpful, because our liturgical attention spans are often short! Lent call us to action in ways that respond to God’s call to turn away from sin, to keep turning, to keep moving, to keep converting.

Sometimes at the beginning of Lent, I re-read C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape screwtapeLetters,” because the process of reading and chewing on the texts ends up working like a book-long examination of conscience. In the “Screwtape Letters,” the demon Screwtape writes to his pupil Wormwood, giving advice on how to lead astray a fellow who keeps seeming like he is edging towards a conversion. Some of his “advice” to Wormwood can help us think about why persevering through our Lenten practices matters for our life-long journeys of conversion as a whole:

“…the great thing is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it**; that is often an excellent way of sterilizing the seeds which the Enemy plants in human soul. Let him do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imaginations and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will…” (Screwtape Letters 66-67).

"Here I am, send me."
“Here I am, send me.”

The call to repentance in Lent and the physical practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving help us to wake up to those areas of sin in our lives, to realize where we have created idols that have misplaced our Lord. We recognize through these practices that require our physical involvement along with our thoughts and convictions that our bodies and souls are linked, and that while it might be easier to sleep through another liturgical season, the actions we take with our bodies affect the truths that we hold in our souls.

Maybe, if we realize that our own attitude toward Lent in the past has been more like Avicii’s than anything else, this Lent we might make a further commitment to the practices we began last week and as an alternative to “Wake me up when it’s all over” try to pray and sing with the psalmist:

A pure heart create for me, O God,

Put a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me away from your presence,

Nor deprive me of your holy spirit.

Give me again the joy of your help;

With a spirit of fervor [not sleepiness!] sustain me,

That I may teach transgressors your ways

And sinners may return to you. (Psalm 51)

It is true that as we begin our second week of Lent that we do not know exactly where our own souls will be at the end of this Lent. Nevertheless, this Lent, we do not pray, “Lord, wake me up when it’s all over, at the end of these 40 days, when I’m wiser and I’m older.” We do not ask to mentally “find ourselves” through Lent, as if Lent was just an extension or a do-over of New Years’ self-improvement resolutions. In Lent we ask—and sometimes plead, if we have a difficult time maintaining constancy, for the grace to continue with our Lenten observances, to see where God leads us and to do so actively. Our bodies and souls are united as human beings, and our souls are affected by what we do with our bodies. In her wisdom, the Church recognizes this always, but she especially reminds us of it in Lent in the calls we will continue to hear about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

“Awake, my soul… ” (Psalm 57:9)

**(Or a blog post. Guilty as charged, C.S. Lewis. This writer herself is usually horribly bad at persevering in Lent.)

And the Nominees Are. . . 2015 Recap

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

With the 87th Academy Awards ceremony taking place this Sunday evening, we here at Oblation wanted to provide our readers with a convenient recap of our recent series reviewing each of the eight Best Picture nominees from a theological perspective. Excerpts appear below, and the title links will take you to the full reviews. (Reminder: spoilers pretty much abound throughout.)

American Sniper (by Lenny DeLorenzo)

American Sniper is a tragedy from start to finish: it is tragic that there was—or was deemed to be—cause for war in Iraq; it is tragic that the duty of “overwatch” was necessary in case of ambush; it is tragic that insurgents had cause to fight; it is tragic that civilians were caught in the crossfire; it is tragic that violence like this exists at all. Most of all, it is a tragedy because it operates on the presumption that war is inevitable—that the wolves always lurk in the darkness and the sheepdog’s heroism is predicated upon this threat. What the attention to the complex paradoxical relationship between distance and intimacy in this film allows, however, is for the consideration of how what happens in and around the distant figure of Kyle is relevant to how remoteness roots out intimacy for anyone.

Birdman (by Carolyn Pirtle)

Riggan is ignorant of the things that truly matter. He is motivated solely by ambition—the desire for fame, critical praise, and most of all relevance, no matter what their cost may be to himself or those closest to him. . . . Riggan’s hero’s quest—to feel himself beloved—is fed by his interior dialogue with Birdman, his ego and shadow self. Yet this hero’s quest is revealed to be a fool’s errand as Riggan continuously seeks love, not from the friends and family who know him as he truly is, but from the anonymous masses who are ignorant of his true identity, recognizing him only in the role he once played.

Boyhood (by Jessica Keating)

In short, we see the “small moments and the life they add up to,” the overlooked, the precarious. The film could have been moving, even beautiful. Life, the film strives to demonstrate, is not a series of momentous events, but it is lived out in the ordinary, in the hidden. In the end, however, Boyhood is bereft of vision. The ordinary is not only not transfigured, but the film asserts that it is untransfigurable.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (by Timothy O’Malley)

The conclusion of the film elicits in the viewer a kind of sadness, a longing for a world that has passed. But perhaps, it is incorrect to call it “nostalgic yearning.” Perhaps what Anderson is really doing in all his films, is showing us a reality that is far more enchanted than we realize. There is a glorious mystery to ordinary existence, a beauty that gives itself to us around every corner. Yet what is almost salvific about The Grand Budapest Hotel is that Anderson does not let us pass too quickly over the darkness. It is not a Pollyannaish whimsy. The darkness of history intervenes but even it cannot entirely stifle this vision. Stories continue to be told, inviting us to re-imagine our world once again, to see colors even where there is only gray.

The Imitation Game (by Renée Roden)

…what the film suggests is the troubling lie that we are all very susceptible to swallowing: that having superior knowledge and superior intellect gives those in possession of them the ability to make right moral judgments. There is very little questioning of the moral system set up by the film that ‘because this person knows more than I,’ he cannot be wrong.

Selma (by Susan Reynolds)

Selma urges us to recognize that racial injustice is not a vestige of some distant, ignorant past but rather a shameful reality that continues to be reflected in the majority of our parishes, schools, and communities. . . . Such a realization is indeed cause for lament.
But Selma’s vision, like that of all laments, is ultimately a hopeful one—it is a vision that urges us to be propelled forward in prayer and action by what King termed the “fierce urgency of now.” As we contemplate the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ throughout the next forty days [of Lent], may we have the courage to see, name, and stand against systems of social sin complicit in sanctioning the crucifying forces of racial oppression.

The Theory of Everything (by Carolyn Pirtle)

Hawking’s quest to explain the cosmos and his insistence that this can be done on the basis of scientific reason, through “human endeavor” alone, leaves no room for mystery, and it is mystery that lies at the heart of every human person and (though Hawking would argue otherwise) at the heart of the universe. Indeed, it is this search for a theory which, for Hawking, necessitates putting the possibility of a Creator God on the shelf in favor of a completely rational approach, that renders him incapable of seeing the truth: that the one theory isn’t a theory at all, but a reality, and that this reality isn’t expressed in an equation, but in a communion of Persons—a relationship of love.

Whiplash (by Sam Bellafiore)

…what Fletcher sells and Andrew buys is art that’s lost its goal and context. Art is an inherent good, but humans alone make and experience it. That means it’s a good in itself for humans to pursue. Its goodness is not regardless of, separate from, or outside its relation to human beings. This doesn’t mean art is a means to the end of human flourishing. Instead, art is part of becoming human.
“Art for its own sake” — ars gratia artis — is a lie.  Whiplash shows what happens when art forgets its humanity. It becomes a beast. Fletcher has made art a greater good than human life. For the sake of creating art, Fletcher is willing to destroy people. In his world, the human is subsumed in sacrifice to the life of art. It is a greater crime to deprive the world of real art than to deprive it of a real person.

Ash Wednesday: A Solitary Sign of Solidarity

Allison D'AmbrosiaAllison D’Ambrosia
St. Mary’s College, Class of 2016

For strength in the spiritual combat, that he may bravely confess the Faith of Christ even in face of the enemies of that Faith . . . he is signed with the sign of the cross, as a soldier with the sign of his leader, which should be evident and manifest. Now, the forehead, which is hardly ever covered, is the most conspicuous part of the human body. . . . [He is anointed] on the forehead, that he may show publicly that he is a Christian. (Summa Theologiae III, Q 72, Art. 9, i.a.)


Even though the above quote from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae is on being anointed with chrism at Confirmation, I think it is more than applicable to Ash Wednesday. I kept reminding myself yesterday that the sign of the cross on my forehead was one of strength, a reminder that I was to be a soldier. Yesterday was the first Ash Wednesday when I was among the minority, the first time I wasn’t surrounded by Catholics. I felt like I was a bit outside my normal Catholic Bubble. From kindergarten through college I have gone to a Catholic school. Not only is Oxford not Catholic, but it’s incredibly secular. That being said, I am still at a Catholic college within Oxford, called Blackfriars Hall, which is run by the Dominican Friars—so in a sense, I haven’t totally burst out of the bubble. However, this Ash Wednesday felt very different from the rest. I decided to jot down my thoughts about once an hour yesterday, then reflect on the day as a whole, and this post is the result:

9:00 AM: I woke up late after not listening to my alarm and missed the 8:30 AM service I was planning on attending. However, I was a bit relieved that I wouldn’t have to wear my ashes around longer than necessary. The next service was at 12:05 PM. **Lenten Promise: wake up to my first alarm, no snooze buttons!** I then went to the library and read until noon.

12:00 PM: Went to the JCR (Junior Common Room) and made conversation about how many cookies there were in the cookie jar. Made a joke about how the Catholics must be the ones eating all the “biscuits” because they’d usually be gone by now, but since we were fasting, they were still there. I then got asked about why Catholics fast on Ash Wednesday, if I was fasting every day during Lent, how many meals I could eat, what I could eat, etc. I didn’t really have an answer to all those questions. I told my friend I ate one meal and then a snack when I was fasting and didn’t drink anything other than water. I think told her I wasn’t sure of the exact reason why Catholics fasted on Ash Wednesday, other than as a reminder of our weak humanity, a remembrance that “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.”

12:05 PM: Arrived for Mass. Overwhelmed with how few people my age were in attendance (probably only around 10 in total). Going to daily Mass, I usually see the same faces every day, yet I was taken aback by how many new faces there were in the congregation. There were young parents with their children, college students, all mixed in with the frequenting older gray-haired crowd.

1:00 PM: At lunch I got asked if Catholics could eat meat on Ash Wednesday, and why we didn’t eat meat? (I really need to work on my apologetics!) Then was asked what I was giving up for Lent. On my way back to the library I ran into a friend who stopped me to tell me I had something on my head. When I told her it was ashes she then jokingly told me it was a good look; I should make it a trend. Upon entering the library another friend of mine asked, “What the hell is on your head? What have you done to yourself? You look ridiculous!” Upon explaining to her they were ashes as it was Ash Wednesday, and again quoting the blessing from the Priest, we then had a lovely conversation about Northern Lights and the use of the phrase “Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” As I turned to go to my usual spot, I saw the other two people at her table lean over and point to their foreheads, asking what I was doing. I then had another friend come up to me and ask if I had to wear them “Alllllll day long?! But what if you have to wash your face?”

2:00 PM: I was walking to get some water and someone came up to me and asked what that “black stuff” was because they had never seen that before. A bystander replied, “It’s ashes. to show you’re Catholic.”

3:00 PM: A friend came back from a meeting and looked at me shocked, asking, “What did you do to your head?” I told him they were ashes for Ash Wednesday; he then responded, “Oh! That makes sense, the guy sitting across from me in the meeting had that too, but I didn’t want to ask what it was.”

By around 4:00 PM the ashes had mostly worn off and only a very faint mark remained, probably just looking like I got some dirt on my forehead or went a little crazy with putting on my mascara. I didn’t receive many other questions or comments, except one. A friend of mine, who is not Catholic, came over and said, “OH! I would have loved to have gone to Mass with you!” This is the crux.

In general, my day seemed rather contradictory to the Gospel reading:

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

All day long I was wearing my ashes, and all day long people were looking at me wondering what I was doing, what was on my head. I was by no means flying under the radar. Is the Gospel saying I should have secluded myself to my room so as not to have to show off what I was doing? Is this contradictory to what Aquinas writes about being soldiers of God and bearing his mark as a sign of strength? After quite a bit of reflection I’d say no, these are not contradictory, but complementary.

We wear ashes as a sign of solidarity with all the world. We wear ashes as a sign that we are taking responsibility for our own sin and all the sin in the world, even those we have not committed personally. We look to deny harmful satisfaction, and we strive to face the difficult questions (quite literally) head on. Not only did I find the questions, the confused glances, or the concerns difficult, but I also found them difficult to face alone. Ash Wednesday, for me, had always been something I’d observed with other people. Yet, being the only one in view bearing ashes made me feel like I was bearing them for other people, not just myself. The homily I heard yesterday was all about how we need to be in solidarity as members of a fallen humanity, to truly accept that we are dust, yet to understand also that through that dust comes our salvation. It is easy to give things up for Lent and to feel as if you have changed, and after 40 days of penance to go right back to where you were 41 days earlier. Yet, I now feel I understand the role of the disciples, and thus I understand the role of all those in the Church as we are all called to a priestly mission as baptized members in Christ’s Body.  We must all take responsibility, we must all be in solidarity at all times, and we must not rely on the reminders of others. Pope Francis writes in his Lenten address for 2015,

Usually, when we are healthy and comfortable, we forget about others (something God the Father never does): we are unconcerned with their problems, their sufferings and the injustices they endure. . . Our heart grows cold. As long as I am relatively healthy and comfortable, I don’t think about those less well off. Today, this selfish attitude of indifference has taken on global proportions, to the extent that we can speak of a globalization of indifference. It is a problem which we, as Christians, need to confront.

We must be able to fast on our own without expecting everyone we eat with to fast as well; we must be able to give money away not just because we are following in the footsteps of a Starbucks-pay-it-forward line; and we must also retreat into our rooms and remember to pray on our own, not just when there is a congregation next to us kneeling down as well. In the way I was singled out today by wearing my ashes, we must all stand alone in order to stand together as a Church, in true solidarity with the poor and suffering in order to act as the Body of Christ, “that neither fear nor shame may hinder [us] from confessing the name of Christ.”

Time Transfigured: Lent as a School of Love

Jessica Keating, M.Div.
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

Today Catholics around the world will hear (or already have heard) the words, “Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return,” as a priest or lay minister traces the sign of the cross onto their foreheads with the ashes of last year’s blessed palms. So begins the yearly observance of Lent—for the next 40 days (46 including Sundays) we take up the practices of almsgiving, fasting, and prayer.

There is a tendency, I suspect, for many of us to approach the triptych of Lenten disciplines as a kind of “Catholic New Year’s.” Indeed, this is typically the time when peoples’ commitment to the resolutions they made with confident gusto on January 1 begins to wane. It becomes a temptation to enter into the Lenten disciplines as a kind of New Year’s reboot.

In such a mindset, Lent can easily be reduced to a series of self-referential activities—an exercise in the ambit of self-improvement, which has numerous more and less subtle inflections, ranging from the retrospective assessment that my Lent was “successful” (in other words, I achieved my goals or I did not stumble in my resolve) to the hope that I might shed a couple of pounds by giving up sweets. This reduction also has the effect of flattening time. Initially robust and full of possibility, self-referencing time becomes a mere quantitative burden—something to be endured on the way to a particular goal. Though we might discern traces of Christian logic here, this logic is substantively redirected. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with practices of self-improvement—and indeed, Lenten disciplines often have the effect of “improving” the person who practices them—yet such “improvement,” better called growth in holiness, occurs in ways that elide categories of “success.” In fact, we might consider our present grammar of success and all that attends it as a frustrated approximation of the mystery of holiness. Lent is not in the first instance a regime of self-improvement, and approaching it on these grounds subtly deflects the meaning of time and of the Lenten practices of almsgiving, fasting, and prayer.

In volume 1 of the Theo-Drama, Hans Urs von Balthasar suggests that time is not merely the neutral, quantitative ticking of hours slipping into days, weeks turning over into months, years fading centuries. Rather, time is decidedly qualitative. Time, and each human person as a time and space-bound creature, participates in the “events of salvation even after Christ”; it now belongs “within the eschatological saving event and is determined by it” and yet does not “simply coincide with it” (28). The “vertical event-time” has unfolded in “a series of times of salvation . . . [and] refashions horizontal time using it so that the event may spread itself out in dramatic form” (28). We live in the reality of refashioned time, of time saturated with the Cross, and thus with the entire Christ-event. It is the same Christ who sleeps in the manger who hangs on the Cross. It is the same Christ who teaches the parables, gives the new commandment, whose anguished sweat becomes as blood in the Garden. It is the same Christ whose Spirit “plays the whole piece right through the with the individual human being and the human race” (28). God plays the piece right through with each of us. Ours is the work of attunement. It is the work of whole person and of the whole human race.

Lent, properly understood, is a gift of time, of time which is already and time which groans toward fulfillment. Perhaps no one distills the reality of refashioned time quite as perceptively (or poetically) as Dante. The three-part movement of his masterpiece, the (Divine) Comedy, is (among other things) a movement of time. The following is a very general sketch of how time functions in the Commedia that cannot do justice to Dante’s genius, yet it is broadly sufficient for our purposes. In Inferno, time is an eternal burden, torturing the residents in each ring of hell. In Paradiso, time (and space) is no more, it is transcended. In Purgatorio, time is a gift of healing. We see this in Purgatorio 23. Here, Dante encounters his friend Forese on the terrace of gluttony, where men and women, already saved, experience the medicinal effects of time. Dante inquires after his friend’s residence in purgatory, and Forese replies:

There falls, . . . from the Eternal Mind
a virtue in that after and that tree—
back there—which sharpens me and pares me down.

All these people, weeping as they sing,
Because their gullets led them past all norms,
Are here remade as holy, thirsting, hungering.

Cravings to eat and drink are fired in us
By perfumes from that fruit and from the spray
that spreads in fans above the greenery

Nor once alone, in circling round this space,
is agony and pain refreshed in us.
I call it pain. Rightly, I should say solace.

For that same yearning leads us to the tree
That led Christ, in his joy, to say “Eli”,
When through his open veins he made us free.

Forese is learning how to speak rightly, to speak truthfully. Indeed, he revises his speech: “I call it pain. Rightly, I should say solace.” Forese’s correction is made in light of the Cross, from where Christ “in his joy” cried “Eli”. Time works on him, it refashions him, it redirects his desire, it remakes him holy. Purgatory thus functions a kind of school where one learns how participate in the life of God.

Of course, we must not be too quick to compare Purgatory and Lent. They are constitutively distinct from one another, yet Dante does offer us an insight into the ameliorative effects of time. He offers us a way to participate in the gift of time that we embark on today. In taking up discrete bodily practices, Lent functions as a school of love, a school which, to quote St. Benedict, “may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love” (Rule of St. Benedict, 18). It trains the body, it directs the eyes and makes keen the ears, it sharpens the mind and purifies the heart. Lent offers us the gift of time. The particular embodied disciplines we take up have the capacity to tune our minds, hearts, and wills to the piece God plays with each of us.

As we enter Lent, we take up practices which we might be tempted to call pain, or perhaps simply a pain, but we rightly should call them solace. Because in taking up the three Lenten practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer—bodily practices—we are tutored in the logic of Love crucified and risen.

Practicing Lent

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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This weekend, I traveled down to St. Meinrad Archabbey with eighteen undergraduates and a colleague from Notre Dame Vision. Staying with the Sisters of St. Benedict in Ferdinand, IN, we rose early in the morning on Saturday to pray with the monks at 5:15 AM. As we entered into prayer that morning, we quickly found ourselves adopting the practices of the monks (liturgical practices very different than those engaged in at Notre Dame). Rather than measure the quality of participation by the volume of our voices, we prayed sotto voce with the monks. We did not sing with full heart and voice (as we are exhorted to at the Basilica) but instead let our voice blend together with our brother and sister next to us. We rose and bowed during the doxology (Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit…).

As it turns out, we did not simply pray with the monks but entered into their practice of prayer. As we paid attention to the embodied liturgical practice of these monks, we began to notice how much of their life is formed by such practices. The daily praying of the psalms, never louder than your neighbor, is part of a life of unity that is to be practiced throughout the monastery. The welcoming of the pilgrim into prayer is embodied in a hospitality that infuses how they greet the stranger. The constant marking of time through prayer, interrupting  work, leads to a life that has become an offering to God. For the monks, this way of life is not taught through a series of intellectual propositions. Rather, it is lived out together. One learns this way of life, learns to practice monasticism.

Over the coming weeks at Oblation, we are going to focus on the celebration of Lent as a series of practices, which slowly transform our identities. In the Church today, there are often theories of discipleship that first require a radical change of life before Christian practice becomes meaningful. First (they argue), you have to really love Jesus before you go to Mass, or pray the rosary, or fast, or give alms. But, it is our contention (as those who have learned to be with the monks) that such embodied practices can actually form us toward love of Christ. Through praying the Scriptures and the Angelus, going to daily Mass and performing corporal works of mercy, sitting in silence before the blessed Sacrament and fasting on Fridays, we can start to live as a Christian might live. We practice what it means to be a disciple, and in the midst of this practice, we actually become one.

We will be attending to all sorts of practices. Praying the Scriptures and sitting before the blessed Sacrament. Fasting from technology and the rosary. Listening to music and burying the dead. Through attending to these practices, we hope to inspire a vision of Catholic identity and culture, which is not simply ideological. But one that enables each of us to become practicing Catholics.

Considering joining us in practicing Lent.

And the Nominees Are. . . The Imitation Game

Renee RodenRenée Roden

AmeriCorps Volunteer

 

 

Editors’ Note:
In anticipation of the 87th Academy Awards on February 22,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture.
(Caveat: spoilers ahead.)

Blood-Soaked Calculus

“Are you paying attention?”

After a bout of regular movie-going preview fare: poor Paddington bear being subjected to idiotic stunts and buffoonish mishaps; some robot threatening all of civilization and Hugh Jackman; and several hundred explosions caused by unidentified killing machines and American movie-going audiences’ incessant desire for brainless spectacle, Morten Tyldum’s moving, yet ultimately unsatisfying, The Imitation Game begins with the refreshing command for all of us to pay attention. After the barrage upon our senses of crass explosions and relentless moronic activity, the opening of the film is a palate-cleansing dose of subtlety, promising more mental activity than physical, and nary a single killer robot to be seen.

Yet, like a gangly teenager trying to Lindy Hop, the film’s footing falls askew from the very beginning. In a move that feels a little heavy-handed, we, the audience are put in the place of the sympathetic police investigator (Rory Kinnear), and commanded to listen carefully, and not to judge until the end. It’s over-used rhetoric, and registers as a little pompous and stilted. From the very beginning, there is a ring of self-importance to the film. Already, a division has been set up: we are to watch, observe, listen, and not interrupt. We stand outside of the story, outside of—to borrow the title phrase from an essay by C.S. Lewis—this “Inner Ring.”

In this essay, Lewis discusses mankind’s fascination with the small group of people who are really calling the shots; really making the decisions; sending out life or death sentences. We are fascinated with the idea of a secret, hidden few who are really in charge, and more than Cumberbatch’s fascinating (when is Benedict Cumberbatch not fascinating to watch?), but (dare I say it?) rather hackneyed portrayal of a socially maladroit genius, it is this air of falsity, this sense of secrecy that was, I found, the facet of The Imitation Game that captured me the most. In the film, we see this inner ring most poignantly depicted in the scenes in which the our little troupe of code-crackers decides which messages from Enigma to act upon, and which to ignore. In reality, these decisions were made by higher authorities in the British army, and thank God for that. What person would want their fate in the hands of a high-functioning mathematical genius and his merry men: the womanizer, the spy, and the boyish-silent-one with all the authoritative presence of a summer intern?

But what the film suggests is the troubling lie that we are all very susceptible to swallowing: that having superior knowledge and superior intellect gives those in possession of them the ability to make right moral judgments. There is very little questioning of the moral system set up by the film that ‘because this person knows more than I,’ he cannot be wrong.

The two moments in the film that were most deeply moving were, firstly, of course, the ending, in which Turing’s body has been reduced to a shaking shell by his court-mandated hormone treatment. His mental acumen is hidden inside a chemically castrated walking corpse, and any human with a shred of empathy will be moved by the film’s short, tragic coda.

The second was when poor Peter (Matthew Beard, oozing incompetent, doe-eyed chutzpah as the token boyish protégé in our motley code-cracking crew) learns that his brother is on a ship about to be taken down by a team of German U-Boats. Having just cracked Enigma, the Hut 8 team could, if acting in the next few minutes, save the lives of everyone on the ship. But just when they are about to dial up whichever commanding officer has the power to save these poor unfortunate souls. . .

Stop! commands Benedict Cumberbatch, authoritatively. He’s right, chirps up Keira Knightley, with a glimmer of understanding in her eye. They cannot save this convoy of ships, as the Germans would then know that they had cracked Enigma (excellent cinematography covers up a multitude of leaps of logic). They must bide their time, and let the people on board perish, for the sake of the greater good—for the sake of winning the war. Peter naturally tries to reach the phone to dial an authority who could save his brother, and he has to be physically restrained by the others. It is a rather violent moment, as though the violence they inflict on Peter is a physical manifestation of the violence being inflicted on innocent people a thousand miles away.

As I watched Peter cry over the inevitable loss of his beloved older brother, I found myself somewhat alienated from the film, which glosses over his loss with a noble shrug. Peter is (quite understandably and justifiably) angry at Alan for several scenes afterwards. In response to these snubs and cold-shoulders, Alan assumes a pained, sympathetic, “oh my dear lad, you’ll understand when you’re older” expression in reaction to Peter’s angered hurt. Peter’s loss, the loss of those lives, is simply the collateral damage of a Greater Mission to be carried out by the few who Truly Know.

What troubled me most about this moment is that the film decidedly and unquestioningly sides with Alan. Yet, the majority of human beings would naturally, instinctively, act as Peter would, throwing all concern for a theoretical, vague, long-term plan out the window in the momentary demand for action. While maybe not technically the smartest or best-calculated course of action, in moments when a person’s life is in danger, our hearts usually trump the “wisdom” of our heads. The pressing need of the moment to save lives in danger—and a family member’s life, no less—outweighs a yet non-existent goal to be achieved. But the film does not even cast a critical glance at the Turing’s decision in that moment.

This trial of Peter’s mirrors the ending scene of the film. It was, like that final scene, one of the most human moments of the entire biopic: a human in pain, wrestling with the fact that he is quite helpless under the unjust lot dealt to him by those in authority. It is a moment full of pathos, and it ought to break your heart. But, because Peter is not extraordinary, his input does not carry as much weight as Alan’s. Because Peter is not brilliant, but (comparatively) simple, because he feels ordinary human emotions, because he is the rule, not the exception, because he is not a part of the brilliant inner ring, his desired course of action must somehow be wrong. On the other hand, because Alan is the smartest one amongst us, he must be the wisest. He can do no wrong. Of course his actions must be the right course of action, because he is smarter than you are.

Are you paying attention?

This leap of logic is one that we make every single day. Often, we struggle to believe that someone we think of as honorable or good could ever do something wrong, based solely on the fact that we have known them to be honorable or good. In our desire for consistency, we are loathe to acknowledge that human beings act inconsistently. It is more pleasant to imagine that all geniuses are benevolent than to acknowledge that many times human beings who have the most power and the most knowledge can truly act the most selfishly. Or, an even more subtle distinction: a person can be a truly unselfish person, but can act in a selfish manner. None of us are immune from character flaws, and even those of us with sterling characters and golden pedigrees can make wrong decisions.

Despite the excellent acting, the beautiful production values, and the well-paced action, what I found to be ultimately frustrating and unsatisfying about the story is that many of the historical facts—which are (like most of real life) more nuanced, more complicated, and more interesting than slick Hollywood clichés—are eschewed for the sake of a rather well-trodden plot structure: Solitary Outsider Has Knowledge No One Else Has. Uses It To Save World. World Turns on Him. Nobody Understands Him.

It seems as though, perhaps, the producers and writers were dumbing things down for us—the audience—those of us outsiders who will just never understand. Thus, the movie was, I found, ultimately somewhat alienating. Instead of wrestling with the humanity of an eccentric, lively, and witty mathematical genius—an ordinary man, who happened to be equipped with an extraordinary mind—Benedict Cumberbatch re-creates his Sherlock schtick of a man rendered incapable of feeling and thinking like the rest of humanity by virtue of his god-like mental ability, thereby creating an impassable divide between Turing and anyone watching the film, between the enlightened few and the rest of us left outside in the darkness.

Yet, in reading more about the man who inspired this film, I have discovered that Alan Turing was not Sherlock-in-wartime-tweeds, but rather a unique, undefinable individual: sexual, witty, personable, alive, and very, very human. Perhaps The Imitation Game could have listened to its own mantra and hold up these more human qualities in Turing, thus creating a more relatable protagonist: Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

The people who no one imagines anything of. In other words, ordinary people; people who are not necessarily part of “the inner ring”; people like the suburban mother, like the math nerd who doesn’t play sports, like the put-upon office secretary, like the schoolboy in love with his best friend,  like you, like me.

And the Nominees Are. . . Selma

Susan Bigelow ReynoldsSusan Bigelow Reynolds
Ph.D. Student, Theology and Education, Boston College

 

Contact Author

Editors’ Note:
In anticipation of the 87th Academy Awards on February 22,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture.
(Caveat: spoilers ahead.)

In the first of five appearances on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” on April 17, 1960, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., remarked,

“I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that 11:00 on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour, in Christian America.

King continued:

“Any church that stands against integration and that has a segregated body is standing against the spirit and the teachings of Jesus Christ and it fails to be a true witness.”

Five years later, King and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference arrived in Selma, Alabama to raise public consciousness surrounding the widespread and systematic disenfranchisement of black citizens throughout the South. The passions, deaths, and resurrections that followed are the subject of Selma, arguably the most theologically rich and spiritually rousing Best Picture nominee of the year. As Lent approaches, I want to suggest that one might view the film as a lament that invites an examination of conscience surrounding issues of racial injustice that persist in ways both obvious and insidious within church and society.

Theologically speaking, a lament can be understood as an act of truth-telling that evokes public moral consciousness and opens a space for compassionate, transformative action. To lament is to name—and in naming protest—conditions of suffering and injustice and to envision a future of justice and restored relationship in light of a hope-filled vision of the Kingdom of God. Mourning in its least sanitized, most visceral and honest forms occasions sustained presence to that which should not be—it allows us, perhaps even forces us, to be interrupted by reality.

Selma interrupts us. We are interrupted by the murder of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), who is shot at close range by a state trooper while participating in a peaceful night march and dies in the arms of his mother. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, King (depicted brilliantly by David Oyelowo) approaches Cager Lee (Henry G. Sanders), Jimmie’s grandfather, and with tears in his eyes tells him, “There are no words to soothe you, Mr. Lee… But I can tell you one thing for certain: God was the first to cry for your boy.”

As marchers make their first attempt to walk from Selma to Montgomery, we are interrupted, as they are, by state troopers. Mounted on horseback and armed with billy clubs and tear gas, police brutalize marchers as they attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge; crowds of white onlookers cheer on the troopers as though watching a football game. The bruised and bleeding marchers retreat to Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which serves as the staging ground for the protests. The makeshift triage unit assembled outside the church calls to mind comparisons to Pope Francis’ evocative image of the Church as a field hospital in a wounded world.

In response to the massacre that would become known as Bloody Sunday, King issues a nationwide call for supporters to travel to Selma to join the march. Clergy and laypersons from around the country, including many non-blacks, heed the call—acts of solidarity which cost several, including Boston minister James Reeb (Jeremy Strong) and Detroit wife and mother Viola Luizzo (Tara Ochs), their lives at the hands of the KKK.

In the second march, King—to the astonishment of the thousands who have gathered to join him—abruptly turns around after kneeling down to pray. The literal about-face is a jarring, disorienting moment, a seeming interruption of the momentum occasioned by such a powerful show of solidarity. But King discerns that the march would likely end in disaster without a court order of protection. After receiving such an order, and following on the heels of President Lyndon Johnson’s speech to a joint session of Congress introducing the Voting Rights Act, King and roughly 8,000 fellow marchers finally, joyfully complete the five-day journey from Selma to Montgomery.

The film concludes as King delivers his now-famous speech on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol. The speech, rewritten in the screenplay, does not include the iconic “How long? Not long!” line from the original. Instead, Selma’s King cites another eschatological refrain: “When will we be free? Soon and very soon. Because no lie can live forever.”

Selma offers us many things, not the least of which is the opportunity to be interrupted by a more nuanced and arguably more authentic portrayal of King than the benign, storybook characterizations to which we have become accustomed. Much of this good work must be credited to director Ava DuVernay, with regard to whom I would join the chorus of critics and viewers dismayed by her lack of nomination in the Best Director category. DuVernay has been critiqued for her arguably unfair portrayal of President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). In Selma, Johnson is an advocate for the cause of racial justice but an initial adversary to the proposal of the Voting Rights Act based on its politically inconvenient timing. In reality, those once close to Johnson have countered, Johnson pushed hard for the bill and ultimately considered it the greatest legislative achievement of his administration.

If Selma were a documentary, such factual tensions might present themselves as more of an issue (not to mention the fact that, as Caroline Siede points out in this AV Club review, virtually all historical dramas—including others lauded this awards season—take degrees of liberty with historical events without inciting the kind of vitriol DuVernay has). But like all such dramas, Selma is a work of interpretation. And in this case, the film can be viewed as a challenge to a largely-white entertainment industry uncomfortable with and unaccustomed to stories about race that do not require the well-intentioned intervention of a proverbial white savior in order for black subjects to triumph.

How can we as Catholics and Americans invite Selma to interrupt us this Lenten season? Fourteen years after the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery and passage of the Voting Rights Act, the U.S. Catholic Bishops published Brothers and Sisters to Us (1979), its most developed (and most recent) pastoral letter on racism and Catholic teaching. In it, the Bishops denounced racism as “not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world” (387).

Though the document offers a thorough and self-critical examination of racism in the Church and society, the relatively little attention it received at the time of its publication and its meager legacy today testify to the appallingly low priority placed upon racism as a social justice issue. Only a decade after its publication, the Bishops’ Committee on Black Catholics lamented diocesan responses to the letter’s call to action as “pathetic” and “anemic.” Today, the document and the teaching it represents remain virtually unknown amongst Catholics. Indeed, as theologian Fr. Bryan Massingale observes, despite the Bishops’ forceful condemnation of racism as a radical evil, “perhaps the most remarkable thing to note concerning U.S. Catholic social teaching on racism is how little there is to note.”[1]

A half-century after protesters marched from Selma to Montgomery, Selma urges us to recognize that racial injustice is not a vestige of some distant, ignorant past but rather a shameful reality that continues to be reflected in the majority of our parishes, schools, and communities. (For a powerful expression of this connection, listen to “Glory,” the Oscar-nominated original song from the film performed by John Legend and Common). The terrible irony persists that the hour in which we gather to celebrate the Body and Blood of Christ in liturgy remains for many of us, just as King observed in 1960, the hour in which we least image the diversity of Christ’s Body. Such a realization is indeed cause for lament.

But Selma’s vision, like that of all laments, is ultimately a hopeful one—it is a vision that urges us to be propelled forward in prayer and action by what King termed the “fierce urgency of now.” As we contemplate the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ throughout the next forty days, may we have the courage to see, name, and stand against systems of social sin complicit in sanctioning the crucifying forces of racial oppression. 

Recommended Lenten Reading:
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2013)
Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (2009)
Bryan N. Massingale, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (2012)
USCCB, Brothers and Sisters to Us (1979)

[1] Bryan N. Massingale, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 43.

Why Study God?: The Role of Theology at a Catholic University

JohnCavadiniJohn C. Cavadini, Ph.D.

McGrath-Cavadini Director, Institute for Church Life

Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame

Editorial Note: This article first appeared in Commonweal on October 11, 2013.  

Why does Notre Dame require all undergraduate students to complete theology courses and why do other Catholic universities and colleges sometimes have similar requirements? What is theology, anyway? How does it benefit students? How does the university benefit from having a faculty of theology? What benefit, in turn, does such a university offer the world of higher education? The presence of a theology department is unique to religiously affiliated colleges and universities, though certainly far from ubiquitous there, and even at Catholic schools theology requirements have dwindled over the years, and are often challenged to justify their existence. What does it mean to accept a faculty of theology as an academic unit in a university community? Its presence implies something about the whole academic community because other academic communities exclude such departments. Secular universities and colleges do not even recognize theology as an academic discipline. What, then, does the fact that a Catholic university welcomes theology tell us?
NotreDameDome“By its very nature, each Catholic University makes an important contribution to the church’s work of evangelization. It is a living institutional witness to Christ and his message, so vitally important in cultures marked by secularism.” This passage from John Paul II’s apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae provides a characterization of the distinctiveness of a Catholic university. It is, he says, a kind of “witness.” This term can sound somewhat strange in an academic context, and I draw attention to it, in part, for that reason. Witness is not a category that one finds applied to secular universities very often, if ever, though I imagine that even secular universities would count themselves as bearing witness in some way to values such as social justice, equality, and inclusiveness. According to Ex corde, however, the witness of a Catholic university is connected to the church’s work of evangelization, and that seems to up the ante. A Catholic university, though proceeding “from the heart of the church,” is still not the same as the church itself, and its witness can’t take exactly the same form as the witness of a parish or a diocese. So what would that witness be—”so vitally important,” as the pope says, “in cultures,” such as our own, “marked by secularism”? Of course, this witness may take many forms in various campus activities, but here I am looking for the “institutional” witness, the witness that must be encoded into the very thing that makes a university a university—namely, its intellectual life, its mode of intellectual inquiry. Here, we find a crucial connection to theology as a discipline.
Theology is the “study of God” (Theos-logos). That sounds weird and pretty subjective. After all, God seems rather reclusive, not normally offering the divine self as an object of study. How could God be studied? How could one ever control such study? How could one keep it from becoming hopelessly subjective and fanciful? The study of God (as opposed to the study of religion) might sound like the study of an illusion of our own making. Unless, of course, one believes that God has in fact presented the divine self to us. It is God’s self-presentation, God’s “revelation,” that is the subject of theological study. Theology begins from faith in God’s self-revelation and moves toward “understanding” what God has revealed. It is in that way the study of God—or, as St. Anselm famously put it, “faith seeking understanding.” Theology is the only discipline that has as its proper object God’s revelation.

One might wonder whether there’s really a need for a special discipline to study God’s revelation. Can’t we just read it in the Bible and leave it at that? For Catholics, though, “revelation” is not only what is in Scripture; it is also contained in the apostolic tradition of the church. There was no New Testament around when Jesus lived, died, and rose. The church preceded the New Testament and only gradually accepted its writings as Scripture, just as Israel preceded the Hebrew Bible, and only gradually ratified it as Scripture. The church’s struggle over how and (even) whether to accept the Hebrew Bible as Scripture was itself complex. There is no book that dropped out of heaven with a self-verifying label reading “FROM: GOD; TO: WORLD; CONTENTS: CERTIFIED INSPIRED SCRIPTURE.” Whether the Book of Revelation is Scripture was contested until the fifth century in some churches, and in fact Christians still disagree about what constitutes inspired Scripture. The Bible is “the church’s book,” and Catholics have always valued the oral traditions and the living liturgical practices in which it was used. Not every practice or homily is as valuable as every other, and the magisterium of the church—its teaching authority—is there to clarify what is and what isn’t authentic tradition, as well as what is and what isn’t an acceptable interpretation of Scripture.
Studying God’s self-revelation is therefore not equivalent to studying Scripture. But even if it were, one encounters problems in the scriptural texts—what St. Augustine called quaestiones in his sermons. Many of these problems or questions are posed by the learned disciplines, the arts and sciences, which one finds at any university. To take a simple example, if according to science the earth seems much older than the six thousand years or so the Bible reports, then we have a problem. Do we give up faith in revelation, or do we “seek understanding”? Are we so sure we understand what Scripture is saying, or how it is saying it?

IconofCreationNor are these questions limited to the modern period. Sophisticated intellectuals both Jewish and Christian have for the past two millennia wondered about difficulties in the Book of Genesis: What kind of God creates supposedly precious human creatures and then loses track of them in the garden, having to walk around calling out and asking where they are? For that matter, what kind of a God walks around in a garden at all? One doesn’t have to be a Scripture scholar to notice that, in the first few verses of Genesis, God divides the light from the darkness and calls the light day and the darkness night, but the sun and the moon are not created until a few verses later. Where was the light coming from? We moderns think
we are the only ones burdened with such questions, but learned Jews and Christians of the first, second, and third centuries were possibly more troubled than we are by these passages, and yet they pressed on, “seeking understanding.” What was the “day” created before the sun and the moon that define our days, and what was the “light” that preceded these heavenly bodies? Was it the light of created intelligence (the rational incorporeal spirit, not mentioned anywhere else in the narrative)? Was it the light of understanding, which pervades the text as a whole? Is God’s creation of the first “day” a way of saying that God created time and that time is older than the sun and the moon?

No matter how they answered these particular questions, theologians of the early centuries agreed that the most important truths contained in these scriptural texts were that the origin of the world is God’s creative act and that creation is not simply a matter of mechanical origin but of God’s “speaking.” God doesn’t just create the world as the first in a series of mechanical causes. Rather, he creates it in his “word,” or intention, which continues to sustain the world ever after. Another crucial truth: Everything God created is good—indeed, the whole of creation is “very good.” And one more truth: Human beings have the special dignity of being created in the “image and likeness” of God. Have we fully understood the “goodness” of the cosmos and all that is in it? Or what it means to be in the “image and likeness of God?” Of course not, but the “seeking” never stops because, for one thing, the questions never stop. Today we have, in addition to biblical texts, the benefit of this tradition of consensus, built up from the earliest centuries, about the central meaning of these texts, and we can study that consensus, along with the texts themselves, as we attempt to further our “understanding” in light of modern versions of the ancient questions.

How, then, can we square the texts of Genesis with what science tells us? We can do so primarily by noticing that the elements that the traditional consensus finds central—the dependence of the world on God, the goodness of the world, and the dignity of human beings as God’s “image and likeness”—are none of them measurable or empirically observable. In other words, Genesis is not a scientific text at all, primitive or otherwise, and cannot in principle be replaced by one. Science cannot determine or measure the goodness of anything, no matter how sophisticated the instruments of detection. These are not statements proposed for scientific verification, but truths proclaimed unto faith, in the context of the rest of revelation. One responds to them by faith and by seeking, in turn, to understand what one has come to believe, not by observing and testing and verifying the hypothesis of goodness, as would be appropriate for a scientific theory. Faith in the goodness of creation proceeding from God’s love is precisely that—faith. And if our faith is challenged by the obvious presence of evil in the world, that is grounds for working to understand further what is meant by the “goodness” we believe in and how the doctrine of creation fits into the broader revelation of God’s love.

Once we stop thinking of the text as some kind of primitive science, we might glimpse how self-consciously it proclaims that its subject is a mystery too great for words. The six-day creation scheme is obviously a construct intended to underscore that very fact. No one can have observed the creative “speech” of God. Isn’t that the point of reserving the creation of the only possible observer until the sixth “day,” after all the speaking is done? The fact that the framework of “days” precedes the creation of the sun and moon is the text’s way of telling us that the six-day scheme is a construct, used to direct our attention past the text to the ineffable mystery it proclaims. The text makes itself a vessel containing the great light of a mystery that can shine through it, casting the very words of the text as its shadow. The six-day scheme, oriented toward the seventh day of rest, is of course a liturgical construct, which proclaims that creation itself is oriented toward rest—that is, toward the praise of God’s goodness. No science can prove, disprove, or even observe this mystery. It transcends scientific questions without denying their validity.

It is important to observe that science is affirmed in this example, even as its results inspire questions pointing to something beyond science. In this way, science itself becomes oriented toward an integration of knowledge transcending science. One learns to recognize that some concepts, such as “creation,” are irreducibly theological: they can’t be reduced or translated into scientific categories because they arise from mysteries, such as the goodness of the cosmos, that are proclaimed to, and apprehended only by, faith. Language of “transcending” science is not meant as an insult to science, but only as a way of affirming it in its own methodology. A culture of “faith seeking understanding” is not a culture that holds that there is a Catholic or Christian science or that faith alone offers a sufficient answer to all questions. The very point of theology is to engage the truths of faith in a “dialogue with reason”—that is, with all the other disciplines that arise from the questioning human spirit and our observation of the world. Theology affirms the truths of other disciplines even as it integrates them into a discourse that transcends their methodologies. This discourse generates a kind of thick intellectual culture, in which faith generates new questions about what we learn through scientific research rather than replacing or preempting such research.

Nor does this apply only to the natural sciences. If research into LiberalArtsother cultures of the world discovers religious teachings of undeniable and exquisite beauty, these results are left standing, but they also occasion new questions. How can we understand their truth relative to revelation? “Faith seeking understanding” can afford to acknowledge truth wherever it may be found without fearing that the universal significance of God’s self-revelation in Christ is somehow threatened. Truth cannot be threatened by truth. Seeking in this case means deepening our own understanding of revelation even as we deepen our own thinking about other religions. Now we can see why a university community that accepts in its midst a theology department is not different simply because it accepts one more discipline than secular universities do. In accepting that discipline, a university isn’t just adding another element to the paradigm already in place at secular universities; it is accepting an altogether different paradigm of the intellectual life—a paradigm of intellectual culture as a dialectic between faith and reason, to use the traditional expression. Having a theology department means accepting a commitment to the intellectual life as oriented toward an “understanding” of something that integrates and transcends all the disciplines. Such an understanding keeps each discipline from closing in on itself and proceeding as if the truths it discovers were incommensurable with the truths discovered by other disciplines. It means openness to a conversation that necessarily transcends each discipline but is not merely “interdisciplinary.” If the disciplines converge at some point, it must be at a point “above” them all, in a discipline that has as its explicit object of study the mystery that transcends all other objects of study. Otherwise one must either force nondisciplinary solutions of questions onto the disciplines (e.g., claiming that faith is an adequate answer to scientific questions), or declare that knowledge is hopelessly fragmented into incommensurate disciplinary truths.

The task of seeking an integration of knowledge has been called a “sapiential task”— sapiential because it is a search for the ultimate and overarching meaning of life. The Catholic intellectual life is never finished or settled. It is, as John Paul II put it, a quest: “Integration of knowledge is a process, one which will always remain incomplete.” This quest tends toward wisdom, and so the Catholic intellectual life, in its open-endedness, can be thought of as a wisdom tradition.

It is inescapably theological because it grows out of faith in the God of revelation, and because theology performs the essential integrative function. Philosophy is a partner to theology in the integration of the intellectual life, since it, too, asks questions that transcend the disciplines—questions about the nature of knowledge itself, for instance, or of language, or of meaning, or even, as St. Thomas Aquinas points out, of God. Still, philosophy does not in the end have as its defining object of study God’s self-revelation and everything as seen in the light of God’s self-revelation, as Thomas also points out in the first article of the Summa Theologiae. Philosophy can remain philosophy without asking the question of the relation of its own results to revelation; and if that question is asked, it cannot be answered without theology. Further,
much contemporary philosophy does not even concern itself with questions of transcendence or ultimate meaning, and yet it remains philosophy. But if theology ceases to address itself to God’s self-revelation, it ceases to be theology.

Yet theology achieves no understanding apart from the other disciplines (because, as John Paul II puts it, “reason discovers new and unsuspected horizons,” because “faith and reason mutually support each other; each influences the other, as they offer to each other a purifying critique and a stimulus to pursue the search for deeper understanding”). Thus, the Catholic intellectual life, as a theologically integrated wisdom tradition, provides a middle ground between secularism and sectarianism. This is the “witness,”
specific to a university, that a Catholic university can—and does—provide in our culture.

What benefit does this witness offer to the American academy in general? Without this witness, the intellectual culture in our country will remain dominated by, and limited to, the increasingly sterile polarity between aggressive secularization and aggressive anti-intellectual fideisms. These two poles are equally unattractive, and they tend to perpetuate each other. Seven years ago, Stephen Pinker famously observed that “universities are about reason, pure and simple,” and that “faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution” (Harvard Crimson, October 27, 2006), by which he meant a church, synagogue, mosque, or the like. Such a caricature of faith is itself anti-intellectual, but persons of faith may be tempted to respond to such hostility by turning to a self-isolating fundamentalist position that finds in faith an intellectual world sufficient unto itself. But that position is so narrow and anti-intellectual that it prompts a kind of intellectual revulsion, and so feeds the growth of the opposite position—secularization, which at least seems open to all questions (if not all answers). Part of the Catholic university’s mission is to provide an alternative to these two extremes, to heal an intellectual imagination wounded by the antagonism between secularism and sectarianism, where
these are understood as the only two options. The “witness” of a Catholic university involves offering another option.

FatherJenkinsPopeFrancisIt should be noted that this witness may appear to “pinch” both faith and reason. It will appear to pinch reason because of its commitment to faith in God’s self-revelation as entrusted to the church. This requires links to the church. Without these links, the intellectual culture of the university will, beyond any doubt, be secularized. Apart from the community of believers, no one will care whether faith seeks understanding or not. In a way, the church protects this intellectual environment. On the other hand, the dialectic between faith and reason has to be free enough that real thinking is possible, and so to some this freedom will seem to pinch faith. Academic credibility is a sine qua non of any witness appropriate to a university, while fidelity is a sine qua non of any real witness to the church’s distinctive intellectual culture. The question for a Catholic university is: Are its connections to the church accidental and occasional or programmatic and consistent? Is its project rooted in the church, linked to ecclesial persons, and accountable in some way to authority in the church? Is dissent the default mode of its theological culture? Or is refusal to tolerate critical reflection in the public domain on various magisterial positions the default mode? If the answer to either of these last two questions is yes, then the appropriate balance has not been struck.

Now we are in a position to answer the other questions this article began with. Why should undergraduates be required to take courses in theology? An undergraduate course in theology
is essentially different from, say, an undergraduate course in history. Even if both courses use some of the same texts, they will use them in different ways. The history course will examine the circumstances of their production, the culture behind them, the social situation for which they provide evidence. But the point of a theology course is to find out about God, in and through the properly disciplined study of these texts. If a student asks a question about God in a history class, the instructor is free to answer, “That’s not a relevant question in this class” (or, as it was put to me somewhat indecorously in a class at the non-Catholic institution where I studied as an undergraduate, “Please leave your theological baggage at the door”). But for a theology instructor to reply in the same way would be to violate the very identity of one’s discipline. Students are right to ask about God, and all matters related to God, in a theology class, where the question is not finally “What influences were operating in Julian of Norwich’s social setting that caused her to have visions?” or “What did Thomas Aquinas think about God?”—though such questions are certainly and necessarily involved—but rather “How has this study helped me think about God and God’s self-revelation?”

From theology classes, students can also learn that faith in revelation isn’t something that has to remain purely private, a matter of individualistic piety without reference to the intellectual life. Rather, faith—the very faith that connects them to all believers, learned and unlearned—can acquire a level of “understanding” as sophisticated as that of any other discipline of study in the university. I find that this is the single most important benefit of the study of theology for undergraduates: the discovery of the sophistication of the “science of God,” of the perspective of faith. It comes to many of them almost as a shock. If anything is likely to bind them more fully to their faith—or, if they are not believers, to make them take the faith of others more seriously—it is this discovery, and not unchallenging courses that seem to replace teaching with preaching. I intend here no devaluation of preaching, but the special witness of the university takes place in the context of a classroom. The witness of a university is not the same as that of a parish or a diocese, where preaching is the proper modus operandi.

Through required courses in theology, students are exposed to a mode of inquiry that belies the false dichotomy between secularization and sectarianism, a mode of inquiry in which faith is not excluded as irrelevant to reason but is itself the opening to a rich intellectual world. What Augustine calls the initium fidei, the starting point of faith, drives this inquiry rather than cutting it short. Nor are we talking about faith in the abstract, but a specific faith: the basic doctrines or mysteries of the Catholic faith, considered as part of a living tradition and not an artifact of the past. Basic knowledge of these teachings, and exposure to a mode of inquiry that neither opposes faith to reason, nor reduces faith to reason, is a benefit to any student no matter what his or her own particular “starting point” may be.

As students come to understand the sophistication of the Catholic theological tradition, I find that their sympathy for it increases. They see riches where before they saw only old, irrelevant texts. They come to appreciate that there were difficult challenges in the church long before our own time, controversies much more heated than some of those we observe today. They discover a beauty they had not expected, a variety where previously they had assumed there would be only uniformity. They find out that Scripture is not as “primitive” as they had thought. They learn that, while not reducible to reason, faith has its own logic. They learn to distinguish between what is reasonable and what is provable. They learn some of the basic doctrines of the Catholic faith, not as doors that close off all questioning, but as openings to lifelong reflection on the ultimately ineffable mystery of God’s love, which is the ultimate referent of all doctrine. It is the formation of an intellectual life continually engaged with this mystery that is the principle benefit of theology as a field of study.

Thus a Catholic university that welcomes a theology department and requires theology courses for its undergraduates endorses an academic approach that is essentially integrative. Even without any specific integrating programming, the university thereby identifies its whole intellectual project as distinctive. In such a university, the other disciplines remain themselves; their different disciplinary methodologies are not erased or homogenized. But each disciplinary conversation is experienced as part of a larger whole. Since one part of the curriculum is explicitly oriented toward understanding the mystery of God’s self-revelation, the whole is thereby implicitly oriented toward such understanding. The kind of integration such an approach makes possible is never complete, always a work in progress. It is the character of a conversation, rather than a settled intellectual accomplishment
or system.

Let me offer a small example of how the integrative potential of the conversation might be actualized in a specific way. Contrary to popular belief, the “preferential option for the poor” is first and foremost a doctrine about God, and not about the poor. In his book On Job, Gustavo Gutiérrez writes, “The ultimate basis of God’s preference for the poor is to be found in God’s own goodness and not in any analysis of society or in human compassion, however pertinent these reasons may be.” If the poor and the “little ones” are “the privileged addressees of revelation,” this is “the result not primarily of moral or spiritual dispositions, but of a human situation in which God undertakes self-revelation by acting and overturning values and criteria. The scorned of this world are those whom the God of love prefers.”

GustavoAll good universities want to be committed to social service of some kind, and the Catholic university most of all. But it is important to note here that, from a Catholic point of view, the reason for such service is first and foremost found in God’s manner of self-revelation. We are, in the first place, confronted with a mystery of God’s transcendent love that cannot be reduced to human reason, because it is a “preference” based in God’s “goodness.” It cannot be derived from any notion of justice based on human reason
alone, on the supposed merits exhibited by the poor (or lack thereof). Theology is a contemplative discourse that is defined by its attempt to understand this goodness as well as it can be understood, and to arrive at a notion of justice that flows from it. The language appropriate to theology, according to Gutierrez, is the union of the contemplative and prophetic, of the contemplation of God’s love and the “overturning” it implies in its very mode of revelation. Isn’t this language—which could only arise in a department oriented by definition to the mystery of God’s self-revelation—itself an example of the integration required of a Catholic university? Other disciplines can then contribute to an understanding of this language of contemplation and of justice, spoken as it must be in a world of science, technology, law, literature, social studies, and art. A Catholic university might even offer clusters of linked courses, each speaking its own disciplinary language, but all integrated theologically into the language of contemplation
and prophecy.

Thus does the mere presence of a theology department orient a university, quietly and almost imperceptibly, toward the transcendent mystery of God’s solidarity with the “little ones,” the mystery of the Cross. Is there a better way to prepare students for a lifetime of active, conscious immersion
in the mystery of God’s love?

And the Nominees Are. . . Boyhood

Jessica Keating, M.Div.
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

Editors’ Note:
In anticipation of the 87th Academy Awards on February 22,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture.
(Caveat: spoilers ahead.)

As Time Goes By

Few, if any, of this year’s Oscar nominees have received such an enthusiastic reception as Boyhood. The film, shot in 4-5 day sequences over course of 12 years, has earned its director Richard Linklater accolades for his daring innovation, the blending of genres, and the beauty of capturing life’s hidden arcs and curves. New York Times film critic, Manohla Dargis, raved that Boyhood “exists at the juncture of classical cinema and the modern art film without being slavishly indebted to either tradition. It’s a model of cinematic realism.”  Declaring the film a “masterpiece,” Dargis wrote that it embraced time “in all its glorious and agonizingly fleeting beauty.” A.O. Scott gave the film the number one ranking in his review of the top 10 movies of 2014, lauding “the ingenuity of Richard Linklater’s idea and the artistry of his methods.” Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday gushed, “As a film that dares to honor small moments and the life they add up to, Boyhood isn’t just a masterpiece. It’s a miracle.” You get the picture. In short, the film has garnered near-perfect reviews.

A very few critics have complained that nothing happens in Boyhood. On a very practical level, this assertion is clearly false. The film threads together a myriad of scenes throughout Mason’s childhood and adolescence. We see his father, Mason Sr., and his mother, Olivia, pursue other relationships. She pursues a master’s degree and teaching career. He pursues a bohemian existence. We see Mason Sr. swoop in and out of his kids’ lives. We hear Olivia curse at her children. We hear her read them bedtime stories and tell themdownload she loves them. We hear her ask her daughter, “Do you want to be a cooperative person, who is compassionate and helps people out? Or do you want to be a self-centered narcissist?” We see domestic violence. We see Mason, his sister Samantha, and their father at a Houston Astros game. We see Olivia and her children move. We see the children fight in the back of the car. We see underage drinking. We see the paying of bills, the fights, the laughter, the trudging of this family through life, but there isn’t any more than this. It is the film’s mere materiality that has caused some to observe that nothing happens in the film or that it lacks a plot. But things do happen, and the film does have a plot, a plot which is both irreducibly simple and most complex: the unfolding of a life. The problem isn’t a lack of action; rather, it is the soft nihilism that pervades the film.

Personally, I can only compare watching this film to enduring the interminable South Bend winter—the perpetual greyness, the hope 54ad7b63353c8.imagefor a snow day that never comes, the slogging through blackened
slush, passing hundreds of people bundled up against the wind, but unable to quite make out their faces, the crushing feeling in mid-March (or two hours into the film) that this really may never end.

In short, we see the “small moments and the life they add up to,” the overlooked, the precarious. The film could have been moving, even beautiful. Life, the film strives to demonstrate, is not a series of momentous events, but it is lived out in the ordinary, in the hidden. In the end, however, Boyhood is bereft of vision. The ordinary is not only not transfigured, but the film asserts that it is untransfigurable. To continue the image of a South Bend winter, making out the characters in the film was for me akin to trying to decipher whether the person hidden under the layers of coats, scarves, and hats is someone you know or a total stranger. In Boyhood, Linklater and hisst_thereselaundry actors never quite allow us to encounter the mystery of the human person, the person who becomes all the more mysterious the more keenly we see him. Instead, we encounter layers of obfuscation, which deflect meaning and obscure mystery. This is the “progress report on our spiritual condition,” as A.O. Scott remarks in his praise of the film. Neither its characters, nor the dozens of “small moments and the life,” nor the arc of the film, offer anything more than existential immediacy. In the end, Boyhood struck me as an incurving of St. Therese of Lisieux’s “Little Way” – all of the littleness and none of the horizon, none of the “way.”

The film opens with a six-year-old Mason lying on his back, his left arm tucked under his head, gazing up to the sky, watching clouds drift overhead. Even as a child, Mason’s gaze expresses something 20148190_1_IMG_FIX_700x700
less than wonder. Instead, he seems to stare up at the sky in lonely resignation. The film’s logic lies concealed in this opening scene, and is only fully manifested in the final dialogue. The child, who in the opening scene watches the clouds float past, becomes a young adult gazing out over a gorgeous mountainsunset, content to watch life’s moments seize him and drift past. His last words in the film observe the fleeting banality of life: “Yeah. Yeah, I know. It’s constant, the moments, it’s just…it’s like always right now, you know?” “Yeah,” says the girl sitting next to him. They smile at each other, and the screen fades. Thus, Boyhood concludes with a kind of immature hubris. Indeed, the eighteen-year-old Mason is a kind of cipher for the entire film. He grasps at profundity but comes up empty.

Bookended by these listless, and in some sense solitary, scenes of resignation, Mason’s final exchange with each of his parents lay bare the film as a project in unsaying meaning.

In the final scene with his father, Mason finds himself precariously wedged between the crushing failure of his first relationship and the moderate success of placing in a state-wide photography contest. He asks his father, “So what’s the point?” In a response that shows he’s entirely missed the depth of the question, Mason Sr. asks, “Of what?” “I don’t know, any of this. Everything,” his son replies. The film cavalierly registers its claim as Mason Sr. answers, “Everything? What’s the point? I mean I sure as s**t don’t know. I mean, but, neither does anybody else. Okay, we’re all just winging it, you know? I mean the good news is you’re feeling stuff. You know? And you got to hold onto that. You do.”

In another final scene and in another valence, Olivia presents the film’s logic. Tearfully packing Mason up for college, she confesses to her 18-year-old son: “You know what I’m realizing? My life is just gonna go, like that! This series of milestones. Getting married, having kids, getting divorced, the time that we thought you were dyslexic, when I taught you how to ride a bike, getting divorced AGAIN, getting my master’s degree, finally getting the job I wanted, sending Samantha off to college, sending YOU off the college… You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my f**kin’ funeral! [She pauses for a beat.] I just thought there would be more.” Olivia’s disappointed conclusion (these are the last words she speaks in the film), registers the characters’ inability to see meaning, to see life as anything more than a series of events. In the end, the film refuses to allow that life is anything other than the irreducibly pedestrian and the mundane.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life

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