Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Stupidly Contemplative Questions

Disclaimer: Chances are that if you're reading this, you're someone who has asked, or been asked, one of these questions. Chances are I have asked them of someone, and I definitely don't disrespect anyone for asking these questions. They can be helpful, but they're also stupidly contemplative questions. Explanation to follow!

It seems like sometimes we Christians like asking holy- sounding questions more than we like doing useful things. I don't mean questions like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, though certainly the outer reaches of Scholasticism are not always the most immediately relevant. But at least those people will speculate on, and get somewhere, and the obscure scholastic questions don't have the side effect of inducing needless guilt. I mean questions that can easily freeze us with how holy and scary and challenging they sound, like:

(1) "What are we doing to prove that we love God most?"
(2) "How can we share our faith?"
(3) "Do I know that I love God?"
(4) "How do I grow in God?"
(5) "How do I clean my room?"

Okay, that last one is a bit not like the others. It's a couple of degrees more removed from Christian living. But the questions share some things in common. At the outset, all such questions seem like insurmountable obstacles in themselves. With the possible exception of the third, they all bring to mind a few possible answers, none of which quite seems to be adequate right off the bat. And they all have potential to lead to a question-freeze, where you stand there stunned by how unholy or lazy in the Lord's work you are instead of actually doing something about it (or, if you prefer to put the emphasis on Grace, letting God work through you to improve your unholy lot.)

(1) This sounds like a reasonable question until you realize that the only answer that will satisfy a scrupulous person (remember that "prove" is the verb here) is to intentionally enlist in an order of monks or nuns whose only vocation is to seek bloody martyrdom under Shariah law while converting Muslims in one of the stricter Muslim countries. People with lax, or looser, consciences wonder what it is that they should have to prove to anyone else. And the well-ordered- conscience people are probably too busy proving it, insofar as we humans can, to answer the question or give it the time of day.

(2) This one actually does bear some real reflection, and I can't really do it justice here. So here, in its stead, is the injustice I will do the question: I think when people say this they usually mean verbally. I don't care what they mean, as long as they mean visually, and here I imply that the world sees with all five senses. I think what sharing our faith means is to communicate our belief in Christ as Redeemer of all through some sure and unambiguous sign which those regularly around us will "see." Even that's a rather vague sketch. While I like this question better than the others, I think its major freezing point is that it can be, like everything else, much more of a guilt trip than a question.

(3) To be honest, in my more cynical-theological moments, I tend to think number three is a question asked more for the fun of seeming profound and galvanizing people into a moment of crisis where they feel compelled to reflect, than it is to ask to actually help anything. And then we get to do the same thing I do when my room is really messy and I don't know how to start cleaning it: Spend a couple of minutes frozen in that question, then put off the real work for another week.

(4) This is another one of those famous challenge questions. I don't know about you, but when someone asks this one (including me, right now, to myself) I get images of a Rosary a Day and at least two Holy Hours. Mass at least once a week. And Adoration, which I admittedly dread trying to cultivate the habit of, because I know I'm going to have to work on my horrible attention span. But even the parts of this one I should like, being more theologically abstract, like reading the lives and works of the Saints...I don't really do. It's probably the attention span again. In terms of real-world problems this one is probably the closest, for me, to cleaning one's room. So many places I could start, but will I really feel good until it's all in place? 

(5) This one usually is more of an excuse than an actual question, but cleaning my room is a pretty good analogy for these questions, except that the spiritual room, for almost all of us, never gets acceptably clean until we're with God. In the end, though, these questions aren't that productive in themselves. I guess my big thing, my big beef with them, is that they seem to do more emotional harm and cause more mental anguish, at least for me, than they're really worth. And they provide a good out. Standing frozen by the questions for a couple of minutes is a great excuse not to act on them. With that in mind, I propose a remedy. I'm going to answer the questions. Each answer requires a bit of expansion, but said expansions will be simple. Format: "Question." Answer. Expansion.

(1) "What are we doing to prove that we love God most?" We're confessing "Jesus is Lord." Physical martyrdom is unlikely to happen to you. Idolatry is not. A simple question, for a given thing X. If I had to choose between Jesus and X, which would I choose?

Unfreeze by resolving to choose Jesus. Every time.

(2) "How can we share our faith?" With outward signs that are not hidden. Live your faith. Don't be afraid to wear a Crucifix around your neck or keep a Bible or Rosary visible in the sight of non-Christians.**

Unfreeze by resolving to live ethically and share your faith when asked, as a baseline.

(3) "Do I know that I love God?" No. Now stop worrying and love God. Because it's a surer sign of loving God if you're focused on serving Him, rather than worrying about whether you love Him. If you are paranoid, ask people who, in your view, love God and can tell a Christian when they see one. What do they see in you?

Unfreeze by admitting you don't know, but you've got a pretty good idea that the answer to the question "Do I love God?" is yes.

(4) "How do I grow in God?" Treat God like you'd treat a Lord, but seek to know him better as you would a trusted friend. You can't ask God questions directly, but you would want to get to know a friend. You'd want to experience this person. So experience God.

Unfreeze by thinking of a couple of different (concrete) ways to grow in God (not just fellowship with other Christians), then sticking to them.

(5) "How do I clean my room?" Clean it. Pick something doable and start with that. Kind of like (4).

In other words, unfreeze by cleaning your room, already.

By the grace of God, may we, even if frozen in bad fashion by these questions, unfreeze by answering them, and then acting on our answers, that we might go forth and better serve God. Otherwise we might wind up so paranoid about whether we can answer these questions, that we never get around to answering them in word or in deed.

Which is the reason these questions were asked in the first place, even if they don't always get us where they're supposed to.


* A portmanteau of "testimony" and "brag," that I first picked up from my friend Alicia on one of a few group trips to Christian Rock festival FreedomFest. I will decline to say whose bragimony she was referring to, save that it was none of our group.

** This is not an endorsement of violating workplace standards, as regards desk cleanliness or religious expression. But of course if your workplace can't tolerate an offhand mention of church...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

On Becoming a Theologian

So I read this article that a guy named Bruce Bethke put online, called On Becoming a Writer Those who know me know he had a hand in coining the term "cyberpunk," having made it the title of a short story about teenage computer hackers back in the 1980s. But he also wrote this, on his website, which I thought was fairly good. I also feel that if you substitute "theology" for "literature," and "theologian" for "writer," it functions pretty well.

Friend of the blog Catholic Nick is one such example. I had lunch with an old youth pastor the other week and he had brought Nick to mind by mentioning the notion that a theologian is defined by what one does, not one's training. As a theologian I have more 'formal' training than he does (Nick, not said pastor who is a Ph.D to trump my B.A.), but he is, in some ways, a better theologian than I am. In trying to work out what to believe as a Catholic he's read...many more sources than I including numerous papal documents. In trying to work out how and why the Church teaches what it does about the Scriptures, and in order to be able to better respond to Protestant criticisms of Catholic doctrines, he's always reading various Scripture scholars.

Granted there's something to be said for learning about the scholarly consensus on given issues in college, a consensus only proves so much; the only real relevant dis-analogy I can see here is that there's not necessarily a scholarly consensus on what makes literature in general good, though certain topics in theology have a consensus that helps render arguments more or less tenable. That said, I think theologians sometimes overstate the importance of the consensus, and that perhaps this can be a way of avoiding the better arguments and thoughts of people like Nick, who do more and possibly better theologizing than half the professional field.