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November 30, 2019 — The convocation address of Fr. Scott Lewis, SJ at Regis College, Toronto.

Regis College

Considering the steady flow of fearful and depressing images and stories that bombard us each day, we might be tempted to agree with Charles Dickens in the paradoxical opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, a novel set in the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. We live in a time of relative prosperity and technological sophistication, but fear, anxiety, paranoia, intolerance, lies, and hopelessness seem to have taken possession of many minds and hearts. We are confronted with the faces and cries of victims of war, sexual violation, oppression, natural disasters, poverty, and addiction. There is the ever-present temptation to cynicism, negativity, despair, or far worse – indifference and denial.

Every generation suffers the conceit of thinking that their time is the worst and the most difficult. Throughout history, a common theme of folks living through terrible events is that the end of the world has come, and for them it certainly seemed to be the case. But the world survives and recovers, and we are still here. A sober look at history reveals that we have been through far worse times. This past century alone has given us two world wars, a host of smaller conflicts, the holocaust, and a world-wide depression. Every century has had its share of wars, plagues, famines, slaughters, and natural disasters, but the world has soldiered on. But the fact remains, and no one can deny, that we live in very scary and perilous times. Our technology has made it possible to inflict irreparable damage – even annihilation – on our planet and humanity. What does that mean for us, and what should our response be?

Perhaps we can go on a little journey, back to the trenches of World War I – very fitting, since this is the centenary of its end. Most have heard of the Battle of Verdun, the malevolent killing machine that devoured some 600,000 men on both sides of the conflict. Survivors, and those fallen who left written records, all agree: It wasn’t hell; it was far, far, worse than hell. For many, it seemed impossible to believe in anything – even goodness and beauty – after what they had seen and experienced.

But let us look at the lives of two survivors of that battle – and most are at least familiar with their names. One was a German soldier – a chaplain – and the battle changed his life forever. As a result of his constant contact with senseless destruction, the maimed, dying, and the dead, he suffered two nervous breakdowns, as well as a crisis of faith. Traditional religiosity, along with its platitudes, bromides, and easy explanations, no longer worked. He could not see the will of God in what was happening around him, and the world was no longer a neat and ordered place under divine management. Out of this experience, he forged a secularized faith and spirituality, drawing much from psychology, art, mystical experience, and an existential approach to faith. He went on to a long and influential career as a modern theologian. His name was Paul Tillich.

There are two roads that can be taken. The first – taken by many – is the attempt to return to some mythical time of prosperity, order, and peace in the past. This takes the form of retrenchment and rigidity, as they try to breathe new life into ideas and structures that are dying or dead. The other road is the one that can seem to lead into uncharted territory, and it is frightening to some. The challenge is to have a meaningful and helpful message to share with the world.

Just a few miles away, in the French trenches, was a soldier – a stretcher bearer, serving with the 8th Moroccan Rifles. He was zealous in the performance of his duties and was decorated several times. He was mentioned in dispatches for heroic actions, although he never bore arms. He too was appalled at what he witnessed and experienced. Although unwilling to write God out of the picture, he realized that a new vision and understanding of God, life, the world, and the universe was called for. He took the long and broad view of human history. The world and its people were both unfinished – still works in progress. Something was afoot in the universe; humanity was evolving, not just physically, but psychologically and spiritually. There would come a time, albeit in the distant future, when humanity, consciousness, spirit, matter, and God would be one. He wrote that for him, the war had been a meeting with the Absolute. Amid the horror around him, he was able to do two very important things: he affirmed life. He wrote, “Fundamentally, I am glad to have been at Ypres. I hope I shall have emerged more of a man and more of a priest. And more than ever, I believe that life is beautiful, in the grimmest circumstances – when you can see God, ever-present in them.” He also could see that in the grand scheme of things, even suffering and ugliness have a role to play. His name, if you haven’t already guessed, was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest/scientist who would continue his work as a paleontologist and philosopher until the end of his life. As with many innovators and visionaries, he paid a price. He was forbidden to teach, and his books were banned in his lifetime. It was only later that many appreciated the gift of his insights.

The Dominican theologian Yves Congar was also profoundly influenced by wartime experiences. His town was occupied by the Germans in 1916 and his father was deported. During the Second World War, he served in the French army as a chaplain and was a prisoner of war. His own theology moved beyond boundaries – he envisioned a collegial church, and he revived a theological focus on the Holy Spirit. He was deeply involved in ecumenical work and supported the worker priest movement. He lived under a cloud during the 1940’s and 50’s, being rehabilitated in time for the Second Vatican Council. Robert Ellsberg said of Congar,

“Consistently, Congar emphasized the distinction between Tradition and traditionalism. The latter was an unyielding commitment to the past. The former was a living principle of commitment to the Beginning, a process that required creativity, inspiration, and a spirit of openness to the present as well as respect for the past.

Times of crisis and suffering are fertile times for creative theology. A journey through history reveals that some of the best theology was generated when the world of believers seemed to be coming undone and falling apart. In 586 bce, the temple and city of Jerusalem were destroyed. With the visible structures of their faith in ruins, the people of God engaged in much soul searching during their exile in Babylon. During this period, they recast the Jewish identity and theology and assembled the Old Testament that we have today, which itself was a rich theological reinterpretation of the history of the world and the people of God. The destruction of the Second Temple and the city of Jerusalem in 70 ad and 132 ad triggered another rethinking and recasting. With the temple absent, Judaism became a religion centered on home, synagogue, and study of the law. As one rabbi at the time declared, now deeds of loving kindness have become the sacrifice.

The Holocaust was a theological watershed for both Christians and Jews. Jewish people reflected on their image of God and on their understanding of the covenant. Many questioned the existence or the fidelity of God and wondered what the covenant could mean after such a catastrophe. Others recommitted themselves to their faith and the covenant. At the same time, Christians reexamined the theological anti-Semitism in its theological tradition and its attitudes towards the Jewish people. This led to Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate and the forging of a whole new relationship with the Jewish people.

The Reformation resulted in religious polarization and wars, and theology became more dogmatic and intransigent, but it also brought in new visions of Church and Christian life, along with renewal and purification. The fear generated by the destruction of the French Revolution and the revolutions of the 19th century gave us an authoritarian ecclesiology and the stifling of the Church’s intellectual life. But even during those times, there were thoughtful individuals who engaged in creative theological reflection. They were times of revitalization and new forms of ministry and religious expression, much of it only being fully appreciated and fully vindicated in the future. The economic and social misery of the Industrial Revolution gave birth to the social gospel. Every crisis we have faced has also been an opportunity for new life.

We are now faced with a crisis on many various levels. The world is on the edge of environmental disaster, one which some leaders refuse to recognize. There is a rise in intolerance, violence, and polarization. Relationships of all sorts, from the family to the workplace, have been seriously damaged. Economic, political, social, and religious institutions and structures do not seem to deliver the goods anymore. And the old answers simply do not work for many people – there is a huge loss of meaning and traditional religion has lost much of its force and attraction.

There are two roads that can be taken. The first – taken by many – is the attempt to return to some mythical time of prosperity, order, and peace in the past. This takes the form of retrenchment and rigidity, as they try to breathe new life into ideas and structures that are dying or dead. The other road is the one that can seem to lead into uncharted territory, and it is frightening to some. The challenge is to have a meaningful and helpful message to share with the world. An earnest and open dialogue between the theological tradition and contemporary human experience can lead to a rich and creative theological renewal. The best theology engages life and experience, and we can only do that by truly listening to the experience of humanity. As Pope Francis insisted, we must smell like the sheep. It cannot be business as usual and thinking outside the box is not a luxury but an absolute necessity.

At the opening of Vatican II, Pope John XXIII stated that ‘history is the teacher of life,’ and so it is. Along with our experience, it is also the best theologian. This is an important undertaking and will determine if the Christian Church (and other religions too) will play a vital role in healing our world or become mere historical artifacts. We can begin by following Teilhard by proclaiming in word, attitude, and deed that life is indeed beautiful, despite apparent ugliness, when we can see God in all things. The age calls for a compassionate vision and theology that stresses human solidarity and universal reconciliation rather than differences and boundaries. It should heal us of the illusion that we are separate from one another, from creation, and from God. We are one.

This is far too important an undertaking to be left to Church leaders or professional theologians. The invitation and call – like John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris or Francis’ Laudato ‘si – is to all people of good will. We all do theology. For those in the role of Christian ministry, the sense of urgency is even more acute. You are in the trenches, close to the action and to human pain. Hopefully, your theological training will equip you for thoughtful and faith-filled reflection on your experience and that of those you serve. Do not be cowed or stifled by tradition or authority. We will only have the future that we are able to envision in our minds and hearts.

A recent interpretative translation of some Talmudic texts seems to be directed to us. Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

© 2018 Scott M. Lewis SJ

Talmudic sayings from Word for the Day 2 November 2018. Robert Ellseberg quote:

Story of Tillich and Teilhard: Mel Thompson, Through Mud and Barbed Wire: Paul Tillich, Teilhard de Chardin and God after the First World War. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017.

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