To Instruct the Ignorant
Our Tradition is so rich in wisdom. Our Catholic practice of the ‘Spiritual Works of Mercy’ is but one example of that depth. For the Spiritual Works of Mercy help us disciples explore how we can dwell in the mercy and tenderness of God, as Jesus our brother guides us on the journey of faith, a journey that is unique for each person.
These days, however, the beautiful concept of Tradition needs to be very carefully distinguished from traditionalism. The proponents of traditionalism, who are notorious for their nostalgia for past ‘Golden Ages’ (that mostly never existed) and get their energy from fighting and condemning other people, are not educators but ideologues.
An educator can never be an ideologue, for ideologues can never ‘instruct the ignorant’, or ‘educate in faith’ since they do not dialogue with learners but talk ‘at’ them.
Jaroslav Pelikan, the famous Christian scholar and great teacher, suggested another way for Catholic educators in faith when he commented: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenised tradition.”
‘Instructing the ignorant’ involves giving people a healthy sense of their Catholic identity or imagination. It aims to help us all live in a postmodern relativistic culture and understand that there is a rationality to Christian faith. Simultaneously, it also insists that faith is primarily a relationship with the living Risen Jesus and begins with the heart.
‘Instructing the ignorant’ is a call for all of us who are privileged to be Catholics to learn more deeply the language of our faith. In an age characterised by superficiality and crass ignorance of the richness of the Judeo-Christian tradition, ‘instructing the ignorant’ is all about showing the beauty of the Catholic Tradition to young and old. It is especially sensitive to reach out to all those people here in Melbourne who are searching for God down many paths. The precious gift of faith in Jesus of Nazareth is something we naturally want to share.
Catholic educators (i.e. all the baptised), however, can never simply approach people as if they are somehow just empty receptacles whose heads need to be filled with more propositions and ideas. Education in faith is about imaginatively engaging in a conversation between our Catholic Tradition and our culture, a secular society that is fundamentally good because it is created by persons, all made in the image and likeness of God.
Yes, cultures are sometimes compromised and flawed and hence in need of redemption. But that does not excuse us from finding ways to discover the treasure hidden in the field of real people’s daily lives. We need to discover with people that Christ is closer to us all, believers and non-believers, (and ‘half’ believers!) than we are to our very own selves.
‘Instructing the ignorant’ then is best done through the witness of our lives and actions, not just words.
I love the story of Pope John XXIII the Great. Papa Roncalli had a long and quite varied life before he became Pope. One of his lengthy assignments as a younger man was in Serbia, where there are many Orthodox but few Roman Catholics. He so endeared himself to the Serbs by his disarming warmth and friendliness that, when he left for a new assignment after many years there, people came in great numbers to say goodbye.
On that occasion he told them: “Anywhere I go in the world, if someone in need passes by my house at night, he will find a lighted lamp in the window. Knock. I will not ask if you are a Catholic. Two brotherly arms will embrace you and the warm heart of a friend will make a feast for you.”
No wonder, that this holy man opened the ‘windows’ of the Church at Vatican II and let ‘fresh air’ in. For Pope John XXIII was a Christian educator who ‘instructed the ignorant’; not a humourless ideologue who alienated and frightened people away from Christ, the Merciful One. ▪
To Counsel the Doubtful
LORD, I BELIEVE; HELP MY UNBELIEF! (MK 9:24)
to counsel the doubtful
If faith is a relationship, it will have its ‘ups and downs’ – like all relationships that matter. We should not be surprised then that we all go through seasons of questions, doubts and aridity in our experience of believing.
For it is no small thing to believe! It would be nice to have the ‘certainty’ of some. But deep down we all know that dogmatists of all persuasions are fundamentally riddled with insecurity and rigidity. It is healthier simply to accept that in this life we usually dwell in the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ (I highly recommend reading Dr Carmen Acevedo Butcher’s beautiful The Cloud of Unknowing: A New Translation). Doubts and questioning of God are a normal and essential part of the faith journey.
So, when we encounter dogmatic atheists, or when we go through periods of doubt ourselves, we should not seek ‘answers’ too quickly but ‘live the questions’, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once said.
A wonderful guide in this regard is Mgr Prof. Tomas Halik, who has produced one of the best and most beautiful responses to the so-called New Atheism, in his recent book, Patience with God (Doubleday, 2009). Halik worked as a psychotherapist under the communists in Czechoslovakia, while secretly being ordained as a Catholic priest and active in the underground Church. Since the fall of the communist regime, he has served as general secretary to the Czech Conference of Bishops and was an adviser to Vaclav Havel. He has lectured at many universities throughout the world and is currently university chaplain and professor of philosophy and sociology at Charles University, Prague.
His argument is that the real difference between faith and atheism is patience. Atheists are not wrong, only impatient. They want to resolve doubt instead of enduring it. Their experience of God’s absence is a truthful experience shared also by many believers. Faith is not a denial of all this: it is a patient endurance of the ambiguity of the world and the experience of God’s absence. Faith is patience with God.
Halik teaches that God requires us to persevere with our doubts, carry them in our hearts, and allow them to lead us to maturity. For Halik, patience is the main difference between faith and atheism.
“As a believer I am always a seeker, and there’s a fellowship between seekers. Doubt isn’t the enemy of faith but her sister. Unchecked doubt leads to militant secularism, but unchecked faith leads to religious fundamentalism. Like sisters, faith and doubt can also support each other.”
I understand why some Catholics would like to believe there is an ‘answer’ to everything. But that is not very good theology. St Thomas Aquinas insists that we actually know very little about God. Mystery should not frighten us but intrigue and enchant us.
Of course, we do need a ‘new apologetics’, as Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation, has pointed out. But it must be an apologetics that is based on an understanding of the kindness of God. If its aim is to ‘counsel the doubtful’ it will stress that there is room in God’s family for those who doubt, even for those for whom the word ‘God’ cannot easily be deciphered.
There may be some in the Church who have a spirituality and faith where it is always ‘summertime’. They are blessed with endless enthusiasm and a feeling of the certainty of God’s presence that never eludes them.
Many of us, however, can identify with R.S. Thomas’s poem Via Negativa. Along with John of the Cross, we can sometimes experience God as “the empty silence within”. Hopefully, it makes us better able to ‘counsel the doubtful’ as they go through their own ‘dark nights of the soul’. ▪
Why no! I never thought other than
that God is that great absence
in our lives, the empty silence
within, the place where we go
seeking, not in hope to
arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
in our knowledge, the darkness
between stars. His are the echoes
we follow, the footprints he has just
left. We put our hands in
his side hoping to find
it warm. We look at people
and places as though he had looked
at them, too; but miss the reflection.
—R.S. Thomas (1913–2000)