All posts filed under: Essays

The Very Human Fears of the Saints

“Am I to stay here alone?” This question, posed by Servant of God Lucia Santos to the Blessed Mother during a 1917 Fatima apparition, introduced a raw, intimate urgency to their dialogue. Having just been informed that her two cousins and fellow seers, Jacinta and Francisco, would soon succumb to illness and pass into communion with God, Lucia learns of her own mission to remain on earth, continuing a hidden life of prayer and evangelization. Her immediate, reactionary question reveals a fundamental human, and particularly Christian, insecurity.[1] Created for communion with God and with one another, the fear of abandonment—of being left to face our existential realities alone—lingers in the recesses of the human heart, surfacing during times of insecurity, transition, and uncertainty. It is tempting, at times, to convince ourselves that saints like Lucia were somehow exempt from these human insecurities. Perhaps the saints were granted a sort of supernatural clarity to dispel crippling doubts and inhibitions, or a keen sense of spiritual sight that allowed them to identify and respond to human need, …

The Shape of Water: An Accidental Allegory of the Sheep and the Goats

SPOILER ALERT: This review does indeed contain spoilers. The Shape of Water is a strange fairy tale about a mute cleaning lady named Elisa who falls in love with an anthropomorphic river creature. Despite the film’s oddity, and partly because of it, the selfless Elisa shines as a witness of how ordinary acts of charity can lead to unexpected happiness, or, dare I say (?) beatitude, after the pattern described by Christ in the judgment of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. Elisa is a thirty-something mute woman working maintenance at a government research facility in the 1960’s. One day in a lab where Elisa is cleaning, a new specimen arrives: an Amazonian water creature that looks part human, part fish, and part Pokémon. The scientists in the lab see him as an object of study. His primary captor, Richard Strickland, sees him as an object of disdain. Elisa, his eventual lover, sees him as a creature desperately in need of help. Elisa, One of the Sheep When Elisa encounters the creature for the …

Our Children Might Return to the Church, but Our Grandchildren Most Likely Won’t

It is no surprise that the children of the Church are growing up and growing out of Church. What is surprising is that they are not returning. Worse still, they are not bringing their children. A priest once told me that he was not worried about kids going to college and starting their careers out of the Church, because eventually they too would have kids and that that is when they would return. That way of thinking about Church attendance and growth just won’t do anymore. The problem is not just that the Church is hemorrhaging in attendance[1]; rather, the underlying problem, the reason why church association is hemorrhaging is that the American church has consistently communicated to the younger generations that their formation, membership, and involvement is worth less than that of their parents, who by the way have the money. I am routinely surprised by how often we suppose that children are too uneducated, too unsophisticated to understand the depth of faith. Having grown up in a fairly anti-intellectual tradition, I came to …

Lead Us Not into Temptation

Next Wednesday commences the Church’s annual celebration of Lent. The feasting of Carnival season will give way to fasting, alms-giving, and prayer. The goal of this season is not merely to discipline ourselves for the festive celebration of Easter, as if “the best Lent ever” will give way to the “most excellent Easter.” Instead, during the season of Lent, we must come face-to-face with a fact about the human condition: Something is wrong with us. And perhaps more importantly, we can’t fix it. Christ’s temptation in the desert in both Matthew and Luke diagnoses our malaise. The Reformed philosopher, social scientist, and theologian Jacque Ellul provides an interpretation of this moment in Christ’s life, one that sees in these three temptations “the sum of the temptations that man can encounter.”[1] Jesus is first tempted to turn stones into bread, by the supposition that material needs are the most important dimension of human life. Christ’s responds to the Devil’s tempting by teaching that the divine word of obediential love is what is ultimately determinative of the …

Yes, Advent Is a Time of Asceticism

We all know that Advent means arrival and preparation. I would invite you to meditate with me about the prerequisites of the term and implications we hardly ever acknowledge. On November 8, the Church remembered Blessed Duns Scotus (d. 1308), one of the greatest thinkers she has ever produced. One of his key ideas was that God’s perfect intellect is mirrored in the limitless openness and receptivity of the human mind. For the Franciscan, such receptiveness was a sign of human dignity: humans receive those truths they cannot achieve by their own powers. This sounds complicated but leads to some simple conclusions: all true knowledge comes from an encounter and arises from the receptivity of our mind and heart (intellectus passibilis). If we apply Scotus’s insight to Advent, we might realize that our receptivity to the Incarnate Word is impeded by something in our lives and that perhaps we do not desire a real encounter with the real God but rather one with our self-constructed god. The root for this seems to lie at the …

Where Do Theology and Cognitive Psychology Intersect?

Both college educators and students are rushing to connect psychological, educational, and neuroscientific findings to learning outcomes. Students study psychological research such as C. Dweck’s academic growth mindset in order to develop their learning trajectories. Professors are immersed in a burgeoning market of academic pedagogy models that stress retention of information in addition to conventional assessment. Three influential examples include: Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, What the Best College Teachers Do, and Small Teaching.[1] These are indeed exciting developments. On the one hand, institutions of higher learning are challenging students as learners to cultivate integrative and appropriative methods for their own academic development and retention. On the other hand, faculty are ever lauded not only for the precise presentation of content, but also for fostering the critical and integrative skills that bridge collegiate learning into life and work. Concerning both, however, as any faculty or student will admit, these goals are much harder to actualize than to theorize. As researchers in the psychology and theology of memory, we wish to suggest how …

Whose Liturgy? What Sacrifice?

James K.A. Smith’s cultural liturgies project has concluded with his volume on political theology, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology. In the three volumes, Smith makes an argument about the formative nature of Christian liturgical prayer. From the beginning of the project, Smith founds his liturgical theology of culture in an Augustinian anthropology: we are what we love. While secular culture has done an adept job at forming us in rites that shape our desires and imaginations (including shopping malls), Reformed Christianity has focused primarily on developing a worldview through an intellectual formation carried out in the Christian college or university. Smith argues that Christian education must turn away from an exclusive focus on the formation of the intellect to an approach grounded in liturgical practice. If we are what we love, then we need to cultivate those practices that shape the human imagination to love God and neighbor well. The first volume of the cultural liturgies project (Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation) established the anthropological basis of the argument, focusing on the manner …

Disability Debunks the Late Modern Myth of Radical Autonomy

Ontological poverty is a fancy term for a basic reality: every finite being, including each one of us, is a creature. We do not independently possess the “means” to begin to exist or to continue in existence. We are constantly and utterly dependent on God’s creating and conserving power to sustain us.  This is the most fundamental truth about us, the first truth professed in our creed.  I’d like to argue today that it is also the lens through which our response to all forms of poverty must be viewed. In light of this truth, the “poor” can never be the simply “other”—we are all poor. And poverty itself is not something to be eradicated: it is our existential condition—we cannot eradicate it without eradicating ourselves.[1] This insight is lost once people buy into late modern assumptions about our ability to overcome the limitations inherent to our state as finite beings. Under the influence of what Jacques Maritain calls “demiurgic imperialism,” we lose any sense of the givenness of the world or ourselves and fall …

Life After Life After Death

What a way to go! At some point most of us will say it, and when speaking of death usually mean some preferred, or else dreaded, scenario—drowning in a pool of chocolate say, as compared to being drawn and quartered. According to a new Canadian poll though, we are not exactly exhausting ourselves plumbing the metaphysics of the exit. In general, going, happens in one of three ways: Instantaneous, a catastrophic high-impact injury, for example, or a bullet to a so-called kill-zone; Sudden, as when an event results in death moments or hours later, and Delayed.  About this third, we could be glib and say that the leading cause of death is life, but I am talking here about terminal illness, both protracted and brief. I do not think I would be good at any of them, and am in no rush to find out. Unfortunately, over the past year, seven friends have. All “folded their tents early,” and since none lived in a global hot spot, seven seems a startling number. If there was …

Whose Community? Which Benedict Option?

In our present cultural situation, it has become common for Christian thinkers to hold up St. Benedict as a paradigmatic example of how to navigate an increasingly secular society. This phenomenon can be traced back to the well-known conclusion of Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1984 work, After Virtue, wherein he anticipated the coming “of another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict,” who could help us to survive “the barbarism of the new dark ages.”[1] At the time, MacIntyre did not go into great detail about what precisely this Benedictine renewal would look like, simply indicating that it would involve “the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life [could] be sustained.”[2] Since the publication of After Virtue, Christian thinkers from across the theological spectrum have appealed to MacIntyre’s “prophecy” as a visionary spark for their own renewal projects. To highlight just two: Rod Dreher, well-known blogger and convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, popularized the term “Benedict Option,” and recently published a 250-page tome detailing his “strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation.” Dreher says …