I am not a professional.
Why on earth would someone who isn’t a professional theologian, an academic, a priest, or a writer, with no real training in systematic theology, take on the task of trying to outline something like a systematic theology of love and renewal? And why would anyone read it?
I have begun to think of myself as a “sleeper cell theologian.” I was a religion major in college (at a Baptist university, Wake Forest, where I focused on New Testament studies), and I have a master of divinity degree from seminary (a Methodist one, Candler School of Theology, at Emory University) with an honors thesis on Catholic social thought. And I spent one year in Emory’s doctoral program in religion, focused on Christian political thought, before dropping out because the work was hard, unconnected to my faith, and almost entirely devoid of job prospects.
So I disappeared for 20 years. I worked in sports media relations and public relations, sales, and marketing. Then I worked in grassroots advocacy and community organizing. And I did nothing that connected to my academic career.
When Pope Francis was elected in 2013, I started to wake up. I was excited about who this man was, and what he might mean to the Church and the world, and as I talked with friends who were not Catholic (and many who were), I discovered that due to my education, I knew some things that they didn’t. So I started sharing them on this blog – talking about apostolic exhortations and encyclicals, about what was new about Pope Francis and what really wasn’t.
Then I started to branch out and write about other stuff.
As the clerical sex abuse scandal re-emerged this past summer, I, like most other Catholics, was shocked, horrified, and unsure of what to do. But amidst writing a little about this awful new chapter in Church history, I also started to reflect on a couple of broader issues.
One that came up was the nature of Church reform. I’ve been a big fan of reformers in the Church – my two favorite saints are Saint Pope John XXIII and Saint Francis of Assisi – and wondered what reform might look like in this moment. A remark on a podcast from an ecclesiologist resonated with me: over the course of Church history, the more successful reforms haven’t so much targeted structural changes as sparked movements among the laity to model the Gospel better than the current hierarchy was. We need lay people – normal, non-professional Catholics – to be truer to Jesus’ message than our leaders have been. Sometimes, the successful reformers renew the Church, as Francis did. Sometimes, they get tossed out, as those of the Protestant Reformation did. But either way, they called the Church to conversion, to metanoia, change of heart. And that’s what we need.
For reasons I’ll get to in a second, I don’t think that you start by articulating a new theology. Throughout the history of Christianity, what has been successful in bringing about metanoia hasn’t been theoretical or even verbal. It’s been lived examples of faith that people recognize as truer to the intent of Jesus and the heart of God. But, at some point, those examples point to a theology. And to the extent that our current theology may not be doing well at inspiring that kind of magnetically Gospel-centric life, it may be worth exploring how other ways of talking about God and humanity might better help us spark that kind of Gospel life. It’s about trying to identify a new way of talking about God and us that better articulates the message of the Gospel that is at the heart of our faith.
The other thing that sparked this is in many ways more personal. I used to think that theology – faith seeking understanding, the cognitive work of articulating the propositions of the faith – came first, and that everything else flowed from those principles. As I lived more, I came to believe that actions came first and thoughts came after – that we develop habits of action that yield a way of thinking. But now I’ve come to believe that we relate – we love – our way into acting. That is, the people with whom we spend time in relationship, the people we love, and the process of being in relationship with them determine our actions as well as what we think. As a result, I’ve been less and less interested in dogma and more and more interested in being better at loving others. That’s been my mindset for so long that I realized it would be good for me to take a moment and reflect for myself on what it is I actually believe at this point, having focused so little on the topic and so much on the practice of learning to love. So this is my effort to capture that.
It would be reasonable to ask, that being the case, who has been influencing my thinking. Who have I been in relationship with – directly and indirectly – that has shaped this approach? Most of them, you’ve never heard of – my wife and daughter, extended family, work and friends. But more theologically, I’ve been influenced by Fr. Greg Boyle’s stories of Homeboy Industries, Bob Goff’s stories in Everybody Always, Rick Warren, Francis Chan and Kyle Idelman in the evangelical tradition, Fr. James Martin, Matthew Kelly, Bishop Robert Barron and Fr. Ron Rolheiser. I owe a big debt, going back to grad school 25 years ago, to studying Parker Palmer and taking a class with Dr. Luke Johnson. I’ve spent a little time learning about the saints, especially St. Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan tradition, and St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuit tradition. And, of course, Pope Francis. From a reading standpoint, though, what has most affected my thinking about God and humanity is doing the daily mass readings each day.
If I had to pin down one influence, though, one relationship that has shaped this theology of love, it’s been my vocation to marriage. Through the daily attempts and many failures to work for April’s good, I’ve learned to see the world differently. In trying to better our marriage, I’ve learned a little about the Theology of the Body teachings of St. Pope John Paul II, although mostly from secondary sources (his original work sits on my desk gathering dust, I’m afraid). And through a marriage enrichment exercise around developing a shared marital mission statement, I was forced to write my own individual mission statement. So now, at the start of each workday, I organize my actions around the three elements of that mission statement: Love God, Love the People God Puts in my Path, Use What God Gives Me for Good. So my relationship (marriage) leads to actions (my workday) that shape my thinking.
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