I find myself trying to sustain a lot of “tensegrity,” and decided that one way to live creatively in the midst of that is to try and journal regularly about the various paradoxes I find myself within. “Tensegrity” is a word Buckminster Fuller once coined — “tension” + “integrity” = “tensegrity.” He used it to describe the incredibly stable nature of the structures he could build by holding competing forces together while respecting their integrities. I like to use it to describe what it is to be a person of faith living in a global media culture.
Back in 2016 I wrote this brief piece for The Concord at Luther. I’ve been archiving those essays here in my blog as well. So… from 2016:
One of the benefits of being on research leave has been the opportunity to read widely in areas I haven’t caught up with in years,
I have always cared about what it means to be in community with each other deeply, and particularly in terms of the wide economic disparities that exist in the US. I’m a product of public education — it took me from Oshkosh, WI all the way to Yale, Harvard, and a PhD from Boston College — but the public education of my youth, more than 35 years ago, looks a lot different from today. Back then, even living in a family receiving food support, I had access to public libraries, music lessons in school, art opportunities and more. That system no longer exists.
Today the majority of public school students live in poverty — and the poverty line in the US is not set anywhere near a “reasonable” level. We have cut back and cut back and cut back to such an extent that families have no time, even if the possibility existed, to go with their kids to libraries, or learn how to fix bikes, or spend time playing outside.
Two books I’ve been reading this year that fire up my energy for doing something about how theologians engage poverty — and the systems which sustain and thrive off of it — are Undoing the Demos by Wendy Brown, and Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank. Any Christian theologian who believes in doing more than responding cognitively to a Jesus movement needs to be engaging these ideas.
You don’t have to read these particular books, but I think we ALL have to be seeing the poverty that is systemic, and asking why it is that Christian churches are willing to buy into neoliberal ideologies and meritocratic fantasies rather than seeing, let alone walking with, those people in our neighborhoods and larger communities who are barely struggling to survive.
Rather than believing that it’s somehow “their fault” that these people haven’t been successful, and saying our blessings for whatever small measure of safety we think we’ve attained, Christian theologians need to be asking deep and thorough questions about — to use Pope Francis’s language, “our common home” — and our common home includes the environments in which learning takes place, not to mention the goals of that learning. We need to be asking about how we work towards the common good, and what the wholesale destruction of public education in this country means for the fabric of our communities.
What does it mean that in our meritocratic fantasies we believe that if only people had a good enough education they could succeed, and yet we consistently ridicule, degrade, and devalue the very people who have taken up the profession of teacher? I have family members who have spent years of their lives engaged in teaching in public schools, and their fatigue and disillusionment has reached epic levels.
There are times I think it’s hard to be in the midst of the crumbling edifice of theological education, but I only have to spend 10 minutes listening to my sister talk about her care for her 1st grade students and the lack of basic resources for them, to know that I have it easy (not to mention the privilege of a research leave).
Public school teachers pour their hearts out, day in and day out, to support children in learning, but these same teachers are consistently forced into humiliating practices that require submission to accountability tests that are rigged to support private companies making profit, rather than generative assessment of student learning.
Much of the public rhetoric around teaching — this month’s discussions in our legislature, for instance — makes it seem as if teachers’ unions are to blame for the mess in public education. But when you look at the systems in place, and you ask who is benefiting from them, it’s not teachers. And it’s certainly not children.
Why is it so hard to believe that teachers’ unions might have something important to tell us? Why are we so unwilling to listen? It’s possible to listen deeply and still disagree, but if you haven’t even taken the time to listen what does that say about your respect for those voices? Maybe you’re not ready to listen to the voices of teachers, but how about the voices of parents seeking to support public schools?
Here’s a great summary offered at the beginning of this year’s legislative session, of the issues facing public schools in MN.
This summary was offered by Parents United for Public Schools, a nonpartisan parent activist group.They have other useful resources on their site, too, and they remind us that “our children cannot go back to school when times are better — childhood has no rewind.”
Note: This post was written back in 2016, and now Parents United has ceased to exist, yet another victim of our lack of support for public schools.
Lent has always been a time of reflection for me, catalyzed in a variety of ways. This year I’ve been particularly moved by the daily email meditations that come from the Center for Action and Contemplation (Richard Rohr and community).
I also find music to be an important resource, and I keep returning to this song (and its video images) as I try to breathe into oneness this Lent…
This is a piece I wrote for The Concord (Luther Seminary’s student newspaper), back in 2017:
I spent 2016-2017 serving as the Patrick and Barbara Keenan Visiting Chair of Religious Education on the Faculty of Theology at the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. What did I learn? Starting with that mouthful — that is, learning the full name of this organization I joined for a year — I had the privilege of a year of cross cultural engagement at a time when the contrasts between the US and Canada are particularly keen.
Generalizing from limited experience always carries risks, but here are three moments which struck me as sharply tangible evidence of the differences:
(1) The University of Toronto (a global research university of more than 70,000 students) is committed to implementing the recommendations of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As part of this process of recognizing the realities endured by First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples in Canada (particularly forced residential schooling), I learned how to share a territorial acknowledgement of respect at the beginning of every class and every public lecture I gave.
(2) During my time at the University of Toronto, President Trump was widely reported as castigating the mainstream news media in the US as “enemies of the people.” At roughly the same moment a standing committee of the Canadian Federal Parliament released a report seeking to find ways to shore up news media journalism, because it is so crucial to a democracy. There were many faculty at the UofT who were either involved in developing that report, or in teaching with it.
(3) During the winter months of my time in Toronto, there were frequent reports of people who were seeking to cross the border illegally from Minnesota into Canada. Stories of frostbitten people struggling into Emerson, Manitoba were a daily occurrence. I watched as Premier Trudeau and these communities just over the border from my home state welcomed newcomers, and I listened as the Faculty of Theology at St. Michael’s prepared to sponsor a Syrian family of refugees.
Stated this way, these examples look like quite stark political contrasts. But I want to point to something deeper than mere differences in policy, something that I only slowly began to understand as I lived and worked and listened and prayed with people in Toronto: Torontonians (and I might intuit Canadians far beyond Toronto), believe in civic engagement and shared public goods.
The primary story of Canada heavily emphasizes “the story of us” as a diverse multi-national, multi-religious, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, tapestry woven together amongst vast difference. Canada was celebrating its 150th birthday while I was there, and sometimes I wondered if its very youth is what helps it to remain open to welcome and engagement? However this stance has emerged, it is not without struggle and conflict. But it is also a national story which invites Canadians into a capacious shared vision for who they are and who they are becoming.
David Brooks wrote in the NYTimes Thanksgiving weekend of 2017 of the need to find a national narrative here in the US that invites us to recognize the “divisions and disappointments that plague” us and yet draw us into some kind of unity.
Serene Jones, the president of Union Seminary in NYC, made an even more compelling call for such a narrative in the summer of 2016, amidst the turmoil of the 2016 national elections.
She wrote then:
“A refreshed, reinvigorated story of our nation needs to begin by saying: “We are human beings on this planet, and we are deeply flawed yet deeply good. We who live in the United States are part of a community known for its honesty and its openness, its ability to wonder and our willingness to take responsibility for our harms and seek redress.”
This American story weaves pain, failure, violence and tragic into its story of progress and goodness. If embraced, it has the power to take hold of our conscious and unconscious lives and bodies as well as our textbooks, religions, national stories and even families.
If we open to this deeper spiritual understanding of the nation, I believe we can truly become the “exceptional” country we hear so much about in American political speeches. This is the nation we do not yet have and hopefully want to become— together.”
Religious peoples from all over the globe live together in Toronto. They live in ways that are not free of conflict, but they respect each other across various differences. Toronto is not a utopia, but somehow Canadians have managed to retain a degree of mutual respect and curiosity that helps them to live not so much in fear (because fear is a very common feeling for all humans), but in openness and wonder, in curious inquiry and in generous reflection.
I come back from my time in Canada with a clear desire for finding and nourishing a similarly robust and generous national story here in the US.
This is an even older piece from The Concord, back in 2009. We were doing a series on the 10 Commandments, and I was asked to write about the 8th.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
What does this mean?
Answer: We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend them, [think and] speak well of them and put the best construction on everything. (This is from Luther’s Small Catechism)
Much has been written about the first seven commandments in this journal, and a good case can be made that each of the 10 commandments is hard to keep. But as I’ve been thinking about the 8th commandment, I think it might hold the dubious distinction of being the one commandment that academic life actually encourages us to break.
Where else are there incentives to take apart someone’s argument, and lift up only the most problematic shards of meaning to view?
Where else are you invited so strongly to practice a “hermeneutics of suspicion”?
Where else does it matter not so much how congruent your argument is in relation to your life, but how consistent it is philosophically? I confess to some frustration at Luther Seminary. Far too often our goal of practicing critical reflection has become, instead, the practice of critical competition.
Have you ever heard someone express a kind of self-satisfied arrogance at their superior grasp of an idea, and in doing so rule everyone who disagrees with them outside of their small circle of truth?
Such games may make for interesting intellectual competition, but they surely do not proclaim the Good News very effectively. And far from seeking to “put the best construction on” a differing theological position, such articulations actually move us in the opposite direction.
I’ve listened to far too many people share their confusion and pain over the years, wondering whether they are Lutheran precisely because they fear that “being Lutheran” means participating in a narrow rendering of a specific form of Christian belief. I am not Lutheran, but even I can see that this is not a way of being Lutheran that bears much congruence with Luther’s small catechism and his attempts in that text to support people living the commandments.
I believe that being a good learner means being able to explain clearly the specific position you’re arguing with so well that an advocate for that position would recognize it.
If you’re not doing so, you are breaking the 8th commandment.
Perhaps you are someone who believes deeply that the texts of the Bible are permeated with misogyny and that, since words matter, God must never be referred to in worship using male pronouns or male roles. Can you gracefully make an argument for praying “Our Father who art in heaven”?
Perhaps you are someone who believes deeply that being justified through grace by faith alone means that there is literally nothing you can do actively to participate in God’s creation in the world. Can you step outside of that position long enough to make the case for how and why Christians must participate in advocacy against war and poverty?
Perhaps you are someone who believes scripture supports ordaining gay people, but can you make a thoughtful case for how the Bible condemns homosexuality?
These are only a few of the differences of belief that exist amongst us here at Luther, there are many, many more. Rather than entering into a competition for narrowing truth through doubt, why not venture into the practice of “believing” for a change?
I like the way one of my colleagues has framed an assignment in a class. This colleague asks that students “befriend” an argument, find ways into it so that they can explain its internal logic and meaning, before trying to critique it. Such a practice doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t finally come to a clear statement of belief that will contradict someone else’s, but it does mean that you won’t attempt a critique until you’re certain that you fully understand the other person’s position, and that you do so from a stance of respect.
I’m a Roman Catholic layperson. For the last couple of decades my church has been riveted by arguments over the ordination of women, the most effective route to ending abortion and how to handle sexual abuse by priests. In the midst of some of the most contentious of such discussions, Cardinal Bernardin helped to articulate a set of principles for dialogue. These principles have proven, time and time again, to be crucial in helping God’s people to find their way in community. One of the principles Bernardin articulated bears a striking resemblance to Martin Luther’s annotation of the 8th commandment. Luther wrote that we should “put the best construction on everything” and Cardinal Bernardin’s 5th principle was “we should put the best possible construction on differing positions…”
If you’ve ever tried to practice this kind of approach, you will know that it is not easy. Indeed I think that part of why we so often fail to engage in this kind of behavior is that we feel threatened, we worry that we might “go over to other side” in some way, we might actually risk transforming our own understanding.
But of course that is what learning is.
In the midst of my own such fears, it has helped me to remember something that Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians: “when I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:1-2, NRSV) Surely such faith can help us venture into real dialogue with difference? Surely we can risk “knowing nothing” in pursuit of what might just be deeper and richer knowing of God, who is at one and the same time Creator, Savior and Holy Spirit?
Any time I notice myself getting defensive about something I believe, I try to pause, take a deep breath, and wonder if there is a way that I can believe what the other person is arguing for. In other words, rather than only applying a hermeneutics of suspicion, I also work towards the practice of a hermeneutics of generosity.
I suppose some of you might be worrying that this kind of practice has to lead to ignorance, or at least naïve acceptance of false belief, or relativism? It is at moments like these when I confess to enjoying one of the many dialectics alive amongst us at Luther Seminary. While it’s true that we often find ourselves caught up in the anger and hurt of critical competition, of refusing to really hear someone else’s argument, we are also invited into the expansive practice of what Mark Noll has called “Lutheran irony.”
As Mark Edwards writes: This “Lutheran irony,” according to Noll, is the sense that precisely when Christians mount their most valiant public efforts for God, they run the greatest risk of substituting their righteousness for the righteousness of Christ, and thereby subverting justification by faith. …”
You might also be interested in a similar set that has been put out by the ELCA “Talking together about tough social issues,” available online.
This political insight has a rough analogue in the intellectual realm. Lutherans by their theology and tradition are inclined (or at least should be inclined) to suspect that precisely where Christians are certain that God depends on their holding the line on an intellectual matter, there they may be in most danger of substituting their truth for God’s.
This humble and ironic grasp seems to me well attuned to the discipline of “putting the best construction” on someone else’s position. The next time someone argues for a position you’re certain has to be wrong, why not take a few minutes to try and see it as believable, even truth-full? Surely Christian faith is big enough, deep enough, strong enough, to sustain such an attempt? The 8th commandment invites us in academic community into just such ventures.
I think this piece for The Concord was from 2016:
Our understanding of gender is changing and transforming, and is clearly much more than a dualism, but for now, in theological settings, I feel like we are still mostly stuck in a “male/female” dichotomy. Given that reality, the advice that has come to me from women over the years has been very important because it has drawn me into a circle of empowering relationship that stretches through time, both into the past and towards the future.
The first thing these women have taught me is that religious communities – and hence religious meaning-making – are permeated with sexism. Much of that sexism is deeply rooted in misogyny, which is more than one woman, or even large groups of women and men together, can change in a generation. Unlike some feminists, I believe that the theological concept of original sin is useful here, particularly if you keep a feminist consciousness handy. That is, we are born into a system of profound brokenness over which we have no individual control but beyond which Christ invites us into liberating relationality. We need to acknowledge that sexism exists, and with God’s grace we can resist it.
The second thing women have taught me is that sexism is only one of a number of intersecting systems of oppression. For me that has meant that knowing the deep pain of sexism means I cannot ignore or disbelieve the experiences of people who suffer in our systems of racial oppression, of economic inequalities, of ableism, and so on. I could share story after story of the painful ways in which sexism has impacted my life as a theologian who is a woman. That pain drives me to listen for — and more urgently, to hear — the stories of people who also suffer from systemic forms of oppression.
Having been silenced, ignored, treated disrespectfully, deliberately refused access, and so on because I am a woman also makes me doubly committed to fighting racism. Having been on the receiving end of the sharp stick of one form of oppression, while benefiting from another (that is, racialization), means that I try very hard not to be in denial about my white privilege, or the ease of access that comes with being a US citizen. I hate it when men refuse to hear women. I do not want to be that white woman who refuses to hear of my own racism, let alone recognize that of a society that has been systemically structured to reward white people.
That brings me to the third thing that women over the years have taught me: see the systems. It is all too easy to fall into believing that what is happening to you is happening only to you, or only because of you. Consciousness-raising is a part of every movement which struggles against injustice. God calls us into community, into deep relationality, and when you put yourself at the foot of the cross, when you share God’s body in the Eucharist, you open yourself up to that relationality. I love the serenity prayer – “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” – because seeing systems is hard, and figuring out what to do once you see them is even harder.
“Trust, but verify” was an old Russian saying that came into use in the Reagan era around nuclear disarmament, but I feel like it could be said of many systems. In any given instance, is it sexism that is causing people to act as they have acted? Or is it something that I bear responsibility for? Or is it a bit of both? I try very hard to always put a generous spin on what I observe, but there are times when the group doing discernment with me has helped me to see that the woman I thought was helping me was actually maneuvering to help herself to my disadvantage. I was deeply frustrated, for instance, by Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to “lean in,” because it was advice that refused to acknowledge her embeddedness in systems that privileged her (as a white person, as a person of economic power, as a person from the US). Acting on her advice when you do not have those privileges can be particularly dangerous.
Bluntly stated: don’t assume support from other women, and remember that sometimes your best support may come from men. Discerning which is the reality has to be done in community.
And that is the fourth thing I learned with and through and from the women who have taught me over the years: develop intentional networks of support. Parker Palmer calls this kind of support a “circle of trust.” Some of my most profound learning has happened in groups of women who came together intentionally and lovingly. It was my mother and the women in the Women’s Show of Oshkosh, Wisconsin (a community improvisational theater group) who woke me up to the reality and consequences of sexism. It was the New Haven Women’s Center board who drew me into embodied activism. It was my mother-in-love and the Women’s Theology Circle of Columbus, Ohio who sent me off to graduate studies. And now there are groups of women who continue to empower and sustain me in the midst of my work as a theologian and educator.
I do not believe you can be a pastoral leader by yourself. And as a woman you must find ways to discern amidst intersecting systems of oppression, what you can actually do in a given situation. The best articulation I’ve found of how to do that comes from Lisa Lahey and Robert Kegan. They suggest approaching any situation with an eye to learning deeply from it by telling yourself the following:
- There is probable merit to my perspective.
- My perspective may not be accurate.
- There is some coherence, if not merit, to the other person’s perspective.
- There may be more than one legitimate interpretation.
- The other person’s view of my viewpoint is important information to my assessing
whether I am right or identifying what merit there is to my view.
- Our conflict may be the result of the separate commitments each of us hold, including
commitments we are not always aware we hold.
- Both of us have something to learn from the conversation.
- We need to have two-way conversation to learn from each other.
- If contradictions can be a source of our learning, then we can come to engage not only internal contradictions as a source of learning but interpersonal contradictions (i.e., “conflict”) as well.
- The goal of our conversation is for each of us to learn more about ourselves and the other as meaning makers.
(Lahey&Kegan, How the way we talk can change the way we work, Jossey-Bass 2001, 141).
This kind of advice makes it possible to resist “curving in upon yourself,” while at the same time not internalizing the insidious messages of sexism our cultures offer to us.
I want to conclude by sharing an insight from one of my favorite authors, Octavia Butler, which resonates for me deeply with the Gospel: “All that you touch you change, all that you change, changes you.”
And here is yet another piece from The Concord, this one from 2014:
I arrived at Luther 14 years ago, fresh PhD degree in hand from a Jesuit university. I wonder sometimes if there could have been a greener prof than me? Those early years are a blur in my memory, as I struggled with my first full time faculty position while parenting two very young children, and while my husband commuted to his job at MIT for most of every week.
Even through the blur, though, I have vivid memories of individual faculty who sought to help me integrate into this place. Most of those faculty are no longer here, for a variety of reasons. Some have retired, others have left, one died. But I needed them desperately, because finding myself in the midst of this community without losing my own identity has not been easy. I was then — and remain – the only Roman Catholic on our faculty.
Actually, when I arrived, I was only the fourth “non-Lutheran” member of a faculty of 46. That means that when I think of my life at Luther, I don’t think so much of what it means to be “rooted,” but rather of what it means to be “grafted” on to something.
I’m not a gardener, but for me the metaphor of grafting means having a fully realized, unique identity which becomes stronger by being joined with a different, fully realized, unique identity. Luther Seminary is rooted in the Lutheran confessions, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But it can also be open to the gifts and contributions of other communities.
Grafting doesn’t always work, however, because not every kind of plant can grow off the roots of another plant. Finding adequate nourishment can be difficult, and plant grafts need to be tended carefully to ensure that neither the root stock nor the graft is harmed.
There have been so many people who have helped “tend” me in these ways. I remember Jean Justice, who used to hold a full time position supporting so-called “ecumenical” faculty and students, commenting to me at the end of a chapel service once, “this place has a very high Christology!” and the sheer relief which coursed through me with that simple comment, as she named what had been nagging at my senses.
I remember sitting through a chapel service which commemorated the Reformation by having, instead of a sermon, two people read Martin and Katie Luther’s letters to each other – passages from which condemned the Pope as the “anti-Christ.” It was yet another jarring reminder that this place is not my “root stock,” but rather a place into which I have been grafted.
From the very beginning Dick Nysse mentored me, sharing his deep sense of what it means to be “simul justis et peccata” in the midst of this place, and helping me to feel grounded through connections to my own passion for learning. Gary Simpson also became one of my mentors, translating some of the more challenging elements of Fordean theology into a language I could grasp.
I think the nutrient that has helped my “grafting” the most, however, comes from the deep commitment this place has to biblical engagement. Every time I’m tempted to flee from the difficult complexities of “thinking Catholic” in a Lutheran space, I return to chapel to get grounded in prayer and scripture. There are many a time when I do not resonate with the music, or agree with the preaching, but there is always biblical witness to engage, and the Holy Spirit’s presence in which to abide.
Maybe this is a useful metaphor for Christian community more generally? Clearly there were many, many Gentiles who fell in love with the God of whom Jesus spoke, even though they were not Jewish. Over the centuries some of this grafting has been deeply generative – but there have also been powerfully destructive ways in which Christian communities have sought to eliminate their Jewish roots.
I continue to pray that we might listen carefully for the Spirit in the midst of our diverse selves, and celebrate our differences as a way into deeper engagement with Christ. I don’t think we should fear the grafts, but rather cherish both root stock, and those who are being grafted onto it.
Another piece from The Concord (Luther’s student newspaper), that I wrote in 2014:
I’ve been teaching and learning here at Luther for long enough that I want to start by noting that I think about the “spirituality of practice” more than “spiritual practices.” That is, I’m always feeling/thinking/reflecting/acting my way into responding freely to God’s overwhelmingly generous and gracious love in Christ Jesus, rather than “doing something” that somehow magically “compels God.”
What then are some of my favorite postures for living in this kind of awareness of God?
Here are three: one ancient, and two very contemporary.
An ancient stance comes from Ignatius of Loyola, who helped us to learn the “examen.” This is a simple process I run through at the end the day:
- Quiet your mind, gentle your heart, let yourself sink into awareness of God’s presence. One of my favorite ways to do this is an old prayer from Psalm 46. Breathe deeply, and then say these words on an in breath and an out breath: “Be still and know that I am God, Be still and know that I am, Be still and know, Be still, Be.”
- Reflect upon the day which has just passed through a lens of gratitude. Here I often find myself thinking about moments of beauty or joy – a glance at a beautiful flower, listening to a new U2 song, hugging a friend, and so on.
- Reflect upon the day which has just passed through a lens of sorrow. Here I often think about parts of my day when I failed to be fully present, or acted in ways for which I seek forgiveness.
- Whatever comes to mind, let yourself linger in awareness of God’s presence in both consolation and in desolation.
- Look towards tomorrow with awareness that God IS.
You can find more information about this practice online.
On the other end of the day, in the early morning, I begin by glancing at Facebook. I give myself a short space of time – 5 minutes, say – for listening in Facebook. What do I mean by “listening” to what is clearly a visual stream? I listen for moments of joy, moments of sorrow, moments when God’s presence may need to be named, or moments when a simple click on “like” reminds someone that they are not alone.
My goal here is not to speak, but to listen, and to listen with awareness of God’s presence. Because my mornings are pretty scripted (with three people in my house and one shower, we are pretty clear on who needs to use it and when), I cannot get lost in Facebook. My family members ground me, prevent me from losing myself in this space. But at the same time this morning prayer is a reminder that the Holy Spirit binds me into a deep relationality which goes far beyond my immediate family, a relationality which is at once widely global and clearly particular, and which extends far beyond the human into all of Creation.
Computer log in
For years now another practice I have engaged in has to do with my computer login. I have to change it frequently (passwords being what they are), but I try to construct logins that have some kind of connection to a biblical passage I’m sitting with, or a prayer I want to cherish. What this means is that every time I open up my computer and log in, I bring to consciousness my relationship with God.
In 2011 The Concord, Luther’s student newspaper asked me to write 300 words from my personal perspective on what is unique to Catholicism. A student was searching for that piece and couldn’t find it, so I’m putting the text here:
It’s hard for me to identify what’s unique about Roman Catholicism, because almost anything I can think of is shared with at least one other form of Christianity.
A vertical hierarchical focus in creative tension with a horizontal and global sensus fidelium? A clear embrace of physical practices? A spirituality that takes seriously the everyday mysteries of life? These are all elements that can be found in other Christian communities. I think what I would say is that there are certain elements of Christianity that Roman Catholics have tended more than others: a deep devotion to sacramentality, a genuine engagement with the Incarnation through bodily practices (including a fierce commitment to social justice), an awareness of how ritual can be freeing, and a profound respect for Mary, the Mother of God.
One of my favorite novelists, Fr. Andrew Greeley, once wrote that Catholics are unique because we see the “ultimate lurking in the ordinary.” When you combine that creative imagination with a clear conviction that God’s grace pours out in infinite forgiveness and reconciliation, than you have a potent recipe for witnessing to Christ in the everyday-ness of Creation, and for a lived connection to the Communion of saints. That imagination gives us room for festivals and shrines, litanies and rosaries, not to mention being at least a partial catalyst for the creative work of artists such as U2, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, and Lady Gaga.
So what is unique about Roman Catholicism? I guess I’d say a sacramental, incarnational imagination.
Neil Gaiman has written a poem in tribute to Rachel Carson. His wife Amanda Palmer reads it in this video. I weep, and pray, and hope that art can move us when science does not seem able to…
I wonder how to stay hope-filled and hopeful in the midst of all that is going on right now in national political settings? Lately I’ve been finding Richard Rohr’s daily meditations a crucial help, as well as the weekly email for action that comes from Jen Hoffman and the Americans of Conscience website.