Who Am I? Where Am I Going? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?

25 August 2017

I suggest that most of our contemporary issues, concerns, and problems — involving religion, gender, race, patriotism, and politics — focus on personal and group identity in a changing world. The great constant of course is change, and our changing world is changing ever more rapidly. 

My entire life I have been an “American” a citizen of the USA. My paternal ancestors arrived in Pennsylvania in 1682. I am proud of that. My American identity, however, has changed and evolved over the years, just as the world identity of the United States has changed over the years…. My entire life I have been a Christian, of the Roman Catholic variety. My Catholic identity over more than seventy years has changed tremendously. Yes I am a critical Catholic but I still identify with the Roman Catholic tradition, as that tradition continues to change and evolve. (And I try to give it a little push from time to time.)  

Perhaps the real constant in my life is the realization that I am on a life journey, along a road that sustains me and keeps me going with occasional wonderful surprises; but there are bumps and unhappy twists in the road as well. Change. A fact of life. 

Yesterday I finished reading a fascinating book about our changing world: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan. While one could perhaps question a couple interpretations here and there, the historic panorama that Frankopan depicts is magnificent and provocative in every good way.  Peter Frankopan is a senior researcher in Oxford and director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research.  

While for many of us the traditional historic view has been that Western civilization descended from the Romans, who were in turn heirs to the Greeks, who, in some historic accounts, were heirs to the Egyptians, Peter Frankopan argues that the Persian Empire was the center point for the rise of humanity. A fascinating perspective, which he presents very persuasively.  He begins his 636 paged analysis in Mesopotamia in the sixth century BCE. He then guides the reader through cycles of human creation, destruction, and re-creation right up to our contemporary twenty-first century global transformations. The element that continually stared out at me was how, over millennia, people have turned other people into international slave-trade commodities. Packaging people for the big sale. Or slaughtering them when they were of no practical use. 

Frankopan points to periods of wisdom, insight, and discovery. Unfortunately — and far too often — to periods as well of savage brutality executed in the name of God, country, and the world’s great religions. Christians, by the way, have not always been paragons of virtue. 

In the book’s final chapter, titled “The New Silk Road,” we find Frankopan’s predictions for tomorrow:  “The age of the West is at a crossroads if not at an end….The world is changing around us….networks and connections are quietly becoming knitted together across the spine of Asia; or rather they are being restored. The Silk Roads are rising again.” The world’s center of gravity is shifting East and away from Europe and the United States. Back to the East with all the economic, political, and religious implications arising from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, etc.; and China of course.  I am not fearful but solidly realistic. They may have some contemporary importance; but today’s really big issues are far greater than Trump tweets or tantrums in the White House. Another galactic shift is well underway. 

So where does one find identity and security in our tremendously changing global environment? Probably where we always did: in a lived sense of personal dignity and worth reaffirmed by those whom we love and who love us. I offer no pious or romantic platitudes. We need other people to be a real person …. and they need us.

We are all time travelers, but occasionally we forget THAT part of our reality. In a delightful discussion with a group of university students last week, all of a sudden it hit me. My experiences and dreams in the 1950s and 1960s helped to shape my identity. In fact, however, the 1950s and 1960s, today, make about as much sense to these bright young women and men as the stories of the ancient Greeks and their search for the Golden Fleece. We either live in the present or we die in the past. God bless my students. May they live long with critical reflection, insight, and inner contentment. 

Change is a fact of human life. The challenge is clear. If we are incapable of respecting and loving those around us here today, we are doomed to end our lives in desperation and violent destruction. This is our contemporary truth message (with nothing “alt” about it). It rings true down the street, across the country, and around the globe. 

Our perspectives do change over time, if we are alert time travelers. My theological understanding of reality, for instance, has changed tremendously. Terms like “supernatural” and “metaphysical” are no longer part of my vocabulary. Reality is a unified whole, with many dimensions. Space, time, and spiritual dimensions …and probably many more! And far more exciting than a magnificent solar eclipse.  

God is not “up there” or “out there.” God, “divinity,” “the sacred,” “the holy” is as close to us as the air in our lungs and the poundings in our hearts. God-with-us is the greatest source of security for time travelers. We need to listen, think, and explore a bit more. We are not alone. 

A final reflection about living in sometimes turbulent times, whether in Charlottesville, Barcelona, or the shopping mall across town: Time travelers will have a more contented and a more optimistic journey when they keep their eyes open, their minds receptive and alert, and – like people packing suitcases for a big journey – when they only only carry with them the values and attitudes that sustain and support human life. The rest should be discarded as unneeded and unhealthy baggage. 

Safe travels. 

From “Knownothings” to “Knowsomethings”

August 18, 2017

This week end, we are flooded with post Charlottesville commentary. I will keep my own reflection brief and to the point.

It is much easier to remove old statues and Confederate monuments than it is to remove blindness, barrel vision, and just plain ignorance about history and current realities.  

Keeping in mind the warning of Jesus of Nazareth in Matthew 7:5 that we need to take the planks out of our own eyes and then remove the specks from our brother’s or sister’s eyes, we do need to help the “knownothings” become “knowsomethings.” It is our Christian duty. 

By the “knownothings,” I mean contemporary ignorant people; although many of them do of course resonate with the “Know Nothing Party” during the late 1840s and the early 1850s. (Nineteenth century Know Nothing Party members strongly opposed immigrants and especially Roman Catholics.) 

As I reflect on today’s “knownothings,” I think about people who ignore or don’t react to what’s happening around them. The words of the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) come immediately to mind. Niemöllers words are engraved on a monument in the recently desecrated (for the second time this summer) New England Holocaust Memorial In Boston, Massachusetts. 

          First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

          Because I was not a Socialist.

          Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

          Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

          Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

          Because I was not a Jew.

          Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

My most serious concern about contemporary “knownothings,” however, is their prominently proclaimed ignorance about Christianity. They mourn the loss of “white Christian America.” We should mourn their distortion of Christian belief. Charlottesville is a Christian wake-up call. 

White supremacists are not authentic Christians. There is nothing Christian about racism. As Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, tweeted:“When it comes to racism, there is only one side: to stand against it.”

A final thought about foreigners, racism, and Jesus of Nazareth: Our familiar images of Jesus come from the Byzantine era, from the 4th Century onwards. Contemporary scholars agree that the historical Jesus was probably dark-skinned. Probably had shorter hair than traditionally depicted and a well trimmed beard. He spoke a “foreign” Middle Eastern language: Aramaic. And of course, Jesus was a Jew.  

Jesus, who descended from Judah, was a man of his own time and place. He did not resemble a white Anglo-Saxon American. Most importantly, the parable of the Good Samaritan, told by Jesus in Luke 10:25–37, has particular importance for all of us in these post Charlottesville days. 
— Jack

The American College of Louvain

August 5, 2017

Dear Another Voice Friends, 

Starting Sunday morning, August 6th, and continuing until August 13th I am coordinating an alumni reunion and theological conference for over fifty alumni and friends from my alma mater in Louvain (Leuven) Belgium. I will return to Another Voice on the week end of August 19/20. 

I am a proud non-ordained alumnus of The American College of Louvain and the Catholic University of Leuven. They truly opened my eyes and changed my life in very good ways. My father, who passed away in 1996, often said over the years “Jack was never the same after Louvain!” He was correct of course….

The American College of Louvain was founded in Leuven (then internationally known as “Louvain”) Belgium on March 19th 1857, under the leadership of Bishop Martin J. Spalding, Bishop of Louisville, Kentucky and Bishop Peter Paul Lefevere, Bishop of Detroit. Up until June 2011, when the U.S. bishops closed it as a seminary, The American College had operated under the auspices of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as one of two U.S. seminaries in Europe: The American College of Louvain and the younger Pontifical North American College in Rome. Today in its 160th year, The American College, owned and operated by the Catholic University of Leuven, is a wonderfully renovated residence for more than a hundred men and women pursuing university studies in a variety of disciplines. It is a delightfully energetic place and I am so very proud to say I am an alumnus. 

A bit of historical background: At the mid-point of the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church in North America was facing two major needs: finding priests to minister to a rapidly growing Catholic immigrant population, coming to its shores from Europe, and the formation of U.S. priests to minister in North America. The bishops of the United States looked, in large part, to Europe for their priests, since they had few seminaries of their own and very few native-born priests. The American College in Leuven was established by the bishops of the United States, therefore, with the dual purpose of training young European men to serve as missionary priests in North America and to train and educate young American seminarians in the philosophical and theological traditions of Louvain. 

Louvain has long been well known for its stress on the “historical-critical method” in theology. Historical criticism, also known as the historical-critical method or higher criticism, investigates the origins and meanings of ancient texts in order to understand what a text meant back then and what it means today. It applies to texts from the Bible but also doctrinal statements over the centuries, because the meanings of words, modes of thought, and literary styles change and evolve over the years. 

At the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Louvain theologians, working with Belgian bishops like Cardinal Suenens, had a major role in the drafting of what would become ground-breaking documents like Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes, reflecting a modern and developmental self-understanding for the Roman Catholic Church. 

Today The American College’s alumni minister in parishes, some are diocesan bishops, and many hold professorships at colleges and universities across the United States and around the world. Their areas of academic expertise are what they specialized in at Louvain: historical theology, moral theology, biblical theology, and church law. My own area is historical theology. 

As an older alumnus of The American College (Class of 1969) and a former professor and member of the faculty, I share, with our alumni, an immense sense of gratitude and appreciation for the professors, staff members, and students who have maintained and passed on “the spirit of Louvain.”

In ways and forms still evolving, I understand and greatly appreciate the words of Father David Russell, a student from Louisville, Kentucky — and the very first American student at the College.  

Shortly after his arrival in 1858, David wrote enthusiastically about The American College to his bishop: “The zeal of its supporters is invincible.” 
Kind regards, Jack