12 January 2018
(Photo credit: Dave Miers)
Some years ago, the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl wrote that life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, nor a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.
I agree with Frankl. The greatest task for any person is to explore the ultimate questions about the meaning of Reality, of our human experiences, and of our personal identities in a changing world.
Shortly after Christmas, a university friend asked me how I became interested in theology. In response I wrote a brief personal-experience article that will be published in a couple months. Today, as Another Voice begins a new year, I would like to share a bit of my story and also about my focus in 2018.
My story: In the late 1950s and early 1960s I was a rather conservative seminarian, studying at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. In September 1965 my bishop, to my great surprise, sent me to study theology at the famous Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. I would spend three years in Louvain (today we more properly use the Flemish name: “Leuven”). Then I left the seminary and continued studying theology at what was then known as the Catholic University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands. I was fascinated by the “Dutch” (he was really Belgian) theologian Edward Schillebeeckx who was a professor of theology in Nijmegen. (Interestingly, he did his early philosophical and theological studies in Louvain.)
For me, a very pious and somewhat fundamentalist young man, the journey from Detroit, Michigan to Leuven, Belgium was much more than a big geographic shift. It was personally very unsettling. My professors made me feel very uncomfortable. As I listened to them, I found myself asking theological questions about everything. Is there a God? Who or what is God? How do I know that my “religious experiences” are really experiences of Divinity? Who really was Jesus and who is he today? Was his birth truly the result of a virginal conception? Did he have brothers and sisters? Was his mother really always a virgin? Was the Resurrection a real event? How much of the New Testament is trustworthy? Is the Catholic Church the one true church? There were personal identity questions as well….a lot of them.
One day after class I confronted the professor, whose lectures were really turning my world upside down. I told him he was making me very uncomfortable, because I was now asking questions about everything from God and Jesus to ordained ministry, love, and celibacy. With a twinkle in his eyes and a warm smile he said: “then I am doing a good job as professor.” He told me he would not abandon me and we could talk any time….and he reminded me of the old saying, attributed to Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Thanks to my old Louvain professor, and many others, I grew up as a person. I grew up theologically. I grew up as a thinking person. I grew out of my Catholic fundamentalism; and I became a truly contemporary believer. A quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer suddenly spoke to me powerfully in a new way: “I’m still discovering, right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.” (I became an avid reader of the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed by the Nazis in April 1945.)
At the Catholic University of Leuven, I consciously confronted change – on many levels – and I was changed. Most important in my world of changes was learning how to be an historical-critical believer: anchored in biblical and theological sources and asking how they resonated with my own contemporary faith and life experiences. My understanding of Christian belief and morality changed as did (necessarily) my understanding of humanity. I came to understand that change and development are essential elements in our human existence, ongoing life, and understanding. I came to understand that asking questions and searching for answers are essential elements in the human journey. I realized it is not wrong to ask questions. I realized yesterday’s answers are not always helpful responses for today’s questions. (Many years later I would (respectfully) tell a group of bishops meeting in Baltimore that they were very good at answering all the questions nobody was really asking anymore.)
This year, in Another Voice, I hope I can address the right questions and propose some thoughtful answers. When I can no longer do that, it will be time for me to unplug my computer.
Looking over the 2017 reader reactions to my blog, people have been generally positive, supportive, and appreciative. (The negative people just ignored me or unfriended me on Facebook.)
It does bother some people when, in their words, I become “less theological and more political.” With the current presidential administration I have done that periodically. I hear the criticism. I understand where it is coming from. Nevertheless, in today’s socio-cultural context I can only refer to the words of Bonhoeffer again:
“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”
My best regards to all. I hope you will travel with me in the coming months.