Exploration and Theological Imagination

A friendly reader reacted to my “mindsets” post of last week saying: “Ok, but I have always understood that some church teachings are carved in stone and unchanging. How can age old doctrines change?” I replied that I understand the observation but would still suggest that all doctrinal statements are time-bound, because language and understandings are time-bound. All doctrinal statements, I suggested, are provisional until a better expression comes along.

In a quick reply to that, the reader asked: “If that is really  the case,  how do we come to new doctrinal statements?” That gave me the focus for this week’s post.

Theology is “faith seeking understanding.” Good theology helps us understand and live our faith. Truly helpful theological understandings can end up as official teachings (doctrines) when institutional leadership judges them useful guidelines for Christian life and belief.

A few years ago, a Jesuit professor of religious studies, Paul G. Crowley, S.J., at Santa Clara University, suggested some ways for students to observe and listen to human experiences when formulating theological understandings. I never met Paul Crowley but resonated with him and his suggestions. They apply of course to all of us because, regardless our age, we are all students. Sad to say, I learned very recently that Professor Crowley passed away in August 2020, after a long battle with cancer. 

Here then are four of Paul Crowley’s suggestions for theological reflection and my brief followups.

1. Let theological knowledge emerge from the study of what is non-theological.

Other forms of knowledge and human experience, like literature, music, and art are crucial to the formation of our theological imagination. Sounds and symbols touch people deeply. They help us connect to the deeper dimensions of our life experiences. Music, for instance, can open us to the infinite, linking body and spirit in powerful ways. 

Do you have some favorite “mystical music”? My wife and I would put the piano and cello composition, Spiegel im Spiegel, by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, on the top of our mystical music list.

How do we interpret our life journeys? Alonzo,  an Indiana school teacher and my paternal grandfather, died in the 1919 flu epidemic. Mary Ellen, his wife, had to raise, on her own, my dad and his four brothers. She did that remarkably well. Reflecting on her own, not always easy life, my grandmother once told me, when I was a teenager, that Jesus was her “traveling companion.” Today, John Alonzo, her last living grandson, would say he very much resonates with Grandma’s theology.

At times, old creedal doctrines, like the fourth century Nicene Creed, can seem so rigidly esoteric. It may have had an important place back then; but stressing today, for example, that Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father” seems a strange kind of theological language when compared to the Fourth Gospel where Jesus says so simply and profoundly: “I and the Father are one.” John 10:30

2. Let theological insights spring from inter-religious dialogue.

By focusing on questions of human meaning, identity, and purpose in other religions, we can better understand the contexts in which belief arises and takes shape. We really should experience and explore the ways in which the human experience has been portrayed and celebrated in other religious cultures, art, and drama. 

I remember the unfortunate controversy at the Catholic bishops 2019 Amazon Synod in Rome. Between October 6 and October 27, 2019, bishops and representatives from Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Venezuela, and Suriname gathered with Pope Francis in Rome.The focus was on the indigenous peoples of the Pan-Amazon region and their cultural and religious traditions. During the synod several statues, which Pope Francis confirmed were of the fertility goddess Pachamama, were featured in discussions and ceremonies. Unfortunately, a few days after the synod a group of 100 Catholics accused Pope Francis of indulging in “sacrilegious and superstitious acts” and an angry ultra-right Catholic activist later stole the statues from their display in a church near the Vatican and threw them into the Tiber. (They were later recovered.) Respecting other cultures does not always come easy for static rigid Christians. That, however, is no reason to give up.

An understanding of Christian belief through a study of the texts, rituals, ethics, and teachings of other religious traditions can lead to a deeper understanding of one’s own religious tradition. The emergence of comparative inter-religion theology has been  a very promising development in recent years. Comparing, for example, a Gospel text with a Buddhist or Hindu sutra or a passage from the Gita, can greatly stimulate theological thinking. God’s revelation is hardly limited to just the Hebrew-Christian tradition.

Peter C. Phan is a Vietnamese-born American Catholic theologian. I remember his presidential address to the Catholic Theological Society of America, meeting in New Orleans in June 2002. He began with a Hindu prayer, asking God to “Draw near us in friendship…”, and later observed: “If today we recognize that we can and should benefit from the worship and prayer of other religions for our own spiritual growth, then our way of doing theology, in response to this sign of our present times, must be different from that of our forebears…..”

3. Let the lived experience of  impoverished and marginalized men, women and children be our touchstone for theological learning.

Firsthand and humble learning from exposure to the difficult and painful lives of the poor, the marginalized, and suffering people can lead to a transformation of hearts and an opening of minds. They need compassionate care,  service with no strings attached, and unquestioned support. And for all men, women, and children there must be a theology of hope. A transformation of hearts and minds can also open our eyes to the Sacred here and now. Recall the response of Jesus to the righteous questioners in Matthew 25:37-40: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” A credible theology explores and promotes the significance of this text for today’s believers. 

4. Let the God-mystery stand as the horizon for all learning.

I would suggest that a contemplative attitude is absolutely essential for approaching the God-mystery. I remember chatting with the Franciscan spiritual master, Richard Rohr, who reminded me that without a contemplative mind, we are offering the world no broad seeing, no real alternative consciousness, and no new kind of humanity. “Jesus,” Richard said “was the first clear mystic in the West. We just were not prepared for his way of knowing and loving.” An enlightened contemporary theology of God must spring from the contemplative experience. In all of our busyness, we need to take time to turn off the phone, stop doing, and start reflecting. We have been well-trained in DOING. We need remedial training in BEING.

Concluding remarks: Religions are generally defined by belief and practice. “Orthodoxy” – a word one often hears in certain church circles — is about correct beliefs and fidelity to official teaching. “Orthopraxy” – a word one rarely hears  in church —  is about correct conduct..

Most church leaders are very strict about orthodoxy and insist on people adhering to official doctrines. In fact, however, those leaders are often putting the cart before the horse.

Genuine Christianity is first of all about correct Christian behavior (orthopraxy). Here the example of the historic Jesus is so clear. In all he did, Jesus was the compassionate minister. He reminded his followers that the Law (orthodoxy) was created to serve people but that people were not created to serve the Law. His primary focus was attending to the immediate needs of people, with love and compassion. And he says to us: “Go and do likewise.”


P.S. If there is a topic you would like me to explore, please write to me at:      jadleuven@gmail.com


The first weekend in Lent 2021.

My wife and I are avid readers, whether books in hand or on Kindle. I like Ken Follett’s historical fiction; but this past week I read a new book I had wanted to read for some time: Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth by Avi Loeb. 

Abraham “Avi” Loeb, a Professor of Science at Harvard University is a researcher in astrophysics and cosmology. Extraterrestrial deals with the outer space evidence he and colleagues collected over eleven days starting on October 19, 2017. They observed what they believe was the first known interstellar visitor to Earth: evidence of an intelligent civilization not of this Earth. I won’t go into all the book details right now, but his book started me thinking about new ideas and mindsets. 

I started thinking about poor old Galileo who struggled, and suffered, with his open exploratory mindset. In his 1610 treatise Sidereus Nuncius (“Starry  Messenger”), Galileo declared his agreement with the heliocentric understanding of the solar system. Heliocentrism ran directly counter to the teachings — the mindset — of the Catholic Church. In 1633, Galileo was found guilty of heresy. Due to advanced age and ill health he was not tortured but spent the rest of his life, nearly a decade, under house arrest.

Today astrophysicists, of course, not only affirm heliocentrism but confirm that our Sun is one of hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way. They report as well that the universe is still rapidly expanding.

I remember April 12, 1961, when the Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to journey around the Earth in outer space and reported “I see no God up here.” Gagarin was reacting to his perception of an earlier mindset. Certainly our understanding of the universe and of the anthropomorphic God had already changed. We had moved far beyond the Hebrew and early Christian image of God seated on a throne up above the clouds. 

When Yuri Gagarin made his historic journey in 1961, I was making my rather ordinary journey from high school to college. When I recalled this recently with  a classmate from back then, he asked what I thought the church and the world would be like sixty years from today. That provoked more thoughts about mindsets.

I am an historian not a predictor of the future. Sixty years is a long time, especially for a guy who passed his own sixty years, seventeen years ago. I do see some significant societal trends, however.

The big issue that is tearing us apart today is our highly polarized society. I don’t like the words “conservative” and “liberal” nor the devision into “traditional” and “progressive.” One side of our polarized society has people with, what I prefer to call, a “static rigid” mindset. The other side has an “exploratory” mindset.

Being a theologian, I see the static rigid believers as people who consider change a great disruption, a great distortion, or downright evil. They are locked in the world view of an earlier age. They have age-old answers for every age-old question, even if no one is really asking those questions anymore. They are incapable of understanding contemporary Christianity in the light of ongoing human growth, development, and understanding. This explains of course their frustration and problems with contemporary sexuality and gender issues.

Exploratory mindset believers, on the other hand, experience human life, and therefore Christian life, as an open-ended discovery journey. They don’t have ready-made answers for every question. They see Christian life as a process of individual and communal discernment. Tomorrow may bring new and exciting discoveries, as Galileo of old observed with his telescope or perhaps as Avi Loeb considers with perceived signs of extraterrestrial life. New developments and discoveries, like Covid-19 or climate change (as I watch news reports about the devastating winter storm in Texas), can of course bring anxiety, fear, and misery. Throughout it all, nevertheless, we can eventually make progress. Life is stronger than death. Perspectives change and we mature. We move ahead, more humble and a bit wiser…..

Overcoming polarization requires concerted action on both sides. Neither side is justified in denigrating and demeaning the other. Our goal must be constructive and respectful dialog. I know the situation very well, because I once had a very static and rigid Catholic mindset. 

In 1965 my bishop – very rigid and dogmatic — sent me as a seminarian to study at the Catholic University of Louvain (Leuven). After my first month of classes, I was rather upset and thought a few Louvain professors were much too freewheeling in their theology. I expressed my concerns to a likable professor. He reacted very calmly and said “we need to discuss this.” With a few other students, we began monthly seminars with him to discuss “contemporary theology”…. The professor, Albert Houssiau, is now 96 years old. I greatly respect him and appreciate his influence on my life. (A few years ago, when I met him again during a university dinner, he sketched, on the back of the menu, the profile I often use on Another Voice. 😊) Gradually Houssiau had opened my eyes and my mind. I found him a genuine believer and I trusted him. He helped me realize that asking questions is healthy and that everything we believe deserves critical examination, research, and reflection. I became a more open-minded person with a different “mindset.” My Dad, who died in 1996, loved to tell people, with a twinkle in his eyes, “Jack was never the same after Louvain.”

Yes, constructive dialogue is essential; but right now I foresee polarized clashing and loss of institutional credibility contributing to a further dissolution of large institutional churches. I foresee more and more splintering into smaller independent faith communities (churches); but I also foresee more faith communities interested in collaboration and open dialogue: open to women; open to gay, bi, and trans; and open to new historical and biblical discoveries. I foresee more faith communities without hierarchical distinctions between ordained and non-ordained: communities that simply acknowledge, as did the early Christians, a variety of roles and responsibilities, shared by men and women, within Christian communities.

I foresee faith communities with a clear and accurate historical and biblical understanding that simply eliminates a number of inter-church and intra-church problems. Some key examples would be: that the historical Jesus did not ordain anyone; that women did preside at early Christian celebrations of Eucharist; that Jesus did not institute seven sacraments; that Jesus did not establish an institutional church; that Jesus said absolutely nothing about birth control or homosexuality; that ordination does not confer any kind of sacred power; that ordination is about ensuring competent and trustworthy ministers; that there were men and women who were apostles; that the Body of Christ is much larger than the Catholic Church; and that Peter the Apostle was never a bishop of Rome.

I hope to see prophetic church communities that challenge ignorance, hatred, misogyny, and racist behavior. 

Because of people leaving the large institutional churches, there may very well be major financial problems for the once affluent institutional church. It would be unable to maintain its real estate, institutions, and services. In the Catholic Church, for instance, there could be even more dioceses going bankrupt. I would not say I rejoice in this; but could simply acknowledge it as a fact of life.

Nevertheless, all in all I am optimistic in my ecclesiastical realism. I enjoy being an exploratory believer. The Spirit has not abandoned us. And we must not abandon the Spirit. Certainly, I foresee a major reconfiguration of the Christian Church, because what we are already experiencing is far greater and much more revolutionary than anything springing from the sixteenth century Reformation. Christian institutional structures will change in major ways yet to be seen.

Regardless what happens sixty years from now – or ten years from now – the important issue is what’s happening today: how we read the signs of our own times and how we allow that understanding to shape and enliven our own lives, ministry, and witness.

And a final observation: We can and should ask if Avi Loeb and his colleagues really did witness an extraterrestrial “spaceship” operated by intelligent life from outer space. Personally, I think this could be very exciting. I am not fearful. Our faith is our strength and the greatest wisdom in view of such awesome possibilities. I wonder, actually, how intelligent beings from another planet would understand God, Jesus Christ, and the Trinity. I wonder how they would understand values like compassion and mutual respect and collaboration.

Contemporary astrophysicists stress that there are billions of galaxies in the universe, containing even billions more stars. With an exploratory mindset, I resonate with Psalm 19: “The heavens proclaim the Glory of God.”



 A bit longer reflection this weekend, by necessity. 

Writing about abortion I fear is opening a Pandora’s Box. Nevertheless, I really feel I need to offer some reflections about this very heated moral issue. I remember the days before the 1973 Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade. Many women died in those days from pregnancy complications or from the back-alley abortions that impoverished women or frightened teenagers inevitably sought. I remember when President Bill Clinton said in 1992  that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” I remember as well, about the same time, a serious conversation about abortion with a now deceased European cardinal.

The cardinal had been publicly quite well-known for his very strong opposition to abortion. He invited me, however, as an historical theologian, to interview him about the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965). Just the two of us. After talking about the Council, I asked him if he really thought abortion could never be justified. He stared at me in silence for a minute and then said: “Not for publication! My younger sister was a missionary nun in Africa. She was raped and became pregnant. I contacted a missionary doctor, paid him, and ordered him to perform an abortion on my sister, and then to keep his mouth shut.”

According to the Associated Press, for the leaders of the two largest US Christian denominations  — the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention — the major concern about the Joseph Biden administration is its support for abortion rights. Many US Catholic bishops and the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, of course, have been very critical of President Biden.

When writing about abortion, I would like to promote dialogue with civility: to build respectful conversation bridges not blow them up. Respectful conversation, of course, must also be honest conversation.

I would begin with a clarification of terms. Some equate the “anti-abortion” position with the “Pro-Life” position. Quite often this is not the case, however. A great number of contemporary US anti-abortion political and religious leaders support capital punishment and ignore poverty, healthcare, crime, equality, nuclear weapons buildup, and the environment. Such behavior is not pro-life and some bishops in the U.S., like  Bishop John Stowe,  Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky and Bishop Robert McElroy, Diocese of San Diego, have made this very clear. 

Unfortunately, for many religious and political conservatives, “Pro-Life” often becomes convenient rhetorical shorthand for avoiding  the broad spectrum of urgent contemporary life issues. 

As a Catholic I remember and applauded Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, and his 1983 “Seamless Garment” appeal for a consistent ethic of life with attention to the whole array of life issues. Bernardin was president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1974 to 1977.  I still resonate completely with his “Seamless Garment” perspective. Unfortunately it was later criticized by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger while he was serving as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger, the later Pope Benedict XVI, feared the “Seamless Garment” approach would diminish the unique evil of abortion.

Direct abortion is the termination of a pregnancy by removal or expulsion of an embryo or fetus before it can survive outside the uterus. An abortion that occurs without intervention is known as a miscarriage or spontaneous abortion. Miscarriage is the most common complication of early pregnancy. Among women who know they are pregnant, the miscarriage rate is between 10% and 20%. 

US attitudes about abortion have changed significantly since the 1973 US Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion. According to the Pew Forum, as of 2019, public support for legal abortion remains high. Currently, 61% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 38% say it should be illegal in all or most cases. In terms of religious affiliation, about three-quarters of white evangelical Protestants (77%) think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. By contrast, 83% of religiously unaffiliated Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do nearly two-thirds of black Protestants (64%), six-in-ten white mainline Protestants (60%) and a majority of US Catholics (56%).

Most studies confirm that criminalizing abortion doesn’t lead to fewer abortions. It leads to more women dying from unsafe procedures. The most recent study of the US abortion rate indicates that the rate is now at its lowest since legalization in 1973. Researchers attribute this decline to better sex education and greater availability of contraceptives, reducing the rate of unintended pregnancies in general and leading in particular to an historically low teen pregnancy rate. 

Anti-abortion supporters argue that abortion is morally wrong on the basis that a fetus is an innocent human person or because a fetus is a potential life that will, in most cases, develop into a fully functional human being. Some believe that a fetus is a person upon conception. Some in favor of abortion argue that abortion is morally permissible because a woman has a right to control her own body and its life-support functions. This position simply ignores the question about whether or not the fetus is an innocent human person or prioritizes the rights of the woman over the rights of the fetus, whether or not it is a person. (The famous 1971 article, for example,  “A Defense of Abortion” by the American philosopher, Judith Jarvis Thompson, argued that even if the embryo or a fetus is a person, the woman does not have an obligation to carry it in her uterus.)

Are fertilized eggs human life? Surprisingly between 30% and  40% of all fertilized eggs miscarry, often before the pregnancy is known. Some fertilized eggs develop into tumors The question of when an embryo or fetus is a human life is still being debated with a variety of scientific and ethical opinions and theories. A good example, perhaps, concerns brain activity. If we use the idea of brain death as the criterion for dying, then the brain waves’ beginning would be the start of life. If one believes that death occurs when brain waves in the cerebral cortex cease to exist, then one could propose that human life begins, when brain activity starts around the 23rd week of a normal 40 week human pregnancy.

Some theologians suggest that human life begins with “ensoulment.” The thirteenth century philosopher-theologian, Thomas Aquinas, drawing on the philosophy of the fourth century BCE Aristotle, thought the fetus receives a soul 40 or 80 days after conception, depending on gender: 40 days for males and 80 days for females. Aquinas and his contemporaries knew nothing about the female contribution to procreation. (Aquinas himself declared that women are “deficiens et occasionatus” – defective and misbegotten.)

In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV set “ensoulment” at 166 days of pregnancy, almost 24 weeks. In 1869, Pope Pius IX moved the “ensoulment” clock to the moment of conception under penalty of excommunication, influenced, it was said, by scientific discoveries in the 1820s and 1830s. Nevertheless, the matter is still subject to debate in the Catholic Church. As recently as 1974, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith acknowledged that the issue of “ensoulment” was still an open question.

When it comes to abortion, people want to see clear-cut answers about what is right or wrong. Frankly, I don’t think the answers are always that clear-cut. Some people get quite upset and angry when I say that. Sorry, but the question of when human life begins still gets a mixture  of answers. Some are more biologically medieval than contemporary. People can and must make prudential judgments.

Right now, indeed,  I believe the best responses about the morality of abortion and the morality of voting for candidates who favor the legalization of abortion are found in sincere conscientious reflection and decision-making. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, the human person “has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions.” This teaching is clearly stated and affirmed, specifically, in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium et Spes.

In Gaudium et Spes we read: “In the depths of our conscience, we detect a law which does not impose, but which holds us to obedience…. … As the innermost and inviolable part of the person, conscience is our encounter with the God who made us and wills our good. This means that conscience is accountable to God.”

I remember, with a bit of a chuckle, the observation of the Anglo-Catholic saint, Cardinal John Henry Newman, in his  “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk” a book written in 1875:  “I shall drink to the Pope, if you please, still, to conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.” Newman’s observation reminded me of  the 1969 commentary on  Gaudium et Spes, by then theologian Joseph Ratzinger, who stated unequivocally: “Over the Pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority.” 

The formation of conscience is primary and depends on the traditional sources of ethical knowledge: scripture, tradition, reason/science, and experience. Yes of course, this means that people of good will and conscience can disagree, even on the absolute but not infallible moral norms of the Catholic Church. That is why we need to build bridges and respectfully study, discuss, work, and learn together.


The American Way of Religion

Two realities that still stand out for me, when I think about the violent invasion of the US Capitol on January 6th ,  are the aggressive Christian nationalism and the hateful antisemitism of the demonstrators. When I mentioned this to an American friend, he commented “ok but we are and always have been a Christian country and should remain that way.” I had no desire to get into an argument with my friend but I started thinking about contemporary religious identity and the religious history of the United States..

Contrary to what my friend believes, religion in the United States is quite diverse. And it always has been. Many of the “Founding Fathers” – and mothers – were not Christians. Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Monroe were Deists. English deism had an important influence on the thinking of Thomas Jefferson and the principles of religious freedom asserted in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Some debate whether or not George Washington was a Deist. In any event he was not antisemitic. In August 1790, prior to visiting them with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, President Washington wrote his brief but famous  “Letter to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Rhode Island.” Therein he stressed: that religious toleration should give way to religious liberty: “For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” [Back then the word “demean” meant “conduct oneself in a particular way.” JAD]

Historically, a variety of religious faiths have flourished in what became the United States. Religions pluralism and diversity began with the various native beliefs in pre-colonial times.

In colonial times, Anglicans, Quakers, and other mainline Protestants arrived from Northwestern Europe. (My paternal ancestors, who arrived in Pennsylvania in 1684, were Quakers from Cheshire, England.) In the mid to late 19th and 20th century, an unprecedented number of Catholic, Jewish, and Orthodox Christian immigrants arrived in the United States. There were of course Catholics present in small numbers early in the history of the United States, both in Maryland and in the former French and Spanish colonies that were eventually absorbed into the US. Jewish people have been present since the 17th century; and the Muslim presence in what is now the United States began with the arrival of African slaves. About 10% of African slaves transported to what is now the United States were Muslim.

Since the 1990s, the number of US Christians has decreased, while Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, and other religions have spread, mainly due to immigration. In the decade starting in 2010, Protestantism ceased being the majority religion due primarily to an increase of Americans professing no religious affiliation.

So today the USA religious landscape looks about like this: 65% of the total adult population is Christian with 43% identifying as Protestants, 20% as Catholics, and 2% as Mormons. People with no formal religious identity account for 26% of the total population. Judaism is the second-largest religion in the US, practiced by 2% of the population, followed by Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, each with 1% of the population.

Some summary observations about the American way of religion: The United States is not a Christian country. It is a religiously pluralistic country. Freedom of religion means freedom for all Americans. Inter-religious respect and dialogue means respect and dialogue for all Americans. The US Federal Government was the world’s first national government without state-endorsed religion, and the framers of the US Constitution rejected any religious test for office.

Religious ignorance and collective delusions are not new. The American way of religion offers a number of challenges for today and for tomorrow. Better education for sure. Perhaps the biggest challenge is really believing in “one nation, under God, with liberty, and justice for all.”