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

16 thoughts on “Exploration and Theological Imagination

  1. Jack, thanks again for your enlightening and uplifting posts. The ‘Orthodoxy’ versus ‘Orthopraxy’ debate is one I have had many times with many people, and I’m particularly glad to read your Concluding Remarks. For me personally, this debate reached its peak in 2010 with the imposition of the new translation of the Missal in the UK. I read with horror Cardinal Pell’s comments about how the 1970s version needed to be replaced because it was full of “Barbeque English” and not correctly reflective of ‘the original Latin’, meaning, I guess, that it was not reverential or mystical enough. As far as I’m aware, the language of the first disciples and writings was ordinary everyday Aramaic and market-place Greek, the language of the ordinary people and not formalised and highfalutin Latin. I could go on and on about this and the desire and need for a Church fit for the 21st Century (rather than 19th…), but my main point then, as now, was: ‘What did Jesus do in his every day life?’ When I read the New Testament, I find it full of stories of Jesus hanging out with ordinary people, enjoying fish barbecues (!!) on the beach with his mates, picnicking on mountian sides, attending raucous parties and weddings where wine flowed copiously and everyone was having fun (much to the disgust of the Scribes/High Priests/Pharasees). Jesus said ‘The Father and I are one’ and therefore in my view, The Father was showing us, through the way that Jesus lived, that living your best life involves all the things that Jesus actually did as well as taught. One of the key things he taught was that the Scribes and the Pharasees and the High Priests were often not doing things the right way and were clinging to rules and regulations – Orthodoxy versus Orthopraxy!

    1. Years ago when I was in transition to a more open-minded person, my professor Edward Schillebeeckx said “remember God is bigger than Christianity.” How I wish today I could just sit down with him and have a good chat. I found him so wonderfully wise and supportive . 😊

    1. A very good issue Jerry. Certainly commitment to conscience comes before submission to church authority. The difficulty is how the conscientious objector can still function in the church….Let me think about this and see what I can do. Warmest regards.

  2. Dear Jack,
    I have saved every single one of your writings but this one is, for me, one of your premier inspirations! You have so elegantly crystallized how to “live” our faith as opposed to “practicing” it. Especially now in Lent with all of the reverant but often rote rituals, I have been confronting what really matters in being Catholic/Christian. Thank you, dear friend and Voice of God, for being the messenger. Several of us here agree that your inspired words have been the enlightenment we need and want to help sustain us. I will be re-reading this week’s message again and again.
    Peace, dear friend,
    Frank Skeltis

  3. Thank you, Jack. I can’t say it any better than Frank did. This was absolutely right on the mark. It was what Jesus was all about. Loved it!

  4. Jack. thanks for bringing us Crowley’s way of doing theology. They seem to be perfect guides for responding to Vatican II’s openness to the world at large. The first three suggestions clearly refer to a way of knowing that I trust. The experiential grounding of these suggestions is clear. I have difficulty, however, with the notion of “contemplation,” especially when it is connected to mysticism. I feel that the Church has always let stand ways of knowing that are deeply suspect. I lump contemplation and mysticism under this complaint. I am always suspicious of people who claim to know something from a mystical event or a contemplative experience of God. For me, all knowing must be grounded in empirical experience, but I am definitely opposed to empiricism which ignores human intelligence and creativity. I emphasize “human” intelligence as well as critical and public judgment about what one knows. I tend to explain much of the present political acceptance of QANON nonsense and the tendency to believe conspiracies and fake news on the failure of religious institutions to help believers become critical thinkers. Maybe mistakenly, I associate this social problem with the acceptance of mysticism and contemplation. My misgivings might be another topic to explore.

    1. Thanks Tom. You raise an important point. Yes we do need critical thinking and judgment. Yes religious institutions have been too tolerant of bizarre experiences. What then is the place for mysticism? Or is there a place for it? How does one make critical judgments? Thank you!

      1. Jack, You mentioned that you studied with Schillebeeckx. I only saw him once when he spoke at an AAR Meeting. I never forgot him. He struck me as a mystic. Lacan did not want people to put his books in the psychology section. He wanted his books on the shelf with the mystics. He never struck me as a mystic. I think his Catholic education turned him off, yet he understood the dynamics of human desire. Psychologists, despite Lacan, are interested in mysticism. After Maslow, they speak of “peak experiences” and they use transcendence and spiritual terms to describe them. I think the Church should be involved in this type of reflection. It has to do with how we develop a brain into a mind. Mystics come out of communities where family life, the quality of relationships, economic security, political peace, artistic expression, educational opportunities are the gracious causes of one’s psychological development that establish emotional health. A mystic is someone overcome by the dynamics of emotional health. I always thought Catholic life, as I experienced it, created mystics. I always thought the Church was the great advocate of all those conditions needed to create human beings into emotionally healthy and happy people who found it easy to believe in the God of Jesus. However, I found that Church leaders resorted to magical thinking and pious piffle and were hostile to the secular thinkers who were really interested in creating a society, educational system, economic conditions, etc. that nurtured healthy citizens. The Catholic Universities were centers of such aspirations. but the Catholic Bishops and reactionary papacy have tried to control the universities. They think they are divinely guided, as do the naïve mystics. The best thinkers and advocates of mysticism that I have encountered were Catholic people whom the Church mistrusted and ignored because they were critical thinkers. They recognized what was not working, such as the present condition of the priesthood, and they wanted to think about better ways of working, but they were silenced in some fashion by being ignored. One of the questions raised in this discussion earlier was how far can one go in critiquing the Church before one is pushed out. If the Church was a community of graceful thinking, no such anxiety should ever find expression. It strikes me that the question comes from a mystical awareness that would like to be shared and expanded, and even be corrected and improved, by the community; but the person finds no place in the Church for such discussion. When I used to hear confessions, I was always stunned by the mystics I heard confessing, but they had no sense that they were mystics, and I would like to see the term abolished in favor of a more humanistic term. They were simply beautiful human beings. Thanks again, Jack, for another wonderful reflection that brings into focus and to the surface profoundly Catholic concerns. How do you keep going?

      2. Tom, I greatly appreciate your further reflection and personal history. Yes Schillebeeckx had a big impact on me. He was such a wise and genuinely kind and thoughtful teacher. Perhaps the term “mystics” should be replaced with another term. For me the trustworthy ones are so anchored in Reality that their revelations resonate with all deep-thinking believers. How do I keep going? I still find the human journey life-giving and challenging. Warmest regards, Jack

  5. Thanks, Tom and Jack, for such a great discussion on the place and term of mysticism, especially in the Catholic Church. I really like the concept Tom expresses that the gracious church and family were and are the soil where the seeds of mysticism can grow I’m reminded of the old saying “Grace builds on nature.” Where children are given a gracious upbringing, the mystic side of their personality can bloom. But that can be easily thwarted by some trauma or undue harshness perhaps which stunts the young human brain from full flowering.
    I’m also reminded that when Joan of Arc was accused of making up her visions, that they were just her imagination, she replied, “How else would you expect God to speak to me if not through my imagination?
    I look forward to reading more.

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