The Presence of Joy. Other projects have distracted me and kept me from continuing with my earlier series of posts on formation (you can read them here, here and here). I want now to pick up where I left off in July and look briefly with you at the intellectual formation of clergy (and by implication, of the laity).
Recently there has been a series of essays on natural law. What makes these essays especially interesting to me is that the series was inspired by the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart‘s rejection of natural law in an article in First Things (here, with follow-up pieces here and here). While I admire the beauty and elegance of Hart’s language, I find myself agreeing with his critics. There are to be sure various theories of natural law but the Christian (and after reading Levinas’s (1969, 1987) work, I would say the biblical) understanding of natural law is rooted in a careful attention to human experience. Hart, like the Greek Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras (1984), rejects natural law as such but a natural law rooted in ontological abstraction. Natural law in the biblical sense does not seek to draw ethical conclusions from abstract ontology speculation but from human experience.
Attending to my experience I realize that I only want to be happy. Looking a bit more closely at myself I realize that some things make me happier than other but that sometimes even the best things can leave me feeling empty. I also realize some things bring me only a temporary feeling of happiness—they make me happy for the moment—while other things have the ability to bring me a lasting happiness. The Christian tradition calls this latter, lasting happiness, joy. So my experience tells me that not only can I be happy I can be joyful. There are thoughts and actions that bring me a kind of happiness that is not dependent on circumstances event. The paradox of joy is that it transcends the very circumstances that revealed it to me. My thoughts and actions embody what Paul Ricoeur calls a “surplus of meaning” (1976). Sensitivity to this surplus of meaning, to the transcendent dimension of human experience, is essential to a wholesome human life and especially to the Christian life.
If my life in Christ is to be more than a merely formal adherence to moral norms, intellectual assent to doctrine propositions, and conformity to liturgical and ascetical practices I must become sensitive or aware of those times when the deeper and more expansive meaning of my own life is made manifest. Put another way, Christian formation requires not simply the formal presence of grace in my life but my personal awareness of that grace. It is this latter experience—let’s call it the subjective dimension of Christian living—that is often missing in the lives of many Christians (Weddell, 2012).
For many Christians the great tragedy is precisely the absence of any subjective awareness of the grace objectively present in their lives. It is this that invariably undermines joy in my life since without the tangible awareness of God’s presence the Christian life is an unbearable, even inhuman, burden. In this sense the critics of the Gospel are correct—there is something degrading about the Christian life, at least if that life is lived in the absence of joy. Long liturgical services, fasting, and the myriad moral demands of the Gospel will wear me down if undertaken as merely ends in themselves.
The Personal Awareness of Grace. Just as I can’t live a Christian life without the grace of the sacraments, I can’t live this life without at least some subjective awareness of God’s presence in my life. It is here, in my subjective or personal, awareness of God that my intellectual formation becomes important. While not unrelated to academics, intellectual formation prepares me for joy. Undertaken in the right spirit, my studies are a preparation for the enduring experience of happiness that is essential to a wholesome human and holy Christian life. How does this happen?
First intellectual work helps me to know God, what He has done for in Jesus Christ and what He continues to do for me through the life of the Church. Sound intellectual formation not only introduces me to the living reality and witness to God’s friendship that is the Christian tradition. Additionally, and for me as a sinner, importantly it also relativizes (without minimizing) my experience. Proper intellectual formation gives me a context within which to appraise my own thoughts and actions. Intellectual formation then is in the service of gratitude and humility.
Where the intellectual dimension of our Christian life often goes wrong, where formation becomes deformation, is when it leads not to gratitude and humility but a sense of entitlement and pride. I am the recipient of a great tradition but I am not its master. Much less am I its Source. Just as there is a surplus of meaning in my life, this surplus exist in the Christian tradition. Just as there is a transcendent dimension to my life, just as I am “more than” the sum of my thoughts, words, and deeds the tradition is “more than” what I or anyone can grasp. This should inspire in me a real humility that in turns moves me to explore evermore fully not simply the tradition but the God to Whom the tradition bears witness and Who works in human history (and my life!).
There is another deformation about which we must be aware. For some the magnificence of the tradition, its beauty and the depth of meaning that it embodies, causes a paralysis. In this case the person isn’t so much overwhelmed by the manifestation of grace but his own relative smallness. Yes, I am a creature and yes, I am the recipient of God’s grace and the inheritor of a great tradition but it is precisely in these that I see my dignity and my importance. To use a modern phrase, divine grace empowers. Just as I come to see myself as lovable in the gaze of one who loves me so too I understand my real value in grasping the magnificence of the gift that God the Father gives me in Jesus Christ.
All of this admits me to an economy rooted in the gift. All that I have comes to me from outside and is gratuitously. In the economy of mere exchange this causes me anxiety—after all what I can exchange for the gift of God’s love? What can I offer to God that is worth as much as what He offers me? But in the economy of the gift, I recognize in my lack of control, my lack of full and complete self-possession of my thoughts and action and my relative poverty, the echo and invitation of God’s love.
Embodying that invitation in action, as I hope to show in my next post, is the heart of the pastoral life of the Church.
Levinas, E. (1987). Time and the Other [and addition essays]. Trans. Richard A Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.
Ricoeur, P. (1976). Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press.
Yannaras, C. (1984) The Freedom of Morality. Trans. Elizabeth Briere. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
Weddell, S. (2012). Forming Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor.