Here’s the conclusion to yesterday’s post on intellectual formation. I hope to have the last post on pastoral formation and the whole essay available by the middle of next week.
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? Continue reading →
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.
Being a pastor is more like being a jazz musician than it is being say an engineer. All three of these occupations require a great deal of technical skill to be sure. But the pastor, like the jazz musician, is often called upon to improvise on a theme more than, like the engineer, apply a theory to a problem. This is all to say that pastoral ministry is more art than science.
Over the last 10 years or so I’ve worked with communities in transition. What I’ve notice is that typically problems arise in the parish when someone—it needn’t be the pastor—takes what we might call an engineering approach to the life of the congregation. They have a theory and they are going to fit the community into its framework.
This is also something I see frequently as a spiritual director and confessor. When I talk with people about the different ways they go off track in their prayer lives, at work or with their family and friends the source of their suffering is that life just isn’t working out according to [their] plan. Problems in living arise when life becomes a project to be completed or a problem to be solved and not the other way around. When I lose a living sense of awe in the face of reality, or when I don’t see my life as a mystery to be lived, this is when life becomes a problem. Continue reading →
Mostly what priests encounter in our flocks is what existential or humanistic psychologists call problems in living. Life just becomes flat. Relationships that once were easy and life giving just aren’t anymore. Saddest of all, what was once a source of joy in life is now merely “blah” if not something much worse.
The first step in responding to those moments when life becomes a problem is the accurate apprehension that this is the case. This is the step of affective intuition—I need to have at least a sense of the contours and content of what is wrong. In the human sciences we use a technical term—verstehen—or the “interpretive or participatory examination” of the situation. Continue reading →