Slow theology: John Swinton and Matthias Scheeben

Everything else seems to have a ‘slow’ version–why not theology? I feel as though ‘slow’ is just the way I do theology, more by necessity than by choice. Reading and writing happen slowly, and my ideas unfold over time. Sometimes I think I’ve got a giant percolator for a mind, one in which life experience accumulates (like coffee grounds) and then everything I read goes through it. Then, of course, experience filters through the whole mess of reading and previous experience, and so on. No wonder I read so slowly and write more slowly still. Mind you, I am not saying that this is a better way. It certainly isn’t, if what you want is to ascend. I’m not ascending; I’m barely treading water.

becoming friends of timeSince this is my mode of theological and intellectual operation, I found myself delighting in John Swinton’s recent book, Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship. He calls out modern culture of efficiency into question, and suggests that God has given us the gift of time for love, not for achievement. In God’s time, humility and gentleness trump speed and efficiency. (Check out the symposium on Syndicate! ) It was in reading John’s book that I began to think seriously about the possibility of slow theology. There is a methodological slowness in doing theology as an intellectual practice that fits with my own (often frustrating) experience of academic-theological work, and gentleness is at the heart of it.

In a way, it is gentleness that appeals to me in the work of a no-longer-widely-read dogmatic theologian, Matthias Scheeben. My attempts to read my way into Scheeben’s work were revitalised by Bruce Marshall, who wrote a perceptive and hortatory essay suggesting that ‘Scheeben teaches us the virtues theologians need.’ These virtues, together, shape a practice of theology that takes time. ‘Dogmatic theology,’ Scheeben shows us, ‘must discipline itself to be about God in a specific way, one that draws us into the mysteries revealed only in Christ.’ Scheeben’s deep attentiveness to these mysteries shows through clearly in his (aptly titled) The Mysteries of Christianity. It’s a book that an mysteriesacademic theologian would have difficulty publishing today, I expect. His erudition (which Marshall describes as staggering) is balanced with an equally profound piety. Scheeben’s study of the mysteries of God, revealed in Christ, is a discipline at once ‘intellectual’ and ‘spiritual.’

Another aspect of Scheeben’s study reveals the second of the virtues Marshall identifies:

Scheeben does not lord over the past and judge it, as if the modern mind were in a superior position to know divine truths. Nor does he equate genuinely dogmatic theology with rigorous adherence to a past master, no matter how much we may learn from him. His use of the thirteenth-century scholastics, for example, is remarkably catholic. He does not play them off against one another, or adhere to a particular school, but makes constructive use of all of them, usually in mutually reinforcing ways. 

Although Marshall doesn’t name it ‘gentleness,’ the respect Scheeben shows to his interlocutors is just that: gentle. Much scholarship advances in less constructive and more critical ways, as if the only way to make an argument is to show where others have gone wrong. (I suspect that Scheeben would not have had much time for snarky comments on Facebook, but that might just be a little bit of hero-worship.)

The virtue that perfects the others, on my reading, is humility. Indeed, Marshall finds this to be ‘the most striking feature of Scheeben’s theological writing.’ In particular, Scheeben sustains this attitude ‘before the divine mysteries he seeks to understand.’ Scheeben’s attention to these mysteries shapes his engagement with his interlocutors and his understanding of the character of the theological task. His piety (which is an aspect of the first virtue) and gentleness (which is the essence of the second) are bound up inextricably with his profound humility before the mystery of God.

Scheeben wasn’t a slow theologian in the sense that his writing took a long time. (Neither is John Swinton, by that measure.) As Marshall points out, the foundations of his theological work were already mostly laid ‘by the time Scheeben published the Mysteries…at the age of thirty.’ But his attention to thescheeben divine mysteries had been formed by a theological culture marked, as Marshall puts it, by ‘breadth and sympathy.’ Scheeben might have been a fast learner, building a knowledge base in his twenties that I can’t hope to match if I keep at it until I am eighty. He was, however, measured in his judgements and not dismissive, never rash.

If there is any advantage in the glacial speed of my own theological work, it may be that I have no fast-track through my intellectual process: the knowledge I acquire drips slowly through the ‘grounds.’ This means that I have to say things like ‘I don’t know’ and ‘Let me think about that.’ And so, I lose arguments frequently, and do not seek them out. There’s no virtue in losing, of course. But there is some healing that comes with the realisation that winning–which tends to come by being the strongest and the fastest–isn’t everything. There is more to be said, much more, about the possibility of slow theology. But I’ll just have to let it brew.

 

 

 

 

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fallow year

Tonight I had most of an evening off from the ordinary duties of mothering. But it wasn’t an evening out with friends or even a quiet night at home. I am grateful to our friend Ian Markham, Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary, for an opportunity to talk about my intellectual project. 

For a while there, I’d nearly forgotten I had one. Homeschooling our 11-year-old and running the others back and forth to school keeps me pretty well occupied. But tonight, as I had some space to reflect on what I am doing, I gave this year a new name: a fallow year.  Without teaching and administrative duties, or any work-related obligations, I’ve committed to a year of rest–of a sort. The “land” on which my research and writing usually take place is not being cultivated, not really. This academic year I’ve given myself to another sort of work, work I find much more difficult: the work of being a patient and kind mother to my children.

It’s difficult, and yet necessary. Because I hadn’t spent much time lately talking to grown-ups, I was more jittery than usual in anticipation of the event. As I paced around, I realized that I had my priorities all wrong. Being the person “up front” makes me vulnerable to the temptation to be the expert, to try to be the cleverest person in the room. I’m pretty sure that I am never the cleverest person in any room I enter (really: my kids are cleverer than I am; I’ve just got more experience of the world), hence I feel nervous at the thought of people listening to me and asking questions.

In the quiet (for which I thank Lewis: the children were driving him mad this evening) I realized (again) that I was mistaken. The object of the game, for me, is not to be the cleverest one. That’s not a game I am ever going to win, nor is it a game worth playing. I’m a theologian and a mother. Both of those occupations require patience and kindness, humility and generosity. Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are the clever, for they shall win all the arguments,” but “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

The clever do win arguments, it’s true. And I lose them, often. But I would much, much rather inherit the earth.

Unnecessary drama

Some weeks I wonder why I bother. This week, two very different things have happened that make me think that all my worry about being the person who says this or does that is just nonsense. Silly. Because (in the first place) at the wonderful school my two younger children attend, there is the most amazing woman. Another mother, Catholic, articulate, wise, and faithful. She says the most amazing things, and teaches me loads every time we meet. I wonder whether anything I might have to say about being a mother and its relationship to Christian discipleship and the practice of theology needs saying. She knows it all better than I do already–and if she knows it, why, probably lots of other women (and men, too) must know it also. Who am I to teach, or to speak? God has already taught, spoken, and led others into greater insight than I have.
 
And then there's my friend John Swinton, whose recent article (http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2014/10/06/4100871.htm) beautifully articulates what I also believe about mental illness–and teaches me about it at the same time. What little I have written on the subject is nowhere near as wise and gracious as John's work–and personally, he is the sort of person who radiates that wisdom and grace everywhere he goes.
 
So, should I give up? Ah, of course on dark days I think so. “Why bother?” has a distinct bitterness to it then. But when the sun is shining (as it now is, on a gorgeous fall morning), and my soul is quiet, I know with a happy certainty that the lights shining around me are not there to extinguish my own. How many stars are there in the sky at night? So I don't need to worry about lighting the sky on my own (as if I could), or to worry that my light is somehow superfluous. Maybe this is the easy yoke, the light burden: to know that whatever I think I must do in the world, I don't do alone. It is only a difficult burden to bear because it has to be borne with humility or it will be a very bitter task indeed.
 

But when you give…do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:3, 4 NASB)

Hard words, but life-giving: only one audience really matters…and that 'audience' is the one who inspires every good, and beautiful, and peaceful work. Maybe that's how this verse is related to the bit about putting your light on a lamp stand that comes earlier in the sermon on the mount…so that the glory is always given to God.
 
Deo gratias.

Back home

The retreat at La Ferme was every bit as good, and as challenging, as I had anticipated, and much could be said about it…and will, eventually. At the moment we are in the process of moving, which means not a lot of desk time. Tomorrow I think my desk will go into storage, so no desk time at all for several weeks.
 
To begin at the end of the retreat weekend, though: I discovered, during my stopover at Minster Abbey on Monday, a gem of a book. Written by someone identified only as ‘a monk’ (a Cistercian, if you want to know), it is entitled, The Hermitage Within. Pushed well back between two books on the shelf, its title was hardly visible, but it caught my attention anyway. When I opened it, I found an invitation: ‘[God] is calling you to live on friendly terms with him: to nothing else.’ In light of the message of the retreat, which focused on Jesus’ care for the poor and humble, and his own poverty and humility, this struck me as the logical follow-up. (There is more to it than that, of course–on which more later.) The invitation came with a caveat, though: ‘You must be content to lose yourself entirely. If you secretly desire to be or to become “somebody”, you are doomed to failure. The desert is pitiless; it infallibly rejects all self-seekers’ (p 10).
A hard word in an age of self-promotion. A hard word for a person who has always struggled with the desire to be ‘somebody’–both in the struggle for recognition and coping with obscurity, and the struggle to overcome the desire itself. What amazes me about Jean Vanier is his ability to be somebody without desiring to be somebody. He holds it so lightly, and always looks in the same direction: away from himself, and constantly toward Jesus. One of my very favourite moments in the retreat was Jean concluding one of his talks by saying, almost offhandedly, ‘He’s quite extraordinary, Jesus. It’s important that we get to know him.’ Indeed so, Jean, indeed so. Thanks for helping us with that.
 

nice guys finish last

IMG_0001A few ordinary things: my miraculous medal, and my St Damian cross; the icon of the Holy Family I brought back from a very good weekend retreat in Minster…and the ‘peace prayer’ attributed to St Francis of Assisi.

Last September, I was on retreat in Minster with other parents of children with special needs. At the beginning of the retreat, we each received a word and a picture. My word seemed perfect: hope. But the picture, not so much–a photo of an arctic scene, icebergs in a dark blue sea, and two deer standing nose-to-nose on the frozen shore. Although the scene itself was austerely beautiful, I would have liked it better without the deer. Really. It’s the sort of thing meant to make you say, ‘Awwww…’ Cute. Not spiritually substantial. Still, I don’t believe in coincidence, so I hung onto my photo and filed the image in the back of my mind.

The next afternoon, feeling a bit directionless, I wandered into the library, and the name Manning leapt out at me. ‘Ah, Brennan Manning,’ I thought. ‘This ought to be good. Gritty, spiritually rich without being lofty or sweet.’ I read through to a lovely bit about the Christian journey. ‘Living in the wisdom of accepted tenderness is an unending adventure in trust and dependence!’ That’s my spirituality all right–it’s the inner journey that marks our deeds as having been ‘wrought in God.’

Encouraged, I skimmed on. During the retreat I was reminded of the rule I felt I needed to take on the last time I had been to the monastery: ‘never speak a harsh word to or about anyone, even internally.’ As you might imagine, I had failed miserably, and prior to the retreat had even failed to keep it in mind, much less obey it. Still, a wise priest once said in a homily that such commitments to God are not like New Year’s resolutions, which go forgotten once we’ve failed to keep them up. No, these promises we make to the Lord are meant to try us, and so we are likely to slip up, even to fail completely, as I had done.

The wisdom of accepted tenderness thus appealed to me. Tenderness is the opposite of harshness. I was resolving to take this up, this tenderness, as I read. The Lord is tender and compassionate, full of compassion and bottomless forgiveness. Discipleship means nothing less to me than the imitation of the Lord’s own tenderness.

Then I came across this passage:

‘Before finishing this book, the Christian who is serious about growing in the wisdom of accepted tenderness might do well to take the peace prayer of St Francis off the wall and hang it in [her] heart, make it the wisdom by which [she] lives:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. / Where there is injury, let me bring pardon; / where there is hatred, love; / where there is doubt, faith; /  where there is despair, hope; /  where there is darkness, light; / where there is sadness, joy. /    O divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much to be consoled as to console,  / to be understood as to understand,  / to be loved as to love;  / for it is in giving that we receive, / in pardoning that we are pardoned,  / and it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.’

The peace prayer of St Francis? That saying that crops up everywhere?

Then two things clicked in my head, and the penny dropped. First, I already have a mini-devotion to St Francis, so more St Francis makes perfect sense. Each morning, as I put on my cross, I ask, ‘St Francis, pray for us.’ Well, this is his prayer. Maybe I ought to pray it with him. And I also–the second thing–remembered my photo: those cute deer, in what looks like a tender moment. Ah, well, yes. I was dismissive of the cute, of the ordinary, of the common. And the Lord is reminding me that it is in the ordinary and the common that my ‘rich spirituality’ is to be lived.

I confess that I do not always receive this well. I know that humility and obedience are the marks of Christian discipleship, but that always sounds so much better as an idea than it feels in lived experience. I can’t stop wanting to be someone, you know, significant. To be satisfied with the significance I have, to those in my little circle of family and friends, seems so small. And to go on in tenderness in daily life, well, it doesn’t really get you any respect, does it? I struggle with this. So one morning recently, I was struggling with exactly this, thinking about being not-harsh, about being nice, and something a friend used to say all the time came to mind: ‘Nice guys finish last.’

Yeah, I thought. See? See where it gets you? And then I did see, finally: that’s where you’re supposed to be. For many that are first will be last, and the last first. It’s a hard word. But I am grateful for it, anyway: Deo gratias.

 

Friday of the third week of Lent

This week I have been talking a lot, to anyone who will listen, about liturgical catechesis. More on that later, but if you’re interested, you might have a look at Sacrosantcum Concilium, paragraphs 4-13, and/or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1066 and following. What does it mean to attend to the liturgy? To participate fully, with understanding? How can we (the laity) be helped in our participation? These are the questions I have been asking myself. I can’t say that the answers are to be found in the day’s Mass readings, but my mediation for the day (from the manuscript, again) is at thinking coram Deo.