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Remarks at LMU Mission Day Panel on Catholic Identity
January 28, 2014
Here’s where I think we are. Our foundation, in many ways our heart, is Catholicism, a tradition and a faith from which many of us draw daily energy and inspiration, and elements of which virtually all of us find powerfully affecting. That’s our core, our center. But it’s also nowhere near our sum. We’ve been formed as well by the ethos of the secular academy, by the surrounding culture, many aspects of which, some for better and some for worse, stand in tension or even contradiction to our Catholic foundation. So we share a mission: and in pursuing it together we long for unity, for community; but the truth is there’s a duality, or plurality, at our very center. When that plurality issues in harmony, it warms our hearts, and deepens us beyond what we’d be able to become by ourselves; but sometimes it issues instead in discord, and when it does, it cuts us, it hurts. And to avoid that heartache, we do all we can as a community to tiptoe around the tensions, to foreground what harmonizes easily and paper over what remains disjoined. And then sometimes a moment comes when we can’t – and we’re left wondering who in the world we really are. That’s tough. I know, because it’s kind of the story of my life before I got here.
I grew up in Oklahoma, raised Southern Baptist, believing everyone in the world went to church three times a week, like my folks did. That church is where I first heard the gospel, where I learned the importance of fellowship with others. Long story short, I grew up, left Oklahoma, attended universities on the East Coast and abroad … and when it was all over, I wasn’t Southern Baptist any more. And though I still believed, in my own way, I no longer held with many (maybe most) of the things my folks and their friends just took as givens. On its face, that’s familiar enough, and no doubt some of those folks back home, if they knew all the details, might interpret it as a simple rejection of the faith I grew up in, as a “lapsing” or a “falling away.” But it didn’t feel that way to me: partly because my faith never was lost, not entirely, though it certainly changed a lot; but also because I always felt in the searching like I was just unfolding the values already implicit in my faith, albeit in these novel and surprising ways, until, without really intending it, I found I had arrived somewhere new.
In retrospect it’s clear to me, that process wasn’t just me adjusting to new cultural surroundings, it was learning
, it was God teaching me. And what I learned compelled me precisely because of its resonance with the gospel as I understood it, that God loved all of us and was determined to redeem us. In the same way, I suspect many Catholics in this room know – don’t just think, know
– that the Church’s official teaching just misses something vitally right
about the equality of women or human sexuality, truths that somehow secular academics already seem to know. And the same in reverse: many secular academics know that the Church’s teaching on war, on our responsibilities to our neighbors, knows something our larger culture just fails to see. We’re still raised in these tribal ways, Baptist, Catholic, secular: that’s where our lives are planted, it’s where those deepest values get their hooks in us. And yet I suspect it’s not really possible any
longer to live that way authentically in the world as we actually experience it. Our lives are just too fragmented now, our selves too blended, our encounters with the scattered elements that make up our own “whole truth” just too dispersed and unpredictable.
Of course recognizing this doesn’t necessarily make things any easier. When I’d come home to visit for the holidays, I’d go along to church with my folks same as always – but now I was an imposter, I didn’t really belong; that was painful to contemplate, and more painful to recognize openly, for all of us. And so we papered over it, me in particular. I became expert at finding just the words that would harmonize, that I could say sincerely, while passing in silence over the ones I couldn’t. It was a kind of diplomacy through poetry, a politics of metaphor and ellipsis; but it was the only way I knew of not being false to my “whole truth.” And yet I always knew there was a larger kind of dishonesty, a hypocrisy to it as well. Looking back, maybe that’s why I felt so at home when I settled in at LMU. You knew that poetry, that diplomacy: it’s how you survived, same as me. I had a religious commitment at my heart, and you did too. I had a secular sensibility that had taught me larger, more complex truths, and you did too. With you I could be all the things I wanted to be, my “whole truth,” and never have to confront the incoherences between them. And you could too, for a while.
But now we’ve arrived somewhere new. And I haven’t any guidance to offer, because your sin, the sin of ellipsis, is my sin too. I do know this. Even now, I haven’t always completely crossed that daunting line of candor with my family and friends back home. But as often as I have – especially with my family – I’ve found that their love for me held steady, that in the end we were a family first, and we’d figure out the rest from there. I found that telling the truth hurt less than I feared. It actually helped each of us grow, in our own different ways – still grounded in our separate soils, but also warmed by the sun of a larger truth we could know together. As Simone Weil says, a tree is really rooted in the sky.
We’re not ever going to be a community that all believes the same thing, we’re just not, and at times that’s going to be tough. But I for one am committed to sharing a community with you first, and then figuring out the rest from there.
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