As I flew from New Orleans to Pittsburgh this week, I was reflecting on my past airline travel experiences and recalled a particular incident that seems perfectly suited to this time of Advent longing for the coming of Jesus. Here are some of the fragments of my wandering thoughts.
Faith and Reason at 35,000 Feet
Years ago I had a gentleman from Brooklyn, who was sitting next to me during a flight, ask me what I do for a living. Usually when I tell people I’m a Catholic theologian, or that I teach religion in a Catholic institution, one of two things happen. Either they will get an awkward look on their face, ask me some superficial question about my job, say something vaguely relevant about religion or Catholicism and then withdraw into their magazine never to speak again or they will unload their entire life story. But in this case, my Brooklyn neighbor skipped over the awkward niceties and asked me point-blank why, as a Catholic theologian, I believed that abortion was wrong.
Since he’d identified himself as a “lukewarm agnostic,” I offered him a series of what I believed were rationally compelling arguments that melded a little science and a little philosophy. He listened respectfully, and then said something that took me so off guard I was rendered speechless. He said,
It’s a funny thing about you Catholics. Whenever I ask some Evangelical this question, they immediately invoke belief in God and preach Jesus to me. But whenever I ask a Catholic — if they even oppose abortion — they try to reason with me. If you don’t mind my asking, why hold back the Jesus card?
I think I babbled out a few points about logic and science being common ground between a Catholic like me and an agnostic like him, and maybe mumbled something about natural law. But as he apparently wanted to have the last word, he said,
I have to tell you, personally, as somebody who likes to think of himself as a reasonable kinda guy, I like the Catholic way better; and it’s less pushy. But my bet’s that while your approach might help people think more about abortion, the Evangelical’s probably gonna get the most converts to Christianity.
I said, “your probably right.” Then we talked about my family and his career as a prosecuting attorney.
Getting Into Jesus
It was very humbling. It took me weeks to recover from it, and I rehearsed a thousand “shoulda said” scenarios. However, it reshaped my approach. Though I still believe, as Catholics must, that good, logical, clarifying thinking is part of authentic dialogue and evangelizing, for Christians the “let us reason together” approach is simply not sufficient. Christianity isn’t merely an ideology, a compelling idea, a moral path or some vague spiritual way. It’s radically specific, scandalously particular and in-your-face in its proclamation that the eternal One God, source of all existing things, is to be fully found only by means encounter with a dead and risen Jew, Jesus of Nazareth.
Christianity also tightly tethers the robust specificity of its moral vision to intimacy with Jesus — without Jesus, morality loses its grounding narrative context, its dramatic compelling force, and is devoid of His redeeming grace that alone frees us from the chains of sin and fills us with the mighty power of God’s unrelenting love. Jesus makes philosophers into mystics, prisoners into liberators, pale moralists into red-blooded martyrs, do-gooders into passionate lovers of God.
As a theology professor of mine used to say,
Though good thinking can lead you to God, only the Spirit of Jesus can lead you into God. While human curiosity leads you to study the Baptismal font, divine love dares you to jump in!
I also recall a lecture I heard in 1990 given by the famous New Testament scholar Fr. Raymond Brown in which he said,
What sets Christianity apart from other religions, what is its true genius, is that at its very center is a Founder who is also a living Person with whom Christians are to have a loving and personal relationship. Jesus’ question to Peter, “Do you love me?”, is really the crux of the matter and should be required as a question for admission to Holy Orders; or to Baptism…Inasmuch as the Church in its history has failed to spotlight that relationship, to make it the heart and reason for its mission, the Church has inevitably fallen flat on its face.
A dear friend of mine sent me an email yesterday containing this quote from St. John Paul II. It’s exquisite. Imagine if we really believed this, spoke this, lived this? Next time you pray our Advent chant, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, ask yourself if you really want Him to show up and get in your face.
It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads in your heart your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle.
It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.
Jamie Grace, sing it: