Initial formation: between postmodernity and new evangelisation
IEOP Assembly, Lisbon April 2012
Vivian Boland, OP
The section on formation in the acts of the general chapter of Rome is quite short (chapter VI). It does, however, clearly identify the goal of formation: ‘making a Dominican preacher’ (§185). So what is a Dominican preacher as distinct from any other kind of preacher and how is a person made into one? The acts speak of a common zeal to share the fruits of our contemplation of the Word of God and of a culture of mission: this zeal for contemplation and culture of mission constitute the environment in which the Dominican preacher develops. They are also two of the virtues he needs to have, contemplation and mission.
In the final paragraph on formation the acts give us more of a definition: the Dominican preacher is there identified as ‘a preacher of grace’ and ‘a true witness’ (§200). The first phrase is from the O Lumen and the second echoes a well-known passage in Evangelii nuntiandi (1975), Pope Paul VI’s great charter on evangelization, that modern people ‘listen more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if they do listen to teachers it is because they are also witnesses’ (EN §41). It is a perfect description of the insight that came to Diego and Dominic in Montpellier: if they were to preach the gospel effectively it would have to be not just as teachers with a particular expertise and style but as witnesses living in a way that was visibly evangelical.
The Rome general chapter encourages us to read again what Krakow 2004 and Bogotà 2007 said about formation. Krakow emphasised that vocations to the Order are a gift – a grace already – that call us to understand the ‘fast paced age’ and ‘diverse world’ in which people are joining us. Where are they coming from? What are they bringing with them? What needs do they have that lead them to us? What gifts are they offering us? Bogotà has a very good section on formation, speaking of contemplation and Dominican spirituality, and emphasising the role of communities as agents of formation alongside the individual brothers and the novice and student masters. Bogotà also discusses characteristics of the contemporary world that affect all of us, not just the younger people joining us. It lists among the challenges to formation the need to help men to be self-critically free and the need to encourage them to be bold in inventing new solutions and as witnesses to the gospel by their lives.
I would like to take these two themes from what the last general chapters have said about formation, that it is about making ‘preachers of grace’ and ‘true witnesses’. What light might be shed on these themes by the contrast set up for us between postmodernity and new evangelization.
Postmodernity : giftedness and grace
A first reflection is to say that the notion of gift is problematic in postmodern thought and might be in danger also of being misunderstood by some proponents of new evangelization. In postmodernity each one can offer the gift he cherishes knowing that there are many alternative gifts, that people are free to choose, and that the reasons for their choice may remain unavailable. We talk about ‘lifestyle choices’ which are regarded as matters of taste and preference. Is a religious vocation, even the Christian faith itself, another such choice?
On the other side, some English speakers will be hesitant about the word ‘evangelisation’ because in English it has associations with a kind of proselytizing that people experience as intrusive: ‘I have come with the gift you need, whether you know it or not’. To be between postmodernity and new evangelization in the matter of gift, is to be between on the one hand a plethora of gifts none of which claims total seriousness for itself and, on the other hand, a gift that seems to want to impose itself in a way that is invasive, claiming too much for itself.
‘Can a gift be given?’ is how Kevin Hart summarises differences between important postmodern thinkers (Postmodernism: A Beginner’s Guide, Oxford, 2004). Questions about the gift – or grace – are at the heart of postmodern philosophy, according to Hart. He focusses on Jean-Luc Marion in France and John Milbank in England. In Marion’s philosophy the first thing to be said is not about consciousness, or about being, but about givenness. Nothing can show itself unless it first gives itself, Marion says. Most deeply the human being is not a self-awareness, or a detached rational subject, but is gifted, given by what we receive. Marion’s philosophy leaves room for revelation, for the gift of Christ, and he is a believing and practising Catholic. It is a kind of praeambula fidei, opening a door to a fresh appreciation of the love of God as the most fundamental gift.
John Milbank is keen to be a conversation partner with Marion, and is also much exercised by the question of the gift, by grace. He criticizes Marion, saying that his thought remains within the limits set by modern philosophy even though he (Marion) is trying to go beyond those limits. Milbank himself argues for a reciprocity of gift-giving: to express gratitude, for example, does not destroy the character of a gift, does not necessarily turn it into just another quasi-commercial, perhaps manipulative, exchange.
The reflections of Marion and Milbank on the character of the gift are abstract and theoretical. Zadie Smith, in her novel On Beauty (2005), expresses more clearly one aspect of what they are getting at. In this passage ‘Howard’ is an unbelieving father, ‘Jerome’ is his believing son, and ‘Lee’ is his indifferent son:
‘What I’ve really realized is Howard has a problem with gratitude’, pressed Jerome, more to himself than to his brother. ‘It’s like he knows he’s blessed, but he doesn’t know where to put his gratitude because that makes him uncomfortable, because that would be dealing in transcendence – and we all know how he hates to do that. So by denying there are any gifts in the world, any essentially valuable things – that’s how he shortcircuits the gratitude question. If there are no gifts, then he doesn’t have to think about a God who might have given them. But that’s where joy is. I’m on my knees to God every day. And it’s amazing, Lee’, he asserted … ‘it really is’ (page 237).
In modern times people tried to hold on to the idea of essentially valuable things while gradually forgetting that such things are possible only if they are gifts, there for us but before us, and without us. Only occasional honest radicals (like the moral philosopher Peter Singer and the theologian Joseph Ratzinger) not only see that you cannot have one without the other – the essentially valuable can only be a gift – but they also spell out, in very different directions, the logical consequences of detaching them.
Thomas Aquinas too, in his treatment of the virtue he calls ‘grace, or gratitude’, is already alert to some of the questions raised by modern philosophers. He considers both the asymmetry or inequality which Marion believes is necessarily involved in gift-giving as well as the reciprocity which Milbank prefers to stress. Ancient philosophers already saw something problematic in gratitude: it seemed impossible to contain within the limits of justice and obligation. Thomas argues that gratitude makes complete sense only in a context of justice, friendship, and grace (Summa theologiae II.II 106,5). Love transforms all indebtedness, he says, for the more love loves, the more it ought, always seeking to return more. Aristotle saw that reciprocity in gratitude sets up an exchange that seems to be without end and disallows such reciprocity because, he says, virtue cannot be about something infinite. Thomas, however, says that in the context of love or charity it is not inappropriate that the obligation of gratitude should be without end (106, 6 ad 2).
What have these philosophical questions about the gift and gratitude got to do with initial formation among the friars preachers? As the Krakow chapter said, the brothers who come to us are gifts, their vocations are matters of grace. We need to be thankful that God is sending vocations to the Order. In some countries, for reasons that remain mysterious, there are vocations to the Dominicans even when there are no vocations to other religious orders.
But the giftedness is reciprocal, for the Order that receives these vocations is also a grace for them. We offer to them the gift of fraternity, of belonging to a brotherhood. In my experience for most of the young men coming to enquire about us community life is one of the main reasons they are attracted to us. Of course they speak also of study, of liturgy, and of the preaching mission, but the fact that we do these things together, in the context of a common fraternal life, is powerfully attractive to them. Maybe, at the beginning, it is the idea of community life that attracts them, the ideal of a joyful fraternity at the loving service of the Word of God. Later they come to learn what is involved in the incarnation of this grace, that our living and working together is a matter also of flesh and blood, and is marked by sin even though it is established on grace.
The first thing a new brother ask of us is ‘the mercy of God and yours’ – he asks for a grace, a free gift. In profession, the act that incorporates him into the Order, he offers the gift of himself, of his whole life, to God, to Mary and Dominic, and to the brotherhood, to the ecclesia domestica that we are. To give one’s life in this way is to acknowledge that there are essentially valuable things, that the gift of a vocation to follow Christ in this way can only be received by me through an unreserved giving of myself in return.
Initial formation is, then, an education in gratitude. If we are trying to make preachers of grace the best way to do it is to give people experiences of grace, and an understanding of grace. At the heart of our lives is prayer, and the contemplation of the Word of God. In these radical practices we learn how to receive. We are mendicants firstly before God. Our preaching of grace appears as the fruit of a life lived in the experience of grace. Of our celebration of the liturgy, LCO 57 says
… the brothers, together with Christ, glorify God for his eternal plan and for the wonderful workings of grace. They pray to the Father of mercies for the whole Church, for the needs and salvation of the whole world. Thus, the celebration of the liturgy is the centre and heart of our life, the basic source of our unity.
In speaking later of the ministry of the Word the constitutions return to this experience of grace in the Eucharist:
The Eucharist is the centre of the Church’s life, the source and the summit of all evangelization. The brothers should meditate attentively on the grace of this wonderful sacrament, pondering its importance for their salvation and that of others (LCO 105 §II).
In our study we take pride in placing the theme of grace at the centre of our theologies. In our life together each of us, sooner or later, experiences the mercy of our brothers in very concrete ways. The Eucharist is our great act of thanksgiving, itself given to us as a gift. The fundamental ethical disposition is gratitude. The liturgy of the hours is about praise, petition, and thanksgiving. The theme, style, and (we hope) effect of our preaching is grace. In all these ways Dominic was praedicator gratiae and we seek to be like him. So our initial formation can be described as an education in grace in order to make preachers of grace.
It might seem strange that self-consciously postmodern thinkers, Marion and Milbank, help us to remember essential things about our own tradition. We are more familiar with postmodernism being regarded as relativistic, even nihilistic and atheistic. But we are asked not just to lament the world in which we find ourselves living but to try to understand it and to find in its concerns and questions evidence of human need and divine purpose.
New evangelization: what kind of witness?
The other theme I found in what the general chapter of Rome said about formation is that we are forming men to be ‘true witnesses’. What does it take to be a true witness today? Postmodernity can seem fast and superficial, offering a diet of passing images and fleeting sound bites. The time required for study, for contemplation, for initiation into a traditional way of living, for practising virtue: all of this seems like a luxury. The Rome chapter says the preachers of grace and true witnesses will be characterized by genuine personal maturity, the practice of prayer, fidelity to the vows, common life, continual study, and active solidarity with the poor. These are all things that require time, as well as virtues like patience and perseverance, a relationship with time which postmodernity does not encourage.
Kevin Hart says that in postmodernity, religion is either rejected as fundamentalist or embraced in one of its liberal forms. Whereas before, fundamentalism was a pathology of religion – one of the ways in which religion could go bad – it is more common now for any serious religious commitment to be described as fundamentalist. Unless one remains agnostic, or sits lightly to what one professes to believe, people fear extremism and a closed mind. Any serious religious commitment seems to mean one is taking things too seriously.
Postmodernity in some of its manifestations is atheistic and nihilistic. Some Christians see this too as a kind of praeambula fidei, a philosophical approach to faith except now along the via negativa rather than thevia positiva. Aquinas teaches people how to be atheists, is how one Catholic philosopher of religion puts it (Denys Turner, ‘How to be an atheist’, New Blackfriars 83 (2002) 317-35). Donagh O’Shea, a brother of the Irish province and former master of novices, in a paper entitled ‘Formation in the Postmodern Age’, says that the loss of God as ‘object’ is to be welcomed because it entails the loss of self as ‘subject’ and this opens the way for ‘an intimate kind of knowing’ (the phrase is Derrida’s) when words fall away and we open again to what the mystical traditions teach about a knowledge beyond subject-object knowing. This mystical, apophatic, theology has, of course, an honoured place in our own theological tradition.
That is one way of responding to what postmodernity has to say on religion. My experience is that it will appeal to the older brothers among us, those who have lived through the past thirty years or so in the Order. The new evangelization, however, will be more attractive to younger brothers and many of our present vocations are coming to us from groups and movements that are explicitly concerned with the new evangelization. It seems to imply a re-assertion of positive theology in the face of postmodern skepticism and relativism, a straightforward proclamation of the truth of the gospel, calling people to share the joy there is in living with Christ.
The natural temptation for the Church, as for ourselves, is to adapt our way of being and working to what seems reasonable and necessary in our own time. Everyone, whether they like it or not, is being formed by the values and voices of the cultures within which they live and that come to live within them. A question for any new evangelisation is whether it too might be ‘postmodern’ in its style: fast and superficial, content with the kind of visibility that makes for striking images and clever slogans, a kind of ‘theme park’ Catholicism of tee-shirts, mugs, and other merchandise. This certainly ensures a certain kind of visibility and witness, one that seeks to be counter-cultural and undeniable. But what about the deeper things, that take time to mature, in silence and through experience? What about the less glamorous aspects of life, things that are less photogenic, the routine of prayer, study, and pastoral care?
The light of evangelical preaching can sometimes seem like a trapped light, an affirmation of faith that is earnest but a bit tense, as if hiding a deeper insecurity. One task for would-be evangelisers, as for all of us, is the purification of motive: why do I want to share the gift I value with this person? Is it really for the sake of the other that I am acting or is it to re-assure myself? It brings us back to the question of whether the gift I offer is really a gift or has also other meanings. The politics of postmodernity, according to Hart, is conservative. Whether he is right about this or not is an open question but he thinks that postmodernity will have no place for the poor whereas modernity at least still had a place for them. Postmodernism attracts liberals, he says, whereas postmodernity attracts conservatives. (Postmodernism refers to trends in the arts, postmodernity to the historical period in which we find ourselves.) It is striking, then, that the acts of the Rome chapter add ‘active solidarity with the poor’ to the its list of virtues that characterize the preacher of grace and the true witness.
I should add immediately that I know brothers of quite different generations and quite different theological styles who have been in active solidarity with the poor.
Christ, of course, is the centre of any evangelization. Initial formation between postmodernity and new evangelization has to concern itself with Christ. How are we thinking of him? How are we relating to him? How is access to him possible for us, access to his teaching, to his life, to his person? Pope Benedict returns often to this theme, saying that our task is to facilitate the encounter with Christ, to see how we can bring it about that people come to meet Christ and experience the joy there is in giving oneself to Christ. Jean-Luc Marion has written some beautiful pages on Christ as the revelation of God. As a man of faith this is his personal answer to the question posed by his philosophy about the possibility of revelation. John Milbank also speaks frequently about Christ but one of the dangers for a philosophical theology such as his is that Christ comes to be regarded as a theory and not as a person with whom we can be in relationship. We would want to say, would we not, that the fundamental gift is Christ. He is the eternal Word spoken by the Father and so the first to receive himself by being given. All other gifts flow from this primordial one, from the gift of the Spirit who is this giving and receiving, to the gift of creation and the grace of salvation.
The new evangelization calls us back to Christ, invites us to taste again the joy that comes from faith in Him, to have the confidence to offer others this possibility because we have come to know that he is the way, the truth and the life for all human beings. Philosophical theologies run the risk of turning Christ into an idea or a theory, new evangelization runs the risk of stimulating a merely subjective, emotional relationship with Christ, one that may not survive the harder questions life will present over time.
Where do we turn? Well perhaps that ‘active solidarity with the poor’ is the key to a way forward. We encounter Christ in his body. This is how human beings experience things and it is, we can say, why the Word became flesh. And his body is the church, the community of those who believe in him and the community of those for whom he laid down his life. The Dominican preacher of grace speaks with authority out of his experience of grace, not because he has read the books and understood them, but because he has come to know what grace means. We only come to know that along the way of our vocation, through contemplation and mission. We know it through contemplation: Donagh O’Shea says that contemplation is perhaps the only way forward at present. And we know it also through living together in a missionary fraternity, what the Rome acts call ‘a culture of mission’. We encounter Christ embodied in his community,in medio ecclesiae. The heart of Christ’s teaching is that we encounter Him in responding to the poor, to the neighbor, to the one who has a call on our care and mercy and love (think of the good Samaritan, the great commandment, the last judgement scene in Matthew 25).
Modernity tended to reduce theology to ethics where postmodern theologies seek to orient us entirely to the love of God, the gift of gifts. What about the new evangelization? Is it about calling ourselves and others to what Saint Paul names ‘the obedience of faith’ (Romans 1:5)? Is it about watching and listening for a Christ who escapes our control, who interrupts our ways, unsettles our convictions, topples our idols, and calls us sharply to account?
The encounter with Christ, if it is to be understood in a Catholic sense, can only be a communitarian, ecclesial, fraternal experience. This experience must feed our minds and our thinking, not just our feelings. But it must not neglect our feelings or dismiss the role of beauty. This experience must become social and institutional and not remain simply personal and private. Christ is the sacrament of our encounter with God (as Edward Schillebeeckx put it) and the Church, as Christ’s body, is the sacrament not only of communion with God but also of unity among people.
Our constitutions remind us often that our fraternity constitutes an ecclesial community, an ecclesia domestica (without actually using that phrase). The Dominican preacher, a preacher of grace and a true witness, speaks with authority when he has experienced grace. He speaks with authority to other human beings out of an experience of living with other human beings. The vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty are understood in our tradition to be about freedom, a freedom that comes from imitating Christ and being united to the Church. The constitutions say that our vow of poverty brings a freedom in imitation of Christ that ‘draws us closer to the poor we are sent to evangelise’ (LCO 31 §II).
This brings us back to the insight of Diego and Dominic at Montpellier. An effective preaching of the gospel, effective evangelization, requires preachers of grace and true witnesses, men who not only know about these things but who understand them through experience and live them out. This is the kind of man we are trying to produce when we talk about making a Dominican preacher.
Of course we cannot organize or guarantee experience for people even when we put them in the way of experience. The acts of the Rome chapter also contain an important meditation on preaching and formation, which quotes Humbert of Romans saying that ‘the only teacher of the preacher is the Holy Spirit’ (ACG Rome §53). This has always been a key point in our theology of grace, that the capacity to receive grace is itself a gift of God.
What the last general chapter says about formation is short but provocative: we are trying to make preachers of grace and true witnesses. The real agent of this making is the Holy Spirit. Our most important tools are contemplation and life in a missionary fraternity: traditional things like prayer, liturgy, study, common life, and apostolic engagement. I believe we can be confident that the way of life we have received contains resources that will enable us respond effectively to the questions of our time and to the preoccupations of the Church. It is a blessing that so many men, young and not so young, are keen to share this way of life. Their presence is a joy and an inspiration to us.
By Bro. Vivian Boland, OP (Socius for North-West Europe/Canada)