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Faith Goes Public

by Dr. Tom NealAugust 10, 20170 Comments

I had a dogmatics professor back in 1993 who said in one of his lectures on St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, “Theology is at heart dialogical, a divine-human exchange of ideas among both friends and opponents. It is out of dialogue that God, who IS dialogue in His very essence, draws forth a surplus of truth.” Since those days, I have striven to make certain that my thinking about divine revelation has been a dialogue with God, with the church, with family, with friends, with random people, with culture, with history, with texts, with nature, with anything that presents itself to me.

This inter-relational dimension of faith is why small Christian faith communities are so essential for the flourishing of Christian life. Such intimate gatherings of the faithful together are sacramental encounters with God’s self-disclosure in Jesus, celebrated anywhere “two or three gather in my Name” (Matt. 18:20) — at home, in a neighborhood, in a parish, in a school, in a workplace, in a coffee shop, in a group text, in a public square. Communal faith seeking understanding. Anywhere, everywhere. Faith is essentially ecclesial and can only be had in communion, in conversation, in dialogue or in spirited disputation, both in private and in public.

A great challenge is that our culture straightjackets faith in radically private spheres of opinion, punishing all publicizing offenders with labels like “judgmental” or “imposing on others.” Such a culture domesticates faith and renders it wholly emotive-subjective, deracinating its rational content and eliminating its native capacity to leaven society and culture. Such censured public faith becomes very, very uncomfortable when we try to evangelize, i.e. to Gospel-ize the world around us.

To mention “Jesus” in polite company is just bad manners, singularly awkward, freakishly weird and shocking, so most Christians simply avoid J-talk outside of the household of faith and speak as if He were irrelevant to the vast majority of daily living. While discussion of “God” may be tolerated, as it is a malleable cipher, Jesus is loaded with an in-your-face meaning that forces a confrontation. Not simply with an idea, but with an historically defined person whose supernal dynamism continues unabated after 20 centuries. Jesus is God made content-specific, radically particular, with facial features marred by a history of human violence yet creased by the smile-lines of divine joy. Indeed, He is alive here and now and, when He is spoken of, it’s just strangely palpable.

The acreage free for the scattering of these flaming seeds of the Word has become tiny indeed, safely hemmed in by fences of fear.

But the light of faith is fearless and knows of no such borders. The faith of Jesus demands as expansive a horizon as does our sun, which of necessity commands infinite space to fully expend its selfless radiance. Faith is volatile, irrepressible, and will always rebel against artificial boundaries or punch holes in low ceilings as it reaches toward the Most High. It possesses its own momentum, its own force of power that seeks to infest everything, like a wildfire that breaks free from the stones of a fire ring, driven by its irrevocable will to engulf everything.

Yet this graced fire of faith, like the Burning Bush, neither diminishes nor overwhelms what it takes into itself, but builds on nature, preserving liberty, illumining all it encompasses, revealing expanses of beauty and wonder and glory hidden in quarks and quasars. Faith enhances, perfects and elevates, even as it purifies and refines. “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great” (Pope Benedict).

Faith is our priestly, prophetic and kingly reception of God’s loving gaze on the creation He declares at every moment to be good, good, good, good, good, good and very good.

Bearers of luminous faith must not refrain from speaking, engaging, introducing, proposing, witnessing, inviting, inferring, proclaiming, gesturing, enacting and questing with others in a common hunt for truth in love. In Him we live and move and have our being. We must beg the Spirit for wisdom, charity, boldness and gentleness; for a remarkable capacity to listen and a serene confidence that flows from trust in God as the Source and End of all that exists.

I met a woman named Jan at a catechetical conference in D.C. back in 2003. She was an enthusiastic member of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. She had high ceilings, vast horizons and a disarming personality. And was very funny in a natural way. I was giving talks at this conference and between two sessions I developed a terrible headache. She noticed my discomfort and offered to drive me in her rental car to the nearby convenience store to get some ibuprofen. She came inside with me to get some items for herself, and when we got to the counter to check out, the clerk seemed very miserable. Jan said to her, “You alright today?” The woman replied, “Nah, crappy day. Sorry. Is that all you’re getting today?” Jan replied very matter of factly, “Have you told Jesus about this?” The woman looked a bit stunned. She said, “No, not actually.” Jan said, “Do you mind if I tell Him right now and ask Him to help you?” The woman said, “No, I don’t mind.” Jan said, “What’s your name?” “Claire.” So Jan prayed something like, “Jesus, Claire is feeling low. Lord, she was made for joy. Let her know that you love her and you care about her sadness…”

She prayed for a minute or so. The woman teared up as she prayed, and when Jan was done Claire said, “You’ve changed my whole day. Thank you.” Somehow, nothing about the exchange seemed assaulting or invasive — I really think because Jan was so loving and so sincere. And if Claire had said she was not comfortable with the prayer, Jan unquestionably would have been just as loving in her respecting that wish.

That’s how living faith works. Simple, direct, natural, bold, respectful, spontaneous, surprising, unaffected, free, kind, offered to lift the other up. To Him.

One last thought as I meander through to the end of this post. In a climate hostile to faith witness, we must always keep in mind that faith stands at its most eloquent and penetrating when it is rejected, spurned, ridiculed, spat on and ignored. Only then can faith and love be fused, trust be evidenced, and only then can one rightly claim to be a lover of Truth yielding the torrents of unseen mercy that flow ceaselessly from Christ’s open side.

Caritas in veritate.

It is only the blazing splendor of such Truth that pierces the darkness, softens hard hearts and saves the world. Let us walk confidently along this Way.

About the Author

Dr. Tom Neal

Dr. Tom Neal

Dr. Tom Neal presently serves as Academic Dean and Professor of Spiritual Theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans...

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