NOTE: This post is the first of several that take the Notre-Dame fire last month as a point-of-departure for reflection on the church today—and tomorrow.
In the NYTimes conservative Catholic pundit Ross Douthat recently commented on the tragedy of Notre-Dame on fire during Holy Week. Douthat reads the fire metaphorically as prophetic judgment upon a divided church: burning with righteous anger toward each other, both left and right seem incapable of renewing Catholicism’s genius for fashioning a synthesis that renews faith-in-action without denying the counsel of reason. A now-charred cathedral, emblematic of Catholicism’s steep decline in the EU and corrupt, moribund state in the U.S., once was a manifestation of the church’s vital capacity for synthetic vision, he claims (let students of church history judge the truth of the matter). Past the rebuilding to come (will Koch funds finally do some good? don’t hold your breath), a far more important challenge awaits Catholic folk of all stripes in the affluenza-afflicted countries of the global North: “The real challenge for Catholics, in this age of general post-Christian cultural exhaustion, is to look at what our ancestors did and imagine what it would mean to do that again, to build anew, to leave something behind that could stand a thousand years and still have men and women singing ‘Salve Regina’ outside its cruciform walls, as Parisians did tonight while Notre-Dame burned.” Alas, Douthat closes with hands thrown up, noting wistfully that only God and Catholics of 3019 A.D. know what a new synthesis might look like.
The synthesis-cum-renewal Douthat rightfully calls for may be re-described as the daunting task of forging among the faithful a “creative middle” (Bernard Lonergan’s phrase)—i.e., an authentic missionary church at once humble and bold in pursuing its redemptive mission--that owns the integral dialectic of tradition and innovation it lives out and seeks in its various ministries to heal and create in history as it mends individual lives, nurtures caring communities, and contributes to the “great work” (Thomas Berry’s phrase) of building of a more humane, just, and ecologically sustainable civilization (or what Lonergan referred to as “cosmopolis” in his political-theological essays, or what Pope Francis calls “integral ecology” in Laudato si’).
Attentive readers of my book Sustainable Abundance for All (Wipf and Stock, 2018) will notice that I did not foreground this challenge—essentially that of the church’s identity/role/mission in the contemporary world—choosing instead to focus on varied winds of change blowing through both church and society. In SAA I extended Lonergan’s notion of the creative middle, re-defining it as a stance and moral compass that persons of (whatever) faith might adopt in the public square as they navigate questions of technology in the context of social acceleration and the proactionary-precautionary debate (the latter playing out now on many fronts, e.g., the ongoing controversy around GMOs). In light of Douthat’s piece, and tutored by Lonergan, Pope Francis, Joe Holland, and Thomas Berry, among other wise souls, I want to share a thought or two as to how we might imagine and work constructively toward the coming-into-being of a “creative-middle church” dedicated to serving—and yes, (re)forming—a local-global civilization that is irreducibly pluralistic, dangerously conflict-ridden, and fast swirling towards the mother of all whirlwinds.
I suggest we start by recalling how the pope deploys a geometric metaphor, the polyhedron, to convey the beauty and dynamism of a local-global civilization that ideally seeks to achieve, if only provisionally, a unity-in-diversity truly respectful of both our common humanity and difference in all its manifold dimensions. In Evangelii Gaudium (2013) the Holy Father writes: “The whole is greater than the part, but it is also greater than the sum of its parts…. We constantly have to broaden our horizons and see the greater good which will benefit us all. But this has to be done without evasion or uprooting. We need to sink our roots deeper into the fertile soil and history of our native place, which is a gift of God. We can work on a small scale, in our own neighborhood, but with a larger perspective. Nor do people who wholeheartedly enter into the life of a community need to lose their individualism or hide their identity; instead, they receive new impulses to personal growth. The global need not stifle, nor the particular prove barren…. Here our model is not the sphere, which is no greater than its parts, where every point is equidistant from the center, and there are no differences between them. Instead, it is the polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness.”
I find the polyhedron figure, and so many of its artistic iterations, both captivating and liberating. To gaze intently upon a multi-colored, multi-shaped One-Many is akin to locking in on a new North Star; granted, it’s way beyond us at present yet still visible, however faintly, and thus able to inspire. A polyhedron offers us a sense of direction in the movement of life at a time when much conspires to leave us rudderless and adrift. And in light of astrobiology, we might imagine in hope not only this planet becoming wonderfully polyhedronic during this new millennium but also the existence of myriad such planets, past and perhaps present, that have passed successfully through several eye-of-the-needle transitions, not the least of which being the epic-epochal shift from unsustainable energy regimes to long-term energy sustainability (more on that in a near-future post). As a parent of three, I find polyhedrons help me to imagine my distant progeny inhabiting a home planet still warm and teeming.
How might the church-as-sacrament point, as it were, toward the polyhedronic planet our hearts desire? How might ecclesial institutions, practices, and members come to reflect in word and deed a new, life-giving synthesis for our (running out of…) time? Can we become at least the germ-seed of next-millennial Polyhedronic Catholics who shall bear witness to God’s love for all creation, even as they seek to fashion yet another synthesis for their (unimaginable) age? Coming posts explore these questions.