It started with questions….and the questions continue


12 January 2018

(Photo credit: Dave Miers)

Some years ago, the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl wrote that life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, nor a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.

I agree with Frankl. The greatest task for any person is to explore the ultimate questions about the meaning of Reality, of our human experiences, and of our personal identities in a changing world.

Shortly after Christmas, a university friend asked me how I became interested in theology. In response I wrote a brief personal-experience article that will be published in a couple months. Today, as Another Voice begins a new year, I would like to share a bit of my story and also about my focus in 2018.

My story: In the late 1950s and early 1960s I was a rather conservative seminarian, studying at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. In September 1965 my bishop, to my great surprise, sent me to study theology at the famous Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. I would spend three years in Louvain (today we more properly use the Flemish name: “Leuven”). Then I left the seminary and continued studying theology at what was then known as the Catholic University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands. I was fascinated by the “Dutch” (he was really Belgian) theologian Edward Schillebeeckx who was a professor of theology in Nijmegen. (Interestingly, he did his early philosophical and theological studies in Louvain.)

For me, a very pious and somewhat fundamentalist young man, the journey from Detroit, Michigan to Leuven, Belgium was much more than a big geographic shift. It was personally very unsettling. My professors made me feel very uncomfortable. As I listened to them, I found myself asking theological questions about everything. Is there a God? Who or what is God? How do I know that my “religious experiences” are really experiences of Divinity? Who really was Jesus and who is he today? Was his birth truly the result of a virginal conception? Did he have brothers and sisters? Was his mother really always a virgin? Was the Resurrection a real event? How much of the New Testament is trustworthy? Is the Catholic Church the one true church? There were personal identity questions as well….a lot of them.

One day after class I confronted the professor, whose lectures were really turning my world upside down. I told him he was making me very uncomfortable, because I was now asking questions about everything from God and Jesus to ordained ministry, love, and celibacy. With a twinkle in his eyes and a warm smile he said: “then I am doing a good job as professor.” He told me he would not abandon me and we could talk any time….and he reminded me of the old saying, attributed to Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Thanks to my old Louvain professor, and many others, I grew up as a person. I grew up theologically. I grew up as a thinking person. I grew out of my Catholic fundamentalism; and I became a truly contemporary believer. A quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer suddenly spoke to me powerfully in a new way: “I’m still discovering, right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.” (I became an avid reader of the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed by the Nazis in April 1945.)

At the Catholic University of Leuven, I consciously confronted change – on many levels – and I was changed. Most important in my world of changes was learning how to be an historical-critical believer: anchored in biblical and theological sources and asking how they resonated with my own contemporary faith and life experiences. My understanding of Christian belief and morality changed as did (necessarily) my understanding of humanity. I came to understand that change and development are essential elements in our human existence, ongoing life, and understanding. I came to understand that asking questions and searching for answers are essential elements in the human journey. I realized it is not wrong to ask questions. I realized yesterday’s answers are not always helpful responses for today’s questions. (Many years later I would (respectfully) tell a group of bishops meeting in Baltimore that they were very good at answering all the questions nobody was really asking anymore.)

This year, in Another Voice, I hope I can address the right questions and propose some thoughtful answers. When I can no longer do that, it will be time for me to unplug my computer.

Looking over the 2017 reader reactions to my blog, people have been generally positive, supportive, and appreciative. (The negative people just ignored me or unfriended me on Facebook.)

It does bother some people when, in their words, I become “less theological and more political.” With the current presidential administration I have done that periodically. I hear the criticism. I understand where it is coming from. Nevertheless, in today’s socio-cultural context I can only refer to the words of Bonhoeffer again:

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”

My best regards to all. I hope you will travel with me in the coming months.

-Jack

19 thoughts on “It started with questions….and the questions continue

  1. Dear Jack,
    This, to me, is most inspiring and meaningful piece you have written. You encourage us to critically (in the best sense of the word) review and evaluate our Christianity to understand why we believe. We each make a personal Confirmation through our own faith journey. Not questioning doesn’t show faith. Thomas Merton says, “…we cease to be Christians the moment our religion becomes slavery to ‘the Law’ rather than a free personal adherence by loving faith, to the risen and living Christ.” How can one make that personal choice without questioning and evaluating?
    Thank you again for opening our minds and our hearts!
    Peace,
    Frank Skeltis

  2. Excellent start for the New Year, Jack.  I look forward to your probings in coming months.  Meaning seems to be missing from the lives of so many younger folks these days.   I wonder if the opioid crisis is related to the lack of deep meaning in people’s lives?   Patrick of MI

  3. As usual, this is a moving and provocative essay. I look forward to more.

    You have asked for donations to help offset the expenses you incur with your blog. How and where might I send a contribution?

  4. No Jack. NEVER unplug your computer! From the beginning of when I could first speak, I’m sure the word “why” drove my Dad crazy. I was always full of questions. Unplugging your computer would be like when I was a teen and my mother told me to “just be quiet and act like a lady”. It infuriated me so much that I actually yelled back at my mother to never call me a lady. No computers in those days of course as I’m now 79 years old and still asking questions.
    Keep on Jack!

  5. Jack, thank you for sharing your personal journey. Not only did I enjoy getting to know you better, and how you came to your current faith values, but you also showed us that a questioning mind, as was the way of our Lord, is not only okay, but an avenue of deepening our relationship with Jesus. I look forward to your future blogs of 2018. Happy New Year!

  6. Thanks

    ————————————

    John Alonzo Dick, PhD, STD Historical Theologian Leuven/Louvain — Belgium

    “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T. S. Eliot

    >

  7. Jack,well done! I can see my homilies for this weekend’s masses changing as I begin an hour’s drive to a parish tonight. Lots of time to think on the way. I am looking forward to more of your questions.

  8. Thank you so much, Jack, for this beautiful reflection as we search on our continuous journey for an intimate relationship with Jesus who was raised from the dead and became the Christ. It is a fitting beginning to a New Year, one filled with fear, yet we anchor our Hope in the One Risen Christ.
    Pax et Bonum,
    Greg

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