“THE LORD LIKES BLUE CHEESE”

Photo by Michele Blackwell on Unsplash

Many people are committed to working for God in the church. As they go about the tasks at hand, they hope that they are doing what they call “God’s will.” In my experience, persons on Vestries and other committees of the church facing difficult decisions don’t often stop their meetings to ask aloud what “God’s will” might be for their church in the decision at hand. And so, they figure that if they just proceed as they normally would, God will bless all their endeavors done in God’s name with success.

If you find yourself having to make decisions like this, I would like you to ask yourself this question: are you doing “works for God” or are you doing “God’s work”? There is a difference. Works done for God may be performed merely out of self-interest. Doing God’s work means that you have taken the time to discern with your sisters and brothers in Christ exactly what “God’s work” might be at a particular time and in a particular situation.

Thomas Green, a Roman Catholic priest who served in the Philippines, illustrates the difference between God’s work and works done for God. He develops his ideas in two inter-connected books, When the Well Runs Dry and Darkness in the Marketplace.1 Citing the story of Mary and Martha in the gospel of Luke, Green observes that Martha was busy doing works for Jesus while Mary was sitting at the Lord’s feet “listening to his teaching (Luke 10:38-42). While both of their labors were important, Martha, as Jesus reminded her, needed to stop her busy-ness and listen to the words of her Lord: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful.”

Fr. Green remembers how, when friends travelled back to the United States for visits, they would often ask him if he would like them to bring anything back for him. He told them he would love some blue cheese, an item not easily found in the Philippines. Many of his friends who themselves did not like blue cheese would return with something “better” in place of the cheese he had requested. Fr. Green observes that he knew he had a true friend, that is, one who truly cared about him, when the friend who personally hated blue cheese nonetheless brought some back as a gift. Fr. Green concludes that God is like that. God often asks us for blue cheese but we feel the need to do something “better.” When we try to do something “better”, are we busy doing works for God or are we doing God’s work? Are we so “anxious and troubled about many things” that we do whatever we want, or are we doing what “is needful?, that is, what God may be asking us to do.

As you think about what God wants from us, take time to reflect on the difference between “God’s work” and “works for God.” Remember: “the Lord likes blue cheese!”

1Thomas H Green, S.J., When the Well Runs Dry: Prayer Beyond the Beginnings (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1979); Darkness in the Marketplace: The Christian at Prayer in the World (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1981).

THREE RECENT PUBLICATIONS OF MINE

Three chapters of mine have recently been published in separate volumes of the Palgrave Macmillan series, “Pathways for Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue.” The books in this series derive to a great extent from expanded conference presentations at meetings of the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network. Two of the three chapters published recently arose from conference presentations, and one was written especially in memory of a departed colleague, Gerard Mannion of Georgetown University. To date, I have published chapters in five separate books in this series, with one still forthcoming. (The details of the publications can be found on the “Academic Publications” page of this blog and in the links at the end of paragraphs below.)

I don’t often write about my academic publications in this blogspace, but because these publications allow me to address both the academy and the church at the same time, they may be of interest to some of my readers.

All three of these chapters employ the work of the Italian philosopher and political theorist, Giorgio Agamben, to engage specific theological topics and issues. While Agamben writes from outside the church, his writings often illuminate ideas and themes from the Christian archive, that might otherwise go unnoticed by those working from within a Christian perspective. In using resources from Agamben for my own purposes, and not necessarily in the way that he deploys them, I aim to craft new perspectives on Christian theological themes and issues.

The title of the chapter in Changing the Church, “To Live according to the Form of the Holy Gospel: St. Francis of Assisi’s Embodied Challenge to the Institutional Church,” is taken from the words St. Francis of Assisi used to describe his manner and form of life, that is, he sought solely to live according to the form of life described in the Holy Gospels (forma sancti Evangelii). The chapter explores what the contemporary church can learn from Francis of Assisi and the monastic traditions of the church so that by focusing less on itself as an institution, the church might offer concrete resources to help contemporary Christians find continuity between who they are and what they do. The second half of the chapter examines “The Way of Love,” promulgated by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, understood as practical ways of living out the gospel in the modern world. This contribution was part of a volume in memory of Georgetown Professor Gerard Mannion, a founder of the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network, who died unexpectedly, in 2019. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-53425-7_29

My chapter in The Church and Migration: Global (In)Difference entitled, “The Refugee as Limit-Concept of the Modern Nation State,” contrasts the work of two of the most influential contemporary international voices on behalf of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers, Giorgio Agamben and Pope Francis.  After an explanation of the the way that Agamben understands the refugee to be the “limit concept of the modern nation state,” I examine a few of Pope Francis’ statements and comments on the status of migrants and refugees in light of Agamben’s analysis of the refugee crisis and its integral connection to the nation-state. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-54226-9_11

Finally, my chapter in Stolen Churches, or Bridges to Orthodoxy, Volume 2 was first presented at a 2019 conference in Stuttgart as part of an ongoing dialogue between Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians. The chapter entitled, “Giorgio Agamben’s Stasis (Civil War): An Illuminating Paradigm for Ecumenical Dialogue?” examines how Agamben’s paradigm of stasis (civil war) might shed light on contemporary conflicts and engagements between Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-55458-3_3

I will make a similar announcement, when another chapter of mine is published in Ecumenical Perspectives Five Centuries after Luther’s Reformation later this year.

 

THE VIRTUE OF SELF-CONTROL

Photo by Caleb Gregory on Unsplash

Over the past few months, I have reflected on what St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians calls “the fruit of the Spirit.”   This fruit refers to the virtues evident in the lives of those who have truly patterned themselves on the example of Jesus Christ. The reason that the New Testament writers focus on the virtues, is so that Christians can live and work joyfully and productively in community.

We find a similar list of virtues in 2 Peter presented as a plan for those who seek to make progress in the Christian life.

[Y]ou must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:5–8 NRSV).

To help understand the flow of the argument in 2 Peter, it is helpful to arrange the words in a different, more structured, way.

You must make every effort to support your:

Faith with goodness (lit. virtue)

Goodness with knowledge

Knowledge with self-control

Self-control with endurance

Endurance with godliness

Godliness with mutual affection (Gk. Philadelphian, lit. “brotherly love”)

Mutual affection with love

Love….

In the classical Greek thought of Aristotle, the word “virtue” refers literally to an “excellence,” a behavior, that we develop over time.  We gain virtue from practice.  Virtue, in other words, is gained much like a skill.  We learn as we fail and as we succeed, always building and growing.  We don’t gain virtue all at once but rather we develop it over time.

In 2 Peter we find the outlines of a program for the formation of Christian virtue; it begins with faith and ends with love, the pinnacle of Christian virtue (“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. 1Cor. 13:13).  The purpose of the program is so that we may not be “ineffective” or “unfruitful.” In more positive terms, the program is presented so that our lives in Christ might bear fruit, genuine fruit.

When we compare the list of virtues that St. Paul identifies in Galatians 5:22-23 (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) with the list in 2 Peter, we find some similarities and differences.  “Patience” and “endurance” have similar, but not exact, meanings as do “gentleness” and “mutual affection” (lit. “brotherly love.”). [The virtue of endurance refers to the ability to hold up under difficult circumstances.  For that reason, I wrote about that virtue previously relating it to the “resilience” we need to bounce back from upsets, disappointments, and failures.]

The only two words, however, that are precisely the same in both Galatians and 2 Peter are “self-control” and “love.”

I would like to focus further attention on the virtue of “self-control.”  “The virtue of self-control” “involves the restraint of one’s emotions, impulses, and desires.” *

The New Testament writers were familiar with Greco-Roman philosophical ideas about moral virtue of self-control.  The idea was common to the Greek philosophies of Epicurus and Zeno, the father of Stoicism. It is also found in the “wisdom literature” of the Old Testament. In Proverbs 25:28, for example, we read: “Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control.”

A staple of Hellenistic moralism, we find self-control central to the argument of 4 Maccabees, a book not found in our Bible, but one that is canonical in some Eastern Orthodox Churches.

[I]t is evident that reason rules over those emotions that hinder self-control, namely, gluttony and lust, it is also clear that it masters the emotions that hinder one from justice, such as malice, and those that stand in the way of courage, namely anger, fear, and pain (4 Mac. 1:4).

Modern psychological study and research now recognize that reason does not always go hand in hand with self-control, especially when it comes to addiction. People facing addiction realize all too readily that they have no power within themselves to control themselves. That is why the beginning of treatment starts with the recognition of the powerlessness of the human will in the face of addiction.

To live and work with others productively in community, we have to exercise some measure of self-control.  We should always think before we speak. In James 1:19 we find just such an admonition: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger….”  Notice it does not say quick to speak and slow to listen, but “quick to listen and slow to speak.”   Here a practical example is given to help us understand what it means to exercise self-control in our dealings with others.

The New Testament is full of advice on how to live together in community.  While there is much more I could say about this, the words of St. Paul sum it up best when he says that we should “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”  Striving to do that first and foremost lays the foundation for the “self-control” of our impulses and emotions.

*Michael J. Harrington, S.J, Jude and 2 PeterSacra Pagina Series. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), p. 244-5.