“Something Tells Me . . .”
(Published in Human Development, Winter 2008, 10-14)
My reflections begin with a small personal experience.
In our office some years ago we had a secretary who belonged to a Pentecostal church. Let’s call her Hannah. In lunch-time conversation she had mentioned that she and her husband gave financial support to some of the Televangelists who were celebrities at the time. So it came as a devastating shock to her when Jim Bakker’s sexual scandal became national news. Then, in the wake of his downfall another of the TV prophets, Jimmy Swaggart, publicly excoriated Bakker for his lust and fraudulent ministry.
It was clear that this sorry spectacle would be a painful experience for Hannah so I opened the door for her to unburden herself of her feelings. She was indeed quite broken-hearted. But then she said something I hadn’t expected from someone from her tradition: “I feel betrayed by Reverend Bakker. But something tells me that Reverend Swaggart’s lack of charity and mercy toward his brother is worse than Reverend Bakker’s adultery.” Something tells me. . . .
Hannah was stretching beyond the prevailing mind-set of her religious community, where sins of the flesh outrank anything else remotely called ‘evil.’. She was reaching into a place deep inside herself where the power of Jesus’ compassion was at work. A place she couldn’t have fully explained. A Gospel place, although the best she could offer in explanation for her response was “something tells me . . .”
That story took place in a small private setting. A second event occurs up there on the big screen. Literally.
Recently on a local college campus I attended a screening of the fine documentary entitled For the Bible Tells Me So. In case you haven’t heard about it, it tells the stories of several fundamentalist evangelical couples facing the terribly disturbing news that a son or daughter of theirs was gay. Some of the parents were highly respected ministers in their church communities, in small country towns where the situation became the central focus of church and town life. Each of the parents had reacted with shock and disbelief to the news. Some tried to get their son or daughter into treatment to change their orientation. One had brutally reviled her daughter’s behavior, saying her soul was in danger; eventually the daughter hanged herself. No matter where one stands on the issue of homosexuality in the abstract, it would take the hardest of hearts not to be deeply moved by both the parents’ pain and their valiant effort to be true to the biblical message which was the center of their lives. Homosexuality was condemned by God!
The film cuts back and forth between revealing and difficult interviews with the different couples and each respective son or daughter. Though they were utterly convinced of the biblical rejection of homosexual behavior, the parents entered into serious study of biblical exegesis and began first to question, and then openly to challenge, the validity of the ordinary biblical proofs for the sinfulness of homosexuality. By the end of the film all had chosen to place their knowledge and love of their son or daughter above the position of their church communities, rejecting a literal proof-text approach to the scriptural writings. Some became public advocates against the vicious gay-bashing of people like James Dobson and his Focus on the Family.
Their explanations for the transformation that had taken place in them showed that new knowledge about the bible had played some role in it. But that didn’t explain the fact that they were ready to venture beyond their fundamentalist boundaries in the first place. Something else was at work. Ultimately it boiled down to “something told us.” Their personal experience of the integrity of their own child was strong enough to break through a life-long religious conditioning that had supplied them with an unquestioned moat protecting them from disturbing complexity. The power of the Gospel they had absorbed all their lives enabled them to challenge what they eventually concluded was a false orthodoxy. Something told us . . .
The two stories clearly share a common element. The participants in each case were led, on the basis of ‘something,’ through conflicting views of faith to a stance over against that of their religious tradition What is the reality of that ‘something?’
A source of doctrinal growth: the ‘sensus fidelium’ or ‘the faith of believers’
A centuries-old Catholic theological tradition holds that what is called the sensus fidelium is a reliable source for ascertaining the genuine faith of the church, alongside Scripture, the writings of the Church Fathers, magisterial pronouncements of the popes, and long-standing positions of theological masters. After all, the reality of Christian belief resides in the hearts of ordinary, quite untutored men and women long before it becomes the critical study of accomplished exegetes and theologians. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit before it is ever subjected to rigorous questioning and testing and finally judged to be orthodox. People have lived gloriously holy lives and performed deeds of heroic charity on the basis of an instinctus fidei [a faith-filled mindset]. If they were asked to account in analytical terms for the source which enabled them to do what they did, their answer would reveal a form of religious intuition with quite hazy boundaries. Something told me. That something was in the realm of faith, to be sure, but not easy to capture in analytical terms.
In a recent interview the newly elected superior general of the Jesuits, Fr. Alphonso Nicolás, testified to his recognition and admiration for this gift: “Now and then you see that without any theological training, without any formal education, some people have a depth of contact with God; it can be surprising, really surprising. I would say to myself: I wish I had this familiarity, this ease in relating to God.”
What constitutes that ‘something?’ Can we explore it without destroying it by the very act of examining it? Let’s return to the two stories with which we began. What do they reveal, beyond the elusive ‘something?’ Perhaps they provide some clues that might shed more light on the sensus fidelium, as well as suggesting fruitful avenues for further reflection on our understanding of Christian spirituality. Several components emerge. We can profitably explore them one by one, being mindful that they are inextricably intertwined.
As a result of unsettling choices made by others, the subjects in the two examples found themselves in spiritually conflicting situations involving a challenge to their respective religious traditions. Perhaps the first thing to note is that in neither instance did they opt to avoid, much less to deny the contradiction confronting them. Instead, as the narratives make clear, they allowed themselves to stand in the middle of two contending pulls, as disturbing as taking that stance might be. They allowed the full reality of the conflict to impress itself upon them. There was no choosing between the two features, no giving attention to one and allowing the other to fade off their radar.
Accepting the reality, they then named their resulting discomfort (Hannah) and brutal pain (the parents of the gay offspring). They were engaged in discernment of spirits, even though they did not employ that vocabulary. What weight would they give to their personal attractions and distress, what to the powerful social conditioning of their church traditions? Where is truth—and how do we recognize it? Where is the Lord?
Confronting the complexity of our human experience—standing within it, not shrinking from the discomfort—is always the beginning of spiritual discernment for a people whose source of life is Immanuel, divinity incarnate. The issue is not abstract orthodoxy but concrete response to embodied reality and what it evokes in us.
The centrality of charity
From the two stories it’s also clear that what ultimately led to resolution of the unpeaceful reality of their experience was that they were held irrevocably by a profound sense of charity. In Hannah’s case the unloving behavior of Jimmy Swaggert pushed her to stand with the already disgraced Bakker. (Swaggert’s own hypocrisy and resulting fall only came to light later.) Hannah’s care for the sinner trumped the mind-set of her religious community. In the case of the parents the love for their daughter or son was manifestly the power that gave them the strength to break free from a suffocating dogma. They eventually entered into a liberating biblical exegesis, it’s true. But I would venture to say that without the power of love they would never have risked such daring questioning in the first place. The Gospel mandate of love—not a romanticized abstraction but an interpersonal engagement with a challenging flesh-and-blood sister or brother—will always remain the ultimate touchstone for truth.
Familiarity with God
The articulation of Fr. Nicolás then leads us into another vein of fruitful reflection. He speaks of “familiarity, this ease of relating to God.” Down through the centuries that rich gift characterized the life of many of our church’s most revered saints. Love of our neighbor does not stand in isolation from the transcendent. Genuine love of God and of neighbor are always and inextricably linked, however we try analytically to understand the exact nature of the linkage.
But when we focus on the ‘God dimension’ another, more unsettling feature also emerges. The God with whom we are invited into familiarity may indeed be all compassion but can also be, in the language of Moses, “a difficult friend.” Familiarity with God should not be equated with comfort. The God that both Hannah and the parents were in touch with did not make their choices easy. The God who is a difficult friend does not spare us the disturbing prospect of finding our way in the midst of powerful and discordant voices laying claim to our allegiance.
The risk of being ‘wrong’
And that same God does not promise ‘success’ when the issue is our relationship to religious authority. Members of their denominations would object that, as admirable as their conscientious struggle for truth might be, in the end (especially in the case of the parents who publicly challenged the literalist understanding of Scripture) the ‘discernment’ of these good people led them to a false conclusion. In spite of their sincerity the bible is still the literal word of God and sexual sin and, especially, homosexual acts are still an abomination.
The hard fact is that those who wrestle with conflicting spirits and come to the interior peace which signals the presence of the Spirit may still find themselves at odds with their church community and its guardians. They may have found the best balance among the multiple sources of religious truth—for themselves—and yet their personal resolution is not recognized by the accredited arbiters of church teaching. What might eventually, over the long haul, be acknowledged to be a sensus fidelium is subject to the same, perhaps centuries-long process of sifting to which the other sources of settled teaching have always been subject. The church is always a community in pilgrimage, and that fundamental reality affects its search for truth as it does its search for holiness.
The capacity to stand alone
The stories reveal another feature of genuine discernment. Part of the cost of standing within conflict, even when the gift of peace is finally given, can be what Dorothy Day called a ‘long loneliness.’ The consolation which is the confirming sign of the presence of the Spirit does not guarantee that others who confront the same issue will reach the same conclusion. In fact, if the one who has ‘found the truth’ feels compelled to badger others to agree with the answer he or she has been given, that urge to manipulate others to offer such support might well be a sign of the false spirit, an illusory ‘peace.’ The Jesus who is Way and Truth and Life experienced that aloneness. He testified poignantly to his desire for companionship on the path he was called to undertake: “Will you also go away?” But though he himself “set his face like flint” he respected the personhood and freedom of those who would finally fail him. He loved his own to the end but he would not compel them.
A restless Spirit
Ultimately it comes down to our understanding of the Spirit. The same Spirit who guides the guardians of orthodoxy is the Spirit of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus, a spirit which blows where it wills. “You can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” With the gift of our freedom comes a two-edged sword. On the one hand we can be seduced by the illusion of an autonomous self not accountable to the Spirit challenging us through the wisdom of the faith community. On the other we can abdicate our responsibility as followers of Jesus by an uncritical submission to a sinful community all too ready to evade the painfulness of the dark by premature attempts to close questions best left open to the judgment of caring experience. The cross is never far from true freedom.
George B. Wilson , S.J., is an organizational consultant for church groups, working out of Cincinnati. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org.