The Boston College Magazine Podcast

Renowned BC religious studies scholar Thomas Groome

June 08, 2020
The Boston College Magazine Podcast
Renowned BC religious studies scholar Thomas Groome
Show Notes Transcript

A lively conversation with the renowned author and BC Professor Thomas Groome on maintaining hope, optimism, and faith during these troubled times.

John:

Hi everyone. This is John Wolfson, the editor of Boston College Magazine. Welcome to the very first episode of the Boston College Magazine Podcast. This is something new for us, and we hope that you'll enjoy it. These are difficult times that we're living through of course. It's been observed that we're experiencing something like the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights Movement, all at the same time. And all across the country and the world, there are feelings right now of great sadness, fear, anger, confusion, and anguish. In these times, how can we remain optimistic that a better day will come? To discuss these issues, I'm pleased to introduce Thomas Groome, the noted professor of theology and religious education in the Boston College school of theology and ministry. Tom is also an author of many acclaimed books, including his most recent work, Faith for the Heart: A Catholic Spirituality. Welcome Tom.

Tom:

Well, thank you, John. I'm delighted to be with you. And just an immediate thought when you're talking about faith and needing to hope, Aquinas, always said that the three great virtues are symbiotic to each other, that faith, hope, and love, they all intermingle and bounce off of and sustain each other. You can begin with either one, you can begin in hope and lead to faith, proceed to love, or you can begin at love, which leads to hope, which leads to faith. They all are symbiotic so that the hopes that we have, have to be grounded in our faith and God knows, and surely God knows very well. They have to bring us to love at this time, and that is not to pose a simplistic solution at all, but we have to reclaim and rediscover. Because much of our ways of making meaning and of putting faith to work in the deity of life, and a sense that had been set aside, routinized, made too simplistic or something. Whereas this confronts us with this extraordinary event in human history.

The like of it, I suppose you can go back to the Spanish Flu of 1918, or whenever those years, but we've certainly experienced nothing like this. So it throws us all back on our hunkers and wondering what's it all about and how do we cope? And what's the best way to proceed? and when we come through this, will we come through this together?

John:

Let's sort of start at the very beginning then. What is faith? What does that mean? And let's just start out with that.

Tom:

Well, thank you. That's an easy ball. It is. Well, it's definitely more than belief, I suppose, in common parlance, we think of things is what we believe, the rational convictions we have. It's much more than that. It's much more than our heads. It deeply engages our hearts and probably begins in the heart. In other words, it's a way of trusting. It's a way of relating. It's a way of believing, but there's also a way of doing, that it has to get done. So in a sense, it is a whole way of life. It's a posture towards life in the world, by which we live our lives into some kind of ultimate horizon. And in the end and from that ultimate horizon, that's where we find meaning and purpose, a sense of ethic, a sense of community, a sense of graciousness, that there is something gracious to us, that it doesn't all depend upon ourselves. And there's the classic understanding I think, of faith and Jesus embodied in human history.

John:

So that strikes me, Tom, listening to that. That strikes me not as something aspirational, that strikes me as something almost foundational. Sort of elemental. Why does faith matter and why do humans need it?

Tom:

Well, there is a fascinating literature now that proposes that we have, in what they call this postmodern time, that we've come down to two clear choices. One, a purely imminent perspective on life. Charles Taylor calls an exclusive humanism, exclusive in the sense that it excludes God. So it's a perspective, it's a stance toward life in the world that is purely imminent, that we make our own meaning for ourselves and by ourselves, and that life is pretty much, what you see is what you get. And you can still live a good life, yes, and live a meaningful life, but it's live without any sense of the vertical. It's all horizontal. There's no sense of the transcendent. It's a purely imminent frame of life. Taylor says we now have a clear choice between the purely imminent stance toward the world. And I've lost a good friend to take that stance. I live life meaningfully. The second option, however, is a transcendent. It's an imminent, preposterous because we have to live the daily life. It's an imminent, positive embrace of light, but it's toward a transcendent horizon. As Rahner would put it, it's living into a transcendent horizon rather than simply, this is all there is.

John:

Is faith able to transcend a belief in God or religion or, is it linked?

Tom:

I think it's a belief in some sense, as I said. I use Rahner's phrase, Karl Rahner, the great Catholic theologian of the 20th century, it leads us or enables us to aspire towards some kind of transcendent horizon. No, but it's not the deism of the 19th century either. It's not a kind of a force or an energy that sustains the earth and all this kind, the cosmos indeed. It's not just an impersonal energy. It's a God who cares. If you follow Jesus of Nazareth, he did propose there's a God who was unconditionally in love with each and every one of us. And here we may get into this too, John. And especially at this time of Coronavirus, I keep running into people or hearing people talk who are confused about the difference between faith and magic and who expect their faith to be a kind of magic. And there's a subtle distinction.

John:

Now, what do you mean by that, Tom? Can you explain that?

Tom:

Well, for example, people who say, "Oh, I can go to church and I won't get Coronavirus because..." Or, I had a Catholic friend say to me quite recently, a more traditional person, but she said, "I can receive Eucharist on the tongue. And I know that Jesus won't allow me to get Coronavirus." Well, the old Catholic attitude is, God helps those who help themselves. And she's not helping herself by insisting on taking the Eucharist and the tongue. I hope they don't give it to her on the tongue when our churches reopen. I hope that's forbidden because it's too dangerous. So that's kind of expecting God to rush in and pull strings as God, the puppeteer, God will pull strings for me and prevent me from getting Coronavirus.

But then how do people get the disease? Well, it's the normal process of life that you run into somebody who had the virus and hey, you picked it up and we can't expect God to be stepping in pulling strings constantly to prevent it. It's the normal course of events. And think about it. You could say hypothetically, if there was a plane going to crash with a load of passengers, God could rush in with a big mountain of cotton wool, bring it to the ground safely. But then that wouldn't be a world that we could live in. That wouldn't be our world. It wouldn't be a world in which we're partners with God, in which we're in covenant with God, it would be a world where God is kind of the puppeteer pulling strings or kicking the computer or whatever the contemporary image would be.

John:

Isn't there some strain of thought right now where people are almost looking for that, whether it's God, or we seem to be seeing a rise of authoritarian government or leadership, or at least people posturing in that direction. And in times of crisis, don't we sometimes wish that there were the puppet master, someone pulling the strings to guide us to safety?

Tom:

Yeah, we do. I often think of it. The metaphor that comes to me about that, John, is the Israelites leaving Egypt, the old story of Moses, God intervening to let them go free and Moses leading them out of captivity. But they were only a few days out into the desert when they began to complain against Moses. And they said, "Well, in Egypt, we had, we had a, we had bread, we had food, we had the flesh pots. Why did you bring us out here to die?" So the road to freedom is indeed demanding because facing into freedom is scary in many ways, certainly demanding. Exciting, yes. And yet we don't know. And I think in a way we're at that type of time now, we've moved. I don't think we're ever going back metaphorically to Egypt. But so I think it could be a new moment for us to relearn presence to each other, to be more patient, to be more kind, tolerant of each other's foibles and shortcomings, because there's no place to go except to hang in and try to negotiate them or work through them.

John:

Tom, tell me, take us back to that. You had a very interesting comment about "there's no going back."

Tom:

Yeah, I suppose I hope I'm wrong. I'd love to go back. Wholeheartedly I'd love to just go back to my usual lifestyle and normal, and not have to teach online and all this kind of stuff and show up every day and say hello to my colleagues and meet with my students and all the rest of it. And even here at home, that kind of lifestyle we had was very comfortable, et cetera. But I think we're aware now from this Coronavirus, but also I think from the racism of our country, I think we've come into a new level, I hope to God, we have, that there's something radically wrong with the whole arrangement that we have in this country, that our black brothers and sisters, that the Latino brothers and sisters, the native peoples, they were suffering dreadful oppression and exploitation and neglect by way of healthcare, by way of decent employment, by way of decent wages, by way of safety, by way of inclusion, by way of respect, by way of education.

John:

And you were saying maybe another way of thinking of it too, is there's no going back. Maybe we've seen some things that we can no longer un-see and maybe there's been some deliberate looking away of some of these inequalities you're talking about and injustices.

Tom:

Yes, I hope so. And of course they're not the only ones, I think they are the most pressing ones for America. I think racism is indeed our original sin, but then there's all the other phobias and isms. Sexism, homophobia, discrimination against our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Economism, the whole favoring of the wealthy and what have you. So we have a lot of injustices and maybe, maybe, this time we'll be sobering enough that we realize that we have to address them. Now I think most common sentiment is that we don't have the current leadership. We don't have the leadership currently to help us address them, but hopefully we'll get the type of leadership that will enable us to face into our original sins and put them right.

And of course the old Catholic theology of repentance, of change, of reform, is you have to begin by admitting the old preparation or the old sacrament of reconciliation. You have to look at your life and honestly recognize the wrongs you had done. You can't just say, "Well, I have issues," no, I have sins. And you have to recognize and admit the sin, and then you have to ask forgiveness. And then of course you have to promise not to do it again. So that's the only way that for us to work our way out of the type of dreadful discrimination and injustice and social oppression that we're in, to recognize the sinful, the wrongness of it if we don't want to use theological language, to repent on it, to say that we're sorry, and to not to go on repeating it. And that's our hope. That could be a possibility, a moment of grace the like of which we haven't had in Ohio.

John:

Let's turn for a second to your latest book, Faith for the Heart. In it, you explored a number of things, but one of them is you really emphasize a faith that is from the heart.

Tom:

I think for this generation, I wrote that book with it with the nones and the dones in mind. The nones, the ones who say they've no faith, and the dones, the ones who have left our company who would walk no more with us, they threatened. And I suppose it trying to entice both of those groups, the nones and the dones to reconsider, that maybe there is a pearl of great price here that they could reclaim under their own conditions and perceptions that they could reclaim that could be life giving for them. But I do think rather than reciting dogmas and doctrines, I don't mean to caricature, but rather than sort of reciting the catechism to them. I think we have to say to young people, "What do you really want out of life? How are you going about finding it? What do you think will be most likely to fulfill the longings of your heart? What will it take? What kind of relationship, what kind of partnership? What kind of agency on your own part will it require?" And I think asking those kinds of questions, I think eventually they do have to indeed understand the teachings, et cetera. But I think the starting point has to be desire and the hungers of the heart, which that's why I call it Fate for the Heart.

John:

So many people are feeling despair and anguish at this moment. Someone like your friend, someone like me, someone listening. Can you feel that? Can you feel that despair? Can you feel anguish in a moment and still be a person of faith?

Tom:

Oh yes. Oh yeah, no, faith is not without anguish and temptations and despair and doubt, radical doubt. And the great exponents of fate, Mother Theresa spent her whole life struggling with faith, doing great good in the world because of her faith and yet deeply, deeply questioning. She had one deep original experience where she thought she met Jesus and then at off, but then Jesus apparently forgot about her after that. And she went through a whole life wracked with doubt and yet a person of great faith and practice. So then it's not a naive posture at all. It's struggles. It's difficult. And yet, there's a confidence that good will come of it. That good will triumph. That falsehood will not, that untruth will not, that oppression will not, that no lie will ever become true.

John:

How are you personally feeling right now at this moment in time?

Tom:

I think I'm surprised in some ways at how well we're doing. Now I qualify that by saying that we seldom climb the walls more than once a day, but I have a wonderful 19 year old son. I got a late start in parenting and he's home from Fordham, God forgive him, he went off to Ford. And then he came home to us at the beginning of March. So he's been home now, 11, 12 weeks. But generally, it's been a joy to have him with us. And my heart goes out to people who aren't nearly as privileged as we are. We can stay home and work from home. I'm on Zoom as we are. And BC, I can teach my courses. Some are on Zoom, but my heart bleeds for all the poor people who are with the call essential workers, but they can't afford to stay home. The grocery clerks and the rest of them, that the Uber drivers have to get out. I mean, we're blessed to be able to stay home and not have to go out because the poor people who have to go out are most likely to come a cropper with the darn Coronavirus.

John:

It was really a fascinating to hear you talk about, faith does require a kind of belief, or perhaps it enables a kind of belief that the Goodwill will win for lack of a better term. That justice will win out. That also strikes me, that feels like that could be a profoundly difficult thing to wrestle with when any of us is going through a time like this. And I'm just curious if in the course of your thinking in your conversations, in your writing, how does that person who's suffering so much during this time? How do we maintain a sense of faith, a hope and an optimism?

Tom:

Yeah, well, obviously it's terribly difficult, so that may not make it sound simple already at hand. It's a deep struggle. And even though I won't live to see the day, when there's true equality in this country or in my church, through equality for our women, for example, in my church, I'll never live to see that day. But in the meanwhile, my faith, and this is where it goes back to where we started, we have to somehow ground ourselves in that transcendent horizon to make meaning and purpose out of it all. And to stay the course. Where's the hope that God is, and that God not only is, but God is in love with us. And that somehow the scales of injustice will be redressed as rest him, our Martin Luther King would say that that arc of history may be long, but that it always bends toward justice. And I suppose to be able to say that, you almost have to be able to also say, "And I believe God is." Because if God isn't, then why would the arc of history always bend toward justice? There'd be no grounds for claiming that and believing that, whereas our faith can ground us in that kind of confidence, hope, and love.

John:

That's a good place to end it.

Tom:

John, it was great chatting with you.

John:

You too. I really appreciate this. Thank you again. Be well.