There is something beautiful about the vision of the church as ‘harmonious communion’ that is prescribed by Radical Orthodoxy and attempted to be lived out in the Anglican Communion. It was music to my ears. I am, for example, a bass and cannot sing soprano. Harmony is wonderful.
When I met Artur, he was finishing up his PhD at the University of Washington. I didn’t know that, though, because like everyone who meets Artur, I met him on Facebook. In fact, we met on my friend Aaron Anderson’s wall. Aaron and I played brass together in a local youth orchestra. He played french horn, and I played trumpet. I met him because he was reading the second book in the Left Behind series and figured he must be a Christian like me, so we became friends. The orchestra was so bad that we eventually became principals of our sections. We emptied our spit valves in the same general area, and the woodwinds in front of us really hated us. This is why we could not get girlfriends at the youth orchestra. Now Aaron has joined the Latin Church and is an agrarian socialist or something and is smarter than me. Of course, I have a PhD. This means that there is no correlation between having a doctorate and being intelligent.
In any case, I met Artur on Aaron’s wall shortly before he became a Catholic socialist. Aaron had posted some book about secularization and how it broke families up and tagged me. Aaron used to tag a lot of smart Catholic people at the time because he really knew how to use Facebook. I was not Catholic. I also said something snarky. Then this troll by the name of ‘Artur Sebastian Rosman’ commented under me. I was not upset at his trolling. However, it hurt my snark master pride that there was someone snarkier than me. Eventually, we learned while trolling each other that he was in Seattle. I told him I was moving there to start a postdoctoral fellowship. And so it was that Artur and I became friends and lived around the corner from each other.
Through Artur, I met Sam Rocha, who was just then interviewing for a job at my alma mater in Vancouver. Within weeks, he got it. I had read Sam’s work because I was a fan of Vox Nova. I always thought Sam was a little weird, though, because he wrote about this concept called ‘deschooling.’ It was nice but sounded impractical. Now I know that’s just Sam.
Artur continued to work his magic. Because we both lived in Seattle’s U-District, we were connected with the Dominicans who ran the local parish and campus ministry. Through them, I met two Polish Dominicans. One turned out to be quite Byzantine in his sensibilities and became my spiritual director before moving to Salt Lake City. The other one was a Thomist I couldn’t really connect with, except that we eventually did and became very good friends. The Thomist, not the Byzantine, concelebrated my chrismation into Eastern Catholicism. Eventually, the Byzantine kidnapped him to Salt Lake City too.
Oh yeah, and Aaron joined the Latin Church through a Dominican parish in the San Francisco Bay Area. I remember seeing that on Facebook after the Easter Vigil and thinking that that was what my wife and I had gone to the night before. It all looked so familiar because we had been to the Dominican parish in Seattle and saw these guys in white hoodies (the good kind, as opposed to the bad kind) putting their hands on people and blessing them. Then I looked closer and saw that it was Aaron, his wife, his brother, and his sister-in-law. Besides meeting Artur, that is probably the strangest thing that has ever happened to me on Facebook.
Aaron, Artur, Sam, and the Byzantine and Thomist Polish Dominicans. At one level, I was just having fun. But the intellectual side of me couldn’t help but see that they had a similar vision to the Radical Orthodoxy with which I was enamored. For example, they all had very strong visions of the Church too. We also shared common sources: the eucharistic vision of de Lubac, the primal violence of Girard, and even an awareness of Milbank’s existence. Artur told me that he particularly liked my lectures on political theology in my American religion class. I talked up de Lubac. In fact, a student in that class just wrote me to say that that was the course that made her intellectually interested in Catholicism. That’s great, because I was Anglican when I taught it.But as much as these people all seemed to appreciate what I did, they had something that I felt I didn’t have. I didn’t know how to articulate it at the time, but their sensibilities somehow didn’t jive with all that harmonious communion stuff. Sometimes, they would say things I thought would create dissonance: politically incorrect things, true things, raw things, primal things. When they hated, they could really hate; when they loved, they could really love. I had been there before, but not for a long time – not since my bad ministry experience. You can call it primal, gut-level, and certainly coming out of the core of their being. But somehow, they did not understand themselves to be creating ‘discord’ within the Church that they loved. They were suggesting instead by their actions that the Church was strong enough for them not to have to be politically savvy. Instead, it was a space where they could get in touch with the Spirit in their guts.
At the time, I thought it had something to do with their connection with John Paul II. My instincts were probably right. Sam told me he was a personalist, and I knew that Wojtyła had been a personalist, even writing about personalism at the very beginning of his pontificate in Redemptor Hominis. He also told me to be a person, which I thought meant that he was encouraging me to get in touch with this primal level that I didn’t know was possible within the practice of good church (and academic and civil society) politics.
Looking back, I see the seeds of my turn to liberation theology in this directive. By this point, Sam was in full swing making waves at my alma mater. In one of his first classes, he decided to teach two books, Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Gustavo Gutiérrez’s Theology of Liberation. I never sat in on that class, although I know that the students who were in that class have been a major part of Sam’s intellectual engine over the last few years. In fact, one particular partnership between Sam and his student Adi Burton from that class has produced two remarkable papers: ‘Strong as Death Is Love: Eros and Education at the End of Time‘ and ‘The Eros of the Meal: Passover, Eucharist, Education.’
In both papers, the central insight is that there is a remarkable convergence between Freire as the godfather of liberation theology and the work of Benedict XVI, who is said to be liberation theology’s greatest opponent, especially when he was the doctrine chief during John Paul II’s pontificate. Sam and Adi don’t see them as opponents, though. Instead, they show that Freire and Ratzinger converge on the question of the human person. Both theorize the person as driven erotically. This means that persons have passionate desires to be in deep communion with other persons. Such desires are also the drive toward freedom from oppression.
Some may be surprised by this connection between Freire and Ratzinger. But there was no contradiction to me because I knew Artur. Since I got down to Seattle, Artur had been raving about a group of young Polish intellectuals seeking to recover John Paul II’s anti-capitalist thought in the wake of the ravages of neoliberal economics in Poland after the Solidarity Movement unraveled the Soviet regime. In one memorable episode, they published a special issue of the journal Pressje titled ‘We’ve Killed a Prophet,’ referencing how free-market American ideologues who went to Poland in the 1990s contorted Wojtyła’s message on politics and economics for their own purposes. In other words, it made perfect sense to me because of my friendship with Sam and Artur that there was no conflict between theologies of liberation and the pontificate of John Paul II with Ratzinger running his Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
What then made this all very real for me was the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, which erupted just as Sam was teaching his liberation theology course. Of my writing, the piece that became very popular was that one where I analyzed the dimension of Catholic social teaching within it. After giving a talk on this topic at the local Catholic Newman Center, I found myself drawn to the history of the Polish Solidarity Movement, the icon of the Theotokos of Częstochowa, and the role of John Paul II in fleshing out the meaning of solidarity in its theological sense. It helped that Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, the retired bishop of Hong Kong, had been on the streets of Hong Kong. He soon became outspoken about the role that Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński played in his thinking.
I’ll have to write about the Umbrella Movement tomorrow, though. That’s a whole other story, another thread that led to my conversion to liberation theology.