Who Do You Say That I Am?

Resolved:  most Catholics can’t answer this question.  Worse, many of our problems come from people who think they can.

Today’s gospel:

Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.  And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. (Mt 16:1-20)

This is one of my favorite gospel passages, capturing the tension and expectations of the Jewish community at the time, the hesitation and uncertainty of the disciples, and Peter’s impetuous faith.  My desk top image is Escher’s surrealist sketch of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, centered on the Latin phrase inscribed there:  Dabo Claves Regni Caelorum.  But I have to admit that I have a hard time answering Jesus’ question.  I can repeat the creed—indeed, I have studied it fairly carefully, including the great Christological controversies that helped shape it.   But middle age has given me the epistemological humility to admit that the more I know, the less I understand.

As for the rest of the folks in the pews:  I am pretty sure that most of them couldn’t formulate a coherent answer that went beyond a few memorized phrases:  “Son of God”, “Savior of the World”, “Second Person of the Trinity.”  All true, but as answers they beg the question:  what do they mean?  I say this not to scorn them:  even if they cannot answer the question, their lives are nevertheless shaped by faith in the One whose question they cannot answer.   But as we have discussed before (e.g., here), religious education today is sorely lacking.

More worrisome to me are the people who (I believe) think they know the answer to this question.   Much of the polemic and division which rends the Church (at least here in the United States) is driven by the moral certitude of the partisans, who are convinced they know the correct answer:  often times (and on both sides) convinced they know better than the Church itself.  At the heart of this certitude is the mistaken belief that they know the correct answer to Jesus’ question, and this puts them in the position to speak more authoritatively in His name.

Now some of you may be thinking that the pot is calling the kettle black, as I have taken sides (strongly at times!) in these various divisions.  Mea culpa.  I can only hope that I have never had the temerity to think I was speaking with the certainty that I know Him well enough to speak for Him.    Or you may think that I am being inconsistent:  on the one hand lamenting the fact that people cannot answer the question, but on the other complaining about people who can.   But I think that these things are two sides of the same problem.

So what do you think? 

A hat tip to our new deacon, James McCormack, Jr.,  whose insightful sermon today got me thinking about this question.  Please pray for him as he starts to serve our parish. 

Update (2 hours after posting):  It seems I blogged on this question before, from a different direction.

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  • Julia Smucker

    I think you may be on to something with this paradox, David. It has certainly been the case in my own experience that education is inversely proportional to certitude. Or to put it more simply, as I said at my baptism (I was halfway through college at that point), the more I learn, the more I realize how much I have left to learn.

    On the other hand, one of my biggest pet peeves while studying theology was the frequent comments from my classmates on the ignorance and/or apathy of “the people in the pews”, in a way that often seemed dismissive both of the majority of Catholic laypeople and of the theology under discussion (something to the effect of, “The people in the pews don’t care, so what’s the point?”). I suppose people didn’t generally mean to take that in such a nihilistic direction as that sounds, otherwise it’s hard to see why they were there in the first place. But to my ears that phrase (“the people in the pews”) always sounds annoyingly dismissive in itself.

    The truth is, from what I’ve seen, the education and certitude (which often are inversely related) of lay Catholics (and clergy too, for that matter) varies pretty widely. Which still leaves the question of what can or should be done to help more people become more fully and consistently formed in the faith.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “Which still leaves the question of what can or should be done to help more people become more fully and consistently formed in the faith.”

      I agree that this is the million dollar question. I would modify it to add “consistently formed in the faith while still recognizing that they still have more to learn.” Formation is lived and not simply acquired, a journey and not simply a set of memorized propositions.

      As to your broader point about “the people in the pews” I think Paolo Friere speaks to this with this passage which I have quoted before, but which I keep coming back to:

      “[T]hese adherents to the people’s cause constantly run the risk of falling into a type of generosity as malefic as that of the oppressors. The generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order, which must be maintained in order to justify that generosity. Our converts, on the other hand, truly desire to transform the unjust order; but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.”

      • Julia Smucker

        Yes. I agree with your addition, and I hope I didn’t seem to suggest that one’s faith can ever be 100% complete in this life, with nothing more to learn. Maybe that’s the key for catechists too: to realize that faith formation is a lifelong process, rather than an agonized search for some catechetical holy grail that will magically enable all Catholics to “get it” and then we will have arrived.

        But then I wouldn’t want to take that in a defeatist direction either – which comes back around to my annoyance with those “people in the pews” comments.

        I’m remembering a professor of mine who would always talk about mystery in a negative sense, which can be resolved on finding some missing piece of information, versus mystery in a positive sense, which is inexhaustible. Maybe how best to keep engaging ever more deeply in the inexhaustible mystery of faith, and to help each other do so, is the ongoing question.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Julia, I agree with your comments about mystery. See my response to Tumarion below.

  • http://gaudetetheology.wordpress.com gaudetetheology

    One thing I think contributes mightily to the lack of awareness that formation is an ongoing journey is the pedagogical/credentialing model of sacramental preparation that is common church practice, at least everywhere that I’m aware of. Children are required to take classes to prepare for first communion: the message is that you don’t get to participate in this sacrament until you’ve learned certain things. Teens are required to take classes (and sometimes also do service work and go on retreat) in order to prepare for confirmation, which is presented as deciding for yourself that this is what you believe, or repeating your baptismal vows on your own behalf, or becoming an adult in the church, or similar variations. There is no subsequent required religious education for young people, or for adults, for that matter, except required marriage prep.

    The message is that once you are confirmed, you have “graduated.” You have learned All The Things. Your formation is complete.

    It took me years after my confirmation to realize that, not only did I not know All The Things, I wasn’t *supposed* to know All The Things: that formation is a journey and your faith is supposed to deepen and grow as you do.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      My parish uses the “Generations of Faith” model to complement the specific sacramental instruction, with mixed success in my opinion. GoF is very popular, and it has done wonders for building up our sense of community, but its intellectual content has been low. But I think it is a good first step in addressing this problem. In particular, with young folks, they are able to continue their religious education after confirmation.

  • http://turmarion.wordpress.com turmarion

    I think it was the late, great Robert Farrar Capon who said that all theological statements should be followed by, “whatever that means”. The older I get, the more I agree.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I also tend to agree, though my caution would be that it is far to easy for this to degenerate into the more disengaged statement, “whatever”. Given the intellectual tenor (or lack thereof) of modern culture, there is a tendency to conflate “intellectually challengin” with “meaningless”. The problem is to turn this into a positive statement (leading to further reflection) rather than a negative one (leading to disengagement).

  • Richard Parisse

    I take comfort that Jesus says “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it”, I would answer the question simply as Thomas did, “My Lord and my God”.

  • http://gravatar.com/dismasdolben dismasdolben

    What would you say, if I were to say that His answer means that He can be for people what they dearly wish and hope that He will be, for them–then and now, but that He cannot be that for people who do not love first love Him, rather than “believe” in Him”?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      If I understand you correctly (and I am still working on my first cup of coffee!) I think you are raising a subtle point about being. You are focusing on the relational aspect of identity, the “I – Thou” of Buber if I remember correctly. And I think that is important: if God is love, then much of his identity and much of the identity of his son is wrapped up in this. But is this the sum total of who Jesus is? I don’t think so.

  • Ronald King

    I am still developing a sense of Who He is. When I returned to Catholicism after a 40 year absence it was not because of theology or catechesis, rather, it was the result of briefly being exposed to and touched by God’s Love. When I made my 40 year confession at that time I felt a tremendous weight being lifted from me and I believed at the time that it was the weight of sin. However, now I believe it was the toxic weight of shame which was the result of catechesis imposed on my developing identity. In the nine years since that time I have gone through a period of manic joy accompanied by the idea that strict adherence to dogma and law was the only way to union with God. I initially supported war in Irag and wherever else evil might exist. I turned into a linear black and white believer who had discarded everything I had learned about human development in favor of “the fall of man”. I had to go through this period in order to experience how disastrous this can be interpersonally to self and others.
    This was replaced by a return to a deepening sense of empathy which had been a part of my identity since my first awareness early in life and the source of much embarrassment because of the sensitivity associated with it. This reunion with empathy created a sense of being disconnected from God’s Love and left me with a deep loss and emptiness. It also left me more vulnerable to actually feel the suffering all around me created by everything which is not love. It is still with me and now I have chosen once again to take a break from the rituals of the Church. I do not pick up the bible any longer.
    So now it seems to me that in order for me to know Jesus I must give up everything which prevents me from knowing Him. I think I can only know Him through loving Him through each person I experience or encounter each day and to somehow lighten the weight of their hidden and overwhelming suffering which is constantly with them.
    Jesus is The Empathic Healer.