There’s an old joke that’s not really a joke: Q: What’s the difference between theory and practice? A: In theory, there’s no difference; and in practice there is.
This is actually the best description of the difference between theory and practice that I’ve seen, and it gets to the heart of it. Theory is clean, pure, and ideal; practice is real, messy, and human. Practice can approach theory in the best of us…and then, there’s the rest of us.
Last week, I wrote that Christian truth is not totalitarian. It calls to the believer in love, but does not force. Continuing in paragraph 34 of Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis writes,
Clearly, then, faith is not intransigent, but grows in respectful coexistence with others. One who believes may not be presumptuous; on the contrary, truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us. Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all.
(My emphasis.) Now this is theory, not practice. You can tell it is theory by scanning a random sampling of last week’s posts by Christians to blogs, Facebook, or Twitter: in practice, we are frequently presumptuous, we lack humility, and we forget that it is “truth which embraces and possesses us.”
I remember when I was in college, there was an “evangelist” of some fundamentalist variety who came to campus every year, and stood in the middle of campus, and told us with a hate-filled voice and angry face how awful we all were. This is precisely presumption: he presumed that all of there were worse, less holy, more immoral, than he was. (And so is that last sentence; I’m presuming to know what was in his mind as he ranted at us.) I don’t know that he was filled with hate; but I did not see any love in him.
The passage listed above is a reflection on Truth. God, according to Catholic theology, is Truth, and Love, and Beauty: any time spent reflecting on truth is ultimately time spent reflecting on God. And reflecting on God leads us to reflect on our place in the world relative to Him, which should indeed lead to humility. People sometimes think of humility as not thinking well of yourself, or of thinking better of others than of yourself, neither of which is correct. In fact, humility involves a radical honesty about myself and God and everyone else. If I am genuinely good at something, it is at best mistaken and at worst dishonest to think that most others are better at it than I am. This radical honesty helps us to see what things are most worth reflecting on; and since God is more worth reflecting on than I am, humility leads us to a kind of self-forgetfulness (as C.S. Lewis points out).
God is Truth, and not simply a quiescent intellectual truth, but a Living Truth, the source of all life. God truly does embrace us if we seek Him, and we can rest in Him. The great saints know this and live this, and that’s why we need to study their lives: so we know what theory is supposed to look like in practice. In humility, resting in God, we don’t need to win: we don’t need to bludgeon people with the Truth. We can simply express it, in trust, and learn to love others as God does.
May the Good Lord have mercy on us and help us to do that.