They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love

They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love April 11, 2017

Dear Patheos Readers,

Greetings. I am writing this on Palm Sunday, though by the time you read it, Holy Week will be in full swing, and the Triduum will be fast approaching. Most likely you are reading these words on a screen, but I am writing them longhand in my journal. I’m sitting on a swinging glider in a park in Bellevue, Iowa, a gorgeous town overlooking the Mississippi River. I’m seven weeks shy of age 34 – thus old enough to be well acquainted with life’s challenges, but young enough to look toward the future with excitement and hope, an attitude I never want to lose. As I write this draft of my first Vox Nova post for Patheos, I am contemplating the journey that has led me to this place.

Growing up in the post-Vatican II Catholic Church in the United States of America was one of the first blessings I received. As a child I was taught to pray and give thanks to God each day. I attended an academically solid parochial school with good teachers and a strong sense of community. Until the age of fourteen I didn’t know a single person who wasn’t Catholic, with the exception of my evangelical Christian aunt. It was a safe, sheltered upbringing that gave me a strong sense of identity and belonging.

However, growing up in this protected environment did have its disadvantages. Even though it was never stated explicitly, some of my family members and teachers led me to believe that if Christianity were true, then other belief systems must be false. Nevertheless, in middle school I started learning about other religious traditions and became fascinated by them, especially Hinduism and Daoism. I soon came to realize that their ethics, values and spirituality had more similarities with mine than I ever could have imagined. When, at age twelve, I discovered my father’s old high school literature textbooks and set out to read poetry, I ¨met¨ my first atheist, the British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. I was amazed that the author of ¨Ode to the West Wind¨ could have felt such awe and wonder at the world without believing in God. Clearly these matters of belief were much more complex than I’d thought.

This growing awareness of uncertainty culminated at age 21 in my first crisis of faith. At that point I’d witnessed the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the start of a war that to this day had not ended. My own life felt like a mess – I was about to graduate from college with no real knowledge of how to live on my own, pay bills or generally navigate the adult world. I had not yet decided on a career path – both academia and journalism compelled me, but I doubted my ability to succeed in either. After spending my junior year studying abroad in the UK, I’d fallen in love with a young man who lived across the sea. I missed him terribly and dreamed of a future with him, but I didn’t know how to tell him so. That autumn, as I looked at the bare trees and gray skies, I saw a godless world.

Fortunately for me, this desolation did not last long. I had the luxury of making the transition to adult life gradually, travelling and working in different places. In 2007 I found myself teaching full time high school English literature at a Catholic international school in Managua, Nicaragua. It was my first real job, and to this date the hardest I’ve ever had. Teaching the sons and daughters of an impoverished country’s wealthy, elite families, I faced challenges I could not have imagined (like dealing with students who regularly threw papers at me when I turned to write on the board, or else outright ignored me as I was trying to teach). Every day I entered the school doors with a horrible feeling in my stomach; every evening I returned home exhausted, collapsing on my bed and wondering how I’d summon the energy to take on the hours of grading and preparation that awaited me.

Even during this challenging time, I was given an unexpected gift. My roommate, a Franciscan University of Steubenville undergraduate who was teaching fourth grade, gradually brought me back to faith. This young woman radiated joy and nonjudgmental compassion. Whenever she went to Mass – whether on Sundays or during the week – she always invited me to go with her. If I declined, citing tiredness or too much work, she cheerfully went without me. But as time went on, I joined her more and more. By example rather than words, she gradually led me back to my home in the Church.

And so, while I cannot say I made much of a difference in Nicaragua, the experience of living and working there made a huge difference for me. Despite my difficulties teaching, I decided to pursue it as a career, moving to Toronto for graduate school. A few years later, the boy I’d fallen in love with at age twenty came to join me. My life seemed to be coming together pefectly.

However, just six months after moving to Canada, the young man I’d hoped to marry surprised me. He got involved in an online community called Less Wrong, a group that believes in ¨refining the art of human rationality¨ and using the scientific method in areas where it has generally not been applied, such as activism and charity. The vast majority of people in this group are not only atheist, but anti-theist, often aggressively derisive of those who adhere to a non-materialist worldview.

Through this group I soon learned about artificial intelligence and the technological singularity – a hypothetical future event, predicted by such respected scientists as Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees, when man-made AI will surpass human intelligence. While some people feared the risks of such a major technological development, many others, like the famous inventor Ray Kurzweil, applauded it.

All of a sudden, my worldview was thrown into a tailspin. Artificial intelligence seemed like an idol, a golden calf that would lead humanity astray. However, the idea that human beings could create consciousness artificially seemed to go against any belief in a supernatural deity that had created us in its image. Once again, the sky seemed godless.

I felt lost, not knowing where to turn. Most of my colleagues in graduate school were atheist or agnostic; meanwhile, the Catholics I met through the university’s Newman Centre were much more traditionalist than me. When I tried to talk about AI, I was met with either the dismissive idea that it wouldn’t happen or else sanguine instructions not to worry about it. My relationship was breaking down in a way that would prove to be irreparable. And yet, always kind at heart, my beloved set out to help me. ¨Why don’t you start a blog?¨ he suggested.

At first I was skeptical. What good could blogging and talking to strangers over the Internet do me? I needed real community, people I could talk to face to face. And yet, not seeing many positive alternatives, I took his advice and began writing. At first my blog seemed like nothing more than a ¨letter to the world that never wrote to me¨; I was lucky to get ten views a day. But I persisted, and in 2015 I was invited to join a community blog: Vox Nova.

Once I began contributing to Vox Nova, I learned that my beloved one had been right. Connecting with my fellow bloggers and readers for two years now, I have found a small but strong community of faithful, thoughtful Catholics who support me even as they challenge me. Some are politically liberal; others are conservative; some are pacifists; others believe in just war; some question certain Church teachings; others are fiercely loyal to the magisterium. Although I’ve never met any of Vox Nova’s bloggers or frequent commenters in person, I feel like I know them. It truly seems that the Communion of Saints, already so vast, has expanded to include cyberspace. For all of the differences and disagreements among Christians, there is one thing that unites us: our love of God through Christ Jesus.

Unfortunately, in the increasingly secular milieu of North America, professed Christians don’t always have the best reputation. For many, we are known to be ignorant, intolerant, bigoted, hypocritical, small-minded, judgmental and sometimes violent. As we are reminded each year on Holy Thursday, this is not what Jesus wants us to be known for. ¨I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35). However, Jesus himself must have known that this commandment was not actually new. The injunction to ¨love your neighbor as yourself¨ comes from Leviticus. Jesus was simply reminding his disciples of a very old commandment; as Peter Maurin would say, a ¨philosophy so old it looks like new.¨

Like Jesus’ disciples, I often find myself in need of reminders. For me, faith is a constant struggle. I truly envy those theists who have never doubted the existence of God, as I find myself doubting it pretty much every time I turn on the news. Unfortunately, the two crises of faith I’ve experienced will not be my last. However, I feel blessed that even when I turn away, God comes back and reminds me that, for all its flaws, this complex religious tradition is my home.

I remember my younger self in a plaid Catholic school uniform, sitting with my classmates at Mass each Friday and singing the popular Peter Scholtes hymn, ¨They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.¨ I have always loved that hymn, as it reminds me of how I myself most want to be known. I hope that on this Holy Thursday, as once again we are reminded of our duty to wash our neighbors’ feet, we who call ourselves Christian may be inspired by this commandment once again. If we can really know the love of God in our hearts and share that love with others, we will transform the world.

All best wishes for a blessed Holy Week,

Jeannine

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