2 Kgs 24:8-17
Some things that we face in life are relatively simple to figure out. The choice is clear. One option is obviously death-dealing and disastrous. The other is life-giving and enhancing. But other parts of our lives are much more difficult to figure out. Irony, paradox, dilemma – these are words that convey struggle, sleepless nights, Jacob-wrestling — no easy solution is at hand. When we encounter the complex, we turn to God and pray for the virtue of prudence, the ability to seek opinions and evidence, to weigh things well, and to decide with some measure of wholesome choice and courage.We also pray for the Holy Spirit and the gift of wisdom. The ancients often spoke about keeping a balance — Aristotle and Aquinas affirm that virtue stands in the middle. Holy men and women prayed for a kind of equipoise of mind, heart, and spirit. Equipoise – what a lovely word for life today!
Another pathway leads us into a new clearing. We constantly are trying to discern how to live with creative tension. We are saints and sinners, body and spirit, yearning for the transcendent and deeply committed to the warp and woof of daily life. If we engage the tasks of life with integrity and honesty, we may find that tensions can turn into creative energies.
I think that Saint Irenaeus knew all this firsthand. Born in Smyrna around 130, Irenaeus found inspiration for his Christian life in the life and witness of Saint Polycarp. He served as priest and bishop in Lyon in Gaul. He died in 202. During these years he faced some daunting tasks and wrestled with some very difficult issues. Two issues stand out. First, what books of Sacred Scripture were authentically God’s Word? What texts made up the canon of Holy Writ? This was no small mater. It touched on the identity of the Christian church. Irenaeus stood with the living tradition of the church and helped shape the canon of authentic biblical texts.
Irenaeus also engaged Gnosticism head on. Gnostics, i.e., those literally good at knowing, set themselves up as superior Christians. Irenaeus unveiled their teachings, offered a refutation, and carved out the pathway to orthodoxy. He truly turned tension into creative energy. As a result, his teaching promoted truth.
The life and the work of Irenaeus are instructive for today. We live in a multicultural world. Many values vie for our allegiance. We live in a multilingual world. The alphabet of orthodoxy is not readily discernible. We live in a pluralistic world. What does it mean for us to be intelligent and competent disciples of the Lord? What does it mean to live with tension and to discover creative energy?
Two things are necessary. Father David Hollenbach, the Jesuit moral theologian, speaks about intellectual solidarity and epistemological humility. At first, both might seem terribly abstract terms. But both terms are helpful for our discipleship today. First: intellectual solidarity. This means that each of us does serious thinking about what it means to live the good life in our world. It means a commitment to respectful conversation and civil discussion with others. It entails critical reflection on human experience and the sources of our faith. It calls forth a willingness to dialogue with the hope of finding common ground. It requires forthright speech and the pursuit of truth. Listening and speaking are key qualities in this endeavor.
Second, cognitive or epistemological humility. This means that all of us, Christians and others, admit humbly that no one of us has all the answers, that no one is a know-it-all. It entails a common pursuit of knowledge and insight. It calls for inquiry that is rooted in a wonder that pays attention to how all kinds of peoples learn the truth together and an experience of co-humanity that engages others respectfully. It refuses to point fingers at others and it demands profound commitment to the truth of one’s tradition.
Saint Irenaeus invites us today to take up the task for today, to live the truth of the Gospel and the kingdom with humility and solidarity, to stand before God with the hope for a new humanism for the sake of the world.
- Father John J. O’Brien, C.P.