4 The Parable of Human Formation, the Parable of Christ – 2008

In the convocation address that began this school year, I remarked on several aspects of formation drawn from the thought of John Henry Newman. Today, I would like to continue these reflections by way of an examination of Newman’s understanding of Christology and the way in which Christology informs the task of human formation in a seminary and school of theology. Newman’s understanding of the event of Jesus Christ comes by way of his appreciation of the idea of parable, and so, I will begin the reflections today with a short definition of parable.

The Character of Parable

A parable is defined in Aristotle’s Rhetoric as an example (or a type) of proof. The parable is, at its root, a comparison or an exposition of a relationship between two terms. One of the defining qualities of a parable is the presence of “multiple meanings [which] lie hidden within the complexities of a narrative, and these challenge or provoke the recipient to interpretation. Parables are lures for interpretation and also revelation of the very process of interpretation itself.”[1]

Parables create tension by their very nature and, therefore, their interpretation takes on a quality of multivalence, even infinite interpretability. At the heart of parable is a creative tension that is, ultimately, irresolvable. In Newman’s estimation, God must be understood like a parable. God is not a subject to be exhausted by human discourse, but an immeasurable invitation. “He, though One, is a sort of world of worlds in Himself, giving birth in our minds to an infinite number of distinct truths, each ineffably more mysterious than any thing that is found in this universe of space and time.”[2]

The Parable and Incarnation

The parable is also profoundly associated with Christ for Newman; it is inculcated within the very heart of the Christian mystery. Jesus not only told parables; his very being was a parable. The Incarnation can be understood in Newman as a parabolic encounter in the following way.

Christ is realized (that is, made more real to us) in the context of Christian belief as being God and a human being. This juxtaposition does not seem to lend itself to intelligent explanation. Rather it affords the opportunity, not of knowing or understanding or comprehending the Incarnation as a fixed horizon upon which to focus or a determined vantage point from which to originate, and thereby reducing it to the formulaic, even the idolatrous, but for entering into a relationship with the limitless horizon of the Incarnate God. The Incarnation reveals the reality that cannot be perceived at first sight. Newman states it this way in his Christmas sermon of 1835:

He came in lowliness and want; born amid the tumults of a mixed and busy multitude, cast aside into the outhouse of a crowded inn, laid to His first rest among the brute cattle. He grew up, as if the native of a despised city, and was bred to a humble craft. He bore to live in a world that slighted Him, for He lived in it, in order in due time to die for it. He came as the appointed Priest, to offer sacrifice for those who took no part in the act of worship; He came to offer up for sinners that precious blood which was meritorious by virtue of His Divine Anointing. He died, to rise again the third day, the Sun of Righteousness, fully displaying that splendour which had hitherto been concealed by the morning clouds, and He rose from the lowly manger to the right hand of power,—raising human nature, for Man has redeemed us, Man is set above all creatures, as one with the Creator, Man shall judge man at the last day.[3]

Things are not what they seem to be and this engagement with mystery, realized not as that which cannot be known, but that which is infinitely knowable is, for Newman, orthodoxy. Heresy, on the other hand, is the reckless attempt to alleviate the tension of the parable, to solve the problem or to define the mystery of God.

Falling back heavily (or even lightly) on one of the constitutive terms of the parable, God or Man, compromises our ability to perceive the reality of the Incarnation, which is the precarious yet dynamic and fruitful balancing on the edge of the parabolic knife, the meeting point of the two terms.

Parable and Christian Mystery

This central insight into the parabolic nature of the reality of the Incarnation fanned out, for Newman, into other areas of discourse within the context of the Christian mystery. The tension that defines Jesus, the God-Man, remains the focal point and the model for other parabolic discourse in the life of the Church.

For example, doctrinal formulations are parabolic because they unveil the generative energy of the Incarnate Word. This parabolic dimension impinges on the heart of the understanding of inspiration in Scripture. It touches on sacramental theology, the nature of Church life, education and religious life.

In other words, the parabolic tension in the life of the Church reflects the central mystery of the Church, the parable of Jesus. Of course, this model has ramifications for the specialized discourse that engaged Newman for almost 65 years, the discourse of preaching and theology. In this scheme, rather than solving problems and providing definitive answers, preaching and theology must somehow promote the inherent tension found at the dynamic heart of Christianity. The task of the preacher/theologian in this model becomes the encouragement of fertile tension to advance an ever-deepening and profound relationship with the person of Jesus.

It is the encouragement of a lack of completeness and a resistance to all calcifying factors within Christian discourse. It is the insistence on the position that all “answers” are in some way provisional, and growth and change in the individual and in the Church are essential for the preservation of the central mystery. In the Oxford University Sermons, Newman proposes of the Christian that: “His Saviour has interpreted for him the faint or broken accents of Nature; and that in them, so interpreted, he has, as if in some old prophecy, at once the evidence and the lasting memorial of the truths of the Gospel.”[4]

Newman and the Poetic Reality of Christ

Newman’s Christology is predicated on the maintenance of that largeness that is demanded in the parabolic encounter and therefore transcends the scientific, historical question. The parabolic tension inherent in the central principle of Christianity is that of the poem of the all-divine and the all-human.

Scientific and historical questions analyze, dissect and define, whereas poetic discourse is enhancing, inviting and broadening. For Newman, the nature of all religious discourse was ultimately poetic. It invites. Newman even applied this poetic nature to the discourse of theology, particularly the creed.

The creed was ultimately a poem and, in viewing it as poem, it was possible to reimagine the theological discourse of the early Church. To perceive the poetic nature of the God-Man, Newman insisted on a return to the patristic sources of Christology, to the thought of Nicea, St. Athanasius, St. Leo the Great and the Council of Chalcedon.

For Newman, the tensile definition of Chalcedon, describing in parabolic terms the historical reality of Jesus, at once Jesus of Nazareth and the eternal Christ, was the matter of Christianity, its sole point of reference, its teaching, its worship and its life. And, as the destiny of the human person was to fall into the reality of Christ, just as it had fallen into the reality of sin, thus the Incarnate Word defines the nature of the human person.

Human Formation and Conformity to Christ

Newman’s reflections upon the particular nature of the event of the Incarnation give us insight into the nature of human formation. The goal of human formation in the context of a Christian community of faith is clear. It is the goal of St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, “He who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”[5]

The natural development of the person is to be more like Christ, who provides the model of humanity in the context of Christianity. We fail to realize our authentic humanity if we fail to recognize the call of St. Paul in the letter to the Corinthians. We fail to recognize our full potential when we insist upon living into the reality of the Fall of Adam and its attendant ills.

Human formation becomes, then, the foundation of all Christian formation, as Pope John Paul tells us in Pastores Dabo Vobis. “The whole work of priestly formation would be deprived of its necessary foundation if it lacked a suitable human formation.”[6] “The priest should be able to know the depths of the human heart, to perceive difficulties and problems, to make meeting and dialogue ways to create trust and cooperation, to express serene and objective judgments.”[7]

He can do this because he has conformed his life to the parable of the Incarnation. This theme is not unique in the thought of the late Holy Father. It is rather one that pervades 20th-century theology, the search for the authentic meaning of the human person in an age when false and, indeed, homicidal understandings of freedom and choice permeate the landscape of a culture littered with the debris of death.

We see the traces of this renewed emphasis in anthropology in the work of the theologians of the Nouvelle Theologies, its outlines in the writings of Pope Pius XII, and its elucidation in the thought of the Second Vatican Council. Modern man wishes to know himself, and the consistent message of the Church is that this knowledge is possible only through and with Christ.

Furthermore, we realize our complete humanity not only by conformity to the behavior of Jesus – what would Jesus do? – but also through the modality of Jesus. How is Jesus in the world? In what manner does He present himself? What is his dynamic quality?

Newman’s reflections and those of Pope John Paul II in Pastores Dabo Vobis help us to understand the Christological dimension of human formation. I would offer three insights that come from these reflections that may provide an adequate guide to looking at the question of human formation, whether in the setting of a seminary, a parish, a presbyterate or a diocese.

Three Christological Insights into the Nature of the Human Person

The first Christological insight into human formation in the thought of Newman follows from Newman’s understanding of the doctrine of the Incarnation. Our profession of the Rule of Faith of the Council of Chalcedon unveils a richness to the Christ event that extends beyond the apprehension of the physical person of Jesus of Nazareth. Perception of the Jesus of history is perception of the Christ of faith.

Things are not what they seem to be by way of the senses. Through the senses, Jesus is a Jewish itinerate preacher of a certain time and place with messianic pretensions, the historical Jesus. His execution is a barrier to the full realization of his being. St. Paul elucidates this point with his insight that “we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness.”[8]

There is more to the cross, however, than meets the eye. From this Christological insight, we discover the central principle of Christian existence, the presence of a sacramental imagination. The sacramental imagination, by which we discern the reality lurking behind and beyond the physical species, governs the life of faith. We celebrate it daily in the Eucharist.

As priests, we announce it in the Holy Mass: Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi. We make this audacious announcement while having the impunity to hold what to the eyes of sight appears to be a mere piece of bread, a cup of common wine. The sacramental imagination proclaims with boldness: things are not what they seem to be. There is more here than meets the eye.

This boldness is drawn from the energy of the simultaneous presence of the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith. As we proclaim this reality with such boldness, we also realize that it extends beyond the action of the altar to the world, indeed to the whole world. The Eucharist, as source and summit, both feeds and gains momentum from the action of the sacramental reality of Christ in the world, indeed in the most mundane aspects of the human condition.

This is the pastoral instinct of the priest. The implementation of the sacramental imagination in daily living, in daily pastoral care, is his license to make the bold pronouncements of the liturgy. The priest looks at the strengths and weaknesses of the flock and proclaims: there is more here than meets the eye.

He gazes upon the troubling and troublesome parishioners and knows: there is more here than meets the eye. He understands that this paradox is the bread and butter of discipleship, his constant challenge, his most ardent desire and his greatest aspiration.

Again, we look at the definition of parable mentioned earlier. One of the defining qualities of a parable is the presence of “multiple meanings [which] lie hidden within the complexities of a narrative, and these challenge or provoke the recipient to interpretation.” Our human formation depends upon our ability to transfer the parabolic insight of Christology into the daily narrative of the Church.

We look upon our fellow human beings in the context of parabolic narrative. We search behind and beyond what is presented by the context of frail humanity and realize that the folly of their crosses, the scandal of their lives, are not their ends any more than the cross, with its fearsome presentation, exhausted the reality of the living God present in the person of Jesus. There are multiple meanings in every life. That is pastoral care.

But, human formation also depends upon our ability to turn the generative power of this insight, that there is more here than meets the eye, upon ourselves. We must not reduce ourselves to our daily failures, our momentary lapses, or the internal scandals that appear, perhaps only to the inner eye of our imagination.

The sacramental imagination is self-perception and sometimes the greatest pastoral care is that which we must offer ourselves. Pope John Paul remarked, “Pastoral study and action direct one to an inner source, … an ever-deeper communion with the pastoral charity of Jesus.”[9]

The second Christological insight for human formation drawn from Newman is that tension is the only way to growth. The Incarnation, as the central principle of our faith and our living, is a tensile reality. It tugs at the mind and the heart with contrariety. This tension, central to the orthodox expression of faith, becomes the very engine, the energy of the life of the Church.

One way of understanding this necessary complexity, this tension, is in the realization of emotional maturity. The immature person seeks facility. The immature person is completely self referential. The immature person is simple. The immature person is a kind of Arian, a psychological heretic.

Often, perhaps all too often, this immaturity is expressed among priests as a kind of narcissism. My opinion is the only one that counts. I must have the last word in every conversation. Only my needs need to be met. The inability to see ourselves as part of a larger world, a greater good, is the essence of narcissism.

Some scholars see the prevalence of the narcissistic personality at the core of the Church’s scandals surrounding sexuality. A less dramatic form of narcissism is a kind of clericalism that seeks privilege, entitlement or even profit from the total gift of vocation that God has given to us. We cannot build our egos by way of the gift of vocation.

The narcissistic personality sees the needs of others as intrusions on his or her fulfillment, or more sinisterly, the means of his or her fulfillment. The narcissistic personality cannot find a place in formation because he does not perceive the need for formation. He has all of the answers.

One thing, however, is very clear. The Church has no need for any more narcissistic priests, deacons or lay ministers. There is no room in the Church for the completely self-referential, the guru or the alternative formator. Why? Because the narcissistic personality thinks he has all of the answers and sees no value in the pursuit of discipleship at all.

Emotional maturity is the ability to see my needs and the needs of the other as complementary. Bound together on a common journey of the discovery of God, the pastor and the parishioner find common hopes, common frustrations and common dreams in the tensile engagement with the God who is beyond all understanding.

Earlier this year, the Holy See issued a document on the use of psychology in the formation of seminarians. That document listed some of the qualities of emotional maturity that seminarians must demonstrate. They bear listing here:

    • A positive and stable sense of identity
    • A solid sense of belonging
    • The freedom to be enthused by great ideas and to realize them
    • The courage to make decisions and stay faithful to them
    • The capacity to correct oneself
    • An appreciation of the beautiful and the true
    • Trust
    • Integrated sexuality[10]

Emotional maturity implies the ability to continually rethink and reform assumptions, ideas and conceptions, to suspend judgment, to seek beyond the eternal, “I.” Emotional maturity is the ability to change one’s mind as one grasps the ever deeper, ever broader, ever wider reality of men and women who are images of God, the God that cannot be reduced to the mirror image of my preferences, my opinions, my goals.

This maturity invariably evokes tension in the person, but this tension is the vibrating heartstring of an intense, intimate relationship with the divine and human Christ who invites us into the life of God Himself. As Pope Benedict says: “Fellowship in the Body of Christ means fellowship with one another, mutual acceptance, giving and receiving on both sides.”[11]

The third Christological insight for human formation is the necessity of the development of the poetical sensibility. We live today in a culture defined by utility and popularism. Newman referred to the popular as the “fansical” and defined it as that which engaged the person for a moment, in a defined aspect of the personality, but was not ultimately fulfilling by way of its simplicity.

We might refer to this same reality as popular culture, a life lived in the top forty, the newest fad or the latest celebrity. The utilitarian is defined by Newman as that which is narrowly perceived to fulfill certain needs in the human condition, but only on a provisional basis. We live in a culture that promotes both of these values. Gabriel Marcel defined the two pursuits of the human mind as problem solving and mystery seeking. The problem-solving man seeks solutions; the mystery-seeking man seeks inspiration. Inspiration is neither utilitarian nor popular.

The paradox of modern humanity is that while we live in a culture that presents utility and the popular as ends, we are still possessed of human hearts that long for the expansive horizons of the poetic, even though we no longer have the language to talk about it. This is pastoral leadership’s greatest challenge and its greatest opportunity.

Newman insists that religion is ultimately, to use his expression, poetical. It requires time and devotion to fully begin to appreciate its gifts. It requires a lifetime of engagement that extends beyond the top forty, the up-to-date or the relevant. It realizes that the cult of immediate relevance is the death of God, whose mysteries cannot be fathomed in a thousand “readings,” “hearings” or “sightings.”

Pope Benedict has remarked: “Faith creates culture and is culture …. It tells man who he is and how he should go about being human.” When we know this, we have attained true humanity. And so, the priest must necessarily seek the expansion of cultural horizons, finding meaning in the arts, in literature and in other expressions of the human spirit that transcend the utilitarian and popular mentality.

The priest, as pastoral minister, must understand popular culture, but he must not live in popular culture. He must not see the bounds of culture in the ephemeral and the passing. Learning to view art, to listen to music, to experience drama, to read literature and poetry is necessary because it trains the mind, the heart and the spirit toward the transcendent. It gives the priest depth perception, encouraging him to guide his life, not by that which is temporary but that which infinitely engages.

In learning to appreciate art and poetry, the priest learns to look for the art and poetry in the mundane, daily tasks of spiritual and pastoral care. In learning to look at art, he learns to look at the world as potential rather than finality. In learning to read literature, he seeks the imaginative horizons of the page in the nursing home patient, the sick, the dying, the student, the homebound and, indeed, himself.

Again the Holy Father has remarked: “All sacred images are, without exception … images of the resurrection. History is read in the light of the resurrection and for that very reason they are images of hope, giving us the assurance of the world to come.”[12]

The inculcation of the poetic sensibility leads us to prayer. Prayer, likewise, in our cultural understanding can be highly utilitarian. How often does the priest hear: “I am frustrated; my prayer is not working….”? Yet the object of prayer is not utilitarian fulfillment, but an immersion in the depths of the life of God. It is communion with God. It takes time and does not necessarily yield immediately gratifying results.

Prayer is a commitment to the poetic and parabolic life of God, one that expands over time and draws the person of prayer into the folds of a relationship that cannot be exhausted by first acquaintance. Prayer familiarizes us with the parabolic God and makes us love Him, and in loving Him, loving the other and ultimately (yet paradoxically, firstly) our true selves.

The ability to love, truly love, unveils the mystery of God who is love in the actions of the human heart. We experience this love, this poetry, parable, this prayer most profoundly in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, by which we offer true immolation to the lies that plague modern man as surely as the lies of the serpent plagued our ancestors in faith.

As the fragmented pieces of the Host are regathered in the body of the Church, we fulfill the prayer of Christ: that they may be one. We find once more that original unity of self lost in the Fall. We discover once more our profound oneness with God. We become One by becoming more like Christ; we become truly who we are by conforming our life and our mode of being to his. The Eucharist then forms the ultimate parabolic parameters of human formation. It tells us who we are.

These are challenging insights. However, equipped with these insights, we have the raw matter of living a full life, the only kind of full life, a life in union with Christ and in union with the source of our being, the Holy Trinity. With these insights, we have the potential to understand more profoundly the powerful longing that churns within us.

With these insights about Christ, we can see clearly who we are amid the encircling gloom of social maledictions, the swirling fog of a culture of mendacity. With these insights, we know who we are, who we truly are, within the context of the lies that sometimes cloud our senses, both external and internal.

The realization of these insights is, in essence, the parabolic project of our seminaries, our schools of theology, our parishes, our dioceses, our institutions. We can, in this context, only rely upon the light of God revealed to us in the face of Jesus to continue to enlighten us. Perhaps we can find no better words to formulate our prayer than those of Cardinal Newman himself:

Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
Lead Thou me on! Keep Thou my feet: I do not ask to see
The distant scene,—
one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor pray’d that Thou
Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since,
And lost awhile.

The Lord be with you. May Almighty God bless you, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Mary, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.

  1. J. Dominic Crossan, “Parable,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, et. al. (New York: Doubleday, 1992) 146-152 V: 146-147. See also: M. Boucher, The Mysterious Parable, Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series (Washington: Catholic University of America, 1977) and R.W. Funk, Parables and Presence (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982).
  2. Newman, The Idea of a University, 463.
  3. Parochial and Plain Sermons.
  4. John Henry Newman, Fifteen Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1868-1881) 32.
  5. I Corinthians 6, 17.
  6. Pastores Dabo Vobis, 43.
  7. Pastores Dabo Vobis, 44.
  8. I Corinthians 1, 23.
  9. Pastores Dabo Vobis, 57.
  10. Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in the Admission and Formation of Candidates for the Priesthood, 2.
  11. Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, 69.
  12. Images of Hope.

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