Ash Wednesday’s Message: Please Dim Your Virtue Signals

As Lent began this week, I think I heard one of the Bible’s strongest critiques of virtue-signaling.  The Gospel reading during the Mass on Ash Wednesday, from Matthew 6:1-6, said this:

Jesus said to his disciples: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

Jesus went on to give the same advice about praying and fasting. It might be desirable that, amid the current phenomena of pandemic, polarization, and the cascading popularity of policy pronouncements (which may or may not reflect individuals’ personal values based on long discernment and commitment), any attempt to virtue-signal by displaying ashes on one’s forehead has been made more difficult and less common. (In past years, it had already prompted occasional comments of scorn and marginalization from strangers.)

The cautionary note about virtue-signaling is all the more authentic because the Bible advises us not only to question the strategy of signaling, which may be used to make us feel better about ourselves or may be weaponized to make others feel worse about themselves, but also to avoid complacent confidence that we possess all the virtue we are signaling.

The reading from Psalm 51 which precedes Ash Wednesday’s Gospel tells us we are flawed and falling short of the authentic virtue to which we are called as followers of Jesus:

Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness, in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me. For I acknowledge my offense, and my sin is before me always.

In the absence of a belief in God, and in our need for forgiveness, and in the compassion of God that can indeed wipe out our sinfulness if we truly repent, our claim on any particular virtue and our desire to demonstrate it to others can be seen as embarrassingly shallow.

I’m reminded of a commentary written by Jamil Zaki and Mina Cikara and published on June 25, 2020, in Time magazine. The title was, “Don’t Be Afraid to Virtue Signal — It Can Be a Powerful Tool to Change People’s Minds.” I have no reason to doubt the good values and intentions of these authors, but I notice that their praise at that time for a recent wave of corporate statements in social media, the toppling of derided statues, and the cancellation of a television program described these developments as necessary tactics using “social information” to drive “social change.”

They invoked psychology and political strategy to argue that “people look to each other when deciding how to express themselves.” As social norms shift, they said, “individuals shift with them: adopting popular opinions and behaviors and dropping ones that fall out of style.” The authors continued;

Conformity can seem spineless, but in fact it reflects an ancient yearning to be part of something greater than ourselves–a smart yearning, given the many social advantages of coordinating and cooperating with others. It goes deeper than words, sometimes changing what we see, what we value, and how we behave, even privately.”

This commentary approached its conclusion:

“But no matter their motives, when many people speak out, their voices have a powerful effect on receivers…. Collective outrage has become a social norm; coupled with the leadership of local organizers, it has yielded a phenomenal groundswell of action.”

The authors acknowledged that “signaling and conformity are not inherently positive,” but when the signal being communicated is inherently virtuous, people “can and should use their signals as anchors, holding them accountable for acting accordingly. But we should also realize the power signals have in and of themselves, in helping people locate each other–in this case, on the path to change.”

Again, I am not arguing at all against the virtuous quality of a cause–in this case, it was about a “demand to acknowledge and redress centuries-old inequality and violence” in the pursuit of racial justice, a moral imperative, as you can read in the entire article. But in light of the Bible’s messages heard at the launching of Lent, I fear that the exclusion of God’s own demands for a panorama of justice dislocates deep discernment about the whole story of our widespread hunger for authentic, lasting, peace-making change.

The ashes are meant to inspire a personal humility that acknowledges accountability to a loving and just God who has created every human being with immense, inviolable dignity; this accountability, shown by words and deeds but also by intent and pursuits of goodness in heart and mind, must be based on the individual’s journey toward a perfection of virtue. This journey will be assessed–and mercifully, contextually, humanely judged–by a God who shaped all of us from dust, with earthly flaws built in, and who leads us back to dust with a noble aftermath in mind.

Earthly death represents the ultimate equity of outcome for us all and allows for a holistically wise reckoning about our entire journey. This can lead us to eternal fellowship in God’s love or a tragic realization that fearful, manipulative, or hypocritical conformity to the pressures and perspectives of this world steered us too far off the path toward a heavenly destiny. No human being or well-intentioned campaign of messaging about justice can stand in for our creator in informing, then judging, our lifelong trek and its constituent steps. Secular outrage can short-circuit the ongoing transcendent dialogue whose effects may move more slowly but allow for more comprehensive, enduring penance that truly converts society. I sense we were finding this trajectory in recent decades when a gentler consensus prevailed.

Our sin is before us always; at least we might want to think twice about whether we citizens should be the only ones to judge the righteousness of anyone’s journey at a moment in time. Instead, we could freely ponder, and dialogue about, our choices of suitable course through complex circumstances. As believers fully aware of the dusty roads we must travel, perhaps the best we can do is act and express ourselves as authentically compassionate role models–and to humbly monitor our own roadmaps and our collective migration toward u-turns or broadways promising virtue. Our sense of shared pain and stain, rather than imposed guilt, might make us wiser navigators over time.

As I see it, that’s the guidance from the “prayer over the people” which concludes the Ash Wednesday Mass:

“Pour out a spirit of compunction, O God, on those who bow before your majesty, and by your mercy may they merit the rewards you promise to those who do penance.”

 

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Pope’s New Statement on Communication: What an Experience!

Speaking as a long-time journalist who looks to Pope Francis for insights that can help renew the business of information and the art of conversation in our polarized society, I’m happy to say the Holy Father has once again hit a home run with his message for the Church’s 2021 World Communications Day. 

The message, posted online by the Vatican this past weekend, is titled “Come and See: Communicating by Encountering People as They Are.”  World Communications Day #55  won’t arrive until the Sunday before Pentecost, but by tradition the annual messages debut in advance to mark the feast day of Francis de Sales, the patron saint of journalists, on January 24. Following up on thought-provoking ideas about news-media responsibilities (in 2018), digital-culture dangers (in 2019), and story-telling strengths (in 2020), the diagnoses and prescriptions for 2021 couldn’t be more timely and galvanizing. 

Here are highlights from this year’s reflections, which as always ponder how Catholic wisdom might serve to make contemporary social communication tools more useful as instruments of grace for human flourishing. These information points are based on quotes from our Pope but contain occasional riffs of my own reactions. By all means, please read the eloquent words of Francis directly; among world leaders,  he seeks a seat the table to discuss these things in a constructive way with secular world influencers. I support such conversations among people of good will. May this help: 

  • In a world where some producers and consumers of mass-market information suffer symptoms of passive posturing, narrow-mindedness, and aggressive anger which demonstrate our society’s lack of–and desperate need for–the virtues of faith, hope, and love, the Pope wants to remind us of “the method for all authentic human communication.” That method is the simple yet profound invitation to “come and see” (John 1:46). Jesus showed his disciples that this is the way to build the relationships that enkindle faith, to be part of a meaningful personal experience. An openness by all parties to encounter other persons, one-on-one, with a willingness to listen and learn, as well as to share connections to unvarnished reality for the sake of the common good, a greater good, is the antidote to what ails us in our relativistic solitude. This remedy works at the individual level, at the international corporate level, and at all levels of culture and politics in-between.
  • A major disease rampant in the news business, Francis points out, is that original investigation into the hard and full truth of situations “is being replaced” by reportage built around simplified, manipulative, and “often tendentious” narratives rather than complex stories honoring human dignity. The staffs in too many newsrooms create or convey what advocates want us to know “without ever hitting the streets” to gather and verify facts of life by meeting people face-to-face. These days, large portions of the population act as journalists gathering and spreading information–or misinformation–while “we remain mere spectators” who are not encountering the human (and inevitably divine) truths around us.  “Curiosity, openness, and passion” are lacking. Few participants in this space are testifying to the deepest stories in our lives-a tragic lapse when popes of the past have told us that faith-seekers (or simply truth-seekers and trust-seekers) demand not only teachers, but witnesses. “That is how Christian faith begins, and how it is communicated: as direct knowledge, born of experience and not of hearsay,” Pope Francis writes.
  • There is more at stake than the loss of some human-interest stories that might inspire us. First, the absence of reportorial zeal shows we have lost our sense of wonder and our eagerness to be surprised by the other; we fail to see how that person is impressively different from us and remarkably similar to us. Second, we are learning only about the people or circumstances backed by manipulators; we receive only some of the information we need to become well-formed agents of justice and mercy. For example, as the Pope points out, if we learn tidbits about international COVID-19 vaccine delays “only through the lens of the richer nations,” then we and our news media are “keeping two sets of books.” 
  • While the Internet is a powerful means for sharing truths and learning things we might never have known, social media are risky spreaders of misinformation and blockers of discernment and responsibility. Indeed we do have a responsibility to battle “fake news”–which Francis discussed in his 2018 World Communications Day message–“by exposing it,” he says. “All of us are to be witnesses of the truth: to go, to see, and to share.”
  • So much of the rhetoric that rushes at us through a digital firehose is devoid of meaning.  Francis quotes Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice as saying the empty facts “are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: You shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you have them, they are not worth the search.” This danger of wasting time reminds me of the TV program, “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”. That particular ad-lib comedy show has the virtue of being entertaining and clever, but I hear the Shakespeare metaphor for modern punditry when the TV host speaks; she welcomes us to “the game where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.”  
  • The Pope tells us time is not wasted when the Gospel comes alive for us thanks to “the compelling witness of people whose lives have been changed by their encounter with Jesus.” The words of Scripture do indeed bear fruit in people’s lives when, as Saint Augustine remarked, “we have books in our hearts, but the facts before our eyes.” Francis adds, “For two millennia, a chain of such encounters has communicated the attractiveness of the Christian adventure.”
  • Francis personifies this adventure by making a reference that gave me a happy surprise. He speaks of Blessed Manuel Lozano Garrido, a journalist and Catholic who was born 100 years ago in Spain. He is the first lay journalist to have been beatified, and his life captured the potential joy of a journalist who is seeking truth by experiencing people and placing curiosity and wonder in the service of compassion, truth-seeking, and the common good. He even wrote a “Decalogue for the Journalist” that expresses this joy eloquently. When others read what you have written, he tells the periodista, “they too can touch first-hand the vibrant miracle of life.”
  • The Pope ends his message with a prayer that combines all of these points well: 
    “:Lord, teach us to move beyond ourselves, and to set out in search of truth. Teach us to go out and see, teach us to listen, not to entertain prejudices or draw hasty conclusions. Teach us to go where no one else will go, to take the time needed to understand, to pay attention to the essentials, not to be distracted by the superfluous, to distinguish deceptive appearances from the truth. Grant us the grace to recognize your dwelling places in our world and the honesty needed to tell others what we have seen.” The invitation to “come and see” is thus revealed as something all of us communicators have a duty to accept and a reason to embrace. This message for the 55th World Communications Day reminds us of our need for experiences that rise above the sterile, distracted, isolationist status of too much news in 2021–a journalism that can deform us as much as it can form and inform us.

See all of Bill Schmitt’s blog posts on communications and Catholic values here at OnWord.net. See his CV and resume here. Find a collection of his recent accomplishments, including links to radio and podcast productions, here.  Reach him by email at wschmitt@hcc-nd.edu. See his Linked-in profile.

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“Questions” We Can Learn from Alex Trebek

This commentary supplements a Dec. 22, 2020, podcast called “The Sandwich Generation,” in which host Chris Godfrey interviewed me about the power of group gamesmanship to edify whole families and renew community values. You can listen to the half-hour interview here. It was aired on Redeemer Radio in the Fort Wayne-South Bend area. The text below was updated on January 6, 2021.

“He was our trusted man with the answers, even in times when reality came to us in the form of a question.” New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik wrote that about Alex Trebek, the beloved “Jeopardy!” game show host who died November 8. The writer was referencing the contrarian rule that players on “Jeopardy!” shall be presented with an answer and must reply in the form of a question. He was right that reality poses questions, but it can’t stop there.

My testimonial in honor of Trebek, whose presentations and persona have inspired me ever since he assumed his iconic role in 1985, is this reflection: We have been well educated–and assisted in our continued growth in knowledge (and perhaps wisdom)–by the intelligent, respectful, exciting, and joyful dialogue that can take place every evening. Thank God that will continue, with legendary “Jeopardy” champion Ken Jennings as the interim host.

Thanks to Trebek, who has been called “America’s teacher,” the oddly beautiful, inseparable pairing of A&Q, of insight and inquiry, of gift and response, has helped me to think of truth as resilient, renewable, sustainable power and to see knowledge as something pursued amid both community and friendly “competition,” never held captive or hidden or weaponized.

The motif of learning I absorbed from this game is reconstructionist, not deconstructonist, liberally progressive yet conservative. The contest had to be taken somewhat seriously because two super-powers–understanding and curiosity–had been loosed for a drama of both collaboration and combat. My only response now is to ask a follow-up questions. What is the legacy of this 80-year-old gentleman who embraced both wisdom and mystery, a Yoda-like blend of rigorous dignity and centered humility? And what should we do with that legacy (beyond renewing the game for multiple seasons, of course)?

It seems a national audience has been empowered to move from learning to teaching, to use the same qualities and quests to motivate tomorrow’s contestants. As our collective mass of information and our mash-up of realities grow exponentially, successive generations must advance their questioning at a fast pace–into the next round, as it were. They must avoid being overwhelmed while they focus, shape, and sustain their inquiries, or else the game’s title will take on new, prophetic meaning.

I am grateful and optimistic that this game show–especially when it took on the Trebek-led combination of urgency and happiness, seriousness and light-heartedness, competitiveness and fellowship among respected contestants–is a good influence tucked inside a quagmire of pop-culture toxins. The influence can be summed up by the notion of cultivating wisdom at the intersection of knowledge, experience, good judgment, and continuous, wide-ranging learning. Without imagining that a TV program can be a panacea of transformative wisdom, these are ways in which I saw it influencing the public consciousness amid the entertainment values and celebrations of cash prizes:

  • “Jeopardy!” is a family-friendly game, an invitation for intergenerational dialogue and the sharing of edifying knowledge that endures over time. Grandparents and grandchildren, as well as age groups in-between, can look at each other and admire what the other persons know. All these individuals can see each other’s minds work, drawing upon various functions of reason and intuition, to produce good outcomes. They might spark another person’s curiosity about something from the past or present that deserves to be better understood.
  • The application of the term “jeopardy” to the rules of the game signaled an element of risk entailed in responsibility and accountability. You could win money by giving the right answer–question, I mean–but you could lose money by giving the wrong answer. Ignorance and carelessness can exact a price. The exercise of one’s mind takes place in the context of costs and benefits experienced by oneself and others. One must enter the contest, pursuing excellence, and one must remain aware of certain rules (like that mandate for “questions”) that establish a level playing field. There is a real sense of adventure undertaken and a just victory earned.
  • Producers of the game, probably encouraged by Trebek who accepted the duties of an educator, reach out to young people by holding “teen tournaments” and “college tournaments,” for example. Of course, marketing and ratings drive this outreach in part, as seen in the addition of a “celebrity tournament,” but there is an inclusiveness and democratization in this celebration of knowledge. Besides being open to various age groups, anyone can take the online test for eligibility and participation. This reflects the principle of equal opportunity without equal outcomes, nurturing a sense of meritocracy free of elitism or favoritism. Of course, it’s television, so I’m sure that in some sense a person’s telegenic or otherwise appealing nature might yield an advantage in preliminary selections, but I don’t know how this affects production decisions; in any event, producers offer a sense of the American mosaic, so I applaud this as good TV.
  • There is a personalist element to the show, mastered by Trebek with respectful acceptance of winners and challengers. He did not shy away from occasional friendly scrutiny or inquiry or observations of performance in his interviews and random comments. I believe Ken Jennings will bring his own personality to this touch of intimacy without injecting meanness or a philosophy of “everybody gets a trophy.” Contestants are treated as people with stories, not merely databases crowded with facts, measured by metrics. Wit is encouraged to the degree that it builds camaraderie, so long as it is not a distraction or a display of pride or a dismissal of propriety.
  • The game is a model of the ideal “university,” where the array of categories represents a broad spectrum of knowledge which is connected and constructive. My wife and I always enjoy noticing the questions about religion and the Bible. On most days, I can call out, “there’s the Catholic question!” at least once. It may or may not be specifically Catholic in content, but such a question is an affirmation that faiths and their embrace of transcendentals like truth, beauty, and goodness are desirable parts of a life well lived.

Future hosts of “Jeopardy!” will need to prove themselves as “people persons” who enjoy the context of each individual’s endeavor, which in a sense is every person’s endeavor. The real winners are those who integrate multiple skills, sensibilities, and perspectives, who have engaged with the world in a way that expands themselves and all other “stakeholders” in the program. Alex Trebek was the ultimate stakeholder and steward of the values which allow knowledge to be properly gained, proffered, and assessed in an open marketplace of insights. May future hosts and audiences emulate this champion of education. HIs legacy includes a role in forming many other champions who can sustain and refresh intellectual solidarity, touching society and souls.

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Pope Francis Sees a World of Emergencies, Wants a World of Human Encounters

Bill discussed subjects related to this post on Catholic radio with program host Matt Swaim on October 6. Click on the archive here and advance to the 1 hour-17 min. mark.

The encyclical sent forth to all the world by Pope Francis on Saturday, intended as an invitation to fraternal dialogue, “social friendship,” and profound concern for a human ecology in crisis, was the perfect opportunity for spiritual reading on October 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi.

I immediately began to browse the new document, “Fratelli Tutti,” in search of guidance for applying Christian values to the renewal of various forms of communication. The pope has emerged as a leading voice among global leaders proclaiming that humanity’s pursuit of peace and society’s efforts to solve problems collaboratively are intertwined with the wise use of information in our minds and hearts. His pastoral warnings about trends in journalism, community discourse, digital culture, and personal storytelling have inspired me to write countless posts in this OnWord.net blog, as well as a book called When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer?, and to ponder the intersection of Catholic discipleship and secular dialogue as we try to heal today’s cultural polarization.

Sure enough, the encyclical contains a section on the damage social media and other channels of news are doing to human beings through isolation, defamation, divisiveness, and retreats into artificial realities. The pope supports values-informed use of current communications technologies. But he has made it clear–in documents like the Church’s annual messages for World Communications Day–that replacing genuine, sustained human interactions of community and communion with profit-driven, emotion-fueled, algorithm-shaped interactions on our respective screen devices poses a threat to individual dignity and the sustainability of humanity.

The real surprise, delight, and galvanizing challenge of the encyclical arose from the vast context of Francis’ concern and the aura of an urgent appeal for awareness and change flowing from a father’s loving–and broken–heart. Like all good encyclicals, this rather long and wide-ranging document can remind us why we call our pontiff “papa.” I’m especially grateful for this papa who so often draws upon the inspirations of joy, simplicity, humility, poverty, and multi-dimensional love from Saint Francis of Assisi.

The inspiration has prompted the pope for many years to talk about a culture of encounter, where we reach out to people at the margins of our lives and seek to share the Church’s message of faith, hope, and charity with them. But, in the age of this pandemic, with perfect storms of injustice, fear, policy confusion, and societal disfunction threatening to outlast the virus’s own hazards, he is extending his talk of encounters and talking about “social friendship.” This embraces the whole world while still caring deeply about each individual; in times of trial, we share the sufferings and joys of Jesus Christ, whether or not we recognize them as such. We may or may not refer to Jesus by name, but he is present in the joy and love of every genuine encounter. We are wise to invite that presence and to avoid thinking we can survive these times in self-sufficient isolation.

I plan to meditate more and write more about this encyclical because it is so rich a resource for our time, for everyone, for everything that really matters now and in the future that we must confront together. We all have a stake in reading Pope Francis’ words and heeding them in the spirit of Saint Francis. Both men help us to see how wounded we are and how badly all God’s children need to encounter each other on the macro and micro scales–to gather as a loving family with humility and hope, in a sustainable human ecology.







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Author Says of Election Day: There’s Got to Be a Morning After

https://www.c-span.org/video/?474764-1/union

No better outcome could wrap up a nationwide road trip than an agreement that, as POTUS traditionally reports during the annual State of the Union Address, “the state of our union is strong.” One learns during a C-SPAN Book TV video recorded on Aug. 10, 2020, that the co-authors of Union: A Democrat, A Republican, and the Search for Common Ground did come away from their travels with this hope for resilient bonds of citizenship and solidarity.

However, Jordan Blashek and Christopher Haugh retained many of the differences that made them the political opposites who met in school some years ago, before they planned their car journeys into the heart of darkness–exploring social polarization in America’s public square.

There seems to be more room than ever for differences and doubts in the days since their book’s completion and their interview with California politician Tony Woods (sponsored by Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena). The insights of Blashek, an optimistic Republican, and Haugh, a skeptical Democrat, remain worthy of attention. Perhaps the discovery of hope has become even more urgent as a mission for all of us since the country’s immersion in civil unrest and the perpetual addition of contentious details to the presidential campaign of 2020.

What struck me when I recently viewed this video was Blashek’s response to a question from Woods (in the center of the screen) about the co-authors’ Election Day expectations in light of their road-trip experiences of 2015-2019. His choice of words in August may not hold significance as a foreshadowing of more recent reports–details of electoral strategies that could generate a thicker web of contention. Some pundits have predicted the November 3 election could end without a clear victor, leaving Americans in a cauldron of angst, anger, and argument for days or weeks–or longer than that.

Blashek said, “My advice to the country based on the book” would be to accept a few months of divisiveness leading up to Election Day but to continue the citizenry’s traditional commitment to bounce back into a state of union–to “move into November 4 with an attitude of reconciliation.”

That is a day for “coming back to the table” because Americans must continue to discuss and solve the nation’s problems, Blashek explained. “We’re still one country, we’re still one people.”

It is true that, more often than not, November 4 has been a remarkable day for healing partisan wounds. But it is chilling to realize that this date is now known as a time when the machinery of voting can falter and the emotions of resentment and fear can spill over among people who feel ignored or manipulated.

As an optimist myself, I know the spirit of reconciliation and compromise is still alive in this country. But our journeys into the heart of darkness must allow for an emergent “new normal” and a possible need for new routes toward union.

I was glad that the Book TV interview didn’t conclude until the skeptical traveler Haugh offered a less conventional answer to the same Election Day question. He said the applicable metaphor for the milestone we face may be New Orleans. That city “has built a culture specifically on bringing together other cultures,” often in the wake of “difficult histories” of dispute and suffering. rather than automatic, predictable procedures.

Haugh’s hope was still resilient, just different. He observed that New Orleans succeeded in establishing solidarity out of polarization by tapping into a wide array of roots. This place of “common ground” has energized remarkable creativity “through means like music and art and getting together and food–and building hybrid cultures that are uniquely American.” The two authors might be previewing a new state of the union that, despite our political divisions, will be strong for the challenging journeys ahead.

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Breaking News about Broken Politics

“Frontline” episode (July 28, 2020): “United States of Conspiracy”  

It’s jarring enough to discover at any time  the bombastic theatrics of Alex Jones, whom Wikipedia describes as “an American far-right radio show host, political extremist, and conspiracy theorist.” But it’s even more unsettling to realize that perhaps a half hour of Jones’  emotion-driven, antagonistic, and hardly journalistic hyperbole has been compiled to be broadcast (albeit with context and narrative) on one’s usually sedate local PBS channel. A political reporting team from PBS’s “Frontline” documentary series presented those segments, along with context and narrative, in the July 28, 2020, “Frontline” episode  assessing President Trump’s collaboration in the social trend called “conspiracism.”

I decided to watch this perspective on social polarization—titled “United States of Conspiracy”—partly because this nation’s raucous intersection of politics, journalism, and public discourse impresses me as desperate for spiritual “field hospitals,” as Pope Francis would put it. The need for healing has prompted me to write a book and an ongoing blog in search of Catholic values capable of renewing communication and community. I’m always on the prowl for resources from Frontline and other respected media; I had tapped into the program’s two-part episode on polarization released about six months ago. That investigation looked  back over Trump’s and President Obama’s efforts to manage what PBS called “A Nation Divided.” My reflections at that time, drawing as usual upon Pope Francis’s relatively unknown but inspiring guidance for building peace through better cultural conversations, bore good fruit. They yielded ideas I used for the class I teach  on Writing and Rhetoric at Holy Cross College, and they prompted Catholic radio’s distinguished interviewer, Al Kresta, to invite me for an on- air discussion.

I hailed the political reporters for their research and insights regarding how Washington dealt with polarization, but I also suggested to Kresta that neither the causes nor the cures for this country’s divisions were exclusively centered in the nation’s capital or even on the “politics” beat emphasized on the program.

Putting the Facts (and Non-Facts) Together

Now, I come away from “United States of Conspiracy” with new fear that we might miss the bigger point. Frontline’s samples of coverage connecting dots between Alex Jones, Trump, and his advisor Roger Stone concluded that too much of the dialogue and cooperation they cultivated was detrimental grandstanding—poorly grounded in fact and dominated by emotion, distraction, and manipulation. Political synergies for one, two, or all three of these players arose out of tragedies, such as the 9/11 terror attacks, the Sandy Hook school shootings, and the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the documentary.

Just as the program’s January episode showed our distressed republic turning partisan opponents into antagonistic enemies, this July episode shows our search for empowering truths and agreed-upon ideals retreating into solidarity-busting fears and incompatible, relativistic “realities.” The divisiveness infecting our citizenship increasingly takes the form of personal scorn or hatred. Indeed, I heard on the program political descriptions of Jones and his conspiratorial universe suggesting a burden of guilt that could be interpreted as just cause for what is popularly called “cancel culture.” This form of moral enforcement (which should not replace appropriate determinations within our justice system) shrinks freedom for extreme views and deprives offensive speech of media platforms.

Skeptical of such enforcement in many, though not all, cases, and nervous about its tendency toward demonization rather than dialogue, I was curious to dig more deeply into the big-picture research Frontline had conducted. One of the program’s valuable practices—providing additional resources such as the texts of expert interviews conducted for each program—allowed me to learn more about the insights of Nancy Rosenblum. A Harvard professor of ethics in politics and government, she has authored A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault of Democracy.

According to the text of the March 2020 interview with Rosenblum,
“conspiracy theories” per se are nothing new in the human mind frame.  It has been natural, and potentially valuable, for citizens who observe unexplained events to act as amateur detectives, piecing together clues to better understand whether their origins are coincidental or collusive. Rosenblum told filmmaker Michael Kirk that the modern twist on conspiracy theories in public affairs now replaces healthy, proactive curiosity and reality-based reasoning with oversimplified acceptance of a myth-maker’s assertions.

Big View of Conspiracy: More Than a Theory

When something significant happens, it has to have a cause proportionate to the significant thing that’s happened,” Rosenblum explained. Big understanding is needed, I heard her saying: If that is furnished through declarations of facts which may or may not be real,, some people will accept the assertions in order to enjoy the comfort of “knowing” and the power to act on that knowledge.

She agreed with the journalist that Trump himself is “an absolute conspiracist” of this sort. “This is a man who psychologically sees the world in terms of how he needs the world to be…. And one of the characteristics of how he sees the world is in terms of loyal friends and enemies….” OK, yes, please tell me more about that trait—as exhibited by Trump and by countless others in politics and beyond.

Asked about the prominence of this breed of conspiracism today, Rosenblum called it “a monumental national effect,” creating a polarization that goes beyond affirming a particular policy stance. Instead, it honors certain people for knowing a truth unknown by others. It’s “an epistermological divide” that dismisses the value of systematic, reasoned inquiry by opposing sides. Rosenblum’s panoramic assessment did not judge only the potently political, compellingly visual story of Alex Jones, Roger Smith, and Donald Trump.

I came away thinking she views conspiracism as part of a phenomenon in secular modernism writ large. It seems closely tied to narcissistic and autocratic tendencies, as well as to the cancel culture, confirmation bias constricting online communities, the digital world’s embrace of  customized realities, and the tribal thinking that reinforces self-defensive politics rather than “common-good” politics and dignity-based compassion. These are the characteristics of mass communication that Pope Francis has asked us all to examine in his messages for World Communications Day. In other Church documents, he has echoed the call to build up strong communities where many voices participate in the story-telling that yields more complete truth and trust.

Rosenblum seems to agree that this approach to conspiracism should concern us regardless of our opinions or partisanship. Yes, a defeat of Trump and allies such as Jones and Stone this November would rein in the president’s abilities “to inflict a compromised sense of reality on the nation.” But it doesn’t stop there, she adds; the group-think she has studied “is now recognized as a means of exercising power, and I think it will be hard to resist. I think it’s likely to spread across the political spectrum. And whether it returns to the fringes or not”–replaced by more conventional and rational forms of public discourse and deliberation—“I think will depend on whether people in office can resist using it.” That struck me as news we all can use: It’s up to us, and something else!

The Rest of the Story

As usual, the experience of digesting one of PBS’s elaborate products of professional journalism was eye-opening and thought=provoking. My receptivity to the documentary along with its ancillary online information allowed me to put into practice a “keep-digging” discipline I remember from my college journalism classes. This “journalism of abundance,” as I call it, seems likely to benefit all of us, as is the injection of Catholic values Pope Francis has said should guide a renewal of social communications.

In his 2018 message for World Communications Day, Francis said the pursuit of “a journalism of peace” must be driven by an embrace of truth and healthy curiosity—in the spirit of personal encounters sparking continuous listening and learning, widening our world and softening our hearts to gain additional perspectives on God’s complex ecology of diverse, flawed, and complementary individuals. This gives us both a compelling love story of unity and a treasure trove of personal stories that are up for discussion and contemplation in our evolving relationships with Jesus Christ. He’s the ultimate storyteller and interlocutor for us to emulate as professional or amateur journalists; He is the capital-T Truth, as well as the Way and the Life, in which we’re meant to participate.

One might say our lives are our assigned “beats,” with the mission of gathering and wisely interpreting pieces of truth in ever-growing degrees of quality and quantity, partly for our own edification and partly for everyone. Pope Francis invites us into reflections on this in his 2020 World Communications Day message. Our society does no one any favors by drifting into a “post-truth” realm of zero accountability or a conspiratorial politics where our “private stock” of truth is weaponized to cancel others or elevate ourselves. The Frontline journalists probably didn’t reckon that I would come away from their creditable cautionary tale with gratitude for their justice-driven research alongside hope that we will all undertake mercy-driven follow-up work—in our social-media messaging and the life stories we write together.

Are we now the “United States of Conspiracy”? I desire that in only one sense, which reminds me of a light-hearted theological riddle: What is the difference between a paranoid and a mystic? The paranoid believes there is a conspiracy in the universe against him. The mystic believes there is a conspiracy in his favor.

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All the News About What’s Not Fit to Print

This 2019 video shows Bari Weiss, who resigned  from New York Times in mid-July, 2020.

The open letter of resignation posted by New York Times opinion writer and editor Bari Weiss on her website this week reminds us that journalism is one of numerous American institutions suffering a breakdown that should place us all—including Catholics whose parishes  Pope Francis has called spiritual “field hospitals”—on high alert.

There’s no particular reason to present Weiss’s resignation as something of particular interest to Catholics, except for two things: First, her words of frustration are a kind of exposé that assaults values honoring the common good, solidarity, and respect for personal dignity. Second, she is giving testimony that affirms concerns Pope Francis voiced in his 2018 message for World Communications Day; he has been perhaps the leading voice among world leaders urging a values-based renewal in journalism that recommits to the service of community and inclusiveness, conversation and truth-seeking, justice and peace.

Weiss, who said she must depart from a Times newsroom marked by backbiting and bullying. Some individuals are imposing their own ideas of truth through tactics often called the “cancel culture.” She no longer wants to be among the staff members paying a heavy personal price in a losing battle to put forth facts and opinions from perspectives the newsroom’s influencers strive to stifle. Although indications are that those influencers don’t constitute a majority of staff members, they undermine the journalistic tradition of giving the public a spectrum of opinions, rather than  a single orthodoxy, so truth emerges in a vibrant marketplace of ideas.

Office bullies and conflicts of opinion are nothing new, but what happens in the Times newsroom raises questions with moral implications for all producers and consumers of news. In a sense, social media and our digital culture are hosting the dominant newsrooms of our times—as well as the “journalistic” practice among professionals and all of us amateur publishers. Too often, the “communities” formed online are not based on freedom of speech, inclusionary attitudes toward people, or a comprehensively curious approach to information.  Pope Francis, in those 2018 remarks that need to be heard in the media today, called for education about both the problem-solving value of truth and the compassionate purpose underlying journalism—the potential of personal encounters as described in the beloved Peace Prayer of Saint Francis: “Lord, make us instruments of your peace.”

As I have commented during years of blog posts at OnWord.net and in my 2018 book of reflections called When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer?, the Holy Father wisely cautions against the tendency in today’s culture to isolate and reject those who differ from us or retreat into realities that make us more comfortable. Journalism at its best should leave no room for bullying at any point in the flow of information, from generation to consumption to feedback to utilization. Ideally, behavior at all those points can be enhanced by a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, whose story as told in the Gospels drove Saint Francis’ thinking and can guide our ventures in communication today.

That’s what constitutes the moral dimension of Bari Weiss’s revelations from The New York Times about a breakdown in the flow of information at its earliest phases and highest places. Here are some of the quotes from her mid-July website post that seem to deserve pondering among disciples in today’s information marketplace.

  • “[A] new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.
  • “Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions. I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.”
  • “[The] truth is that intellectual curiosity—let alone risk-taking—is now a liability at The Times. Why edit something challenging to our readers, or write something bold only to go through the numbing process of making it ideologically kosher, when we can assure ourselves of job security (and clicks) by publishing our 4000th op-ed arguing that Donald Trump is a unique danger to the country and the world? And so self-censorship has become the norm.”
  • “Online venom is excused so long as it is directed at the proper targets.”
  • “Even now, I am confident that most people at The Times do not hold these views. Yet they are cowed by those who do. Why? Perhaps because they believe the ultimate goal is righteous. Perhaps because they believe that they will be granted protection if they nod along as the coin of our realm—language—is degraded in service to an ever-shifting laundry list of right causes.”
  • “As places like The Times and other once-great journalistic institutions betray their standards and lose sight of their principles, Americans still hunger for news that is accurate, opinions that are vital, and debate that is sincere. I hear from these people every day. “An independent press is not a liberal ideal or a progressive ideal or a democratic ideal. It’s an American ideal,” you said a few years ago. I couldn’t agree more. America is a great country that deserves a great newspaper.”
  • “[Ideas] cannot win on their own. They need a voice. They need a hearing. Above all, they must be backed by people willing to live by them.”

 

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What scares you, General Mattis?

 

As seen on C-Span’s “Book TV” recently–a video from Jan. 14, 2020. The Hoover Institution at Stanford University held a panel discussion titled “The Crucible of Citizenship,” exploring how Americans can form a strong citizenry from its diverse population. An excerpt from the Q&A session:

Q. (student in the audience): I’m a young voter and citizen…. There’s a lot of noise going on [in geopolitical conflicts]…. I want to know [when you look at all the current situations], what scares you specifically?

A. (from Michael McConnell, professor at Stanford Law School): One of the things that scares me is when I hear candidates from both of the great parties of this country talking about silly stuff and not addressing things that really matter to the country.

A. (from Gen. James Mattis, formerly in the Trump Administration): Let me add something there. I was Secretary of Defense…. Right now, there are threats…. We’re concerned about North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons and that sort of thing, and Russia’s bellicose rhetoric…. We have terrorism, an ambient threat….

What scares me worse than any external threat is how Americans are treating each other right now in public life. (Audience applauds.) If we don’t get back to showing some fundamental respect, to listening to one another, to showing a degree of friendliness toward one another…. I mean, I’ve fought terrorists for a long time, I know what terror looks like…. When I hear somebody in public life calling a fellow American a terrorist just because they have a different idea about how to address a problem, that worries me more than the Russian army, I guarantee you.

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Jeopardy Beyond COVID: Answers in the Form of a Question

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I commented in this blog on April 27, 2020, that it seems timely for Catholics to prepare for the next spiritual metaphor of the COVID-19 epic. The phenomena of quarantining and distancing, which continue to evolve as we struggle to understand the virus’s long-term behavior, first seemed to invite the world into a kind of retreat experience, “growing us up” through private acts of self-denial and quiet isolation to ponder our priorities and responsibilities as individuals. Emerging conditions now call for even bolder spiritual adaptations as we return into the hot sunlight of the public square. Christians might want to respond by adopting the metaphor of a “devotional” that can guide us on a new journey together.

The devotionals in this analogy are a genre of books used to focus believers’ attention on particular areas of their spiritual or moral life. This genre helps people connect the resources of their faith to the demands of practical decision-making. These books often follow a “day by day” structure, where each small chapter comprises a topic-specific title, a related passage from the Bible or another inspired set of guidelines, and a contemporary reflection or set of questions to enlighten the reader. This can be a form of preparation for a journey. After our “retreat” of realignment to principles, we’re ready to accept a newly urgent sense of “mission”–to facilitate and optimize the sweeping changes anticipated to arise in this time of COVID. A long season of self-satisfied Catholicism seems to be coming to an end.

Urgent-Care Discipleship

Perhaps the task ahead for all people of good will is the mop-up of a mess–the aftermath of a global pandemic with its accompanying impacts stirring uncertainty, vulnerability, and volatility. The health crisis, with its social, political, and economic turmoil, has forced us to see unimaginable levels of financial tomfoolery, international intrigue, decay in physical and mental well-being, and moral and spiritual sloth. It behooves us to plan for a period of corrective action that leaves no room for hubris or finger-pointing. Pundits already call this prospect the “new normal.” Catholics may be called to see the prediction of “transformation” as an opportunity for evangelization. Such outreach in extremis evokes Pope Francis’ often-cited image of parishes as “field hospitals” where tough diagnostic questions are asked, cures are sought, and the overarching task is compassion for the traumatized.

Ultimately, it’s a compassion based on knowing we’re all in this mess together: We’re prudent to offer each other the best that we can be. If we are to accept the challenge to heal the world, any resource we carry as a “devotional” must support lifetime-learning of our faith and lifetime-listening to our brothers’ and sisters’ diverse perspectives. We also need to be better informed about the fast-moving policy challenges that threaten to derail whole societies. Accordingly, we must stabilize ourselves, becoming better conformed to the faith, hope, and love (along with truth, goodness, beauty, and joy) found in deeper relationships with the Lord. We must not leave the Holy Spirit out of these relationships; He’ll be the paraclete, comforter, and personal tutor with whom we consult regularly. 

Helping fellow citizens to navigate sharp course-corrections by sharing the Church”s wisdom and Christ’s love is something I would call  “urgent-care discipleship.” It’s a win-win if drawing close to the precipice helps both us and our neighbors discover we’re in jeopardy together and retreat to safety. But the job description also requires diplomatic skills. We must not be seen as “know-it-all” evangelists, bounding on to the secular scene like traffic cops with “stop” signs and promising our revealed wisdom that will prevent every misstep. Instead, we must acknowledge we’re precipice-prone wanderers too– although we have a well-attuned sense of direction. We ask really good questions and ponder how everything is connected to everything else. We don’t claim to have instant answers to all the world’s crises, but we instinctively have a big, beautiful view of the world–a world in the care of a loving God–and our hopeful wonderment somehow grants access to answers we all need.

To the degree that secular governments and organizations will maintain room for inclusive and well-reasoned conversations when many stakeholders are demanding fast action, people of faith must earn and hold their place at the table of discourse. We must present a winsome side, radiating peace of heart, rather than a spirit of superiority or fear. A world which no longer welcomes God but grudgingly knows it needs Him will put up with Christianity lingering as urgent-care reserves. But it will want to hear Christ’s followers say, “We are at your service. What is it you need? Here is how we believe the Lord’s grace can enter into our deliberations.”

The Power of Questions

And I believe the Lord will act through people of faith to raise exactly the right questions, to stir up the appropriate amount of surprising insight and mysterious mercy, just as he did when Jesus walked the earth. Likewise, he will use people who are humble rather than haughty, marginalized rather than elite, well-formed rather than rebellious, ready to share the heavy yoke of suffering and pain rather than angry or impatient or committed to the illusion of autonomy.

Questions have become the lingua franca of a world educated for deconstructionism. So many people have come to distrust people and institutions claiming the authority to posit answers and impose responsibilities. When we ask questions, they can be invitations to respect all sides of the story, to note that everyone can take ownership of the search for solutions.

Questions, when formulated correctly, are a portal into a ,panorama. They can’t be merely journalistic “follow-up” questions that ask to hear more from the dominant players about their plans. The basis of questions from people of faith must be an effort to express curiosity, a hunger for information, prompted by a lively worldview that includes marginalized people in all kinds of group. This curiosity, ultimately an effort to take God’s view of situations, can keep asking courteous but challenging questions like: What about the effect on this or that group of people? Have you thought about the ramifications for this or that area of concern, or for broader concern about the whole human ecology and the environment? Can we hear more from other voices about their reaction to this problem or that proposed solution?

Questions can open up discussions to people who lack the pre-established “authority” or “expertise” that is usually expressed by submitting “answers.” Often, the answers go into such depth that they can dominate the discourse. It’s important to go into depth to scrutinize all aspects of situations and plans, but we must also capture a breadth of perspectives on the answers. When parties seated around a society’s tables of discourse include requests for broader input and reminders of additional considerations, .they can show respect for the experts. But their questions may also uncover the experts’ own inevitable biases and blind spots and, through additional input, make the proposed solutions even more detailed, fine-tuned, transparent, and just.

A motif of dynamic, spontaneous questioning is a good way to boost humility among all participants. Sometimes, the questioner is simply acknowledging that he or she does not fully understand what is being said at the moment, and this can lead to further explication, causing everyone to be better informed. Sometimes, questioning keeps the presenters of proposals more humble if they must acknowledge there are aspects of a plan which aren’t as clear or certain as they might have sounded in a first presentation. Also, welcoming questions from all participants prompts everyone to be more engaged and not to stand silently apart with a stance of victimization or constant complaint. Humility is an appropriate response to the high levels of uncertainty, even mystery and paradox, which may be inherent in the crises faced and solutions considered.

Questions recognize that words used in debate these days are too often oversimplified or weaponized in manipulative ways. Or they may need clarification simply because the words used within a culture evolve in their meanings or may carry “baggage” that distorts conversation by injecting assumptions and emotions. In discussions where multiple cultures and countries may be involved, it’s necessary to confirm that all participants agree on the meaning of a word, and the emergence of cross-cultural synonyms will increase learning not only about the thing being described, but also about how others will respond to that thing given the diversity of perspectives. All of this is also true of the need to scrutinize statistics and metrics used in argumentation. The effectiveness of discussions is affected not only by what is said, but by what is left unsaid or “assumed.”

Questions are also the first tool of “urgent-care discipleship” because they are recognizable as the necessary first step in any “urgent-care” situation. Medical personnel or other “first responders” must begin their work with extensive inquiry into the context of the discussion topic–its past as well as its present, its objective realities as well as its subjective effects. The role of subjectivity–indeed the fundamental need to treat all parties as “subjects” with inherent dignity rather than “objects” who are simply acted upon–also reminds leaders to care sincerely about the participants in a discussion, to take into consideration the pains and hardships they are experiencing and fearing. These may not be factors that “think tanks” and other experts weigh when drawing up their policy proposals, but they are sure to affect the success of discussions and outcomes. In a medical urgent-care setting, it’s expected that the first questions will be basic: How are you feeling? What hurts? Could this problem be related to some other underlying issue? These are the first steps in what Pope Francis would call genuine personal encounters and efforts to accompany others on the way to remedies and renewal.

Questions and Quests to Multiply Learning

These points constitute my tribute to the role of questions as a problem-solving force that Catholics and Christians, and all those with an authentic focus on “the other,” will want to bring to the table of discussions where emergency responses are considered but deeper, longer-term, less technocratic, and more human solutions must also be weighed. At first, an inclination toward asking tough questions may be seen as a nuisance or stalling tactic, especially if people of faith appear to be blocking proposed actions seen as fast and convenient but utilitarian and shallow in a short-sighted way. In the long run, practitioners of diligent inquiry who are surfacing deeper insights from minds and hearts will gain more, not less, credibility and trust. They will be invited to offer their own interpretations–and make their own proposals–whenever “easy answers” are revealed to be insufficient.

And emphasizing questions is not to say that people bringing God to the table should shy away from making proposals. Their proposed solutions will carry more weight than might even be acknowledged, partly because their obvious engagement in the process and their goal of big-picture understanding will make them more persuasive among other participants. Also, when the proposals they make are seen to be informed by immense resources of faith and reason as embodied in past and present Church wisdom, it will be more difficult for more secular discussants to dismiss them. They will see in Church wisdom the same well-intentioned inquiry, person-focused compassion, and zeal for consistent, ecologically aware, connection-making initiatives shown by those representing spiritual strengths at the conversation table.

That is the point I took away from sagacious secular commentary I have found from editorial content consultant Sean Blanda in a blog post, “The Other Side is Not Dumb,” He was cited in the book, Writing to Persuade by Trish Hall. Blanda invented a game he called “Controversial Opinions,” in which players ask each other “why they feel a certain way” about a topic or proposal. They cannot ask any other questions. Players with opinions that differ are not allowed to defend their views with conventional argumentation but first must report on their new understanding that they are in the presence of people with “objectionable” ideas. The players then have homework: They must sincerely look into the facts people have offered to explain why they feel the way they do. This mandate for listening and learning would make a good source of reflection for those entering into complex, urgent policy deliberations.

I also found support in a July 1, 2020 article by Our Sunday Visitor, “Member of Vatican’s COVID-19 Commission Says ‘We Must Use This Opportunity to Envision a Better Future.'” The Catholic newspaper interviewed Rev. Augusto Zampini, a member of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and a participant in the commission Pope Francis created to consider the Church’s next steps in the post-lockdown phase of the viral pandemic.

A Devotional that Reflects on Us

Father Zampini clearly believes the Church has a position to take and a role to play as diverse voices around the world participate in shaping the “new normal.” It is a galvanizing role that does not shy away from stimulating critiques of the pre-COVID “old normal” or making specific, big-picture proposals for consideration. He cites ideas for justice and mercy the Pope has suggested in the past to address systemic policy problems now seen more compellingly everywhere. They include initiatives for debt forgiveness, decreased military spending, and improved stewardship of the human ecology, sharing resources with needy persons on the margins of society. First comes the building of awareness and the promotion of problem-solving efforts on a grand scale, Zampini indicates.

“We must avoid the belief that the crisis is over,” according to Zampini. Elsewhere in the article, he says: “We need leaders in public, private, and civil sectors to press the reset button–to once and for all realize that the way we have been living our lives until now is not sustainable.” The COVID crisis has created “an unprecedented opportunity to reflect on the shortcomings of our institutions and development models

It’s clear the Commission will tap into the panoramic perspective of the Holy Father. It will work with partners around the world to speak truth to power and to promote programs that have been shown to increase justice and charity. Deliberations about new directions in various countries may vary in the degree to which they welcome Church involvement, but that is no reason to be silent. The Church “can become an active institution throughout the crisis, standing by those in need, giving a voice to the forgotten and presenting world leaders a new path,” Zampini says.

The Vatican is setting the tone for a next phase of Catholic action worldwide and in the United States as I have described it above. The implementation still will depend on many things, including the timing and confluence of different political developments and crisis points. Be prepared for a perfect storm of opportunities for “urgent-care discipleship,” Zampini seems to be saying.

Our evangelization efforts, if American Catholics do indeed choose to respond en masse at the future milestones of our post-lockdown journey, should comprise some mix of clear, informed proposals and challenging but valuable questions for decision-makers and power-brokers. We don’t yet know how amenable presidents, legislators, media pundits, and others will be toward heeding voices of faith–or voices of the marginalized and world-weary–as the “new normal” takes shape amid a highly polarized, secularized, and self-centered culture.

Despite this uncertainty, now seems like a good time to get our devotionals out–or to build our spiritual muscles with some sort of resources appropriate to the end of an era of self-satisfied Catholicism. My own preference is for a visionary approach that does indeed enhance our lives of “devotion” to faith as a reliable force for healing institutions and individuals. A love of Scripture, sound reasoning, good listening, and constant learning from Church insights will be the perfect complements to our faith-strengthening regimens. Recalling that faith is centered on an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ and that Jesus himself taught people by asking questions as he walked the earth, my vote is for a devotional that prepares us to preach by prodding, to make connections and spark conversations.

Our first prayer can be for deliverance from any further storms, sparing us from this difficult mission into the turbulent seas of crisis-driven debate. But if predictions of a historic pivot point do come true in a year or two or three, so be it. As our prayers turn more toward preparing to “show world leaders a new path,” as Zampini puts it, we are the prime beneficiaries of path-finder work that must not stop. We can adjust to a time of endless questions and doubts that transforms our lives simply by growing our trust in God. We can be thankful that the worldwide retreat which laid the groundwork for our timely yet timeless journey taught us that God is always with us, asking, hearing, and healing. He’s at home in field hospitals and urgent-care centers. He speaks their language: How are you feeling? What is it you seek? Go make disciples. Be not afraid.

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Happiness and the Jordan Peterson Factor

Jordan Peterson interviewed Bishop Robert Barron, discussing plot twists our world needs now. This post was published in Fr. Robert Spitzer’s Magis Center blog on June 3.

Imagine we’re writing the current chapter in a history of human relationships to government and God. This 2020 installment comprises a pandemic, social polarization, tragedies of life and livelihood, political paralysis, tragic urban violence, and countless souls in turmoil. The short-term solutions we forge from ad hoc policies and practices could lead to greater crises and disputes. We Catholics should be glad that we are “cast” and that a loving God is actually overseeing the real plot line.

Can we prepare well for an era of grueling public discourse desperate to solve practical problems coupled with profound spiritual challenges? Our world uses lots of right-vs.-wrong language these days, but it’s often based on individual points of view unmoored from any consensus about religious values or the common good. Our combination of moralism and relativism has not proven promising.

An Authority for Our Self-Authorship

Allow me to use this chapter to introduce a new character into the script and our discussion. I pray he will be dialoguing with Catholics even more than he has in the past, just as he has inspired countless college students and opinion-shapers via numerous media.

His name is Jordan B. Peterson, Ph.D., a Canadian psychologist, author, and public intellectual whose fame has transcended academia. (I speak of praying for him because this year brought distressing news about his health, including a complicated battle against drug dependency.)

I suspect many of you who already have discovered him share my hope that this controversial, real-life “character,” who aspires to noble character traits, will continue to promote transformative public discourse. One of this truth-seeker’s areas of inquiry—a subject appropriate to the Catholic story line we’re discerning—is whether he believes in God. Alas, archives of his videos suggest he has not been ready to answer in the affirmative.

But, when Peterson interviewed Bishop Robert Barron on a podcast last summer, the distinguished Church leader from the Word on Fire ministries lauded him as a sort of evangelist. “I think you’ve opened a lot of doors for people to religion in an era when the new atheists are very influential with young people,” Bishop Barron said; Peterson, despite his scientific viewpoint or perhaps because of it, maps a path whereby many people who crave a sense of meaning—in their lives and in the world—can “at least reconsider religion” as a rational alternative.

Watch the podcast to see Peterson’s urgent call to transcend sloppy secularism, acknowledging mankind’s “metaphysical” ability to create hellish chaos through malevolence and hunger for “material happiness.” He tells Barron that Catholicism should proclaim bolder mandates for personal excellence. We should instruct each other, “You need a noble goal in life to buttress yourself against its catastrophe.” Through his science-centric lens, he perceives a “structure” by which humans can generate order amid suffering by becoming their best selves.

Peterson and the Four Levels of Happiness 

Here’s my interpretation: Peterson zealously wants himself and everyone to stand in the gap between levels two and three as defined in Fr. Spitzer’s outline of the four levels of happiness. He has realized the level-two ethos of comparative advantage will lead only to hollow, fleeting happiness. He points his audiences toward the level-three contributive stance; if we strive to become individual antidotes to our toxified human ecology, we can make the world better.

The podcast discussants don’t engage with the four-levels schema, but Bishop Barron does salute Peterson as architect of a kind of happiness bridge. For secular audiences in the ego traps at Fr. Spitzer’s first and second levels, it appears the Canadian’s “rules for life” do provide a religion-friendly push toward awareness of our suffering cell-mates. Summoning up our curative talents, he virtually shouts to the worldly, “Do something!” He explains, “The critical element of belief is action.”

However, I see Barron less than satisfied by this stoic prescription, even though it enhances our story line. It leaves God out of the picture. In a separate Word on Fire video, the bishop suggests Peterson’s fans could aim higher. They have nobly begun a hero’s journey, but we need to provide motivation for further “baby steps” toward a loving God with whom the secular world can wholeheartedly participate. 

Without God, there can be therapy for our souls’ emptiness, but we atomistic antibodies will never generate a transformative happiness and rift-healing communion. Barron implicitly reminds Peterson not to try to answer the need for God; he explicitly but gently says he prefers to present “a hundred ways into the question of God” (emphases added). These nudges of wonderment include worship of the true hero. They include acts of love spread among all of us in the supporting cast as we pursue and share in the incarnated, eternally unitive source of happiness found at level four.

The quartet of levels illuminates a key synergy for the history we hope will end well. Peterson’s creditable desire for self-empowering disciplines to replace insecure ennui can launch us beyond the plateau of ego comparison where so many people are trapped. But Barron’s explorations on a higher trajectory lead toward even more panoramic imagination and communion with God—a hero’s journey alongside Love, the star, who’s on the way. The psychoanalyst finds level three through responsibility. The bishop finds level four through response-ability.

From self-gain to self-gift 

So where does this leave today’s chapter in our story? I foresee a secular society confronting policy problems with short-term solutions, perhaps drawn from levels one and two. This character named Peterson contributes conciliatory approaches and rules that successfully elevate our attention from self-gain to self-gift. Applaud him for offering good answers. 

Over the longer term, we Catholics and our fellow travelers must evangelize more robustly, keeping hope-filled religion in the public debates. Conversation and community-building curiosity remain our instruments–but based on God, history’s irreplaceable, omnipresent character. Christ’s own action provides the ultimate plot twists if we humbly seek Him. We can help people rediscover Him—and level-four happiness—guided by many compelling voices of faith, such as Bishop Barron. Applaud him for offering great questions. 

By Bill Schmitt

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