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.

About Bill Schmitt

OnWord.net is the home for Bill Schmitt's blog and biographical information. This blog, initiated during Bill's nearly 14 years as a communications professional at Notre Dame, expresses Bill's opinions alone. Go to "About Bill Schmitt" and "I Link, Therefore I Am" to see samples of multimedia content I'm producing now and have produced during my journalism career and my marketing communications career. Like me at facebook.com/wgschmitt, follow me on Twitter @wschmitt, and meet "bill schmitt" on LinkedIn.
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