Lesson 1: Theology of the Spirit

Pope FrancisMany of us think Pope Francis serves as a much-needed model of the faith in our time, at least in his words and personal examples. Obviously, some of his witness has been thwarted by the very institutional structures that he identifies as outdated and irrelevant.

I’d like to spend some time examining the Theology of the Spirit that undergirds his work, partially for my own edification, but primarily because it speaks to the needs of our time. I see this as the contribution of theologians from the Southern Hemisphere who were involved in the General Conference of Bishops of Latin America and Caribbean meeting at Rio in 1955, Medellin in 1968, Puebla in 1979, Santa Domino in 1992, and Aparecida in 2007. Pope Francis’ 2013 Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) reflects their perspectives.

This theology calls for discerning God presently at work in our history. It is often characterized as regarding reality to be greater than ideas or placing the heart over the mind, because it emphasizes dealing with real life situations rather than theological doctrines or moral absolutes. Although it is prophetic in terms of speaking for God in the present, it refrains from making moralistic judgments or imposing cultic practices.

Instead, it proclaims the dignity of every person just as they are. Francis’ version is often called a Theology of the People, because it emphasizes going out to and listening to all people, especially those who are poor, marginalized, or despised in the present society. Actually, he goes further, speaking of these as people for whom there is no room in our modern systems. Pundits call them the useless or worthless in a technological society. The description says it all.

Francis calls for encountering these people in their local human cultures, in the places, families, and communities in which they are rooted. His incarnational theology claims it is also here where we shall meet and engage God, not in ecclesiastical structures or abstract studies.

This approach regards the new global culture, and especially the growing inequality associated with it, as the greatest problems facing humanity and Christianity. It constantly speaks of the structural causes of inequality being the root of all social ills and usually describes these as financial systems that rule rather than serve. In the modern global society, money is king. Finance shapes our destiny rather than serves our needs. Everything depends on employment opportunities, new technologies, and easy investment.

The Theology of the Spirit maintains that our old theological tools and ecclesiastical practices can’t begin to understand or address the situation in which we find ourselves. Preaching no salvation outside of the church alone makes no sense. Teaching justification by faith alone answers a question no longer asked.

Francis believes salvation is found within history, especially in our work for peace and justice. He warns our efforts have no potential unless we must make sure the voices of all people are heard. The church still helps build a more human culture by offering visions, not programs, for the Beloved Community. But even more importantly, she confidently seeks a unity in diversity by hearing and learning from others. Romano Guardini is often cited for his belief that reality involves holding contrasting notions in tension.

Central to this new theology is the attempt to recover our personal and communal relationship to Jesus who is the paradigm of humanity. We follow his going out to the people to proclaim good news to the poor wherever they are found.

It quickly becomes apparent this theology challenges what is happening all around us. It decries nationalism or any “my group first” approach that exploits the weak. It opposes xenophobic fragmentation, the demonizing of immigrants, and the proliferation of endless wars. Its adherents champion the right to education, dignified work, and health care.

But perhaps even more essential, Francis advocates fostering fundamental human dignity by simple acts such as using the words “please,” “thank you,” and “sorry” in the family. As Francis constantly suggests, this is the way we acknowledge “It is good you exist.”

This is a pretty bare bones treatment of the theology. I hope to delve deeper into its different aspects in the coming weeks.

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