Messianic or Bourgeois?
Following a junior varsity lacrosse game one slushy spring afternoon in suburban Boston, I overheard a player ask another, Can you be an M.F.O. and take the water jug back to the bus for me, so I can catch a ride with my dad? I wondered, What is an M.F.O.? As a teacher in a Jesuit high school, I take modest pride in my ability to decode teen vernacular. But I was stupefied. I inquired and learned that M.F.O. is shorthand for man for others. Oh no, I thought. What have we done?
Those familiar with Jesuit secondary education know the shared language often employed to describe its animating mission and distinct identity. The Grad at Grad (Graduate at Graduation) urges our graduates to be intellectually competent, open to growth, religious, loving and committed to doing justice. Catchphrases like magis (the more), cura personalis (care for the person), finding God in all things and women and men for others help make accessible the Jesuit tradition. Undoubtedly, this language galvanizes students and faculty to embody this identity and illuminate its mission to the world. It looks sharp on a Web site and tugs at the heartstrings of anxious and caring parents of eighth grade students.
But its ready-made, packaged presentation can also undermine its prophetic character. When this common language is invoked apart from its context within the life story of Ignatius Loyola, a great miseducation can occur. In that case, the countercultural character of our Ignatian education is supplanted by an affirmation of the status quo plus academic excellence, and a Jesuit high school becomes indistinguishable from other elite college preparatory schools. Our unique language becomes a marketing device for glossy admission pamphlets that contribute to the name-branding of Jesuit secondary education.
The catechetical task of communicating the memory of St. Ignatius to students is a dangerous one. It is dangerous because the marketability and accessibility of Ignatian-speak makes it vulnerable to an uncritical appropriation that baptizes the privileges of an American middle-class lifestyle. Yet the catechetical task is dangerous in a positive way as well. When the language communicates the Jesuit identity of the school through the narrative of St. Ignatius, it teaches students to see the world in a radically new way. In this way Jesuit education fulfills its fundamental mission of teaching students to discern by seeing with new eyes.
Metz’s Notion of the Bourgeois and Messianic
Johann Baptist Metz, a prize pupil of Karl Rahner, defines theology as interruption, and introduces the categories of bourgeois and messianic religion. Bourgeois religion endorses the haves, the propertied, those whose seemingly guaranteed future allows them to take life for granted. Metz characterizes bourgeois religion as the adaptation of the Gospel to society so that any tensions between discipleship and living in the world, particularly in the first world, are eliminated. In place of a messianic future animated by the virtues of repentance, unconditional love for the least brethren and compassion, bourgeois religion affirms autonomy, competitive struggle, property, stability and success. A messianic religion takes sides, without hatred, by asserting a universality of love that reflects the partisan stance that Jesus took in privileging those on the margins of society. In Faith and the Future, Metz asks, Is there not a concept of universal Christian love in bourgeois’ religion that is just sloppy, and one that hardly needs any longer to prove itself as love of enemies because the feeble and unpartisan way it bridges all the agonizing contradictions means that it has no opponents left at all? Jesus was not nailed to a cross because he equated loving the world with getting along with everyone or being nice. Jesus interrupted the world by challenging people to see the world in a new way. Most profoundly, God interrupts the imagination of the world by revealing God’s self most completely in the stripped, insulted, beaten-down and spat-upon Christ.
Metz’s theology of interruption resonates with the life story of Ignatius Loyola. Ignatius’ unceasing desire to help souls resulted in continuing conversations with others about their relationship with God, and these conversations often disrupted the expectations of his contemporaries. Ignatius’ commitment to making faith a public matter inevitably created adversaries. Of course suspicion was heightened during the Spanish Inquisition, when an unschooled drifter dressed in sackcloth while engaging others in spiritual conversations would be certain to raise an eyebrow. At Alcalá he was arrested in connection with the disappearance of two noblewomen. It was later learned that they had merely responded to his conversations by traveling and serving the poor in one hospital and then another. Ignatius was released from prison on the condition that he refrain from speaking publicly about faith until he had studied for four more years. At the University of Salamanca he found himself in prison following a dinner conversation with the local Dominican friars. While his judges found no error in his message, he was ordered once again to stop talking to people about God until he completed further studies. Since Ignatius could not agree to these restrictions, he took his studies to the University of Paris. The resulting history of the Society of Jesus is characterized by an inextinguishable desire to continue these conversations in the farthest corners of the globe.
Ignatius inextricably linked love of God with love of neighbor. This is expressed in the common Jesuit expression contemplative in action. When Ignatius lays down his arms before a statue of Our Lady in the Benedictine abbey at Montserrat, he exchanges his fine Spanish attire for the uniform of a beggar. During a visit home to Azpeítia, he refused to enjoy the comforts of his family’s estate, and he slept with the poor, orphans and the sick. During the famine winter of 1538 in Rome, Ignatius and his companions transformed their poor apartments into makeshift shelters. When begging was banned in Rome, Ignatius obtained a decree from the pope to alleviate the effects of the prohibition and founded the Society of Orphans. While other institutions were offering aid to prostitutes, with the stipulation that they spend the rest of their lives as religious penitents, Ignatius established the House of St. Martha, which offered hospitality without condition. Ignatius’ devotion to Christ necessarily resulted in imaginative transformation of the world.
Jerome Nadal, a close associate of Ignatius, remarked that the world is our home. In his book Ignatian Humanism, Ronald Modras identifies the unity and universality of truth as a defining characteristic of the Renaissance origins of Ignatian humanism. Finding God in all things is manifest in Matteo Ricci’s recognition of natural law in Confucius, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s embrace of Darwinism as pointing to all matter as having a heart and Karl Rahner’s ability to see Martin Heidegger as a conversation partner. Yet with this humanistic openness comes the danger of understanding God in all things as baptizing every human endeavor. The Ignatian worldview, because of its daring optimism, is naturally more susceptible to bourgeois hijacking. But Ignatian spirituality, when faithful to its origins in the life experience of Ignatius, makes visible suffering in the world and resists the temptation to avoid the fundamental contradictions that produce suffering. This is the punch behind the question posed by Pedro Arrupe, the former superior general of the Jesuits, Have we educated you for justice?
Because of its humanist origins, Jesuit education must vigilantly guard against the misuse of its language. For example, magis is rightly understood as the fruit of a discernment of spirits in search of that which more brings about union with God. Instead it often becomes, at best, an unreflective motivation affirming that the more school activities I am involved in, the more I am of value to it. At worst it means the busier I am the more I find value in myself. After teaching at two Jesuit high schools, I can attest that the latter two translations are a real temptation among students and faculty alike. In this case, magis becomes a principle of bourgeois religion as it dangerously stamps an Ignatian seal of approval on a culture that equates constant busyness, mass productivity and maximum efficiency with worth. Similarly, finding God in all things, communicated apart from Ignatius’ intense asceticism and the period of prayer during the Spiritual Exercises that is devoted to considering the suffering of Christ, can end up baptizing every human endeavor at the expense of a self-critical awareness. In this way it risks becoming an Ignatian form of American exceptionalism. And to be women and men for others means much more than performing random acts of kindness or simply being nice. Pedro Arrupe articulated an education for justice that moves its graduates to confront unjust structures that produce poverty with imaginative transformation. Similar to what Metz calls class treason, this stance against the world in service of love for the world carries a great cost. The memory of the martyred Jesuits of the University of Central America in San Salvador keeps us mindful of the danger inherent in this discipleship.
Obvious questions of cognitive and moral development arise when applying the interruptive nature of Ignatian education to high school students. Yet unless we connect the catchphrases used to communicate our Jesuit mission and identity with the story of Ignatius, our students may miss the imaginatively prophetic dimension of our spirituality. I believe that graduating seniors are capable of understanding that magis is not the same as overloading college résumés with activities and that being women and men for others means more than opening the door for a fellow student or carrying a bottle of water back to the bus for a teammate. Certainly this will not happen unless students and faculty are conversant with the narrative of Ignatius and the seminal Jesuit Secondary Education Association documents that further articulate this language. As the number of Jesuits at Jesuit schools continues to dwindle, the need for such formation becomes ever more pressing. I wonder how many graduating seniors from Jesuit high schools, or faculty members for that matter, have really understood the demanding rhetoric of Pedro Arrupe’s landmark address, Men for Others.
As Ignatian educators, we need to communicate both to our students and to the world. Our schools should look and be different from neighboring private college preparatory institutions. Jesuit education must ultimately interrupt its students’ worldviews so that they can begin to see the world as it is. Seeing the world with new eyes is at the heart of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. It defines that most profound mystical experience of Ignatius at the Cardoner River early in his conversion. Jesuit education must do more than produce nice philanthropists. Herein lies the difference between a messianic and a bourgeois education.