‘God Is Not Fair’: Author Q&A with Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Fr. Dan Horan, O.F.M. (photo provided)

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is a Franciscan priest, theologian and writer. A columnist for America, he is the author of several books including The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton: A New Look at the Spiritual Influence on his Life, Thought, and Writing.

Currently a visiting assistant professor of systematic theology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Fr. Horan previously taught in the department of religious studies at Siena College and in the department of theology at St. Bonaventure University, where he graduated with a B.A. before entering religious life. He also serves on the board of directors of the International Thomas Merton Society.


Fr. Horan’s latest book, God Is Not Fair, and Other Reasons for Gratitude, was published by Franciscan Media on Oct. 14. On Nov. 10, I interviewed him by email about this book.

Why did you write this book?

In light of the “interesting” times (to put it mildly) in which we find ourselves, a conversation with my editors at Franciscan Media led to the idea that we collect and publish some of my recent essays on timely issues such as culture, politics, faith, scripture and vocation. I strongly believe that there are so many ways that the Christian message and the sources of faith—scripture, tradition, experience, reason etc.—can better inform how we respond to our contemporary circumstances, and I wanted to share that with a broader audience.

What is the message of this book?

The original working title for the book was Signs of the Times taken from the opening paragraph of Vatican II’s "Gaudium et Spes" ("The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World") in which we are exhorted as Christians to interpret the events, issues and circumstances—both those that are joyous and those that are troublesome—in the light of the Gospel. If I had to summarize the message of the book, it’s precisely this idea of reading the signs of the times; namely, that Christians should return to scripture in general and the Gospels in particular for insights into how we should live today.

Who are you writing for?

I’m writing primarily for many of the same readers that America magazine reaches: intelligent women and men of faith interested in exploring the intersection of culture, politics and faith. I also hope this book might reach people who do not identify themselves as Christian, but might have misconceptions about what Christians believe and how they respond to contemporary issues. Hopefully, these reflections offer a renewed sense of Christian faith and its relationship to our whole lives for Christians and non-Christians alike.

The title of your new book is God Is Not Fair. What do you mean by that?

It comes from an essay in the book about the parable of “the workers in the vineyard” that appears in Matthew 20. Many people are familiar with Jesus’s depiction of the Kingdom of God in which a landowner goes out at several times during the day to hire workers and pays everybody, regardless of the amount of time in the field, the same full-day wage. To those who worked all day, this gesture of generosity seems unfair. And yet, as Jesus makes the point, this is only because our human sense of “fairness” is very conditional and at times very selfish. God is “unfair” by our human standards, which is actually a cause for rejoicing. God doesn’t judge us the way we judge one another; God isn’t stingy with us the way we are with one another; and God’s generosity isn’t limited with us as it is with one another. This is the starting point for the claim that “God is not fair.”

Why should we be grateful, as you put it in the book, that God is not fair?

The primary reason for gratitude in that parable is that God does not operate according to same the “wisdom” or “logic” that we do. God’s generosity is neither conditional nor is it governed by the human laws of the market or partisan politics, which is indeed a reason for thanks. There are other ways that our faith should inspire in us gratitude, but these ways are sometimes hard to see when we are so saturated with the “wisdom of the world” and put ourselves before others.

Your subtitle refers to “other reasons for gratitude.” What does gratitude mean to you and what are the reasons for it that you reference here?

As I mentioned earlier, I believe that the manifold ways that God’s love, mercy and generosity are extended to us daily are reasons for gratitude. Gratitude is a sense of thanksgiving, a recognition that we have indeed been given a gift that is not owed to us and that we cannot earn, and that should elicit in us a spirit of thankfulness, which in turn leads us to be loving, merciful and generous with others.

What role does your Franciscan background play in this book?

It’s all the way through the book! I cannot really separate my Franciscan identity from my reflection on our faith. I believe that Francis and Clare of Assisi were “foolish” according to the world in a way similar to the foolishness of God as St. Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians. The Franciscan tradition isn’t especially unique in this regard; other religious traditions also hold up the importance of Gospel living as opposed to the self-centeredness encouraged by the world, but it is the tradition I best know and one that provides the whole church with so many examples of this way to be a “fool for God” (Francis, Clare and many of those who followed them).

In addition to writing popular Catholic books, you are a theologian and columnist for America. How would you describe your theology?

My theology is deeply Franciscan (perhaps that goes without saying) and remains committed to what we might call the theological method of Vatican II—namely, that theology is always both a ressourcement (a return to the sources of scripture and tradition) for the sake of aggiornamento (an “updating” and clarification of the tenets of the faith we proclaim). I am especially interested doing what is sometimes called “constructive” theology, that is a way of engaging in systematic theological reflection that seeks to advance our understanding in ways that respond to the “signs of our times” (to borrow from Gaudium et Spes), while always being mindful of the contexts and circumstances that inform that theological reflection. My academic theological work—writing, lecturing and teaching—is also connected to spirituality and a life of prayer, and vice versa. These are inseparable aspects of the practice of theology.

How do you pray?

In addition to the community experience of praying the divine office (the Liturgy of the Hours) and the Eucharist, I find that I reflect on developing two pillars of prayer. The first is an increasing awareness that we need to move from merely “saying prayers” to becoming a “living prayer” (as Thomas of Celano wrote about St. Francis of Assisi). We are always already communicating with our Creator in our words and deeds, so an increasing awareness of how God is already near to me and what my actions and words are “saying” to God with my whole life is a form of prayer.  Secondly, the other pillar is the need for solitude. This is something I wrote about way back in 2007 in the pages of America, when I was a young Franciscan friar and was struggling to understand how to embrace the solitude necessary for a healthy relationship with God. The fruit of that discernment was the metaphor “dating God,” which later became the title of my first book.

Who have been the biggest influences, living or dead, on your faith and vocation?

Wow, that’s a big question. I can only name a few here. Certainly my parents and family have influenced my faith and vocation. I am also inspired by the Franciscan tradition (obviously), the particular figures in which would take too much space here to identify in whole. Thomas Merton has been and continues to be both a figure of academic interest as well as a personal guide and inspiration for me. His writings are essential reading! In terms of my vocation, the friars I first met in college at St. Bonaventure University in western New York had a big influence on my decision to give Franciscan life a try—they inspired me with their welcoming and fraternal example and support. And then there are the many theologians, living and deceased, that have inspired me. I cannot name them all here, but they have helped me to see how the academic work of theology, the ministry of teaching and the sharing of our faith also to a general audience is an essential aspect of my vocation.

What are your hopes for the future?

That our nation, our world, and our church does not succumb to the divisions, violence, racism, xenophobia and misogyny that has been all-too-common in the 2016 election season, both here in the United States and abroad. Many people are hurting and feel left out and forgotten. We must all try to listen to them without scapegoating others which, as 20th-century history has made abundantly clear, can lead to horrendous violence and destruction.

What regrets do you have about the past?

About my past in particular? Certainly any time that I misunderstood another or was uncharitable in my reading, listening or response. Sadly, I fear that there are always instances where I lack the patience or openness to learn from someone with whom I disagreed, which is a regret that many people—especially other professors and scholars—probably can understand.

What is your favorite Bible passage and why?

Oh, that’s a good (and tough) question. It changes regularly because the Spirit inspires in different ways at different times. Lately, I find myself reflecting on and speaking a lot about Matthew 25 and John 21 when giving public lectures and retreats. I believe that both are instances of well-known passages that are often misunderstood, yet speak to the experiences, struggles and challenges of most people’s lives.

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis, what would it be?

Thank you for all that you have done to remind us of the centrality of the Gospel basics for Christian living and please be remain open to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for God certainly has more in store for us than we can typically imagine or think possible.

What do you want people to take away from your life and work?

I fear it’s too premature for me to think about my life and work, I hope that there are many more years of ministry, teaching and writing that God has in store for me into the future. I suppose if I had to say something now, I might say that I hope people remember me as someone who lived the Christian life imperfectly and struggled to follow Christ as we all do, yet also sincerely desired to minister to my sisters and brothers with the gifts God has entrusted to me: through teaching, through writing, through sacramental ministry. And that I am so grateful for the opportunities I have to share the Gospel and our faith with so many different people all over the world; it’s a true honor and blessing. If anything good comes of my life and work, it will be by God’s grace and the working of the Holy Spirit because, as St. Francis of Assisi said, the only thing I can truly take credit for are my weaknesses and sins.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Henry George
2 years 1 month ago
Thank you Fr. Salai, S.J. for the article. Thank you Fr. Dan Horan, O.F.M for your ministry. If only America Magazine and the Society of Jesus would remember not to embrace the passing vanities of our age.

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