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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Personal/Theological Notebook: The Project Being Assessed 
24th-Aug-2009 06:48 pm
One of Those Days
Erik dropped me off at the train station a little while back and I am now in Logan Airport, stuck. My 8pm flight to Milwaukee is now apparently leaving at 9:45pm because of a mechanical problem. There is another flight out to Milwaukee on Midwest at 10-something, so I feel confident that, even if my flight turns into the repeatedly-delayed-until-cancelled nightmare I experienced in Miami in 2004, I'll still be able to get home tonight at a reasonable hour. Or what I consider to be a reasonably hour.

I'm sitting in the same gate I arrived at on Thursday, where I walked down the hallway, glancing at the seats I'm now sitting in and wondered idly if this would be the time when I finally had the happy drama of running into someone I knew at the airport. Unbeknownst to me, I just missed seeing Chris Bettcher, who had gotten delayed getting to the airport, after being tipped by Erik (who she had been visiting prior to her move today to Boston) that I would be arriving at this gate. So I did miss that chance to have a [semi-]random reunion with an old friend.

My session today with Professor Fahey was first-rate, full of helpful information and ideas for the dissertation. Any feeling I had ever experienced of being isolated from my director since his retirement to the Boston College Jesuit community seemed to be erased retro-actively. I now had an extended experience of the tone of his voice to go with all the critical notes I had been receiving in emails and with chapter drafts. It was exciting for me to hear him not just being "present" in his work with me, but to hear him fully engaged and enthusiastic in the process.

The danger, of course, is that when you have been living with your dissertation for an extended time, you might start to "see the world through your dissertation." This is perhaps inevitable, and at a certain level is probably a good thing, a sign of being passionate about your work. The "dangerous" excess is that you might start to over-estimate your dissertation's significance or importance. For me this was a particular doubt that had started to grow in my mind, because I had begun to suspect that my dissertation was important. Not just the "important-for-me" important, or the "important-that-I-finish-it-and-get-a-job" important, but actually important for my entire field, or potentially important for the entire Roman Catholic Church. See what I mean about dangerous excess? I had begun my work thinking that I had designed a reasonably modest and useful task, recovering and highlighting the work of an under-represented theologian and trying to bring that into the contemporary conversation in a proactive way. As my work has progressed over these last few chapters, I began to realize that I had done what you are not supposed to do: I had accidentally begun a life-project: a work that I could conceivably spend an entire career developing. And I began to see that what I was doing had enormous potential in it, that it could give to the Church a new or clarified self-understanding, and a clearer language than it currently possessed in order to express that self-understanding. Or was I suffering from the tunnel vision that came with thinking for months on end about the same topic?

Apparently, having consulted two of the most senior living ecclesiologists over the past few days, I have indeed begun to start a distinct and potentially far-reaching project. The Church tends to speak of itself now in formal theology ("ecclesiology" is the theology or study of the Church) according to two modes, both of which have been proved quite useful over the past few decades, and particularly in light of the work the Church did on itself during the Second Vatican Council. The first way is to use "models" of the Church to highlight different aspects of the Church, and to speak of the Church in the fashion appropriate to each model's distinct way of describing the Church. The second approach is what is called "communion ecclesiology," which uses the motif of communion - of people being brought together into that union of love characteristic of God - as a way of examining the Church, which is a community dedicated toward such communion. These have both proved to be excellent tools for analyzing the Church in a formal way. But in my work I began to see another way of approaching the task of ecclesiology that seemed to overcome some deficiencies I had come to see in each of these two approaches to the task. So, again, I wondered whether I was just reading too much into what I was seeing. Could this new approach I was considering simply be just another "model" of the Church? Could what I was articulating be a restatement of "communion" under a different vocabulary-set? I explored these possibilities, but still became increasingly suspicious that I was indeed working in a mode or method distinct from these established tools. So these were questions I pursued in some detail on Friday with Sullivan and today with Fahey, and was both relieved and somehow a little startled to have them both agree that I was pulling together a new mode of doing this sort of theology.

Now, when I say "new," that is word that requires a great deal of qualification. Some of what I am doing goes back to the Apostle Paul himself. Preliminary work on a contemporary articulation and employment of these ideas goes back over the last fifty years, in Karl Rahner, Hans Küng, Leo Josef Cardinal Suenens, Francis A. Sullivan, and Leonardo Boff, to name a few. So what am I doing? I'm putting together the pieces of what everyone had begun to perceive and assembling it, and trying to turn it into a fully articulated agenda for the work of ecclesiology and for the Church. This is all vague and abstract, because I don't want to say it all until I publish it all, but the end result is not just the technical language of theologians: it is potentially the most teachable language I can imagine the Church using, an inter-changeable vocabulary that would extend through teaching about God, the Church, and human spirituality. And that excites me, as a teacher and as a part of this movement entering its third millennium.

Since I've long been studying the history of ideas, I see the way ideas change the world. Lots of people see the "reflective sciences," like theology, philosophy, and other related humanities like history or literature or art as having very little effect on "the real world," which is supposedly driven simply by the "hard" realities of science, technology, business, economics, and politics. This is naïve. Everything of that pragmatic, practical sort in our world are (in part) built upon constructions of ideas, once you dig down to their roots. As an historian, I love seeing the chains of cause-and-effect that run throughout history, full of spontaneous creations and intersections. It you could tweak some of these events in the past, even in the altering of things as abstract as ideas, history would take radically different courses. So, having come to be especially sensitive to such things, I'm that much more excited to be given a chance to myself contribute or organize some useful ideas of this sort, full of potentials for other people to cultivate in turn. 7:55 now. Flight now delayed to 11:10pm, which means in at Milwaukee a little after midnight, which means not back to my apartment until 1am or a little later. And the evening rolls on....
25th-Aug-2009 12:12 pm (UTC)
I got the first of my dissertation judgment yesterday myself -- though I am not nearly so coherent in my view of the book, sadly...
27th-Aug-2009 05:05 pm (UTC)
Hey: I'm back. Or back back, if that peculiar phrasing and emphasis has a prayer of coming across in print. I'll have to ask you what you mean by coherent when we can talk on the phone, which I hope we can pull off shortly. On my end, I have no idea how coherent my approach is. It makes sense to me, but Fahey has now claimed to have just finally learned how to follow what he called my "stream of consciousness" approach. I thought I had just a logical flow to my argument, but perhaps this is something else....
27th-Aug-2009 06:18 pm (UTC)
It is as legible as me saying "I missed you" is, I hope.

More coherent now -- and my work week is almost over, so I'm much freer (until Monday night, of course!)
29th-Aug-2009 04:39 am (UTC)
:-) Thanks!

Yes, my schedule's been crazy – but a good kind of crazy – with daily spontaneous get-togethers with people. And now my scheduled day gone tomorrow with a family party in Madison has been augmented by an evening of dinner and conversation with friends of friends who are passing through town on Sunday. This is a married couple in the Theology department at Scranton, however, so the talk should be especially rich. But it does mean that I might not have any free evening time before the dread Monday, myself.

What's your teaching schedule, by the way? I'm teaching two sections of Intro To Theology, MWF at 12 and 1, so that's pretty manageable.
29th-Aug-2009 10:59 am (UTC)
TTH 9.30-12.15, then 2-3.15, with lunch/office hours in the middle.

I'm suddenly less-free -- in many ways -- which I'll mention when we talk, I'm sure...
25th-Aug-2009 12:51 pm (UTC)
aw! i am glad that went well! it would be nice to see you if you make a similar trip again...
27th-Aug-2009 05:07 pm (UTC)
I know! I really had hoped to work something like that in, but even where this wasn't a focused work weekend with interviews with my dissertation subject and my dissertation director, then it was a pretty strictly scheduled set of events with my friend who was hosting me.
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