Ninety-two years ago the Reverend Harry Emerson Fosdick, then preacher at the First Presbyterian Church in New York, gave the Cole Lectures for 1922 at Vanderbilt University. These were later collected in book form under the title Christianity and Progress [copyright 1922, Fleming H. Revell Company]. Fosdick, a well-known and sometimes controversial theologian, argued that genuine progress can only be sustained in the context of faith. In his first lecture he said, “This world needs something more than a soft gospel of inevitable progress. It needs salvation from its ignorance, its sin, its inefficiency, its apathy, its silly optimism and its appalling carelessness.”
This might seem a less-than-cheery starting point on this New Year’s Eve entering 2014. Often we speak to one another of the future on this night as if it were to be somehow entirely separated from all that has gone before. Public airwaves and internet blogs review the year past and cast a line into the year ahead, on some occasions with an easy optimism that belies the complexity that relates 11:59 pm of one day with 12:00 am of the next.
Better to seek to leave the past and enter the future with a couple of important tools in the toolbox:
One would be a realistic appreciation of the continuities between today and tomorrow, even those continuities heavy to carry, the ones we wish could be left behind. War. Famine. Political haggling without apparent progress. Deep disagreements between peoples, nations, and faiths that have endured the passing of numberless new year’s eves.
A second tool might be a perspective that sees the present moment in its long-term context. This is neither the best nor the worst of times. It is nestled somewhere between the two, likely comfortable with neither extreme. And also, you can bet, in need of some real improving.
A third tool would be the use of a particularly human gift mentioned and developed by Fosdick in his second lecture almost a century ago. It is the question of meaning that we human creatures put to ourselves both minute-to-minute and throughout our lives: what does this experience, this moment, this event, this night, this life mean? What is its significance? Both the posing and the perhaps-hesitant answering of that question is one of the most powerful tools we can use – both to understand the year that ends tonight and the new one as it begins.
Fosdick puts this forward as one of the key gifts of religion to humanity; religion, a powerful reality yet that has often suffered a bad name in the period between Fosdick and ourselves. He said at Vanderbilt:
“The deep need of a worthy interpretation of life is just as urgent in a world where the idea of progress reigns as in any other, and to supply that need is one of the major functions of religion. For religion is something more than all the creeds that have endeavored to express its thought. Religion is something more than all the organizations that have tried to incarnate its purposes. Religion is the human spirit, by the grace of God, seeking and finding an interpretation of experience that puts sense and worth, dignity, elevation, joy, and hope into life.”
We need to know why. Or at least to place that most human of questions before us always and everywhere. In religion, according to Fosdick, we find a force that both insists we ask the question and introduces us to a Lord whose Gospel is much more than ‘soft.’
Every generation receives this question. It bubbles up from deep within us. We handle it as best we can. Some years, some generations, do a better job of it than others. And then the question, still living and intact, is passed on hand-to-hand and heart-to-heart to the young. Forty years after Fosdick spoke, Baroness Catherine de Hueck Doherty, impassioned Catholic, Russian emigre, founder of Madonna House (an apostolate of laity and priests serving the poor still today), continued her ongoing longtime correspondence with Father Louis, that is, Thomas Merton, Trappist priest, monk, author, activist [Compassionate Fire: The Letters of Thomas Merton & Catherine de Hueck Doherty, edited by Robert Wild, Ave Maria Press, 2009].
Expressing her frustration at the formalized, dry, overly-intellectualized approach she saw developing among groups like hers, de Hueck Doherty wrote of her desire “to shout to my fellow lay apostles at those conferences, conventions, THAT NOTHING MATTERS EXCEPT CARITAS!” (capital letters in the original!). The baroness asserts that “worldly competence” only means anything in the context of being motivated first, last, and completely by love.
This is one instance in an endless sea of possible examples of the truth that what we humans do is make meaning, or if you prefer, recognize significance. For Catherine Doherty, meaning is made by love, by reaching out, serving, offering what we have in caritas. We all receive in these latter days a living example of caritas taking the lead in the words, acts, and person of Francis, Bishop of Rome. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby just a day ago seconded Time’s choice of the former Jorge Maria Bergoglio as Person of the Year, calling him ‘an extraordinary man.’
There is a reasonable likelihood that Archbishop Welby, Catherine Doherty, and the Pope himself would be united in a devout wish that Francis would not be so extraordinary in letting love take the lead, but rather one of many who would do so.
Let caritas become quite everyday and ordinary.
Now there’s a New Year’s desire that is both unrealistic and a valid response to the meaning-making of Harry Emerson Fosdick, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, and many other valiant men and women who have lived new year’s eves before this one, and wondered and hoped what the next year would bring as we may do tonight.
The word-master Thomas Merton, in a letter to another great 20th century woman, Dorothy Day, appears to both echo and answer Catherine Doherty as he sets forth all that can be hoped-for on this or any night:
“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy if anything can.”
[Letter to Dorothy Day, quoted in Catholic Voices In a World on Fire (2005) by Stephen Hand, p. 180].
And so, I can dare to say: Happy New Year!