TRIBALISM & THEOLOGY
Welcome to Episode 10. Today I want to discuss tribes.
One cannot help but notice that identity politics has splintered society. Tribalism threatens our peace and harmony. But we may have overlooked a similar splintering within the Catholic community.
An article in the November 15th U.S. edition of the Catholic Herald placed a spotlight on Catholic tribalism. The authors — Michael Warren Davis and Damian Thompson — identified a number of tribes.
This was clever. Readers cannot help but speculate — which of these is my tribe? You might speculate as well. Consider the following descriptions of the different tribes.
According to the authors, the “Papal Knights,” take pride in perfect obedience to Rome… and in irritating both conservatives and liberals. The “Militants” are hardline conservatives who intensely dislike Pope Francis. The “Rad Trad’s” are profoundly orthodox and mistrust everything after the year 1965. “Team Francis” is made up of academics and journalists heavily invested in the pontificate of Pope Francis.
“Tradinistas” are a small band of committed Latin-Mass Marxists, or more broadly, anyone attempting to reconcile theological orthodoxy with Leftist politics. The Jesuiticals — who are not all real Jesuits — are a band of media-savvy priests who don conservative clerical garb to say distinctly un-conservative things. They promote identity politics and the über-liberal wing of the Democrat Party.
The last tribe, the Conspiracy Theorists, represent “the paranoid style in American politics” that has been a common part of the national discourse since the founding of the Republic.
This is all good fun until one realizes such tribalism is extremely destructive. Tribes devolve into warring groups that shatter the harmony within the Church. Metaphorically, such tribes draw and quarter the Body of Christ.
So, from a peacemaking point of view, we want to know what causes this tribalism. What is tearing the Church apart?
I would like to hazard a guess… The culprit is the lack of a sound shared theology.
Catholics do not share one accurate theology suitable for guiding their relationship with God and their relationships with fellow humans. This situation has been mostly overlooked or ignored. The deficit of theology works in the background, hidden from view.
When mediators assess a conflict, looking for the adverse factors that bring disharmony, they tend to focus on negative factors that are present — they focus on factors they can see. It is more difficult to spot factors that cause adversity when those factors are less visible. There are times when something that is missing is causing the trouble. This is one of those instances — the missing factor is a shared theology.
Let’s take a closer look. Without a comprehensive and shared theology, the Church ends up rudderless and adrift.
Let’s step back a pace. What should we expect from theology? How might a sound theology repair the damage of tribalism? How might it make a difference?
We might start by asking, “What is theology?” The discipline addresses two key factors: What is the nature of God? And… What is the nature of man’s relationship with God?
Originally, theology was meant to help man better his life. Early theologians moved beyond speculation to take up practical concerns. Theology guided how man lived in relationship with God. And how we lived in relationship with God determined how we lived with our fellow man.
Today, we should return to those basics. We should seek an applied theology that helps us manage actual relationships – rather than a theology debated in academia.
Theology can help us remedy the tribal situation. But we are no longer talking about academic or scholastic theology; rather we must turn to applied theology.
When the Catholic community splinters into tribes, each with their own view of God, there is a move away from the God of Christianity. Such splintering also disrupts the community’s agreement regarding how man should manage his relationship with God.
Given that divine relationship shapes all human relationships, when we splinter into tribes that disagree on how to manage divine relationship, we experience conflict in our human relationships. Across the board the problem becomes a failure of relationship. In retrospect it becomes clear that what was needed was an applied theology of relationship.
However, theology over the past few hundred years became overly academic or scholastic. Designed for argument and debate, it became unsuitable as a guide for living.
In retrospect, we realize a list of rules or philosophical propositions was not the best tool for managing complex relationships. Looking back we can see that an overly codified scholastic approach was better suited for an Inquisition.
When an Inquisitor possessed a rigid code it was easier for him to reach decisions. Either the victim recited the philosophical formula correctly or he was sent away and burned at the stake. A simple list of right answers was needed for this task. Inquisitors had no time for lengthy, nuanced dialogue regarding supernatural relationship.
And that was a huge problem for theology. Matters of the spirit are notoriously nuanced. Paradox abounds. Mystical knowledge defies human logic.
A person with a spiritually informed understanding of the faith did not make an Inquisitor’s life easy. It became much more difficult to call “balls and strikes.” So there was a need for a rigorous scholastic theology.
But there was a problem — such a theology was inherently biased against more spiritually informed views. But that is what we lived with. Nonetheless, even in the face of the juggernaut that was scholastic theology, many continued to hold fast to earlier theologies.
Thus, the Church’s theological perspective was splintered. We became uncertain when it came to answers to the big theological questions — the nature of God and the nature of our relationship with God.
Uncertainty caused us to hesitate. Did we even know enough to consider an applied theology? This uncertainty and confusion was the soil that gave rise to tribalism.
In order to overcome the disastrous effects of tribalism, we must nurture and promote a shared understanding of theology. This theology must guide the faith community in an intimate dialogue regarding our relationship with God.
There is good news. We are in luck. Just such a theology can be found in the works of Benedict XVI. The most brilliant theologian of our time has gifted us with an applied theology.
Too few Catholics are aware of Benedict XVI’s amazing accomplishment. Therefore, in order to put an end to tribalism and restore unity, we need to offer widespread catechism in his theology of relationship, also called a dialogical theology.
The future of the Catholic Church depends on what we do. Will we make this theology a part of the lives of all Catholics?
I seriously doubt that local bishops and dioceses are going to upgrade their adult catechism. Rather we will need to establish spiritual direction centers, like the proposed Assisi Centers, where Catholics can come to deepen their knowledge of theology.
One resource that might jumpstart your journey is the book, The Word Made Love, by Christopher Collins. The work provides an overview of the theology of Benedict XVI.
As you read that book and reflect on this episode, you might consider how tribalism will affect your future in the Church. Perhaps you will be called to stem the tide of division and bring unity through sharing an applied theology, a theology of relationship.
Until next time may God bless you and bring you peace.