The Challenge of Working Out a Synthesis

One of the books I am currently reading is Rembert G. Weakland’s, A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop. Weakland was the Archbishop of Milwaukee until his resignation in 2002. (Many will remember the circumstances of his resignation and I won’t repeat them here.)

I can’t make any broad statements about the book yet, since I am only about a third of the way through it. But I have thus found it a compelling read and there are many statements that have caused me to pause and reflect.

Weakland was the beneficiary of some extraordinary teachers during his monastic training. In talking about one older professor, Father Maurice Costello, a psychologist who tutored him in reading the works of Freud, Weakland observed that Costello’s “example taught [him] that one should not be afraid of ideas that at first seem contradictory to one’s traditional religious concepts, but to accept the challenge of working out a synthesis.”

Would that more people were taught this lesson! It has been my experience that far too many people react with what can only be described as fear when faced with something that appears to contradict a traditional concept held by them.

Clearly there are contradictory statements that simply cannot be reconciled, out of which no meaningful synthesis can be worked out. But often, the fear that arises when one is faced with something that challenges a deeply held notion makes one see an irreconcilable contradiction where none exists and prevents both growth in one’s own faith and an opportunity to bridge gaps between apparently divisive views. If more would accept the challenge taught by Weakland’s teacher, we would all be the better for it.


The Crucible

Because my daughter is reading Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, we watched the movie version over the weekend. Many of us read Miller’s allegorical tale of accusations of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, written during the McCarthy era, in one literature class or another.

Although it conveys an fantastically extreme situation, what gives the story so much power is that it portrays how easy it is for fear – especially fear transmitted to a large enough group – to transmogrify once rational persons into a frenzied and hysterical mob capable of acting so utterly irrationally. In Salem, 19 women and men were hung for witchcraft between June and September 1692 and dozens more languished in prison for months. Although no one was hung during the McCarthy era, thousands were accused of being Communists or communist sympathizers, many suffering loss of jobs, the destruction of their careers and imprisonment. In both cases, there was very little credible evidence of any wrongdoing of the accused.

I think incidents like these are good reminders of the power of fear and suspicion. Unchecked and allowed to grow out of control, they can bring rational (and apparently God-fearing) people to do incredibly cruel and irrational things. I wrote yesterday about the need for space and for choice between stimulus and response. Incidents like these ought to encourage us to pray for the grace to retain that space when fear and suspicion arise.